Body Language

Jessica White

Abstract


Jessica craned her head to take in the imposing, stone building, then lowered her gaze to the gold-plated sign at the base of the steps.  “Institute of Methodology”, it read. 

Inside the heavy iron doors, a woman sat at a desk, her face devoid of expression.

“Subject area?” asked the woman.

“Uhmm, feminism ... and fiction, I think.”

“Turn right.”

“Do you have a map?”

“No.”

“How am I meant to find things?”

“Each has their own method; it’s not up to us to prescribe that.”

Jessica sighed, readjusted her handbag and turned right.  A corridor stretched out before her.  She set off, her stiletto boots echoing on the hard wooden floor.

The first door she arrived at had the words “Deleuze and Guattari” positioned squarely in the middle.  She hesitated, then turned the doorknob.

The room was white and empty.  A male voice issued from somewhere but she couldn’t tell the direction from which it came.  It droned on, with some inflection, but there was no way of knowing where the sentences started and finished.  She picked out a few words: a thousand plateaus, becoming, burrowing, but couldn’t piece them into anything meaningful.  She backed out of the room, frowning, and asked me, How am I going to learn anything if they only have these voices?  I can’t lipread them.  And how can I produce something factual if I haven’t heard it all?  I might make stuff up. 

You always make things up anyway.

After the barrier of disembodied sound, the silence of the corridor was soothing.  Jessica always had difficulty with hearing men’s voices, for their registers were lower.  Sometimes, she wondered if this was the reason she’d become interested in feminism: women were simply easier to understand. 

The next door was labelled “Facets of Phenomenology.”  After that was “Post-It Notes and Poststructuralism”, “Interpretation of Geometric Design”, “Knitting Class” and “Cyberspace and Geography.” 

None of these were very helpful.  She wanted something on bodies and writing.  She walked on.

It was, she soon realised, so terribly easy to lose one’s way.  The corridors continued.  She turned right most of the time, and occasionally left.  Her arches began to ache.  After a while she came to the conclusion that she had no idea of where she was. 

Immediately, a bird appeared and dived down her throat.  Trapped, it thudded against her ribs.

Breathe, I told her.  Breathe. 

She put a hand out to the wall.  Outside another door she heard, a voice with a distinct Australian accent.  She checked the label on the door.  “Fictocriticism,” it read.  The door opened. The bird climbed out of her chest and flew away.

A young woman stood before her, wearing bright red lipstick.

“We saw your shadow beneath the door.”  She pointed to Jessica’s feet.  “We don’t like barriers, so come in.”

The room was airy and brilliantly lit, with a high ceiling patterned with pressed metal vines and flowers.  A man and a handful of women sat at a table covered with papers, bottles of wine, brie, sundried tomatoes and crackers.

“Wine?” asked the woman, a bottle in her hand.  “It’s from Margaret River.”

“Oh yes, please.”

Jessica pulled out a chair from the table.  The people’s faces looked friendly.

“What brings you here?” The woman with red lipstick asked, handing her a glass.

“I’m trying to find a writing style that’s comfortable for me to use.  I just can’t relate to abstract texts, like those by Deleuze and Guattari.”  Jessica eyed the cheese platter on the table.  She was hungry.

“Help yourself,” said the man.

Jessica picked up the cheese knife and a cracker.

“You’d like my essay, then, ‘Me and My Shadow.’”  It was an older woman speaking, with soft grey hair and luminous eyes.

“In it I assert that Guattari’s Molecular Revolution is distancing and, she pushed the pile of paper napkins towards Jessica, ‘totally abstract and impersonal.  Though the author uses the first person (‘The distinction I am proposing’, ‘I want therefore to make it clear’), it quickly became clear to me that he had no interest whatsoever in the personal, or in concrete situations as I understand them – a specific person, a specific machine, somewhere in time and space, with something on his/her mind, real noises, smells, aches and pains” (131).

Jessica thought about the first room, where Deleuze’s and Guattari’s voices had seemed to issue from nowhere. 

“Of course,” she said.  “If my comprehension comes from reading faces and bodies, it follows that those writers who evince themselves in the text will be the ones that appeal to me.”

The rest of the table was silent.

