I’m reading and re-reading a few things in aid of a paper that draws substantially on part of the thesis, predominantly feminist stuff about the body. There’s an interesting and rather odd characterisation of feminist approaches to the body that seems to be de rigeur in these kinds of texts. Sara Ahmed, in ‘Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 15: 23-39, explored a similar issue a little in relation to the ‘new materialism,’ a cluster of feminist discussions of, well, materiality (I could go on about the non-newness of the newness, but I will resist).

And this characterisation is? Well, generally it’s about saying that other feminists aren’t dealing with ‘real bodies’. The terms ‘flesh, blood, sweat’ tend to recur in this context, as if they are realer than all the other experiences of embodiment, or at least are the most disavowed. I might even agree with the latter point but there’s really something else going on here, I think. It’s often in response to postmodern or poststructuralist approaches to the body. Apparently these approaches are filled with discussions of the ‘fluidity’ of bodies, of their contingency, their ambiguity, their non-fixed-ness. And apparently, all of these kinds of discussions fail, utterly, to deal with the ‘real, solid’ body.  And in that failure, they fail to make space, to help, or, even worse, they fail to ‘overcome’ the mind/body split. An example, you say? Okay:

Western feminist attention to women’s bodily differences from men began with arguments that, contrary to long scientific and popular traditions, these differences do no by themselves determine women’s social and psychological gender (or the more limited ‘sex roles’ we used to talk about). These arguments still go on, especially amongst biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists; understandably, they have little or nothing to say about bodily suffering. But the view that gender is not biologically determined has taken a much more radical turn in feminist poststructuralists and postmodernist criticism, where the symbolic and cultural significance of women’s bodily differences from men are examined closesly. Here ‘the body’ is often discussed as a cultural construction, and the body or body parts are taken to be symbolic forms in a culture. In this latter development, experience of the body is at best left out of the discussion, and at worst precluded by the theory; here feminist theory is alienated from the body. As Carol Bigwood says, ‘A body and nature formed solely by social and politicial significations, discourses and inscriptions are cultural products, disemboweled of their full existential content. The poststructuralist body… is so fluid it can take on almost limitless embodiments. It has no real terrestrial weight” (Bigwood 1991, 59). A body experienced has both limitations and weight. I was particularly struck by the alienation from bodily experience of some recent forms of feminist theorizing about the body when I read Donna Haraway’s exciting and witty essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (Haraway 1990). The view she presents there, of the body as cultural and technological construct, seems to preclude the sort of experience I have had. When I became ill, I felt taken over and betrayed by a profound bodily vulnerability. I was forced by my body to reconceptualize my relationship to it. This experience was not the result of any chance of cultural ‘reading’ of the body or of technological incursions into the body. I was infected with a virus, with debilitating physical and psychological consequences. Of course, my illness occurred in a social and cultural context, which profoundly affected by experience of it, but a major aspect of my experience was precisely that of being forced to acknowledge and learn to live with bodily, not cultural limitation. In its radical movement away from the view that every facet of women’s lives is determined by biology, feminist theory is in danger of idealizing ‘the body’ and erasing mucho f the reality of lived bodies. As Susan Bordo says: “The deconstructionist erasure of the body is not effected, as in the Cartesian version, by a trip to ‘nowhere,’ but in a resistance to the recognition that one is always somewhere, and limited.” (Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability)

I find this fascinating, as well as frustrating. I’m often left wondering who, precisely these ‘postmodernist’ feminists are (Haraway is the affectionately-named ‘baddie’ in Wendell’s account). I want to know who it is who talks about the non-situatedness of the body, who denies the flesh-and-blood-y-ness of the body. There seems to be a supposition that if we call ‘limitations’ cultural, instead of biological, that they suddenly go away (really really not the case, and I don’t think any ‘postmodernist’ feminist has ever advocated this position) or, rather, become the individual’s responsibility to ‘overcome’ (a problematic but recurring theme in both feminist theory and politics). There seems to be this idea that talking about the fluidity of bodies — which I think is actually about pointing out that the biological story we’re told about bodies (not really the fault of contemporary biologists) is of it as immutable (I personally think this is part of science taking the place of religion, and giving us a nice solid substrate from which to work) — is the same as saying ‘you won’t suffer from that fluidity’. I’m not sure that any of these ‘postmodern’ feminists would suggest that. In fact, I suspect that they know that often the experience of fluidity is as disconcerting, or unsettling, or, yes, even suffering. I suspect that where they differ from Wendell is not in whether or not bodies suffer, but in why.

