Grosz – Volatile Bodies


Grosz, Elizabeth.  Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism.  Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.  1994.  Publisher’s webpage.

At long last, we’re back on book reviews for books that are actually included in my lists!  I forget exactly how I came across Elizabeth Grosz’s book, but the “corporeal” part of the title made my ears perk up when I did.  Part of the point of my list on posthuman affect, after all, is to ask how we can deal with “embodiment” and “the body” in our analyses of subjectivity without falling into the trap of using an abstract, purportedly universal body to stand in for all the messy specificity of individual bodily experience.  Her work follows up on that of people like Irigaray and Kristeva, feminists who had started to put more emphasis on bodies in the 1980s.  My hope was that Grosz would be able to give me some tools to use in finding the line between theoretical generality and textured specificity.  Read on to see if I got what I bargained for!I think my overall impression of this book is that I like Grosz’s theoretical work more than what she does with it, and definitely more than how she arrived at it.  What do I mean by that?  To answer that question, it will be easiest to talk about the organization of the book.  The vast majority of the book essentially takes the form of close readings of the philosophies of a bunch of different thinkers, mostly from the 20th century, and entirely male.  Freud, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and more all have their moment in 6 of the main chapters.  These follow an opening chapter in which Grosz lays out her reading of Cartesian dualism and the ways it has structured modern Western philosophy, and are meant to demonstrate that the mind and body have never been that separate to begin with.  In each man’s thought, the body remains as a kind of inescapable companion to theories of the mind.

Grosz demonstrates that the body/mind split isn’t really a split at all, but rather a mutually constitutive relationship.  She does this by splitting the 6 main chapters of the book into two sections, “The Inside Out” and “The Outside In”, in which she shows how the psyche is intimately linked to the somatic body and how the body and its workings shape the mind, respectively.  She uses the metaphor of the Moebius strip to try to get at how, despite the fact we are dealing with two distinct terms that can’t be collapsed into a monism, these terms are nevertheless inseparable and bleed into each other in a feedback loop.

With such extensive groundwork laid, the final chapter of the book brings us to Grosz’s overriding concern: the status of sexual difference in accounts of the body.  As she makes clear in the preceding 6 chapters, all of these male thinkers smuggle the male (and specifically white, heterosexual male) body into the position of a universal body in their work, never taking up the fact that bodies are always already sexed bodies, in relationships of sexual difference.  Grosz focuses this last chapter, in keeping with those that came before it, on a reading of Kristeva’s notions of abjection and bodily fluids in order to bring the idea of sexual difference to the fore.  She demonstrates how men and women (more specifically Man and Woman) have been theorized in terms of solidity and liquidity, respectively, and how the notion of solidity – with its attendant requirements of rigid self-sameness, agentive activeness, and stark subject-object separations – is only accomplished through a series of disavowals and projections on the part of men.  She supports a liquid subjectivity that is instead open to its environment, its others, one that is accepting of flow, seepage, and leaking as the natural facts of life.

Alright, sounds good, so why am I not pumped about it?  In short, the answer is race.  Volatile Bodies proposes to attend to the specificity of bodies in their difference in an attempt to move past dualist thinking, but in the end, we’re still left with the binary terms of Man and Woman as the only terms in play.  Race, when it is considered, is quickly set aside again with the assumption that it functions as just another vector of difference, otherwise operating in the same way as sex.  Non-binary gender is even worse off, with a particularly jarring passage in which it is claimed that transsexual men are simply trying to imitate women, but instead only achieving a fantasy of what the status of women is really like.  I’ll grant that in 1994, with the AIDS epidemic raging (a crisis to which Grosz repeatedly alludes), “gay” was about as far as many people were thinking outside the heterosexual box.  But to simply discard transsexual or transgender identity as a shoddy imitation of “authentic” womanhood?  And to assume “womanhood” means the same thing to women of all races and cultures?  That left a bad taste in my mouth.

It’s particularly strange because Grosz walks right up to the edge of questions of culture, then stops, does an about-face, and walks back to a “femininity” abstractly conceived.  Her discussion of Foucault, for example, is expressly about the ways in which the social – through operations of power – dictates the movements of bodies and thereby calls certain kinds of subjectivity into being.  Maybe I’m supposed to infer the rest and extrapolate out to the specific effects of specific cultures on specific bodies, but if the whole point of this book is pulling back the curtain on the sleight-of-hand that has substituted male subjectivity as universal subjectivity, why then perform a different kind of acrobatics and substitute “white experience” for universal experience?

Partly, I think the structure of “6 chapters of dudes I disagree with and then 1 chapter of someone I do agree with” is the problem.  It might make more sense to think of this book as an intellectual history of sexual difference in Western thought than as a new contribution to the politics surrounding that difference.  The careful demonstration of the ways in which the mind is seen to affect the body and vice versa, and the rigorous exploration of the implications of that relationship on subjectivity, is extremely useful in trying to deconstruct the traditions of thought that underlie it, but hearing more from Grosz about what we should do instead would give a clearer picture of the way forward in thinking about bodily specificity and difference.

In essence, this is a book that struggles with that postmodern quandary of “everyone is different, but I want to be able to say something about more than just myself”.  I think I run into a similar impasse when I try to think my way through how I might talk about embodied experience.  For me, as well, the question of the text as object vs. the text as statement further complicates this question.  In other words, I have some good tools for thinking about how subjectivity works in the modern world, but then why am I studying literature?  Is it as an apparatus that enforces those models, or is it as a theoretical formulation in its own right that might give us new models altogether?  Probably both, un/fortunately, and so the question of how to appropriately use these readings is something that is sticking with me.  In any case, Elizabeth Grosz has given me a bunch of really thoughtful readings of Western theorists in this book.  I think my task will be taking the extra step that she doesn’t and asking more about the third term that hovers over her binary: that of the social.


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