“I’m deaf,” Jessica explained.  “I’ve no hearing in my left ear and half in my right, but people don’t know until I tell them.”

“I’d never have guessed,” said the woman with red lipstick.

“I’m good at faking it,” Jessica replied wryly.  “It seems to me that, if I only hear some things and make the rest up, then my writing should reflect that.”

“We might be able to help you — we write about, and in the style of, fictocriticism.”  Two women were talking at once.  It was difficult to tell who was saying what. 

“But what is it?”  Jessica asked.

“That’s a problematic question.  It resists definition, you see, for the form it takes varies according to the writer.” 

She glanced from one woman to the other.  It was hard to keep up. 

They went on, “Fictocriticism might most usefully be defined as hybridised writing that moves between the poles of fiction (‘invention’/‘speculation’) and criticism (‘deduction’/‘explication’), of subjectivity (‘interiority’) and objectivity (‘exteriority’).  It is writing that brings the ‘creative’ and the ‘critical’ together – not simply in the sense of placing them side by side, but in the sense of mutating both, of bringing a spotlight to bear upon the known forms in order to make them ‘say’ something else” (Kerr and Nettlebeck 3).

“It began to incorporate narratives and styles that wrote against omniscience in favour of fragmentary, personal perspectives.”

Concentrating on cutting and spreading her brie, Jessica couldn’t see who had said this.  She looked up, trying to see who had spoken.

“In addition,” said a young, slim woman, “The use of autobiographical elements in ficto-criticism that include the body and personal details … realises a subjectivity that is quite different from the controlling academic critical subject with their voice from on high” (Flavell 77).

Jessica bit into her cracker.  The brie was creamy, but rather too strong.  She piled sundried tomatoes onto it.

“It is of course, a capacious category,” the man added, “as it must be if it is inspired by the materials and situation at hand.  One might urge the interested writer not to feel that their practice has to conform to one or another model, but to have the confidence that the problem characterising the situation before them will surprise them into changing their practices.  Like all literature, fictocriticism experiments with ways of being in the world, with forms of subjectivity if you like” (Muecke 15).

Jessica nodded, her mouth full of biscuit and brie.  Oil dripped from the tomatoes down her fingers.

“Yes,” it was the two women in their duet, “in fictocritical writings the ‘distance’ of the theorist/critic collides with the ‘interiority’ of the author.  In other words, the identity of the author is very much at issue.  This is not to say that an ‘identity’ declares itself strictly in terms of the lived experience of the individual, but it does declare itself as a politic to be viewed, reviewed, contested, and above all engaged with” (Kerr and Nettlebeck 3).

“That makes sense,” Jessica thought aloud.  “Everything I write is an amalgam of fact and fiction, because I hear some things and make the rest up.  Deafness influences the way I process and write about the world, so it seems I can’t avoid my body when I write.” 

She lifted a napkin from the pile and wiped her oily fingers.

“Yet, to use a language of the body, or écriture féminine, is also to run the risk of essentialism, of assuming that, for example when we write long, silky sentences, we are saying that this is how every woman would write.  It’s also true that, when writing, we don’t have to be limited to our own bodies – we can go beyond them.”  She paused, thinking.  “It’s been said that sign language is a form of écriture féminine, for a person who signs literally writes with their hands.  Where are my notes?” 

She ferreted through her handbag, pushing aside tubes of lip gloss and hand cream, a bus pass and mirror, and extracted some folded pieces of paper.

“Here, H-Dirksen L. Bauman comments on the possibilites of écriture féminine for the disabled, writing that,

The project of recognizing Deaf identity bears similarities to the feminist project of re-gaining a ‘body of one’s own’ through linguistic and literary practices.  Sign, in a more graphic way, perhaps, than l’écriture féminine is a ‘writing of/on the body.’ The relation between Sign and l’écriture féminine raises questions that could have interesting implications for feminist performance.  Does the antiphonocetric nature of Sign offer a means of averting these essentializing tendency of l’écriture féminine?  Does the four-dimensional space of performance offer ways of deconstructing phallogocentric linear discourse? (359)

“As Sign is a writing by the body, it could be argued that each body produces an original language.  I think it’s this, rather than antiphonocentrism — that is, refusing to privilege speech over writing, as has been the tradition — that represents the destabilising effects of Sign.” 

