Fabricating the Body: Effects of Obligation and Exchange in Contemporary Discourse – reviewed by Fiona Pettit

‘Fabricating the Body: Effects of Obligation and Exchange in Contemporary Discourse’ by Sarah Himsel Burcon (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013)

ftbIn Fabricating the Body, Sarah Himsel Burcon brings together nine essays exploring identity and the body in literary and popular culture contexts. With an aim to ‘prompt and continue conversations surrounding the body’ (p. 4) this collection splits its focus between real and imagined spaces. Burcon applies the term ‘indebted’ to the diverse range of marginalised or subordinate bodies and bodily narratives explored in this collection. Overall this work aims to problematize ‘issues related to Modernity and postmodern culture – such as disruption, contradiction, performance, and fragmentation’ (p. 5) through an exploration of gender, class and identity issues in narrative and cultural engagements with indebted bodies.

Split in to two sections, this collection concentrates on the multifarious narratives of indebted bodies appearing in literature from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries (section one), and the engagement with indebted bodies through the actual spaces occupied by popular culture (section two). There is an uneven distribution of chapters between the two sections. Whilst section one is interesting and intellectually stimulating in terms of the diverse genres covered,  the discussion is enriched in the second part through a focus on bodily narratives and a shift in the discourse from imagined to real spaces. However, the book would have been strengthened by having more chapters in the second section.

Opening the collection, Rachel Herzl-Betz’s chapter situates late nineteenth-century freak show narratives alongside the decadent world of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Herzl-Betz argues that useful analyses can be made by juxtaposing these two disparate groups (freak show performers and the aesthetes) since each embodied a series of contradictions willingly accepted by their audiences.

Next, Emily J. Workman Keller explores the subordinate women in Jane Rogers’ Mr. Wroe’s Virgins. This novel depicts the lives of some early nineteenth-century women who were taken in by the religious prophet, John Wroe, and were laden with all the domestic labour involved in running his estate. Keller illustrates the burden this responsibility placed on the virgins’ who were seen as indebted bodies simply because they were female. However, the character of Hannah seeks an alternative to the lifestyle she has been placed in and struggles through her limited opportunities to improve her situation and become financially independent.  Keller argues that Hannah’s resilience, honesty and hard work help her fulfil the role of the perceived ideal woman in an overtly gendered and patriarchal society.

Matthew J. Sherman then applies the notion of the indebted female body to the act of exchanging money for nude posing in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else. Schnitzler’s novella centres on a young woman encouraged by her family to pose naked for an artist in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Sherman explains that exhibitionism of female nude modelling coincides with the indebtedness of the female body to a social order dominated by male desire. Ultimately, Else decides that the patriarchal debt is not one she is willing to pay and commits suicide, demonstrating the ‘heavy price’ women must pay to free themselves from this system.

Utilizing Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and the ‘gender-troubling structures and processes still evident in postmodern life’ (p. 57), Mary Catherine Harper discusses Neil Gaiman’s serial graphic novel, The Sandman. Harper focuses on the central figure of Morpheus, who is a postmodern representation of historical tragic heroes. Through Morpheus, Harper illustrates the unravelling and complication of gender debts and the subject/abject relationship within the Sandman series.

Chapter five turns to the post-apocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Mandy Chi Man Lo uses to explore the relationship between the ruinous landscape and the human body. Despite the breakdown of moral constraints in this desolate world, Lo argues that the novel stresses the importance of love in human interactions even in the terrible and troubling times.

Melissa Ames’s chapter turns to pedagogy through her experience of teaching a cross-curricular course that combines issues in scientific research and dystopian literature. For this chapter, indebted bodies signify ‘bodies created by technology, dependent on technology, governed by technology, or punished by technology’ (p. 84). Ames gives an overview of the reading, assessment and discussion on the course to demonstrate how the students were able to engage with and learn about social responsibility, and to relate the motifs in literature to their other disciplines.

