Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Susan Bordo--Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993)

This is the tenth anniversary edition of Bordo’s book, which focuses on the female (primarily anorexic) body in Western (primarily American) culture.  One of the most interesting aspects of the work is the way in which Bordo talks back to the medical establishment, as she explains the ramifications of the pathologizing of eating disorders.  By making them diseases, medical professionals effectively erase the role of cultural norms and expectations in these epidemic syndromes.  While doctors point to the fact that most women diet and exercise without become anorexic or bulimic as evidence that eating disorders are different from these behaviors, Bordo instead insists that what this actually proves is that such behavior actually lies on a continuum of body discipline behaviors.  In addition to anorexia, she also looks at the implications of anti-abortion legislation on bodily autonomy as well as the relationship between feminism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism and how she sees postmodernism and post-structuralism obscuring fundamental feminism.

As a philosopher, Bordo is quite interested in seeing anorexia and anti-abortion legislation as manifestations of the original mind/body dualistic point of view.  Anorexia is part of a much historically longer tradition of a spiritual or moral repudiation of the body: in the tradition of spiritual mystics who denigrate the flesh in order to grow the spirit, so anorexia, too, demonstrates an attempt to control, discipline, and mortify the flesh in the service of spiritual and moral superiority.  In a society in which women are continually second-class citizens, such behaviors which often begin as a response to (inaccessible) cultural norms of appearance often evolve into a display of control and power.  Importantly, Bordo takes a fully Foucauldian perspective when talking about power, realizing that while individuals may aspire to wield power, real power is actually a systemic force which reinforces such systemic norms.

While Bordo’s deployment of Foucault’s theories of power in her analysis of cultural bodily discipline is skillful, I take issue with quite a bit of her engagement with other author and ideas which she identifies as “postmodern” and “post-structuralist.”  Claiming that much of the progress of “uncovering the pretensions and illusions of the ideals of epistemological objectivity, universal foundations or reason, and neutral judgment” which has been attributed to such theories were in reality uncovered by “the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies, emerging not only to assert the legitimacy of marginalized cultures and suppressed perspectives but also to expose the biases of the official accounts” (219), Bordo is at times downright hostile to the methodologies used in these disciplines.  In addition to being worried that these new methodologies are so focused on the theoretical as to ignore the political, she is also quite critical of feminist and gender theorists who wish to see gender as something other than a binary system.

I found this criticism quite confusing, as earlier she herself was so critical of Cartesian dualistic perspectives; however, she seems to think that rejecting binary categories of “masculine” and “feminism” dangerously shifts the focus from “practical contexts to adequate theory.”  In these later sections, Bordo says that we simply cannot ignore gender binaries: “In a culture that is in fact constructed by gender duality, however, one cannot be simply “human” (241).  I’m quite curious about her use of the phrase “in fact” here (which is in fact emphasized in the original): given her earlier critique of dualism, what exactly does she mean here?  I think that she means that since a dualistic understanding of gender is the norm in modern society, to deny it as such is a non-productive stance.  However, as so much of the rest of her work is committed to pointing out the problems with many other seemingly axiomatic societal beliefs, I wonder why she is so committed to supporting this one.  To the contrary, I think that open campaigning for and exploration of alternate gender identities is important work in attacking dualistic thinking.  While I sympathize with her fear of such campaigns as unpopular and perhaps scary in the larger culture (but certainly doable—popular culture in the past ten years seems to demonstrate this, despite her fears), I think that it is important to continue to do such important work.

She saves her strongest criticism, however, for the kind of Derridean postmodern focus on difference (though she never actually addresses differance) and postmodern play, seeing such perspectives as dangerously frivolous.  She is also leery of intersectional analyses which insist on focusing on multiple axes of oppression, claiming that the attempt to take all of these axes into account at once results in a general lack of acuity in one’s overall analysis.  She rejects the idea of postmodern play as containing any potential for real subversion; in her analysis, most postmodern claims of multiplicity function to shirk responsibility of real analysis, rather than working through real complexities.  (As an aside, I was quite confused by her discussion of heteroglossia and polyvocality as an idea attributed to Donna Haraway, without any reference to Bakhtin.)  

Significantly, throughout this section she herself at times does use the very tools she is skeptical of in her critique—such as in her discussion of the exclamation during the Hill/Thomas hearings that “they just don’t get it!”.  After positing this evaluation as an example of a non-totalizing yet common understanding between women, regardless of their other positions of privilege, she then clarifies that, “‘Not getting it’ does not come written on the Y chromosome, nor does it issue from distinctively male cognitive or personality defect.  Rather, it is a blindness created by acceptance of and identification with the position and privileges (and insecurities) of being male in a patriarchal culture” (239).  She then goes on to explain that “those who aspire to, who crave, the male privileges that have been historically denied them can also be blind” (239).  Here, I see her simultaneously deploying and decrying the very suspicion of essentialism which she has been so insistent on maintaining throughout the text.

Her final chapter on what she sees as the misreadings of Madonna by postmodern feminists is so off that I’m not even going to represent all of my problems with it here.  Suffice it to say that I am much more a believer in the possibilities inherent in postmodern parody and multiplicity than Bordo is.  It seemed quite contradictory when she was so much more willing to see the inherent political possibilities inherent in anorexia as a personal inscription on the body than to see Madonna’s self-reinvention and parody as the same.  Bordo missed an opportunity to read more postmodern bodily expressions with as much complexity as she was willing to read the anorexic body with.

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