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This review appeared in Volume 10(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
The Body Politic. Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800. By Antoine de Baecque. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, xvi + 363 pages. ISBN 0-8047-2815-1.
Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. Edited by Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz. London and New York: Routledge 1995, x+512 pages. ISBN 0-415-91399-3.
A conversation between a fictional American silent star of the movies and a screenwriter:The three books under review deal with narration of the body: how the body acts as narrating agent through non verbal communication, even in literary texts; how the body becomes a historically fundamental narrative, and as such, may explain political events; and finally, how the body is itself narrated by its sociocultural environment.
"Oh my God! I forgot to tell you that I must be inaccessible to love.Passions will burn all around me, and I shall pass, cold and untouchable, in the midst of the flames set alight by me."
"And then, this is important, there has to be a scene..."
"For Phébus [the dog]?"
"No. A strange scene...that cannot be understood... And I shall be immobile...like this..." And the beautiful creature slowly lowered her made-up eyelids over her clouded pupils. "And then...all of a sudden...in my look you see everything!! Like this!..." And she opened wide her luminous yellow-green eyes. "So the public understands that I have come to a ter-r-rible decision".
(Translation mine. From "Il Cinematografo" ("The Movies") in A. Vivanti, Zingaresca. 4a ed. (Milano: Quintieri, 1918), 182.)
The emphasis on the eyes in the above epigraph, stereotypically reminiscent of actresses in silent films, is an element that Barabara Korte also considers as textual derivation from films in her study Body Language in Literature. She has noted that while, until the 20th century, looks or glances "almost always have an emotional and/or interpersonal significance"(p. 237), after the advent of films, eye behaviour is found incorporated right into dialogues, as it is here in this passage. In this Italian short story, of course, it is used almost as gestural hyperbole with overt intertextual reference to filmic techniques, but in other stories by the same author it is used, as Korte has suggested, in an unconscious phatic function to establish human contact.
Originally published in German, and somewhat revised in this English translation, Korte's book is a most welcome addition to English literary studies, with observations and commentary that are felicitously applicable to other literatures as well, as we have seen above.
Because the study is filled with numerous relevant examples, it is fitting that it should start with several quotations from novels (from the 1970's and 1980's) and, curiously, one from Titus Andronicus. Korte uses these passages to illustrate her thesis that there is a trend, especially clear in contemporary literature, to a "heightened sensitivity to body language or, to use a less popular term, non-verbal communication (NVC)" (p.3) In order to facilitate her discussion of the topic, she defines NVC as "behaviour (movements and postures, facial expression, glances and eye contact, automatic reactions, spatial and touching behaviour) which is 'meaningful' in both natural and fictional communication". (p.4) She points out that the presentation of non-verbal behaviour certainly contributes to the ways in which a literary text signifies, not only in terms of symbolism but independently of symbolic meaning. This is an important consideration given the fact that while in real life, non verbal communication may be coincidental, in literature "it is integral to the text's artistic design even when it cannot be read as a sign with a clearly defined meaning". (p5).
As she describes her goals in undertaking the study, Korte notes the problematic enterprise of her work; to date, she writes, there has yet to be a conceptual framework or a critical one that encompass the application of the body as a signifying system in literature. Here, and later in the bibliographies, she only superficially acknowledges the work of Fernando Poyatos, describing it correctly as primarily anthropological. On the other hand, it is interesting to consider the affinities between her work, and especially her various charts, and Poyatos' Systems in literary anthropology (1981). While body language is accepted to be an integral part of human interaction, it has yet to gain immediate recognition and interpretation when it is mediated through words written on a page, especially when, as readers, we realize that those words have been manipulated also for stylistic effects. Nor is our interpretive enterprise aided by the fact that NVC is highly variable in literary texts, taking on different ramifications from literary period to literary period, genre to genre, author to author ( here Korte has noticed that women are more sensitive to body language than men), text to text, or even, as Korte observes, within one text itself. One may grasp the difficulty of NVC analysis in considering a multiply-layered text such as Possession by A.S. Byatt (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989) or John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (London: Jonathan Cape and Boston: Little Brown, 1969).
A focus on NVC furthers our appreciation of a narrative in several ways, according to Korte. It may provide information about characters or it may describe their function and status in their fictional environment. Body language also creates different narrative perspectives, contributing thus to the effect of the text as a whole. On the other hand, it may also make us realize that there are lacunae in our interpretive skills because we cannot understand the NVC of a narrative due to lack of knowledge of a culture or historical period. Korte offers a particularly appropriate example taken from Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. There, today's reader may missthe import of a brief breach of social propriety (namely the fact that Osmond remains seated in the presence of Madame Merle) which to Osmond's wife was a clear, although unspoken, indication of the intimate relationship that had been established between her husband and Madame Merle (p14).
After presenting a brief overview of previous research in the field, Korte proceeds by offering numerous examples of NVC in English literary texts that elucidate various aspects of her observations. Korte's diagrams for the categories she has delineated are particularly intriguing and bring up the question of individual interpretation, that is, how will the diagrams of the same literary samples be similar or divergent to those of other readers who may ascribe varied signifying systems to their reading. Thus for example, in a novel such as Possession by A. S. Byatt (to which Korte also refers), reading the "colors" of the novel as PreRaphaelite choices, as does Stephen Dondershine, may change the focus of those NVC passages where colour is involved (eg. the buying of the ebony brooch).,
If NVC is present as an element in a literary text, it will have a greater semiotic importance than NVC in real situations. Furthermore, it will also necessarily exist as an image often having a technical or structural function within the text. As such, it aids in the process of transmitting narrative information, or it may be used to establish coherence within a text, or it may help to establish differences and similarities among characters.
In the last chapters of the study, Korte focuses on the historical developments of literary NVC in the British prose fiction from the sixteenth century to the present. Using the diagrams from the previous chapters, she provides examples to show that before Samuel Richardson, most examples of NVC were highly socially coded within the courtly world portrayed in the texts and were thus overwhelmingly of a conventional repertoire. Since the mid-eighteenth century, however, authors seem to be more aware of natural body language and use it to a much greater degree, and especially at the two most important cornerstones of a novel, the beginning and the end. During this period, literary NVC is given greater attention; there is more physiological detail, reflecting reality and the familiar, often for dramatic effect. Nor are psychological states overlooked as NVC increasingly expresses these as well. Korte observes that as techniques of writing have undergone a general shift in the 20th century, so has NVC become less overt, more related to report rather than description. Korte's comments on the effects of photography and cinema on body language in narrative, despite their brevity, are sure to arouse many discussions on interpretation of literary texts, given the heightened experimentation found in late 20th novels. But one example is Canadian author Michael Dean's novel (piece?) entitled In Search of the Perfect Lawn (Toronto: Black Moss Press, 1986), in which much of the "body" language has been appropriated from F. Scott Fitz-gerald's Great Gatsby, but is being shown from the viewpoint of the lawn. Fascinating repercussions may also be considered in Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume (New York etc.: Bantam, 1984), where, besides NVC, the novel is propelled by scent; I shall only imagine the discussions that would arise if Laura Esquivel's work Law of Love: A Novel with Music (English Translation New York: Crown Publishers, 1996) were to be discussed with Korte's ideas in mind. Would the NVC be heightened or diminished by the reader's choice to play or to dispense with, the accompanying CD while reading the book?
Korte's "narrating body" is presented as narrative body in an excellent and thought-provoking study by Antoine de Baecque entitled The Body Politic. Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800. This, as was the above, is also a translation of a work originally published in 1993. But while Korte's study encompasses a broad field of English narrative, de Baecque focusses on a more narrow and specialized historical moment, albeit of fundamental importance. Their points of departure are similar in the fact that they are constituted by a text. On the one hand, Korte's observations come from fictional prose examples while de Baecque chooses print and image to present his research on metaphors commenting on a political event. He begins by acknowledging that the word "body" (=corps ) entails a problematic polysemy that at times involves contradictory interpretations. Nevertheless, he writes: "[i]f this metaphor of the body is so powerful at the end of the eighteenth century, it is precisely because it, better than any other, succeeds in connecting narrative and knowledge, meaning and knowing." (p.5) De Baecque's premise in Part I of the study is that there are three body politics that eventually take us from the body of the king to the body of citizens: that of embodying the state, as well as that of narrating history (which Louis Marin has dealt with, with his focus on the Sun King), and that of peopling ceremonies. In Part II, de Baecque studies how metaphors of the body anticipate and then describe the French Revolution. The politics are represented in three ways: anthropomorphically as symbolic of the political system, metaphorically as discourse whose aim is persuasion, and finally as a representation offered in public ceremonies. The metaphors that are inherent in these categories work on multiple registers aptly represented by the thousands of pamphlets that proliferated in Revolutionary France. Finally in Part III, the author seeks to present "the spectacle-body", held up to the powerful public gaze through rituals, and specifically through the rituals that are representative of Revolutionary France.
The opening chapters of the study present a fascinating overview of written documentation, all concerned with the alleged impotence of Louis XVI of France. De Baecque offers us a wide array of textual material in which the overwhelming concern of the writers is the effect of the King's lack of interest in procreating, and thus providing a future king, or his inability to do so. His texts include diplomatic missives, as well as family letters and, on the more popular level, lyrics of drinking songs dealing with the concern. He establishes, therefore, considerable support for his thesis. He shows how the initial image of the impotent king reappears as the momentum towards revolution increases "at first as a side issue, then later brought to the heart of the Revolution itself in the battle for power. From now on, the linkbetween physical and moral "nullity" no longer has to be demonstrated: it is a given..." (p.51). Contemporary verse, prose and images all reiterated the impotence of Louis XVI in vulgar, obscene ways. De Baecque shows how the king's illness of 1791 served to fuel the Republican cause, giving opportunities to pamphleteers and others to associate the king's disgustingly sick body with his weakness as ruler. Guided by writers such as the Abbé Sièyes, who considered himself among the "healers of the social body"(p.82), privilege is soon seen as the social and political disease of France. De Baecque points to the proliferation at this time of corporeal metaphors in political pamphlets indicating that the "great citizen body" was sick and in need of a cure.
The second part of this study shows how "regeneration", which before 1730 had been used in medical or religious contexts, came to replace the corporeal metaphors of the Revolution. Eventually it was understood to encompass physical, moral and political rebirth. Thus, the importance of the word "regeneration" cannot be overlooked as de Baecque observes. He documents and comments on the changes which the word undergoes as sociopolitical forces reshape it. Beginning with the definition offered by the Dictionnaire universel of Furetiere (1690 edition), he carefully notes the evolving glosses for the next century or so. Regeneration, however, does not remain as the enthusiastic precursor of the New Man of France; as the word enters the vocabulary of the pamphleteers it takes on sarcastic overtones. The opposite of regeneration is also present in the corporeal metaphors of revolutionary France. Often this monstrous element, these terrible impulses are represented by the image of the aristocratic Judas, which begins appearing in print after 1789. The engraving of this "giant Iscariot, aristocrat" remains then, as an iconographic representation of degeneracy and the deformation of the body politic. An image of continued decadence cannot remain fixed; another must come to replace it. Thus, de Baecque maintains that when Jacques-Louis David, after his own artistic regeneration in Italy, undertakes to paint The Tennis Court Oath in 1790, his decision is significant. "[T]he ideal being that David constructs is no longer merely beautiful, it is political; it is no longer merely beautiful, it is regenerated; the figure is no longer merely beautiful, it also becomes terrible." (p.186). The bodies of David's work are instilled with multiple signification, highly politicized by contemporary events and simultaneously responsive to rediscovered sense of aesthetics.
David's depiction of the Tennis Court Oath captured a public spectacle. More importantly, it established the representation of the body in public ceremonies. To corroborate his observations, de Baecque, in Part III of his study, takes as his point of departure Book IV of the Origins of Contemporary France by Hippolyte Taine in which the latter "stresses the importance of classifying appearances in the eyes of the revolutionaries" (p.210). De Baecque proposes that, as a result of this attitude, all appearances and all actions were open to the public gaze, and out of necessity to avoid political repercussion, became transparent. There ensued, in fact, a ritualization or spectacle of transparency. By carefully documenting such a ritualization in contemporary newspapers, de Baecque convincingly shows that the final result of public transparency was the sacrifice of the bodies of anyone under even minimal suspicion of degeneracy. Ironically, spectacle must be almost absenteven in festival, as pamphlets such as Linguet's Address to the French people concerning what should be done and what should not be done to celebrate the memorable and national festival of 14 July 1790, show. Among the important aspects of transparent public ritual was that of funerals; the revolutionary hero and martyr initiates a tragic discourse which allows the Republican cause to become imagistically associated with the wounds of heroic bodies, as is especially evident in the funeral "exhibition" of the body of the assassinated Jean-Paul Marat (1793). De Baecque points to the careful referencing of the latter with the body of Christ in both the unbearable contemplation of horror and also the acceptance of glory.
The momentum behind the Revolution could not be sustained forever; nor could the images that embodied this movement. In the last chapter De Baecque discusses a different body, that of the allegorized Liberty, as it is represented on the seal of the national archives from late September of 1792 on. His study of the engraved letterheads of the official letters of the first French Republic, is praiseworthy. He observes that it is a goddess, Liberty, who represents the new France and not the "naked and disheveled allegory leading men into battle" (p.321) and concludes that "this is the legacy of the French Revolution: abandoning the terrible colossus to totalitarian regimes, it has raised up the body of a woman to tell of Liberty" (p.323).
To read History through the printed images of period of great upheaval requires much patience and painstaking perusal of numerous original documents, as de Baecque has so laudably done. In our own postmodern era, the documents and electronic images that proliferate not only assist us in establishing a historical paradigm in which we will be read in the future, but delineate as well our contemporary body politic. If the French revolution was concerned with the body as representative of class, we, as necessary readers of feminism and postcolonialism, are concerned with the body as representative of gender and race. Our images, electronic and printed, narrate our bodies and the body politic.
The acknowledgement in recent studies that Ebonics, the dialect of African Americans, has been accepted as a legitimate language, reminds us of the impact that linguist Robin Lakoff's1975 study entitled Language and Woman's Place ( New York: Harper and Row, 1975 ) has had on the establishment of minority voices, and not only those of women, that had previously been silenced. Thus it is fitting that Lakoff's fundamental work be revisited on the occasion of the 20th year after its publication, and reproposed for a more contemporary academic readership.Gender Articulated is a collection of 19 essays whose purpose, according to the editors in their introduction, is to locate the seeds of contemporary research in the field and to reconcile the often misunderstood historical context of the field with a theoretical framework. They wish to show how, despite the sometimes harsh criticisms of Lakoff's research of the biases of male dominated language and the cultural expectations which inscribe it, the theoretical mainstream of linguistics which informs it, has never been overlooked.
Gender Articulated is divided into three main parts. Part I, "Mechanisms of Hegemony and Control", deals with how language reinforces cultural paradigms of gender ideology. It opens with an essay by Robin Lakoff herself: "Cries and Whispers: The Shattering of the Silence" whichdescribes contemporary views of American women in the forefront of public discourse (eg. Hillary Rodham Clinton,Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding, Anita Hill and others). Lakoff observes that while women are no longer being silenced to the degree that they had been in the past, the inevitable backlash against their voices does not yet allow "a public discourse in which women may participate as full equals" (p.48). This observation serves as the point of departure for the other essays of this section which examine the voice of women on the Internet as well as how the "Father-Knows-Best" dynamic continues to inform the conversations of white middle class America; another essay, "Synthetic Sisterhood", discusses 'synthetic personalization' of teen magazines that offer to be a seemingly personal and sympathetic older sister to their teenage readership. In particular it is this essay by Mary Talbot that delineates the contemporary narrating and narrative body. Since its publication, there have been numerous market studies on how to co-opt teenage and preteen ("tween") girls into consumership. Talbot's study focuses on how advertising in magazines for teens succeeds in this venture through the guise of an imagined sister who offers advice. My own enquiries show that even the editorial material of such magazines co-opts the teenage reader by acting as a friend. Teen magazines use text and image in their editorial content in order to promote self confidence in teenage women. Simultaneously, the magazines minimalize existing self esteem by advising how and how much improvement a young woman must undergo before becoming socially acceptable to the standards that the magazine has set up. The central way of attracting the adolescent reader remains the guise of becoming her "friend", of introducing her to other "friends" of the magazine, usually young celebrities, and of giving her "friendly" advice. The ruse of friendship is an effective one, according to Gene Del Vecchio. He has observed that [t]he older the child is, the more intense this [group] pressure becomes. In research conducted with groups of twelve-year-old girls, for example, it is not unusual for a girl, when asked a question of the moderator, to glance at the other girls in the group before she answers. In effect, she is desperately trying to read their expressions before she commits to calling a brand or idea cool or not.
The teen magazine "friend" is also attractive because it uses the cool language of an exclusive circle of "friends" with desirable shared traits. These include a good looks, a tasteful aesthetic sense, freedom from daily problems and annoyances, lack of preoccupation with money, ownership of many new possessions, among which the most important is 'the boyfriend'. Section 2 of Gender Articulated, "Agency through Appropriations," focuses on how the innovative use of language overturns the dominant cultural paradigms. Among the essays here are "Language Gender and Power" by Susan Gal which reviews sociolinguistic and cultural studies in the field. "Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines" by Kira Hall details the pay-per-minute fantasy phone lines. Perhaps the essay with the most far reaching ramifications especially for educators is "'Tasteless' Japanese: Less 'Feminine' Speech Among Young Japanese Women" by Shigeko Okamoto. As the Japanese language becomes increasingly important among the North American male and female participants in world economic matters, the awareness of how to teach a language overtly dependent on male domination and female subservience is of fundamental consideration.
In Section 3, entitled "Contingent Practices and Emergent Selves," the essays focuson how women construct and participate in social identities that are not predetermined by gender relations. Particularly striking is Tara Goldstein's essay on the situation of Portuguese female factory line workers in Toronto. Entitled "'Nobody is Talking Bad': Creating Community and Claiming Power on the Production Line", it describes how the lack of the privileged language, ie. English, establishes a bond among this group of women. It is, as is the essay on Japanese, of utmost relevance to the educators who teach these women, their friends and especially their daughters, because as teachers they will have to bear in mind the sociocultural repercussions created by the non-language bond.
The three studies reviewed here are divergent in their perspectives. All are excellent endeavours that contribute much to the field of reading the body figuratively. They are of fundamental relevance in showing how the body demonstrates agency in narrating itself, while simultaneously it is a narrative within it sociopolitical context, and while it is also acted upon by that same sociopolitical context. All three works are sure to become catalysts for further academic enquiries in the field.
F. Poyatos, "Literary Anthropology: a New Interdisciplinary Perspective of Man Through His Narrative Literature" in Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici 28 (gennaio-aprile 1981), pp. 3-28. Cf. also F. Poyatos, "Conversation" (pp.144-147), "Nonverbal Bodily Sign Categories" (pp.447-451), "Nonverbal communication in the Novel" (pp.451-453) in Encyclopedia of Semiotics. Ed. By Paul Bouissac (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP), 1998.
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Stephen Dondershine (San Jose University), "Color and Identity in A.S. byatt’s Possession" available on website http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/jwss.od/possession/fr-essay.html
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Del Vecchio, G. Creating Ever-Cool. A Marketer's Guide to a Kid's Heart (New York: Pelican, 1997), 229.
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Anne Urbancic teaches in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto and in the Program in Semiotics and Communication Theory at Victoria College (University of Toronto). Recent publications include articles in SRB and Semiotica.