Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

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Summary

In this book, Grosz is looking at patriarchal philosophical frameworks that feminists might find useful for talking about the body, and she is unpacking their phallocentric assumptions, asking questions she hopes will facilitate the development further feminist theorizing on the body. As part of this project, she is challenging dualisms in philosophy and feminism that lead to the denigration of the body and arguing that subjectivity can be understood through the lens of the body. Combining philosophical and postmodern feminist approaches, Grosz uses the metaphor of the moebius strip to argue that the body is a historical and cultural product that is produced by the interaction of physical and psychical (or exterior and interior) inscriptions. The book’s introduction outlines the way Cartesian dualism has influenced discussions of the body in philosophy and feminism, while the remainder of the book is split into two sections that represent either side of the moebius strip. In the first section, Grosz takes up significant figures in psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan) and phenomenology (Merleu-Ponty) to highlight the ways in which the psyche (or the interior) makes sense of the body as an exterior representation of the self and helps to bridge interior and exterior into a cohesive sense of being. In this section, Grosz emphasizes the importance of positing the female body as a positivity rather than a “lack” and of paying attention to the specificity of the body for feminists theorizing psychological understandings of the body. The second section focuses on theorists who have written about the inscription of the body (Foucault, Nietszche, Deleuze and Guattari) and argues that while the metaphor of inscription can be useful, feminists once again must remain mindful of the specificity of the body–the same message has different meanings written on differently raced and sexed bodies. In the final chapter of the book, Grosz returns to her critique of dualisms and argues for an understanding of sexual difference which does not see this difference as purely biological but which also grants that biology matters (ie. sexual difference is not purely cultural).

Comments

The first chapter of this book provides a useful gloss of changing conceptions of the body in the history of philosophy and in the history of feminism. In this chapter, she also provides a nice list of criteria for a feminist theory of the body:

  1. It should not set mind and body up as mutually exclusive categories
  2. Corporeality should not be associated with one sex or gender (namely, women)
  3. It should not set up a singular model of the body against which all other bodies are judged
  4. It should also avoid framing the body within essentialist models
  5. Any good model should account for both the interior and the exterior of the body (see the moebius strip metaphor)
  6. Rather than seeing the body in terms of binary pairs, the body should be understood as a threshhold concept between these pairs that often functions as a pivot point between these binary pairs (pp. 21-24)
While this first chapter, as well as the metaphor of the moebius strip, is useful, Grosz’s attempt to return to sexual difference, particularly at the end of the book, is troubling and ultimately ends on a blatantly transphobic note when Grosz argues that trans women can say that they are women but will never have access to the interior experience of womanhood and of the female body (as though this experience is something that is singular, shared, and knowable). The male/female binary seems to be a binary pair that Grosz refuses to trouble, which pretty much negates the criteria she’s established for a feminist theory of the body.

Key Quotes

“If women are to develop autonomous modes of self-understanding and positions from which to challenge male knowledges and paradigms, the specific nature and integration (or perhaps lack of it) of the female body and female subjectivity and its similarities and differences from men’s bodies and identities need to be articulated. The specificity of bodies must be understood in its historical rather than simply biological concreteness. Indeed, there is no body as such: there are only bodies–male and female, black, brown, white, large or small–and the gradations in between.” (19)

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