It is not quite true that I have a body, and not quite true that I am one either

Terry Eagleton

  • Body Work by Peter Brooks
    Harvard, 325 pp, £39.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 674 07724 5

There will soon be more bodies in contemporary criticism than on the fields of Waterloo. Mangled members, tormented torsos, bodies emblazoned or incarcerated, disciplined or desirous: it is becoming harder, given this fashionable turn to the somatic, to distinguish the literary theory section of the local bookshop from the soft porn shelves, sort out the latest Jackie Collins from the later Roland Barthes. Many an eager masturbator must have borne away some sexy-looking tome only to find himself reading up on the floating signifier.

Sexuality began in the late Sixties, as an extension of radical politics into regions it had lamentably neglected. But as revolutionary energies were gradually rolled back, an increased concern with the body came to take their place. In the Seventies we had class struggle and sexuality; in the Eighties we had sexuality. Erstwhile Leninists were now card-carrying Lacanians, and everyone shifted over from production to perversion. The socialism of Guevara gave way to the somatics of Foucault and Fonda. As usual, this happened on the most spectacular scale in the United States, which had never had much grasp of socialism to begin with, and where the Left could find in the high Gallic pessimism of Foucault a sophisticated rationale for their own political paralysis. The fetish, for Freud, is that which plugs an intolerable gap; and sexuality itself has now become the greatest fetish of all. In classrooms from Berkeley to the Bronx, there’s nothing more sexy than sex; and a concern with physical health has now escalated into an American national sickness.

The body, then, has been at once the focus for a vital deepening of radical politics, and a desperate displacement of them. There is a glamorous kind of materialism about body talk, which compensates for certain more classical strains of materialism now in dire trouble. As a stubbornly local phenomenon, the body fits well enough with the Post-Modernist nervousness of grand narratives, as well as with American pragmatism’s love affair with the concrete. Since I know where my left foot is at any particular moment without needing to use a compass, the body offers a mode of cognition more intimate and internal than a now much scorned Enlightenment rationality. In this sense, a theory of the body runs the risk of self-contradiction, recovering for the mind just what was meant to deflate it; but if the body provides us with a little sensuous certitude in a progressively abstract world, it is also an elaborately coded affair, and so caters to the intellectual’s passion for complexity. It is the hinge between Nature and Culture, offering surety and subtlety in equal measure. Indeed what else is psychoanalysis but the thinking person’s horror fiction, a discourse which wonderfully combines the cerebral and the sensational?

For the philosophers and psychologists, ‘mind’ is still a sexy notion; but literary critics have always been wary of the unhoused intellect, preferring their concepts to come fleshed and incarnate. To this extent, the new somatics is simply the return in a more sophisticated register of the old organicism. Instead of poems as plump as an apple, we have texts as material as an armpit. The turn to the body sprang first from a structuralist hostility to consciousness, and represents the final expulsion of the ghost from the machine. Bodies are ways of talking about human subjects without going all sloppily humanist, avoiding that messy interiority which drove Michel Foucault up the wall. For all its carnivalesque cavortings, body talk is thus our latest brand of repression; and the Post-Modern cult of pleasure, not least in its Parisian variants, is a very solemn, high-toned affair. Either, like Peter Brooks in Body Work, you write about this bizarre stuff in an impeccably academic idiom, thus risking an incongruous clash of form and content; or, like some of his American colleagues, you let the body take over your script and risk disappearing up your own pretentious wordplay and idle anecdotalism.

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