Posts Tagged ‘body’

Writing and Sacrifice

June 29, 2010

I happened across a document of free-writing I composed while trying to generate ideas for my thesis (probably written close to a year ago, at this point). Of course, my thesis has long since been completed, but on re-reading this, I still find it interesting and thought-provoking. It’s probably a good sign that my interest in this topic hasn’t waned since have actually turned it in…

Writing and Sacrifice?

When it is hinted that the body is a text, what – if anything – might this mean for the experience of the body – the way we experience ourselves as being bodies, as well as how we experience others as bodies? Both body and text (as well as the act of writing, and of communication more broadly) are spatially and temporally contained. What would it mean to relate to bodies as we might to texts, and vice versa? What are the implications, significances, and problems inherent in thinking about embodiment and textuality in proximity to one another?

As Derrida has emphasized, it is crucial to take notice of differences within a text – its ambiguities, inner tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes – and to try to understand how this play of differences creates meaning. In some ways the value of this insight may be easy to understand – for a text that is not dynamic, that does not disseminate multiple, conflicting meanings and at times turn against itself – is a dead text, one that ultimately may fail to engage its reader. It is the dynamic play of differences throughout time and space – and especially, within a “text” – that renders meanings not only intelligible, but vibrant and compelling. The insight that texts are crucially grounded upon difference is also essential for noticing how such differences may be built upon fundamental existing hierarchies, tensions and inequalities, and to attempt (through interpretive practice) to subvert and transgress the reign of binary oppositions implicitly invoked within “text”. Can “the body” be deconstructed in this way – related to as one relates to writing?

I put the word “text” within quotation marks to provoke the question: just what exactly is, or qualifies as, text? In the contemporary world, we increasingly realize, perhaps, that anything can be a text; a social ritual, a tradition, a historical event. We furthermore recognize (often implicitly, without even bothering outwardly to acknowledge the fact) that such “texts” are far from univocal, but rather, to borrow words used by Whitman, “contain multitudes” of voices. We may even be comfortable with the notion that any absolute determinacy of meaning is impossible. What, however, makes bodies “meaningful”?

I want to pursue further the idea of writing, for it strikes me that the materiality of writing provides a crucial mode of reference for the oft-cited concept of the body as writing, the view that understands the body as text. If we reflect and free-associate on the idea of writing, we might think first of the experience of reading, or of the graphical representations that constitute writing (letters, words), or perhaps the apparent fixedness of the boundaries that define a text, or even the unresolvable absence of the text’s author, and the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning. How do such conceptualizations accord with our understanding of the body?

It is easy to see that the body-as-text is a way of thinking the self in a way that goes against the grain of liberal notions of the subject, which tend to ground the self in an ideological set of convictions about individuality, autonomy, responsibility, agency, and the like. However, I struggle to understand where the textual analogy of the body leaves us vis-a-vis the realm of bodily experience. It is one thing to attack entrenched notions of the self, and to show that ideas of the self, and perhaps even modes of embodiment, have as their genesis processes that are social, material, and that ultimately come to define our idea of (and certainly help to enforce the centrality of) the individual. The insights produced by such critique are both necessary and valuable. It is another thing, however, to overlook the proximity of the body to individual experience, and thus also the way it is linked to how we think of ourselves as individuals. Is the idea of the body as text alienating to the way in which we experience ourselves, through our bodies?

And how do we express to others (using what language?) the idiosyncratic ways in which we experience ourselves as embodied?

At this point – precisely the point where it becomes most crucial to comprehend the implications of this textuality of the body – and the processes of “writing” presumed to constitute embodiment – precisely here the idea seems to fall short. For ultimately, we seem often to think of writing in terms of representation (its materiality has power precisely because it is stable – its systems of representation, of organizing graphical signs will remain the same, not fade or be rendered meaningless overnight). But do we actually think of our embodied experience as being representational in this sense? Or is our bodily experience characterized more by immediacy and felt sense, with our awareness of processes of signification, representation – even discourse as an abstract whole – taking on a more secondary role?

Clearly, much is at stake in these questions. Yet I believe they point clearly in a particular direction – that is, toward thinking about the link between body and communication (materiality and signification), and inquiring into the limits of what can be said about this link. We often seem to want to think of the body as living, dynamic, creative – perhaps as resistant to the kind of shaping that would enable it to signify, like text does – and conversely, that we often think of text as dead, inert, passive, lifeless – a receptive materiality that, like the earth of Genesis 2, can be shaped by a creative force and, when bestowed with living spirit (“Adam” – lit. human being, but the word is related to that for earth, “Adamah” – is essentially inert matter in-spired, or breathed into, by the divine Creator), may be transformed into something meaningful, something that lives.

