After reading Unbearable Weight, I began to notice the word ‘slim’. It seemed ubiquitous – on cans in drugstores and supermarkets, in the personal columns of the New York Review of Books. It was a cultural mantra, a synonym for ‘lovable’. In the personal ads, one man described himself as ‘trim’, as in ‘tall, trim, well-built, passionate’; he was also married, vigorous, in his sixties, discreet, and with excellent credentials. But it was in the women’s ads that ‘slim’ became repetitive, dispelling the ever-present suggestion that this woman was too large, too big, too heavy, fat.
Lively, lovely NYC widow, successful, professional, warm, slim, caring.
DWF, NYC, 40, 5’3 Creative Physician. Very attractive, slim.
DWF, 49, slim, blonde, 5’8, professional.
One woman simply gave her weight, 130, with the correction for height, 5’7.
I don’t know how far the obsession with weight or rather with the absence of weight is still the province of the largely white and affluent, mainly heterosexual readership of what some women call the ‘Men’s Review of Books’. I know that the problem of weight grips the lives of many women in different ways: that there is a near epidemic of anorexia and bulimia in the US; that food has become for many women what sex was for St Augustine, a constant temptation from which they wish to be relieved, but not yet; that the dieting industry and the business of cosmetic surgery are flourishing; that breast implants remain something of a cultural spectacle.
Yet for Susan Bordo to write a book about the body which stresses its weight or materiality violates what has become something of an academic taboo. To speak of the body as a cultural text is one thing. To suggest that this writing and rewriting is happening on something other than a blank slate or screen is to court the demon ‘essentialism’. Bordo resists this culture/nature division and wades into a territory which seemingly was declared off limits in 1987 – the year she heard a feminist historian claim that ‘gender was so fragmented by race, class, historical particularity and individual difference as to be useless as an analytical category. The “bonds of womanhood” are a feminist fantasy.’
Bordo makes a radical connection between the slimming of women’s bodies in the popular, public sphere and the scepticism about gender within academia. Both signify a reduction in the space that women or ‘women’ take up. The physical world and the symbolic order are both parts of a single cultural landscape. For the academic (as for the anorexic), gender remains a difficult but indispensable category.
Unbearable Weight consists of a series of essays. Written over a ten-year period, they are at once repetitive and cumulatively powerful and grim. (There is no entry for ‘pleasure’ in Bordo’s index.) What they offer is a steady resistance to the prevailing mind/body opposition which leads to a series of radical insights.
Bordo locates the foundation of Modernism in the Cartesian split: the division of the soul from the body in life rather than at death. Descartes’s radical leap out of his body and into the ‘I’ signified an effort to transcend the limitations of perspective (‘because we are embodied our thought is perspectival’) and to see, as it were, like God. If one had the right method, he believed, one could achieve what Thomas Nagel has called ‘the view from nowhere’ – a place of objectivity or unqualified truth. Bordo brilliantly suggests an affinity between this illusion of Modernism, the ‘view from nowhere’, and the fantasy of Post-Modernism, which she calls ‘the dream of everywhere’. Like the angels who seem to arrive in greater numbers each Christmas as the new millennium approaches, the Post-Modern subject is at once nowhere and everywhere, no place and in all places at once.
Post-Modernism thus signals the return of the (briefly) repressed wish for transcendence. It follows the deconstruction of Modernism by feminism: the asking of the embarrassing questions – whose eye, whose voice, whose body, whose reason, whose truth, whose history, whose psychology, whose tradition? ‘No one’s or everyone’s’ is Post-Modernism’s giddy reply. But behind the playfulness of Post-Modern discourse, there lies something ominous: the assumption or resumption of omniscience and control. This is achieved by dispensing with both mind and body, by the privileging of culture over nature and the disappearance of the author from the text. The body, once again, has become mere body – a tabula rasa on which the culture inscribes its messages. In the absence of any empirical or experiential grounds for knowledge, the epistemological focus turns to method, and the innocence with which some academic feminists have embraced this Cartesian legacy and created ‘a new feminist methodologism’ (a right way to escape the limitations of embodiment and cultural perspective) becomes of particular concern.
