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Embodying the Monster

Theory, Culture & Society

Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of clas- sical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University

SERIES EDITORIAL BOARD Roy Boyne, University of Durham Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of Aberdeen Roland Robertson, University of Pittsburgh Bryan S. Turner, University of Cambridge

THE TCS CENTRE The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre’s activities please contact:

Centre Administrator The TCS Centre, Room 175 Faculty of Humanities Nottingham Trent University Clifton Lane, Nottingham NG11 8NS, UK e-mail: tcs@ntu.ac.uk web: http://tcs.ntu.ac.uk

Recent volumes include:

Society and Culture Principles of Scarcity and Solidity Bryan S. Turner and Chris Rojek

Modernity and Exclusion Joel S. Kah

Virilio Live

John Armitage

The Experience of Culture Michael Richardson

The Sociological Condition Chris Shilling and Philip A. Mellor

Embodying the Monster

Encounters with the Vulnerable Self


Monster Encounters with the Vulnerable Self MARGRIT SHILDRICK SAGE Publications London • Thousand Oaks • New

SAGE Publications

London Thousand Oaks New Delhi

© 2002 Margrit Shildrick

First published 2002

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the Publishers.

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ISBN 0 7619 7013 4 ISBN 0 7619 6549 1 (pbk)

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Typeset by SIVA Math Setters, Chennai, India Printed in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd, Guildford, Surrey


List of Illustrations






1. Monsters, Marvels and Meanings


2. Monstering the (M)Other


3. The Self’s Clean and Proper Body


4. Contagious Encounters and the Ethics of Risk


5. Levinas and Vulnerable Becoming


6. The Relational Economy of Touch


7. Welcoming the Monstrous Arrivant










Human twins conjoined at the head, born at Worms in 1495 (Sébastien Brandt) from Aesculape, 1993, Vol. 1



Some members of the Monstrous Races in Cosmographiae universalis, lib. VI (Munster 1554)



The Monster of Ravenna in De monstrorum caussis, natura, et differentis (Licetus 1634)



The Monster of Cracow in De monstrorum caussis, natura, et differentis (Licetus 1634)



Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, photographed in 1860 (Source unknown)



Lazarus and John Baptista Coloredo from The Gentlemen’s Magazine (1777)



The Bengali Boy (Basire) from The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 80 (1790)



Conjoined twins from Still Life (Karl Grimes 1997)


Figure 1.1, copyright ISHM, is reproduced courtesy of the International Society for the History of Medicine (ISHM) and supplied by the Wellcome Library, London; Figures 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 are reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London; Figure 1.2 with the permission of the governors and guardians of Marsh’s Library, Dublin; Figures 1.3 and 3.1 courtesy of Liverpool Medical Institution; Figure 4.1 courtesy of the artist and the Gallery of Photography, Dublin.


The genesis and successful completion of Embodying the Monster relies, as does every publication, on a wide number of colleagues and friends – though some may remain unaware of its existence – as well as on various forms of institutional support. On the formal level, I am very grateful to Staffordshire University for giving me a three-year research fellowship that has allowed me to concentrate full-time on this and related projects, and for providing sufficient funding for me to attend several important conferences where initial papers were tested out. I should also like to thank the organisers of a number of seminar series and con- ferences held under the auspices of the Institute of Women’s Studies at Lancaster University where I have had the opportunity of many stimulating discussions about both my own work and that of others. Thanks too to the feminist academics in Australia who welcomed my participation at their own conferences and seminars and provided some invaluable responses to my ideas. It would be too restrictive to name any individuals here, but I hope that all those involved feel acknowledged. On a more practical level, I’d like to register my gratitude for continuing support from the Department of Primary Care at University of Liverpool where I have come and gone over many years, initially as a student of bioethics, then as a part- time lecturer, and finally as an honorary research fellow. Turning to more personal matters, it is perhaps even harder to supply any list that does full justice to the many people who provided critical and supportive input. Some have been directly involved with aspects of the text, while others have given equally valuable emotional backup. I particularly want to thank Janet Price, who has been heroic both in her willingness to read a complete draft on top of previous exposure to several of the discrete papers that became chapters, and in her unwavering friendship. Lis Davidson too has probably heard almost every word, though in a less organised way, and my thanks to her extend far beyond the academic. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a firm distinction between intel- lectual and personal engagement, so I’ll mention indiscriminately several others who’ve given their backing one way or another. Thanks variously to Maggie O’Neill and Ruth Holliday, and other current colleagues, who eased my way in a new job; to Joanna Hodge, who unknowingly set the whole project in motion, to enduring friends Liz MacGarvey and Grindl Dockery who always bring fresh perspectives; to Ailbhe Smyth for those all-important invitations; to Sara Ahmed for several years of difficult but productive questions; and to Mike Featherstone who published some early papers and asked for the book. As I’ve indicated, some of the text has already appeared as discrete papers or chapters in books edited by others. Most, however, have been heavily reworked and often split between two or more chapters in the present book, making it difficult to give exact acknowledgments. Incorporated work has previously appeared in the journals Body & Society, Journal of Medical Humanities,



Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, and Rethinking History; and in the edited collections Transformations (Routledge 2000), Body Modification (Sage 2000), Thinking Through the Skin (Routledge 2001), Beliefs, Bodies and Being (Rowman Littlefield 2001), and Contagion: Cultural and Historical Studies (Routledge 2001).


What are the figures of difference that haunt the western imaginary, and what would it mean to reflect on, rework and valorise them? My project here is the limited one of reconfiguring two such devalued domains that are interwoven one with the other in both predictable and surprising ways. On the one hand, I turn to the monster in order to uncover and rethink a relation with the standards of normality that proves to be uncontainable and ultimately unknowable. Although the image of the monster is long familiar in popular culture, from the earliest recorded narrative and plastic representations through to the cyborg figures of the present day and future anticipation, it is in its operation as a concept – the monstrous – that it shows itself to be a deeply disruptive force. My second con- cept, by contrast, is that of vulnerability, an existential state that may belong to any one of us, but which is characterised nonetheless as a negative attribute, a failure of self-protection, that opens the self to the potential of harm. As such it is, like the notion of the monstrous, largely projected on to the other and held at bay lest it undermine the security of closure and self-sufficiency. The link that I want to make is that we are always and everywhere vulnerable precisely because the monstrous is not only an exteriority. In both cases what is at issue is the permeability of the boundaries that guarantee the normatively embodied self. As I shall argue, neither vulnerability nor the monstrous is fully containable within the binary structure of the western logos, but signal a transformation of the relation between self and other such that the encounter with the strange is not a discrete event but the constant condition of becoming. Both are in play, then, on a plane where conceptual logics cannot be distinguished from the corporeality of becom- ing in the world. Moreover, in contradistinction to the dominant convention, the body – expressly the differential body – is not incidental to the ontological and ethical processes of the self, but intrinsic to their operation. Within the context of a more general elevation of the body as a focus for con- temporary scholarship, many theorists, and particularly those who are feminists, have identified the erasure of the corporeal from the founding moment of western modernity – I refer to the take-up of the Cartesian split between mind and body – as a paradigmatic element in the oppression not only of women, but of a range of other others. Moreover, as the sustained deconstruction of the seminal texts of philosophy has shown, from the classical era to the present century, the mascu- linist retreat from the body and from embodiment has denied to those others access to subjectivity itself. It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that deconstruction and its companion discourse, postmodernism – on which my project relies extensively – reputedly have no place for the corporeal. The confusion arises, I believe, from the mistake of thinking that postmodernism must take only one form. From the common ground of problematising the modernist project, the



trajectory of postmodernisms is multiple, and for feminism in particular, the body remains a politically necessary site of contestation. Given that masculinist domi- nance has characteristically entailed the disembodiment of the exclusionary mascu- line subject, and a corresponding corporeal inscription of femininity/otherness, the task is to reject biologism – with its appeal to prediscursive natural givens – at the same time as recuperating the possibility of embodiment. In recent years, then, many feminist theorists have looked again at the indif- ference to the corporeal and have developed new insights which mobilise a rein- statement of the feminine. In this work, I shall extend that reassessment to take account of differently excluded others with a focus on those who are categorised as monstrous, not just as the feminine, or the racial other, but also those who are physically disabled or whose bodies radically disrupt morphological expecta- tions. Although feminist theory has long since moved on from an exclusive con- centration on gender issues, I sense – with relatively few exceptions – that for all the emphasis given in recent and current thought to embodied difference as the grounds for a specific reappraisal of the conventional paradigms of ontology, epistemology, and ethics, the body that is recovered in its difference, remains highly normative. 1 It is as though in the desire to establish an adequate alterna- tive to masculinist standards of disembodied subjectivity, the body in question must be read primarily through its capacity to instantiate new norms of sexuality, production or reproduction. Whether the feminist approach has appealed to a more or less nuanced form of essentialism, to notions of the body as a social construct, or to a phenomenology of the body that emphasises corporeal being- in-the-world, all seem to me to have failed to engage with the issues arising from morphological diversity that are not reducible to questions of sameness and difference. In contrast, what I want to do in this book is to address the consequences – ontological, epistemological and above all ethical – of viewing all bodies as unable to comply with the norms through which they enter the space of discourse, and thus of what counts as reality. 2 It is not that some bodies are reducible to the same while others figure as the absolute other, but rather that all resist full or final expression. The security of categories – whether of self or non-self – is undone by a radical undecidability. The issue is not one of revaluing differently embod- ied others, but of rethinking the nature of embodiment itself. By engaging with a characteristically, though by no means exclusively, feminist take-up of the insights of poststructuralism and postmodernism, I shall suggest that the reincor- poration into our terms of reference of what might be called monstrous bodies – by which I mean those bodies that in their gross failure to approximate to corporeal norms are radically excluded – demands a fundamental re-evaluation of the self- same, and of the relationship between self and other. Where normative embodi- ment has hitherto seemed to guarantee individual autonomous selfhood, what is monstrous in all its forms – hybrid creatures, conjoined twins, human clones, cyborg embodiment and others – disrupts the notions of separation and distinc- tion that underlie such claims. So long as the monstrous remains the absolute other in its corporeal difference it poses few problems; in other words it is so distanced in its difference that it can clearly be put into an oppositional category



of not-me. Once, however, it begins to resemble those of us who lay claim to the primary term of identity, or to reflect back aspects of ourselves that are repressed, then its indeterminate status – neither wholly self nor wholly other – becomes deeply disturbing. In short, what is at stake is not simply the status of those bodies which might be termed monstrous, but the being in the body of us all. To valorise the monster, then, is to challenge the parameters of the subject as defined within logocentric discourse. The use of the term ‘monster’ or ‘monstrous’ to describe such liminal beings has extensive historical precedents, but my point in this work, far from being to reiterate the negative charge of that ascription, is to contest the binary that opposes the monstrous to the normal. There is plentiful archival evidence of the destruction or persecution of those considered monstrous, and certainly the monster has often functioned as a scapegoat, carrying the taint of all that must be excluded in order to secure the ideal of an untroubled social order. Clearly, the category has taken on very specific cultural and historical forms with regard not simply to anomalies of embodiment, but to the operation of racist or sexist para- digms that have deployed the notion of the subhuman for highly political purposes. 3 Nonetheless, the pertinence of the monstrous, I would argue, is deter- mined not only by the contested terrain of a particular historical moment, but by the always already problematic ontology of human being. The hermeneutics of the monstrous focus, then, on quasi-human beings, for they alone can confirm the normalcy and closure of the centred self, though, as I shall go on to discuss, simul- taneously unsettling it by being all too human. Such monsters are both necessary and feared, and yet effectively have been denied a place in the domain of ethics, except as the passive object of moral regard. The implicit danger of my trans- historical approach – which must be acknowledged lest it play out the very ethi- cal erasure that I am contesting – is that the specificity of any singular instance should be betrayed by reference to a generalised category of the monstrous. But insofar as my task is to deconstruct the strategies of a morphological imaginary that covers over the differences within and across terms, whilst universalising the differences between terms, then it is a risk that can, and must, be negotiated. Moreover, the greater violence would be to assume that the particularity of the other is within our grasp, that the place of the other is fully accountable from the ‘outside’. What I propose is a new form of ethics that answers more fully to the multi- plicity of embodied difference, and as such, it is precisely my intention to undo the singular category of the monster. In place of a morality of principles and rules that speaks to a clear-cut set of binaries setting out the good and the evil, the self and the other, normal and abnormal, the permissible and the prohibited, I turn away from such normative ethics to embrace instead the ambiguity and unpre- dictability of an openness towards the monstrous other. It is a move that acknow- ledges both vulnerability to the other, and the vulnerability of the self. The question of value here is not so much made irrelevant, as disrupted, suspended in the face of an encounter that cannot be known in advance. Moreover, despite a persistent desire, stretching from the natural science of Aristotle through to present day medical discourse, which seeks to categorise and explain monstrosity through



the pathology of abnormal corporeality, there is another more disruptive intuition that the monstrous cannot be confined in the place of the other. It is not simply that monsters – strangers in general – disrupt the usual rules of interaction in that their cultural distance may be offset by physical proximity, but that they may not be outside at all. Although they are always there in our conscious appraisal of the external world, they are also the other within. In seeking confirmation of our own secure subjecthood in what we are not, what we see mirrored in the monster are the leaks and flows, the vulnerabilities in our own embodied being. Monsters, then, are deeply disturbing; neither good nor evil, inside nor outside, not self or other. On the contrary, they are always liminal, refusing to stay in place, trans- gressive and transformative. They disrupt both internal and external order, and overturn the distinctions that set out the limits of the human subject. The question of the ‘reality’ or otherwise of such monstrous creatures is not one that will concern me as such, and I have no hesitation in bringing together the undoubtedly mythological, the speculative, and those whose differential embodi- ment is lived out in our own experience. What matters is the way in which each breaks with any given form, and functions beyond predetermined limits as a fluid signifier. My approach is unashamedly postmodernist in that I understand all bodies to be discursively constructed rather than given. It is not simply that corpo- reality is a dynamic process that belies the static universalisation of the body image, but that all bodies are in some sense phantasmatic. Nonetheless, my inten- tion to mark my primary concern as being with the meaning of the corporeal, and to concur with Liz Grosz that ‘(bodies) are materialities that are uncontainable in physicalist terms alone’ (1994: xi), should not be taken to exclude the substantial and tangible. Indeed, two things are at work in my approach. Although from one perspective, I take on the often somewhat abstract theorisations of post- modernism to contest the dominant body image of modernity, that does not stand alone. At the same time, my focus on certain aspects of materialisation engages with not only the monstrous bodies of the past, but the radically new possibilities of embodiment that are emerging in the era of postmodernity, through such tech- niques as cloning, transsexual surgery, genetic engineering and xenotransplanta- tion. Combining those points of view strongly suggests that the standard body is not only being superseded in practice, but has been unstable all along. When I first started thinking about the notion of the monstrous body, initially through archival texts, it was to ask just what it is that the monster signifies – monstrare itself means ‘to show forth’ – that gives rise to a transhistorical and ubiquitous intermingling of fascination and fear. In other words, why is it that like the feminine or racial others for example, monsters are both the unspoken of western discourse, and at the same time always haunting its margins, simultane- ously seductive and threatening? What is clear is that the strength of the western logos as a symbolic system depends in large part on defining those who are other, those who escape normative identity, if they successfully resist total exclusion, as marginal and dangerous. That same process is at work with regard to the body itself. In those discourses where corporeality is scarcely considered a proper com- ponent of identity, then the potential of corporeal irruption into consciousness – an irruption that is a feature of all bodies – constitutes an understandable threat to



