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About this book

What do we mean when we talk about 'the body'? This Reader challenges the assumption that it can be invoked as a neutral, or indeed natural, point of reference in critical discussion or cultural practice. The essays collected here foreground the historical construction of 'the body' throughout a range of discourses from the modern to the postmodern, and seek to present it not as a biological 'given', but as a contestable signifier in the articulation of identities.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

Step into the gallery where the exhibits are human corpses, immaculately preserved, then flayed, dissected, sliced and posed with an artist’s precision and flair. Peer with impunity into the secret recesses of bellies, skulls, chest cavities, the wombs of pregnant women. Have your photograph taken with the skinned chess player whose brain rises like a loaf from his opened skull; gaze straight through a man laid out in thin transparent slices from the scalp to the hardened skin of the toes. In the gift shop afterwards, choose from a range of anatomical gadgets and desk toys, or post grisly cards to your friends. Before leaving you could even begin the legal procedure of bequeathing your own body to the project for subsequent exhibitions.
Tiffany Atkinson


2. The Renaissance Body: From Colonisation to Invention

In the twentieth century it is virtually impossible to think about the body outside a prevailing medical-scientific discourse. But it was not always so. What we consider to be primarily the focus of medical attention — the accounts of physicians, surgeons, anatomists, physiologists, biologists — has, in other epochs, been entertained under quite different categories of description. Those categories, bounded by theology and cosmology — the polarities of ritual — did not admit the possibility of thinking about the body as a discrete entity. In the west, prior to the ‘new science’ of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the body’s interior could not be understood without recourse to an analysis of that which gave its materiality significance — the essence contained within the body. A belief in the presence of that essence, a belief, that is, in the existence of an anima, a soul or a thinking entity, necessarily informed any possible perspective of the body. To consider the body in isolation was not merely difficult but, strictly speaking, impossible, since the body’s primary function, it was held, was to act as a vessel of containment for the more significant feature of the soul.
Jonathan Sawday

3. Second Meditation: Of the Nature of the Human Mind; and that it is Easier to Know than the Body

The Meditation of yesterday has filled my mind with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them.1 And yet I do not see how I shall be able to resolve them; and, as though I had suddenly fallen into very deep water, I am so taken unawares that I can neither put my feet firmly down on the bottom nor swim to keep myself on the surface. I make an effort, nevertheless, and follow afresh the same path upon which I entered yesterday, in keeping away from everything of which I can conceive the slightest doubt, just as if I knew that it was absolutely false; and I shall continue always in this path until I have encountered something which is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned with certainty that there is nothing certain in the world.
René Descartes

4. A Case of Hysteria: Fräulein Elisabeth von R.

In the autumn of 1892 I was asked by a doctor I knew to examine a young lady who had been suffering for more than two years from pains in her legs and who had difficulties in walking. When making this request he added that he thought the case was one of hysteria. […] He told me that he knew the family slightly and that during the last few years it had met with many misfortunes and not much happiness. First the patient’s father had died, then her mother had had to undergo a serious eye-operation and soon afterwards a married sister succumbed to a heart-affection of long standing after a confinement. In all these troubles and in all the sick-nursing involved, the largest share had fallen to our patient.
Sigmund Freud

5. The Incitement to Discourse

The seventeenth century was the beginning of an age of repression emblematic of what we call the bourgeois societies, an age which perhaps we still have not completely left behind. Calling sex by its name thereafter became more difficult and more costly. As if in order to gain mastery over it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present. And even these prohibitions, it seems, were afraid to name it. Without even having to pronounce the word, modem prudishness was able to ensure that one did not speak of sex, merely through the interplay of prohibitions that referred back to one another: instances of muteness which, by dint of saying nothing, imposed silence. Censorship.
Michel Foucault


