International Journal of Education & the Arts
Volume 4 Number 5
November 25, 2003
Cloth as Intercorporeality: Touch, Fantasy,
The monstrous body (Shildrick, 2002), the altered body (Featherstone, 2000) and the masquerade (Tseëlon, 2001) have been subjects of recent theoretical analysis through scholarly writing and the works of contemporary visual artists (Wilson, Dyck, Orlan). Each term while slightly different marks a theoretical concern with bodies that are conditioned as the abnormal other. Theories that engage with the monstrous, altered, and masquerading body do not position these terms as static binaries in opposition to the ideal or normal body, but rather their arguments are located within the body itself such that encounters with the strange are constant conditions of becoming (Shildrick, 2002). The latent body is always in process, open, pliable, and protruding. Opposed to the classical body, which is monumental, static, and standard, the monstrous, altered, and masquerading bodies resist, exaggerate, and destabilize distinctions and boundaries that mark and maintain bodies, signifying pleasure and desire as sites of insurgency.
Bodies have been accorded a place of central importance in recent scholarship as researchers attempt to construct the meanings of the lived body, the social body, and body image (Grosz, 1994). Each discipline whether science, technology, sociology, sport, and/or art has de-constructed and challenged western philosophy which is rooted in a mind/body split (Price & Shildrick, 1999). What is evidently missing from this cogent literature is a re-representation of the body as tactile and felt. In this paper I analyze the monstrous, altered, and masquerading body not to further dichotomous thinking and systems of regulation and control, but as sites of excess where the pleasures of the body, are central aspects of body knowledge. Interrogating the boundaries of the body I offer a model of intercorporeality (Weiss, 1999) that examines the body in relation to other bodies and the ways in which knowing and being are informed through generative understandings of touch, fantasy, and performance. The arguments call for educational practices that are open to desire, allowing for tactile and felt knowledges.
The article is a theoretical inquiry weaving feminist theories, cultural and social theories, and philosophy with artists’ work that addresses and re-represents similar themes. Sewn into this theoretical analysis is a personal aesthetic inquiry into intercoporeality through the metaphor of folds or the folding of cloth. I understand inquiry, theory, writing, and art making as doing (Pollock, 1998). Inquiry as enactment is provocative, it invites the reader/viewer into the interplay of meaning making, and it creates openings through which excess, un/raveling, and absence seeps through. Such a mode of inquiry, “does not translate a reality outside of itself, but more precisely, allows the emergence of a new reality” (Trinh, 1989, p. 22). Similarly, as Irit Rogoff (2000) observes, “on occasion, certain encounters with conceptual art works … provide a bridge to the next step for thought: an actual cultural making, not an analysis, of a condition I perceived theoretically” (p. 9-10). Art, she writes is her “interlocutor”, a way of articulating moments in which something unnamed has come into being; a point of departure for something else. Thus, punctured throughout this text are images from an art installation (Note 1) that contiguously reflects this ongoing inquiry reminding the reader that art and text need not be imprisoned with dualistic understandings. Instead, inquiry, theory, writing, and art making fold into and through each other as a methodology of a/r/tography (Note 2).
There has been an enduring fascination with mutant and monstrous bodies in history. As representations of the inappropriate other, abnormal bodies challenge and resist normativity. Margrit Shildrick’s (2002) comprehensive text on the monstrous body examines both the history of the monster and argues that the monstrous is the “being in the body of us all” (p. 3). Her book, Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self, marks a departure from current theoretical perspectives that establish the monstrous body within binary conditions. Shildrick takes up the project of refuting the givenness of bodies, that corporeality and ontology are fixed and static. For Shildrick, the monstrous represents a liminal, disruptive, and transgressive body, which is also marked by disgust, denial, and exclusion. She extends this argument suggesting that the monster is not just a different corporeal form, but that the ontological status is also in question. Being is thus, uncertain and vulnerable. The book examines the genealogy of bodily disabilities such as conjoined twins and other medical instances of extra-ordinary bodies as understood through a post-feminist framework. While I do not want to appear to have usurped or ignored the significance of her research on bodies and disability, what I have culled from this fascinating text lends more precisely to my own project of understanding body knowledge through theories of touch.
Most cogent of her arguments is the re-representation of the body, a making strange” (Mulvey, 1991, p. 139, my italics). Instead of positioning a mind/body split or an opposition of normal/abnormal, Shildrick (2002) proposes an “interweaving of elements where the deviant and the marvelous are always imbricated one with the other” (p. 23).
Just as the feminine haunts the margins of western discourse, always out of place in the paradigms of sameness and difference, so too monsters are liminal creatures which cannot be transcribed within the binary, and whose abjection leaves always the trace within. (p. 45)
This is not to say that the monster is absorbed and uniform, but rather it remains as excess. This interweaving can be envisioned more like a fold that produces an interiorization of the outside. In a fold the outside is never fully absorbed, it is both at once exterior and interior. There is always a play of opposition and tension in the operation of the fold. Folds are not absorbed into each other to reproduce uniformity. They are not distinct and separate, for in a folded relationship there is a doubling within a fold, as in when a fold is unfolded this is not the reverse of a fold, but may result in additional folds. Thus, the fold appears interconnected, embracing touch and intercorporeality. The condition of the fold is the premise that it is not a void or an absence in the sense of nothing. Rather the fold is being as turned back on itself—touching. The fold as intercorporeality recognizes that bodies interact and overflow, become enmeshed and are contiguous.
In the studio I begin to twist and fold pieces of fabric. I want to evoke bodies’ interiors and exteriors. As I ply lengths of cotton fabric I remember the agony and humor in learning to wrap and tie a Sari. My hands re-feel the experience of pleating, in-out-in-out, draping the body in luscious folds of silk, dyed cotton, and muslin. I allow body memories to move and bend the cloth, extending it, creating pockets, and folds. Flesh folding back onto itself revealing interior and exterior simultaneously.
10 inches x 15 inches
Releasing the self and other from their binary positions by locating the monstrous within us all can be further explored through theories of the altered body. Body alteration or modification is often described by activities such as wearing particular clothes, using cosmetics, tattooing, piercing, cosmetic surgery, dieting, and weight training to alter the appearance and form of the body (Featherstone, 2000). Technological modifications to the body augment or repair body parts and cyborg imagery blurs the boundaries between nature and culture (Featherstone, 2000). Common understandings of body alteration imply that such modifications are ways of controlling and regulating the body, while also making statements about individual identity. Another theory put forth regarding the body’s fascination with artifice suggests that through alteration we are attempting to make our exterior body represent our interior or true self. Both explanations place bodies in a binary of oppression-resistance in which bodies are controlled, directed, and transcribed by the mind. If we engage in the metaphor of the fold what possibilities would body alteration provide beyond an oppression-resistant critique? How can we conceive of altered bodies as intercorporeality?
A distinguishing feature of monstrous, altered, and masquerading bodies is their fluid subjectivity. These bodies are liminal, uncertain, and in perpetual process and change. They are active bodies, performing, working, and in constant motion.
Efrat Tseëlon reveals the dynamic interplay among masking, identity, and bodies in an edited volume Masquerade and Identities (2001), and in her own writings on masquerade and femininity (1995, 2001). While the concept of the masquerade is not new to scholarship and there is a proliferation of textual material on this subject, I chose Tseëlon’s work because of her research interests in femininity, fashion, dress, and gendered bodies.
In the introduction to her edited volume Tseëlon (2001) notes definitive differences between mask, disguise, and masquerade. She notes that masking is a partial covering, while disguise is a full concealment. Masquerade deviates from both significantly suggesting itself as a phenomenon, which is performed. Masking in a traditional sense represents artifice and denial in contrast to our internal, truthful, and authentic self. Fashion magazines and popular television shows perpetuate this mythical modernist paradigm through make-overs. By re-making or re-fashioning ourselves we are removing our masks and disguises thereby reveling our true inner self, reinforcing the dominant social order. A more post-modern understanding of masking urges that every manifestation is authentic and that through masking we are revealing our multiple selves. This too seems like a singular understanding of masking and multiplicity and re-enforces a binary of oppression-resistance.
Tseëlon (2001) complexifies this understanding and notes that: “masquerade reveals in the process of concealing” (p. 5). Masquerade “is used both as a technology of identity and as a means of interrogating it” (p. 11). From this I understand that the process of masquerade, constructing, representing, concealing, revealing, transforming, empowering, and suppressing identity is one aspect of masquerade’s influence on body politics. What Tseëlon alludes to and is the subject of my inquiry, is the performance of masquerade as interrogation. It is in this reflexive praxis that categories are destabilized and questioned, over determination is defied, and uncertainty thrives, exposing the seam of body identities. Thus, instead of critiquing bodies through an oppression-resistance posture, masquerade as interrogation provides a space in which body identities are negotiated, re-represented, and performed as intercorporeality. We need to read the body not just as passive vessels or as resistant to cultural codes, instead we must interrogate how bodies interact, interconnect, and make meaning with, in, and through bodies. But what are modes of interrogation? What might this interrogation reveal? And, what is the relationship between masquerade as interrogation and body knowledge? What will this mean in the context of education? In the following sections I will examine the monstrous, altered, and masquerading body, interconnected with theories of the bodies pleasures, and propose a thinking through bodies as intercorporeality and the fold.
In a compelling essay, From the museum of touch, Susan Stewart directs us to the senses as a powerful source of material memories. Reminding us that historically the senses were classified according to their individual characteristics in a hierarchical relationship, placing those associated with man and philosophical reasoning (sight, hearing) as more important and sophisticated than those senses shared with all of the animal species (touch), Stewart proposes a more postmodern understanding of synaesthesia conceiving of an interconnectedness of all of the senses. For example, while touching in the context of an art museum is often limited or forbidden, works of art are often said to touch or move us, thereby connecting the sensory experience to that of emotion. Similarly, art becomes a synthesis of imagined and material experiences, where evocations of touch, taste, warmth, and smell are possible and we are immersed “in a world where we can hear painted images” (Stewart, 1999, p. 24).
Stewart’s account of the sensory experience of touch argues that touch is not simply the body’s interaction with matter, but that “tactile perception involves perception of our own bodily state as we take in which is outside of that state” (1999, p. 31). She continues, “the pressure involved in touch is a pressure on ourselves as well as upon objects” (p. 31). The act of touching inverts the subject-object relationship conflating the boundaries between self and other. Touching engages the object in perception (i.e. touching a pile of hair is equated with a particular courseness and sense of smell- shampoo) but so too touching invites an interrogation of the self and the other (imbued memories of hair, loss, cutting, decay, and social relationships like going to the hairdressers). This motility of touch “transverses the boundary between interiority and externality and reciprocally returns to the agent of touching” (Stewart, 1999, p. 35). Inverting relations of proximity, animation, and reference, touch must touch to be touched. Thus, the material-body and the self-body fold and morph into each other in an intercorporeal relationship.
My Grandmother used to knit me skating costumes, winter sweaters with matching scarves and mittens. I was always outfitted in matching wool sets. She’s eighty-seven now and spends the winter months, when the possibility of lawn bowling in Canada is limited, knitting memories for her grand-daughters. This week an envelope arrives in my mail box full of tiny samples of yarn and a pattern for an afghan. I chose five colours and return the envelope to her, aware of her presence in my own art making processes. Knitting needles pierce through skin memories; daughters-mothers-grandmothers- longing to stitch themselves through time.
Table linen, hair, red thread.
The artwork of Ann Wilson expounds the limits of the body’s boundaries, memories, and refuse. Using discarded and cut-up linens, Wilson alters their surfaces with delicately stitched human hair. Touch is emphasized through the process of hand stitching but also in the way in which her works invite a caress, evoking desire. Iris Young argues that women’s desire is “plural, fluid, and interested more in touch than in sight” (1994, p. 203). Touch is not limited in this sense to skin on matter, but is an attention to sensuality and synaesthesia. Through touch the boundaries between self and other are blurred in a fluid, temporal space. “Thus we might conceive a mode of vision, for example, that is less a gaze, distanced from and mastering its object, than an immersion in light and colour. Sensing as touching is within, experiencing what touches it as ambiguous, continuous, but nevertheless differentiated” (Young, 1994, p. 204). Touch then becomes a signifier of visual culture as a mode of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a process where auditory, visual, kinetic, olfactory, and tactile significations become permeable and transparent (Pajaczkowska, 2001). The barriers between the senses become fluid, shift, and desire becomes not an objective phalocentric impulse but rather one in which all our senses are aroused in shared understanding.