“Here’s Jamming the Machinery.”  The slim woman pushed a book towards Jessica.  “It’s about contemporary Australian écriture féminine.”

Jessica opened the covers and began reading:

As a counter-strategy, écriture féminine, it is argued, is theoretically sourced in the bodies of women.  Here, the body represents one aspect of what it ‘means’ to be a woman, but of course our bodies are infinitely variable as are our socio-historical relations and the way that we live through and make meaning of our particular bodies.  Texts, however, are produced through the lived practices of being socially positioned as (among other things) women, so those effects will be inscribed in actively inventing ways for women to speak and write about ourselves as women, rather than through the narrative machinery of patriarchy (Bartlett 1-2).

I agree with that, Jessica mused to herself.  Even if, on paper, écriture féminine does run the risk of essentialism, it’s still a useful strategy, so long as one remains attentive to the specificity of each individual body.

She looked up. The conversation was becoming loud, joyful and boisterous. It was turning into a party.  Sadly, she stood.

“I’d like to stay, but I have to keep thinking.”  She pushed in her chair.  “Thank you for your ideas.” 

“Goodbye and good luck!” they chorused, and replenished their wine glasses.

Outside, it was getting dark.  She trailed her fingers along the wall for balance.  Her sight orientated her; without it, she was liable to fall over, particularly in stilettos.

Seeing a movement near the ceiling, Jessica stopped and peered upwards. 

Dragons! she cried.

Sitting in the rafters were three small, pearly white dragons, their scaly hides gleaming in the darkness.

Here, she called, stretching out a hand.  One dropped, swooping, and landed on her wrist, its talons gripping her arm.

Ouch!

It looked at her curiously with its small gold eyes, then stretched its wings proudly.  Dark blue veins ran across the soft membrane.

You’re not very cuddly, she told it, but you are exquisite.  Tell me, are you real?

For an answer, it leaned over and gently nipped her thumb, drawing blood.  Its tail swished like a cat’s in a frisky mood. 

Stop making things up, I scolded her.  This is supposed to be serious.

Abruptly, the dragon sprang from her wrist, winging gracefully back to the ceiling.  Jessica rubbed her arm and continued, feeling ripples of unevenly applied paint beneath her fingertips.

Let me pose a question, I suggested: if a fairy godmother offered you your hearing, would you take it?

Well, deafness has made me who I am—

You mean, an opinionated, obnoxious, feminist thinker and writer?

Yes, exactly.  So perhaps I wouldn’t take it.

And where would you be without silence, which has given you the space in which to think, and which has shaped you as a writer?  Without silence, you wouldn’t have turned to words.

Hmmm, yes.  She slowed.  It’s awfully dark in here now.  And quiet.

For deaf people, silence has often been yoked together with negative connotations – it’s a cave, a prison, a tomb.  Sometimes it can feel like this, but, as you know, at other times it’s liberating.  You don’t have to listen to someone yakking on their mobile phone on the bus, nor overhear your flatmate having loud sex in the room above; you can simply switch off your hearing aid and keep reading your book, or thinking your thoughts.  In a somewhat similar situation, Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, has said that ‘his disability has given him the advantage of having more time to think,’ although Susan Wendell points out that he is only able to do this ‘because of the help of his family, three nurses, a graduate student who travels with him to maintain his computer-communications systems’ – resources which are unavailable to many disabled people” (109).

Thus although disability has been largely theorised as lack, it would seem that the contrary is the case: disability brings with it a wealth of possibility. 

Jessica slowed, feeling vibrations in the wall and beneath our feet.  Her heartbeat quickened.

Maybe it’s music.

It’s not.  It’s irregular.

Then we heard the sound, like distant thunder.

Get back against the wall, I ordered her.

Seconds later a crowd of creatures ran past, rattling the floorboards.  They were so black we couldn’t see them.

What was that? she asked.

They smelled like horses.  Musky, but sharp too.  Let’s get moving.  And I told you to stop making things up.

I didn’t make that up! she protested.

