Vol. 15 No. 10 · 27 May 1993

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

Terry Eagleton

2883 words
Body Work 
by Peter Brooks.
Harvard, 325 pp., £39.95, May 1993, 0 674 07724 5
Show More
Show More

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.

For the new somatics, not any old body will do. If the libidinal body is in, the labouring body is out. There are mutilated bodies galore, but few malnourished ones, belonging as they do in bits of the globe beyond the purview of Yale. The finest body book of our era is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception; but this, with its humanist sense of the body as practice and project, is now distinctly passé. The shift from Merleau-Ponty to Foucault is one from the body as relation to the body as object. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is ‘where there is something to be done’; for the new somatics, the body is where something – gazing, imprinting, regimenting – is being done to you. It used to be called alienation, but that implies the existence of an interiority to be alienated – a proposition of which somatic criticism is deeply sceptical.

It is part of the damage done by a Cartesian tradition that one of the first images the word ‘body’ brings to mind is that of a corpse. To announce the presence of a body in the library is by no means to allude to an industrious reader. Thomas Aquinas thought that there was no such thing as a dead body, only the remains of a living one. Christianity pins its faith to the resurrection of the body, not to the immortality of the soul; and this is just a way of saying that if the afterlife doesn’t somehow involve my body, it doesn’t involve me. The Christian faith has, of course, much to say of the soul too; but for Aquinas the soul is the ‘form’ of the body, as wedded to it as a meaning to a word. It was a point taken up by the later Wittgenstein, who once remarked that the body was the best image we had of the human soul. Soul talk was necessary for those confronted with a mechanical materialism which saw no real distinction between the human body and a banana. Both, after all, were material objects. In this context, you needed a language which sought to capture what differentiates the human body from the things around it. Soul talk at its best was a way of doing this. It easily backfired, though, since it is well-nigh impossible not to picture the soul as a ghostly sort of body, and so find yourself simply slipping a fuzzy object inside a grosser one as a way of accounting for the latter’s uniqueness. But the human body does not differ from jam jars and elastic bands because it secretes a spectral entity they lack: it differs from them because it is a point from which they can be organised into significant projects. Unlike them, it is creative; and if we had had a language which adequately captured the human body’s creativity we would perhaps never have needed soul talk in the first place.

What is special about the human body, then, is just its capacity to transform itself in the process of transforming the material bodies which surround it. It is in this sense that it is anterior to those bodies, a kind of ‘surplus’ over and above them, rather than an object to be reckoned up alongside them. But if the body is a self-transformative practice, then it is not identical with itself in the manner of corpses and dustbins; and this is a claim that soul language is also trying to make. It is just that it locates that non-self-identity in the body’s having some invisible extra which is really me, rather than seeing the real me as a creative interaction with my world – a creative interaction made possible and necessary by the peculiar sort of body I have. Badgers and squirrels can’t be said to have souls, however winsome they may be, because their bodies are not the kind that can work on the world and so necessarily enter into linguistic communion with those of their kind. Soulless bodies are those which do not speak. The human body is that which is able to make something of what makes it; and in this sense its paradigm is language, a given which continually generates the unpredictable.

One can see the point, then, of dropping talk of having a body and substituting talk of being one. If my body is something I use or possess, then it might be thought that I would need another body inside this one to do the possessing, and so on ad infinitum. But this resolute anti-dualism, though salutary enough in its way, is untrue to a lot of our intuitions about the lump of flesh we lug around. It makes perfect sense to speak of using my body, as when I suspend it courageously across a crevice so that my companions can scramble to safety across my spine. Nothing is more fashionable in modern cultural theory than talk of objectifying the body, feeling somehow that it is not my own; but though plenty of objectionable objectification goes on, not least in sexual conduct, the fact remains that the human body is indeed a material object, and that this is an essential component of anything more creative we get up to. Unless you can objectify me, there can be no question of relationship between us. The body which lays me open to exploitation is also the ground to all possible communication. It was Marx who ticked off Hegel for equating objectification with alienation, and the rampant culturalism which marks today’s avantgarde theory needs to learn the lesson anew.

Merleau-Ponty recalls us to the fleshly self, to the situated, somatic, incarnate nature of being. His colleague Sartre has a somewhat less upbeat narrative to tell of the body as that ‘outside’ of ourselves we can never quite get a fix on, that otherness which threatens to deliver us to the petrifying gaze to the observer. Sartre is anti-Cartesian enough in his notion of consciousness as mere hankering vacancy, but sufficiently Cartesian in his sense of the nameless gap which separates mind from members. The truth does not, as the liberals say, lie somewhere in between, but in the impossible tension between these two versions of bodiliness, both of which are phenomenologically just. It is not quite true that I have a body, and not quite true that I am one either. This deadlock runs all the way through psychoanalysis, which recognises that the body is constructed in language, and knows too that it will never entirely be at home there, For Jacques Lacan, the body articulates itself in signs only to find itself betrayed by them. The transcendental signifier which would say it all, wrap up my demand and deliver it whole and entire to you, is that imposture known as the phallus; and since the phallus does not exist, my bodily desire is condemned to grope its laborious way from partial sign to partial sign, diffusing and fragmenting as it goes. It is no doubt for this reason that Romanticism has dreamt of the word of words, of a discourse as firm as flesh, or of a body which has all the universal availability of a language while sacrificing none of its sensuous substance. And there is a sense in which contemporary literary theory, with its excited talk of the materiality of the text, its constant interchanges of the somatic and semiotic, is the latest version of this dream, in suitably sceptical Post-Modernist style. ‘Material’ is one to the great buzz-words of such thinking, a sound at which all progressive heads reverently bow; but it has been stretched beyond all feasible sense. For if even meaning is material, then there is probably nothing which is not, and the term simply cancels all the way through. The new somatics restores us to the creaturely in an abstract world; but in banishing the ghost from the machine, it risks dispelling subjectivity itself as no more than a humanist myth.