Leading the next section, titled ‘The Body in Popular Discourse’, Burcon examines the mediated portrayals of weddings in America and how these reinforce traditional models of women in the domestic realm instead of challenging stereotypes. Burcon includes bridal magazines, social media, reality television and films to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this mediated image of weddings. She warns of the necessity of examining and challenging these cultural products so that the current social standards may be improved.

Next, Kristi McDuffie explores an online women’s blog, Jezebel, as a vehicle for provoking rhetoric of praise and blame in current debates regarding breastfeeding and normative behaviour. Ultimately, McDuffie finds this popular discourse on infant feeding to be detrimental rather than productive due to its gravitation towards a ‘norm’ instead of a celebration and acceptance of the variation and multiplicity of women’s bodies and lives. Similar to Burcon’s findings in the previous chapter, McDuffie’s study points to pervasive representations of ideal habits and behaviour articulated in popular cultural spaces.

In the final chapter, Adrienne Bliss delves into the world of the forever-indebted body, meaning that of a prisoner sentenced to life without parole (LWOP).  He explores fictional and non-fictional prison narratives to access the prisoners’ voices. This literature demonstrates the debt paid by imprisoned people exemplified through the loss of their identity, the removal of possessions and names, as well as the loss of sanity and health,. Bliss stresses the importance of examining these narratives and considering the lived experience of the forever indebted body as a matter of social responsibility.

The notion of the indebted body, which is at the heart of this collection, seems to fluctuate in importance and meaning throughout the book. The diversity of the chapters making up this collection has the dual effect of providing a well-rounded approach to the study of narratives on the body while it also detracts from the main theme connecting these analyses. This disjointedness is sometimes further exacerbated by the depth of the essays themselves. Within this collection are some deeply focused and wonderfully argued claims, but the strength of these is somewhat undermined by the few chapters with underdeveloped and less substantiated arguments. At times, it feels very much that the topic under discussion is still a work in progress. This, in itself, is not problematic since the collection aims to broaden the conversation on bodies, but it is unfortunate that the opportunity to divide the developed and developing ideas was not capitalised. Making this distinction could have provided some indication of the current state of the field as well as the new avenues being pursued. Further, the text would have benefitted from a more in-depth introduction exploring the subject area and the place of this collection within current debates. A more clearly defined position for this work and further justification of its scope would perhaps have avoided or smoothed the disjointed feeling of this collection.

Since the focal point of this book is the body, it is certainly relevant to a medical humanities audience, particularly scholars concerned with literary narrative and popular discourse. Those working with literature-based subjects have the most to gain from this book, but there is also plenty of interest for those working within the fields of gender and cultural studies. The latter part of the book, in particular, is likely to provide rich discussions on contemporary popular culture and gender norms for these audiences. However, determining the impact this collection may have, particularly in light of the disjointed elements mentioned above, is quite difficult. This collection provides a mix of genres and disciplines in order to broaden the discussion of bodily narratives, but more consistency in terms of the quality of the content is required in order for this collection to be a ‘go-to’ text for scholars or students within these fields.

The debates presented in this collection certainly open the door for further discussion on ongoing controversial matters concerning indebted bodies in society. While this collection has focused largely on gender and class distinctions, further work might place more emphasis on issues of disability and race. For instance, using indebtedness as a framework for examining the increased scrutiny of social welfare recipients and the mandatory re-evaluations of people receiving state support for their disabilities in the United Kingdom would provide compelling case studies. Moreover, the notion of embodiment and ownership of one’s body seem inherent to debates on indebted bodies, so future work on this subject would be strengthened by their inclusion.

Reviewed by Fiona Pettit (PhD, Exeter), an independent scholar working in the field of medical humanities with a focus on the circulation of bodily narratives (both projected and embodied narratives). To date, her research has examined Victorian freak shows, the X-Men films, disability and gender, primarily from a cultural theory perspective. Her current work explores the sharing and circulation of ‘expert patient’ narratives in the Diabetes Online Community (DOC).

Correspondence to Fiona Pettit

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