A post at butterfliesandwheels.com made me think of a brief rumpus that I had a few months ago with a bunch of post-structuralists. What would be the collective noun, I wonder – the equivalent of a “murder of crows“: a “puddle“? A “pompous“? A “perturbation“?
Whatever we want to call them, they can be unpleasant. (An “unpleasant” of post-structuralists?)
At a conference (about the concept of “veiling”, both in its literal and metaphorical senses), I found myself under relentless attack for my humble suggestion that any debate about this or related issues is meaningless if we don’t link cultural phenomena (or “discourses”) back to some material reality. More specifically, I suggested that we need to confront the question to what extent our bodies shape our senses of self long before culture kicks in.
This was triggered by the claim, made by a speaker who had spent twenty minutes jumping back and forth from Freud to Lacan to Derrida – with a juicy bit of violent Japanese porn thrown in for good measure – that “the wound”, too, is a type of veil which, when torn, reveals underneath it the epistemic void of which some of my colleagues seem to be so enamoured.
No, I said somewhat irately during the discussion, thinking of all the wounds that we get to see on a daily basis in the media and the reality that they quite clearly denote: if you tear open a wound there’s likely to be metres of intestine, pulsing and bleeding flesh and flabby fat underneath it. The body is not a text. It’s bloody, smelly and alive – and it hurts if you do that kind of thing to it.
Perhaps I was naïve in thinking that I could get away unscathed – not wounded, that is – in using the dreaded and indeed heretical b-word (biology) to support my point. Almost immediately I was set upon by a waif-like art historian in apparent anorectic denial of her body, who exclaimed:
“Show me the biological body!”
(The line comes across better in the original German, which combines the stilted politeness of the formal “you” with the exasperated condescendence of the unacknowledged avant-garde while introducing an undeniable (albeit probably unwanted) innuendo: “Dann zeigen Sie mir doch den biologischen Körper!”)
My healthy instincts of status-preservation prevented me from accepting her invitation in a literal sense. Though I must say I was tempted.
This exchange was followed by a kindly (or rather: friendly-aggressive) interception by another member of the auditorium, who patiently explained a “theoretical” position to me that I’d been aware of for at least fifteen years and in which, for a very brief period of my life, I also passionately adhered to:
“What we mean is that the body can only be accessed through the cultural codes that simultaneously describe and determine it.”
Or something along those lines, which I must have read umpteen times, in variations, over many years and might in fact have written myself at one point in my life – but whose heuristic significance veers towards zero.
Hearing these kind of statements only affirms my sneaking suspicion, shared by a number of sane colleagues, that the intellectual format of the humanities at present is deeply parochial and its presumably open-minded representatives intolerant at heart.
I mean: if all we can do is identify the famous codes that determine us down to our toenails, what’s the point of our work? Why waste our time at conferences slinging high-falutin’ jargon at each other to assert our status as alpha-theorists, when all this is just a discursive entanglement?
And, if that is the case, why was my discourse at this conference such an intolerable provocation?
But even more fundamentally: who makes those darn codes? Do they just hover around us like a nasty miasmic mist? Is there some gigantic computer programming them? Who programmes the computer? Who watches the Watchmen?
Open the pod-bay door, Hal!
Or might it be some intelligent designer, after all?
Still, I must say that, apart from being intellectually offended by such statements, I’m also personally hurt by being treated like a benighted moron requiring initiation into allegedly arcane realms of high theory that I’m entirely familiar with – especially if the people who feel they need to initiate me are intellectual fashionistas wearing the rags from three seasons ago.
(Comic credit: here)