Volatile Bodies
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Volatile Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz

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eBook - ePub

Volatile Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz

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About This Book

Volatile Bodies is based on a risky wager: that all the effects of subjectivity, psychological depth and inferiority can be refigured in terms of bodies and surfaces. It uses, transforms and subverts the work of a number of distinguished male theorists of the body (Freud, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Schilder, Nietzsche, Foucault, Lingis and Deleuze) who, while freeing the body from its subordination to the mind, are nonetheless unable to accomodate the specificities of women's bodies. Volatile Bodies explores various dissonances in thinking the relation between mind and body. It investigates issues that resist reduction to these binary terms - psychosis, hypochondria, neurological disturbances, perversions and sexual deviation - and most particularly the enigmatic status of body fluids, and the female body.

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Refiguring Bodies

THE BODY HAS remained a conceptual blind spot in both mainstream Western philosophical thought and contemporary feminist theory. Feminism has uncritically adopted many philosophical assumptions regarding the role of the body in social, political, cultural, psychical, and sexual life and, in this sense at least, can be regarded as complicit in the misogyny that characterizes Western reason. Feminists and philosophers seem to share a common view of the human subject as a being made up of two dichotomously opposed characteristics: mind and body, thought and extension, reason and passion, psychology and biology. This bifurcation of being is not simply a neutral division of an otherwise all-encompassing descriptive field. Dichotomous thinking necessarily hierarchizes and ranks the two polarized terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its suppressed, subordinated, negative counterpart.1 The subordinated term is merely the negation or denial, the absence or privation of the primary term, its fall from grace; the primary term defines itself by expelling its other and in this process establishes its own boundaries and borders to create an identity for itself. Body is thus what is not mind, what is distinct from and other than the privileged term. It is what the mind must expel in order to retain its “integrity.” It is implicitly defined as unruly, disruptive, in need of direction and judgment, merely incidental to the defining characteristics of mind, reason, or personal identity through its opposition to consciousness, to the psyche and other privileged terms within philosophical thought.
More insidiously, the mind/body opposition has always been correlated with a number of other oppositional pairs. Lateral associations link the mind/body opposition to a whole series of other oppositional (or binarized) terms, enabling them to function interchangeably, at least in certain contexts. The mind/body relation is frequently correlated with the distinctions between reason and passion, sense and sensibility, outside and inside, self and other, depth and surface, reality and appearance, mechanism and vitalism, transcendence and immanence, temporality and spatiality, psychology and physiology, form and matter, and so on. These lateral associations provide whatever “positive” characteristics the body may be accorded in systems where it is the subordinated counterpart of mind. These terms function implicitly to define the body in nonhistorical, naturalistic, organicist, passive, inert terms, seeing it as an intrusion on or interference with the operation of mind, a brute givenness which requires overcoming, a connection with animality and nature that needs transcendence. Through these associations, the body is coded in terms that are themselves traditionally devalued.
Most relevant here is the correlation and association of the mind/body opposition with the opposition between male and female, where man and mind, woman and body, become representationally aligned. Such a correlation is not contingent or accidental but is central to the ways in which philosophy has historically developed and still sees itself even today.2 Philosophy has always considered itself a discipline concerned primarily or exclusively with ideas, concepts, reason, judgment—that is, with terms clearly framed by the concept of mind, terms which marginalize or exclude considerations of the body. As soon as knowledge is seen as purely conceptual, its relation to bodies, the corporeality of both knowers and texts, and the ways these materialities interact, must become obscure. As a discipline, philosophy has surreptitiously excluded femininity, and ultimately women, from its practices through its usually implicit coding of femininity with the unreason associated with the body.3 It could be argued that philosophy as we know it has established itself as a form of knowing, a form of rationality, only through the disavowal of the body, specifically the male body, and the corresponding elevation of mind as a disembodied term.4
Philosophy and the feminist theories which implicitly rely on its concepts and methods refuse to recognize but at the same time must rely on modes of corporeality for their form, structure, and status, for framing key questions and providing criteria for the validity and truth of their modes of explanation. Philosophy seems to adopt an ambiguous fascination with the functioning and status of the body. On one hand, there is a recognition of the role of the body, in the sense that virtually all the major figures in the history of philosophy discuss its role in either the advancement or, more usually, the hindrance of the production of knowledge. On the other hand, there is also a refusal to recognize, which is evidenced by the fact that when the body is discussed, it is conceptualized in narrow and problematic, dichotomized terms. It is understood in terms that attempt to minimize or ignore altogether its formative role in the production of philosophical values—truth, knowledge, justice, etc. Above all, the sexual specificity of the body and the ways sexual difference produces or effects truth, knowledge, justice, etc. has never been thought. The role of the specific male body as the body productive of a certain kind of knowledge (objective, verifiable, causal, quantifiable) has never been theorized.
Given the coupling of mind with maleness and the body with femaleness and given philosophy’s own self-understanding as a conceptual enterprise, it follows that women and femininity are problematized as knowing philosophical subjects and as knowable epistemic objects. Woman (upper case and in the singular) remains philosophy’s eternal enigma, its mysterious and inscrutable object—this may be a product of the rather mysterious and highly restrained and contained status of the body in general, and of women’s bodies in particular, in the construction of philosophy as a mode of knowledge.5

