Vile bodies

March 8, 1996

Our thought is so obsessed with the body that it has become trapped in a carcass of its own making. Valentine Cunningham believes it is time to move on.

We are all somaticists nowadays. Like Philip Larkin's Mr Bleaney we are all "at the Bodies". The Body has become the focus of all our dreams of the real. It is the truest of our truths. The body is the presence we can rely on, our metaphysics of presence. Our latest bodies of knowledge involve knowledge of the body. Our Library of Babel is a body building. Body Work, The Body in Pain, Literature and the Body, The Body in Pieces, The Tremulous Private Body, The Body Emblazoned, Somatic Fictions, Fragments for a History of the Body (in three volumes), Body and Text in the 18th Century, Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, The Body, The Body, The Body: how the somatically inclined titles accrue. The Bodleian Library bids fair to become a bodily library. Theory shops at the body shop.

The body has become first resort of the canniest historians and neohistorians, classicists and geographers, theologians, feminists and postcolonialists. Cultural studies flourishes as a scene of body regards. Like some weighed-down black porter bent beneath the burden of some large white man the body bears the brunt of current research. Few of us, it seems, can imagine getting to grips with any trope, topic, person, period of history, text or set of texts except as bodily stuff. And we will do it, of course, with bodily stuff, for language itself has become body language - all gestural, orificial, buccal, hymeneal and dark navel. Body is, for us, all of meaning, our text, our final signifier, our place of ultimate signification.

And this makes sense, at least in the context of our modern scepticism. Our insistent bodiliness is a necessary consequence of secularism. Challenge, or remove, transcendence; discard the old metaphysical idea and idiom of the person, the self (let alone of the soul or spirit), and all you have left certainly to rely on is the body. It is this trend of thought that has made the materialist genre par excellence, ie satire, depend so much on the body as the marker of the real. It is his recognition of the body's emergence as the ground and essence of modern truth that makes the satirist Aldous Huxley so potent as the historian and theorist of the body's present importance. "The body possesses one enormous merit; it is indubitably there": thus the social theorist Anthony Beavis in Huxley's novel of 1936 Eyeless in Gaza, in a discussion of what has happened to old ideas about personality. It is impossible to believe any longer in character, writes Beavis; it is too elusive and metaphysical; it's not evidence. "And here, I suspect, lies the reason for that insistence during recent years, on the rights of the body. From the Boy Scouts to the fashionable sodomites, and from Elizabeth Arden to D. H. Lawrence I Always and everywhere the body". Beavis's point is - to parody Wittgenstein - that the body is all there is. So theory and history and anthropology and criticism have to make much, indeed everything of it, treating it as the only key to all mythologies - in the present, in the past, everywhere.

It is a striking observation. Even more striking though about Huxley's putting his finger on this bodily degree zero of modern truth-telling, is his sense of the horror in the process of arriving at this new episteme. It begins as carnival, as pleasurable release from the old bodily restraints and neuroses, but it ends up in renewed bodily grotesquerie. The way is pioneered by Lawrence and Elizabeth Arden (the cosmetics queen Huxley had become aware of in a California that was even then at the frontier of new bodily alertness; and it is no surprise, incidentally, that somatically preoccupied new historicism should have blossomed so impressively on that same Californian edge). But the new bodily deal leads to what? To a new Cartesianism which is the downside of carnival. Caco, ergo sum is how Beavis sums it up. Jonathan Swift might be speaking. Or Sigmund Freud.

And it is the return of such old anxieties about what living by the body alone might entail, which floods the modernist bodily scene even as the body is being cried up as a garden of earthly delights. Eliot's attack on what he called the dissociation of sensibility contains a cry for an escape from what has turned out to be the broken, dismembered physicality of the Prufrock world. Vile bodies are what haunt the whole modernist occasion and not just the pages of Evelyn Waugh. The body would simply not stay in place as a zone of comfort and joy, of jouissance. It kept going askew, turning grotesque, assuming a plight of inevitable pain and disfigurement, acting as a sort of allegory of the persistence of an older metaphysics of evil in what St Paul called the flesh, an evil whose absence the body's new 20th-century prominence was once thought to mark. In effect, the modern and postmodern body has this disconcerting way of turning into a spokesperson, a salesperson even, for the manichean idea of the intrinisic evil of matter.