I’m intrigued by Wendell’s claim that there can be nothing cultural about bodily suffering. Disability scholars, along with feminist scholars, might suggest that the process she describes as  ‘ being forced to acknowledge and learn to live with bodily, not cultural limitation,’ might in fact be a thorough reworking of the (heavily cultural, and indeed, heavily Cartesian) way that she had, up until that point, been embodied. It might not be quite so simple as the brute reality of ‘bodily suffering’ needing to be re-negotiated. It might instead be a re-negotiation with ideals about the body (that it will disappear in use, for example, that it won’t be in the way, that it will be convenient, and never hinder exercise of the will, or the mind, or however else we want to characterise that fantastical subject).

The reason that stories about fluidity get told is because it’s a way of resisting the thoroughly Cartesian story that bodies are simply limitations . Limitations on what, after all? On a free and willful mind? A thoughtful, calculating, reflecting person, whose ‘real self’ isn’t messy with blood and sweat and such? In giving us other stories about how to think these moments when ‘the body’ resists its disappearance, such accounts help us to understand how our anxiety and unhappiness about these moments are bound up with the ideals about who we ought to be (and what our bodies ought to be like). They’re not about denying such experiences, so much as refusing to allow the lingering Cartesian culture to continue to be the only one configuring them. (Elizabeth Grosz (yep, I’m goin’ way back!) sez: “It is my claim throughout this book that these representations and cultural inscriptions quite literally constitute bodies and help to produce them as such.” (Volatile Bodies, x)  She doesn’t mean that they magick the body out of the air, but that these ways of talking about bodies shape them. When we think bodies are sexed, we behave in certain ways in relation to them, producing them as sexed, sometimes using medical tools to make sure they don’t trouble what we think sex should be. Not a radical claim, I’d have thought, but it does show *why* such feminists might be invested in rewriting those Cartesian stories).

I also suspect, though, that Wendell’s resistance is partly about the conception of the individual and of experience. I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I am sometimes frustrated by a tendency I observe in some American and Canadian scholars to offer really excellent critique, through-going, precise, nuanced and so on, only to end with some kind of assertion of the primacy of the individual and individual agency. As if unwilling to let the critique sit on its own, there’s the offer of something else — a way out: a ‘but don’t worry if you do this thing I have just said is problematic. You’re free to do whatever you want, really! It would be way worse if my critique impeded your freedom. Because individual agency, yeah! Freedom! The constitution, right?’ ;-P I understand this impulse, truly, but the centrality of the individual and his or her experience is thus situated as, bizarrely, kind of not situated. There’s a limit to critique, apparently, and that is experience. Now I understand some of this — I get that there’s a politics to whose experiences have been heard, and to particular explanations of those experiences. People can feel like their experience has been appropriated, or even as if their experience has been erased (which it sometimes is, particularly when one specific experience gets collapsed into another, or when one experience gets the ‘it’s just the same’ explanation as another e.g. BIID & GID, or racism and sexist etc etc). People don’t like to be told why they feel a particular way, why they have a particular experience of something. Refusing to leave experience as if it is a ‘just is’, like ‘biology’, like, ffs, ‘patriarchy’, is often treated as if it’s politically and personally problematic. I think some of that is because somehow ‘cultural’ has become equivalent with ‘fake’, but I also think that there’s an implication that  knowing ‘why’ one feels a particular way is the same as being responsible for feeling (and thus also for not feeling) like that. Thanks neoliberalism, you’re a doll.

But to return to this focus on the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ claim for just a moment, there’s something really troubling about this.  Why do we continue to allow the claim that there are more and less embodied ways of being? Okay, look, I’m not just being obtuse here. I understand that people feel more ’embodied’ when they do yoga regularly, or exercise a lot, or whatever. But my point here is that when we allow that claim to stand, we’re also implying that there really are people who leave their bodies behind, somehow. And just because I’m re-scanning through pages:

“Patriarchal oppression, in other words, justifies itself, at least in part, by connecting women much more closely than men to the body and, through this identification, restricting women’s social and economic roles to (pseudo) biological terms. Relying on essentialism, naturalism and biologism, misogynist thought confines women to the biological requriements of reproduction on the assumption that because of particular biological, physiological, and endocrinological transformations, women are somehow more biological, more corporeal, and more natural than men. The coding of femininity with corporeality in effect leaves men free to inhabit what they (falsely) believe is a purely conceptual order whilst at the same time enabling them to satisfy their (sometimes disavowed) need for corporeal contact through their access to women’s bodies and services.” (Volatile Bodies, p. 14).**

She goes on to explain that, obviously, given this, many feminists have decided the key is to “move beyond the constraints of the body” (p. 15). But this is problematic: it leaves in place the supposition that one can, in fact, rise above the devalued body, transcend it, leave it behind.  Rosalyn Diprose (Corporeal Generosity p. 132) argues that “our relation to ideas is not only mediated by our corporeal history, but is also affective” (Levinasian affect, ma peeps) and then goes on to say “To characterize our relation to ideas, elements, life in terms of prereflective sensibility, or enjoyment is to suggest that there is something that exceeds any act of living that propels the activity… For Levinas, ideas or concepts are not incorporeal expressions of events, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest; ideas are corporeal and affective, distinct from our substance but constituting it, contributing to our becoming and to the worth of our lives by moving us through sensibility…” (p. 132-33). She helps, or at least helped me, to understand that it’s really not enough to say that some emotions are ‘rational’ (I think I’m thinking of Marthua Nussbaum here), not least because, as Lloyd observes in Man of Reason, rationality is the codification of a particular kind of thought – white, upper-class, men’s thought. Rather, paying attention to the thoroughly corporeal investment that is attached to supposed ‘rationality’ helps to reveal how and why particular kinds of masculinity, and particular ideas, have continued as they have. Disembodied reason isn’t disembodied; it is simply embodied in ways which are invisibilised — and ways which rise very quickly to the surface if challenged, as I’ve found out time and again (sigh, I never learn) in tackling Rational Man.

It’s more useful, then, I’d suggest, to not allow certain kinds of embodiment to pass as if they were, in fact, disembodied, to open them out to a critical engagement with the particular styles of embodiment and their ‘incarnatory contexts’ (sorry, thesis ref, I’ll explain sometime in detail). How, exactly, do white middle class men get to be depicted as ‘rational’, and what structures are in place to ensure that their bodies appear as subdued (say, the auto-valorisation of boytalk which means that men don’t have to justify their positions, getting flustered as they do; and the carefully ironed shirt helps maintain this image of cool, collected and in charge. Also deodorant!)? In this way, I get uneasy when people talk about blood and sweat and tears and suffering as if they are somehow more bodily. They are experienced that way, sure, but that is is contrast to a style of embodiment shaped by the expectation that the body will be good, contained, ruled-over, (pregnant, bare-foot and in the kitchen). So I tend to think that thinking about ’embodiment’ needs to, on the one hand, acknowledge the different ways that bodies are situated and experienced, whilst refusing to concede that there are ‘disembodied’ experiences.

And now I’ve bored myself, and possibly you; time to go do some proper work! I’m considering going to the SPEP in the US this year, and they want a whole paper [sigh]. But they’re offering prizes too (although I tend to think I’m a bit sloppy for prize-winning, really) and I like the idea of not having to choose which one conference in the US I’m going to go to! (Because how to choose? Recommendations much appreciated, if I have American aca-folks reading!)

** Yeah, I know she took it all back. Sigh. If you ask me, she mischaracterised her own work in the way that Sara Ahmed warned about in that article up there. So annoying to watch!