Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Where the Body Is a Battleground: Materializing Gender in the Humanities

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Where the Body Is a Battleground: Materializing Gender in the Humanities

Article excerpt

In this article, the author investigates the insights that attention to research in neuropsychiatry might offer feminist theorizing about the body and subjectivity in the humanities. Her argument incorporates both the writings of Judith Butler and Peter Kramer's book, Listening to Prozac, a bestseller which has remained largely undiscussed in humanities academic circles, to open up an innovative way of thinking about the body and its construction within social spaces.

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It is coming to be more and more a deadly fight for our bodies.

-- Josephine Butler (1872)

(quoted in Kent, 1987, p. 120)

I began writing this book by trying to consider the materiality of the body only to find that the thought of materiality invariably moved me into other domains. I tried to discipline myself to stay on the subject, but found that I could not fix bodies as simple objects of thought. Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies "are." I kept losing track of the subject.

-- Judith Butler (1993, p. ix)

In a 1993 review in the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton -- a wellknown critic and literary theorist -- surveyed the degree to which contemporary literary theory of all stripes engages in "body talk," concluding that "there will soon be more bodies in contemporary criticism than on the fields of Waterloo" (Eagleton, 1993, p. 7). Eagleton's comment can be read in two ways: on the one hand, we can take it as an observation of the ways in which literary theory of the last 20 years has engaged the body in ways that sometimes seem to render it lifeless, unrecognizable; on the other hand, we can also take it as a turn on the by now predictable metaphor of the body as a battlefield. The title of this article, "Where the Body is a Battleground," is borrowed from an Amnesty International pamphlet on the specific ways in which women's human rights are violated globally (through rape, domestic abuse, genocidal rape, etc.). Amnesty International almost certainly borrowed the title of its pamphlet from the now famous Barbara Kruger poster, "Your Body is a Battleground," designed to advertise the 1989 March on Washington in support of legal abortion, birth control, and women's rights.

However, as the first epigraph to this article suggests, the metaphor has an even longer history. As early as 1872, Josephine Butler, the charismatic Evangelical leader of the movement to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain (and later in the British colonies and imperial outposts),(1) proclaimed that the struggle against the Acts "is coming to be more and more a deadly fight for our bodies." Her emphasis, like that of many first-wave feminists, was on bodily integrity and self-determination; this concept was understood as coterminous with a liberal commitment to individual rights, and it underwrote the anti-slavery and feminist work of many (though not all) nineteenth-century women activists. A commitment to bodily integrity also underwrote many of the assumptions of early second-wave feminism, as is evident in the title of one of the period's most successful publications, the Boston Women's Health Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves (originally published in 1969). For many first- and early second-wave feminists -- as for Amnesty International's women's caucus today -- a commitment to bodily integrity and self-determination was the primary ground of a feminist politics and practice.

In the past 20 years, however, feminist theory in the humanities, and especially in the disciplines of literary studies and philosophy, has moved toward what Susan Bordo, among others, has called "gender skepticism," by which she means an increasing skepticism about the status of the body in general and women's bodies in particular (Bordo, 1993). …

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