Philosophy and the Body

Since the inception of philosophy as a separate and self-contained discipline in ancient Greece,6 philosophy has established itself on the foundations of a profound somatophobia. While I cannot here present an adequate or detailed discussion of the role of the body in the history of philosophy, I can at least indicate in a brief sketch some of the key features of the received history that we have inherited in our current conceptions of bodies. The body has been regarded as a source of interference in, and a danger to, the operations of reason. In the Cra-tylus, Plato claims that the word body (soma) was introduced by Orphic priests, who believed that man was a spiritual or noncorporeal being trapped in the body as in a dungeon (sēma). In his doctrine of the Forms, Plato sees matter itself as a denigrated and imperfect version of the Idea. The body is a betrayal of and a prison for the soul, reason, or mind. For Plato, it was evident that reason should rule over the body and over the irrational or appetitive functions of the soul. A kind of natural hierarchy, a self-evident ruler—ruled relation, alone makes possible a harmony within the state, the family, and the individual. Here we have one of the earliest representations of the body politic.7 Aristotle, in continuing a tradition possibly initiated by Plato in his account of chora in Timaeus where maternity is regarded as a mere housing, receptacle, or nurse of being rather than a coproducer, distinguished matter or body from form, and in the case of reproduction, he believed that the mother provided the formless, passive, shapeless matter which, through the father, was given form, shape, and contour, specific features and attributes it otherwise lacked. The binarization of the sexes, the dichotomization of the world and of knowledge has been effected already at the threshold of Western reason.
The matter/form distinction is refigured in terms of the distinction between substance and accident and between a God-given soul and a mortal, lustful, sinful carnality. Within the Christian tradition, the separation of mind and body was correlated with the distinction between what is immortal and what is mortal. As long as the subject is alive, mind and soul form an indissoluble unity, which is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Christ himself. Christ was a man whose soul, whose immortality, is derived from God but whose body and mortality is human. The living soul is, in fact, a part of the world, and above all, a part of nature. Within Christian doctrine, it is as an experiencing, suffering, passionate being that generic man exists. This is why moral characteristics were given to various physiological disorders and why punishments and rewards for one’s soul are administered through corporeal pleasures and punishments. For example, in the Middle Ages, leprosy was regarded as the diseased consequence of lechery and covetousness, a corporeal signifier of sin.8
What Descartes accomplished was not really the separation of mind from body (a separation which had already been long anticipated in Greek philosophy since the time of Plato) but the separation of soul from nature. Descartes distinguished two kinds of substances: a thinking substance (res cogitans, mind) from an extended substance (res extensa, body); only the latter, he believed, could be considered part of nature, governed by its physical laws and ontological exigencies. The body is a self-moving machine, a mechanical device, functioning according to causal laws and the laws of nature. The mind, the thinking substance, the soul, or consciousness, has no place in the natural world. This exclusion of the soul from nature, this evacuation of consciousness from the world, is the prerequisite for founding a knowledge, or better, a science, of the governing principles of nature, a science which excludes and is indifferent to considerations of the subject. Indeed, the impingements of subjectivity will, from Decartes’s time on, mitigate the status and value of scientific formulations. Scientific discourse aspires to impersonality, which it takes to be equivalent to objectivity. The correlation of our ideas with the world or the reality they represent is a secondary function, independent of the existence of consciousness, the primary, indubitable self-certainty of the soul. Reality can be attained by the subject only indirectly, by inference, deduction, or projection. Descartes, in short, succeeded in linking the mind/body opposition to the foundations of knowledge itself, a link which places the mind in a position of hierarchical superiority over and above nature, including the nature of the body.9 From that time until the present, subject or consciousness is separated from and can reflect on the world of the body, objects, qualities.


