The Scandal of Bodies: Scandalous Bodies at Twenty

As I took out my pen and paper and began drafting (which is my distinctly embodied practice of writing of late), I was struck by just how scandalous bodies have become. At home in the midst of the global pandemic, the body has been banished from the body public or politic: we are confined to our individual spaces, our bodies separated, cordoned off, restrained. This is not to erase the very real and materially impactful differences between our bodies. The definition of “home” is multivalent, for one, and it is not one that I can assume we share. The importance of embodied differences is resurfacing in street movements like Black Lives Matter, in political discord, and in the vital analyses of how different bodies are impacted by this moment. Yet, perhaps it is the attempts at a broad, supposed flattening of these various differences that constitutes the scandalous nature of bodies in this moment. I am disturbed, shaken at these prospects.

The changes—or, really, intensifications—have happened for important reasons: the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed upon humankind a virus that has as yet, at the time of my writing in the late summer of 2020, no remedy, only treatments for symptoms. Many bodies—surpassing one million as I write—have succumbed to this virus. The temporary state of exception that has separated us from one another is extending into a long emergency with little relief in sight.

What are we to do in these circumstances? I find myself returning to my mentor Smaro Kamboureli’s 2000 monograph, Scandalous Bodies, for a reminder of the ways in which the body itself marks a site of scandal. For Kamboureli, the gendered, racialized body is an unruly vessel. The nation-state endeavours to contain it, yet it slips, leaks (to invoke Elizabeth Grosz), edges out past the genteel constructions and constrictions that are erected in order to hold it in place. Foucauldian biopolitics meet Achille Mbembe’s analysis of the necropolitical in a macabre arena with very real, material consequences that are, for many, being witnessed and felt today in disembodied virtual spaces online.

What a time.

Even being able to write this piece entails bodily scandal, regulation, and a modified experience of challenges that Kamboureli identified twenty years ago. I am writing from home, from a home office recently transformed in order to accommodate the daily working rhythms of four humans and the companionship of one dog. My copies of Scandalous Bodies—both the original 2000 Oxford UP edition and, I thought, the 2009 republication from Wilfrid Laurier UP—were locked in my office. At present, faculty members at my home institution of Mount Royal University in Calgary are not allowed to work from campus. Our leaky bodies are possible vectors for a disease that can hardly be contained— indeed, a disease that so far manages to escape all containment.

In order to retrieve my books, I had to file for permission. At length, I was granted a narrow window of time to visit my office. This is a space in which I normally spend many hours in a given work day, coming and going between classes, meetings, and the library. Instead, the campus is now shut down, emptied out, and sterilized. I had to wear a mask in order to get there; I had to sanitize myself in order to enter the building. I had to get in, retrieve Scandalous Bodies, and then get out. My own body had become a scandal. All of this is by now banal, commonplace—yet it would have been unthinkable mere months ago.

I pause at that “yet.” The particular scandal of my own body in this instance is, at most, a very small one. Elsewhere, between the fires and the floods, those whose bodies are marked by difference have experienced this moment in deeply, traumatically intensified ways. To say that the body is scandalous is to note both the necessary contingency of embodiment, but also the very real, variegated impacts of this moment on bodies across the globe.

Once I arrived in my office, I found that my 2009 edition of the book had wandered off, as books seem to do every now and again. So I found myself working between my 2000 edition in print—the copy that I purchased as a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the mid-2000s—and an online e-book of the 2009 edition that I accessed from my university’s library. The book, too, had become disembodied.

How can the body itself be a site of scandal? Are we not all embodied? Would this not render each of us a scandal? Feminist thinking around embodiment and performance, as well as critical race theory, must be starting points to unpack this problem. Here Kamboureli’s work is instructive. In Scandalous Bodies, the organizing terms are ethnicity and diaspora, but the book’s careful study of F. P. Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (and its critics), of media representations of multiculturalism in Canada, of multiculturalism as law and political philosophy, of ethnic anthologies, and of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan all entail careful elucidation of how the body is discursively enmeshed in a Canadian context, controlled, regulated, and— in Kamboureli’s apt phrasing—sedated.

And, in my rereading, I set aside any sense of scandal as a means of unpacking my own experiences during this time. I think of all of the work done in literatures produced in the place currently called Canada since the year 2000—I think, in particular, of the tremendous work done in Indigenous literatures in this period—and I anticipate necessary shifts that are yet to come in the work of future criticism.

