Alice Hall (ed.), Contemporary Literature and the Body: A Critical Introduction

Alice Hall (ed.), Contemporary Literature and the Body: A Critical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023) x+264pp. £16.99 Pb. $90.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781350180222

In her introduction to Contemporary Literature and the Body: A Critical Introduction (2023), Alice Hall draws on the irony presented by Joanna Stawnicka’s artwork ‘Self -Portrait in Autumn and Self-Portrait in Winter 2021’, where the artist’s body is missing from the portrait, to underscore the constructed nature and mutability of the body and identity (2). Hall explains that the ability to ‘withdraw one’s body’ from a socially and politically constructed world is a ‘new mark of privilege’ (2). Recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s gendered perspective about the invisibility associated with bodily withdrawal where women are perceived as biological and men as objective, Hall argues that by removing her body from her ‘Self-Portrait’ Stawnicka challenges this gendered perspective and emphasizes the ‘agency and choice’ that emerge from a new understanding of withdrawal concomitant with the freedom and objectivity usually associated with ‘masculinity, whiteness, youth, and ability’ (3). This radical push against the violence enacted by these age-old distinctions is captured in this collection where the authors of the different chapters present us with what Donna Haraway describes as a ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ (The Haraway Reader, 2004, p.39) that centers embodied experiences. Through their different situated perspectives, the authors discuss selected works from inside and outside Anglo-American literature to present us with overlapping ‘partial’ (Haraway, 2004, p.19) views. These views shed light on the many possible ways in which human embodied experiences and literature are entangled. Through this approach, contradictions and limitations are seen to be an integral and generative part of being in the world.

The collection reveals posthuman ethics that centers the body while unsettling assumptions of fixed identity and boundaries that separate human, nonhuman, and more-than-human. In chapter one, Timothy C. Baker argues for the intra-relationality between human and nonhuman bodies where both co-emerge as co-constituted. Baker cites Stacy Alaimo’s notion of ‘trans-corporeality’ that ‘acknowledges the ways in which humans are always enmeshed with the more-than-human world’ (40), stressing integration as opposed to binary separations between humans and nature. Like Baker, in her chapter on electronic literature, Elizabeth Losh examines how the body of the computer interacts with the body of the reader in different ways, analyzing selected works from electronic literature to show how ‘haptic interactions required for reading / viewing and the resulting bodily fatigue .... cause the reader’s general experience of the text to oscillate between written and cinematic forms of representation’ (97). In their respective chapters, Marie Allitt, Susannah B. Minz, and J. Brooks Bouson unsettle the boundaries between embodied experiences of illness, disability, aging, and language by showing how both influence one another at the onto-epistemological level since the sick, disabled, and old persons get to claim and integrate their voices in the apparatus of scientific knowledge production. Furthermore, chapter nine on ‘The Posthuman’ examines the tension embedded within ‘the posthuman imaginary of the cyborg figure’ (Dolezal and de Falco, 215) where the posthuman discourse activates a vision that foresees human entanglement with the nonhuman other on two levels. One level unsettles humanism, and the other level is ‘transhuman’ (215), which takes the human body beyond its natural limitations.  