The body is a multivalent sign, all right, but one that proves as perverse in its polymorphousness as any old hellfire divine might desire. (It is no accident at all that in the film Seven, the plot's updated versions of the seven deadly sins should turn out to be manifested in some very vile bodies indeed, quite Grunewaldian in their horror.) The weirdly prominent feature of our current preoccupation with the body, the aspect that would most strike the Martian visitor, is that we are concerned above all with bodies gone wrong, bad bodies, sick bodies, bodies harmed, messed about, disempowered, tortured, mutilated, done to death and otherwise estranged from normal pursuits and happy purposes. The step in William Ewing's recent big book The Body: Photoworks of the Human Form, from the chapter entitled "Eros" to the next one called "Estrangement", is for us the natural one. The body, whether displayed as aesthetic object or analysed as cultural and historical sign strikes us as increasingly not nice the longer it is displayed and the closer it is looked at. The modern discourse of the body is indeed an accelerating run from Eros to Estrangement, a journey of mounting horror and neurosis - from Lawrence's innocently outspoken celebrations (Mellors's "Here tha ****s an' here tha pisses"), to Huxley's more disturbed cacographical equation between self and ****, to the kind of photos featuring in Ewing's "Estrangement" section, Robert Mapplethorpe's portraits of bodies masochistically hung in chains and the like.

The guru of these manifestations and manifestoes, of bodies gone, or going, out of luck and out of true, of bodies figured under the sign of katachresis, the figure of abusio, of abuse, distortion and wrenching, is, of course, Michel Foucault, with his extraordinarily influential narratives of repression, his astounding repertoire of the body abuses historically institutionalised in prisons, and schools, and clinics, and the rest. Who, having read the opening "Body of the condemned" chapter of his Discipline and Publish could ever forget that extended narrative of the putting to death of Damiens the regicide? And neohistorians, neocolonialists, and all the others have certainly not forgotten. "Readers of Michel Foucault's study of corporal punishment I, Pierre Riviere I will recognise here [in an account of the torturing to death of some Cape Colony slaves who had killed a European] the sensuous, sensationalist discourse of torture that predated the coalescence in Europe of institutionalised forms of social control." Thus Mary Pratt in her influential book Imperial Eyes - and quite characteristically of the genre. For the finding of Foucauldian bodies, and the abuses of power they signify, simply everywhere that literary, historical, anthropological analysis can travel, is a pronounced fact of our scholarly times.

And to be sure whole tracts of once dulled-over scholarly country - the Renaissance, for instance, or classical Greece and Rome - have been brought back to life by such investigations. And whole fields of Foucault-inspired work on blacks and women and queers and such have indeed flourished. But, still, as Mary Pratt sharply observes, this discourse of the body is indeed sensuous and sensationalist. The frissons it provides are pleasurably horrible. They are not all that far from Foucault's known preference for the joys of sado-masochism. It is not ungermane to recall hereabouts the sadomasochistic tendencies in the great tradition of French literature Foucault was animated by (de Sade, Bataille, Genet, and so on), as well as in the fictions fostered by this keen affording of centre place to bodies pained for pleasure (Angela Carter, Will Self, that sort of novel). Such narratives, both fictional or historical, make voyeurs of us all. They minister to neurosis.

They also, of course, encourage participation and testimonies of participation. How often, it seems, nowadays, that some piece of body scholarship comes prefaced by the intrusion of the writer's own carcass into the story. I am a sharecropper's daughter; I am a lover of boys, of men, of women; I discovered the homosexual truth about ancient Greece on Athens Gay Pride Day in 1982. And, yes, that is Mapplethorpe himself in that photo. And Foucault did die of Aids. Caco - futuo - mortuo, ergo sum. You can trust me, for This is My Body. It is only our latest version of the biographical fallacy.