I move on to think etymologically. The word “scandal” has a long history, tracing through the Latin scandalum—the cause of an offence—to the Greek skandalon (σκάνδαλον). The Greek word means a snare or a stumbling block. The body is a site at which one stumbles. At the moment, we stumble in our separation; we are ensnared by invisible two-metre buffer zones, points of no contact. The OED’s definition of a scandal as an “offence to moral feeling or sense of decency” lands in full force at this juncture. Here is how Kamboureli discusses the title of the book:

“Scandal” and “body” are equally polysemantic in this study. “Body” refers to corporeality, but also to the body politic; it is what I focus on, more often than not, in order to examine the politics of identity. The body’s desires, its traumas, its abuse are all contingent on the body politic and its various manifestations. Similarly, “scandal” is a sign of excess and transgression, but also of violation and indignity. (ix)1

Bodies become scandalous, perhaps more than ever; they are sites of moral and legal governance, “violation and indignity”: shifting prescribed and proscribed behaviours of the now counter-balance physical health and social and emotional well-being. The body, too, is a site of general public outrage over many moral offences: from yet another act of racialized police violence; to the dispossession of the most vulnerable as the “she-cession” unfolds in waves of job losses; to the ongoing crises of the displaced.

If there is a path to an equitable future to be found in this long crisis, it is to be found in the very nature of the scandalous body. What does it take to prioritize bodies—the material body, the body politic, the body of the earth itself, the body through which we and our kindred species suffer, love, exult, and grieve—as sites of radical change? Each of these bodies is different; the differences between these bodies must be emphasized. And, so, how might the stories we tell affect the ways in which bodies become scandalous or sacred? Working in concert with the critics of identity whose works precede hers, Kamboureli considers these challenges. At key junctures throughout Scandalous Bodies, Kamboureli inserts moments of political critique and urges a path forward. She hopes “that the future will be less coercive than the history we have known until now” (x); she argues for “practising responsibility” through a pedagogy of understanding power and its (re)production (26); she situates her analysis against the seductions of “the disciplinary and homogenizing control of the dominant society” (80); she invokes the “goal” of mastering “discomfort, a mastery that would involve shuttling between centre and margin while displacing both” (130); and she observes that “we aren’t going to get” anywhere progressive “by embracing a multicultural ethos modelled on a postmodernism” that is not truly radical (174). These statements are all hortatory: they urge readers to critically consider the body and the limits placed upon it by systems that remain in play today. Yet Kamboureli also writes that “it is because I think we still have a long way to go that I do not speak in emancipatory or messianic terms” (130). There are cautions, in other words, about embracing the idea of an emancipation that is about to come, rather than one that remains deferred.

All of these moments lead up to the book’s concluding statement: in her analysis of Naomi in Kogawa’s Obasan, Kamboureli argues that what is “brought to light . . . is the double imperative not only to expose the contents of history, but also to change history’s shape” (221). The book ends, it has always seemed to me, quite suddenly. We have been reading, to this point, an attentive analysis of Obasan, one that probes the seeming dichotomy in the text between speech and silence in order to historicize, unpack, and problematize prevailing literary approaches to the text. Kamboureli’s final imperative, however, is not merely a conclusion to her analysis of Kogawa’s book. It is also an envoi from Scandalous Bodies itself: the imperative remains to expose the contents of history. This point remains as true now as ever, when misinformation, disinformation, and obfuscation confront us at every turn. It remains key to shift the shape of history itself, moving from a recounting that comes from the enfranchised, the vocal, and the “winners” of history. The importance of sustained, granular analyses of texts, public policy, media reports, films, and anthologies for the push-and-pull between dominance and dispossession remains as urgent as ever.

At twenty years, Scandalous Bodies remains a vital work. In his 2009 foreword, Imre Szeman writes that Kamboureli’s is “a must-read book for anyone involved in the ongoing scholarly and public discussions about ethnicity, diasporic communities, and multiculturalism,” noting that it was written during a period of intense contestation (ix). The snares and stumbling blocks that were with us then continue. In a very recent piece— her introduction to the Literary Solidarities / Critical Accountability: A Mikinaakominis / TransCanadas Special Issue of the University of Toronto Quarterly (vol. 89, no. 1, 2020), co-edited with Tania Aguila-Way— Kamboureli returns to some of the concerns that animate Scandalous Bodies. She does so, in particular, by asking fraught questions about solidarity framed by the question, “Should I be here?”, which she analyzes via the question’s appearance in Wayde Compton’s 2014 book The Outer Harbour. Building indirectly on the ways in which the introductory chapter of Scandalous Bodies analyzes, critiques, undoes, challenges, and discusses the importance of the practices of critical self-location, in her new article Kamboureli argues that “[w]hat is at stake in declaring and practising solidarity is the validation of alterity, not the production of a common identity” (5). Bodies continue to be in fraught, tense relationships that are not easily negotiated when we are able to commune in person, let alone in the fractured, fragmented ways that the present moment necessitates. The challenge remains, to think with Kamboureli, of how to emerge into a new frame, one of justice and an ethics to come.


1 Although the 2009 republished edition begins with a new foreword by Imre Szeman, the pagination and contents of the main text are the same as the 2000 edition.

Works Cited

Kamboureli, Smaro. “Introduction I: Literary Solidarities: ‘Should I be here?’” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-22.

—. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford UP, 2000.

—. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. 2000. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009.

“scandal, n.” OED Online, Oxford UP, Dec. 2020, Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.

Szeman, Imre. Foreword. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada, by Smaro Kamboureli, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009, pp. ix-xi.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.