According to Paras, Foucault became fascinated with an "aesthetics of existence," and he wrote, "The idea of the bios [life] as material for an aesthetic piece of art is something that fascinates me." According to Wolin, "Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity. As Foucault avows, his new normative ideal is 'the formation and development of a practice of Self, the objective of which is the constitution of oneself as the laborer of the beauty of one's own life'." I read Wolin's review a couple of weeks ago, and I've been thinking about it a lot in relation to a recent post of JJC's, "King Alfred's Hemmorrhoids," and our brief exchange there over queer studies [which has been heavily influenced, I think everyone would agree, by the thought of Foucault, especially in his History of Sexuality], bodies-becoming, corporeal hybridity, and embodied and disembodied subjectivities. While Jeffrey agrees with me that we can never really escape the material fact of our embodiment [we can not really become other bodies], he also argues that
humans have always relied on "exterior" devices to assist in our embodiment. Sometimes those devices are other beings. Sometimes they are tools. Always they are pieces of the world without which we would not be human at all (we'd be bereft, self-sustaining, monads, I guess). The moment you form an alliance with a keyboard to disseminate your voice across distance and to touch other bodies (yes, bodies as well as subjectivities: thought is embodied, the anger or pleasure or intelelctual stimulation we feel in reaction to a comment on a blog is embodied), you have already become hybrid: a part of you, which is still of you, has left and is circulating elsewhere. It may come back, and its return is going to affect your embodied subjectivity.Further, Jeffrey shares the thoughts of his colleague Gail Weiss, who, in her book Body Images: Embodiment as Intersubjectivity, argues that "we are always already 'out of our bodies': we can't gain a coherent body image without identifications and disidentifications that in fact work to spread our embodiment into interstices, blurring boundaries rather than respecting them. . . . So to the question of 'whether a body can really ever be anything other than itself, I would answer: it never was itself."
I would not disagree with anything Jeffrey writes above, except for the last idea that, in essense, the body never was itself. Part of the problem, for me, in trying to parse out all of these ideas--both Jeffrey's thinking in Medieval Identity Machines and queer theorizing on the body and sexualities more generally, as well as my current reading in "sociology of the body" studies [Bryan S. Turner, Chris Shilling, Mike Hepworth, Mike Featherstone, Sarah Coakley, Thomas J. Csordas, Elizabeth Grosz, and Foucault, among others]--is that I find myself confronting a kind of theoretical impasse between the body as discourse and the body as itself, and all the tangled relations between the two. I think one of the ways in which Foucault's earlier work--especially Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality--has perhaps led us down a wrong path, is in its emphasis on bodies [and hence, subjectivity] being entirely discursive. Here is what Chris Shilling writes about that, in his book The Body and Social Theory (SAGE, 2003):
Foucault's epistemological view of the body means that it disappears as a material or biological phenomenon. The biological, physical or material body can never be grasped by the Foucauldian approach as its existence is permanently deferred behind the grids of meaning imposed by discourse. . . . The body is present as a topic of discussion, but is absent as a focus of investigation. . . . One manifestation of this is Foucault's view of the mind/body relationship. Once the body is contained within modern disciplinary systems, it is the mind which takes over as the location for discursive power. Consequently, the body tends to be reduced to an inert mass which is controlled by discourses centered on the mind. However, this mind itself is disembodied; we get no sense of the mind's location within an active human body.
To put it bluntly, the bodies that appear in Foucault's work do not enjoy a prolonged visibility as corporeal entities. Bodies are produced, but their own powers of production, where they have any, are limited to those invested in them by discourse. As such, the body is dissolved as a causal phenomenon into the determining power of discourse, and it becomes extremely difficult to conceive of the body as a material component social action. Furthermore, Foucault is insufficiently concerned with lived experience. As [Bryan] Turner notes, despite all his references to pleasure and desire, Foucault ignores the phenomenology of embodiment. (pp. 70-71)This is not to say, of course, we want to return to a discourse of the naturalized body--of course not. But it strikes me that a lot of those hybrid corporalities--medieval and modern--that JJC illustrates so beautifully [and with deep empathy] in MIM, are really the products of art, and also, of JJC's own discourse. They are more fully realized in their textual expression than they are, or were, perhaps, in life. Yes, we depend on external devices, including other persons, to fully actualize our identities [and even our embodied "selves"], but much of the physical effects of all of this, I would argue, are mainly felt [experienced] within our own, discretely-contoured chemical circuits, and it is only the beautiful fiction of our lives, if we want to believe it, that we actually "connect" with others. But this is, in my mind, a necessary fiction. We do not really want to be alone in our bodies. This is not to say that we cannot touch and be touched by others, or that we cannot construct elaborate schemes and artifices--mechanical, textual, biological, and otherwise--whereby we blend our bodies into other living entities, or that if someone cuts off my arm, my body hasn't been irrevocably altered by an external action [although my mind may consider that arm to still be there and produce phantom pain as a result--which should tell us something about just how powerful the body--i.e., the mind--actually is, especially against external forces seeking to alter that body's self-integrity].
I'm not sure, ultimately, where I am headed with all of this in my own work [it will come into play, at some level, in my article on eros and The Seven Sleepers and in my new book project, We Must Speak What We Feel], except that I think those of us working in literary studies might need to work a bit harder to account for "the body" when we write about identity and subjectivity, and realize that, while, yes, "the body" is a historical entity that has been produced in discourse [and also in medical practice] over time, that "the body" is, at the same time, something that exists prior to discourse, and even in spite of it. Obviously, a body is always social, and both shapes and is shaped by its environment. Here is how Chris Shilling sees the current state of affairs in body studies:
. . . . the physical body is at once a source of self-identity (involving experiences, feelings, and perceptions), and a location for the effects of society (group norms permeate the individual's sense of self and their evaluation of this sense of self). . . . the body also constitutes a medium whereby people can be attached to or repelled from their social milieu. (p. 206)
Of course, a huge problem in all this, is our dualistic way of thinking about everything--body versus mind, self versus society, etc.--which is very difficult to overcome, even as science tells us, over and over again: there is NO body and mind. Only body. But how can we account for this, except through the very language that keeps us, again and again, from being only bodies?