Descartes instituted a dualism which three centuries of philosophical thought have attempted to overcome or reconcile. Dualism is the assumption that there are two distinct, mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive substances, mind and body, each of which inhabits its own self-contained sphere. Taken together the two have incompatible characteristics. The major problem facing dualism and all those positions aimed at overcoming dualism has been to explain the interactions of these two apparently incompossible substances, given that, within experience and everyday life, there seems to be a manifest connection between the two in willful behavior and responsive psychical reactions. How can something that inhabits space affect or be affected by something that is nonspatial? How can consciousness ensure the body’s movements, its receptivity to conceptual demands and requirements? How can the body inform the mind of its needs and wishes? How is bilateral communication possible? Dualism not only poses irresolvable philosophical problems; it is also at least indirectly responsible for the historical separation of the natural sciences from the social sciences and humanities, the separation of physiology from psychology, of quantitative analysis from qualitative analysis, and the privileging of mathematics and physics as ideal models of the goals and aspirations of knowledges of all types. Dualism, in short, is responsible for the modern forms of elevation of consciousness (a specifically modern version of the notion of soul, introduced by Descartes) above corporeality.
This separation, of course, has its costs. Since the time of Descartes, not only is consciousness positioned outside of the world, outside its body, outside of nature; it is also removed from direct contact with other minds and a sociocultural community. At its extreme, all that consciousness can be sure about is its own self-certain existence. The existence of other minds must be inferred from the apparent existence of other bodies. If minds are private, subjective, invisible, amenable only to first-person knowledge, we can have no guarantee that our inferences about other minds are in fact justified. Other bodies may simply be complex automata, androids or even illusions, with no psychical interior, no affective states or consciousness. Consciousness becomes, in effect, an island unto itself. Its relations to others, to the world, and its own body are the consequences of mediated judgments, inferences, and are no longer understood as direct and un-mediated.
Cartesian dualism establishes an unbridgeable gulf between mind and matter, a gulf most easily disavowed, however problematically, by reductionism. To reduce either the mind to the body or the body to the mind is to leave their interaction unexplained, explained away, impossible. Reductionism denies any interaction between mind and body, for it focuses on the actions of either one of the binary terms at the expense of the other. Rationalism and idealism are the results of the attempt to explain the body and matter in terms of mind, ideas, or reason; empiricism and materialism are the results of attempts to explain the mind in terms of bodily experiences or matter (today most commonly the mind is equated with the brain or central nervous system).10 Both forms of reductionism assert that either one or the other of the binary terms is “really” its opposite and can be explained by or translated into the terms of its other.
There are not only good philosophical but also good physiological reasons for rejecting reductionism as a solution to the dualist dilemma. As soon as the terms are defined in mutually exclusive ways, there is no way of reconciling them, no way of understanding their mutual influences or explaining their apparent parallelism. Moreover, attempts to correlate ideas or mental processes with neurological functions have thus far failed, and the project itself seems doomed.11


There are at least three lines of investigation of the body in contemporary thought which may be regarded as the heirs of Cartesianism. They indicate, even if negatively, the kinds of conceptions that feminist theory needs to move beyond in order to challenge its own investments in the history of philosophy.
In the first line of investigation, the body is primarily regarded as an object for the natural sciences, particularly for the life sciences, biology and medicine; and conversely, the body is amenable to the humanities and social sciences, particularly psychology (when, for example, the discipline deals with “emotions,” “sensations,” “experiences,” and “attitudes”), philosophy (when, for example, it deals with the body’s ontological and epistemological status and implications), and ethnography (where, for example, the body’s cultural variability, its various social transformations, are analyzed). The body either is understood in terms of organic and instrumental functioning in the natural sciences or is posited as merely extended, merely physical, an object like any other in the humanities and social sciences. Both, in different ways, ignore the specificity of bodies in their researches. The more medicalized biologistic view implies a fundamental continuity between man and animals, such that bodies are seen to have a particularly complex form of physiological organization, but one that basically differs from organic matter by degree rather than kind. In a sense, this position is heir to the Christian concept of the human body being part of a natural or mundane order. As an organism, the body is merely a more complex version of other kinds of organic ensembles. It cannot be qualitatively distinguished from other organisms: its physiology poses general questions similar to those raised by animal physiology.12 The body’s sensations, activities, and processes become “lower-order” natural or animal phenomena, part of an interconnected chain of organic forms (whether understood in cosmological or ecological terms). The natural sciences tend to treat the body as an organic system of interrelated parts, which are themselves framed by a larger ecosystemic order. The humanities reduce the body to a fundamental continuity with brute, inorganic matter. Despite their apparent dissimilarity, they share a common refusal to acknowledge the distinctive complexities of organic bodies, the fact that bodies construct and in turn are constructed by an interior, a psychical and a signifying view-point, a consciousness or perspective;
The second line of investigation commonly regards the body in terms of metaphors that construe it as an instrument, a tool, or a machine at the disposal of consciousness, a vessel occupied by an animating, willful subjectivity. For Locke and the liberal political tradition more generally, the body is seen as a possession, a property of a subject, who is thereby dissociated from carnality and makes decisions and choices about how to dispose of the body and its powers (in, for example, the labor market). Some models, including Descartes’s, construe the body as a self-moving automaton, much like a clock, car, or ship (these are pervasive but by no means exclusive images), according to the prevailing modes of technology. This unders...

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