In Western culture, where most feminist academics are writing, mind/body dualism still carries two long-standing and favourite assumptions: the superiority of mind over body and the association of bodies with women. ‘What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of body, as something apart from the true self (whether conceived as soul, mind, spirit, will, creativity, freedom ...) and as undermining the best efforts of that self. That which is not body is the highest, the best, the noblest, the closest to God.’ In contrast, bodies are vulnerable, mortal, transient, insignificant.
The absence of women from history reveals that women, like flesh, disappear, generation after generation. And not only that: ‘Whatever the specific historical content of the duality, the body is the negative term, and if woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be.’ Consequently, whatever or wherever women are, and however they are idealised, tends also to be devalued. With the entry of women, occupations or professions regularly lose social and economic status. Women’s troubles, whether economic or psychological, are attributed to women’s bodies (most often to child-bearing or hormones) so that they seem, as it were, inherent in women or culture-free. Bordo’s calm and steady analysis of this history and its implications opens the way to a radical formulation, which she stops just short of stating: to bring the body and women from the margin into the central arenas of Western culture would transform its stabilising mind/body dualism, and this is the task of feminism.
Feminism has much in common with Post-Structuralism – an insistence on context, on plurality and on the social construction of reality – and joins Post-Modernism in celebrating diversity, openness, fluidity and the irreverent transgressing of boundaries. It is disturbing, then, that both Post-Structuralists and Post-Modernists have tended to eclipse or appropriate the feminist project. Turning women from a majority into diverse and changing minorities and reducing the body to the status of text, they remove the grounds for political power and shared action among women. By destabilising the categories of experience and reality, they pull the rug out from under women’s otherness within patriarchy. Consequently, women living in the midst of Post-Structuralist or Post-Modernist discourse often experience a sensation familiar to girls in adolescence: a feeling of losing the ground of their experience, of the ground falling away at their feet. Bordo, for example, writes:
I do not remember becoming ‘converted to’ historicism, contextualism, pluralism or ‘the social construction of reality’. Rather, that had always been the way I (and many other academic feminists) saw things. In no little part, our intellectual perspective had been shaped by the more politically focused feminist challenge to cultural consciousness that began in the late Sixties and that had raised for so many of us the startling idea that the organisation and deployment of gender as we know it (not to mention ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’) were human constructions rather than eternal forms.
She also registers her dismay at the rapidity with which the toppling of the Timeless Truths of Western culture has moved into a fragmentation of culture and led to what the writer bell hooks has called a ‘stylish nihilism’.
The disappearance of the subject, the removal of authority from experience, the unsettling of personhood are treacherous moves. They are particularly treacherous for women when the legal system still carries the guarantees of Modernism: bodily integrity and ‘the right to one’s person’. The continual contesting of legal access to abortion challenges these rights. Bordo compares a court’s refusal to override a man’s refusal to donate bone marrow to a cousin who would otherwise die from aplastic anaemia with the courts’ readiness to override pregnant women’s refusals of caesarean sections, foetal transfusions, personal detention and the like when (in a lawyer’s or doctor’s estimation) such interventions are considered necessary to the survival of the foetus. These overridings are especially likely when the woman is poor and not of European descent.
‘Are Mothers Persons?’ Bordo asks, and answers in the negative, citing a case where ‘a woman whom no court in the country would force to undergo a blood transfusion for a dying relative had come to be legally regarded, when pregnant, as a mere life-support system for a foetus.’ Essential though it is for mothers to maintain their rights to personhood within the present legal system, the more radical question is: ‘Are Persons Mothers?’ Again, the answer is no. Personhood has traditionally been defined through separation – the soul housed alone in its body. Recent work in psychology and philosophy suggests that the experience or potential for embodied connection makes available (although by no means guarantees) an alternative conception of personhood, a deeper insight into relationship. This different epistemology or voice stimulates new ways of thinking and feeling by unsettling the splits between soul and body, inner and outer, self and other, culture and nature which have been taken as foundational. Women, living in rather than outside their bodies, often find themselves straddling the gap between the authority of embodied experience and the socially constructed reality embedded in the institutions of society and culture.
