Saturday, November 26, 2011

Elizabeth Grosz--Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (1994)

Grosz begins by identifying the mind/body dualism which she sees at the heart of much feminist thought (as it is at the heart of much Western thought in general), and claims that her intention is to “displace the centrality of mind, the psyche, interior, or consciousness…in conceptions of the subject through a reconfiguration of the body” (vii).  By putting the body at the center of her inquiry, she intends to confront a particular set of admittedly disparate male theorists (“Freud, Lacan, Schilder, Goldstein, Luria, Merleau-Ponty, Neitzsche, Foucault, Lingis, and Deleuze and Guattari”) “with the question of sexual difference as it arises in the work of a number of feminist theorists, including Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Mary Douglas, Iris Marion Young, and Judith Butler, who all have in their disparate ways provided accounts of female embodiment which question many presumptions in these male texts” (ix).  She points out that not only has this binary view included the alignment of the mind with maleness and the body with femaleness, but also that since Plato, the “body has been regarded as a source of interference in, and a danger to, the operations of reason” (5).

She delineates four different senses of the term “sexuality”:
(1) “sexuality can be understood as a drive, an impulse or form of propulsion, directing a subject toward an object.  Psychoanalysis is uncontestably the great science of sexuality as a drive”
(2) “sexuality can also be understood in terms of an act, a series of practices and behaviors involving bodies, organs, and pleasures, usually but not always involving orgasm.
(3) “sexuality can also be understood in terms of an identity….now commonly described by the term gender
(4) “sexuality commonly refers to a set of orientations, positions, and desires, which implies that there are particular ways in which the desires, differences, and bodies of subjects can seek their pleasure” (iix)

Quite a bit of the first part of this text finds Grosz starting with Freud’s theories of consciousness and gender understanding, working through his ideas for places which might be reclaimed for feminist purposes.  Here is where its age is apparent.  Though Grosz claims that feminists
agree that his [Freud’s] account of sexual difference, with its references to the phallic mother, the castration complex, and the Oedipus complex, provides an accurate description of the processes which produce masculine and feminine subjects within our Western, patriarchal, capitalist culture.  Their disagreements arise regarding the universality of Freud’s account and its value in the prognosis of future social relations—that is, regarding the necessity of the phallus. (57).
Having just read Judith Butler’s 2004 Undoing Gender, in which she in fact takes issue with the centrality of the Oedipus complex to gender formation, even given the cultural parameters with which Grosz qualifies her statement.  Irigaray in particular disagreed with the centrality of the Oedipus complex; as This Sex Which is Not One was 1985 (and is mentioned just a couple of sentences before this), Grosz and I may have different understandings of Irigaray.  However, her summary that Freud’s analysis can be read as an “analysis and explanation of the social construction of women’s bodies as a lack and the correlative (and dependent) constitution of the male body as phallic” (58) is one with which I agree.
            Importantly, she does seem to agree with Butler when she claims that
the attribution of a phallic or a castrated status to sexually different bodies is an internal condition of the ways those bodies are lived and given meaning right from the start….There is no natural body to return to, no pure sexual difference one could gain access to if only the distortions and deformations of patriarchy could be removed or transformed.  The phallus binarizes the differences between the sexes, dividing up a sexual-corporeal continuum into two mutually exclusive categories which in fact belie the multiplicity of bodies and body types.” (58)
And even more importantly is her fundamental criticism of Freud and Lacan: “while it makes perfect sense for the young boy, before he understands the anatomical differences between the sexes, to see others…on a model derived from his own body morphology, it makes no sense at all to claim, as Freud and Lacan do, that the girl too sees the world on a model derived from the boy’s experience” (58).

            Ultimately, I agree with Grosz’s conclusion, that “What psychoanalytic theory makes clear is that the body is literally written on, inscribed, by desire and signification, at the anatomical, physiological, and neurological levels” (60)—and, more importantly, “the body which is presumes and helps to explain is an open-ended, pliable set of significations, capable of being rewritten, reconstituted, in quite other terms than those which mark it, and consequently capable of reinscribing the forms of sexed identity and psychical subjectivity at work today” (60-1).

            In Chapter 3, Grosz traces the history and evolution of the idea of the body image.  I’m intrigued by the schemata proposed by Paul Schilder, in which “social and interpersonal attachments and investments, as well as libidinal energy, form a major part of one’s self-image and conception of the body.”  What I am interested in here is Grosz’s claim that, “For Schilder, every touch is already oriented in a visual register, for it evokes a mental (that is to say visual) image of the spot touched” (67).  She goes on to explain that in Schilder’s model, the optical and the tactile, which are separated in earlier models, are integrated, reflecting our ability to “see an object with our ability to touch it.  The body image is synesthetic, just as every sensation, visual or tactile, is in fact synesthetically organized and represented” (67).  I’m curious if this is related to intersubjective space, in some respect—is there some sort of feedback loop that occurs, reinforcing (or even reifying?) the judgments made or stories invented to explain the gaps which occur when we encounter the unexpected?  What is the difference between unexpected and unintelligible?

            Such a synesthetic organization leads Grosz to conclude that “The body image [for Shilder]…is formed out of the various modes of contact the subject has with its environment through its actions in the world” (67).  While Grosz’s use of “body image” here is referring to a primarily physical, tactile understanding of the body, I think it’s possible to extend her meaning to the more psychological, emotional sense of the phrase as it is used when discussing things like eating disorders.  Again and again, the idea of the body as a dialectically constructed entity emerges, refuting any sort of essentialism or fixed nature.  Finally, incorporating Grosz’s theorization of the body image with ideas from Lacan, Freud, and Grosz’s own acknowledgement of these theorists’ androcentrism, Grosz defines the body image as “a map or representation of the degree of narcissistic investment of the subject in its own body and body parts.  It is a differentiated, gridded, and ever-changing registration of the degrees of intensity the subject experiences, measuring not only the psychical but also the physiological changes the body undergoes in its day-to-day actions and performances” (83).

            Grosz then discusses the phenomenology of the body.  In her summary of Merleau-Ponty’s work, she says that he begins with the “negative claim that the body is not an object.  It is the condition and context through which I am able to have a relation to objects” (86).  The body shapes experience.  Quoting Merleau-Ponty: “The perceiving mind is an incarnated body” (87).  In this way, Cartesian dualism is avoided.  In this discussion of phenomenology, she discusses the central place that vision has occupied, considered superior to the other senses since the Greeks.  Again relying on Merleau-Ponty, she makes a number of important observations about the role of sight in knowledge, such as that:
“Merleau-Ponty describes vision in terms of an activity undertaken by a subject in relation to a distinct and separate object.  To this bare presumption—shared equally by empiricists and idealists—Merleau-Ponty adds two other factors: the claim that subjects are always and necessarily embodies, incarnate, corporeal beings and the claim that vision is always composed not of a given sense datum but of a set of relations between figure and ground, horizon and object.  In short, vision is always a function of establishing a (visual) field.  The conditions of having a visual field, then, involve the constitution of an horizon and the taking up of a perspective. (96-97)
She also notes that vision “function[s] not only as a model for knowledge, but also as representative of all the other senses,” and that the role of vision “is generally regarded as that of unifying and hierarchically ordering the other senses, taming or honing them” (97).  She then lists the three characteristics of an image:
“it presents a manifold field or set of events in terms of simultaneity (it is the only nontemporal or synchronous sense); it functions at a distance, setting up a space or field between the seer and the seen, the physical and psychical; and it does not imply or presume causality (because the other senses are momentary and occasioned by events, vision is ongoing and need not be focused on or caused by any object).  (97)
All three of these characteristics are aspects I need to keep in mind when theorizing ugliness, but especially the last two.  I’ve noted elsewhere how important I think the concept of “intersubjective space” is going to be to my project, and it seems that the role that vision plays will be key.  And, the idea that vision is not caused by an object—there’s not necessarily a trigger—may also play into my ideas of what happens in this intersubjective space.
Grosz also looks at Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the double sensation in terms of vision.  Typically, the double sensation is restricted to touch—if one hands is feeling another hand, then the hands are both subject and object.  However, Merleau-Ponty expands this idea to the idea of vision: “the seer’s visibility conditions vision itself, is the ground the seer shares with the visible, the condition of any relation between them” (101).  Or, in Grosz’s words, “To see, then, is also, by implication, to be seen” (101).  This is similar to what Rosemarie Garland-Thompson refers to as the Sartrean double bind, the way in which staring leaves one vulnerable to being caught and being seen—the Medusa threat (see Garland-Thompson 69).  Grosz takes Garland-Thompson’s work a step further, however, in pointing out that “Seeing entails having a body that is itself capable of being seen, that is visible” (101).[1] 
However, Grosz then explains Irigaray’s feminist critique of Merleau-Ponty, specifically his privileging of the visual.  For Irigaray, the primacy of the tactile maternal bond is itself hidden visually; by focusing on the visual, Merleau-Ponty allows the perpetuation of the definition of the feminine and the maternal as one of lack. Further, she questions his understanding of the relationship between the visual and the tactile, positing the tangible as “more primordial than vision” (107).  Also important for my project is her discussion of the role of sexuality in subjecthood:
It is only the sensory, perceiving subject, the corporeal subject, who is capable of initiating (sexual) desire, responding to and proliferating desire.  The libido is not an effect of instincts, biological impulses, or the bodily reaction to external stimuli.  It emanates from the structure of sensibility, a function and effect of intentionality, of the integrated union of affectivity, motility, and perception.  Sexuality is not a reflex arc but an “intentional arc” that moves and is moved by the body as an acting perceiver. (109).
As ugliness has been theorized as a marker of sexuality, I wonder how being distinguished as ugly may be a marker of agency, of disobedience in a system which requires women be passive.
In the next section, Grosz examines the ways in which “the body can be understood as the site of the intermingling of mind and culture…[and] the symptom and mode of expression and communication of a hidden interior or depth” (116).  Unlike her earlier consideration, in this mode, the body is considered two-dimensional.  Rather than having a mind-body, inside-outside potential, here the body is a surface for inscription:
as a social object, as a text to be marked, traced, written upon by various regimes of institutional, (discursive and nondiscursive) power, as a series of linkages (or possibly activities) which form superficial or provisional connections with other objects and processes, and as a receptive surface on which the body’s boundaries and various parts or zones are constituted, always sin conjunction and through linkages with other surfaces and planes. (116)
Importantly, Grosz discusses this surface in terms of its moëbial properties and potentialities: rather than designating a boundaries between inside and outside, this inscriptive surface becomes the inside; there is no difference.  This perspective, unlike the phenomenological one, rejects the concept of a complete subject: “The body is thus not an organic totality which is capable of the wholesale expression of subjectivity, a welling up of the subject’s emotions, attitudes, beliefs, or experiences, but is itself an assemblage of organs, processes, pleasures, passions, activities, behaviors linked by fine lines and unpredictable networks to other elements, segments, and assemblages” (120).
She then looks specifically at the body as an inscriptive surface.  Using the work of Alphonso Lingis, she notes that the kind of permanent tattooing and inscription practiced by those often identified as the “primitive other” is offensive to white, middle class, Western viewers, because “its superficiality offends us; its permanence alarms us” (138).  Her reading of him is intriguing: “Welts, scars, cuts, tattoos, perforations, incisions, inlays, function quite literally to increase the surface space of the body, creating out of what may have been formless flesh a series of zones, locations, ridges, hollows, contours: places of special significance and libidinal intensity” (139).  “Civilized” people are no less inscribed than “primitive,” only our inscriptions are often more subtle, and require more interpretation.  As Grosz points out,
