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Notes for a reading from a feminist theory class

March 26, 2010

Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Body as Inscriptive Surface.” Volatile Bodies. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.


In this essay, Grosz looks at the physically, socially and psychically inscribed body by moving from the etched bodies such as tattooed bodies, the ornamented and ‘made-up’ bodies, the ‘built’ and sculpted body and finally the disciplined body. She uses Lingis to begin her discussion of the culturally etched body as a way of segueing into a comparative discussion of Foucault’s and Nietzsche’s analytics in relation to the body, power and knowledge. However, much of her discussion is centered on Foucault, with Nietzsche coming in mainly as occasional counterpoint or support. Towards the end of this essay, she raises the question of the relevance of the inscribed body in talking about issues of feminism by suggesting that the social inscription of corporeal surfaces must be reconfigured by feminists through the foregrounding of the complicity of such inscriptions with the patriarchal effacement of women.

Lingis and Body Tattoos
– Grosz argues that Lingis’s comparison between the primitive/savage versions of bodily inscription with the civilized/modern version is a symptomatic expression of Western anxiety over the transgression of boundaries.
– According to Grosz, Lingis considers primitive inscriptions on bodily surfaces as leading to the proliferation, intensification and extension of the body’s erotogenic sensitivity.
– The “puncturings and markings of the body do not simply displace or extend the already constituted, biologically pre-given libidinal zones” but constitute the body entirely as erotic by privileging particular parts of the bodies as self-constituted orifices (139).
– An example she gave was that of an intentional act of anorexia that causes amenorrhea. This is seen as a desire by the subject to protect herself from impregnation by inscribing her oral and anal tract with the meaning of the reproductive system (139).
– The ‘savage’ mode of bodily inscription is then counterpoised with the civilized by the different effects by which the “distribution of cruelty” (pain, barbarity, markings) the bodies are constituted. The civilized subject is supposedly more suffused with sign-ladenness that turns the body into sign systems, texts, and narratives that are rendered meaningful and integrated into norms of “personality, psychology, or submerged subjectivity (141).”
– For Grosz, the force of bodily sensations, its corporeal fragmentation or the unity/disunity of the perceptual body becomes organized in terms of the implied structure of ego or consciousness. This becomes a form of body-writing that binds subjects in different ways according to sex, class, race, cultural and age (141).
– As an introductory segue-way to Foucault, Grosz now begins her arguments on the violent and subtle inscriptions on the body in civilized cultures ranging from what goes on in disciplinary institutions such as juvenile homes and prisons to that of hospitals and psychiatric institutions.
– They are the inscriptions of “cultural and personal values, norms, and commitments according to the morphology and categorization of the body into socially significant groups – male and female, black and white… through ‘voluntary’ procedures, life-styles, habits and behaviors.” The various procedures of inscription discussed are not coerced upon the body but sought out (141-3).
– Grosz suggests that stripping and decontextualizing the discursive systems of civilized bodies may make them easier to read. However, the naked European/American/African/Asian/Australian body (and their variations within) is always marked by its disciplinary history, habitual patterns of movement and by corporeal commitment in its quotidian life.
– Body-building is an example of a supplementary procedure (according to Derrida) that makes possible the ‘worked-over’ muscular body through the impossibility of its full presence and its binary opposites, notwithstanding its differential significance for men and women. It demonstrates which particular cultural patterns, models and stereotypes that are in used or in effect (143).
– Grosz complicates the notion of feminine practices and femininity by cautioning us on how their practices can function in a context that are difficult to ascertain in advance, even if used as modes of guerrilla subversion of patriarchal codes. This is because men and women are caught up in modes of self-production and self-observation that are entwined with modes of power (144).

Foucault and the Regimes of Knowledge-Power Bodies
In this section, Grosz does a comparative analysis of Foucault and Nietzsche’s discourse on the body, power and knowledge, with most attention to Foucault
– Foucault credits Nietzsche with the procedure of genealogy in history. Genealogy provides the ‘history of the present’. Grosz terms it the “history of various events that lead up to or make possible various struggles in the present” ranging from prisoners movement, sexual liberation movements, Marxism and so on. It is a history that is invested in the events it is involved in. Genealogy does not presume a metaphysical origin or teleology, a contiguity or explanation of causality (145).
– Nietzsche and Foucault are both concerned with the material and corporeal costs of historical events and transformations in their investment and reliance on systems of power. Foucault reads Nietzsche as ways in which history affects body and knowledge interfaces with bodies.
– At the same time, there are points of difference between Foucault and Nietzsche. For Foucault, the body is an object, target and instrument of power, the field of greatest investment for power’s operation and control over materiality whereas for Nietzsche, knowledges are the “unrecognized product of bodies that are agents of knowledge but with physiological courses mistaken for their conceptual, intellectual, or moral effects” (146). If the body is the potential field of powers, knowledges and resistances for Foucault, the body is the agent and cause of knowledge for Nietzsche.
– For Nietzsche, power is manifested most directly by will whereas Foucault sees power as a fine network that functions either by global or mass structures that take on micro or capillary forms.
– According to Grosz, Foucault sees knowledge as a major instrument and technique of power. Power and knowledge are construed as mutually conditioning. Power does not distort knowledge to produce illusion or ideology as power’s most privileged vein is within the order of truth.
– Grosz now turns to looking at Foucault’s conception of the body within the nexus of knowledge-power relation that sites the body as being produced through history via various techniques of disciplinarity mentioned in the previous section.
– Such disciplinarity create that “docile, obedient subject whose body and movements parallel and correlate with the efficiency of a machine or a body whose desire is to confess about its innermost subjectivity and sexuality to institutionally sanctioned authorities (149).”
– For Foucault, power deploys discourses (made possible and exploited by power) of knowledges of bodies as representations of truth through the lives and behavior of the individuals (150). From here, Grosz launches into her analysis of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
I Discipline and Punish
– Grosz prefaces the discussion by beginning with Foucault’s own description of
the spectacular punishment of the regicide Damiens to represent law’s inscription
of the bodies (not unlike the descriptive move made by Kafka and Nietzsche).
– She lays out four points of punishment marking the eighteenth-century body; 1) punishment as social spectacle to establish equivalence between crime committed and punishment enacted; 2) punishment as procedure for marking the body according to the crime’s gravity; 3) punishment as that which is carefully regulated through socially accepted forms of torture; and 4) ritualized forms for public display of punishment.
– The history of punishment is the variable series of the technologies of the body where the body becomes an intricate yet pliable instrument that can be trained and tuned to better performances.
– The development of technologies of the body brought about the institutionalization of penal punishment. This also means the more widespread entwinement of modern social institutions, knowledge of human subjects and coercive practices for the containment and control of the unpredictable body.
II History of Sexuality
– According to Grosz, the distinction between the sovereign power of death and the disciplinary power of the management of life is specified more clearly at the end of the volume one of this book. Disciplinary power is here defined as biopower, and that sex and discourses on sexuality are the important ingredients in the operations of biopower because of their strategically advantageous position within the core of the individualized process of training and discipline.
– Foucault outlines the specification and proliferation of sexuality that emerges gradually from the 18th until the 20th century through the proliferation of types, with increasing focus on the sexuality of those outside the adult, heteronormative ‘normal’ relationship (children, the mad, the criminal, homosexuals, perverts, etc). This is linked to the AIDS epidemic that increases marginalization of groups (155).
– For Foucault, sexuality is nothing other than the effect of power and thus, it is an “‘artificial’ or social construction of unity out of heterogeneity or processes, sensations, and functions” where sex is no more real, primordial or prediscursive than sexuality (154).

Sexuality and Sexually Different Bodies

– According to Grosz, Foucault seems to imply that sexuality is vulnerable to counter-attack from bodies and pleasures. She takes his position on this as being unclear because it could either mean that the bodies and pleasures seem outside the deployment of sexuality or as “neuralgic points challenging the nexus of desire-knowledge power.”
– This point of contention allows Grosz to highlight related feminist questions; do sexually different bodies require different inscriptive tools or does inscription produces that sexual difference? Is there a sexual continuum between bodies? Would such a continuum homogenize bodies into a single terrain?
– Grosz argues against seeing the body as a blank, passive page, or a neutral medium and signifier. Instead, specific modes of materiality must be taken into account because the same inscriptions on male and female bodies do not mean the same thing.
– For Nietzsche, instincts and pre-natural forces have to be tamed. For Foucault, bodies and pleasures pre-exist the sociopolitical or resists them. For Lingis (Grosz returns to him here) is committed to the neuter sexually experiencing body as he sees the body as naturally bisexual but is divided by a castrative inscription.
– Grosz problematizes Lingis’s equation of clitoridectomy with circumcision. She does not agree that there can ever be symmetry between the two sexes in this instance because it is the removal of penis that is the physiological counterpart of clitoridectomy, not circumcision.

In Conclusion
– In this essay, Grosz is interested in addressing the status of a sexually differentiated body based on different inscriptions and the status and forms these inscriptions take on in when directed at different types of bodies. Grosz accuses Foucault of focusing mainly on the male body. She argues that Foucault bypasses the discussion of different forms of judgments and punishments meted out to two sexes for the same kind of crimes committed. He only outlines one specific program of sexualization directed at women, which is that of the ‘hystericization of women’s bodies.”
– However, she cautions against making Foucault’s exclusion of women a main feminist issue as his work has not “closed off the possibility of others, women, talking about the birth of the women’s prison, the history of women’s sexuality, or women’s ethic of self-production – however different these may look from men’s”
– It does seem in this essay that Grosz is devoted to the notion of sexual differences, particularly within patriarchal structures, by using the trope of bodily inscription as the medium, and selecting theorists that are amenable for bringing discursive instances of sexual differences to the fore.

UPDATE: We had a conversation with her today (well I see her every Monday this semester, but still, it is a chance to pick the brains of someone whose early work I had began reading when I was doing my MA), and find out the intellectual trajectory that shaped her. She’s brilliant. I feel fortunate to be able to write a paper under her guidance this semester. Oh yeah, she doesn’t like Heidegger (I read him but I alway seem to like Husserl more, even though I am aware that he has developed Husserl’s ideas further, in a certain way) and thinks Arendt abject.

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