Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1995

Volume 22 Issue 1
    • 1Caroline Bynum
    • In a sense, of course, “the body” is the wrong topic. It is no topic or, perhaps, almost all topics. As many contemporary theorists point out, we no longer think there is such a thing as the body—a kind of “flesh dress” we take up, or put off, or refurbish according to the latest style.2 Whatever our position on “antiessentialism” (and it is certainly true that many of the recent attacks on “essentialists” have been both intellectually imprecise and cruel), no one in the humanities seems really to feel comfortable any longer with the idea of an essential “bodiliness.” We tend to reject both a “bodiliness” that is in some way prior to the genderings, sexings, colorings, or handicappings particular persons are subject to and a body that is easily separable from the feelings, consciousness, and thoughts that occur in it.3 Nor does it really help much to replace the body with my body, as Adrienne Rich and Dianna Fuss have suggested we should do.4 For if my body is not simply a synonym for me, I must, by using the term, raise questions about some particular aspects of the self. Which aspects? And why does the phrase suggest them? So I am stuck again with my original topic. But it, we are told, is the wrong category. What, then, is everybody writing about?

      · 2. Margaret Atwood uses the idea of a flesh dress in her novel The Robber Bride (Toronto, 1993). The idea comes from a poem by James Reaney called “Doomsday, or the Red Headed Woodpecker,” Poems, ed. Germaine Warkentin (Toronto, 1972), pp. 112-13.

      · 3. For recent discussions of essentialism, especially with regard to feminist issues, see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York, 1989); Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism,” pp. 133-56; Ellen Rooney, interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “In a Word: Interview,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York, 1993), esp. pp. 14-23; and Jane Roland Martin, “Methodological Essentialism, False Difference, and Other Dangerous Traps,” Signs 19 (Spring 1994): 630-57. All four authors deplore recent uses of the charge of essentialism to attack empirical, historical research. All four show courage in speaking out; I find myself most in sympathy with the specific formulations of Susan Bordo.

      · 4. See Fuss, Essentially Speaking, pp. 51-53. When I say it doesn't help much, I mean precisely this; it does, of course, help some. Focusing on the variety of individual experiences, and guarding against generalizing from self to other, produce a more nuanced understanding of both the present and past.

      See also: Gananath Obeyesekere, “British Cannibals": Contemplation of an Event in the Death and Resurrection of James Cook, Explorer

      Caroline Bynum is Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor of History at Columbia University. She is the author of Docere Verbo et Exemplo (1979), Jesus as Mother (1982), Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Signifance of Food to Medieval Women (1987), which won the Philip Schaff prize, and Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (1991), which won the Lionel Trilling prize and the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence. She was a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow from 1986-91 and is president-elect of the American Historical Association. Her most recent book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, appeared earlier this year.

    • 34Susan Stewart
    • Comments on poets and poetry in several of the Socratic dialogues and in The Republic present a rudimentary outline of problems posed by poetic will. Plato's exclusion of the poets from the Republic focuses on issues of function and effect. At the heart of his objection is the derivative nature of poetic imitation. Slippages between poetry and the ideal/real make fertile grounds for corruption: poetry can provide false prophecies (2.383C); variations in poetic form can produce licentiousness (3.404E); and lawlessness in poetic form can result in changing the laws of the city (4.424C). Poetry can corrupt the concept of beauty by promoting what is merely crowd pleasing (6.493D), and it can corrupt the crowd by providing a substitute for thought (10.595B-C). Correlatively, poetry is easy “to compose without knowledge of the truth” (10.598E), and poetry appeals to the “excitable and varied character” (10.605A).1 Throughout these well-known arguments of The Republic, Plato locates the corrupting power of poetry in its charm, and the most dangerous aspect of this charm is that it is unthought. Here the threat to the citizenry arises from the qualities of poetry and the conditions of knowledge outlined respectively in Ion and Theaetetus.

      1. See Plato, The Republic, trans. and ed. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, 1974), pp. 53, 74, 90, 150, 240, 243, and 249.

      See also: Susan Stewart, Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin's Anti-Linguistics  ·  Susan Stewart, The Marquis de Meese

      Susan Stewart is author of Nonsense (1979), On Longing (1984), and Crimes of Writing (1991), which includes “The Marquis de Meese,” first published in Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1988). Her most recent book is a collection of poems entitled The Forest (1995).

    • 64Monroe E. Price
    • Each new communications technology (theater, print, telegraph, telephone, radio) presents the possibility of altering the infrastructure of discourse. As it is absorbed, implemented, and developed, each technology plays out and reshapes ideas of community. Societies, as Karl Deutsch wrote, reveal themselves and can be differentiated through the distinctive webs of social intercourse that are the consequences of particular domestications, adaptations, or responses to innovations in modes of communicating.1 Because the current and massive redesign in the communications infrastructure—digital dreams of an electronic highway—will yield basic changes in social structure, governments are destined to try to affect the pace and direction of transformation. We are at an early stage, but government responses already seem chaotic, fitful, and undertheorized, more the product of the interaction among pressure groups than of some coherent notion of the role of free speech in society.

      · 1. See Karl Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), esp. pp. 70-74.

      See also: David Antin, Fine Furs  ·  Richard Grusin, Radical Mediation


      Monroe E. Price is Dancyger Professor of Law and director of the Squadron Program on Law, Media, and Society at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is editor of the Post-Soviet Media Law and Policy Newsletter and author of Shattered Mirrors: Our Search for Identity and Community in the AIDS Era (1989) and Television, Public Sphere, and National Identity (forthcoming).

    • 90Nicholas Thomas
    • This essay concerns cultural forms which have been visually pervasive but discursively absent. Until recently cultural commentators, anthropologists, and art historians alive have had almost nothing to say about one of the most conspicuous forms of traditional Maori art, the kowhaiwhai painting generally associated with the rafters of tribal meeting houses, that figures in a bewildering range of colonial and postcolonial appropriations, in official, high-artistic, and commercial iconographies (figs. 1, 2, and 3). Kowhaiwhai painting has had lives in Maori societies, in spaces beyond the domains and discriminations of Western art worlds, but it has also been created, recreated, and displayed in ethnological milieux and art scenes, and in the creole public culture of twentieth-century New Zealand.

      See also:  Gananath Obeyesekere, “British Cannibals": Contemplation of an Event in the Death and Resurrection of James Cook, Explorer

      Nicholas Thomas is a senior research fellow at the Australian National University. His books include Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (1991), Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel, and Government (1994), and Oceanic Art (1995).

    • 122Mark Seltzer
    • In 1932 Sylvestre Matushka went on trial for engineering a series of train crashes that had killed more than thirty railway passengers. He stated his profession in these terms: “'trains wrecker, before that, businessman.'” At the time of his arrest police discovered in his possession train schedules and a map with sites marked out that were planned for future wrecks at the regular rate of one a month. Matushka, it turned out, was something of a train fiend, albeit of a markedly singular style. He explained at his trial that he could only achieve sexual release when witnessing a train crashing and, consequently, made a career of staging these spectacular accidents. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Matushka escaped confinement. He reappeared in 1953, during the Korean War—as the head of a military unit for blowing up trains.1

      · 1. Colin Wilson and Patricia Pitman, Encyclopedia of Murder (New York, 1962), p. 383. See also Wilson, A Criminal History of Mankind (New York, 1984), p. 608.

      See also: Mark Seltzer, The Official World  ·  Mark Seltzer, The Crime System

      Mark Seltzer is professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of Henry James and the Art of Power (1984) and Bodies and Machines (1992). The present essay is part of Serial Killers I II III (forthcoming).

    • 150Richard Shusterman
    • Rap is an art whose cultural and aesthetic importance is at once demonstrated and concealed by the smoke of media hype and political controversy that surrounds it. The smoke suggests there must be some core of artistic fire that rocketed the genre to its amazing, enduring international popularity—despite its initial lack of material means, organization, and cultural legitimacy that to some extent continues to plague it. But rap's clouds of controversy—not only its alleged links to gangsterism, rape, and race riots but even its proud self-identification as ghetto music in an age of contestatory identity politics—have distracted cultural critics from coming to grips with its artistic significance.

      See also: 

      Richard Shusterman is professor of philosophy at Temple University and directeur de programmes at the Collège International de Philosophie. Editor of Analytic Aesthetics (1989), he is author of T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism (1988), Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (1992), and Sous l'interprétation (1994). His forthcoming book is entitled Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life.

    • 159Tim Brennan
    • Should two white professors have a public debate about rap aesthetics in a major theoretical journal? I am not sure. A forum like that always means more (and other) than what it says, and it raises issues demanding a treatment very far from the original concerns of the essays that gave rise to the forum: issues of ownership, expertise, identity, and the massive white audience for a musical form that is militantly and essentially black. The value of the criticism always matters, of course, but so does the role of the criticism in a social process of African-American self-domination and recognition. I can never be a part of that latter process, and I do not want to be seen as trying.

      See also: 

      Tim Brennan is an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, teaching in the English department and the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. He is the author of Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation (1989) and is currently at work on Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism and the Death of the Native (forthcoming).