Based on this posthuman aspect, new concepts are created to address the various entanglements between the body / text and different discourses such as scientific, postcolonial, feminist, among others. Allitt, in ‘Medical Humanities’, introduces the concept of ‘pathography’ which describes ‘personal experiences of illness, treatment and sometimes death’ to center the patient’s voice and enable a ‘patient-centered care’ (63). In pathography, the patients become agentic as they get to ‘destabilize power binaries that set the clinical world against the person in need of care’ (65). In this sense, a ‘pathography’ becomes a performative account that ‘challenge[s] representations, even disrupt[s] coherence and chronology, and situate[s] the body within histories and futures of experience’ (66). Allitt also points out Patrick Anderson’s new concept of ‘auto fiction’ (78), which is a ‘form of autobiographical writing that permits a degree of experimentation with the definition and limits of the self’ rather than giving biographical information that is ‘socially constructed’ (71). What auto fiction achieves is that it ‘distributes agency of narrative ... not just to the many human actors involved in treatment and caretaking, but also to the non-sentient [like bacteria] beings involved in the practice of being ill’ (70). Furthermore, Allitt draws attention to Molly McCully Brown’s concept of ‘braided essays’, which ‘weaves and alternates the strands of different stories’ to show how ‘contrasting episodes relate to one another ... [which] allows for the history of bodies beyond the individual’ (76). In chapter five, Borianna Alexandrova presents Paul Preciado’s concept of ‘somatheque’ (133), which describes the body as a ‘living political archive ... mutating. One whose face, body and behaviours cannot be considered true in a predetermined regime of knowledge and power’ (113). In chapter seven, Minz introduces ‘Cripistemology literature’ to shed light on ‘the empathy and racial interconnectedness embedded within texts that ‘remap space and defamiliarize landscapes’ (182) in reaction to disability issues and how they inform and shape our understanding of human embodied experiences. Finally, Baker points out the indigenous concept of ‘Sila’ described by Zoe Todd as ‘a way of linking questions of environment, selfhood, and knowledge that ... parallels and prefigures’ (qtd. by Baker, 41) western ideas about human-environment interconnection. Todd argues that not acknowledging this human-environment interconnectedness constitutes ‘a form of colonial violence’ that is ‘experienced at the level of the body’ where the ‘removal of bodies from the land has been a constant, and ongoing form of erasure’ (42). In this way, Baker draws attention to the importance of indigenous knowledge and the parasitic form of relationality that Western philosophy assumes in the way it appropriates this knowledge.

Ultimately, the diverse entanglements captured by these new concepts along with the analyses provided by the authors for an array of literary works from outside the Anglo-American literature illuminate the tension between knowledge sanctioned by Western dualisms and situated knowledges to reveal differences and multiplicities. In chapter one, Kingston-Reese discusses selected stories from Diane Williams’s collection Fine, Fine, Fine (2016) explaining how affects can be racialized since different cultures have different ways of expressing emotions and, therefore, by Western standards their affects are deemed illegible since they do not conform to ‘dominant regimes of expression’ (Christine Yao qtd. by Kingston-Reese, 18).  Speaking to this issue, in Minor Feelings (2020), Asian- American author Cathy Park Hong asserts that emotions are ‘built from sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned and dismissed’ (qtd. by Kingston-Reese, 18). Furthermore, drawing on Breast and Eggs (2020) by Japanese author Mieko Kawakami, Kingston-Reese shows how women’s bodies in different stages are co-constituted by ‘affective and ethical nuances’ (28) that can transform how they feel and cause bodily changes (31). This notion is picked up in chapter eight, ‘Aging and Old Age’, where Bouson draws on shame theory to discuss the ‘affective roots of feminist response to aging’ (194) showing the effect of shame on aging women. Bouson examines Spiderweb (1998) by Penelope Lively, which sees the 65-year-old protagonist ‘associat[ing] aging with decline...[and] bodily tyranny’ (197). Illuminating the violence associated with disability and racism, Mintz reads The Secret Life of a Black Aspie (2017), a memoir by African American author Anand Prahald, arguing that ‘blackness is ... consistently erased from the historical record no less than from physical, social and public locations ... to make room for the more recognizable subject: the white able body’ (174). Baker draws on Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, showing Hurricane Katerina as a product of racist discrimination over decades and the ongoing violence against the poor and racialized minorities (53). Unsettling the boundaries between discourses of violence and the environment, Baker reminds us of Christina Sharpe’s argument that collapses the racial, environmental, and social: ‘antiblackness is pervasive as climate .... The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies’ (qtd., 53). Sharpe’s entanglement recasts the Black body as creative and generative.

Each essay in this comprehensive anthology critically articulates a partial account of embodied experience that co-constitute literature and the body. This form of intra-relationality redistributes agency among humans and nonhumans and produces new meanings. Together, the collection illuminates the ‘power of the margins’ (Haraway, 2004, p.34) and shows how different forms of situated embodied experiences can affect and be affected by different forms of discourses and texts.

Shahira A. Hathout, Peterborough Ontario, Trent University.