It may be, however, that the return of the body signals the possibility of a truly new millennium. Teresa Brennan is an important voice in this new movement. In Interpretation of the Flesh (1992), she rejoins psychoanalysis with physics and updates the connection. She finds in the energy of bodies a way of explaining how such well-documented but unexplained psychological processes as projection, transference and counter-transference actually (physically) happen between people. Just as gender does for Bordo, ‘the riddle of femininity’ becomes a crucial key for Brennan. Although psychoanalysts have been remarkably incurious about Freud’s riddle, the talking cure began with women breaking through femininity’s ban on speaking and knowing what happened to them. In doing so they revealed the deep connection between mind and body – the psychological causes of physical symptoms and the psychological consequences of physical violation.
The question this all leads to is: what does it mean to transform the mind-body dualism? How will ‘I’ know? How will we speak? Brennan gives a good glimpse of the answer in History After Lacan: ‘To allow that my feelings physically enter you, or yours me, to think that we both had the same thought at the same time because it is literally in the air, is to think in a way that really puts the subject in question. In some ways, the truly interesting thing is that this questioning has begun.’ In Brennan’s analysis, the separate self or the autonomous ego is ‘a psychotic fantasy’ – out of touch with reality. It has not felt psychotic because social reality was constructed around it, wrapping the imperial ‘I’ in a cultural cocoon. Brennan’s new book is a study of this social psychosis, which began in the 17th century, when the joining of the Cartesian self with capitalism initiated what Lacan has called ‘the ego’s era’. Brennan unravels its foundational fantasy – the ego’s fantasy of omnipotence and control.
Much of what once seemed occult or spacily New Age is fast gaining scientific credibility. The Genome Project, organ transplants, and the new reproductive technology also compel us to rethink the language of mine and yours, self and other. Women’s experiences of connection no longer seem aberrant. Many people are currently housing some form of otherness within themselves. The insights of feminism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism construct psychological and social reality as fluid, relational and endlessly diverse. Our physics and our societies are changing: our psychology and politics lag behind.
From the laboratory of psychotherapy we know that change is often slow, incremental, irregular, unpredictable. Bordo reminds us that we are in for a long haul:
The mind/body dualism is no mere philosophical position, to be defended or dispensed with by clever argument. Rather, it is a practical metaphysics that has been deployed and socially embodied in medicine, law, literary and artistic representations, the psychological construction of self, interpersonal relationships, popular culture and advertisements – a metaphysics which will be deconstructed only through concrete transformation of the institutions and practices that sustain it.
I read Bordo’s observation that ‘feminist theory – even the work of white, upper-class heterosexual women – is not located at the centre of cultural power.’ I note in her book and other recent feminist writings a constant use of italics which suggests that privileged, professional, white women are straining to be heard and understood. I agree with her assessment ‘that feminism stands less in danger of the totalising tendencies of feminists than of an increasingly paralysing anxiety of falling (from what grace?) into ethnocentrism or “essentialism”.’ I think of virginity and its lesson that one false move leads to irrevocable loss. This fear often grips women just when they stand at the edge, about to risk the leap into brilliant, creative work.
Like ‘slim’, the word ‘too’ functions powerfully in the psychic economy of many women, encapsulating the variety of injunctions against transgression: not to be too loud, too sexual, too angry, too sad, too serious, too selfish, too aggressive, too inquisitive, too much. Bordo asks the generally unspoken question: why do we become sceptical about gender while continuing to maintain race and class as fundamentally grounding? Possibly because gender is too embodied, too closely associated with women, too radical.