Wilson’s investigations into cloth are also an inquiry into the notion of dis-repair, conceptualized through openings and excess. Using primarily white cloth, Wilson stitches human hair onto the cloth accentuating torn edges and holes; the residues of wear. These wounds, orifices, burns, disease or decay reference the abject and fragmented body. Alison Ferris (2001) provides us with an alternative reading of these skin like fragments suggesting that by accentuating the act of dis-repair the holes are left ambiguous furthering the idea of “transformation-in-progress” (p. 42). The tension created by this seemingly unfinished process juxtaposed with the fact that the pieces of cloth are mounted and framed behind glass expounds the essence and sensuality of touch. But, again Ferris notes, that Wilson continues in an ambiguous pursuit, as the remnants of fabric are mere sections or fragments of a greater whole alluding to the possibility that we are seeing only a portion. “The illusion Wilson creates is that there is no beginning or end to her works, that she has captured them in only one particular stage of their evolution. Had she not isolated them we surmise, there may have been potential for further physical transformation” (Ferris, 2001, p. 42).
The move towards seductive and alluring aesthetic devices in artists work is in part due to a re-fascination with materials on a sensual level. It is also a re-turn to the body, not as representation, but as a way to allow for knowledge that is tactile and felt. Likewise, a return to the body as a place of pleasure and desire marks a re-representation of the body beyond the limits of dualism. Wilson’s white cloth restores the primacy of flesh, a membrane that sheds and reconstitutes itself continually; it is a metonym that flickers, taking “its pulse from the difference rather than the identity” (Pollock, 1998, p.82). Flesh becomes an enactment between the interior and exterior of the body, recognizing the process of loss and fulfillment simultaneously.
When I first started using hair in my artwork, I found myself repulsed by the grainy texture and the associations inherent in a substance shed by bodies in a process of decay. Long after I stitch the hair into cloth I can still feel the hair between my fingers, I touch, and remember through my body the sewing process.
Wilson’s exploration sees tactile materials as transporting us to the thresholds of the body and the world, materials that do not merely represent physicality but rather embody it, possess it. And because of its highly tactile nature, Wilson’s work invites experiencing with one’s fingers as much as with one’s eyes and mind. This fact, in and of itself, challenges the subject oriented, distancing vision typically associated with art. (Ferris, 2001, 42)
Susan Stewart (1999) expands on this:
In searching for the relation between external and internal experiences of sense impression and in studying the historical manifestations of sense experience evident in works of art, we might find a way of approaching these questions that is more engaged with the dynamic between sense experience and thought than with their division. (p. 18)
Returning to Shildrik’s (2002) theories of the monstrous reminds us that the idea of touch signals danger in an economy that privileges separation. The distancing objectification of gaze has lead to a fear of contamination through touch. Like Wilson’s act of dis-repair, Shildrik responds to monstrosity “ as a manifestation of the always already unstable corpus, whose fluidity resists the closure of the skin, and as a difference that defies distinction and separation” (p. 103). Shildrik’s exigent text upturns a modernist, masculine, and dominant understanding of touch to one that is relational.
Disrupting ideas of bodily closure and completion Shildrik introduces the idea that the monster is not the abnormal other, but that their fluid, uncertain state “are the other within” (2002, p. 107). Exploring the work of Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray the term flesh, she notes, designates a way of refuting binaries, collapsing distance through proximity. “By folding over on itself, by reversals in its own voluminosity, flesh creates openings and the possibility of difference, within a unified medium” (Shildrick, 2002, p. 111).
Existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968) refers to touch as the sense that defies subject/object distinctions turning back on itself through divergence. Touch is the principal sense through which we assume and express the parameters of a bodily existence in relation to others. Elizabeth Grosz (1999) annotates this concept: “Flesh is being as reversibility, being’s capacity to fold in on itself, being’s dual orientation inward and outward, being’s openness, its reflectivity” (p. 152). However, it is not the physicality of skin on matter that defines this double touching, but the language of perception. Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) ontological argument is premised on the metaphor of one hand reaching out to touch another that touches back, imbricating the body in the midst of the thing perceived, not independent of it. “My left hand is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching the things, but I never reach coincidence” (Merleau Ponty, 1968, p. 147). Luce Irigaray (1984) furthers this argument of corporeal existence, but contests Merleau-Ponty’s reliance on a metaphor that negates sexed difference, suggesting an alternative metaphor of two hands touching as in prayer, or two lips, invoking the invagination of the body as existence. Shildrick (2002) supports this argument noting that Merleau-Ponty’s metaphor is privileged “premised on the image of one hand reaching out to touch the other, not on two surfaces that are always already touching” (p. 112). While the uniqueness of each scholar’s contributions to phenomenological understandings of touch are important for their divergence, in the context of the arguments I am attempting to conceptualize here, I am going to conflate the various readings of these texts.
Being as Flesh proposes an understanding of existence as corporeality (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). Thus, the body is not an external projection, but bound up within a lived understanding of the world. Merleau-Ponty frames his ontological arguments through the modality of touch and the Chiasm. Through sensibility (the double touching) “my body inserts itself between the two leaves of the world, which itself is inserted between the leaves of my body” (1968, p. 264). Alternatively the Chiasm can be understood as a fold—it is never reducible to the difference in which it is created. The conceptual apparatus of folds and folding are of potential value when conceiving of a mode of knowing that is tactile and felt. 1) That doubling does not result in a merging, but rather importantly, there always remains an excess; a fold; and 2) That reversibility is always imminent and never fully realized. Both hand images described above are visual references that supplant the idea of touch as skin on matter. An alternative image is a folded image, of cloth and skin. Such a sensation reverberates and evokes intercorporeality; a morphology that is fluid and incomplete.
I make work for you, with the one small hope that it will reach out with a dangerous yet delicate touch to move you. I want to make objects that make you feel something, in your body. I want to magnify and expound what is beautiful, what is painful, what is aching, what is full of disgust. (Note 3)
Canadian artist Aganetha Dyck uses bees’ wax to create her art pieces. She does not melt, dip, or mold the wax, but rather places objects into a beehive, allowing the bees to shape and create their honeycombs on the objects, transforming them into various mutated forms. In one installation, Dyck has altered a white wedding dress, shoes, buttons, and canning jars, emblems of domesticity become disturbing through distortion and incompleteness. The richly textured organic surface, the aromatic sugariness of the wax, and the sensuous transmutation of decay certainly make references to theories of touch and synaesthesia. The substance of surface life in spectacular contrast to the fragility and transparency of the materials mark enchanting effects of the sublime. I have chosen Aganetha Dyck’s mutated bodies of wax to speak to the possibilities embodied in the intercorporeality of the altered body.
In a recent exhibition in France, Dyck transforms hockey gear with the encrusted tendrils of bees’ wax. Hockey helmets, kneepads, and jock straps perch on bee houses are “sculpture[s] in process, in mutation unwilling to end” (Pagés, 2001, p. 21). These temporal manifestations are positioned outside of their original context such that new meanings are made through displacement. Sports Night in Canada is an ironic display of nationalism and conflation between the exterior armor and the domestic ritual of hive keeping. The manufactured objects become housing projects as the bees inhabit both the interior and exterior shells.
