Vol. 20 No. 19 · 1 October 1998

Is there another place from which the dickhead’s self can speak?

Marina Warner

2313 words
Bodies of Law 
by Alan Hyde.
Princeton, 290 pp., £39.50, July 1997, 0 691 01229 6
Show More
Show More

Anatomical cabinets, displaying bodies bottled whole or in segments, are gripping artists’ and writers’ imaginations: the Enlightenment’s relish for physical data banks excites awe, fascination and horror in inverse relation to the disembodiment and intangibility of knowledge in the contemporary computerised classroom. A pigmy woman, who died in childbirth in London, where she had been brought to be exhibited, is preserved, in a complete half-section, in the Hunterian Museum. She inspired one of the last, unfinished works of the artist Helen Chadwick, who wanted to restore the unnamed pigmy to history, memory and human status as a person – to personhood, in short. University museums and hospital teaching departments are richly stocked with such specimens: a whole black man in a glass box in Chicago; quintuplet foetuses floating upwards, open-mouthed, like Donatello choristers, on a shelf in the Hunterian. Zarina Bhimji, another artist who, like Chadwick, expresses her challenge to common, unexamined responses through photography, has made a highly enigmatic, disturbing image of a black woman’s breast, disfigured by a hideous slash. This exhibit comes from the forensic archive of a London hospital, where it is used to illustrate the effects of stabbing for the benefit of medical students: but the injury is itself framed by the jagged partition where the breast was severed from the anonymous victim – the scalpel repeating the pincers that appear, for example, in paintings of St Agatha’s martyrdom.

A male cadaver known as ‘Adam’ can be inspected on a website; the images consist of wafer-thin slices (1871 of them) through the frozen body and thus provide a microscopically detailed surgical map of his insides.* ‘Adam’ was a convicted murderer – Joseph Paul Jernigan, executed (by barbiturate poisoning) in Texas in 1993 – who donated his body to science. His bizarre, semi-eternal preservation represents the apotheosis of the displayed, reified, specular body of exploratory, scientific epistemology (the website is the pièce de résistance of the ‘Visible Human Project’). But ‘Adam’ differs in two crucially late millennial respects from his antecedents in formaldehyde: first, he is science’s current Everyman (and, until he’s joined by a promised ‘Eve’, this is taken at all-embracing, generic force), whereas the 18th-century cabinets sought to define the norm through aberration, disease, deformity, monsters; secondly, he has been dematerialised and rendered imponderable, spectral, beamed digitally through the air. The diaphanous inventory of the website, or of the CD-Rom, allows global didactic display of what, if it were present for real (actual slices of flesh), would only be permitted to the public gaze under close certification as Art (cf. Damien Hirst).

Visual artists aren’t the only ones to probe these distempered lesions in contemporary approaches to bodies and persons. Gaby Wood’s essay, in these pages, on the ‘Sicilian Fairy’, explored the voyeurism and plottings of freak aficionados and body-snatchers in Victorian London, while Hilary Mantel’s fine, imaginative new novel, The Giant, O’Brien, reviewed in the present issue, dramatises the experiments and predations of the surgeon John Hunter, founder of the Hunterian, as he sniffs out his raw material – including one of the ‘Irish giants’ who showed themselves to the crowd for a fee in 18th-century London.

The new, modern sensitivity to these abuses grows out of the corpse of Cartesian dualism – which placed the individualising mind/spirit/soul inside a body as distinctly as vintage wine in a decanter – developing alongside a holistic understanding of consciousness as itself enfleshed. It’s one of modernity’s many contradictions that the materialist, atheist view of individuality has intensified the sacred character of the body, its rights and value and consequent claims to attention and respect. The High Renaissance Popes who founded anatomical museums in Italy didn’t worry about desecrating the living (or the dead) in the same way, because the soul had quit the body (Hamlet’s ‘shuffling off’ hints at snakes, or even insects: crickets, for example).