This may be (I would suggest that it is) a problematic kind of binary opposition, although it bears thinking about: I would contend that we might, intuitively, want to object to the idea that the human body could be a kind of text. But why is this so? What is disconcerting about this recasting, or “reterritorialization” of the body as “text”? What would it mean for the body to be textual, and why might this be problematic (or, perhaps, hold promise) for the way in which we think about embodiment?

One way of approaching the link would be the claim that the body faithfully records its experiences – ALL its experiences. (see Freud, Civ. and its Discontents)

The connection between the body and language seems difficult to fully theorize – that is to say, the link between the body and language (or “text”) is difficult to understand because we can find no reference point within language within which to fully express the experience of bodyness. But is the reverse true?


thesis done!

April 21, 2010

Yes, I finished my thesis! Sorry I only put up one post about it…although in retrospect I do think that post was a fairly good indicator of where I was headed with it.

You can see the finished product here (courtesy of

Please feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think, if you do check it out. Thanks!

Preliminary thoughts toward a thesis (part 1)

November 14, 2009

I’m working toward writing a thesis on the topic of the body as textuality: what is implied in the appeal to textual metaphors of the body and corporeality?

I hope to show that this way of thinking about the body – often alluded to, yet rarely (I think) theorized in depth in much post-structuralist writing – is potentially problematic, for several reasons (it may be significant that the idea of “writing on the body” is far more ubiquitous than attempts to theorize just what it means to say that the body can be (or be thought of as) text, or what this textuality of the body means – other than by pointing at the processes of its signification). It seems obvious that in general, the idea of characterizing the body as text is more or less a statement that the body is culturally constructed – that identity is performatively constituted by the way in which embodied subjects inhabit societal norms – and perhaps following from this view, that we have little or no recourse to any experience of a pre- or extra- discursive body.

Now, my intended argument is beginning to lead into dangerous territory, since I’m not too familiar with much of the literature (Blanchot, Derrida, and others, I think) on this, but it strikes me that in post-structuralist thought in general, writing is associated with absence, and to a certain degree with death (I know there’s a lot of writing on this, but if any readers have any particular suggestions on directions for further research, I would be grateful). Now, whatever particular agenda is at stake in imagining the body as text, or textuality, it seems obvious that simply figuring the body as object, as site of signification, remains problematic (Judith Butler warns of the danger of such a view perpetuating the Cartesian mind / body dualism – see Gender Trouble, 129); yet I would argue that it is precisely such a model that has most coherently emerged from such metaphorical discourse. I could be in danger of oversimplification, but it strikes me that the alleged textuality of the body points in one of two undesirable directions: either the body is objectified – rendered as mute materiality subject to the inscriptions of a power foreign to it – or else the body is figured as somehow inherently itself discursive, in which case by virtue of being primarily signification, the body’s meaning is rendered absent, and the body itself must be, in a sense, sacrificed in order to render such meaning immanent.

Foucault’s formulation of the task of genealogy – “to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”) points clearly toward an investigative methodology and may aim for an emancipatory project vis-a-vis the body, but it does not offer a way of understanding the body in its specificity. The metaphor of the body as implicated in a process of textual inscription actually points away from the body toward something else. Butler objects to such an appeal to a body outside of discourse – and claims that contradicts Foucault’s project as formulated elsewhere – but she, too, attempts to understand the body in terms of discursive practices, practices that performatively constitute the subjectivity of bodies.

I intend to explore further Butler’s work – in particular her engagement with psychoanalytic theory and the work of Lacan in Bodies That Matter and elsewhere – in the hopes of understanding better her views of materiality and the body. But it strikes me that she, too, ends up imagining the body as a site of conflict – the power to resist hegemonic social norms lies within the discursive apparatus(es) that serve continually to produce those norms. While her theory, too, offers brilliant insight into the proliferation of societal gender (and other) norms, what, if anything, does it tell us about the body itself? Is there something about the speaking body that is paradoxical, and ultimately, perhaps, irreconcilable by theory?

My initial interest in this topic emerged from a desire to write about Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” and the way writing on the body can function on power over it – that is, comes to shape the reality of the body through being made part of it. In a sense, “In the Penal Colony” enacts the ultimate confrontation between writing and the body. In the story, the writing apparatus necessarily must destroy the body upon which it writes in order to carry out its function – yet when the most outspoken advocate of the machine submits his own body to its operation of writing, not only his body, but the machine, too, is destroyed in a malfunction in which the “exquisite torture” which the commandant had intended turns into outright murder. At the surface level, the text seems to present itself as a condemnation of those processes of inscription that fix the boundaries for normative human behavior and culture; quite literally, any body that transgresses the boundaries (as delineated by the military law of the colony) is marked – to death – with the very sentence of the law it had violated, presumably thus restoring, through a spectacle of violent yet methodical (“exquisite”) force, the inviolability of the law.

And yet, as with nearly all Kafka’s writing, one can go far deeper. More to follow…