Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"This Hunger Is DNA You Cannot Undo": Anorexia and Economically Oriented Subjects in Ibi Kaslik's Skinny

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"This Hunger Is DNA You Cannot Undo": Anorexia and Economically Oriented Subjects in Ibi Kaslik's Skinny

Article excerpt

COUNTERING THE VIEW OF ANOREXIA as the "rich, spoiled, white girl's disease" (Bordo, "Not" 47), Ibi Kaslik's 2004 novel, Skinny, depicts the protagonist's physical wasting as a mitigation of desires that are incommensurate with the productive logics of patriarchal capitalism, including self-reliance and individualistic notions of autonomy. Emerging from Kaslik's narrative is a critique of the embodied consequences of economic subject formation within a capitalist context. By employing Sue Saltmarsh's concept of "economically oriented subjectivities" (50), I read Skinny as "establish[ing] 'the economy' as a discursive domain" (49) in which capitalist ideologies are pressed upon subjects through surveillance and discipline at institutional, familial, and biopolitical levels. Giselle's mode of self-fashioning develops in response to the demands of this economy; her anorexia is depicted as an attempt to suppress her hunger for emotional and physical intimacy, a hunger that she perceives as inconsistent with fulfilling her parents' class and gender expectations. As such, the logic of Giselle's anorexia echoes the logic of self-reliance and autonomy developed in the novel. By reading Giselle and her sister Holly as "economically oriented social subject[s]" (Saltmarsh 50), I incorporate analyses of capitalism to the ways in which Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity can undo pathologizing, stereotypical views of anorexia. Neither Giselle nor Holly "does" her class, culture, or gender alone; she is "always 'doing' with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary" (Butler 1). In Skinny, social success is framed in terms of persistent, reiterative striving toward individual autonomy and achievement, which must also be paternalistically sanctioned. Moreover, treatment intervenes as an antagonistic force that misunderstands and pathologizes the logic of Giselle's behaviour in terms that rhetorically echo the ideological influences that originally shape Giselle's actions. (1) Ultimately, Skinny refigures anorexia as a set of adaptive behaviours that emerge in relation to capitalist and patriarchal demands. Kaslik employs distinctive literary strategies in the development of this critique.

Alternating between the viewpoints of two sisters, Skinny begins with twenty-two-year-old Giselle's release from an inpatient treatment program for anorexia into the care of her widowed mother and fourteen-year-old sister, Holly. Retrospectively interspersed among her attempts to resume "normal" functioning, Giselle recounts significant events that led to her hospitalization, including the emotional and physical expectations of her father, the surveillance by her mother, and the demands of first-year medical school. By evoking history as the "absent cause" (Althusser and Balibar 188) of Giselle's malaise, Kaslik develops a trope of inheritance that situates Giselle's behaviours as coherent along a historical continuum that has naturalized--through patriarchal surveillance and discipline--ideals of self-reliance and individualism. Kaslik also employs narrative juxtaposition to parallel the ways in which different subjectivities negotiate shared socioeconomic rationalities. Each sister is depicted as high achieving; Giselle's scholastic drive is associated with her thin body and lack of appetite, while Holly's athletic aspirations are tied to her physical prowess. Kaslik therefore configures their relative successes as contingent on their sense of embodiment. Consequently, while the internal logic of Giselle's anorexia is portrayed as one among several ways of adapting to the sisters' shared ideological framework depicted in the novel, it is the anorexic who becomes a target of discipline, whose suffering is deemed irresponsible and maladaptive.

In these ways, Skinny refigures anorexia as one expression of an economically oriented subjectivity rather than individual disease, thereby producing a critique of the naturalized economic rationalities to which Giselle adapts through starvation and subverting stereotypical views of anorexia. …

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