These complex shifts have been accompanied – and deepened – by a myriad interpretative moves. The originality of Alan Hyde’s Bodies of Law is that he is trying to apply psychoanalytic, structuralist, poststructuralist and feminist theories of the embodied individual to the analysis of American law. His approach depends on the Foucauldian tenet that while bodies exist in the world, they can take up that existence only through language: who speaks of them and how they speak of them, in medical, ethical, judicial discourse; who fashions them and animates them. Hyde joins forces here with radicals and utopians who want to change language to change thought to change bodies to change persons to change human nature, though nature, of course, only has being in language. He draws richly from such literary critics as Roland Barthes and Peter Brooks, but he is a member of that rare emerging species, the male feminist, and above all, he invokes Monique Wittig and Julia Kristeva, and heats the whole by the halogen sparkle of the superanovae of the American cultural empyrean – Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Patricia J. Williams, Catherine MacKinnon. ‘Can we conceptualise people as people in relations?’ he asks. ‘Can we create a bodily discourse of pleasure, or sexuality? Can we develop a constitutional jurisprudence of how we want to live with each other, so that rights could be secured for subjects by imagining them as other than isolated?’ These are important questions, and Hyde, in his idealistic yearning to widen the range and impact of academic philosophy, thinks hard as he reaches for answers.

Bodies of law lays out a historical taxonomy which attaches different laws to blood, spit, spleen, rectum, vagina, hands and other parcelled body elements. Hyde’s examples almost all come from US case law, from lower court decisions followed by Supreme Court decrees, and they exhibit a grim, callous, at times hilarious casuistry as the judges twist and turn between principles of liberty and privacy, anti-crime measures and constitutional rights. The body as the property of a person dominates much of this thinking. A woman who lived by selling her blood (she belonged to a rare group) was allowed to classify her body and its maintenance as a business expense, and deduct her food and vitamins against tax. A mother was upheld when she refused to allow her children’s bone marrow to be donated to their half-sibling. A suspected robber, who was shot in the shoulder by the shop-owner, was also upheld when he refused to have the bullet extracted, as this intervention was deemed to constitute an intolerable invasion of his body. Much discussion of abortion ethics invokes women’s ownership of their wombs. By contrast, a man who discovered that his spleen, which had been removed, had been used in experiments that led to a medical breakthrough was not allowed to claim ownership of the organ and a share of the profits. In the famous Baby M case, it was established that a woman can only assign her womb to another woman: she cannot sell it.

The metaphors that produce movie fantasies about possession and alien abduction, about medical experiments and body switching (as in the brilliant film Coma, the recent Face-Off, and many episodes of The X-Files), arise from this legal emphasis on the body as a kind of super gilt-edged bond in which the person is heavily – if not wholly – invested, and whose loss unseats that self that is Me. Fears about genetic engineering and cloning focus on the physical transmission of character traits along with body parts. If I’m a dead-ringer for someone else, where have I gone? Where is the self? How can I have a mind of my own in another’s body? This wasn’t something that very much bothered Mary Shelley at the end of the 18th century. Frankenstein doesn’t suggest that the Creature inherits any of his miscellaneous forebears’ characteristics through the genes of his stitched-together parts.

Only a few years ago, the sale of kidneys for transplants was condemned and surgeons who’d abetted it were prosecuted. But the illegal trade, as dramatised in Coma, continues, by all reports: the destitute, in Turkey or India, present themselves for the operation. Similarly, organised ‘sex workers’ argue that prostitution expresses their right to do what they want with their bodies. However, as the limits on commercial surrogacy reveal and resistance to a market in organs, as well as to a market in sex, confirms, the commodity body is accompanied by its spirit shadow, what Hyde calls ‘the sacred body’, the habitat of persons, the ring-fenced zone of personhood, that must not be trafficked in (as in slavery), violated, alienated, reduced. ‘A discourse in which the body was always unproblematically property,’ he writes, ‘would be incapable of creating human subjects, without whom neither market, nor any other, society could function. The body that cannot be property (... the sacred body) thus marks the boundaries of an aesthetic realm that defines the boundaries of, and supplements, market society.’

