Karin Sellberg, Lena Wånggren, and Kamillea Aghtan (eds), Corporeality and Culture: Bodies in Movement (Oxford: Routledge 2015) 210 pp. £60 Hb. ISBN: 9781472421272
Occasioned by the 2011 Bodies in Movement: Intersecting Discourses of Materiality in the Sciences and the Arts conference in Edinburgh, Corporeality and Culture is a collection of eleven eclectic - yet wonderfully harmonized - essays. It offers a 'directional map of various nascent trajectories' (xv) in the study of bodies, affect, and culture. Despite the diversity of themes and approaches covered, the three editors carefully 'trace' multiple prominent patterns in the 'filaments of critique' (xiv). The collection is divided into three larger sections, each featuring an introduction by one of the editors. The book’s theoretical movement begins with affect theory, spectacular politics, and phenomenological approaches, moving on through erotic embodiment and Deleuzian theories of ‘becoming,’ to arrive eventually at a Foucauldian framework of corporeality interacting with wider political power structures.
The first section, 'Movements of Violence and Corollaries of Sight,' is introduced by Kamillea Aghtan and features a collaborative talk/essay by Fiona Hanley, Tami Gadir, and Irene Noy. Recording and reflecting on their talk delivered at the Bodies in Movement conference, they critique the conference’s 'routinised patterns of speaking and presenting research,' and highlight instead the voice’s 'intersensory manner' (9) of communication. This allows them to think about possible expansions of their gestural repertoire within the technologically mediated and institutionally policed setting of the conference performance. The section’s second chapter continues Hanley, Gadir, and Noy’s focus on the relationship between performer and spectator within affectively charged performances. Charlotte Farrell explores her own role as weeping 'participatory spectator' (21) of several pieces of performance art. She argues that her body, having become fluid through affective engagement, becomes coextensive with the performative field surrounding it. Xavier Aldana Reyes’s chapter picks up this thread and traces the spectator’s affective response to scenes of corporeal mutilation in horror movies, particularly the 'somatic empathy between the body of a filmic character and our own' (41) which is based on the transmission of affect via the body’s movements.
The second section, 'Monsters, Margins and Corporealising Choreographies,' concerns the monstrous bodies of posthumanist inquiry and their ability to produce 'powerful new affinities and entanglements' (47), as Karin Sellberg notes in her introduction. The section’s first two chapters, by Elizabeth Stephens and Rosemary Deller, query the ethical and artistic implications of bio-art performances. Both authors review the artificially grown tissue exhibits of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr’s Tissue Culture and Art Project, among others, and ponder the taxonomic challenges presented by technologies that create nominally living specimen meant for aesthetic or culinary consumption. Stephens draws attention to the aesthetic codes of scientific equipment which bolster science’s own epistemological hegemony vis-à-vis the often uncomprehending spectator. In turn, Deller points to the 'disturbing asymmetries' of Kira O’Reilly’s dance with a sow carcass - intended to performatively blur species boundaries - which disrupt bio-tech’s 'seductive fantasy of necromancy' (79). The following chapter by Sebastian Schmidt-Tomczak invokes Donna Haraway’s figure of the cyborg to think through the dematerialization and absorption into flows of information of the main character in Oshii Mamoru’s anime feature Ghost in the Shell. As suggested by Haraway, Mamoru’s cyborg has never inhabited the world of stable identity, hierarchically organized information, and binary opposition. Rather, its identity dissolves when its body blends with the surrounding city, equally contributing to vast flows of information. The cyborg, a 'figure of enrichment and celebration' (82), thus gestures towards a utopian existence free from social inequity. Sellberg’s chapter, finally, discusses the trope of the Platonic hermaphrodite in works by Angela Carter and John Cameron Mitchell, arguing that scenes of erotic union and dissolution of the self produce 'a transcendent and continually transformative notion of '"love"' (96).
The third section, 'Political Technologies of Embodiment,' introduced by Lena Wånggren, features four essays operating within the Foucauldian framework of biopolitics. It considers marginalized bodies as not only governed and regimented by political power, but also as constantly resisting such oppressive relations. Jasie Stokes’s chapter on Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone theorizes Borden’s recollection of the blown-apart bodies she stitched back together when serving as a field nurse just behind the trenches of the First Word War. Stokes shows that Borden’s war-bodies inhabit a liminal space of ideological and corporeal rupture, threatening the survival of subjectivity itself, as illustrated by Borden’s own fragmented narrator. Ally Crockford picks up the theme of fragmentation and monstrosity in her essay on the prurient medical gaze of nineteenth-century science writing. She suggests that diagnosticians, when confronted with 'monstrous' bodily growths such as supernumerary genitals or large tumors, failed to adhere to the usual protocols of the doctor-patient relationship. Instead, their gaze, challenged by the fluidity of the monstrous body, turned the moment of diagnosis into an anxiety-laden, voyeuristic, and invasive spectacle. Similarly, monstrous bodies appear as sites of resistance in Peter Arnds’s piece on Oskar’s 'grotesque' body (145) in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Arnds reads Oskar’s refusal to grow into an adult body as an embodied practice of protest against Nazism, perpetuating the seductions of the fascist military regime with his drumming, while also undermining it with his satiric imitation of the Hitler salute. Finally, the collection’s last essay, by Douglas Clark, investigates the tendency of Emily Dickinson scholarship to conflate the poet’s body with that of her texts. He warns that Dickinson’s poetry in fact resists expression of her individual, historical body and instead experiments with metaphors of movement to imagine states of absence or nonexistence. Literary scholars should avoid the easy conflation of 'corpse and corpus' (157), as Clark provocatively puts it, usefully moderating the book’s overall 'exhilarating[ly]' (xv) exploratory ethos.
Readers will appreciate the editors’ meta-narration of each section’s movement and their careful attention to the collection’s overall argumentative vector. Each essay contains multiple callbacks to previous chapters and signals forward to later pieces. This integration work, undoubtedly necessary in the face of the sheer diversity of methodologies, disciplinary emphases, and themes, certainly pays off. Corporeality and Culture serves as a useful primer for readers wishing to take in the impressive breadth and depth of contemporary approaches to corporeality, while it also updates experts on fresh lines of inquiry developed by an eclectic and international group of scholars.
Doreen Thierauf, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill