Refiguring Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz, “Refiguring Bodies”, pp.3-24, in:

Grosz, E.A., 1994. Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.


The body has remained a conceptual blind spot in both mainstream Western philosophical thought and contemporary feminist theory.

Dichotomous thinking necessarily hierarchies and ranks the two polarised terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its suppresses, subordinated, negative counterpart.

Body is thus what is not mind, what is distinct from and other than the privileged term.

The mind/body relation is frequently correlated with the distinctions between reason and passion, sense and sensibility, outside and inside, self and other, depth and surface. reality and appearance, mechanism and vitalism, transcendence and immanence, temporality and spatiality, psychology and physiology, form and matter, and so on.


As a discipline, philosophy has surreptitiously  excluded femininity, and ultimately women, from its practices through its usually implicit coding of female with the unreason associated with the body.

It could be argued that philosophy as we know it has established itself as a form of knowing, a form of rationality, only through the disavowal of the body, specifically the male body, and the corresponding elevation of mind as a disembodied term.

Philosophy seems to adopt an ambiguous fascination with the functioning and status of the body. On the one hand, there is recognition of the role of the body, in the sense that virtually all the major figures in the history of philosophy discuss its role in either the advancement or more usually, the hindrance of the production of knowledge.

On the other hand there is also a refusal to recognize, which is evidenced by the fact that when the body is discussed, it is conceptualized in narrow and problematic, dichotomized terms.

Above all, the sexual specificity of the body and the ways sexual difference produces or effects truth, knowledge, justice, etc. has never been thought. The role of the specific male body as the body productive of a certain kind of knowledge (objective, verifiable, causal, quantifiable) has never been theorized.

Given the coupling of mind with maleness and the body with femaleness and given philosophy’s own self-understanding as a conceptual enterprise, it follows that women and femininity and problematized as knowing philosophical subjects and as knowable epistemic objects.


Descartes, in short, succeeding in linking the mind/body opposition to the foundations of knowledge itself, a link which places the mind in a position of hierarchical superiority over and above nature, including the nature of the body. From that time until the present, subject or consciousness is separated from and can reflect on the world of the body, objects, qualities.

Dualism is the assumption that there are two distinct, mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive substances, mind and body, each of which inhabits its own self-contained sphere.


Since the time of Descartes, not only is consciousness positioned outside of the world, outside its body, outside of nature; it is also removed from direct contact with other minds and a sociocultural community.

Cartesian dualism establishes an unbridgeable gulf between mind and matter, a gulf most easily disavowed, however problematically, by reductionism. To reduce either the mind or the body to the mind is to leave their interaction unexplained, explained away, impossible.

Rationalism and idealism are the results of the attempt to explain the body and matter in terms of the mind, ideas or reason; empiricism and materialism are the results of attempts to explain the mind in terms of bodily experiences or matter (today, most commonly theming is equated with the brain or central nervous system).


There are at least three lines of investigation of the body in contemporary thought which may be regarded as the heirs of Cartesianism. They indicate, even if negatively, the kinds of conceptions that feminist theory needs to move beyonf in order to challenge its own investments in the history of philosophy.


[…] the body is primarily regarded as an object for the natural sciences, particularly for the life sciences, biology and medicine; and conversely, the body s amenable to the humanities and social sciences, particularly psychology (when, for example, the discipline deals with “emotions”, “sensations”, “experiences”, and “attitudes”), philosophy (when, for example, it deals with the body’s ontological and epistemological status and implications), and ethnography ( where, for example, the boy’s cultural variability, its various social transformations, are analysed.}

The natural sciences tend to treat the body as an organic system of interrelated parts, which are themselves framed by a larger ecosystemic order. The humanities reduce the body to a fundamental continuity with brute, inorganic matter. Despite their apparent dissimilarity, they share a common refusal to acknowledge the distinctive complexities of organic bodies, the fact that bodies construct and in turn are constructed by an interior, a psychical and a signififying view-point, a consciousness or perspective.


The second line of investigation commonly regards the body in terms of metaphors that construe it as an instrument, a tool, or a machine at the disposal of consciousness, a vessel accepted by an animating, wilful subjectivity.


Whatever agency or will it has is the direct consequence if animating, psychical intentions. Its inertia means that it is capable of being acted on, coerced, or contained by external forces. As an instrument or tool, it requires careful discipline or training, and as a passive object it requires subduing and occupation.


In the third line of investigation, the body is common considered a signifying medium, a vehicle of expression, a mode of rendering public and communicable what is essentially private (ideas, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, affects).

