It is not quite true that I have a body, and not quite true that I am one either
- 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.
Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993
Terry Eagleton’s dismissal of what he terms the ‘fashionable turn to the somatic’ (LRB, 27 May) demands a suitably corporeal answer. As he points out, those ‘eager masturbators’ amongst us who are trying to make sense of a set of problems undoubtedly inherited from the work of Foucault (together with that of Plato, Aristotle, Origen, Aquinas, Descartes and Hob bes) may be doing no more than providing footnotes to a theoretical posture which has run its course. Here, though, are three reasons why the undertaking may (still) be worthwhile.
First, I very much doubt that the body which is used or possessed by either Terry Eagleton or me (our own bodies, I assume) is no more than a ‘material object’ which is simply there as ‘an essential component of anything more creative we get up to’. Isn’t this the missionary position which the Catholic Church has long wished people would adopt rather more firmly than they appear to in their daily lives? Bodies exist in at least two other forms besides those encountered in Eagleton’s account: namely, representation and history. That’s to say that, once we have established where our left feet are at any given moment, we are no closer to uncovering an ‘intimate mode of cognition’ than we were at the outset. Or to put it another way, why is it that, in a medieval medical manual (say) or a Renaissance painting, people are represented with two left feet, two right feet or no feet at all? Is it that they were just desperately in need of the compass which Eagleton has so confidently thrown away? To object that this is to pose a different problem altogether is to accept that any understanding of what it is either to be or to have a body is independent of any wider cultural construction. I doubt, for example, that many of us, now, would want to endure phlebotomy. But the fact that such an activity once took place on a fairly regular basis at least begs the question of the extent to which the practice tells us of a quite different conceptual understanding, not only of the mechanics of the body’s operation, but of the relation of the body to the world which surrounds it. To answer that question, we might need a fusion of philosophical enquiry, cultural anthropology, history of science, art history, and (even) literary criticism – the new somatics, in other words.
But what’s the point of asking (let alone answering) such a question? To the jacket-off, sleeves-up objection that this is so much ‘idle anecdotalism’ – my dismembered body v. your disciplined body – one can only answer that one of the chief ways in which (historically, again) we have come to understand ‘our’ bodies is through the stories we tell about their origin, difference from each other, function or dysfunction, beauty or ugliness, and eventual decay. What this plethora of narratives seems to tell us is that (pace Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) any understanding of what it is to have or to be a body seems to shift according to a complex interplay (as Eagleton quite rightly points out) of ideas about Nature and Culture. That those who are working on these questions may not be producing, at the same time, ‘truly innovative theoretical moves’ prompts a different series of questions: just how often, and through what means, do we produce ‘theory’, and what do we mean by that term? In Eagleton’s version, it is as it there truly is a ‘theory of the month’, and if you can’t come up with a new one, then all you’re doing is writing footnotes. So, either way, the somaticists are hanged, drawn and quartered: either they’re unbearable fashion-victims, or they’re still wearing turn-ups whilst the avant-garde has reverted to flares.
Thirdly, I can find no awareness, in Eagleton’s denunciation of all this ‘bizaire stuff’, of the ways in which somatic criticism is engaged in two areas which are (still) ideological battlegrounds: gender and identity (and their interrelationship). To deny the contingent nature of the body as both the subject and object of various regimes of knowledge is to shy away from asking a host of perhaps uncomfortable questions: why, for example, in the West (as Eagleton so adroitly demonstrates), is the body held to be such a central focus of attention? How are we to understand the technologies which now encompass the body in our culture? Or do we just ignore the response of a Melanesian (recorded by another somaticist, David Le Breton) to the question of what the West ‘contributed’ to his culture – ‘what you have brought us is the body’?
University of Southampton
Vol. 15 No. 14 · 22 July 1993
Like the medieval church it resembles, the new academicism offers no salvation outisde itself. Nearly thirty years ago I had a mild argument in print with Frank Kermode about the importance of things and bodies in books. Frank, who had just published The Sense of an Ending, was doubtful of their existence. Now Jonathan Sawday tells us that there is a ‘truly innovative theoretical move’ in the direction of a new ‘somatics’ (Letters, 8 July). Old-fashioned bodies are being taken over as the ‘theory of the month’: the new must always be new.
Literary theory would OK if, like dental mechanics, it stuck to its own ‘discipline’. But it wants to own and control the whole process, to create art by theorising about it. The body of Larkin’s awful pie becomes a construct for the new ‘somatics’? Even such an evidently reasonable academic as Tim Trengove-Jones (Letters, 8 July) abhors ‘minimising the role of institutions’ in moralising the poems actually written by non-institutional poets. And in the great malignity race between Larkin and Tom Paulin, Larkin surely wins hands down. His ‘calculated, concentrated malignity’ was at least his own. Paulin must have learnt his from academic theology, perhaps at the same seminar where he learnt to write poetry.