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.

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