Her pulse was still rapid, so I kept talking to distract her.  The difficulty is to avoid referring to the disabled person as having lost something.  Of course, you can lose your hearing, but you gain infinitely more in other ways – your senses of touch, taste, smell and sight are augmented.

In the current climate of thinking, this is easier said than done.  Lennard Davis indicates with distaste that discussions of disability stop theorists in their tracks.  Disability, as it has been formulated, is a construct that is defined by lack.

Rather than face this ragged imaged [of the disabled individual], the critic turns to the fluids of sexuality, the gloss of lubrication, the glossary of the body as text, the heteroglossia of the intertext, the glossolalia of the schizophrenic.  But almost never the body of the differently abled (5).

Theorists of disability consistently point out that, if more effort and energy were directed towards the philosophical implications of the disabled body, a wealth of new material and ideas would emerge that would shatter existing presumptions about the corporeal.  For example, there are still immense possibilities thrown up by theorising a jouissance, or pleasure, in the disabled body.  As Susan Wendell points out, “paraplegics and quadriplegics have revolutionary things to teach us about the possibilities of sexuality which contradict patriarchal culture’s obsessions with the genitals” (120).  Thus if there were more of a focus on the positive aspects of disability and on promoting the understanding that disability is not about lack, people could see how it fosters creativity and imagination.

Jessica saw with relief that there was a large bay window at the end of a corridor, looking out onto the Institute’s grounds.  She collapsed onto the bench beneath it, which was layered with cushions.  The last of the sun was fading and the grass refracted a golden sheen.

She unzipped her boots and swung her legs onto the bench.  Leaning her head back against the wall, she remembered a day at primary school when she was eleven.  She sat on the blue seat beneath the Jacaranda tree, a book open in her lap.  It was lunchtime, the sun was warm and purple Jacaranda blossoms lay scattered at her feet, some squidged wetly into the cement.  She looked up from the book to watch her classmates playing soccer on the field, shouting and calling.  She would have joined them, except that of late she had felt awkwardness, where before she had been blithe.  She, who was so used to scrambling over the delightful hardness of wool bales in the shearing shed, who ran up and down the banks of creeks and crawled into ti trees, flakes of bark sticking to her jumper, had gradually, insidiously, learnt a consciousness of her body.  She was not like them

We were silent.  The electric lights on the walls of the building came on, illuminating sections of the stonework.

At the time, she hated being isolated, but it forced to look at the world differently.  Spending so much time on her own also taught her to listen to me, her imagination, and because of that her writing flourished.

There was a flutter in the hallway.  The tiny dragon had returned.  It braked in the air, circled, and floated gently onto her skirt.

Was this your doing?  She asked me suspiciously.

Maybe.

She held out her palm.  The dragon jumped into it, squeaking, its tail whipping lazily.  Jessica smiled.

References

Bartlett, Alison.  Jamming the Machinery: Contemporary Australian Women’s Writing. Toowoomba: Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 1998.

Bauman, H-Dirksen L. “Toward a Poetics of Vision, Space and the Body.”  The Disability Studies Reader.  Ed. Lennard J. Davis.  Hoboken: Routledge, 2006. 355-366.

Davis, Lennard J.  Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body.  London: Verso, 1995.

Flavell, Helen.  Writing-Between: Australian and Canadian Ficto-Criticism.  Ph.D. Thesis. Murdoch University, 2004.

Gibbs, Anna.  “Writing and the Flesh of Others.”  Australian Feminist Studies 18 (2003): 309–319.

Kerr, Heather, and Amanda Nettlebeck.  “Notes Towards an Introduction.”  The Space Between: Australian Women Writing Fictocriticism.  Ed. Heather Kerr and Amanda Nettlebeck.  Nedlands: U of Western Australia P, 1998. 1-18.

Muecke, Stephen. Joe in the Andamans: And Other Fictocritical Stories. Erskineville: Local Consumption Publications, 2008.

Tompkins, Jane.  “Me and My Shadow.” Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism.  Ed. Linda Kauffman.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. 121-139.

Wendell, Susan.  “Towards a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Hypatia 4 (1989): 104–124.


Keywords


body; deaf; language; ficto-criticism;

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Copyright (c) 2010 Jessica White

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