Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 1-33
A friend of mine is leaving for eastern Europe where she has been asked to establish a women’s studies program. She is working on the reading list. Her students will come mostly from a city where a few years ago there was little to buy in the stores except a large selection of paprikas; now the stores are full, but many people whose days were formerly occupied in work are unemployed. The concerns are very different from those on American campuses where eating-disorder clinics proliferate and the place of gay studies or Western civilization in the curriculum are heated topics of debate. “There’s so much written about the body,” she groans,”but it all focuses on such a recent period. And in so much of it, the body dissolves into language. The body that eats, that works, that dies, that is afraid-that body just isn’t there. Can’t you write something for my students that would put things in a larger perspective?” I said I would try.
In a sense, of course, “the body” is the wrong topic. It is no topic or, perhaps, almost all topics. As many contemporary theorists point out, we no longer think there is such a thing as the body-a kind of “flesh dress” we take up, or put off, or refurbish according to the latest style. What- ever our position on “antiessentialism” (and it is certainly true that many of the recent attacks on “essentialists” have been both intellectually im- precise and cruel), no one in the humanities seems really to feel comfort- able any longer with the idea of an essential “bodiliness.” We tend to reject both a “bodiliness” that is in some way prior to the genderings, sexings, colorings, or handicappings particular persons are subject to and a body that is easily separable from the feelings, consciousness, and thoughts that occur in it.