It is through the body that the subject can express his or her interiority, and it is through the body that he or she can receive, code, and translate the inputs of the “external” world. Underlying this view too is a belief in the fundamental passivity and transparency of the the body.


Not only does Spinoza displace the dualism Descartes posits; he also frees notions of the body from the dominant mechanistic models and metaphors with which the Cartesian tradition surround it.

On a Spinozist understand, metabolism is the very becoming of the machine, its doe of performance or existence, not simply the impetus or input for a preexistent entity or compound. In other words, metabolism is not simply a system of energy inputs provides from outside the machine-body but is a continuous process in the self-constitution of the organism.

With nothing individual about it, substance cannot provide this kind of identity: the individuality of the body, of things, is the consequence of their specific modalities, their concrete determinations, and their interactions with the determinations of other things.


[according to Spinoza]

The mind is the idea of the body to the exact degree that the body is an extension of the mind.

[…] Spinoza claims that the total state of the body at a particular moment is a function of the body’s own formal pattern  and inner constitution on one hand and, on the other, the influence of “external” factors, such as other bodies.

The body is both active and productive,although not originally: its specificity is a function of its degrees and modes of organization, which are in turn the results or consequences of its ability to be affected by other bodies.


Yet, although Spinoza’s monism represents a significant departure from Cartesian dualism, it has its own associated problems and limitations.


[Spinoza] is committed to a psychophysical parallelism which cannot explain the causal or other interactions of mind and body: “The body cannot determine the mind to thought, neither can the mind determine the body to motion or rest, nor to anything else, if there be anything else” (Spinoza, Ethics, 111, Prop. 2). Insofar as they may be understood as necessarily interlocked, there can be no question of their interaction.


Second, Spinoza is committed to a notion of the body (and indeed the subject) as total and holistic, a completed and integrated system (albeit one that grows and transforms itself).

Both these assumptions seem to me to avoid the two conditions necessary for a feminist reconfiguration of the notion of the body: that human bodies have irreducible neurophysiological and psychological dimensions whose relations remain unknown and that human bodies have the wonderful ability, while striving for integration and cohesion, organic and psychic wholeness, to also provide for and indeed produce fragmentations, fracturings, dislocations that orient bodies and body parts toward other bodies and body parts.


Patriachal oppression, in other words, justifies itself, at least in part, by connecting women much more closely than men to the body and, through this identification, restricting women’s social and economic roles to (pseudo) biological terms.


Feminists have exhibited a wide range of attitudes and reactions to conceptions of the body and attempts to position it at the centre of political action and theoretical production.


Egalitarian feminism

[de Beauvoir, Firestone, Wollstonecraft]

Here the specificity of the female body, its particular nature and bodily cycles ––menstruation, pregnancy, maternity, lactation, etc ––are in one case regarded as a limitation on women’s access to the rights and privileges patriarchal culture accords to men; in the other, in more positive and uncritical terms not uncommon to some feminist epistemologists and ecofeminists, the body is seen as a unique means of access to knowledge and ways of living.

Both sides seem to have accepted patriarchal and misogynist assumptions about the female body as somehow more natural, less detached, more engaged with and directly related to its “objects” than male bodies.


Members of this first, egalitarian category share several beliefs [including] a notion that women’s oppression is, at least to some extent, biologically justified insofar as women are less socially, politically, and intellectually able to participate as men’s social equals when they bear or raise children. Thus biology itself requires modification and transformation.

Social Constructionism

[Juliet Mitchell, Kristeva, Michele Barrett, Nancy Chodorow, marxist & psychoanalytic feminists]

Instead of being codes by a nature/culture opposition, as it is for egalitarian feminists, the mind/body opposition is now coded by the distinction between biology and psychology and the opposition between the realms of production/reproduction (body) and ideology (mind).


[…] the constructionists hold a number of distinctive commitments, including the belief that it is not biology per se but the ways in which the social system organises and gives meaning to biology that is oppressive to women.

The body itself, in the strongest version of this position, is irrelevant to political transformations, and in the weakest version is merely a vehicle for psychological change, an instrument for a “deeper” effect. What needs to be changed are attitudes, beliefs, and values rather than the body itself.

Sexual Difference

[Irigaray, Cixous, Spivak, Gallop, Gatens, Kirby, Butler, Schor, Wittig]


For them, the body is crucial to understanding woman’s psychical and social existence, but the body is no longer understood as an ahistorical, biologically given, cultural object. They are concerned with the lived body, the body insofar as it is represented and used in specific ways in particular cultures.

For them, the body is neither brute nor passive, but is interwoven with and constitutive of systems of meaning signification, and representation.