In Mike Featherstone’s (2000) edited volume Body Modification, Paul Sweetman’s research documents tattooing and piercing rituals. Refuting claims that tattooing and piercing’s popularity has lead to their re-conceptualization as fashionable accessories, Sweetman argues that the permanence and/or semi-permanent status of tattoos and body piercing marks them outside of fashion as anti-fashion commodities. If fashion is to be perceived as a signifier in perpetual change, tattooing and piercing become anti-fashion statements simply because of their permanence, planning, and pain. Many subjects interviewed by Sweetman approach tattooing and piercing from the perspective of originality, stressing their self-creation as individuals, and as markers of memory and time (Sweetman, 2000). Sweetman argues that contemporary body modifications “can indeed be interpreted … as attempts to anchor or stabilize one’s sense of self-identity, in part through the establishment of a coherent personal narrative” (p. 53). While Sweetman accepts the possibilities that even tattooing and piercing are not always permanent, he maintains the concept of a fixed self-identity through such body alteration. I question the relevance of such a statement given the proliferation of stick-on tattoos, mendhi, and piercing jewelry that clip-on to the body without skin penetration. Sweetman dismisses these body alterations as superfluous and trivial in comparison to genital and nipple piercing, and full body tattoos. Pain seems to be a marker of how “serious” the subject is to an anti-fashion statement. However, my own hairdresser’s body is a work of art, transformed through tattoos she designs and draws herself, these images change and mutate each time I return for a trim. Tattoos may be permanent (or not, given the possibility for laser removal these days) but many involved in extensive tattooing see it as an art form that is constantly under revision, extended, and modified. Designs merge into others, colours change, and symbols are introduced into the picture plane. It is the fantasy of potential transformations, the process of creation, that renders tattooing as incomplete and uncertain, and incises the fundamental impossibility of arrival. There is a paradox at work here between the marks on the skin as a process of individualization and the possibility of irreversibility that protests the ideology that everything is changeable (Salecl, 2001). Regardless, both debates affirm the fluid aesthetics of meaning; that even if the tattoo itself is fixed to flesh, the meaning of it is not. The external referents change and shift, revealing multiple, contradictory, and mutating meanings. To describe body alteration as intercorporeality “is to emphasize that the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always already mediated by our continual interactions with other human and non-human bodies” (Weiss, 1999, p. 5).
In the bath-tub my fingers trace patterns on my skin, marks of memories, of life histories. Faint scars from last summer’s shoes that pinched and blistered my toes, small holes and fleshy dents from piercings now removed, and red scratchesstains of time spent working in my studio. These surface stigmatizations mingle with others hidden beneath the surface of my skin, reminders that skin is as much a record of interior as it is of exterior. Later I take out the video camera and re-examine my skin memories digitally exploring the temporal and spatial substances of depth and surface, inside and outside, enfolding and tangible.
What we see on the surface of skin is not simply about leaving marks but about the possibility of erasure; the potential for dis-repair. Like Dyck’s bee creations, which are as much developed by the bees as they are temporal manifestations of decay and destruction, body alterations are intent to continually re-image the body to re-create a fluid shape. The perpetual disfiguration of the skin signifies an apparition (Connor, 2001). Thus, fantasy moves from an empty longing to try out multiple identities, towards a condition that acknowledges the phantasmagoria of images and desires. The possibility of reading identity through skin is disrupted by the idea that skin is a fantasmatic surface, a surface that like the bees’ wax shapes, is but an apparition, a body mutation repetitive and reverberating in space and time, but one that does not hold the skin in place. Through fantasy the body is re-imaged and re-lived, “but the possibilities for the re-imagining and re-living are not endless, or a matter of choice” (Ahmed & Stacey, 2001, p. 9). The becoming of skin attends to the intercorporeality and sensuality of bodies, but reminds us of the play of difference in the fold and the ethical implications of inhabiting self and other as relational.
My world is full of questions: How is? How do? How can? What is? I forage and harvest materials, delicate and vulgar, dense and chaotic. I bring these decaying and skin-like substances together, sewing, gluing, wrapping, and piercing forms slowly and meditatively. There is a ritual to this process of creation. A process that is both destructive and violent, one in which decay gathers and grows slowly, attaching itself to a host, transforming the surfaces and fleshy interiors. It is as if I am bringing the interior outside, penetrating deep secrets, while simultaneously shrouding and concealing the body and its memories. As images and tactile reverberations take shape I penetrate the ritual process and re-image in a continual practice of making strange. It is a fluid performance immersed in the openness of knowing and being.