Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Seeing Bodies

Yesterday I attended Professor Alice Donohue’s lecture on “The Lifelikeness of Greek Art” and I was struck by the ways in which the body in art is always a site of overlapping normative frameworks. There is of course the normative framework within which the artist works: we manufacture bodies that serve to perpetuate certain systems, practices, or regiments at the expense of others. But there’s also the normative framework of the critic, who, as he digs through the detritus of the past, sorts bodies into categories (beauty, perfection, culmination vs. stylized, idealized, exaggerated, decline) that simultaneously reflect and produce the norms of larger cultural institutions.

As Donohue pointed out, there’s an infinitude of natural variation within human bodies, so it makes little sense to try to pin down a physical feature as “stylized,” “affected,” “idealized,” or “exaggerated” (and implicitly undesirable) only to send someone (who may just happen to desire it) on a quest for a real body with precisely that “unrealistic” feature, and yet for a long time this is precisely what art historians and critics did. Entire conceptual frameworks like Mannerism have been built around fundamentally untenable judgments of bodies.

Butler’s book might have been titled Bodies Matter, but its actual title, Bodies That Matter, suggests that not all bodies are made to matter, or are made to matter in the same ways. These qualitative differences come to the fore in the art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (as the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, well, rechristened its Islamic art collection), which, at certain moments, adopts an aniconic stance in the realm of religious imagery. This has important repercussions for how we understand recent scandals like the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and Wednesday’s attack on Charlie-Hebdo. Butler’s recent work has touched on the issues at the core these controversies, and I hope to explore them more over the next few weeks. But as I listened to Professor Donohue’s lecture, I realized that first as a medievalist, and now as an Islamicist, I’ve been moving steadily away from the quagmire of the “realistic” body and its alarmingly disciplinary role in visual culture.

While it’s probable that the cartoony bodies of medieval art in general, and Islamic art in particular, played largely the same disciplinary role as their more realistic predecessors, contemporaries, or successors (even these seemed astoundingly lifelike to a contemporaneous viewer), they seem to have escaped, or perhaps resisted, the other half of the equation: art-historical analysis qua production of the normative body. This may partly be because they were created by and/or portray the bodies of various Others—they’re only useful for the orientalist fantasies of romantic reactionaries (let’s go play dress-up in the Alhambra), and can play but a limited role in constructions of the normative body. But I would argue that their divergence from what we currently call “realism,” indelibly marked by the invention of the photograph, is crucial to their failure to act either as ideal or as abject bodies in the dominant communal, regional, national, or transnational visual cultures that we encounter on a daily basis.

I’m also in the process of working on a dissertation proposal, and it looks like I’m going to be spending the next few years thinking very hard about the bodies of animals in early Islamic art. While these bodies may have mattered a great deal, as I will argue, the systems that depended on them for meaning would have been threatened or destabilized by the recognition of this dependence. Which is a long way of saying that I find myself in the curious position of studying bodies that don’t matter, or perhaps are only beginning to matter in some curious ways.

One Comment

  1. I was struck by your description of the critic as one who “sorts bodies into categories (beauty, perfection, culmination vs. stylized, idealized, exaggerated, decline) that simultaneously reflect and produce the norms of larger cultural institutions.”

    The discrepancy between what is reflected by the norms of our cultural institutions (if I may borrow your phrase) and what is represented by the “progress” of our political institutions (gay marriage for example), illuminates for me some of the insights in Butler’s “Competing Universalities”. I will attempt to keep this comment as brief as possible, so I’m going to perform several associative leaps, willfully taking quotes out of context, and I hope you’ll jump along.

    The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture opened on October 30, 2010 and it included a brief video by artist, author, and activist David Wojnarowicz. The video was pulled from the show amid controversy over a span of 11 seconds in which ants were filmed walking over a crucifix. Jonathan Katz, co-curator with David Ward of the exhibit, was quoted on CultureGrrl, an ArtsJournal weblog:

    “Ask why the Metropolitan Museum, Whitney and Guggenheim have not only refused to acknowledge the import of sexuality in recent exhibitions of the work of living artists like Johns or Twombly (and Rauschenberg, who was alive when his retrospective was up), but dead ones, too, as in the Met’s Eakins retrospective. Even worse, let’s ask why 25 plus years of queer studies scholarship has been purged from the catalogs for these shows.” (December 8, 2010)

    And this brings me to my first leap—Butler writes: “Those who should ideally be included within any operation of the universal find themselves not only outside its terms, but as the very outside without which the universal could not be formulated, living as the trace, the spectral remainder, which does not have a home in the forward march of the universal.”

    In preserving and recognizing Art with a capital A, what is remaindered, may be the very impetus for the art, that needs recognizing and preserving, to exist at all. Which brings me to my next jump, from art to bodies, and to your suggestion “that not all bodies are made to matter, or are made to matter in the same ways.” I would say that the bodies of Johns or Twombly do not matter in the same way as other artists’ bodies to the Met, Whitney, or Guggenheim.

    My next associative leap becomes a question: in the desire for equal rights for gay citizens, will other bodies have to matter less or be suppressed in the march toward Progress with a capital P? And I think I go there because of the following Butler quotes:

    “And lives make claims in all sorts of ways that are not necessarily verbal.”

    “It is to live as the unspeakable and the unspoken for, those who form the blurred human background of something called ‘the population.’ To make a claim on one’s own behalf assumes that one speaks the language in which the claim can be made, and speaks it in such a way that the claim can be heard.”

    So much depends upon what makes a claim “hear-able.” I think this is where the role of museum, critic, and curator is so important: David Wojnarowicz is heard more now than he was when he was alive. His language did not change; the way in which it was heard did. An artist, activitst, author, etc. can speak on behalf of those whom progress can’t include in its march toward real political gains, and someone, something, some catalyst for hearing, is just as critical.

    I’m going to end with a quote from Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, published in 1992, the year in which David Wojnarowicz died as a result of AIDS:

    “I am no longer animal vegetable or mineral. I am no longer made of circuits or disks. I am no longer coded and deciphered. … No gesture can touch me … I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands. I am shouting my invisible words. … I am disappearing but not fast enough.”