volume 17, number 1/2016: Embodiment and Corporeality in Feminist Theory and Research
Embodiment and Corporeality in Feminist Theory
Guest editors: Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková, and Kateřina Kolářová
I was trying to capture my shock on waking, when I went out of the tent and realised that after the blizzard last night it had been transformed into a pile of snow. I’m mainly surprised that I was able to cope with the winter, even though it wasn’t easy at all. The photograph reminds me of everything I went through in this tent. Winter, the fire in the tent, when I almost got stuck inside, and also how the girls from Jako doma (Homelike) helped me find a new tent after the fire.
A tent almost buried in snow, provisional, and yet the only available and permanent housing. Inside it everything a person can own when they own almost nothing. The photograph speaks loudly about embodiment, corporeality, and bio-social precarity, even though what might seem to link the photograph to the subject of this issue is missing from it: the body. This issue devoted to feminist thought on embodiment and corporeality opens with a cover photograph authored by Helena Kracíková when she, along with other women without a home, but with a camera, documented the world around them over the course of three years and thus created a project called My World without a Home. And Helena Kracíková is also the author of the words prefacing this editorial.
In many ways Kracíková’s photograph is not just a comment on current directions in feminist theory of embodiment and corporeality. It also leads us to reflect on notions and conceptualisations of the body, materiality, and embodied becoming that resist the simple substantivisation of the body. That the expected reference point is ostensibly ‘voided’ is not an invitation to abstraction, not an invitation to vacate or displace the material body. On the contrary, it opens up room to reflect on material corporality through its relationship to its surroundings – for example, to reflect on how the concept of the body changes in relation to the objects that become part of our corporeality and bodily experience (like the snow-covered crutch poised in front of the tent in the photograph) or in relation to the other bodies that care for us, that help us to survive, that desire, that we touch.
Embodiment and corporeality have always occupied a prominent place in feminist debates. It is only in recent decades, however, that we have seen the turn to the material body as the subject of theorisation in its own right and not simply as ‘a problem.’ The Cartesian notions of the binary division and divisibility of the body and mind have begun to be deconstructed; the natural sciences are (albeit slowly) losing their exclusive position as the authority over corporeality, and various new discourses on the body have begun to come to the fore. The body has been understood through embodied and material experience, as a form of language, text, metaphor. The body is becoming harder to grasp and delimit, in the same way that we see the boundaries between human, animal, anorganic, and mechanical bodies blurred. The concepts of embodiment and corporeality and the deconstruction of essentialising notions form a distinct axis in the history of feminist thought and theories of gender, sexuality, race, and disability. The questions of how bodies are categorised, disciplined, normalised, how they are utilised by biopolitical technologies, and how they become a medium for the expression of (contingent) agency, make up one of the main areas of interest in the tradition of reflections on the gender order, and the hierarchical differences that condition the social structures and even the very concept of ‘humanity’. The history of gender theory is and always has been a history of conceptualisations of embodiment and corporeality. And that even in moments of disavowal that Margrit Shildrick in her contribution to this issue coins ‘somaphobia’.
The issue you hold in your hands is the outcome of almost two years of work. It originated with a wish to create a platform that would explore and engage deeply with feminist thought on the body. To do so, we organised a workshop in May 2015 (co-sponsored with the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Science). Margrit Shildrick offered her keynote in which she mapped the genealogy of modern feminist conceptualisations of the corporeal; the keynote has been developed into the article that you can read in a Czech translation as the first contribution to this issue. The response to the workshop and to the call for papers for a thematic issue, and the many excellent submissions that were ultimately included in this issue, are all testimony to the topicality of this subject and its lasting (or perhaps even growing) relevance. The varied responses also signal the potential ‘the body’ has to appeal to scholars across disciplines: collected herein are papers not just from the field of gender studies and feminist theories but also from gender history, feminist philosophy, sociology, culture studies and popular culture studies, and critical social geography.
