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SO MUCH WASTED
Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance
By PATRICK ANDERSON
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One the archive of anorexia
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The subject of "dying" gave him much preoccupation at this time. ... He said to me that when he died he would move only very slowly-like this.... He also asked if one did not eat for a very long time would one have to die then, and how long would it take before one died from it. -Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation By the blindness of the way he has chosen, against himself, in spite of himself, with its veerings, detours, and circlings back, his step, always one step in front of nowhere, invents the road he has taken. -Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger
In the opening scene we do not know where we are. The full and shapely lips of an anonymous mouth appear in extreme close-up-like Rocky Horror, like the Rolling Stones, like the gasping lead character in Samuel Beckett's Not I-calmly reading a list of procedures: "breast reduction, abdominoplasty, liposuction, body contouring, collagen injection." In a flash the frame slips forty-five degrees, the mouth now set at an angle, continuing to speak, as if reading from a relentlessly hopeful medical brochure: "Often changing how one looks on the outside changes one's perception of the world, giving one an inner sense of well-being and self-confidence." Another flash, the mouth now panning across the screen like a landscape shot: "You will re-enter the world, not only looking great, but feeling great." This is Tom's Flesh.
We may have noticed the teeth, wet and unevenly arranged behind the moving lips. We may have noticed the voice's deep tonal resonances-it "sounds like a man"-and wondered how or if it maps onto the body we have yet to see. We may have noticed that once the lips open to speak, they do not again close. But just as abruptly as it appeared, the mouth is gone, replaced by a wandering gaze that sweeps cautiously, tenderly across the spinning lights of a fairground, accompanied by the casual tinkling of a music box. These grainy views will toggle throughout the short film to the slow-motion nostalgia of an old Super 8: children in various states of apparent domestic bliss. But in a viciously gentle game of fort and da, what the screen gives it will also take away. These idyllic scenes are accompanied by ominous lines from our narrator: "I deserved what he did to me"; "He made me stand in front of them, welted and bleeding"; and from a new, second voice, whispered with a foreboding annunciative accuracy, "See how lucky you are not to be me." In time-we might, after Cathy Caruth, say in the time of trauma-these images are replaced by others, at first more difficult to read: segments of skin stretched and twisted into unrecognizable forms; postoperative scars of survival; bodily landscapes that constitute what the voice calls "beauty." As the first narrator tells us, "I've undone everything. I've undone it all."
The ontology of that undoing, described simply on the film's first series of intertitles, begins with a complicated scene of recognition: "Age 7: My father told me that I was fat / I looked in the mirror / He was right." In a dramatic retelling of Lacan's story of the mirror stage-or from another angle, a reimagining of Althusser's street scene-the voice of Tom's father occasions a search for the subject, a visual turn to answer the father's call. Tom looks to the mirror to see himself, and in so seeing he becomes what his father summons. The momentum of that becoming -in Nietzsche's words, that movement "across the turbulent stream of becoming"-accelerates as more scenes from Tom's childhood echo with the father's cruel calls: "Boys don't love"; "He slapped me when I said the word love." Moments later we see "Age 11: I weighed 180 lbs." And then, with a soft but resounding climax of commencement, Tom's story turns: "Age 18: I weighed 300 lbs. / I stopped eating / In seven months I lost over 180 lbs. / I became anorexic."
If the emergence of anorexia in Tom's narrative marks the commencement of a certain kind of becoming, a becoming that is itself an undoing, it alone among his strategies of survival remains otherwise unspoken throughout the film. Anorexia is marked within the script of that single intertitle, but it is never again spoken, never demonstrated as openly and graphically as the many other practices-self-laceration, a grotesque kind of play with the wounds from his father's abuse, reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries-that constitute Tom's becoming. These are excessively represented, indeed almost overrepresented, in the images and spoken narratives of the film. But anorexia, so insistent, so haunting in that initial citation, will not likewise be archived within the scopic or narrative space of Tom's Flesh; anorexia appears both to index and to archive itself. Or rather-"Age 11: I weighed 180 lbs."; "Age 18: ... I lost over 180 lbs."-anorexia becomes the force and the law of Tom's corporeally archival work.