6. From ‘Seduction and Guilt’

The disrupting event acts as moral suffering would; instead of remorse, the hysteric’s physical suffering is produced, and it affects the body at the very spot implicated in the occurrence. ‘What is it that turns into physical pain here? A cautious reply would be: something that might have and should have become mental pain’ (Freud’s Studies on Hysteria). The tremendous stakes in the distinction between physical unconscious pain and mental conscious pain begin to be apparent. There is scarcely a doubt that Freud privileges the moral categories of consciousness — remorse, regret, the whole package of guilty feelings. The therapy of hysteria, and consequently of all analytical therapy, consists of locating the pain in the register of conscious morality and getting rid of all the organic substitutions that the psyche is capable of making. It is a huge displacement whose consequences are still in part unknown: suffering is still suffering in every case, but this time it is for guilt rather than for no known reason. A tragic morality, the morality of psychoanalysis according to Freud […]
Catherine Clément

7. ‘Who Kills Whores?’ ‘I Do’, Says Jack: Race and Gender in Victorian London

‘I am down on whores and I shan’t quit ripping them till I do get buckled’, wrote Jack the Ripper to the Central News Agency on 18 September 1888.1The question I raise in this essay reflects not only on the reality of Jack the Ripper — real he was, and he never did get buckled — but on the contemporary fantasy of what a Jack the Ripper could have been. To understand the image of Jack, however, it is necessary to understand the image of the prostitute in Victoria’s London. It is also necessary to comprehend the anxiety that attended her image in 1888, an anxiety that, like our anxieties a hundred years later, focused on diseases labelled sexual and attempted to locate their boundaries within the body of the Other.2
Sander L. Gilman

8. Nietzscheanism and the Novelty of the Superman

The most outstanding trope of [the post-World War I] culture of the body as the site of spontaneous naturalness and authenticity for the individual was the image of the Nietzschean superman.1 Nietzsche’s ideas had become extremely popular among young educated Europeans from the 1890s onward, when his critique of German Wilhelmine society and of Judeo-Christian morality gave impetus to and fused with a wide range of political positions from anarchism, sexual libertarianism, and feminism to right-wing nationalism and socialism.2 (By 1918 Thomas Man could write that one did not merely read Nietzsche, ‘one experienced him’.) Nietzsche’s work was itself the product of a late nineteenth century shift in intellectual and cultural attitudes; it was influenced by, even as it influenced, the fin de siècle disaffection with liberal pieties and the kind of polemics that read the social body through tropes of the strength of the physical body. As such, Nietzscheanism contributed to a series of antirationalist movements of social and cultural protest of the time. These included the generational rebellion of groups (like that around Rupert Brooke) that helped fuel a new ‘youth culture’ and the anticapitalist and neoromantic desire to return to the land, which in turn informed both the Volkisch ideology of the Ramblers in Germany and the versions of vitalism developed by modernists such as Forster and D. H. Lawrence.
Maurizia Boscagli

9. Male Bodies and the White Terror

By what means is a young boy made a soldier? How does he become what Canetti terms a ‘stereometric figure’?1 How does body armour attain its final form, what are its functions, how does the ‘whole’ man who wears it function — and above all — what is the nature of his ego, what is its site (which I believe must be identifiable)? And finally, what is the nature of the soldier’s sexuality? What processes in the act of killing give him the pleasure he can apparently no longer find elsewhere?
Klaus Theweleit

10. From ‘The Fact of Blackness’

‘Dirty nigger!’ Or simply, ‘Look, a Negro!’
Frantz Fanon


11. Womanliness as a Masquerade

Every direction in which psychoanalytic research has pointed seems in its turn to have attracted the interest of Ernest Jones, and now that of recent years investigation has slowly spread to the development of the sexual life of women, we find as a matter of course one by him among the most important contributions to the subject.2 As always, he throws great light on his material, with his peculiar gift of both clarifying the knowledge we had already and also adding to it fresh observations of his own.
Joan Riviere

12. The Anorexic Body: Reading Disorders

Anorexia nervosa and the less ‘spectacular’ eating disorder bulimia have engendered a multiplicity of discourses on the female body. In particular, the public fascination with the figure of the anorexic amounts to a fetishisation; like the mute and malleable fetish object, the anorexic body has been inscribed, diagnosed and translated by various interpretive technologies. Following Paula Treichler’s (1987) ironic listing of the almost limitless interpretations of the AIDS body, the list below exemplifies the ways in which eating disorders are constituted by an ‘epidemic of signification’.1
Abigail Bray