This issue explores the body, embodiment and corporeality in relation to various and historically changing gender norms, in relation to the subjective (and subjectivising) experience of the materiality of the body and the ways these experiences are anchored in the normative social structures and technologies of power. Individual contributions take various angles to engage the relationship of subjectivity and the body and the modes discourses give shape to the matter of the body itself. They consider the materiality of the body, bodily experience, and the ways in which the body is discussed and depicted in modern (including modern state-socialist) and late-modern discourses. The collection of the articles illustrates the fundamental importance and import of both the interdisciplinary approach and the intersectional perspective: corporeality is explored through the analytical intersections of trans* embodiment, disability, visual impairment, and compulsory ablebodiedness, and addressed through the politics of citizenship that activate not only the symbolic order of gender but also those of race and abledness.
This is also a truly international issue. Shildrick’s article offers a discussion of contemporary theoretical debates in the feminist body theory. Particularly timely is Shildrick’s reflection on the bioethical challenges feminist critique is faced with as the parameters of the body change. The following individual articles look at different historical and social contexts. The texts are however, united in their attempt to speak to the contemporaneous feminist body debates with specific reference to Central and East Europe. Included here you find articles that analyse historical materials to map ways in which the (ab)normality of certain bodies has been construed and thereby also an idea of what constitutes a ‘proper citizen’. For instance, Michaela Appeltová reads the discourses of obesity in the Normalisation-era Czechoslovakia. Gundula Ludwig’s article illustrates how normative definitions of the body have historically been closely linked with the advancement a notion of the ‘true’ or ‘proper’ form of democracy. M. Katharina Wiedlack turns the focus on current representations of women from the East in American popular culture. She argues that their bodies become the space where a specific form of racial ‘otherness’ is construed. Further empirical studies are devoted specifically to the Czech and Slovak contexts and focus on various forms of embodied experience. Lucie Pospíšilová and Robert Osman examine the embodied nature of the ‘spacial normative’ as experienced by blind and visually impaired people. Zuzana Pešťanská analyses the ways in which women’s experience of pregnancy relate to its biomedical conceptualisations. Dita Jahodová explores the relationship of trans* people to their own changing embodiment and how these changes figure in the transition narratives and in their (re-)doing of gender identity.
The short essays and texts that round out the theme of this issue definitely deserve the reader’s attention. Lucie Hradecká interviews Daniela Komanická and in dialogue both scholars assess the ongoing project of sexual assistance for people with disabilities. This conversation arises out of their long-term and multifaceted cooperation. They are linked not just only by their intellectual collaboration but also by mutual material and embodied experience with personal assistance and reciprocal care. For instance, Hradecká and Komanická argue that the ostensibly emancipatory project of sexual assistance reinforces the ideological frames of compulsory abledbodiedness, ability and fitness, as well as those of the heteronormative gender order; the intersectional normative framework of ‘orderly citizenship’.
This issue also contains several reviews of Czech and international books and events relating to the debates on embodiment and corporeality. A detailed discussion of those reviews is beyond the scope of this editorial, but a brief mention must at least be made of Zuzana Štefková’s review of the recent Flaesh exhibition at Rudolfinum Gallery presenting artworks of five famous international women artists whose work focuses on embodiment and corporeality. Štefková contextualises her review of these artists against larger context of contemporary feminist art. To conclude this (incomplete) list of worthwhile we come back to the title photograph. Rad Bandit introduces the readers to the project Můj život bez domova (My World without a Home) and thus provides us with a more in-depth insight into the context in which the cover-photograph of this issue originated.
In conclusion we want to extend our thanks to all the authors who helped bring this issue to life and to all the reviewers for their valuable insights that have helped the authors to clarify and strengthen their arguments overall argument of the essay; without their contribution this issue would have not been possible. This thematic issue is also the outcome of our personal cooperation – between us as the guest editors – and as colleagues and co-researchers in the project ‘Biological Citizenship: Forms of Governance and Resistance to Biomedical Knowledge in the Czech Republic’ (GAČR 13-18411S). This issue is one of the outcomes of the project.
Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková, and Kateřina Kolářová
The names of the authors of the editorial (and co-editors of this special issue) are listed in alphabetical order which is not related to their share of work. Both co-editors contributed equally to this special issue.