Body Work is one of the more distinguished products of a rather suspect genre. Peter Brooks is well versed in foreign bodies, and ranges with admirable acuity from Sophocles to scopophilia, the novel to the visual arts. The book is lavishly furnished with plates of the naked female form, so that male readers can gaze upon the way they gaze upon them. Brooks is one of our best Freudian critics, and here brings a wealth of psychoanalytic insight to bear on the body in Balzac and Rousseau, James and Zola, Gauguin and Mary Shelley. If there is a unifying theme in this impressively diverse exploration, it is the way the body must be somehow marked or signed in order to enter narrative, pass from brute fact to active meaning. ‘Signing the body,’ Brooks writes, ‘indicates its recovery for the realm of the semiotic’; and from Oedipus to Hans Castorp he maps this recurrent conversion of flesh into text.

This is a fertile notion; but it has to be said that it is one of the few genuinely original bits of conceptualisation in an oddly predictable book. There is the sense of a rather conventional mind at work on unconventional materials; and few of its manoeuvres are as arresting as Brooks’s earlier reflections on the unconscious dynamics of narrative in Reading for the Plot. The orthodox heterodoxy of the new somatics remains firmly in place, determining each critical move; and though this results in some brilliant local readings, the book never offers to press beyond a now familiar set of motifs. Thus, Brooks has some excellent comments on the relations between privacy, the novel and an increasing attention to the body. The rise of the novel, he points out, is closely tied to the emergence of a private sphere of domestic relations, and the theme of the private body rudely invaded is central to writers like Richardson and Madame de Lafayette. It is also a vital concern in Rousseau, with his tiresome compulsion to bare his behind, and Brooks has a good deal to say of the Confessions and La Nouvelle Héloise. But what he has to tell us, in effect, is that the body in Rousseau is a place ‘where scenarios of desire, fulfilment, censorship, and repression are played out’; and this is hardly world-shaking news.

There are some genuinely original insights about the staging of the body in the French Revolution, which Brooks, who in a previous work pulled off the improbable trick of making the topic of melodrama theoretically exciting, sees as a melodramatising of it. But he then turns to Balzac and spends a good deal of time meticulously hunting down semiotic markings of the body in his work. This is a fresh way of reading the texts, but it does little to elaborate the ‘marking’ theory itself, beyond offering yet more exotic instances of it. There is an equally scrupulous account of the fetishisation of Emma Bovary’s body, which, so Brooks deftly demonstrates, is always perceived in bits and pieces; but while this illuminates Flaubert interestingly enough, it fails to push forward a reach-me-down psychoanalytic discourse of metonymies and objectifying gazes, desiring subjects and recalcitrant objects, exhibitionism and epistemophilia. Zola’s Nana is seen as engaged in a fruitless pursuit of the truly naked body, the real material thing, as it strips its heroine bare; but we are still caught here within a constricted language of concealing and revealing, nudity as culture and nakedness as nature. A chapter on Gauguin deals with the primitivist, exoticised body – a way of seeing which Brooks considers is not just stereotypically objectionable but actually turned by the artist to some productive uses. This is an unpredictable move to make; but it is made within a still rather predictable set of critical strategies.

It has been apparent for some time that literary theory is in something of a cul-de-sac. Derrida has written little of substance for years; de Man produced his most stunning effects by dying and leaving an unsavoury past to be unearthed; Marxism is licking its wounds after the collapse of the post-capitalist bureaucracies. The pathbreaking epoch of Greimas and the early Kristeva, the Althusserians and avant-garde film theorists, radical Barthes and reader-response theory, now lies a couple of decades behind us. Few truly innovative theoretical moves have been made since; the new historicism, for all its occasional brilliance, is theoretically speaking a set of footnotes to Foucault. It is as though the theory is all in place, and all that remains to be done is run yet more texts through it. This, in effect, is what Body Work does; but Peter Brooks has proved himself capable in the past of generating genuinely new ideas, and it is an ominous sign of the critical times that this latest book never offers to transfigure the concepts on which it relies. Caught in its modish conceptual universe, Body Work is quite incapable of rounding upon itself to inquire into its own historical conditions of existence. Why produce three hundred pages on the body in the first place? Well, it’s all the rage at the Modern Language Association. But to produce a less banal response to that question would require a rather grander narrative than American criticism, for entirely understandable reasons, is at present prepared to deliver.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.

John Bayley

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’?

Jonathan Sawday
University of Southampton

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences