The Body and Embodiment

Additional Resources

‘The’ Body: A Conversation with Dr. Emily Winderman

The New York Times memorialized the deaths of the first 100,000 people due to COVID-19 with a front-page printing of the obituaries of 1000 people, representing only 1% of the total number of deaths at that time. The question is whether the body is countable, how it is countable. It is tethered to appropriations and allocations. There are different ways to think about bodies and concretization have different implications for what the public does and does not see. I also assigned Rachel Hardeman’s perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine. Her work in reproductive justice and mitigating the rates of childbirth mortality. The piece gets to what Annie Hill talks about in her piece. In opening up a question of bodies, I want to open space for a 2-minute free-write. Any time we talk about cancer or state violence, we need to give ourselves space and grace for the personal politics and intimate affiliations that come up every time we address bodies in context.

As you read these articles and thought about your own project, what is at stake for you in thinking about different ways that bodies are rhetorical?  

When we think about the body and bodies as rhetorical; for Susan Sontag, what is at stake and why it is important to separate language about tuberculosis from the body that has cancer or tuberculosis. It is important to de-link one’s identity from the disease they have. Why was there this move to say that “you are not your disease,” what are some of the other reasons that the de-linking of the body from biology has occurred? The model of the ‘universal’ subject is straight, white, and male. It also implicates the female body as determined by its biology (biological determinism or essentialism) that tethers subjecthood to the patriarchal and heterosexist imperative to reproduce. Feminist theory does this work with the second wave feminist movements; the body is only limited by the frameworks used to denigrate it. When we think about it, there is good reason that the body has been seen through the model of being discursively constructed or constituted. What insights do we get when we think about the body being inscribed by discourse(s)? What is the affordance of the discursive model of embodiment? The categorizing of certain bodies of deviant or nonconforming it makes them more subjectible to discipline; it makes possible a thinking of bodies contingently. What are the limitations of a discourse top-down inscribed on the flesh?

One reason that “epistemic discourse shapes bodies” is not a sufficient explanation is that bodies themselves may resist the description that confines them to a particular governing logic or structure or language. Thinking of situations where the representation of language fails is where the corporeal emerges. For Hill, for instance, it is more that discourse and the body are co-constituting. When Hill talks about cancer, it is constituted by histories of racism, imaging technologies, and spaces where bodies are gathered. It is about thinking ecologically in the sense that discourse doesn’t just (im)press upon the body but it interacts with the body. The two are not separable as easily -- this is the feminist new materialist approach. If we are thinking about breast cancer as a material-discursive intra-action,  then what is the affordance of that approach to the body? What opportunities does this perspective bring? One thing that Hill tells us is that we can look at how disease in its intra-action with bodies ultimately destabilizes the binary oppositions that have become troubling to us. Hill argues that breast cancer is a site or location, an emergence that destabilizes the boundary between language and matter. It also destabilizes subject and object. Why does it destabilize the relationship between subject and object? The subject object relationship is a ‘have something’ or ‘are something’ distinction; it is a question of who is acting and who is acted upon. Rhetoricity is that which incites response, invites impression, and produces effects. It resists the notion that the bodies are *just* objects, because this elides the way that bodies push back. It is a different way to think of contingency because it is not just the contingency that bodies might be shaped differently by discourse; it is also that bodies are ‘made’ in the moment of encounter. A lot of the things that Hardeman is asking us to do is being actualized in the Hill article. It is about connecting but not containing; addressing observable entities and articulating it to the history of Black communities and the processes that have generated the sick bodies that inhabit the present moment.

Agential realism, which is Hill’s way of thinking about bodies, is a post-human theory because it does not assume that the human is stable, and assumes that the material of that human body is productive and in flux. What Hill does is reject the idea that our bodies are closed or sealed off. Trans-material intra-action is an analytic concept that allows you to explain the ways that bodies and (discursive, institutional, historical) systems are entangled and consistently producing themselves. It helps when we think about race and racism because it gives us a way of addressing the diffuseness of these urgencies. When Black birthing bodies go into the OR they already experience a heightened allostatic load; that is part of racism’s diffuseness. Breast cancer, symbolically, is connected to notions of femininity; the breast often serves as a discursive marker; breast cancer disturbs those discursive categories. It brings binaries into crisis.

To return to Chavez, this isn’t the only way to talk about bodies. When we think of bodies in abstraction, they tend to be straight, cis-gendered, male, and white. The ways that rhetorical critics describe Fannie Lou Hamer, for instance, make it incumbent on us to think about the ways that bodies get made into corporeal parts. This is a way that materiality comes through, not as a “mode of production” or “labor under capitalism,” but as a feature of the body’s engagement with space, discourse, history, and trauma. Trauma impedes the ability to communicate in many instances. Bodies themselves are vehicles for rhetorical performance, arguments or warrants (e.g. as “enactment”), synecdochally, as sites of judgment, as subject to technological modifications. What we did is to think about the assumptions/questions that motivate theorizing the body. And so knowing how to parse different ways of thinking about bodies means addressing its implied binaries -- these are other theoretical questions answered through the vehicle of the body. What is at stake in treating the body one way or another means thinking about the specific affordances of the theory that you are taking up. You are creating a topography that is going to inform your scholarly identity on the whole. What’s important is that you make your decisions about your mode of approach to theory. Let it be messy.