Bodies and theories

Another collision of the Magistra and the Mater this morning: surfing the net to see if anyone’s got a useful summary of Jacques Lacan’s theories while finding myself with the song ‘Let’s all do the Wiggley-Woo’ running through my head. If there’s a connection there I don’t think I want to know it.

I’ve just put in a proposal for a research fellowship, saying I want to study the moral meaning of bodies in the Carolingian period. There’s a lot of interesting stuff I could look at and try to draw together: moral meanings of illnesses, descriptions of bodies, contrasts of fasting and feasting etc. But I do worry I would have to read an excessive amount of theoretical stuff, because so much of the work of later medievalists on the body comes from a literary studies perspective and is saturated in such material. Foucault is fine, Judith Butler I can just about cope with, but I’m not sure whether I can face Lacan. Apparently, you have to read Freud before trying to start Lacan, but how do you read Freud now? He doesn’t give an accurate description of how minds work; as far as I know he’s been pretty much discredited as a scientist. The websites that discuss Freud seem to be based in English/Cultural Studies departments now, not psychology. Is Freud just a purveyor of interesting metaphors or is there anything more?

It’s irritating because there are fascinating things to examine about the body and culture, but much modern theory seems to be so opaque and text-bound it gets in the way. There’s nothing like being pregnant and giving birth to make you feel that biological sex is more than just a social and cultural construction. And raising L has given me a far greater sense of the materiality of bodies, both wonderful (I was admiring the line of her shoulder blades the other day) and disgusting (when she poos on the carpet). But even the theorists whose interest is in the ooziness, slipperiness of bodies often don’t seem to be able to convey their ideas in a way that enables shared experience, recognition. I found this in a review by Mahmut Mutman of Vicki Kirby, Telling flesh: the substance of the corporeal, apparently very significant for feminist theory:

What Kirby aptly calls “the subject of humanness” is the blindspot in postmodern cultural criticism: “it is entirely unclear how this subject of humanness recognizes itself as a unified subject of humanity, individuates itself within species-being and identifies itself as possessing sufficient stability to ground the destabilization of grounds” (151). Within the framework of the unified subject of humanity, language belongs to Man, is mediation by and for Man. Against this age-old metaphysics, Kirby proposes a corporeography in which “the body is more than a visitor to the scene of writing… it is the drama of its own remarkability” (154). By a powerful critical articulation of Gayatri Spivak’s reading of Marx’s “body with no possible outlines,” she argues that the infinity of the body’s limits and borders are at the same time internal to the spacing of its tissue. With this concept of body, which Kirby derives from a highly original reading of Derrida, the essence is no longer an identity, a seamless unity of its manifold manifestations, nor is it simply lacking, happily replaced by a “plurality” which always remains within the unity of humanity. The essence is now a complex, open-ended, and mutable writing–and it is essence that is writing.

It’s after reading that kind of thing that I think ‘to hell with theory, let’s get back to ninth-century texts’. I suppose my question is really – is there something useful out there in Theoryland or is just (back to bodies again) The Emperor’s New Clothes?


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