Delys Bird teaches Australian studies and women's studies in the Faculty of Arts, UWA, and is about to begin work in a major collaborative project that will develop a history of post-60's Australian literature, examining the ways contemporary bodies of theory have been part of such a history.
Volume 2, November 1996
Anne Cranny-Francis. The Body in the Text Melbourne: Melbourne University Press $14.95. 127 pp (bibliography and index)
Republished in 1996 very soon after its first release in 1995, Anne Cranny-Francis' The Body in the Text is one of the excellent "Interpretations" series from Melbourne University Press which now number a dozen or so titles. It's a series whose aims, as its editors modestly announce, are to provide "clearly written and up-to-date introductions recent theories and critical practices in the inanities and social sciences." Like many in the series, The Body in the Text fulfils these aims admirably. It provides not only an introduction to the complex contemporary field of theories of the body, but also illuminating examples of how different critical practices may be developed from those theories.
In addition, Cranny-Francis acknowledges the politics of the personal that informs any feminist enterprise, bringing her own views to her discussions so that the book has a dialogic aspect; readers' bodies are included the possibilities that the theories hold for textual analysis. Her style is engaging and while it is explanatory it is never reductive. A preface notices in retrospect the way the title, Body in the Text, recalls titles of detective novels so that Cranny-Francis likens the work she has done to that of a detective, who must sift through mountains of data to find the clue to what is the seemingly recent appearance of body in cultural texts. What she found was the body has always been there, in all cultures, through all their different histories contexts:
...whether that means the artful delineation of bodies and embodied practices in indigenous Australian paintings, the narratives everyday life in the tombs of Egyptian Pharoahs the battles of Renaissance painters produce a new understanding of human embodiment against the theological certainties thc Catholic church, or the embodied rebellions of Luddites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as they smashed machinery which was to change forever their way of life and perceptions of the body (ix).
What is new, according to Cranny-Francis, is the coincidence between the late twentieth- century Western renaissance of interest in the body, located in its extraordinarily wide range of representations of embodiment, and the "enormous changes in their social, political and economic composition, as well as in the technology that typically characterises them'' (ix). She defines 'embodiment' as "the bodily inscription of material and discursive change" and moves, in the body of her own work, to an exploration of the multiple ways such inscriptions may denote interrogations of embodiment. The texts of her title include, as well as those that carry the abstract conceptual arguments that comprise one side of the contemporary debates surrounding and often claiming the body, those in which the debate "appears as a figure, a problematic, a fictional expression or a combination of these" (x); Cranny-Francis identifies such texts as particularly those from popular culture.
Despite its compression, The Body in the Text is comprehensive. Its sections include an introduction, "Written on the Body," which summarises the major aspects of that contemporary debate, from mind/body dualism and its feminist critiques, through theories of class and race, the implications of the social production of the 'normal' body, the move from consciousness to embodied subjectivity, the question of postmodern bodies, cyborg bodies, postmodern bodies and desire and lastly the impact of Foucaultian theory, especially in its development of ways of thinking about the disciplined body of industrial society and the deployment of the organisations of power, through sexual technologies, in the production of specific kinds of bodies. Foucault is positioned here as providing the theoretical framework within which this range of reconceptualisations of the body have taken place; in turn these reworkings of body politics give Cranny-Francis the context for her study of "recent writings on the body" (which I hope she meant in its doubled sense).
The body of this text, then, comprises four sections: "(En)acting, (Per)forming Gender: Bodies, Sexes, Sexualities" presents the ways numerous theorists of the constitution of gender, from Robert Stoller, to Judith Butler and others, to Foucault, situate the body in their work. Cranny-Francis begins this chapter with an exploration of early feminist reconceptualisations of the body, which began with their recognition of the contradictory delineation of 'the body,' in which the normative, generic, universal Western body is male, while women are equated metaphorically, and negatively, with the body in its lived aspects. She finishes it with an exploration of the ways the reproductive body, or the body as reproducer has been appropriated by male interests; as a signifier of intellectual endeavour, through reproductive technologies and in the name of the reproduction of western societies.
"Embodying the Other: Inscriptions of Race and Ethnicity" takes up the complex and important issues of how the topography, which is "constituted, maintained and reproduced' within western societies by those society". positioning of other racial and ethnic group' as 'other' to itself, is "mapped onto the body" (45). Using post-colonial theorists, black feminist theorists and texts that write out this exploitative marginalisation of the body of the other, Cranny-Francis explores the potential of this idea. In "Classifying Bodies Inscriptions of Class," Cranny-Francis develops a suggestive and subtle analysis of the ways class is made a marker of the body and one of the categories, each of which positions the social subject differently, that are used to classify bodies.
In "Cyborgs and Wet-ware: Technologised Bodies," that area in which a current fascination with the body achieves its most telling focus, Cranny-Francis works with a series of predictable but important texts, including Donna Haraway's state of the art article, "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1991), the Terminator films, Bladerunner and so on. One of the strengths of The Body in the Text is particularly clear in this section, in its locating the socio-historical origins and manifestations of the relationship between technology and the human body in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when shifts and changes in social, political and economic life that might be thought to rival those currently preoccupying us were occurring. Cranny-Francis traces a thread of negative representations of the effects of technology through Chartist poetry and other writings, in Thomas Hardy's work and in social theorists like William Morris, and others we could think of, George Eliot for example, on what such diverse writings present as the capacity to be human. She goes on to construct links between the late twentieth century android or cyborg and Victor Frankenstein's creature, which in Frankenstein remains perhaps the most compelling, and is the first "major fictional exploration of the tragedy of misused technology, and specifically its disastrous consequences ... for the constitution of the human body" (89).
Cranny-Francis' own suggestive historicotheoretical narrative both gives depth to the current focus on the body and, because of the necessary limitations of The Body in the Text, pushes us to extend her examples, histories and imaginary connections outward. Some discussion for example of what could be the most potentially dangerous technologisation of the body, currently taking place in elite, so-called cutting edge scientific projects such as the genome project in the United States, where ‘real’ bodies are translated, manipulated and re-presented in new forms through sophisticated computer programmes would have given a further dimension to the implications of the cyborg body.
It is invidious, though, to criticise for what is not there in a work that has covered so much in so little space, and the conclusion doesn't conclude the discussion but opens it up, using music and dance, areas that are rarely subjected to such critical scrutiny, as locations of the expressive, interactive body, through which it is both inscribed and embodied. Well indexed, with a very useful bibliography, this is an essential book for anyone with an interest in bodies, textual and otherwise. It will provide many starting points and guiding principles through which the often enormously demanding theoretical works in the field may be read, as well as insightful comments that open up ways of reading all those textualisations of the body that are part of our cultural context and that make up our experiences of our own bodily lives.