13. Introduction to Bodies That Matter

Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? And how does the category of ‘sex’ figure within such a relationship? Consider first that sexual difference is often invoked as an issue of material differences. Sexual difference, however, is never simply a function of material differences which are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices. Further, to claim that sexual differences are indissociable from discursive demarcations is not the same as claiming that discourse causes sexual difference. The category of ‘sex’ is, from the start, normative; it is what Foucault has called a ‘regulatory ideal’. In this sense, then, ‘sex’ not only functions as a norm, but is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs, that is, whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power, the power to produce — demarcate, circulate, differentiate — the bodies it controls. Thus, ‘sex’ is a regulatory ideal whose materialisation is compelled, and this materialisation takes place (or fails to take place) through certain highly regulated practices. In other words, ‘sex’ is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialised through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialise ‘sex’ and achieve this materialisation through a forcible reiteration of those norms.
Judith Butler

14. From ‘Intensities and Flows’

[…] Can accounts of subjectivity and the psychical interior be adequately explained in terms of the body? Can depths, the interior, the subjective, and the private instead be seen in terms of surfaces, bodies, and material relations? Can the mind/body dualism be overcome using the concepts associated with the devalued term of the binary pair of mind and body, that is, are the body and corporeality the (disavowed) grounds and terms on which the opposition is erected and made possible? What happens to conceptual frameworks if the body stands in place of the mind or displaces it from its privileged position defining humanity against its various others? What happens in the bifurcation of sexed bodies — which is, in my opinion, an irreducible cultural universal -that is inevitably part of our understanding of bodies? If mind or subjectivity can be adequately and without reduction explained in terms of bodies, bodies understood in their historicocultural specificity, does this mean that sexual specificity — sexual difference — will be finally understood as a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition of our understanding of subjectivity? Can various key issues and concepts in feminist theory — including women’s experience, subjectivity, desire, pleasure — be reconceived in corporeal terms, whether these are provided by the theoretical frameworks of Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, or others?
Elizabeth Grosz

15. Beyond Food/Sex: Eating and an Ethics of Existence

It seems like a strange time to be arguing that the primacy of sex may be passing. After all, the world has watched in horror and mostly disbelief as Bill’s concept of sexuality was disclosed.2 In fact, my horror was caused less by the Monicagate ensemble than by the idea that this article would be totally out of sync with the times. But as commentators (perhaps especially outside the US) constantly complained about being bored with sex, and as the sex-non-sex definitions were aired, it became legitimate to wonder whether this scandal constituted the last gasp of the reign of sex. (It also led me to wonder if oral sex wasn’t sex, was it eating?) Possible epistemological ruptures aside, in this article, and under the rubric of the question that Foucault3 takes from Kant (‘Was ist die Aufkärung?’ [‘What is Enlightenment?’]), I want to ask ‘What’s eating us now?’ As you will recall, this is to question ‘who we are in the present’; to engage with passion in ‘stalking the elusive singularity of the present’.4 In my own small quest to figure the present, I try to follow the line of sex as it intersects with that of food. My argument takes from research that I have been conducting in Australia on the role that food now occupies in re-articulating national identity. More generally, I am interested in thinking about a new ethics of existence, one which is theoretically indebted to Foucault and his work on the dietetic regimen, or as Deleuze puts it, the alimentary-sexual regime.5
Elspeth Probyn

16. Piercings

Performance artist Monte Cazazza has made a video of his own genital piercing. There are no titles or credits. We go right to a close-up of a circumcised penis, totally flaccid, lying amid a tangle of pubic hair against a white thigh. Electronic music erupts, punctuated by the word ‘surgeon’, repeated over and over in a robotic, heavily synthesised voice. The music increases in sound level and pace, but ceases to be noticed about twenty seconds into the five-minute video.
Marianna Torgovnick
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