Tom's Flesh reveals anorexia, perhaps especially in the silent persistence of its presence in the film, as itself an archival project of undoing and becoming, a deeply (to use Paul Connerton's word) incorporated historiography of trauma. At the same time, anorexia exceeds its conventional role as a nomenclature of individual suffering, especially since its introduction into a broader cultural presence in the closing decades of the twentieth century. We might locate that colloquial inauguration of anorexia on a Las Vegas nightclub stage in the fall of 1975, when the popular musician Karen Carpenter collapsed while singing "Top of the World"; or on the morning of 5 February 1983, when news of Carpenter's death from a "starvation diet" was published in newspapers across the United States. As the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes of these events, Carpenter's experiences "fueled interest in the disease [and] focused national attention on the life-and-death drama of anorexia nervosa." Where previously in its troubled history the concept of anorexia, perhaps the very word anorexia functioned as a technical taxonomy of disease in rarified spaces (clinics, hospitals, medical theaters), suddenly in the 1970s and 1980s it also became a vernacular, an everyday word, an idiom.
These rhetorical transformations likewise disclose the agility of anorexia as a speech act. That is, as a practice, as a constellation of practices that reveals both the grave performativity of clinical diagnosis and the diagnostic power of cultural representation, anorexia transgresses the boundaries between clinic and world, gathering in its reach a broad range of functions, orientations, and forms. It has been called an "epidemic," a "cage," a "stance," a "phenomenon," a "metaphor," an "aesthetic," and (almost universally) a "disorder." In all of these resonances anorexia is marked not only as a category of psychological distress, but also (and perhaps most significantly) as symptomatic of and fundamental to the capital and corporeal excesses of late modernity. John Sours evocatively characterizes this quality of the contemporary manifestation of anorexia as "starving to death in a sea of objects." Kim Chernin explicitly politicizes this characterization by positioning anorexia as a response to what she calls "the tyranny of slenderness." Both diagnostically and representationally anorexia reverberates with significance, abounds with descriptive promiscuity, thrives on the profusion of its psychic, somatic, and social effects.
In calling anorexia an archival project of undoing and becoming I mean to highlight both the function of anorexia as an individualized practice that archives its own loss and the status of anorexia as a deeply and ardently historicized cultural artifact. Indeed efforts to chart the history of anorexia's clinical and cultural emergence have proliferated in the years since it obtained colloquial standing, coalescing around the practice from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives. Most notable among these historical studies are those authored by medical and public health professionals and feminist cultural critics, constituencies that do not often find themselves mobilized around similarly articulated concerns, orientations, or goals. That is to say, the drive to archive anorexia's clinical and cultural past has itself emerged within a critical dialectic that, from one angle, seeks to track and to treat the complicated nosology of anorexia as a disease and, from another angle, seeks to position anorexia as a symptom of the radically uneven flows of cultural power that initiate and reproduce expectations for how particular (and particularly gendered) bodies should act and appear.
"We are not the first to look upon this emaciated figure," writes Angelyn Spignesi. "Researchers have been strongly drawn to this figure; they have eyed her carefully. The voluminous amount of research ... illuminates how vividly the anorexic has caught the imagination. Researchers have been attached to her, perhaps even enamored.... For one hundred years, [they] have been attempting to put this female skeleton back into shape." Spignesi highlights the relatively deep history of medical research on the practice of anorexia, the frenzied clinical attempts to track its many variations and to promote methods for treatment or cure; she casts these attempts as infused with a clinical passion that is as "attached," as "enamored" as it is urgent. Likewise, in cultural criticism of at least the past several decades, historians and theorists have worked diligently to track the effects of "impossible standards for beauty" in the emergence and spread of anorexia through and across diagnostic constituencies. Maud Ellmann likens the surplus of writing produced about anorexia to anorexic practice itself: "While there is some debate as to whether the disease of anorexia is on the rise, there can be no doubt that the research is epidemic even if the malady is not, because it has infected every discipline from medicine, psychology, and sociology to women's magazines and literary criticism." In Ellmann's appraisal the urgency to historicize anorexia is itself a kind of compulsion that (like a contagion) infects, mirroring the obsessive desire to starve diagnostically characteristic of anorectics. Anorexia, that is, compels its own archival drive, beckons us to seek the vicissitudes of its histories, stimulates a desire to encounter the ghosts of its historical presence. For Sours "the history of anorexia proves that history does, indeed, repeat itself." For Leslie Heywood "the real of anorexia is the residue of discourses about it." For Spignesi "the Gods of this disease will be reflected in its pathos as well as its logos." Anorexia compels; anorexia is its own inscription.