self-containment. Moreover, when in addition that threat is associated with women, or other others, who are already embodied differently to existing norms, then it is considerably heightened. And yet, as my analysis will uncover, the mon- strous is never simply negative because it is never fully outside, but always a figure of ambiguous identity. Although the very word ‘monster’ is a common term of abuse, implying a denial of any likeness between self and other such that a barrier is put in place between the two, the very force of rejection of such otherness cannot but suggest a level of disturbing familiarity, even similarity. The monster is not just abhorrent, it is also enticing, a figure that calls to us, that invites recognition. Simultaneously threat and promise, the monster, as with the feminine, comes to embody those things which an ordered and limited life must try, and finally fail, to abject. In the face of the potential vulnerabilities exposed by the embodied other, the ideal of the humanist subject of modernity, supposedly fully present to himself, self-sufficient and rational, can be maintained only on the basis of a series of putative exclusions. That which is different must be located outside the bound- aries of the proper, in black people, in foreigners, in animals, in the congenitally disabled, and in women; in short in all those who might be seen as monstrous. At the least contentious level, monsters – whether those already cited, or those of disordered maternal impressions, of science-fiction literature, or of the becoming- cyborg – evoke opposition to the paradigms of a humanity that is marked by self- possession. Moreover, what is at stake in a politics of identity and difference is the security of borders that mark out the places which are safe and which are unsafe, and who is due moral consideration and who is not. But despite the foun- dational claims, those boundaries are never finally secured, not because the claims of the excluded may become too insistent to resist, but because exclusion itself is incomplete. As Derrida has shown, the uncontested belief in full self- presence at the heart of the logos cannot be maintained even by the violent hier- archy of the binary. At the very moment of definition, the subject is marked by its excluded other, the absent presence which primary identification must deny, and on which it relies. The monster is irreducible to the selfsame but it is also within. And it is that trace, the supplement, the undecidable signifier at the heart of différance, the spectre of the other who haunts the selfsame, which ensures that change is not only possible but perhaps inevitable. If identity is founded on what Butler calls ‘a radical concealment’ (1991: 15), then the encounter with the monstrous other opens up both the putative risk of indifferentiation, and the hope that oppressive identities might be interrupted. My concern, then, is to uncover the extent to which the western notion of the sovereign self, and of the bounded body, is, in general, both guaranteed and con- tested by those who do not, indeed cannot, unproblematically occupy the embod- ied subject position. As such, any being who traverses the liminal spaces that evade classification takes on the potential to confound normative identity, and monsters paradigmatically fulfil that role. For all their conceptual fluidity, however, the force of normalisation that is directed towards them should never be underestimated, and I am far from suggesting that successful resistance to the standards of sameness and difference is assured. On the contrary, the persecution of those who are classed as



monstrous may operate within historically changing parameters, but it is as persistent as it is intolerable, at least to the ethics that I propose. Nonetheless, it is in the very negativity that the monstrous provokes that we may begin to discern dif- ferent ways forward. It is not that the fears are offset by fascination – for that too may be intercut with a certain shame – but rather that we cannot finally locate the monster as wholly other. Though it remains excessive of any category, it always claims us, always touches us and implicates us in its own becoming. And it is here that the theme of vulnerability begins to take shape as the somewhat unanticipated yet irreducible companion of the monstrous. Alongside the capacity to evoke anxi- ety and loathing, the vulnerability that may seem to belong to it is also our own. And, moreover, as we reflect on the meaning of the monstrous, and on its confu- sion of boundaries, the notion of vulnerability emerges precisely as the problem- atic. The responses of disavowal of and identification with the monstrous arise equally because we are already without boundaries, already vulnerable. It is not my claim that every form of the monstrous effects the same counter-logic, but that in demanding a deconstruction of the strategies by which the self is secured, all may be effective in mobilising new ways of thinking not simply the binary encounter between self and other, but the very impossibility of such a determined location. In turning, as I do in the chapters that follow, variously to historical archives and to contemporary cultural and biomedical sources, and to the discourses of philosophy, psychoanalysis and feminist theory, I want to wrench those texts away from their conventional readings. Rather than accepting any at face value, I intend to go beyond the specific disciplinary receptions – as history, as anthro- pology, and so on – that are taken to mark the limits of their intelligibility. By asking what metaphors and rhetorical devices such texts carry, and what forms of imaginary are put into play, my aim is to effect a double reading that opens up the problematic to unanticipated insights. The outcome that I hope for in inter- weaving such differential source material, and in exploiting multiple layers and registers is, as Derrida puts it, ‘that the articulation of the heterogeneous voices among themselves both causes one to think and causes the language to think’ (1995b: 375). In particular, I want to be quite clear from the start that in bringing together empirical material of various sorts with what is at times a highly theo- retical discourse about the nature of embodied subjectivity, my intention is to dis- rupt the binary between practice and theory. At the same time, the juxtaposition of models of thought that are more usually kept apart can serve to throw new light on each in what is, I hope, a mutually productive manner. It is often the case that the insights that I draw on are scattered throughout poststructuralist and post- modernist works, and that the most provocative and ultimately most illuminating inspirations are commonly denied currency outside their own disciplinary bound- aries. Yet, in researching this project, what has struck me time and again is the richness and relevance of various postulates drawn from theorists who have noth- ing to say directly with regard to the monstrous, disability or vulnerability, or indeed to each other. In many instances I have unashamedly forced the issue, not so much in refashioning ideas to fit my own ends, but in opening up new chan- nels of exploration, where ideas flow and overflow into unexpected configura- tions, and circulate between hitherto disconnected sites of enquiry.



The book begins, then, with a critical historical survey of monsters and the monstrous – taken always to include the modern category of disabled bodies – and introduces the always ambivalent nature of our response to the problematic. I go on to raise the question of what is at stake in our reading of texts as history, and to question our investments in textual ‘truths’. Chapter 2 continues with those issues firmly in mind as it focuses on the close connections between the mon- strous and the female body, both in the past and in contemporary popular culture. By tracing out the trajectory of maternal imagination, I introduce the notion of a cultural imaginary that differentially constructs monsters in response to both socio-political and psychic anxieties. The following chapter brings together the phenomenological stress on corporeality with modernist conceptions of the self, and mounts a challenge to the separation of mind and body through a reflection on the conjoined and concorporate body. With specific reference to some recent cases of conjoined twinning, I demonstrate the fragility of the clean and proper body. The boundaries of the modernist subject are further contested in Chapter 4 where the notion of vulnerability is firmly linked to the encounter with the mon- strous other whose very presence signals the threat of contamination. By reflect- ing on both a recent photographic exhibition of radically deformed foetal and infant bodies, and on responses to other forms of disability, I reconsider the psy- chic dimensions of corporeal rejection. The theme of vulnerability as a quality of the self in the encounter with the other is extended in the next chapter, which gives an account of the partial satisfaction of Levinasian ethics. In response to those limits, Chapter 6 goes on to reincorporate the lived body in its considera- tion of the tangible relation with the monstrous. In focusing on the phenomeno- logy of touch – with particular reference to the work of Luce Irigaray and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – I reintroduce the question of conjoined twinning and suggest it figures a relational economy that is better able to accommodate embodied differ- ence than conventional models that privilege specular detachment. The final chapter both encompasses the materiality of Donna Haraway’s promising monsters, whether they be the cyborgs of the future or the tricks of an always unpredictable nature, and the more abstract insights of Derrida, who haunts the whole book like the spectres he evokes. For Derrida, undecidability and hence vulnerability are the irreducible components of any ethical becoming, and his hope for the future is precisely that it should be monstrous. I conclude with a reminder that ethics is not about finding solutions, but about creating openings in and through the uncertainty of strange encounters. If my project is successful, then the final issue that I want to mention here is less contentious than it might otherwise be. I am acutely aware that in choosing to include a limited number of illustrations throughout my text, I run the risk of encouraging a kind of voyeurism with respect to monstrous bodies. Just as the use of certain terms, such as ‘monster’ itself, is freighted with sexist, racist and ableist connotations which must be constantly challenged and undone, the deployment of visual imagery also requires delicate negotiation. By explicating the discursive context of the illustrations I hope, at the very least, to counter the negativity asso- ciated with those who are differently embodied, but that is too modest an aim. Over the period of research for this book, I have perused countless images both historical



and current, overtly fantastic and ostensibly accurate representations of reality. Inevitably the repulsion and fascination that I analyse is as much my own as that of either the abstract modernist subject, or the projected reader, and I want to be clear that none of us is innocent. Nonetheless, while we may all teeter on the brink of a voyeurism that in its lack of (self-)recognition would reduce the object of our gaze to merely one of excitement for the forbidden, a more reflexive engagement will provoke just those questions that I want to ask of the ambivalent nature of the encounter with the monstrous. What exactly is it that we are looking for? And even as I question my own motives in looking, as I explore the theorisations that will move my thinking out of the boundaries that seem to structure what is possible, I am struck – especially in the face of video and photographic material – not by any academic insight into vulnerability but by the overspilling of my own slow tears. For an academic this is a scandalous admission, and one, I hope, that will be shared. Although my methodological approach may at times seem dis-ordered, and certainly outside the strict bounds of logical analysis, I can only claim that as a virtue, and remind the reader that our discursive conventions need not determine, or be allowed to limit, the paths that deconstructive thought can travel. For femi- nist thinkers, such an apparent lack of logical rigour has often been the only way out of the stranglehold of masculinist models of intellectual and academic propri- ety, and although this work is only tangentially a contribution to feminist theory as such, I am acutely aware that the structures that I contest are those that have been authorised by phallologocentric discourse. Indeed it is difficult to imagine any contestation of modernist normativities that did not entail not simply an awareness, but a politics, of sexual difference. The deconstruction of hitherto unproblematised conventions does not, however, imply that they can or should be rejected in their entirety. Some paradigms remain useful as a basis for critical thought and others will always reassert themselves. The trick is to let neither settle. I would concur strongly with John Caputo who comments on his own chal- lenge to mainstream philosophy: ‘To question philosophy and its ethics…is not to jettison them altogether, but to let them be rocked by a shock or trauma of some- thing other, to expose them to a view from somewhere else, where things…may even seem a little mad’ (1999: 84). The prospect is certainly risky, but also provocative of the positive realignments that my own strategy intends to mobilise. It is not, of course, only to methodological concerns that Caputo’s remarks could be applied, but to the nature of the terrain of the monstrous as a whole. 4 The radical challenge that such an unsettled and unsettling terrain offers to the scene of the embodied self is indeed traumatic, but out of that rending of the ontologi- cally and ethically known and certain, space is created for movement and trans- formation. Though the very incoherence of the monstrous exposes the vulnerability at the heart of all becoming, the task does not end there, but opens up the question of how to develop – provisionally – other more adequate struc- tures that can accommodate corporeal undecidability without compromising the conditions for an ethics. I make no promise of answers, but offer the belief that it is only by reconfiguring thought that we can move on to potentially more creative modes both of becoming in ourselves and of encountering others, whatever form those others might take.



The concept of the monstrous and the figure of the monster have haunted western history from its earliest records. Whether in the popular cultural legacy of ancient Greek myth, in travellers’ tales of early imperialist and colonialist encounters, in the so-called freak shows, and the enduring tradition of horror stories and films, or in the more rarefied context of the medical theory of the classical ages, the European Enlightenment, or contemporary high-tech biomedical science, the cate- gory of the monster is of enduring fascination. Although my purpose is not to present a socio-history of monstrosity as though it were already there waiting to be catalogued, described and expounded by the supposedly impartial voice of the historian, I want to look both at some persistent themes in the western imagina- tion, and at some specific instances of monstrosity, to open up the meanings which both order and disorder the historical discourse. In this chapter, what is at issue primarily is the epistemological significance of that discourse, but as will quickly become clear in later chapters, the epistemological is intimately entwined with ontological and ultimately ethical dimensions. The status of the subject and of human personhood may often remain unspoken in the projection of the monstrous as a wholly external phenomenon, but even in the most objectified of accounts, the discomforting question of boundaries may be discerned. Indeed, the very insistence on a series of binaries that define the otherness of the monster should alert us to the instability of the categories that ground the normative human subject. The varying and sometimes contradictory explanatory accounts to which I refer take in both the notion of monstrous races and individual monsters, and serve to justify, among other things, a range of sexist, racist and colonialist attitudes. Nonetheless, in beginning with a relatively unproblematised deline- ation, I want to point the way to the fractures and insecurities which render the discourse of the monstrous both so engaging and disturbing. Monsters of course show themselves in many different and culturally specific ways, but what is monstrous about them is most often the form of their embodi- ment. They are, in an important sense, what Donna Haraway (1992a) calls ‘inap- propriate/d others’ in that they challenge and resist normative human being, in the first instance by their aberrant corporeality. I want to stress from the outset that the ‘reality’ of the various forms is not at issue, and though a descriptive reading of historical texts may yield successive reformulations of inappropriate/d others, what concerns me is that monsters operate primarily in the imaginary. My explicit intention in using archival and other sources is to challenge the conventional disciplinary limits set on their use and meaning in order to discover what underlying



forms of imaginary are mobilised by their expressive strategies. The differential interpretations of monstrosity may speak clearly to the mapping of specific socio-historical anxieties and interests, but what is at stake more importantly are the contested relations between self and other, the simultaneous rejection and recognition, horror and fascination, that grounds ontological unease. What links the monstrous others, whether those of human birth whose bodies fail to match the normative standard – encephalitic infants, conjoined twins, even Paré’s monster of Ravenna 1 – or man-made creations like Sil in the film Species (to which I shall refer later) or the replicants in Blade Runner, is their unnatural and often hybrid corporeality. Although that differential and strange embodiment might explain the enduring fascination of the monstrous as an object of knowledge, it does not so easily account for the normative anxiety that they invoke. What disturbs is that for all that it is extra-ordinary and widely characterised as unnatural, the monster is not outside nature. It is, rather, an instance of nature’s startling capacity to produce alien forms within, a capacity that equally constitutes identical twins and even pregnant women, for example, as productive of ontological uncertainty. In other words, against an ideal bodyliness – that is the being of the self in the body – that relies on the singular and the unified, where everything is in its expected place, monstrosity in its various forms offers a gross insult. At very least, it destabilises the grand narratives of biology and evolutionary science and signifies other ways of being in the world. It is perhaps odd – explicable only in terms of the binary either/or of constructivist culture versus essentialist nature – that the dynamism of the biological, of the natural, should have ever been overlaid with the imagery of the static and determinate. And although I am interested primarily in wholly organic monsters, the issues raised are often equally relevant to techno-organic monstrosity such as the cyborg envisioned by Haraway (1990). Moreover, rather than reiterate a nature/culture split, as though some monsters are natural where others are not, it would be more appropriate perhaps to recognise from the outset that techne plays a part in the construction of all monsters, indeed all bodies. As Haraway reminds us: ‘Biology is discourse, not the living world itself’ (1992b:

298). The biological is no guarantee of a predictable given structure of reality; on the contrary, the monsters that most effectively complicate our preconceptions are precisely those that are blatantly organic. What I am disputing, then, is the givenness of any body, the sense of a founda- tional and certain form which may be compared to an ideal template. Despite the convention of taking the body for granted, it is clear that embodiment is always a dynamic process of development, growth and adaption, but there is more to it than that. The point – in the sense intended by Judith Butler (1993) – is that bodies, rather than being material and graspable from the start, are materialised through a set of discursive practices. It is over a period of time that the process comes to instantiate the effects of the solidity, surfaces and boundaries that mark out the material. And moreover, as Butler claims: ‘there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body’ (1993: 10). The body, then, is not a prediscursive reality, but rather a locus of production, the site of contested meaning, and as such fluid and unstable, never given and fixed.



Regardless, then, of whether past narratives speak to realisably embodied and gross peculiarities, to simple category mistakes, or to the effects of a powerful personal or social imaginary, the question of the concrete existence of specific monsters is not one that need concern us. In any case, although for my own part, I am clearly persuaded that the materiality of bodies is inaccessible and is known only as medi- ated – ‘(t)here are thinkings of the systematicity of the body, there are value cod- ings of the body. The body, as such, cannot be thought,’ is how Spivak puts it (1989: 149) – it makes little difference whether or not we redefine all bodies as social and psychic constructs. What is at issue is the transformatory power of the body, and whatever credit is given to the pre-existent reality of nature, biological process itself does as a matter of course continually frustrate the desire for certainty. Nonetheless, organic bodies are as it were naturalised post hoc, where the epithet ‘unnatural’ implies a location that is literally out of place, the scene of cultural degradation or the abnormal, although that might sometimes signify the marvellous. The reverse terminology is even less straightforward, for although nature may be accorded positive value as the site of the pure and uncontaminated, it also threatens to overspill the boundaries of the proper. When set against culture as that which is managed and regulated, nature is at best base and unruly – that which must be controlled – and at worst that which is deeply disruptive and uncon- trollable. And that negativity is clearest in the conventional association of the female with the natural, such that women’s bodies are especially untrustworthy. An appeal to nature is, then, always ambivalent, and the desire for clear distinctions either between nature and culture, or between the appropriate (where everything is in its place) and chaotic aspects of the natural are constantly disrupted. If then all bodies are capable of frustrating those binaries, it is the very excessiveness of monsters that places them at the forefront of what Haraway calls ‘queering what counts as nature’ (1992b: 300). The point is that monsters can signify both the binary opposition between the natural and the non-natural, where the primary term confers value, and also the disruption within that destabilises the standard of the same. In other words, they speak to both the radical otherness that constitutes an outside and to the difference that inhabits identity itself. The issue is not so much that monsters threaten to overrun the boundaries of the proper, as that they promise to dissolve them. Before following through that thought in later chapters, however, I want first to trace some historical representations and explanations of the monstrous, although as will become clear, no account can be disinterested or merely descriptive. The relationship between monstrosity and what might be deemed the natural was one which greatly exercised the classical mind, and later the Church fathers, for whom the problem was how to account for the unnatural within a God-given uni- verse. Unlike many of his contemporaries who posited wholly supernatural expla- nation, Aristotle used the term ‘monstrosity’ to describe forms of corporeal excess, deficiency or displacement, not just in those bodies which were malformed by dis- ease, accident, or birth, but more widely to depict all beings that are a deviation from the common course of nature. As he put it: ‘Monstrosities belong to the class of things contrary to nature, not any and every kind of nature, but Nature in her usual operations’; the crucial marker for him being that such deformities transgressed the law of generative resemblance (Generatione Animalium 1953: 767b, 5–10). And



insofar as Aristotle marked excess and deficiency more generally as conditions of moral failing, the traditional characterisation of monstrosity in terms of excess, deficiency or displacement suggests not only bodily imperfection, but an improper being. Given, however, that Aristotle regarded any deviation from the morphology of the ‘normal’ male body as a type of monstrosity – he famously characterised the birth of girls as the most common form of deformity (GA, 728a 18; 737a 27) – then what is at issue is not so much the unexpected disruption of corporeal limits, as the putative failure – signalled by both monstrous and female birth – of the male seed to replicate itself, to reproduce paternal likeness. The search for the causes of monstrosity is, for Aristotle, not so much a philosophical enquiry into significance, as an enquiry into a puzzling aspect of everyday bio- logy. Such natural science aside, however, it appears from the surviving texts that the important questions for the classical world, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period were often the more abstract ones focused on the meaning of the monstrous. The Aristotelian insistence that such beings are curiosities of nature, rather than opposed to it, was widely reflected in subsequent texts, but it does not preclude a parallel history in which monstrosities are understood as prodigies, as marvellous signifiers of God’s will, the ominous markers of good or ill to come. The Latin roots of the word ‘monster’ are rich in associations, suggesting both monstrare – to show, and monere – to warn, and for the most part it was these con- notations that were the focus of scholarly interest. Although the commentary offered by Aristotle remained influential, it was Cicero’s list of synonyms – monstra, ostenta, portenta, prodigia (De Divinatione 1920: 1, 42) – which anchors meaning in later ages, and privileges a teleological rather than aetiological approach. What Cicero firmly marks out is the trajectory of the monstrous as a supranatural signifier of coming social and political calamities, or as a commen- tary on contemporary mores. Such interpretations were seized upon in medieval and Renaissance Christian Europe as a means of offering social, political and reli- gious comment, and both lay and scholarly texts concur in their understanding of the meaning of monstrosity. Accordingly, gross deviations from the norm were not simply horrifying, but also marvellous, signs both of nature’s fecundity and God’s power. Thus, in the thirteenth and fourteenth century works of the pseudo- Albertus Magnus, monsters ‘are created for the adornment of the universe’ (1992:

113), while Ambroise Paré, writing in 1573, begins his list of the causes of mon- strosity: ‘The first whereof is the glory of God, that his immense power may be manifested to those which are ignorant of it….Another cause is, that God may punish men’s whickednesse, or show signs of punishment at hand’ (1982: 4). Somewhat later, but in a similar vein, John Bulwer, whose encyclopaedic Anthropometamorphosis (1653) deals in the main with the monstrous appearance and contaminatory potential of other races, also acknowledges the traditional expla- nations of God’s influence and man’s own sin, albeit with a more naturalistic tone:

these apparitions that be contrarie to Nature, happen not without the providence of Almighty God, but for the punishing and admonishing of Men, these things by just judg- ment are often permitted, not but Man hath a great hand in these monstrosities; for inordinate Lust is drawn in as a Cause of these Events, whereby the seed of Man is made weak and unperfect. (Quoted in Glenister 1964: 17)



What is more interesting, however, is Bulwer’s further claim that man frequently has a part in deliberately creating such abnormal features as deformed heads, elongated ears, and the marks of scarification, not just for purposes of fraud – which many writers allude to – but for reasons of differential cultural norms. In his view, quasi-mythological races such as the Blemmyae, who reputedly had no heads, but instead faces on their chests, are real people who have fashioned their own monstrosity over generations. Bulwer’s detailed explanations, although highly intolerant of what he takes to be insults to ‘the Regular Beauty and Honesty of Nature’ (1653: title page), may represent an early recognition that monstrous difference is a matter of cultural production. Any supposedly monstrous birth could be called upon to support both political and moral exhortations, and for a time after the commercialisation of printing in the sixteenth century, heavily illustrated popular texts circulated with more or less fantastic versions of monster stories, much as the tabloid newspapers might publish such stories today. Even when books appeared initially in Latin – a stra- tegy conferring authority and respectability – translations into the vernacular com- monly followed, often into several different and usually idiosyncratically updated editions. Fortunius Licetus’ original work of 1616, De monstrum, caussis natura et differentis, which is one of the most comprehensive surveys of that period of human malformations, taking in both classical references and topical accounts, is still being supplemented almost a century later when Jean Palfryn’s French trans- lation of 1708 appeals to topical interest by marking on its title page a monstrous birth that had occurred in Flanders just a few years previously. Despite, however, regular appeals to the authenticity of eyewitness accounts, the testimony of respected professionals, and the textual authority of classical authors such as Hippocrates, Aristotle or Galen, there is little internal attempt in pre-modern works to cite singular evidence in ways that would be understood today. Stephen Bateman, for example, sincerely recommends his own monster book, ‘(t)o whose painefull studie I have putte nothing…saving that whyche I myselfe have seen in my own time, or have received of my special friends, men of good credite’ (1581:

Preface), but in fact the subsequent text is almost entirely taken from a work by Conrad Lycosthenes (1557). But it mattered little; observation as such was not the motive force of such texts which sought rather to position monstrosity within a familiar network of epistemic associations – mythological, classical, biblical, medical and symbolic. Edward Fenton’s introduction to his free translation of the French author Boaistuau (1560) is similarly typical of the period:

there is nothing to seeme, which more stireth the spirite of man, which raiiseth more his senses, which doth more amaze him, or ingendereth a greater terror or admiration in all creatures, than the monsters, wonders and adhominations, wherein we see the workes of Nature, not only turned arsiversie, misseshapen and deformed, but (which is more) they do for the most part discover unto us the secret judgement and scourge of the ire of God. (Fenton 1569: Preface)

What matters in these highly coincident texts is that they speak both to pedagogic intent and to a human curiosity about what lies outside the bounds of the known. The various images of monsters – human, animal or hybrid – are clearly intended not as exact, but as iconic, representations, for not only do the same



14 EMBODYING THE MONSTER Figure 1.1 (Sébastien Brandt) from Aesculape, 1933, Vol. 1 Human twins conjoined

Figure 1.1

(Sébastien Brandt) from Aesculape, 1933, Vol. 1

Human twins conjoined at the head, born at Worms in 1495

narrative descriptions reappear across a range of works spanning many decades, but the selfsame image may be used within a single book to illustrate accounts of several different creatures. Bateman’s The Doome Warning all Men to the Iudgemente (1581), for example, characteristically reiterates both text and pictures already popularised in earlier works, as well as showing no regard for congruence between the apparent age of the figures in the drawings, and those in the text whose stories are illustrated. Monstrous births – hermaphrodites, hydrocephalic infants, hairy men, one-eyed giants, dog-headed humans, human-headed pigs and conjoined twins – and other freak events such as meteorological peculiarities are related with gusto. But where causative explanation is offered, it is invariably overlaid with portentous meaning. Bateman was evidently aware of the doctrine of maternal imagination, 2 as his account of twins joined at the head makes clear:

The cause of this Monster was this, two Women spake together, one of whiche was with Child, and the thirde coming upon them sodayne knocked both their Heades together as they were talking, wherewith the Woman with Child being afrayd made a token of the Knock in her Child. (1581: 287) 3

But the event flows seamlessly into his reference to a battle between Christians and Turks in the same year as the birth. The connection is purely emblematic (Figure 1.1).



MONSTERS, MARVELS AND MEANINGS 15 Figure 1.2 universalis, lib. VI (Munster 1554) Some members of the

Figure 1.2

universalis, lib. VI (Munster 1554)

Some members of the Monstrous Races in Cosmographiae

Like many other writers of the great period of monster texts, or wonder books as they are often known, Bateman makes little distinction between one category of monster and another, so that deformed human beings, newly discovered and strange animals of land and sea, and fabulous creatures of mythology are all lumped together. In this there is some continuity with the medieval tradition of bestiaries – catalogues of animal lore – which occasionally, though not invari- ably, included both individual hybrid human forms and the so-called monstrous races as part of their treatment of the animal world. A more important link is in the pedagogic purpose of the bestiary whereby each creature was assigned an allegorical significance in terms of its putative good or evil features. The long- established belief in the existence of monstrous races at the outer margins of the known and habitable world was itself an important element in the composition of wonder books. In his hugely influential Natural History (1961), first circulated in AD77, the Roman writer and traveller Pliny the Elder lists over fifty such races, which range from the recognisably human, such as the short-statured Pygmies of interior Africa or the one-legged Sciopods of India, to the morphological confu- sion of two other notable Indian races, the Cynocephali, who have dogs’ heads and communicate by barking, and the Panotii whose enormous ears serve not only as blankets, but provide the means of flight (Figure 1.2). 4 For Pliny himself, the description of such races conveys a sense of wonderment at the diversity created by nature’s ‘power and majesty’, and he does not characterise corporeal difference as indicative of moral failings. In contrast, both bestiaries and wonder



books explicitly use difference to draw out moral lessons, with the latter in particular loading the non-normative with negativity. As travel expanded throughout the medieval period – for reasons of trade, conquest, crusade and pilgrimage – increasing encounters with the racial other provided a complex vehicle for the expression of inner desires and anxieties. Narrative accounts such as that given in the fourteenth-century manuscripts called Mandeville’s Travels (1967) 5 indicate that far from actual contact with unfamiliar ethnic groups resulting in a reduction of illusory expectations, percep- tion was framed in highly fanciful terms. Nearly three centuries later, Bulwer is still writing of the monstrous races as a present reality: ‘For although this Nation of Men hath been accounted by many among the Types and Fabulous Narrations of the Ancients, yet in these latter Times we have received credible Intelligence of such kind of Nations newly found’ (1653: 18). He then goes on to describe several instances in which races of Cynocephali have been discovered. Although Bulwer himself believes that such monstrosities could be the result of longstanding human manipulation of nature, his text nonetheless feeds into a well-established popular tradition of quasi-anthropological writing. Friedman’s remarks on the earlier travel narratives are no less apposite: ‘there appears to have been a psycho- logical need for Plinian peoples. Their appeal to medieval men was based on such factors as fantasy, escapism, delight in the exercise of the imagination, and – very important – fear of the unknown’ (1981: 24). Nor are such responses limited to distant history. The monstrous images – alternately terrifying and fascinating – of the primitives supposedly inhabiting lands unconquered, or at least unaccessed, by the colonialist powers have been a mainstay of the European imaginary. Present day racism thrives on such long-established connotations. Although the margins of the known world were held to be the pre-eminent location of monsters, then, it was, as Cohen reminds us, ‘a purely conceptual locus rather than a geographical one’ (1996: 6). 6 Above all, the representation of geographically and imaginatively distant peoples is beset by questions as to their human or animal status. Despite Aristotle’s deep scepticism about the probabil- ity of hybridity – he argued that differential periods of gestation made inter- species generation impossible – monstrosity was frequently manifest in the popular imagination in just such a guise. Travellers’ tales provided a rich source of images, in which individual as well as racial examples were equally common. The human/animal hybrid signalled not just absolute otherness, but the corruption of human form and being. Accordingly, other races were situated not simply as monstrously different, but as ontologically and existentially dependent on the unquestioned humanity of the civilised races. What is less obvious, but nonethe- less crucial, is that the existential status of that humanity does not stand alone, but by corollary is dependent on its monstrous other. What seems to emerge from the accounts referred to above, is that the cate- gories of natural, supranatural and supernatural are far from distinct. 7 The monster occupies an essentially fluid site where despite its putative otherness, it cannot be separated entirely from the nature of man himself. Even when expressed within the prevalent and historically persistent discourse of the super- natural, the monster is taken to reflect back at least some contingent truths of the



human condition. The monstrous is not thereby the absolute other, but rather a mirror of humanity: on an individual level, the external manifestation of the sinner within. Given that all human beings were seen as more or less corrupted from a state of pre-lapsarian perfection, then the visible disorder of the monstrous body, and the moral failings that it signalled, were a sign of the vulnerability of all men and women to a loss of humanity. What was thrown into question was the stability and predictability of human existence. Although, then, at first sight, the monstrous represents an indisputable case of otherness, which might engender fear and horror of the unknown, it has a far more paradoxical status. Given that the western logos is structured according to an infinite series of binaries that ground all knowledge in the play of sameness and difference, it is only by mak- ing such distinctions, by having a clear sense of self and other, that it is possible to mark out the parameters of self-identity. If we know what we are by what we are not, then the other, in its apparent separation and distinction, serves a positive function of securing the boundaries of the self. And yet time and again the monstrous cannot be confined to the place of the other; it is not simply alien, but arouses always the contradictory responses of denial and recognition, disgust and empathy, exclusion and identification. I want now to look in some detail at one of the most ubiquitous hybrid monsters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which speaks eloquently to the way in which such figures operated simultaneously on several different levels. The point is not whether such figures were taken as really existing, for though countless medical historians have indulged our own age’s disciplinary desire for categorisation with explanations based on modern knowledge of con- genital deformity, many monsters seem to us, and may have been, wholly fantas- tic. It would be misplaced to see our predecessors as simply credulous, for as the early seventeenth-century author of the apocryphal Aristotle’s Works admits, ‘without doubt some of the stories of monsters are fabulous’ (n.d.: 40), but that does not diminish their pedagogical value. Indeed in many early manuscripts and printed books, there is a characteristic indifference to the putative modernist boundary between reality and fantasy. What interests me, then, is not the truth value, but what significance can be attached to the accounts. Although Aristotle had defined monstrosity in terms of bodily excess and deficiency, the legacy of Pliny in particular threw up the question of hybridity where the division between human and animal was indeterminate. But even in those historical moments where the issue of monstrous corporeality may seem to be primarily about form, about the difficulty of reconciling in a single body those things which should not go together, what can be read there too are all sorts of ontological anxieties about what exactly the human subject consists in. The dislocations of hybridity are, then, the surface manifestations of a much deeper uncertainty and vulnerability of the self. The rather charming Monster of Ravenna is one of the most widely reproduced figures in monster texts of the early modern period, and multiple illustrations of its appearance are still in existence (Figure 1.3). The images that we have all show an infant of reputedly human birth, whose body nonetheless displays a variety of transgressive elements, and whose human status is surely complicated by its



18 EMBODYING THE MONSTER Figure 1.3 differentis (Licetus 1634) The Monster of Ravenna in De monstrorum

Figure 1.3

differentis (Licetus 1634)

The Monster of Ravenna in De monstrorum natura, caussis et

resemblance to both an angel and a devil. The figure is evidently intersexed, having both penis and pudenda as well as breasts, though the convention refers only to an ‘it’. The head bears a single horn, the arms are replaced by feathered or in some cases reptilian wings, the legs are fused to form a scaled, sometimes feath- ered, mermaid-like tail which terminates in a giant avian or reptilian claw. In addi- tion a third eye peers out at knee level, and in some illustrations, cross-like letters or marks – confusingly symbolising Christian virtue – appear on the torso. In short, the monstrous body ostentatiously crosses the boundaries between male and female, between human and animal (itself hybridised as simultaneously mammal, reptile, fish and bird), and, on the interpretive level, between virtue and vice. Writing in the mid-sixteenth century, Paré (1982) offers a relatively unmediated account of its existence, counting it among the examples of those monsters caused by the wrath of God. In contrast, Bateman more specifically explains each of the corporeal peculiarities in terms of pride, unsteadfastness, buggery, and other such vices, but he also makes the link to the political situation of popery at Ravenna, the monster’s birthplace. The working out of God’s scourge as signified on the body of the child indicates to Bateman the wider lesson, ‘that for these vices Italy shold be beaten down with the sword’ (1581: 295). Nonetheless, the corporeally inscribed letters carry their own contrary message of salvation should Italy turn to virtue. Despite a startling number of modern attempts to reclaim the creature as the ‘real’ outcome of several distinct congenital deformities, 8 the Monster of



Ravenna is a highly symbolic figure constructed at the confluence of several discourses – in this instance political, religious and superstitious. Its monstrous form is marked by the classical attributes of excess, deficiency and displacement, sutured together in a hyperrealisation of ambiguity. Moreover, the very hybridity of the infant speaks to a series of transgressions with regard to sexuality, species, and personhood. If the monster is more than appearance, if it does have an inner life, is it that of the brute animal or is it that of a sense of self? More pertinent for the historical context was the question of whether such a creature should be bap- tised. If the soul were an attribute of human beings alone, and baptism the neces- sary gateway to salvation, then the Church faced a very real dilemma about the appropriate response to those monstrous births which confounded the putative boundaries of the human. In the early Christian period, Augustine laid down a remarkably tolerant formula that remained influential for many centuries:

But no faithful Christian should doubt that anyone who is born anywhere as a man – that is as a rational and mortal being – derives from that one first-created human being. And this is true, however extraordinary such a creature may appear to our senses in bodily shape, in colour, or motion, or utterance, or in any natural endowment, or part, or quality. (City of God 16. 8; 1972: 662) 9

By the early seventeenth century, however, the canonist, Alphonzo a Carranza, offered a more ambiguous version, that ‘those having human form can and ought to be washed by holy baptism and those truly monstrous, which lack rational souls, not’ (quoted in Friedman 1981: 182–3). Perhaps because the qualifier for baptism was, strictly speaking, a matter of the rational soul rather than of appear- ance, the subsequent Enlightenment interest in more naturalistic explications of human monstrosity did not settle the issue of what was appropriate. The problem of radical hybridity, and what it signified of inner being, remained. The real or imagined fate of the Monster of Ravenna is not recorded. When Bateman turns to another multiple hybrid, the equally infamous Monster of Cracow, 10 reputedly born in 1543, the prodigious nature of the event is not only apparent in the peculiarity of the birth, but is voiced directly by the monster itself:

‘he is said to have lived foure houres after he was borne, and at length (after he had uttered these Wordes, Vigilate, dominus deus vester adventat, that is, Watche, youre Lorde is a comming) to have dyed’ (1581: 337). What is notable again is that the Latin-spouting infant, a favourite with Renaissance and early modern chroniclers, is as much constructed by the discursive strategies of the political and religious climate as by any account of an actual birth. As Foucault among others has shown, the body is the ‘inscribed surface of events’, a text to be deciphered and read (1977: 148), an utterance in its own right. It is as though the monstros- ity is materialised precisely in order that it might speak. The monsters that engage us most, then, that command intricate explanation, are those which are closest to us, those which display some aspect of our own form, and speak, both literally and metaphorically, a human language. And monsters do always signify. In his sermon on the birth of conjoined twins in his parish, for example, the seventeenth- century cleric Thomas Bedford characteristically stresses that ‘all monstrous and misshapen births, though dead, yet speak for the instruction of the living’ (Bedford 1635). Although the purely animal monster might also be an object



of curiosity or fear, and has a similar history of heralding events to come, of providing a material marker of divine affect, or later of signifying evolutionary diversity, it does not thereby unsettle the security of human being. The animal is the other in the comforting guise of absolute difference, but in its lack of human- ity it cannot appeal directly to the heart of our own being. Those monsters that are at least in an ambivalent relationship to humanity, however, are always too close for comfort. They invoke vulnerability. Although I am wary of a too simplistic periodisation of the past that lines up the epistemological significance of the monstrous with specific external events, many commentators have claimed that a preoccupation with monstrosity seems to be a regular feature of periods of social and political uncertainty. 11 Whether such an externalisation of motivation is justified or not, what is certain is that the grasping after an order of explanation in the face of extraordinary corporeal dis- ruption is an enduring feature of historical record. We should remember, more- over, that for many centuries, including the early modern period, the human body in all its forms represented variously, in the popular and sometimes in the scholastic imagination, an index and analogy of the political state, of cosmology, and of the wider natural world. 12 In short, the body was freighted with symbolic meaning. For those births attributed to divine or supernatural intervention, their supposed purpose could cover a number of options: to foretell macro-calamities; to express God’s wrath or vengeance on a morally negligent population; or indeed to punish individual immorality such as sodomy, transspecies coupling, consort- ing with the devil, or intercourse on the Sabbath. Whether narrated in popular monster books or in the somewhat later proliferation of street ballads and broad- sheets, which operate as much within the realm of entertainment as moral admo- nition, monstrous affronts to nature always demanded interpretation. And even when the longstanding belief in the supposedly portentous nature of monstrosity lost favour among the learned in the face of the more biologistic explanations of Enlightenment science, the requirement of exegesis remained. Each instance is related to an external cause, but that does not settle meaning. Moreover, the very telling seems also to speak to an ontological vulnerability in which the ambigu- ously unnatural otherness of monsters may serve as the focus of abjected fear, anxiety and guilt. It is with regard to this inherent ambiguity that we should understand attempts made to fix the epistemology and ontology of monstrosity, to impose order on the disordered. To summarise briefly the empirical parameters of the debate, the history of monstrosity took, during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

a decidedly normative and positivist turn. In line with Foucault’s concept of an

emergent norm for the human body itself, monstrous difference became more regularly defined as deviant – abnormal – rather than as wholly distinctive. With

a reinvigorated interest in practical science, Enlightenment scholars largely aban- doned abstract speculations on monstrosity in order to impose instead a medical discourse – increasingly focused on embryology and comparative anatomy –

which served to normalise and domesticate the marvellous and prodigious. The pioneering methods of Francis Bacon were particularly influential, and his Novum Organum of 1620 explicitly sets out to categorise ‘deviant instances, that



is errors of nature, freaks and monsters, where nature deflects and declines from its usual course’ (Bacon 2000: 148, Aphorism 8). The point was to thereby better understand common forms, and ultimately to control nature. As Bacon notes: ‘we must make a collection or particular natural history of all the monsters and prodigious products of nature, and every novelty, rarity or abnormality in nature. But this must be done with the greatest discretion, to maintain credibility’ (2000: 149, Aphorism 8). The gathering of collections of monstrosities as part of the fad for a gentleman’s personal ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was a familiar feature in an age of expanding travel and commerce, but the value of the monstrous as the other caught in the gaze of the beholder was more than that of entertainment or moral instruction. For Bacon and his successors, it promised insight into the nature of life itself. As the body in general became an object of intense scrutiny, the monstrous was studied as ‘the prototype for a new kind of scientific fact’ (Daston 1991: 95), an aberration that would throw light on the normal. By the nineteenth century, the newly coined science of teratology seemed to promise the certainty of explanation. It was particularly in the field of reproduction that the scientific approach to monsters played an influential role in grounding and contesting a range of specu- lative theories. The relative importance of the sperm and egg, the role of the uter- ine environment, and dominance of either preformation or epigenesis 13 as models of generation were all debated in a context which explicitly sought to account for monstrous births. The question of whether such births were predetermined or the result of accident was itself relevant both to the possibility of repair of the abnor- mal body, and to the prospect of creating monsters experimentally. In the view of many commentators, such as Dudley Wilson in his detailed book, Signs and Portents (1993), there is a clear epistemological break between the pre- Enlightenment focus on the supranatural status and symbolic significance of the monstrous, and the post-Enlightenment will to impose rational meaning and determinate form. Wilson takes as paradigmatic the work of nineteenth-century scientists such as Etienne and Isidore Geoffroy St-Hilaire who were especially concerned with investigating the monstrous as a stage in the development of the foetus. Their greater aim was to throw light on the origin and development of dif- ferential species themselves, where the monstrous marked a kind of transition stage. The sense of mystery and awe that had characterised the response in earlier periods was reduced by the scientific gaze in such work to the desire to unravel a set of natural laws that were as yet imperfectly understood, but essen- tially transparent. Monstrosity was simply the normal which had been hindered or had deviated into a parallel yet equally explicable course. As Isidore Geoffroy St-Hilaire wrote in 1832:

Monstrousness is no longer random disorder, but another order, equally regular and equally subject to laws: it is the mixture of an old and a new order, the simultaneous presence of two states that ordinarily succeed one another. (Quoted in Jacob 1989: 124)

The operation of power/knowledge here, and the illusion of potential if not actual mastery, attempts to strip away the disturbing and indeterminate status of the monstrous body. If, as Geoffroy St-Hilaire asserts, there are no exceptions to the



laws of nature, only to the laws of the naturalists, then science has laid claim to its own invulnerability. Although in one sense the domain of science at least appears to treat the anom- alous body with a new degree of moral neutrality, the very fact that any epistemological category – such as that which constitutes the proper form of humanity – works on the basis of exclusion, should alert us to its questionable ethical underpinnings. In discursively constructing the objects of its concern, rather than simply reporting on a pre-existing state of affairs, the operation of both historical and contemporary biomedical discourse is never exempt from deconstructive scrutiny. In introducing a new system of classification to the natural sciences, for example, Linnaeus was enabled to demythologise human-born monsters and include them in a common genus with other human beings, whilst at the same time emphasising a hierarchical ordering of species that privileged white Europeans over darker skinned peoples, who were in turn superior to the merely monstrous in form (Linnaeus 1759). Almost 250 years later, the resulting formalisation and authorisation of a racial hierarchy based in the apparent neutrality of science has been deeply shaken, but not entirely dislodged. The task, then, is to displace such texts from familiar and preferred readings, decoupling them, that is, from the predetermined disciplinary frameworks – medical, moral, legal, or the like – that function to delimit their significance and meaning. It is perhaps in what remains overtly unspoken, though often apparent in the rhetori- cal and metaphorical devices that mark all discourse – scientific or otherwise – that we may discern the workings of an imaginary that responds with anxiety to the monstrous. The desire for mastery over the excessive other, so explicit in Baconian taxonomies, for example, illustrates not so much the strength of the scientific endeavour as the need to stabilise the uncertainty that the monstrous creates at the heart of human being. The same desire is, moreover, no less a moti- vating force in the present day response to corporeal difference, with regard not only to skin colour, but, as I shall go on to discuss, to congenital disabilities. 14 The narrative of a set of explicit cultural transformations that constitute the emergence of western modernity, and which produce a corresponding change in the response to the monstrous, is taken up in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s analysis of the genealogy of what she calls ‘freak discourse’. According to Thomson, the progressive shift from the mode of the marvellous to the mode of the deviant can be discerned in a series of sequential moves: from prodigious monsters to the pathological terata of medical discourse; from revelation to enter- tainment; from awe to horror; from portent to site of progress; from wonder to error (1996: 3). In an epoch of increasing faith in rational and secular explana- tion, the monstrous was incorporated into the quintessentially modernist para- digm of the normal/abnormal, where its threat was – and is – relational rather than autonomous. In the face of the valorisation of uniformity and unity, it must be both compared and contrasted to corporeal norms in a way that reduces difference to a matter of pathology. Taking up the Foucauldian theme, Thomson asserts that ‘modernity affected a standardization of everyday life that saturated the entire social fabric, producing and reinforcing the concept of an unmarked, normative, levelled body as the dominant subject of democracy’ (1996: 12). In consequence,



the monstrous body ‘represented at once boundless liberty and appalling disorder’ (ibid.) which must be recontained by strategies of normalisation – insti- tutionalisation, reconstructive surgery, prosthetic aids and so on. Thomson herself is particularly concerned with issues of corporeal disability, which she sees as providing the present day coordinates of monstrosity or ‘freakery’, limited now to the abnormal. And yet the standardising impulses of modernity and the positivism of science, taken at face value by Wilson, Daston, and to a large extent by Thomson, to sig- nal an epistemological break in the response to the monstrous, tells us little of the enduring and disruptive power of the morphological imaginary. Rather than the sequential model that I have outlined above, I propose instead an interweaving of elements where the deviant and the marvellous are always imbricated one with the other. Alongside, and indeed within, the work of the learned societies, 15 a sense of wonder remained undisturbed, an indication that the monstrous signified rather more than simple corporeal difference. A late seventeenth-century report to the Royal Society, for example, on the ‘strange birth’ of conjoined twins testifies to the persistent fascination of the monstrous. The twins, reports Mr A.P., ‘are likely to Live, if the Multitudes that come to see them (sometimes 500 in a day) do not occasion the shortening of their Lives’ (A.P. 1705: 303). And yet, despite the enormous public and scientific interest in monsters in the early modern period, it is difficult to find evidence of any self-awareness on the part of the observers. For bodies like the Royal Society, which very self-consciously pro- moted scholarly impartiality, this is perhaps not surprising, but the emphasis put on measurement, on dissection where possible, and on the importance of corro- borating accounts creates a distance that serves to obscure less acceptable con- cerns. By focusing on the monster as an object of knowledge, observers could endeavour to ignore the disquieting questions that monsters raised about the human condition in general, and individual identity in particular. If the hundreds – and they were as likely to be sophisticated and educated urbanites as unschooled peasants – who flocked to each new monster attraction on display in the large cities were made conscious of their own vulnerability, then there is little textual evidence of it (Todd 1995: 154). Certainly the crowds came to gasp with horror and to admire, to be frightened and amused, but the very extent of the desire to witness monstrosity first hand, to report in detail every instance, and to circulate a prodigious literature indicates, I suggest, an inner anxiety about the relation between the creatures on display and normative form and identity. It is an anxi- ety, moreover, that persists in our own time. Although the last two centuries have seen a massive acceleration in biomedical knowledge, it has also been a period during which the organised freak show – the display of human monstrosities for profit and entertainment – has flourished. The word ‘freak’ seems to have been used to indicate corporeal anomaly only since the mid-eighteenth century, and freak shows as such were a particular feature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but there is a much longer standing tradition of showing monsters for gain. For individual children and adults who survived a monstrous birth, there is plentiful evidence from all periods that self- display was a common strategy of subsistence. Paul Semonin (1996) traces the



tradition of such public shows back to Bartholomew’s Fair which was held annu- ally in London from the early 1100s until it was finally suppressed in 1855, 16 although private appearances before the wealthy and titled were also popular as late as the reign of Queen Victoria, who personally received many well-known show figures such as the diminutive ‘General’ Tom Thumb. As the evidence of advertisements, ballads and handbills from an earlier period demonstrates, freaks have traditionally been, and continued to be, shown in such a way as to offset their non-normative natures and bodies with an appeal to their recognisable everyday or cultured attributes that drew in the spectators at the same time as astounding them. Relatively few of those displayed were passive objects; they were performers engaged not only in showing off their anomalies, but in singing, sewing, dancing, feeding children, conversing in foreign languages, and in every way bypassing the putative handicaps of their extraordinary bodies. As Todd puts it, a ‘dynamic of attraction and avoidance structures the internal economy of monster exhibits’ (1995: 156) such that sameness and difference are simultane- ously evoked. Such shows have attracted much scholarly analysis of late both for their demonstration of the function of the gaze, and for the ways in which they con- struct and authorise such binary systems as racist discourse. What the spectators actually believe of what they see and hear seems scarcely to matter. As the most successful of the nineteenth-century showmen, P.T. Barnum himself allows in his autobiography, the spectacle was often based on a fraud in that there might be little or nothing out of the ordinary with the body, or mental capacities, of the performer. Although many other shows did of course stage real anomalies, the crucial factor, as Robert Bogdan makes clear, is that the label of freak relates not to a particular physiology, but to ‘a way of thinking about and presenting people’ (1988: 3). When, however, he goes on to remark that everyone exhibited was mis- represented, he means merely that showmen and performers exaggerated physi- cal features, mimicked strange behavioural traits and made up suitably exotic backgrounds. Rather than accepting Bogdan’s assumption of an underlying ‘true’ state of being, I prefer to think in terms of the discursive construction of all bodies and selves in which the gaze, whether of science or entertainment, plays a prominent role. The question of authenticity is redundant, for as Susan Stewart notes: ‘it is the imaginary relation, not the real one, that we seek in the spectacle’ (1993: 111). Like the biomedical gaze which manages monstrosity either by examining the bodies of the dead or by reducing the living to categories of knowledge, the freak show, for all its play with the flexibility of the boundaries between them and us, is finally no more than a safely contained and distanced dis- play that seeks to sanitise the contaminatory potential of the anomalous other. The point is that freak shows were productions which staged not ‘real life’ as such, but more or less meticulously contrived spectacles, which encouraged viewers to think and see in terms of various binary distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Those divisions, moreover, took on cultural, racial, national or histori- cal significances which emphasised difference as inferiority. In creating such a distance, the display of abnormality served to normalise the viewing public at the same time as marking the performer as a deviant type. Again like science which,



for example, during the early part of the nineteenth century was displaying and later dissecting the body of Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus, the freak show made explicit links between cultural otherness and monstrous form. 17 Racial stereotyping was extremely common, both in the overdetermined use of non-white performers, and in the practice of ‘blacking up’ to produce a more exotic image. For Susan Stewart:

(t)he body of the cultural other is…both naturalized and domesticated in a process that we might consider to be characteristic of colonization in general….On display, the freak represents the naming of the frontier and the assurance that the wilderness, the outside, is now territory. (1993: 109–10)

But in that precisely lies the problem; for, contrary to Stewart’s view of the freak display as a ‘horrifying closure’, the shifting of boundaries, and the ability of monstrous difference to enter into the space of identity, gestures towards an open- ing up of signification. The safety of entertainment and putative education about the anomalous or racial other is undermined by the persistence of a troubling familiarity. In Barnum’s highly popular ‘What is It?’ show, for example, the spectacle of the supposed man-monkey did not just evoke feelings of cultural and racial superiority in the viewing public, but raised too the question of the sup- posedly ‘missing link’ in human evolution. 18 In making such a connection, the distance created by the gaze is frustrated by its own object. Although freak shows themselves had largely disappeared by the 1950s, the widespread investment in the monstrous as a matter of ambivalent repulsion and attraction remains powerful. Not only has horror become a popular genre in both literature and film, but the apparently widespread belief – in the world’s most scientifically sophisticated nation, the United States – in the putative invasion of alien beings, and their interference in the human body, speaks eloquently to the instability of both material and ideological frontiers. 19 Far from fitting neatly into the new epistemological categories constructed by the taxonomies of post- Enlightenment science, the otherness of the monster remains containable neither in its gross materiality, nor as the radically other which sets the limits of the human, and of the self. And though it resists classification, it does not thereby represent simply what Butler calls ‘a domain of unlivability and unintelligibility that bounds the domain of intelligible effects’ (1993: 23). Insofar as neither the attempt to pin down nor the repudiation of the monstrous is ever complete, its dis- ruptive signification persists. Though frequently cast as the absolute outsider, it is always both strange and external, and familiar, even intimate. It is the marker, then, not of the successful closure of embodied identity of the selfsame, but of the impossibility of securing such boundaries. It is with all this in mind that the question of the monstrous resists reduction to the conventional historical pattern of credulous superstition supplanted by ratio- nal scientific explanation. It is not simply that the narrative of progressively more adequate understanding of corporeal anomaly is cross-cut continually by con- flicting beliefs and observations, but that ‘reality’ and fantasy are always in tension. The significance of the monstrous lies not in explanatory and causative accounts of materialised phenomena, but in the discursive production of those



accounts, not just in terms of ideological interests, but as a matter of psychic investments. What is called for is a performative analysis of the language of the monstrous. The shifting meanings alone, and the repressions, fears and desires that underlie those meanings, should forestall a merely descriptive reading of the historical sources, and in an acute pun Derrida urges us to ‘interrogate the hier- archives’. 20 In opening up my enquiry in this way, I want to sketch out my own unwillingness to limit the significance of historical texts to their constative con- tent, a limitation that operates even when it is acknowledged that the past remains irretrievable to presence. Nor are archival sources to be unproblematically privi- leged, for as Dominick LaCapra warns:

The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the reposi- tory of traces of the past which may be used in inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself – an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing and other inscriptions. (1985: 92)

There would be little disagreement that the contemporary context of any opera- tion of recording demands consideration, but that is only a starting point. And yet it is not simply a matter of going on to acknowledge the processes of selection, suppression, and narrative manipulation that constitute any archive, although those are concerns with which historians, and particularly feminist historians, have been rightly engaged. The issue, rather, is one of taking the further step of querying the adequacy of analyses which focus solely on conscious or intentional motivations. If we accept that the archival impulse is as much a matter of autho- rative command – ‘Believe this!’ – as it is of the objective to record, then what is raised, in addition to ideological incitement, is the question of subconscious desires and fears. It seems to me, then, that any expectation of pinning down meaning by investigating source material on a basis limited to either, or indeed both, authorial intent and historical context cannot succeed. Moreover, as Suzanne Gearhart puts it:

A text whose sense would only be that determined by the explicit context of its ‘own’ era (as in a historicist reading) would be a text without a history, a text produced, read and interpreted in a single instant without duration. (1984: 16)

In other words, the complexities of meaning are not limited even to a recovery of the implicit as well as explicit content, but are fully imbricated with our own present reading context. To the extent that history is a discursive product, rather than a reproduction faithful to some assumed original, it is constituted both in the texts of the past and in the subsequent reiteration of those texts. The status of a historical account is never straightforward, but according to the tenets of traditional models, neither the present day writer nor reader of history should reflect, still less acknowledge, that they too are agents of the making. In contrast, what is at stake for a postconventional approach is not, of course, a matter of truth or falsehood, but rather the production of meaning through a process of reiteration that reinforces the supposed ‘veracity’ of the event whilst simultaneously destabilising it. As Derrida (1988) makes clear, reiteration is never simple repetition, but a continuing operation in which the interval itself



constitutes an alteration that belies the fixity of any event or text. As such, I see history as process, in which my own concerns as a feminist, located in a post-Freudian interpretive landscape, inevitably become part of that production. Although, then, my preliminary analysis of the concept of the monstrous refers extensively to the texts of the periods in which it was most debated, I want to resist closure of meaning and urge a reading that is deliberately open-ended and undecidable. The fissures, breaks, contradictions, and indeed unexpected contin- uities in the received meaning of the monstrous are not then problems to be resolved, but opportunities to reconfigure first impressions. With that in mind it is easier to see how what seems to be a simple narrative of progressively more rational approaches to the issue of monstrous form obscures a far more complex process of contestation in which a whole range of modernist parameters of knowledge – truth and fiction, self and other, body and mind, inner and outer, normal and abnormal – are at stake.



Given the postEnlightenment organisation of knowledge into a series of binaries that structure both the relationships between external elements and between our- selves and the world, it is important to look more critically at the place of the monstrous within that system. Far from being the absolute other and therefore effectively unknowable, the monster, however alien it may appear to human con- sciousness, is always encompassed by the order of self and other. As with all such constructions, however, the operation of sameness and difference disguises the intertextuality of the pair in which each is dependent on the other for definition, in terms both of meaning and of boundaries. The figure of the monster is particu- larly rich in binary associations, and, as we have already seen, is characterised variously as unnatural, inhuman, abnormal, impure, racially other and so on. In every case, it is marked against the primary term, the normative standard, as degraded or lacking, an oppositional category that is never of equal value. Thus, for example, although the question of the humanity of human-born monsters and indeed of non-western races was widely debated from the medieval through the early modern period, 1 they were cast as others whose anomalous bodies served to fix the normalcy of the standard (European) model. In the case of those born closer to home – as part of western society – where the failure to provide a copy of the original was the proximate indicator for the ascription of monstrosity, again such creatures functioned ideally as the other of the same, as boundary markers that secured rather than threatened the integrity of the normatively embodied subject. All this is highly familiar in deconstructionist thought as the first step of an analytic that goes on to show not simply the mutual necessity but inequality of the binary pair, but also the way in which simple difference yields up to différance. 2 As will become clear, the monstrous speaks always both to radical otherness and to the always already other at the heart of identity. In other words, like the sliding signifier of the feminine, it carries the weight not just of the other, but of différance. That link between the monstrous and the feminine runs as a thread throughout the varied historical accounts and explanations, in more or less explicit terms, and forms a nuanced but consistent motif in my theorisation of what is at stake in our understanding of monstrosity. The point, of course, is not to equate the operation of sexual difference with monstrous difference, but to mark those places where the two signifiers are doing similar work, in both supporting and contesting the structure of the western logos. What precisely occupies the site of the other at any given time is always discursively mobile, but just as the marked term may be feminised, so too it may be monstered. So long as we resist the temptation to stabilise otherness, and recognise that we cannot reduce the monster to a singular



meaning, then the overlaps between the feminine and the monstrous can be highly productive. It is not, then, a matter of actual women or monsters standing in some simplistically oppositional relationship to men or to normatively embodied human beings, but rather that one way of stripping a putative threat of its danger is by pointing up not only its non-identity to the dominant standard, and assign- ing it to binary difference, but by fixing it within a network of degraded qualities. Though my emphasis in this chapter is on the female body as a transgressive signi- fier, it is by no means the exclusive focus of normative anxiety. There is no doubt, for example, that the disabled body on the one hand and the black body on the other are positioned in a similar relationship of threat to the putative norm. It is, then, not simply the possibility of the morphologically aberrant body that disrupts the boundaries of the normative subject, but the being of any/body that signals difference. The relationship between the monstrous body as other and the femi- nine as other, both implicitly in relation to the masculine subject, is a highly com- plex one, but what it does seem to speak to is a deep and abiding unease with female embodiment, and indeed with the corporeal in general. As Braidotti puts it, the woman’s body is ‘capable of defeating the notion of fixed bodily form, of visible, recognizable, clear and distinct shapes as that which marks the contour of the body. She is morphologically dubious’ (1994: 80). Moreover, whatever the specifically ascribed meaning, transhistorical horror and fascination with the monstrous seems to centre both on the disruption of the corporeal limits that supposedly mark out the human, and on the uncertain aetiology of monsters – a response that speaks to a more general anxiety about origins, and the relationship between maternal and foetal bodies. At the very simplest level, the monster is something beyond the normative, that stands against the values associated with what we choose to call normality and that is a focus of normative anxiety. The transhistorical interest in teratology, which has taken philosophical, medical, anthropological, astrological and popu- lar forms, has characteristically defined the monstrous as being intrinsically opposed to the familiar course of nature, an affront to the expected that ‘throws doubt’, as Canguilhem puts it, ‘on life’s ability to teach us order’ (1964: 27). In his paper ‘Monstrosity and the Monstrous’ Canguilhem suggests that what gives value to the individual life may be both the maintenance of a protective bodily integrity, and the capacity to reproduce it over time. Against such goods, the dis- solution of the body and final negation of life by death might seem the greatest threat, but it is one, nonetheless, that Canguilhem dismisses. As he observes:

‘It is monstrosity, not death, that is the counter-value to life’ (1964: 29). What monstrosity demonstrates is the interior operation of the accidental that thwarts and limits sameness and repetition, that is ‘the negation of the living by the non-viable’ (1964: 29). And yet that precariousness of value is simultaneously the very thing which bestows value on the normative life in that it has resisted deformation and fulfilled the principle of generative resemblance. Although what counts as normative, and indeed as monstrous, is always caught up in historically and culturally specific determinants, what matters here is that those two concepts remain locked in a mutually constitutive relationship. The monstrous, then, is a necessary signifier, a signifier that is of normality, of a self that is constructed



discursively against what it is not, and yet, as I have indicated, that is nonetheless unstable. The apparent security of the binary self/non-self that guarantees the identity of the selfsame is irrevocably displaced by the necessity that the subject be defined by its excluded other. In the light of the longstanding association of the feminine with disorder, in terms both of the irrational mind and the leaky body (Shildrick 1997), the con- flation of women with monsters should come as no surprise. For all our cultural and technological sophistication, we have inherited, in western countries, an ideo- logical burden that explicitly associates women with danger, particularly in the spheres of sexuality and maternity. Although the main body of historical mate- rial that I go on to analyze in this chapter is concerned primarily with issues of pregnancy and childbirth, the supposedly excessively sexuate nature of women is an implicit assumption throughout. And even where maternity is seen as the salva- tion of potentially wayward women – as it was for much of the Victorian period and the early twentieth century – there is no guarantee that women’s social and familial recuperation is secure. Like other women, mothers, as a highly discur- sive category, have often represented both the best hopes and the worst fears of societies faced with an intuitive sense of their own instabilities and vulnerabili- ties. Given that an overall theme of my argument is that security is in any case an illusion, it would be spurious to point to any one era above others as especially exemplary in this respect, but it might be instructive nevertheless to look briefly at the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period in western history when notions of the monstrous, the feminine, and the racial other were highly intertwined – to their mutual and enduring detriment. As Bram Dijkstra puts it in his study of the theme of the woman as vampire, ‘racial, sexual, and political preju- dices converged during this period to make the sexual woman into one of the most terrifying human monsters of all time’ (1996: 253). 3 The social context to which Dijkstra (1986, 1996) refers was of course intel- lectually mediated by the doctrines of Social Darwinism which pitted the success- ful evolution of humanity – or more properly of the Aryan races – against the constant threat of degeneration to the lower forms of life figured in our animal past. Both women and non-white peoples were seen as regressive agents capable of dragging down white civilisation by feeding off the precious resources, both economic and bodily, accrued by right-living men. Given their necessary repro- ductive access to male bodies, women represented a deadly threat in the struggle between the forces of progress and of primitivism. Although a woman properly controlled and contained in a reproductive relationship in which she was other- wise passive was welcomed as the mother of race purity, it was only the most superior and continent of men who could hope to achieve such a union. For the rest, the disordered sexual desires that lay beneath the civilised veneer of every woman threatened both the future of the dominant race, and the personal health and integrity of each individual man. In popular culture women were widely represented as vampires or as predatory animals, whose monstrous appetites could drain the life from their victims. As Dijkstra points out, in many contem- porary and highly respected biological texts, sex was equated with a form of cannibalism in which the male was devoured post-coitally. Accordingly,



‘snake-bedecked women, women with (or better yet, turning into) wolves, black panthers, gorillas, bats, cobras, and…other gaping-mouthed predators…were thus to become the most lasting cultural heritage of turn-of-the-century biologi- cal “science”’ (1996: 146). The monstrosity of such creatures – and here they are unlike their racial counterparts such as the Jew who was represented as both animal-like and scheming – was that they were driven, not by malice, but by an uncontrollable and excessive desire for sexual expression and maternity. In less febrile terms, the theme of the essential excessiveness of women can be traced like a leitmotif throughout western history. In a tradition dating at least from the Pythagorean Table, the masculine has been associated with the limit, the feminine with the limitless, where the latter implies a failure of the proper, an unaccountability beyond the grasp of instrumental consciousness. Women’s bodies, paradigmatically, and by elision, women themselves, exemplify an indif- ference to limits evidenced by such everyday occurrences as menstruation, preg- nancy, lactation and such supposedly characteristic disorders as hysteria, and more commonly today, anorexia and bulimia. In particular, the pregnant body is not one vulnerable to external threat, but actively and visibly deformed from within. Women are out of control, uncontained, unpredictable, leaky: they are, in short, monstrous. 4 Set against the more familiar and unthreatening parameters of feminine passivity, the anxiety provoked by the female body with its putative power to disrupt must alert us to the inadequacy of any attempt to confine corpo- real difference to the place of the other. The explicit Renaissance interest in ‘human’ monsters is no mere historical curiosity, but simply one specific way of attempting to represent the unrepresentable otherness that adheres to the same. Certainly the standard of perfection was the ‘normal’ male body – but by that token the less-than-perfect was scarcely unnatural. Moreover, perfection was never secured, so that despite an enduring belief during the Renaissance and early modern period in the generative privilege of the male seed, human progeny was always subject to the threat of the maternal. Whatever the manifest outcome at birth, the pregnant female body itself is always a trope of immense power in that it speaks to an inherent capacity to prob- lematise the boundaries of self and other. As the paradigmatic example of the other within the same, pregnancy marks a monstrous insult to the order of the proper. And for many centuries, a more specific problem was that with women at the centre of the reproductive process, there could be no guarantee of the repeti- tion of masculinist ideals of selfsameness, nor of the paternal principle. As I have already indicated, the influence of Aristotle pervades western discourse, not least in his assertion that ‘anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has…strayed from the generic type’ (GA 4.3.767b; 1953: 401), and he famously identified the birth of female babies as the most common form of deformity (GA 728a 18; 737a 27). What was at stake was a failure, in other words, of the law of resemblances, such that the proper order of paternal power was compromised. In a remarkable reversal of the accepted relationship of influence in reproduction, in which the father’s part was held to be the dominant factor, the propensity of the mother – herself an innately deviant model of humanity – to produce the monstrous marks the potency and



danger of unbridled female imagination. And insofar as Aristotle marked excess and deficiency more generally as conditions of moral failing, the traditional charac- terisation of monstrosity in terms of excess, deficiency or displacement suggests not only bodily imperfection, but an improper being. The disordered body is not merely an affront to form, but casts doubt on the moral constitution of the subject. All these elements – corporeal disorganisation, lack of resemblance, onto- logical impropriety, and the link with the feminine – form a shifting epistemologi- cal pattern that is as likely to emerge in our contemporary society’s response to disabled people as it is in periods when the concept of the monstrous was uncriti- cally applied to a range of bodily differences. Later chapters will deal more exten- sively with present day issues, but for now I want to turn specifically to the historical belief in monstrous imagination which draws together many of the themes that I have been outlining. In 1735, one Timothy Sheldrake submitted a report to the Royal Society of London. 5 In it he recounted how a pregnant woman named Elizabeth Spencer, having been sentenced at Norwich Assizes to transportation to Australia for shoplifting, successfully utilised the not uncommon ploy of ‘pleading her belly’ and was given respite until her baby should be delivered. Sadly the resultant infant was born congenitally deformed, reputedly having two noses, unjointed arms, no lower limbs, and only the rudiments of feet joined directly to the lower part of the body. As a result of this ‘strange production’, the mother was accused by some of ‘having been guilty of some Practices both unnatural and unlawful’ (Sheldrake 1747: 314), which according to the popular and roughly contempora- neous midwifery manuals of John Maubray (1724) or Nicholas Culpeper (1762) might mean anything from ‘commixture of humane with brutal seed’ to copula- tion during menstruation. 6 The woman herself would have none of it, and offered an alternative explanation that would have found equal favour with both Maubray and Culpeper, and indeed with much informed medical and lay opinion of the eighteenth century. As Sheldrake notes, Spencer:

said that she knew nothing that could give any Change to the natural Form of this crea- ture, but the strange apprehensions that her Sentence had put her under [and here’s the clincher] from the uncommon Creatures the Country to which she was sentenced might bring to her Sight. These odd Ideas that she had formed to herself, were all and the only Thing, that had occasioned so great a Change from the natural Form the Child might otherwise have had. (1747: 314)

In other words, in citing her prospective fear of Australian animals, the mother appealed – although Sheldrake does not use the term – to the much debated and controversial notion of maternal imagination. Whether the supposedly eyewitness account of the newborn’s appearance is accurate, and whether the convicted woman herself really believed her own claim, or was simply acting expediently, we have no way of knowing. What is certain is that Sheldrake’s audience of learned men would be fully familiar with the historical precedents and contemporary arguments that apparently allowed to pregnant women a remarkable influence over the plasticity of their infants. The concept of maternal imagination, or maternal impressions as it was more often known, held that the disordered thoughts and sensations experienced by a



prospective mother during pregnancy were somehow transmitted to her foetus such that at birth the child’s body, and sometimes its mind, was marked by corres- ponding signs. These might be anything from the relatively common and insignifi- cant incidence of scarlet birthmarks to the grossly disordered morphology of what were known as monstrous births. And where the former might, for example, denote a simple craving for strawberries on the part of the pregnant woman, the latter were taken as evidence of far more dangerous and disruptive passions. Although other explanations were available, almost any sort of neonatal noncon- formity, corporeal or mental, could be attributed to the power of female imagina- tion which seemed to offer a plausible explanation for anomalous births without recourse to divine or supernatural causes. At its height, enthusiasm for the notion of maternal imagination corresponded with a period in western Europe roughly between the late sixteenth and first half of the eighteenth century, when there was great speculative interest but very little firm understanding of the processes of reproduction, or generation as it was more properly known. However extraordi- nary it may appear now, it was, in context, a belief fully consonant with other pre- vailing forms of knowledge. The point of my enquiry, however, is not to fix a moment of progressive medical developmental history – I shall resist the sim- plistic assertion that the concept of maternal imagination was either bad science or misguided folk belief – but in part to investigate an epistemic model very dif- ferent to our own. More importantly, however, what interests me is that network of truth, power and desire which, as Foucault asserts, constitutes all scientific knowledge, both historical and contemporary. And where Foucault displays a certain indifference to gender concerns, I shall draw out in particular the impli- cations for sexual difference. I have already outlined in Chapter 1 my wish to read history against its con- stative content, and to open it up to a fully discursive contextuality not limited to a moment of original production. The brief story of Elizabeth Spencer’s tra- vails serves well as an example. The process of dismantling the Chinese-box- like structure of the account may clarify the process of history making, but it cannot uncover an ultimate referent. As a historical event, the content of the monstrous birth, and even more the form of its putative cause, relies at every stage on differential discursive and narrative strategies. The mother had good reason to muster sympathy; a country lay-person may have embellished to impress the members of a metropolitan learned society; the archivist of the Royal Society possibly edited the story; and I have certainly chosen to recall those parts which best illustrate my purpose – not to mention my selection of that account above many others to hand, simply because Timothy Sheldrake is a close namesake of my own. 7 No less importantly, the way in which the elements of the tale might be retold subsequently by readers of my own present reiteration signals an equally open-ended future process. The issue of truth must remain undecidable, and a close reading of relevant material of earlier centuries, though necessary, cannot alone settle the question of significance. Moreover, in terms of the specific set of beliefs under consideration, what is at stake, the psychic attribute of imagination itself, resists authentication from the very start.



With these provisos in mind, any understanding of the widespread popularity of maternal imagination as an explanatory model for birth defects in the early modern period must relate in part to a broader intellectual history. The develop- ment of biological knowledge, as a subdivision of what was called natural philo- sophy, had been, for the Christian world at least, text-based, largely divorced from contemporary empirical enquiry and reliant on the Church fathers or ancient Greek and Roman writers for its ultimate authority. Through the ubiquitous influ- ence of Aristotle in particular, an assertion of the primacy of the male seed, and especially the rule of generative resemblance – the expectation that like would produce like – were widely accepted as the basis for knowledge of the reproduc- tive process, such that in the sixteenth century Ambroise Paré, for example, could confidently insist, ‘Nature always tries to create its own likeness’ (1982: 62). Nonetheless, up until the seventeenth century, replication was not seen as a necessity of nature, but as the result of a mysterious mechanism that was subject to the intervention of divine power. As Jacob puts it: ‘generation…was to some degree, a unique isolated event, independent of any other creation, rather like the production of a work of art’ (1989: 19). Although the reasons cited for the occur- rence of monstrosity varied over subsequent ages, existent texts indicate that the naturalism favoured by Aristotle was, in time, largely overridden by the belief in divine and supernatural intervention. 8 It is not until the mid-sixteenth century that alternative explanations begin to gain ground, and the hitherto shadowy idea of maternal impressions re-emerges in authoritative texts. From a late modernist perspective rooted in the episteme of scientific ration- ality, the turn to maternal imagination may seem no better founded than the appeal to God’s will, but, nevertheless for its adherents it was taken to mark, often very self-consciously, a move towards more naturalistic, even scientific, accounts of generation and foetal development. One influential writer on the subject, who attempted to bridge the gap between a simple listing of the unusual and fabulous and a more organised enquiry, was the practising surgeon, Ambroise Paré. In his 1573 text, On Monsters and Marvels, the first chapter ‘On the Causes of Monsters’ lists thirteen such possibilities, making no distinction between types. On the one hand it proposes some accidental abnormality of the male seed – too much or too little is equally problematic – or, at a similar scientific level of hypothesis, the effect of assaults on the mother’s body or her own physical inadequacy – too narrow a womb or an inappropriate posture during pregnancy – which might reasonably account for deformity. On the other hand, the text asserts equally that either God or demons may have intervened in the natural process. The explanation of the effect of imagination is also explic- itly cited, and, as with all the possible causes, Paré goes on to devote a short chapter to examples. The most famous example, which Paré claims to have taken from Hippocrates, and which is widely recirculated throughout the next two centuries, concerns a child ‘black as a Moor’ born to a white-skinned royal couple. The princess not surprisingly is accused of adultery, but Hippocrates saves her by pointing out the imaginative effect of a portrait of a Moor that was hung over her bed. In another example from his own century, Paré recounts a father’s explanation for the birth of a frog-faced child:



he thought that it occurred when his wife, who was ill of a fever, one of her neighbours advised as a cure that she should take a live frog in her hand; her and her husband embraced and she conceived; thus this monster…was born by virtue of her imaginings. (1982: 37)

The constant retelling of such stories, the appeal to classical authorities such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, or the Bible, or the insistence that the author or other respectable figures had seen the case with their own eyes were constant features of both serious texts and the many popular, so-called wonder books in circulation which dealt with miraculous and monstrous births. Paré’s text was by no means the first to emphasise the power of imagination, and nor did he attempt to explain how such a corporeal process might actually work in the body, but what is some- what different to the existing tradition is that he places maternal imagination among the mechanical rather than supernatural causes of monstrosity. That such explanations were not simply retrospective, but gave rise to proscriptive behav- iour, is evident in Fenton’s contemporaneous account of a two-headed woman who, he says, made a living by showing herself from door to door, but was even- tually ‘chased through the Duchie of Bavarie, to the ende she might marre the fruite of women with childe, for the apprehension which remaineth in the imagi- nation of the figure of this monstrous Woman’ (1569: 135). For a more closely argued exposition of the cause and effect phenomenon, I shall turn to the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche. In Malebranche’s major work, The Search after Truth (1980 [1674]), the ques- tion of imagination in general and its dangerous implications is given full con- sideration. Writing a hundred years later than Paré, during which time exemplary accounts of maternal impressions had burgeoned, Malebranche expands on and analyses the concept in a way that clearly marks it as a product of an emergent Enlightenment scientism. As a follower of Descartes, Malebranche is concerned not only to describe, but to explain the mechanical workings of the human body. As before there is the same anxious desire to find reasons for human abnormali- ties, but with the emphasis now on rational explanation, albeit within the ultimate context of divine will. And paradoxically, what counts as a rational explanation relies on the ascription of a certain irrationality to women. It should not be sup- posed that imagination was inherently negative in its effects; rather that its supposed function of mediating between the materiality of the natural world and abstract thought could shift dangerously out of control. The mind/body split authorised by Descartes and taken up by Malebranche at once positioned imagi- nation in its ‘naive’ form on the side of the corporeal senses, while at the same time attributing to it the capacity to transmute sense impressions into the ideational content of the incorporeal mind. The crucial factor that regulated imagi- nation within the appropriate confines was judgement, the ability to order thought rationally. Nonetheless, imagination was regarded with suspicion as a faculty that might frustrate the proper distinction between mind and body. Where earlier writers had presented the dangerous power of imagination as being as it were accidentally stimulated in pregnant women, for Malebranche and many of his contemporaries, the imagination is an especial characteristic of all women that confounds the rationality of clear and distinct ideas. As he puts it:



(the) delicacy of the brain fibers is usually found in women, and this is what gives them great understanding of everything that strikes the senses…but they are normally incap- able of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover…the style and not the reality of things suffices to occupy their minds to capacity. (1980: 130)

In the light of this intellectual shortcoming in women, the belief in maternal impressions – ‘that mothers are capable of imprinting in their unborn children all the same sensations by which they themselves are affected, and all the same pas- sions by which they are agitated’ (1980: 113) – both mirrors and produces a com- plex of ideas about sexual difference. In theorising just how anomalous birth markings might occur, Malebranche again surmises a physicalist explanation. Given that delicate people are more susceptible to ‘compassionate imagination’ than robust ones, then for the child still in the womb, ‘the delicacy of the fibers of their flesh being infinitely greater than that of women and children, the flow of spirits is bound to produce…considerable changes in them’ (1980: 115). In illustration of his thesis Malebranche offers his famous example of a Parisian woman who having witnessed, during her pregnancy, the horrific sight of a criminal executed on the wheel, subsequently gave birth to a child ‘who was born mad, and whose body was broken in the same places in which those of criminals are broken’ (1980: 115). What has passed between mother and child then is both a mental affect, whereby the mother’s ‘compassionate imagination’ has been so disturbed that it has produced madness in the womb, and the repre- sentation of an actual sight, whereby the woman’s animal spirits have passed in physical imitation of the broken body of the executed man into that of the foetus. Nonetheless, as with Paré’s examples, the violent passions of a woman, whether of terror or desire, need not be excited by a real occurrence for maternal impres- sions to leave their mark. A mere image – Malebranche mentions a child born resembling St Pius after his mother had gazed too closely on a portrait of the saint – is sufficient to produce the trace of a trace. For all the strangeness of such material, the intellectual underpinnings of Malebranche’s accounts are the famil- iar gendered motifs of the early modern period. Women are essentially irrational, rooted in a determinate bodyliness, unable to maintain a proper distance between subject and object, and not fully agents of their own will. The contrast with the rational, reflective, detached figure of the male philosopher, the ideal of mascu- linity, could not be clearer. Nonetheless, there is more to Malebranche’s exposition than the operation of masculinist power/knowledge. Whilst the capacity of women to transmit impres- sions, both mental and physical, to their unborn children, provides a plausible answer to the puzzle of monstrous birth, it also plays right into a deep-seated human anxiety about proper paternal origins, and into a masculine fear of women’s procreative power. In other words, the rationalism of the explanation cannot fully recoup the irruption of the undecidable within the principle of life itself. In admitting that an absent object – represented only by an image in the mother’s mind – can be inscribed as a trace on the body of the foetus, reference to the primacy of the male principle is overwritten. The monstrous signifier effaces the father as that which should be rightfully signified. Now it might be supposed that the very idea that paternal influence could be so easily interrupted




by a quality of the mother would position the concept of maternal imagination as

a rare acknowledgment of female power, or even more radically that, as Marie-

Hélène Huet puts it in her book Monstrous Imagination, ‘(t)he monster is thus a maternal language’ (1993: 53). But even at the height of philosophical, popular lay and medical support for the notion of such an effect, it is not the case that women are looked on with new respect. As Huet goes on to show, in the intel- lectual circles of the early modern period at least, male superiority could be partially retrenched. The threat of monstrous births was a real and disturbing danger, but what they testified to was not the power of women, but their inherent weakness. As Malebranche himself makes clear, truth could be manifest only in abstract ideas which are, he says, incomprehensible to women (Malebranche 1980: 130). Indeed what maternal impressions signal is precisely that feminine propensity which fails to distinguish between mere appearance and the deeper abstract ideas that an image represents. Without the mediation of critical judgment of the type that a man might exercise, appearances as such are a dangerous source of error. But while Malebranche reassures his readers in general that since women ‘are not involved in seeking truth…their errors do not sustain much prejudice, for one hardly takes their proposals seriously’ (1980: 131), the significance of maternal impressions is less easily dismissed. Having admitted that as a result of women’s weakness, ‘there must be very few children whose minds are not distorted in

some way, and who are not dominated by some passion’ (1980: 119), Malebranche retreats from the disturbing implications by an equal insistence both that most afflicted foetuses die in the womb (1980: 116), and that in any case at birth, all but the strongest maternal passions will be overridden by the child’s own direct impressions (1980: 120). It is as though the full import of his own thesis is too anxiety-provoking, for what is surely at stake in the excessive imagination of women is, as Huet suggests, the corruption of not just the monstrous body, but ‘to

a lesser degree, any being (the mother) engenders’ (Huet 1993: 55). While the

rational masculine mind, and ultimately for Malebranche at least, the mind of God is the source of abstract truth, feminine imagination gives material expres- sion to the hidden desires and passions of women that threaten always to corrupt. And the resultant monstrous creation testifies to the failure of the pure mind to master the body. At very least the superiority of the masculinist mind is in tension with its vulnerability. Despite the attempts by Malebranche to neutralise the implications of maternal imagination, we may sense perhaps an unease that relates not simply to women’s role in generation, but to their very sexuality. In more popular texts at least, the potential of foetal markings equally to reveal and to conceal the exercise of a mother’s unregulated sexual desire is a matter of both serious and ribald discus- sion. Although a woman might be caught out in her hidden infidelities by the unexpected or abnormal appearance of her child, an appeal to the imaginative power of an image alone could be used to provide an ‘innocent’ rationalisation. In, for example, the incident of a girl born ‘furry as a bear’, traditional explana- tory models would have pointed to a case of actual bestiality, but for Paré and the others who remarked on it, the reason was the mother’s predilection for a painting



of John the Baptist in his animal skins. Not surprisingly, the possibility that accusations of adultery and the like might be circumvented was quickly noted by writers such as Nicolas Venette who, in his much reprinted tracts of the late seventeenth century, was concerned among other things to address the juridical issue of filiation. The real danger was that the gap between truth and appearance could be critically undermined, for, as Venette astutely recognised, an errant woman might use the supposed power of maternal imagination, not simply to explain away the failure of an infant to resemble its rightful father, but equally to forestall altogether the tell-tale occurrence of such a lack of resemblance. As Venette notes, any woman might easily have hidden adultery:

for, by thinking always on her Husband, when in the Arms of her Lover, she prints the Features of the Body, and all the Characteristics of the Soul, of him she fixed her Thoughts on, upon the tender Body of the Infant she was then conceiving. (Venette 1712: 303) 9

In short, the operation of maternal imagination opened up a chasm in which, as Marie-Hélène Huet notes, in matters of sexuality, no woman was above suspicion. Given that the question of female desire has been, in the western world, an end- less, transhistorical source of masculinist anxiety, the implications of maternal imagination were thus doubly disturbing. It is not of course that one is able to pin- point direct and unequivocal evidence of such fears of sexual otherness, but rather that what is not said – like the absent objects of maternal admiration – leaves its own trace in the texts. Although populist texts frequently had a robust approach to the discussion of sexual mechanics, there is, as Roy Porter somewhat disin- genuously remarks of Venette, ‘no inkling of modern preoccupations…with unconscious desire, with sublimation and repression…no hint of the Freudian notion of sex as the secret spring of everything’ (Porter 1984: 238). Nonetheless, our contemporary reading has much to gain from the gaps and silences, the in-betweens that fundamentally undermine the binary divisions that supposedly characterise the debate between pro- and anti-imaginationists. As Derrida puts it in a slightly different context:

How does one prove in general an absence of archive, if not relying on classical norms (presence/absence of literal and explicit reference to this or to that, to a this or a that which one supposes to be identical to themselves, and simply absent, actually absent, if they are not simply present, actually present; how can one not, and why not, take into account unconscious, and more generally virtual archives)? (Derrida 1995a: 64)

Should we not be alerted, then, to the fact that with respect to desire more schol- arly speculation managed the issue by avoidance, by concentrating instead on the conundrum of the potential clash between a putative female capacity and the exis- tence of a divinely ordered generative process? And if God is representative of the male principle par excellence, might we not say that the strategy is precisely one of repression and sublimation? In the decades following the publication of Malebranche’s book, which went through five editions in the mid-eighteenth century alone, 10 the debate around maternal imagination became ever more intense. It was not of course an isolated concern, but was usually tied in with changing knowledge of other aspects of generation. Embryology remained a highly speculative science with limited



technological resources, but even after the invention of such instruments as the microscope, the input of more experimental data was read within existing mean- ings, such that profound discontinuities operate between such data and theoreti- cal beliefs. Prominent among these during the period in question was the doctrine of preformation which held that the embryo which grew in the womb was already present in all its parts as a minute animalcule either in the sperm, or less com- monly in the ovum. All that happened in intercourse was that an existent fully formed being was transferred to a growth environment. The advantage of micro- scopic examination was that it seemed to confirm expectation, as Hartsoeker’s famous ‘drawn-from-life’ illustration of an animalcule within a spermatozoon shows (Hartsoeker 1694). But how could maternal imagination so radically alter foetal development, if the form of the foetal body was already given and fixed in advance? For some theorists, the apparent incompatibility of the two theses was sufficient to support rejection of maternal imagination, but for many others – including Malebranche, who was a committed preformationist – there was no conflict. What concerns us more, however, is that for those on both sides of the argument, the gendered nature of the disruption that imaginationism seemed to suggest was a major point of contention. I want to look at some of the issues in circulation through a brief consideration of the Turner–Blondel debate which raged for several years during the 1720–30s, 11 and was subsequently continued by others. Both men were members of the College of Surgeons in London, and both could claim vocal support from other eminent scientists and philosophers, many of whom were engaged in an energetic battle of claim and counterclaim conducted largely through the print media of books, pamphlets and letters. 12 Although merely repeating received opinion in many respects, Daniel Turner’s medical treatise on diseases of the skin – first published in 1714 and reprinted in the 1720s – was the proximate cause of the debate. In it Turner devoted a chapter to the spots and marks of the skin which arose, as he saw it, from the operations of maternal imagination:

which have had not only Power sufficient to pervert and disturb what the Ancients called the Plastick or formative Faculty…but to stamp its Characters, to dismember and dislocate, and to make large and bloody Wounds upon the Body of the Foetus, con- ceived long since and formed completely. (Turner 1726: 169)

Despite the somewhat misleading expression here, it is clear from his book and subsequent pamphlets that Turner rejected preformationism and is referring to a foetus ‘formed completely’ during an earlier stage of pregnancy. The subsequent changes in the womb are produced, he believes, by mechanical processes which in effect transmit impressions between the maternal mind and the foetal body. Even so, Turner is reluctant to relinquish entirely the older paradigm of divine intervention, and marks those mechanical processes as subservient to the exercise of an immaterial force set in motion by an unknowable Creator. Although no ade- quate explanation of causation is offered, Turner refers to the effect of the imagi- nation as an undeniable fact, and supports his claim with a wide variety of examples. In contrast, his rival, James Blondel, both strongly espouses prefor- mation, and insists on the characteristically post-Cartesian separation of mind and body. The tension between epistemic models operates then both between opposing



scholars and within each man, with the reproductive capacities of women serving as the objectified ground of debate. At first sight there seems much to commend Blondel’s arguments to modern eyes in that he not only sets out to disprove the ‘vulgar error’ of maternal imagination, as ‘contrary to EXPERIENCE, REASON, and ANATOMY’ (Blondel 1729: 5), but also concedes that some physical changes in the mother’s disposition – even if caused mentally – could affect the foetus. What he categori- cally denies is that imagination alone has any such power. As he puts it: ‘if [the mother] cannot make a determinate alteration in her own body, by a determinate imagination, why should we believe that she is able to do it in the Child?’ (1729:

97). Alongside this appeal to reason, Blondel points out both that most foetuses are subject to imagination without being marked or deformed – although he ignores Malebranche’s explanation, castigating the latter’s approach as ‘mere enthusiasm and bigotry’ (1729: 27) – and that the mothers of deformed children may deny any unusual passion during pregnancy. Moreover, he puts forward fifteen propositions which include several unequivocal assertions:

XI The Rudiments of all Plants, and Animals, are from the beginning of the World. XII Conception is independent on the Mother’s Will. XIV The Foetus has a Sensation and a Circulation of the Blood independent on the Mother. (1729: Preface, n.p.) 13

It is not only that Blondel is a preformationist, but he supports the theory of emboitment which sees all living beings as having existed, encased either in successive male seed or in the female ovary, from the creation of Adam and Eve. Accordingly, his stated belief that ‘there’s not a single foetus at this time, but has been successively in the ovary of 250 persons at least’ (1729: 141), allows Blondel to explain some foetal deformity as a kind of wear and tear. 14 He never- theless wants to stress the relative unimportance of the mother in the whole process, asking: ‘By what means can the mother’s imagination on a sudden, with- out her knowledge, or consent, and contrary to her inclination, obliterate the linea- ments of the foetus, which were pre-existent to conception, and subsisting, even since the creation of the world…?’ (1729: 111). These are clearly appealing arguments to a rationalist yet God-fearing audi- ence, for without them there arose the unacceptable prospect of a female capacity so powerful that it could undermine the purpose of the divine Creator himself. Despite his incredulity at such a thought, however, Blondel was perfectly at ease with other less threatening explanations of counter-action on the animalcule:

accidents arising from the usual laws of motion; force or violence on the foetal body, perpetuated either by cheating parents or inept midwifery attendants; dis- ease in the uterus; or simply interrupted development. Given the undeniable real- ity of monstrous births, some explanatory model was indeed required, but for all his rationality, Blondel’s insistence that a belief in preformation uniquely ruled out maternal imagination – whilst allowing multiple other insults to the god- given form of the foetus – betrays unacknowledged concerns. Interestingly, other preformationists used the imaginationist theory precisely to account for congenital anomalies. One learned paper by the French physician and experi- mentalist, Daniel de Superville, could almost be a direct response to Blondel, for



it systematically refutes his arguments against maternal impressions while agreeing both on the origin of the foetus, and on the accidents that might change or destroy it. In answer to the assertion of foetal independence, Superville comments:

this is ridiculous; for one cannot deny, that the Secundines are closely related to the Matrix, and receive from the Mother a Humour, or a Liquid, which by the Navel-string it remits to the Foetus….Accordingly one may say, that the Foetus owes part of its Being to the Mother. (1740: 310)

