Of Bodies (Politic)

  • Heather Latimer
    Reproductive Acts: Sexual Politics in North American Fiction and Film. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lynne Van Luven (Editor) and Kathy Page (Editor)
    In the Flesh: Twenty Writers Explore the Body. Brindle & Glass (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tina Trigg

Bodies of influence, bodily injury, gendered bodies, idealized bodies, tortured bodies, political bodies, and many other forms of body are the subject of scrutiny in two new bodies of work. Heather Latimer’s Reproductive Acts is a carefully constructed interdisciplinary study, infusing feminist sociopolitical history with literary-cultural capital. Working chronologically from the 1980s to the early 2000s, chapters analyse seven texts (pairing Canadian and American authors) and one film by a Mexican director. Latimer clearly defines reproductive politics, “the struggle over who has the power over women’s fertility,” as a broader issue typically manifesting as the abortion debate. The main premises of this text are threefold: there is an increased anxiety about reproductive politics; the pro-life/pro-choice dialectic is a reductive lens; and fiction, as part of the cultural imaginary, reflects, engages, and helps produce reproductive politics.

As these premises reveal, Latimer’s style is clean and direct, providing excellent transition cues and making her nuanced argument accessible to a wide audience. In addition, Reproductive Acts posits a rare dialogue between the United States and Canada in law, politics, and social change. The US is situated as the dominant power, with Canada and (to a lesser extent) Mexico as privileged hybrids offering unique perspectives. While one might question the paucity of postcolonial theoretical engagement, Latimer skilfully articulates a broad feminist basis, weaving complex theories into the landscape under investigation. Clearly unsympathetic to the pro-life movement—as her decidedly one-sided negative diction reveals—she nonetheless concedes its discursive and sociopolitical power and necessarily so, since the pivotal role of language in constructing a society is, in fact, foundational to Latimer’s own argument.

The text thought-provokingly unpacks the question of what it is to be human by interrogating assumptions of a (male) singular, stable self through the role of the fetus. Ultimately, Latimer presents a constructionist argument, asserting that the historical trajectory of reproductive politics in North America is not primarily a moral or ethical question but is, in fact, a social one. In this view, literature, like Canada and Mexico, occupies a hybrid position that allows examination of a society from a remove. This overarching assumption of fiction’s powerful social role is refreshing: literature responds to and shapes culture by enabling a populace to imagine alternatives to their actualized social structures and to individual roles therein—often by depicting acts of resistance. Society is assessed in toto here without precluding the role of the individual citizen, thereby enhancing the relevance of this text.

For all its laudable features, this ambitious work has a few weaknesses. The introduction is lengthy and so detailed that some of the ensuing sections seem repetitive. Some of the analysis wavers, even in the primary areas of linguistic power and feminist discourse. For example, the assessment of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale includes an insightful evaluation of “freedom,” but ignores the Resistance movement entirely and glosses over the potent role of language itself in Gilead. Such exclusions produce an uneven result. Similarly, the contemporary focus of the text has a mixed outcome: a compelling parallelism of illegitimate/artificial life and text/hypertext is followed by a less convincing focus on 9/11 terrorism and its results. Finally, and most problematically, the analysis of a single film in the culminating chapter oddly skews both the scope and the subtitle. (That the film is by a Mexican director, based on a British novel, and set in England further undercuts the focus on American representations, despite the many justifications offered for the film’s importance to the argument. Overall, however, Latimer’s interdisciplinary study of reproductive politics and of literature’s pivotal role in the cultural imaginary is engaging and timely. It deserves to be read widely.

Equally deserving of attention for vastly different reasons, In the Flesh rewards readers with intimate, morsels of memoir. Clustered in reader-friendly groups of two to five entries, each labelled for body parts, the collection enables meandering, lingering, or straightforward reading. Kathy Page and Lynne Van Luven’s editorial introduction is clear, concise, and even comical. Their focus on postmodern dualism, tensions, and the constant flux of both words and bodies nicely sets the tone for the varied collection that follows. The titillating power of language, highlighted as allowable frivolity in the introduction, surfaces to differing degrees throughout the entries. The impetus of their project is an absence of writing about what bodies—in their pervasive, if oft-ignored, presence—feel. And, while careful to acknowledge the gaps, Page and Van Luven highlight the very adaptability and unknowability of bodies as being equally applicable to their text. Fair enough.

As with any collection, its variety is both a strength and a weakness. Kudos to the editors for the sheer range of perspectives: entries explore dis-ease and rare diseases, bulimia, disability and fertility, big-breast-complex, the Auschwitz Hair Museum, tattoos and scars, body types, and organ donation, among others. Several entries posit cross-generational links or insightfully contextualize their fragment within larger spheres of community and relationship, thereby resisting the inherent potential for self-absorption or “navel-gazing.” Of course, reader tastes will necessarily dictate favourites, but perhaps the most regrettable aspect of the whole is a predictable over-emphasis on the vagina. While assigning a male author here seems a strategic editorial decision to provoke controversy, André Alexis’s piece positioned mid-collection is the longest by a wide margin and seemingly enacts its own fixation. Conversely, a gem in this collection is Margaret Thompson’s unexpectedly rich and allusive musing on, of all things, “The Covert Ear.” Such range is admirably arranged and caters to disparate palates; In the Flesh is a welcome addition to a bookshelf, offering bits of the body—just a taste here and there—and stirring readers’ awareness of what they, too, feel in the flesh.

This review “Of Bodies (Politic)” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 171-73.

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