There is a refusal or transgression of the mind/body dualism, which may be replaced by monism or a more uneasy yet noncontradictory relation between the binarized terms, or possibly even a head-on confrontation of the polarised terms.

The body is regarded as the political, social, and cultural object par excellence, no the product of a raw passive nature that is civilised, overlaid, polished by culture.

Whatever class and race difference may divide women, sexual differences demand social recognition and representation, and these are differences no amount technological innovation or ideological equalisation can disavow or overcome.

These difference mayor may not be biological or universal. But whether biological or cultural, they are ineradicable. They require cultural marking and inscription.

Instead of seeing sex as an essentialist and gender as a constructionist category, these thinkers are concerned to undermine the dichotomy. The concept of the social body id a major strategy in this goal. As sexually-specific, the body codes the meanings projected onto it in sexually determinate ways.


These feminists do to evoke precultural, presocial or prelinguistic pure body but a body as social and discursive object, body bound up in the order of desire, signification, and power.


That may help explain the enormous investment in definitions of the female body in struggles between patriarchs and feminists: what is at stake is the activity and agency, the mobility and social space, accorded to women. Far from being an inert, passive, noncultural and ahistorical term the body may be seen as the crucial term, the site of contestation, in a series of economic, political, sexual, and intellectual struggles.

Indeed, there is no body as such: there are only bodies –– male or female, black, brown, white, large and small –– and the gradations in between.

Only when the relation between mind and body is adequately retheorized can we understand the contributions of the body to the production of knowledge systems, regimes of representation, cultural production, and socioeconomic exchange.

Bodies are always irreducibly sexually specific, necessarily interlocked with racial, cultural and class particularities.


This interlocking, though, cannot occur by way of intersection (the gridlock model presumed by structural analysis, in which the axes of class, race, and sex are conceived as autonomous structures which then require external connections with the other structures) but by way of mutual constitution.


Knowledges, like all other forms of social production, are at least partially effects of the sexualized positioning of their producers and users; knowledges must themselves be acknowledged as sexually determinate, limited, finite.


[…] if we take seriously the antiessentialist decentering of identity and if, correlatively, we are committed to an anti humanist notion of “the production or construction of subjectivity,” then unless the “raw materials” of the process of subject construction can be explained and problematised as raw or preinsciptive materials, the analogy between the production of subjects and the production of commodities –– so crucial to a Marxist notion of ideology –– breaks down. As pliable “raw materials” it is only an account of the body that gives this model any plausibility.

It is not adequate to simply dismiss the category of nature outright, to completely retranscribe it without residue into the cultural: this in itself is the monist, or logocentric, gesture par excellence.

Culture itself can only have meaning and value in terms of its ownother(s): when its others are obliterated – as tends to occur within the problematic of social constructionism – culture in effect takes on all the immutable, fixed characteristics attributed to the natural order.

Nature may be understood not as an origin or as an invariable template but as materiality in its most general sense, as destination.


One’s sex cannot be simply reduced to and contained by one’s primary and secondary sexual characteristics, because one’s sex makes a difference to every function, biological, social, cultural, if not in their operations then certainly in significance.

There is no one mode that is capable of representing the “human” in all its richness and variability. A plural, multiple field of possible body “types”, no one of which functions as the delegate or representative of the others, must be created […]


But in positing a field of body types, I do not want to suggest that there is a single homogenous field on which all sorts of body types can, without any violence or transcription, be placed so that they can now be assessed fairly and equally. This is nothing but the liberal paradigm, which leaves unacknowledged the criteria by and the interests through which the field is set up.


A field may be a discontinuous, nonhomogenous, nonsingular space, a space that admits of differences, incommensurability, intervals or gaps between types, a field, in short, that is established and regulated according to various perspectives and interests.

The body must be regarded as a site of social, political, cultural, and geographic inscriptions, production or constitution. The body is not opposed to culture, a resistant throwback to a natural past; it is itself a cultural, the cultural, product.

Any adequate model must include a psychical representation of the subject’s lived body as well as of the relations between body gestures, posture, and movement in the constitution of the processes of psychical representations. Both psychical and social dimensions must find their place in reconceptualizing the body, not in opposition to each other but as necessarily interactive.

The body is neither – while also being both – the private or the public, self or other, natural or cultural, psychical or social, instinctive or learned, genetically or environmentally determined.


In dissolving oppositional categories we cannot simply ignore them, vowing never to speak in their terms again. This is neither historically possible nor even desirable insofar as these categories must be engaged with in order to be superseded. But new terms and conceptual frameworks must also be devised to be able to talk of the body outside or in excess of binary pairs.