In other words, body theory is sustained by, as it endorses, that pronounced body narcissism and solipsism that so mark our modernity. And body solipsism involves a rather dire circular prison-house of meaning. At least that is what is suggested by a text even more prophetic than Huxley's. In Joyce's Finnegans Wake we encounter Shem the Penman, an extreme version of the modernist, Proustian writer, self, and body. Shut up in his writing cell in his house, The Haunted Inkbottle, he lacks all writing matter except what his own body provides. So he writes in his own excrement, his inkenstink, "over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body". It is a grim allegory of the circular economy of bodily signification, a garish parable of what happens when the body is the only text you have got, the only page to write on or about. And Shem has modern equivalents, real life analogues of what Joyce envisions in his coprophiliac farce. They are our body culturists, body builders, tattooists, body piercers, performance artists, and the undergoers of cosmetic surgery. And whether they are poor, like the haunters of cheap back alley tattoo parlours, or very rich; like the icons of body mutation Jean Baudrillard worries over in The Transparency of Evil - Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Italian porn star and member of parliament La Cicciolina - these traducers of their carcasses as the only aesthetic object that counts are a truly aweing example of where our Huxleyesque equations of body and meaning and value have brought us. "La Cicciolina, as carnal ectoplasm, is I very close to Madonna's artificial nitroglycerine or Michael Jackson's androgynous and Frankensteinian appeal". They are all of them, Baudrillard adds, "baroque beings".

Baroque beings. It is a heavily ironic place for our somatic preoccupations to have led the body to, but this is precisely the endgame our theorising is playing. Feminist writing is just one example. In a representative analytical stratagem, woman is first reduced to body, to a gynocentric datum - Our Bodies are Our Selves is the basic argument - and then this reductive bodiliness is specialised as a Foucauldian site of invasion, hurt, mutilation, and so on. And so Clarissa Harlowe appears in a thousand essays as representative by virtue of being a rapee and, a bit later, as an anorexic, a woman driven to self-hatred and suicide by starvation because of gender politics and gender oppressions. It is the same sort of sadomasochistic narrative by which Fanny Burney, a medically mutilated woman writer - she endured a mastectomy operation without anaesthetic, which she describes in her journals - becomes a type of the female. It is a large historical parable which, stranger yet, elevates Alice James's aweingly deranged reading of her breast tumour as a work, an authenticating body-product, one to rival the written works of her brothers Henry and William (something "palpable" at last, as she puts it, to show for her pains), as the very essence of sisterly creativity. It is only, the assumption is, by such bodily torments that our somatic neometaphysics will allow woman access to the real, to the Foucauldian world as we pretty consistently imagine it - the world of Kakfa's Hunger Artist and his Strafkolonie.

And this is where our specialising of history and anthropology and the rest as merely, or mainly, body matters has led us. This result does, of course, have pertinence and truth; but it does not bear all the truth and all the pertinence. Of course Foucault (and Freud, and Huxley) got many things right. Of course Auschwitz bears central, crucial meanings. Of course one must concede much to Rene Girard's englobing theory of the bouc emissaire and the principle of necessary bodily suffering at the hands of the scapegoating community. And so on. But there is also serious danger of a set of master bodily tropes quite running away with us. History and culture, persons and selfhood, meaning and meaning making, are much, much more than just the bodiliness we have tended to reduce them to, certainly more than the distressed bodiliness we have become so entranced by.

And it is time, as well, I would say, for a hermeneutical practice that does not involve constant updates on my colleagues' wretched carcasses, their biopsies and blood counts; time too for some history or reading that is not inevitably refracted through their postcards home and travel snaps and their little stories of what happened on daddy's knee or in the bathhouse. I really do have more than enough neuroses of my own to contend with.

Valentine Cunningham is tutor in English literature and fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments