Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB

SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Body Matters

by John O'Neill

Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Edited by Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, New York: Urzone,lnc.,1989. Three volumes, Part One (480pp), Part Two (552pp), Part Three (578pp). ISBN 0-942299-23-2.

Zone books have produced a magnificent three volume work of art and scholarship that is itself a sensuous object to the touch and to the eye. It is however difficult to handle, being too heavy to hold for long and too lovely to mark up in a critical reading. This is a sad complaint that should perhaps be treated as a reviewerts trouble and left at that since anyone who sees the volumes will want to possess them like a Book of Hours to be used only for the pleasure of the text. Libella sua fata habent. Of course, an extraordinary amount of work has gone into the individual essays (some of which are pursued at unusual length as if for the love of it). The task of trying at all to convey a "history" of "the" body-even when one concedes that at best a "fragmentary" sketch is all that can be achieved -- can only be admired like the body itself which is so beautifully employed to make each volume an icon of wholeness and endurance. Each volume is contained by a cover that is itself a fold out (Christ Figure, Venus and Cupid, Anatomical Statue). The volumes are also remarkable for the number of drawings, illustrations and photographs they reproduce from historical sources, as well from India, China, Japan and Africa. Taken Together the illustrations are clearly deployed to set up an iconography that is both an illustrated and illustrious survey of the topics treated textually throughout the three volumes.

What is in the more than 1600 pages of essays? I am not going to be able to tell you (so this review may not even pass muster ). Nor am I going to play the deconstructive game of telling you instead what is not (who is not) in these volumes. The reviewer's ideological indignation is just as boring as the reviewer's exhaustion by now, I think. One can imagine that the editors gave an enormous amount of thought to their project. They knew before they started it was impossible to treat every aspect of embodied experience once the point is taken that all human experience is culturally coded and that "different" societies, at "different" times in history and in widely"different" institutional settings, exploit "different" bodies through a wide range of semiotic practices. These practices in turn filter bodily experience at the same time that the body itself offers a cultural filter to its own institutional milieu. Nothing escapes this two-way semiosis -- not now, not in the past and not in the future; not here and not anywhere.

The editorial decision that informs each of three volumes was to show how the body is constructed rather than represented. But, of course, this will not do since the "construction" of the body is itself variously coded as plant, machine, automaton and map and these in turn are subject to their own historical semiosis. But more important is the intention of the editors to achieve "a thickened perception of the present" and to "define more precisely the current boundaries of an ethics of the body" -- in accordance with insights from Foucault. Needless to say, no essay (all were written for these volumes) attempts to work out what Feher calls "the saving deficiency" in our humanity -- a programme that appears to envisage a limit of some sort to current celebrations of postmodern pervertability. Meantime, the body materials gathered by the contemporary collectors have to be considered to have been arranged to facilitate a variety of interpretative and ethical exercises that will fall to the part of future readers. With this in mind, we may now sketch the vision adopted in the several volumes (referred to as Part One, Two and Three).

Thus, in Part One, sixteen essays are concerned to look at the human body inasmuch as it is conceived of as a body between higher, divine bodies and lower, monstrous bodies. There are essays on the Greek, Roman, Daoist and Christian images of gender, flesh, face, corpse as they function in the divination of the body and there are essays on ghosts, chEmeras, werewolves and puppets as they function in the demonization of the body. In every case, exceptional scholarship is combined with historical and art perspectives to introduce us to a complex semiotic interaction between divine, human and non-human orders of experience.

In part Two, the horizontal axis is, so to speak, exchanged for the transversal plane in which the psycho-somatic or inside outside relations of the body are explored. Fifteen essays carefully analyse the hermeneutical practices involved in reading bodily insides from bodily outsides-soul, nudity, intelligence, seductiveness, courtliness, health, illness, mortality -- all offer suitable semiotic exercises for the connoisseurs of semiosis. It is in the Third Part, that the overall programme perhaps catches up with its initial exploration of the possible ethical limits of embodiment. Here eighteen essays work upon the interaction between the body and its public life in studies of the body politic, sacrifice and sexuality, dentistry and pregnancy -- where bodily organs, parts and substances function as metaphors for social organization, to naturalize a political process, royalty, papacy or patriarchy-or else to mobilize conflict and revolution.

In addition to the valuable bibliographies appended to each of the contributions, there is a final bibliographical essay on the sociogenesis of "the characteristically Western body". In turn, this essay (A Repertory of Body History) has its own Topical Index and, last of all, a Listing of Topics. But the latter contains no cross references to the three wonderful volumes we have surveyed, nor any page references. It is nothing but a shopping list of things one may or may not think of when setting about studying the body.

Here I return to the reviewer's lament but with a recommendation that future volumes (since they are planned) will contain an overall index so that we can delight ourselves more easily by tracing our own designs with the gorgeous fragments offered to us by so many scholars.

John O Neill is a Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. He is the author of The Communicative Body (1989), Five Bodies (1985), Plato's Cave: Desire, Power and the Speculative Functions of the Media (1990).


Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives