Cases of vanity

Embodied Practices - The Sculpture Machine

May 8, 1998

With contributors from backgrounds as diverse as biology and dance, the essays in Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body attempt to marry recent theory and interest in the body with empirical evidence from fieldwork. In her introduction, editor Kathy Davis points out, quite rightly, that much current research on the body fails to engage with socially constructed differences such as ethnicity and gender. This aporia has given rise to a spate of "disembodied" approaches to the body which simply reaffirm the Cartesian dualisms that their authors intended to strip away, and, with them, an aversion to what has traditionally been associated with the feminine: "irrationality, emotions and the particulars of everyday life". This book purports to be a timely corrective to such tendencies, and to provide examples of what an "embodied" scholarship can do: take account of women's lived experience of their bodies, as well as foreground the ways that the female body comes to be the arena in which gender and power relations are played out.

So far, so good. But much as I was impressed by the book's initial tone, reading on convinced me that this is a book that promises more than it delivers. Many essays are well argued, but they do not explore some of their more interesting ramifications sufficiently. For example, Davis's second essay sets out well to ascertain the congruencies between her own research on women's personal beauty projects, and the performance art of Orlan, who lies awake on the operating table while having cosmetic surgery. Her conclusion - that Orlan's denial of pain and personal feeling constitutes an occlusion of the sentient body that reasserts, rather than dispels, mystifications about the female body - although valid in itself, defers the issue, which she raises earlier, of the pain that is transferred to those who watch. Davis does not venture into the nature of the anxiety aroused in us by this spectacle of a flayed female body; an oversight arising, I think, from silence on psychoanalytical perspectives in the collection as a whole, apart from Monica Rudberg's concluding essay on the epistemophilic project.

Even so, these essays are likely to be welcomed by those coming from a women's studies perspective, which is, I suspect, the kind of readership the book presumes. In addition, they open up possibilities for articulating an embodied theory of the body, which will be of interest to students of sociology or cultural theory and feminists alike. Anna Aalten's article, "Performing the body," reads the female ballet dancer through Judith Butler's radical constructionism, while Gesa Lindemann's "The body of gender difference" draws on the experiences of transsexuals to show, contra Butler, that bodies do have an "inherent logic," and that sex does impinge upon it.

Matters of the body, asserts Davis, tend to be associated with femininity. This, she says, reinstates dualisms and explains the "short shrift" received by the male body in the present upsurge of interest in the body. I would disagree; there is plenty of research on the male body, but it may be true that this latter scholarship does not generally engage in dialogue with work on the female body. This cannot be said, however, for Michael Anton Budd's The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire, which is a well-researched cultural history that constantly relates to a sophisticated model of gender, and demonstrates the ways in which the bodies of female, effeminate and ethnic others interact with normative notions of the male body. It primarily refers to the fitness journals that accompanied the rise of physical culture, but it also alludes to lives of symptomatic figures such as Oscar Wilde and Robert Baden Powell, as well as numerous pop cultural figures.

Budd's "sculpture machine" denotes a particular period in the history of body politics from 1829-1929, 100 years characterised by improvements in mechanical reproduction, and by the flourishing of world empires. Physical culture burgeoned in German gymnasia, where physical prowess was seen as the answer to Napoleon and as the linchpin of the nation state. This prowess became associated with bodily beauty and an ethos of self-reliance and self-transformation. Budd explores the era's mass cultural craze for "machined" bodies, reformed and remade through fitness regimes, and popularised by physical performers, who were promoted in postcards, peepshows and advertisements.

Among these was Eugen Sandow, strongman and gentleman publisher, pronounced by doctors to be the most perfect physical specimen of all time. The figure of the strongman belonged originally to the circus and freakshow, to the grotesque and the fringes of culture. Yet, with the advent of physical culture, after popular imagination had pictured the strongman in terms of classical sculptural ideals, he became a mainstream figure, the body ideal to which men aspired, regardless of class and race. The heroic perfection epitomised by the strongman's pose harboured a barely concealed nostalgia for a pre-industrial era; it promised refuge from the realities of technological change.

While looking back to the past, the sculpture machine and physical culture also presaged the future, for the commercial order in which they thrived anticipated the mass media of the 20th century. Physical culture promoted bodies as commodities; it sold desire, a desire to compare one's body with others. Fitness magazines became a forum for same-sex desire, simultaneously sanctioning and denying it, for the language of the pose and male display straddled the line between the homosocial and homoerotic. It is here that Budd raises interesting questions about desire and spectatorship.

However, the purview of physical culture was not confined to male vanity. Its ideology of purity and exercise was harnessed to goals of military efficiency and recruitment, and Budd's study concludes with the demise of the era of the sculpture machine, superseded by the slaughtering machines of the first world war. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the best material in both books comes under the rubric of performativity. It signals that queer theory still holds seductive power over writing on the body. In Oscar Wilde's words, the keynote of the age of the sculpture machine was to "assume a pose". "Chic outrage," Joanne Finkelstein's article in Embodied Practices, scouts similar territory. Construing fashion as self-production, Finkelstein gestures to its "con trick"; it is a "sleight of hand" that can mean one thing, then another - at once separating and blending the homosocial and the homoerotic. It plays the double game, coding sexualities in different ways: one for those who know, the other for those who do not.

Shohini Chaudhuri is completing her doctoral thesis at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body

Editor - Kathy Davis
ISBN - 0 7619 5362 0 and 0 7619 5363 9
Publisher - Sage
Price - £40.00 and £15.99
Pages - 210

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