Posts Tagged ‘poststructuralism’

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…

what I’ve been reading lately.

July 28, 2009

OK, in lieu of actually reading (it’s hard if not impossible to chat with two people, listen to Bassdrive and read philosophical essays about Agamben’s theory of the homo sacer all at the same time), I decided to write about what I’ve been reading lately. On the positive side, this might help me actually keep track of it all. It’s hard for me to just read one thing at a time, and it can get hard to keep track of what books I am in the middle of.

When the last school semester ended, I decided I would be proactive and buy / borrow from the library lots of books to read over the summer. Especially since I am gearing up to write my BA thesis this coming year, I really want to read stuff and get some ideas flowing. The only bad thing about that is that nearly everything I read seems to tie in, in one way or another…

So in the last week of school or so I bought Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, thinking it would make for fun summer reading. Whoops. Kind of ambitious. I read like 20 or 30 pages, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 – twice – and loved it. Only thing is, Gravity’s Rainbow is like five times its length. It hasn’t moved from its spot on my shelf in probably two months or more.

Then, I actually read a few books in their entirety. Hell yes! Somehow or another, I managed to read, more or less concurrently, a book called Levinas: An Introduction by Colin Davis (a book that is – yes, you guessed it – about Levinas; and yes, right again! – its presentation is of an introductory nature), and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The latter I actually read for fun, not out of any academic interest particularly (it’s true), yet after about halfway through I started realizing that it connects to my topic of interest for my thesis – quite explicitly, actually. Butler actually mentions the specific Kafka story I hope to address in my thesis – “In the Penal Colony” and suggests that it “provides an interesting analogy for the contemporary field of power and masculinist power in particular” (157n). Also interestingly, she drew heavily on Foucault’s work, particularly History of Sexuality, v. 1 (unsurprisingly), which I have read, and Discipline and Punish, which I have not. So I decided to pick that one up.

That’s where my streak of completing books wore down a bit. I got through about a hundred pages of Discipline and Punish – and it’s quite good, not particularly tough reading – but then I got sidetracked, or restless, or something. I recently bought a few more books though. Since going on hiatus from Discipline and Punish, I’ve started reading a few more things. The first is short, and fun, if not exactly light reading, and bears quite directly on my thesis (which is starting to feel more like a black hole – not that I’m feeling anxious about it, but it would be fun also to read some stuff that is totally unrelated, rather than everything leading back to it, like a burrow, or as D & G would say – a rhizome…): Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward A Minor Literature. I’d never read D & G before, and I have to say I like them. They are weird, but engaging.

I’m definitely going to have to give this one a second read. I know I’m missing a lot, but these guys are more approachable than I thought, plus they are fun (you get the sense they were having a good time writing), and radical in the true sense of the word. They take lots of shots at psychoanalysis (and evidently pretty much any major thinker / theory that places strong emphasis on the signifier can equally be a target for D & G) – apparently in Anti-Oedipus they refer to Freud as a “masked Al Capone”. (OK, fair enough – I actually think when you smoke a certain number of cigars, maybe like 3,000 or something, you just become a gangster automatically.)

In this book they claim that to read Kafka in terms of allegory or metaphor is “stupidity.” They also go after people who try to portray Kafka as melancholic or alienated. For them, Kafka is above all ecstatic, imbuing a language within which he was essentially (as a Czech Jew) an outsider, with vibrancy. It’s not about meaning or symbolism but intensity. They like to use terms like “lines of escape,” “deterritorialization,” “Oedipalization,” “unformed material,” “machinic assemblage…” You get the picture, I guess. One of these days I will step up and read Capitalism and Schizophrenia (although I’ll probably start with the User’s Guide). Anyway, this book is short (if a bit challenging) and is really helping me to imagine different ways of approaching Kafka (and hopefully, too, my project as a whole).

I also recently bought Language, Counter-Memory, Practice by Foucault, a collection of ten essays (also has an interview with Deleuze and a conversation with Foucault and some Maoist militants). It’s got an essay about Bataille and the idea of transgression more generally, the essay “What is An Author?” (which I’d started reading before, but never finished), and basically compiles some of Foucault’s writings on language, literature, etc. Looks pretty good.

I also started reading The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. I’ve only read the introduction so far and actually it is very interesting, extremely engaging, and as far as I can tell so far, extremely well-written. This also corresponds pretty well with the general topic of my thesis. (In a future post I’ll be a bit more revealing about what exactly that is.) This book looks great though. It’s original (check), interdisciplinary (check), corresponds with lots of my interests (check), is politically extremely relevant and is very well-written. It always makes me feel good when I read a book by someone who is a professor of English and actually writes really well! It’s like – hey, your liberal arts education paid off!

So that more or less sums it up for now. I also put down The Kite Runner like three months ago after reading about six or seven chapters of it. It’s solid, and maybe I should pick it up again sometime soon. After all, it’s already so hard to keep track of the three different books I’m in the middle of reading. It might not be so bad to interject a really good novel at reasonable intervals.

Anyway…to you, the reader – I hope this blog wasn’t terribly boring. I think it may have been somewhat helpful or at least entertaining for me, but I’m less convinced that it will be engaging to anyone else to any degree whatsoever.

At best, if you made it all the way through, you might be interested in what the hell it is, exactly, that I am planning on researching and writing about for my BA thesis. If this is so, I’m delighted – and know that you are not alone, for I too am interested in this question. I will certainly post soon with at least some of the preliminary details of what I’m thinking about.

Until then, I’ll still be pondering machinic assemblages and the immanence of desire…

reading list

April 16, 2009

A note of caution: steer clear of this list if “academic” reading makes you uncomfortable. And here it is – a work in progress:

Anything and everything by Pynchon (I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49), but I’ll probably start (and continue for quite some time, heh) with Gravity’s Rainbow. (Only problem is, it would have to be over the summer, but if I read it then I might not read much else…)

Kafka’s Amerika (because it’s the only one of his novels I haven’t read). Maybe some of his letters too…

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

Freud – Civilization and its Discontents.

Bataille – Inner Experience (it’s been sitting on my shelf for a while..) I definitely will try to read more of his fictional (I almost said “creative,” heh) prose as well, though.

Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner (I started reading it but had to put it aside because of the volume of reading for school)

Fredric Jameson – The Political Unconscious

I’d like to read something by Levinas.

I’m also kind of interested in reading some stuff by Avital Ronell (sp?).

I think I warned you that this would be a pretty nerdy list. It’s by no means exhaustive, though. Besides, given the less than three weeks remaining in the semester, academics are on my mind at the moment.

Any suggestions?