Makeup, stilettos, bras, hair sprays, clothing, underclothing mark women’s bodies, whether black or white, in ways in which hair styles, professional training, personal grooming, gait, posture, body building, and sports may mark men’s.  There is nothing natural or ahistorical about these modes of corporeal inscription.  Through them, bodies are made amenable to the prevailing exigencies of power” (142)
Even more importantly to her discussion of the moëbial body here, she says that “it is crucial to note that these different procedures of corporeal inscription do not simply adorn or add to a body that is basically given through biology; they help constitute the very biological organization of the subject—the subject’s height, weight, coloring, even eye color, are constituted as such by a constitutive interweaving of genetic and environmental factors” (142).  Or, more succinctly, “There is no ‘natural’ norm; there are only cultural forms of body, which do or do not conform to social norms” (143).  I’m curious to compare this to how Judith Butler explains the constructed nature of gender and sexuality—once again, there’s a specific constructed, interactive, and dialectic nature to identities, even in terms of its basic corporeal nature.
Importantly, she disagrees with Sandra Lee Bartky’s contention that women’s use of markers of femininity such as makeup and clothing “signal women’s acceptance of and absorption into prevailing patriarchal paradigms.”  Rather, she points out that “The practices of femininity can readily function in certain contexts that are difficult to ascertain in advance, as modes of guerrilla subversion of patriarchal codes, although the line between compliance and subversion is always a fine one, difficult to draw with any certainty.  All of us, men as much as women, are caught up in modes of self-production and self-observation” (144).  This leads into her discussion of the move from a Nietzschean understanding of the body, which is still an agent, to that of Foucault, for whom “The body is not outside of history, for it is produced through an in history.  Relations of force, of power, produce the body through the use of distinct techniques…and harness the energies and potential for subversion that power itself has constructed” (148).  In her critique of Foucault, she points out that “‘Bodies and pleasures’ are the objects and targets of power; in a sense, Foucault seems to imply that they preexist power, that they are or may be the raw materials on which power works and the sites for possible resistance to the particular forms power takes” (155).  But I don’t read Foucault this way; as she has already noted that sexuality and the body are constructed by power, rather than preexisting, I see them as co-emergent.
Grosz says that she is confused by his distinction that “The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasure.”  She asks, “is it that bodies and pleasures are somehow outside the deployment of sexuality?” (155).  In my reading, I think that Foucault is saying that we need to get beneath the kinds of narratives and discourses which occur at the level of desire (which to me implies narratives, sentences, judgments, “I want that” sentences with subjects and objects and power implications), but instead at the more sensual, immediate sense perception level of bodies and pleasure.  She then goes on to discuss how other theorists posit a pure body before inscription—but here, she seems to be reinscribing the very dualism she opposes.  Having already made the point that there is no such thing as a “natural body,” she then seems to be claiming that there is, at some point, a tabula rasa body on which inscriptions are made.  It seems to me that even in the context of her argument, she should be arguing that the very understanding of the body itself is an act of inscription.  Because I have trouble following her seeming dualistic split here, I have trouble following her feminist critique of the phallocentrism of these theories.  Although, I agree that Foucault’s inclusion of the female body on in his discussion of hysteria does ignore the potential for strategic deployment of hysteria as a form of resistance (157).
She then turns to the work of Deleuze and Guattari.  While acknowledging that many feminist theorists find their work at odds with much of feminist theory, Grosz wishes to examine the places where their anti-Platonism may “help to clear the ground of metaphysical oppositions and concepts so that women may be able to devise their own knowledges” (164).  She highlights their focus on “multiplicity”: “In conceptualizing a difference in and of itself, a difference which is not subordinated to identity, Deleuze and Guattari invoke notions of becoming and of multiplicity beyond the mere doubling or proliferation of singular, unified subjectivities” (164).  She then describes their own conception of the body: “Their notion of the body as a discontinuous, nontotalizable series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances and incorporeal events, speeds and durations, may be of great value to feminists attempting to reconceive bodies outside the binary oppositions imposed on the body by the mind/body, nature/culture, subject/object and interior/exterior oppositions” (164).
The final chapter of the book, on sexual difference, is rather problematic.  Certainly, her discussion of Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva are apt, but her reinforcement of binary, sexual gender norms (even/especially in terms of how she compares and contrasts heterosexual and homosexual men, but reifies a unitary female sexual experience) is quite problematic.  (And her discussion of seminal fluid is just plain wrong.)  However, I am interested in her proposed replacement of woman under psychoanalytic terms as no longer represented as lack, but instead as that which cannot be contained.   

[1] In an endnote, Grosz explains that Merleau-Ponty and Lacan agree somewhat on this idea of the “reversibility of vision,” but notes that Lacan differentiates between “the gaze at work in the picture and the functioning of vision in perception” (221 n. 9).


  1. I've had this book on my shelf for ages and still haven't read it. Thanks for your review!

  2. It is a slow, dense read! Between this and the Butler I just finished, I feel like I've finally got a decent handle on (some) Lacan.