At the same time, as the physician Charles Rosenberg remarked in his study of cholera, "a disease is no absolute physical entity but a complex intellectual construction, an amalgam of biological state and social definition." The archive of anorexia, the historiography of anorexia and anorexia as historiographical practice, is also an archive of a given social context and its epistemological relationship to the body. In their expansive study of "the history of self-starvation" Walter Vandereycken and Ron van Deth mark this quality of illness as "culture-bound": "The notion of (ab)normality is ... particularly dependent upon the culture where the behavioural pattern in question is observed.... This implies that the syndrome is only meaningful and comprehensible (diagnosis, explanation, therapy) within the psychosocial sphere of a specific cultural context." Vandereycken and van Deth imply that as a medicalized practice, as a diagnostic symbology anorexia obtains its significance precisely as a representational form, a system of signs, meaningful only insofar as it bears some relationship to and holds some possibility for comprehension through the many forms of (clinical, popular, aesthetic) interpretation that define a given cultural moment. As they later claim, illness "becomes a metaphor, a figurative concept which arouses the imagination: it may be romanticized as a bogey or cultivated as a myth. Illness becomes synonymous with inexplicable mystery or inevitable mischief."
For Susan Bordo the "mischief" of illness is precisely its eloquence as "the crystallization of culture": "I take the pathologies that develop within a culture, far from being anomalies or aberrations, to be characteristic expressions of that culture; to be, indeed, the crystallization of much that is wrong with it." Like many others who have taken anorexia to be, in Ellmann's words, "a symptom of the discontents of womankind," Bordo is particularly attentive to the modes through which cultural expectations for idealized body sizes and shapes are incorporated and adopted as objects of desire, as mirrors through which women aim to see themselves. Along with Jean Kilbourne and Naomi Wolf, Bordo positions anorexia as a practice that reflects women's struggles to conform to such expectations (if not precisely as a complete sublimation of or submission to that "tyranny of slimness"). This interpretation of anorexia as a direct result of implausible patriarchal demands for compliance with those sculpted (and, in print, airbrushed) silhouettes of perfection is dominant in so much of the critical and popular literature that little room has been left for other, more nuanced or rigorously tracked readings of anorexic practice. In an extremely prescient study in 1986 that anticipated the ascendancy of this interpretation, Susie Orbach notes:
While at first glance it might appear that the anorectic's refusal to eat is an act of conformity, a taking-up of the commandment, the act of refusal contains its dialectical response: I shall not partake of that which is offered for it is not sufficient/not for me at all. The food is the symbolic representation of a world that has already disappointed the anorectic. Entry into it is not the answer.
To be fair to her important and influential work, I should make clear that Bordo does not ascribe to the simplistic and unforgiving interpretation of anorexia as nothing more than submission to bodily ideals internalized from a cultural context that promotes relentless dissatisfaction with one's physical appearance. Insofar as anorexic practice is, to borrow Wang Ping's words, an "aching for beauty," it represents a profoundly conflicted and conflicting relationship to the incorporation of ideological demands. But Bordo is acutely resistant to any attempt to align anorexia with, for example, the overt political orientation of a hunger strike. She writes:
The anorectic's protest ... is written on the bodies of anorexic women, not embraced as a conscious politics-nor, indeed, does it reflect any social or political understanding at all. Moreover, the symptoms themselves function to preclude the emergence of such an understanding. The idée fixe-staying thin-becomes at its farthest extreme so powerful as to render any other ideas or life-projects meaningless.
This citation represents an uncomfortable moment in Bordo's study: her refusal of the anorectic's ability, however fraught, however failing, to articulate starvation as or within a conscious political stance seems to reproduce the very voicelessness against which she is otherwise so clearly mobilized. To gesture to "any other ideas or life-projects" as "meaningless" for the anorectic, and especially to deny "any social or political understanding," risks limiting our ability to trace anorexia's function within the life of the subject: more specifically, the Foucauldian notion of the subject that Bordo earlier claims is central to her understanding of power's production at the extremely localized scale of the body.
Excerpted from SO MUCH WASTED by PATRICK ANDERSON Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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