BY Olivia Laing in Frieze | 11 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176


Three new publications intimately concerned with difficult bodies

BY Olivia Laing in Frieze | 11 DEC 15

Tariq Alvi, The Bandaged Lady (from Two Hankies diptych), 2005. Courtesy Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy

I’ve got an earworm. I’m walking down East 4th Street, yellow leaves, blue sky, and I keep repeating ‘an orgy of specificity, an orgy of specificity’. It takes six blocks before I figure out the source: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015, Graywolf), her magnificent memoir-cum-philosophical treatise about transness, motherhood, queer politics, devotion, love. ‘An orgy of specificity’ is how she describes the task of talking about her then-lover, now-husband, the artist Harry Dodge, without resorting to a gendered pronoun. But it strikes me that the phrase does double duty, serving as a manifesto for what amounts to an explosion of new writing about the body: libidinal, politically engaged, ardently invested in multiplicity and difference.

Take Dodie Bellamy, whose new collection, When the Sick Rule the World (2015, Semiotext(e)) is likewise intimately concerned with difficult bodies: disruptive bodies, bodies that resist categorization, not least among them Bellamy’s own. Let’s get specific. In the virtuosic, expulsive Barf Manifesto (2008, Ugly Duck Press), which somehow manages to find connections between the nausea-inducing op art of Bridget Riley, Bellamy’s spiky friendship with the poet Eileen Myles, vomit, dog urine and incestuous mother love, Bellamy repeatedly reveals herself in states of abjection. This self-exposure culminates in a scene in which she inadvertently clogs Myles’s toilet with her own shit and then frantically tries to plunge it while Myles watches from the doorway, barking unsympathetic instruction.

Out it all comes: ‘It’s first thing in the morning and I haven’t had coffee, and it’s hot as hell, I’m wearing this thin white organic cotton nightgown, with peach and white embroidered vines on it, and I’m sweating and as I pump my breasts are bobbing crazily for all the world to see, the water finally goes down and I flush and the toilet fills up again with my horrible smelly poo, my shame.’

What does it mean to display the body like this: to let it sprawl and smear onto the page? It means being able to talk about power and vulnerability; it means being able to test abstract ideas on the proving ground of the actual. Barf Manifesto is, at heart, in form as well as content, an argument against generality, which is never truly universal and which always necessitates more or less ruthless omissions and excisions. Like Myles’s essay that provoked it (‘Everyday Barf’, 2007) and like The Argonauts, Barf Manifesto is ‘a manifesto of complexity, ambiguity, indeterminacy, layering, contradiction, blurring of boundaries’, which seeks to track ‘how the personal intersects content intersects form intersects politics’.

The memoir is a morphing form and it seems to me that this particular approach represents a new development. If we’re at an intersectional moment, a moment of realizing that gender is complicated by race is complicated by sexuality is complicated by class, then it’s perhaps not wholly surprising that current accounts of bodily experience should likewise be valuing complexity over simplicity, contradiction over unidirectional truth.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (diner), 1978–79. Courtesy P.P.O.W, New York 

One of the less palatable fruits of being both or neither or something else entirely is the endless, tiresome and sometimes violent boundary-policing it occasions. In The Argonauts, Nelson’s pregnant body and Dodge’s trans body repeatedly serve as lightning rods for prejudicial thinking – from a patrician white guy shocked that Nelson might be capable of talking about art and cruelty while ‘with child’ to a bouncer at a burlesque show, unwilling to let the heroically queer space be polluted by the spectacle of a mother and baby.

Excluded bodies are also front and centre in Trans (2015, Verso), Juliet Jacques’s memoir-cum-history, which interlaces a nuanced account of trans politics with her own story of transitioning between genders. If Nelson wants to put bodies back into theory – revealing, for example, the patent absurdity of the transphobic philosophy dispensed by the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Jean Baudrillard when applied to actual humans living actual loving human lives – then what Jacques wants to do is put theory back into the body. She’s particularly keen to find a way of complicating the omnipresent media narrative of trans people being trapped in the wrong body, with its reliance on shock reveals and its obsession with genitalia.

Jacques’s own account of transitioning has more in common with the work of Yishay Garbasz, one of the many artists she draws upon to contextualize and enrich her own experience. Garbasz used photography to document the incremental stages ofher shift between genders, so that even her surgery ‘did not appear abrupt or incongruous, but rather assimilated into the physical landscape that she presented’. How, considers Jacques, do you do the same with language? Specificity again: a textured litany of office jobs worked and football teams supported; the overarching message being that there is no one way to be trans, just as there is no one way to be pregnant or sick or anything else.

The boundary-policing Jacques experiences is physically violent, particularly during the early, non-passing stages of her journey. Men throw bottles at her in the street; opportunistic and abusive strangers proposition her in clubs. These scenes reminded me more than once of Close to the Knives (1991, Vintage), David Wojnarowicz’s searing memoir about abuse, aids, art-making and activism. Intersectionality avant la lettre, the message of Close to the Knives can be boiled down to its most famous sentence: ‘My rage is really about the fact that when I was told I’d contracted this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize i’d contracted a diseased society as well.’

Here, the body is ground for radical awakening. Memoir writers are often accused of narcissism or self-absorption, but using personal testimony for political purposes is hardly new. Wojnarowicz’s all-caps howl is another version of the old feminist slogan ‘The Personal Is Political’, meaning that oppression is never abstract, but takes place in the realm of the physical, the realm of feeling, the domestic sphere. Feminist consciousness-raising groups were laboratories for participants to realize that what had previously seemed like dismally private inequities and miseries were actually shared; aids memoirs served as rallying cries for activism and social change.

But the other lesson of the body is complexity. You can build consensus based on physical experience, but the body is troublesome, perpetually disruptive. I keep thinking of all the bodies in Bellamy’s account. A room of sick bodies, trying to police each other’s use of perfume and hair spray. (‘You’re giving me brain fog,’ the large-breasted woman replies.) Three horny bodies, in a motel room with two beds. Homeless bodies; bodies taking crack; body parts, stuffed into a suitcase. This is the trouble with identity, it won’t all hold together. Even if you join a group, you can’t be certain that some unruly aspect of what Nelson calls ‘the snowball of the self’ won’t cause you later to be cast out.

It isn’t hard to see why people might want identity set in stone, or to defend its outer borders. But isn’t it better, more ethical as well as pleasurable, to get stuck into the orgy of the specific? It certainly makes for thrilling writing: Nelson’s paragraphs vaulting topics, Bellamy’s stream of consciousness swerving through tone and thought. This is style in service to something larger: a political worldview profoundly invested in diversity. ‘People are different from each other,’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once said, and the task of language is to find a way of encompassing that, capturing every radiant minute of the turbulent realm that lies between birth and death.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.