At the other pole from this sacrosanct vessel of personal identity stands the allegorical body, the impersonal bearer of multiple symbolic meanings, of nation and virtue, of history and the future, of health and vitality: individuals, in their bodies, get caught up in this language, and the law circumscribes their emissions, display and conduct according to specific cultural dreams of purity and danger (Hyde’s arguments here depend on Mary Douglas): at high-level meetings in Mao’s China, the grandest officials’ armchairs were flanked by imposing brass spittoons as if by armorial bearers; Edith Piaf, squatting on the stage to piss, was making a point about women’s restrictions in the land of the public pissoir; Anthea Turner goes ‘the full monty’ on the cover of a glossy this month but the massive phallic snake and her gym-flexed limbs are still artfully arranged to conceal her nipples. Women fare unequally in this semiotic drama, required by law to look nice in public and all that entails: a motel receptionist in Alabama was fired for not wearing makeup to cover her spots, but the courts did not censure the employer for requiring this. Warrants have been issued for the search of the appellant’s ‘apartment and vagina’. Licit bodies have to be made visible: the law acts as a microscope, or a medical lens, tracing the passage of pollution in the larger body politic. Males are also subject to penetrative investigation: prisoners, especially young black detainees, are routinely subjected to body searches, while blood tests are required of US border guards and customs officers to monitor drugs. Suspected of sex abuse, a policeman was offered a ‘penile plethysmograph’ to register his responses to erotic stimuli. He refused, and was dismissed. US law unveils the phallus with unprecedented eagerness, and unlike Adam, the ‘owner’ of the penis cannot choose to cover his nakedness. This process demystifies – up to a point. The veiling of the phallus, which used to enhance its power, has been replaced by a ritual unveiling, that concentrates public fascination, so that we are all to become Noah’s sons, looking at their drunken father in the vineyard. It must be disappointing to Alan Hyde that his book was finished before Monica Lewinsky continued Paula Jones’s work of rendering public the President’s privates. If fellatio is not a sexual relationship for the fellatee, then one reason for this is the penis’s imagined distance from the person to whom it is physically attached: eyes meeting, lips touching – now, that would have been sex, surely, just like in the movies?

Hyde does not discuss proposals to control sex offenders by means of castration or drugs, but his analysis of the separation of organs under the law reveals that it could come to this, once unthinkable, measure. Judicial decisions in rape cases often appear to grant the penis autonomy, as if it were acting independently of the person’s mind and control (‘I couldn’t help myself’; ‘She made me do it’). ‘If law were to construct ... bodies that acted without minds, without “our leave”, bodies that had their own civil and criminal responsibility,’ Hyde writes, ‘I am confident that the penis would become that body part par excellence to which independent agency would be attributed.’ This interpretation would give a new slant to that American term ‘dick-head’, with its rueful, affectionate offspring, animated cartoon willies like Norbert. So, is there another place from which a dick-head’s self can speak? Can Clinton plead that his libido acts distinctly from the self that does other things, like send in the missiles?

The metaphors for the body as tool, an object of exchange, a kit of disparate organs and limbs, fail, through the laws that apply them, to communicate the changing ‘custom, piety, intuition and opinion’ (in Terry Eagleton’s phrase) which society observes. Legal judgments, in Hyde’s view, continually attempt to ‘model a system of rules and principles divorced from human empathy and identification’, severed from those values and mores that render the hire of wombs repugnant and the philandering of Presidents somehow beside the point. But at this stage of its argument, Bodies of Law turns cloudy and by himself Hyde is unable to generate a new language of the self in the dock. Hyde concludes that the ‘law desperately needs new ways of “imagining”, becoming one person with, our brothers and sisters, imaginings that do not depend on the visualised body,’ and proposes that persons qua persons should enter legal discourse, that the stories of victims be told, that ‘narrated bodies’ replace anatomies in the suture books. His appeal for empathy draws on new philosophies of feeling and subjectivity. It is clearly noble and idealistic, but it also conjures the spectre of an Oprah Winfrey-style legal rhetoric by which pleas persuade according to the intensity of their staging, and ‘I feel your pain’ becomes a moral principle and a criterion of judgment.

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