As for how the passions of the mother are passed to the child, Superville admits ignorance, but adds airily: ‘(I)t does not follow from thence, that we ought to reject as false all that our Reason cannot penetrate into.’ Moreover, the hypo- thesis of an active maternal–foetal link allows Superville to preserve the notion of an original perfection in all creation, and shift the responsibility for imperfection to a more credible source: ‘Daily observations demonstrate to us, that the dis- ordered and disturbed Imagination of Women often hurts the Infants’ (1740: 311). Whatever the putative focus of the imaginationist debate, it is being played out with respect to the agency and corporeality of women, and certainly to their detriment. That the deformatory power of maternal impressions was a serious matter is evident in relation to the age-old question of the human soul. As the concept of maternal imagination developed in the scientific discourse of the early modern period, much of its capacity to do damage prospectively on a not yet existent embryo was dropped. The point now, about maternal imagination – both to sup- porters and detractors – and indeed about some other suspected naturalistic causes of monstrosity, such as an ill-formed womb (Maubray 1724) or acciden- tal insults during pregnancy (Daniel de Superville 1740), was that the precipitat- ing factor occurred post-conception. It would seem to follow then that the progeny at conception must be unquestionably human and thus the possessor of an indestructible soul, and all that this implied in terms of baptism. Strangely, however, there was still uncertainty, for though an infant at birth might be human in appearance and/or provenance, there was no guarantee of a rational soul. In a discussion in 1668 of a human-born hairy monster, whose mother had seen an ape during the fifth month of pregnancy, members of the Royal Society debated the power of maternal imagination. The issue, however, was not simply ‘whether this creature was endowed with a human soul; [but] if not, what became of the soul of the embryo, that was 5 months old?’ (Baldam 1738: Vol. 1, 86). Not only then could mothers impart monstrous form to their offspring, but they could deny them salvation. And, as always, the monster itself defies explanatory closure. That the status of women was central to the historical debate around maternal imagination is well supported by the archival texts, but what is actually at stake remains perhaps unspoken. Although at the surface level on both sides, many of the disputants – and they are almost invariably men – present their material as supportive of the feminine, the underlying themes seem to be a desire either to point out the dreadful consequences of a putative female power, or to deny that such a power is possible. James Blondel, for example, while appealing to common sense, shows a lurking anxiety about what he sees as natural to women:

What can be more scandalous, and provoking, than to suppose, that those Whom God Almighty has endow’d…with an extraordinary Love and Tenderness for the Children,



instead of answering the End they are made for, do bread [sic] Monsters by the Wantonness of their Imagination? (1727: Preface, n.p.)

However, his later opinion that some monsters, at least, are frauds perpetrated by cruel mothers hoping to excite ‘Charity and Benevolence’(1727: 22), somewhat vitiates his apparent defence of women’s god-given virtue. 15 In the face of Turner’s representation of his own argument as one for rightful recognition of the ‘Objects of our Admiration’ that demonstrate the power of the mother’s imagina- tion (Turner 1730: 22), Blondel claims to remove from women both the unneces- sary worry that accompanied pregnancy and the unjustified burden of guilt for deformities that were in reality ‘owing to remote Causes, which have taken effect, even a long Time before she came into the World’ (1729: 142). There is little doubt that such a burden did in fact exist, for if maternal impressions were acknowledged as real, the effect was characterised in general as a malign power which, as far as possible, should be circumvented. But it was not only the mental and physical weakness of the female constitution that invoked the disordering of the foetal body, but an intrinsic lack of self-restraint that marked women as actively dangerous others, whose very nature could disrupt generative regularity. Both medical texts and those intended for lay consumption were, then, full of advice to doctors, husbands and to intending mothers on how best to avoid the dreadful possibility of monstrous or deformed births. It was not just a scientific understanding of the female body or of the mysterious process of generation that was at stake, but the extent to which women were in need of policing and control. Given that maternal impressions could be activated by anything from the pious con- templation of a saintly portrait to the terrifying sight of a murder or mutilation, from a longing for a particular food during pregnancy – shellfish was especially liable to produce horrendous facial features – to a hidden and lascivious desire for unnatural sex, there was virtually no aspect of pregnant women’s lives which could be considered safe. As Barbara Stafford notes, maternal imagination worked like a ‘pre-Freudian fetal psychology’ in which ‘offspring visibilized concealed or surro- gate passions on their surfaces…mottled by an alien pattern of interiority’ (1991:

313). Above all it was the excessive appetites of women that were to be feared, for even where a potentially damaging external event had occurred, it was the woman’s over-indulgence of fear or pleasure that was at the root of subsequent problems. Both Turner and Blondel offered fairly circumspect practical advice on the care of mothers-to-be, with each counselling calm. Turner urged women to resist particu- lar cravings and to avoid becoming frightened (1730: 137), while Blondel advised that expectant mothers should avoid fear and apprehension when faced with those sights that were thought to produce marks and deformities, precisely because they were in fact harmless (1727: 58). More direct disciplinary power is evident in the exhortations of John Maubray’s popular text, The Female Physician, in which he places on pregnant women the responsibility to ‘suppress all Anger, Passion, and other Perturbations of Mind, and avoid entertaining too serious or melancholick Thoughts; since all such tend to impress a Depravity of Nature upon the Infant’s Mind, and Deformity on its Body’ (Maubray 1724: 375–6). As convincing new theories of reproduction began to emerge towards the end of the eighteenth century, the issue of maternal imagination faded in medical



and philosophical texts, although it was never convincingly resolved in either direction. 16 Moreover, as a popular belief, it remained strong, 17 and long contin- ued to rationalise an implicit fear of female interiority, and to ground demands for the close surveillance and regulation of women’s pregnancies. Although some writers recommended that women’s irrational desires should be acceded to in order to lessen the possible ill-effects on their foetuses, the more usual response was to impose some form of control. And as late as 1792, the Swiss theologian Lavater speculates on the potential eugenic implications of programming mater- nal imagination. It is not only that an exact register of the incidents of pregnancy might enable women to ‘forsee the physiological, philosophical, intellectual, moral, and physiognomical revolutions’ through which each child has to pass, but that ‘they might, perhaps, be enabled to fix beforehand the principal epochs of the life of their children’ (1810: 186, my emphasis). However the links between maternal and foetal bodies are theorised, and whether the place of the mother is seemingly empowered or degraded, the dangerously affective nature of women is deemed responsible for any corruption of the form of their offspring. What the Enlightenment debate around maternal imagination fixes is, as Boucé claims, ‘the insidious assimilation of the pregnant woman with an abnormal creature… the great culprit, the evil scapegoat’ (1987: 98). Although the supposed operation of maternal imagination exemplifies a tangi- ble point of crisis, its power is not alone in defying the supposed immanence of the female body. All those processes of procreation which speak to change rather than to replication are similarly suspect. What is evident throughout the debates is the operation of power/knowledge over, and a desire for mastery of, the proce- dures of reproduction insofar as they are the domain of an unstable other. Indeed it is notable that during the period in question, and certainly in many contexts since, male authors have widely used procreative metaphors to figure their own creativity. 18 It was not that the link between imagination and reproduction was wholly unacceptable, then, but that in the context of the feminine it ran the risk of spilling over into an uncontrollable and dangerous enthusiasm. In reflecting on the putative threat of imagination in the context of the early modern understand- ing of reproduction, where like should produce like, postmodernist historians may be alert to the parallels with the unease which greets the overt exercise of a historical imagination, in which a reading of the past is acknowledged as a matter of production rather than replication. In both instances, a conservative desire for ideal reproduction is fundamentally challenged by the notion that undecidable forces are at work. Whilst the power of imagination is widely, if reluctantly, accepted, it is nevertheless seen as corruptive of the proper end of male genera- tive sexuality/traditional historical research – a monstrous aberration that must be explained but not embraced. 19 As a moment of historical enquiry, the debate around maternal imagination remains fascinating both for its monstrous subject matter and for the richness of illustrative material, but far from being a simple matter of descriptive interest, it is, in common with all discourse of either past or present, never entirely neutral or innocent. The nexus of truth, power and desire that mobilises all authoritative accounts – of which biomedical science is a prime example – raises complex



ethico-political and ontological questions. Although the representations of female form and function are culturally specific, what is at stake more fundamentally may be less variant. Behind the ‘facts’ of the issue, our predecessors were deeply concerned not just with the moral and indeed legal status of women, but with questions of the aetiology of monsters, the dangerous nature of the feminine, and the vulnerable boundaries of the human. In contrast to the unproblematised his- torical accounts of maternal imagination offered by Philip K. Wilson (1992) and Dudley Wilson (1993) for example, several feminist writers – Barbara Maria Stafford (1991), Marie-Hélène Huet (1993), Julia Epstein (1995), Rosi Braidotti (1996) – have speculated over and against received meanings. Would it be too incautious to suggest that the motivating anxieties that fuelled the controversy are with us still? In her Reith Lectures 20 of the mid-1990s, Marina Warner was able to declare: ‘Ungoverned energy in the female always raises the issue of mother- hood and the extent of maternal authority [and] fear that the natural bond excludes men and eludes their control’ (1994: 4). In turning away from the ‘natural’, the concepts of foetal independence, of disputed paternity, and of the perfect child are hinged today on advance reproductive technologies, on genetic engineering, and on cloning – all of them grounded on women’s bodies. The aspi- ration to fix the uncertainties and to override the unruliness and excessiveness of women and their reproductive powers remains undiminished. With this in mind, I want finally in this chapter to look more closely at the inherent monstrosity of the maternal body, which far exceeds a postnatal retro- spective marking of error on the part of the mother. It is not just that the mother is always capable of producing monstrosity, but that she is monstrous in herself. It is above all the very fecundity of the female, the capacity to confound defini- tion all on their own that elicits normative anxiety. At the turn of the millennium, the disciplinary nature of the clinical encounter, the attempt to regulate and nor- malise the body, has taken on new forms with the advent of high-tech medicine. But the resulting increase in clinical intervention has both enhanced control in general and undermined it in specific instances. In particular, the new reproductive technologies with their complication of the lines of paternity (and maternity) have opened up anew the horror of indeterminacy. Just at the moment when techno- logical advances have enabled the extension of surveillance to the womb itself, and when sperm and ovum may be processed prior to fertilisation, the fear of what goes on unseen in the recesses of the body may be relocated to uncertainty about origins and foundational narratives. What, we may ask, becomes of the Law of the Father, the symbolic order itself, once the Oedipal scenario of daddy, mommy, me is displaced by techniques such as cloning or simple lesbian parent- hood? As Mary Ann Doane suggests: ‘(t)he story is no longer one of transgres- sion and conflict with the father but of struggle with and against what seems to be an overwhelming extension of the category of the maternal, now assuming monstrous proportions’ (1990: 169). Just as the narrative of maternal imagination occupied an earlier age, popular culture today plays out many of the anxieties associated with the female body and its monstrous (re)productivity. I want then to bring my theme right back to the present by looking at a recent monster film that enjoyed high popularity, though



rather less critical success. Species (1995) is the story of a clinical experiment that goes wrong; of how alien genes mixed with those of a human being produce a voracious, female-identified monster whose sole aim is to mate and reproduce. The band of humans, standing in her way and intent on exterminating her threat, comprise four men representing a variety of masculine stereotypes, and a token woman, all of whom have strictly normative appetites. After much predictable carnage, and some impressive bodily transformations, the monster, Sil, is even- tually hunted down and destroyed, giving the satisfied survivors a rare moment of reflection and the opportunity to pronounce the epithet: ‘She was half us; half something else.’ And it is precisely that ambiguity that lies at the heart of what makes the monstrous body transhistorically both so fascinating and so disturbing. It is not that the monster represents the threat of difference, but that it threatens to interrupt difference – at least in its binary form – such that the comfortable other- ness that secures the selfsame is lost. Moreover, as we have seen, the female body just is monstrous in the western imagination, the necessary locus of worship and disgust, whose corporeality threatens to overflow boundaries and engulf those things which should remain separate. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it most per- tinently: ‘Feminine and cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves in patriarchal society, but when they threaten to mingle, the entire economy of desire comes under attack’ (1996: 15). Just as the feminine haunts the margins of western discourse, always out of place in the paradigms of sameness and differ- ence, so too monsters are liminal creatures which cannot be transcribed within the binary, and whose abjection leaves always the trace within. What lies beyond the unproblematic horror of the absolute other is the far more risky perception that the monstrous may not be recognised as such, for it is not so different after all. In Doane’s reading of the film Alien (1979) the monstrous feminine merges with the environment such that the space of the narrative is the space of the mater- nal body itself (Doane 1990). The same point is also taken up by Barbara Creed, who outlines how in turn the inner space of the mother ship in which the alien lurks, the vast uterine chambers of the mother alien’s lair, and the finale in which the escape capsule is ejected from the malevolent mother ship with explosive force, all reproduce the maternal as monstrous (Creed 1993: 18–20). A similar move characterises the denouement of Species where Sil retreats to the sewers to give birth to, literally to pro-ject, her monstrous offspring, leaving the human pur- suers to force their way through what amounts to the slime of amniotic/semiotic fluid. Species is an altogether less knowing and sophisticated film than Alien, but for that reason its motivating anxieties are writ large. As I indicated before, what is directly at issue is the perception that Sil at very least resembles one of us. Her surface appearance is that of an attractive and nubile young woman, though resemblance should, of course, never be trusted. Beneath her skin, Sil displays a phallic worm-like writhing structure that complicates the boundaries not just of her putative humanity, but of her femininity. Far from the heterosexually desir- able woman she appears to be, Sil is rather the feminine principle in its archaic and repressed role of the phallic mother. Nonetheless, her devastating drive to procreate serves to remind us that the reproductive identity of all women is simi- larly out of control. For the human males, the AIDS era link between sex and



death is fairly explicit – ‘What about protection?’ gasps one just before he is overwhelmed by the monstrous embrace – but it is not sex itself that obliterates the boundaries of selfhood, but the limitless fecundity of the maternal presence. 21 Moreover, as Kristeva makes clear, the bond between the mother and child in the semiotic is monstrous in its refusal of the separations demanded by the paternal order (1982: 72). The monstrous feminine frustrates distinction, and in threaten- ing to merge strikes at the patriarchal economy of desire. In the final sewer scene, the fear of the loss of differentiation between self and other, male and female, inside and outside, mother and child, reaches its climax when Dan – whose previous face to face encounter with Sil is protected by the speech act of separation: ‘It’s you’ – risks immersion in the metaphorical amniotic fluid. It is a moment of recognition of what is repressed, of the Kristevan abject, of the maternal body that ‘disturbs identity, system and order’, that fails to respect ‘borders, positions, rules’ (Kristeva 1982: 4). For Kristeva, the abject is centred on the maternal body as simultaneously the origin of life and the site of insertion into mortality, the location then of an inherent ambiguity. Significantly, the apparent ‘happy ending’ of the film where Dan’s bodily autonomy is restored relies on a rebirthing scene in which the remaining patriarchal couple haul Dan out of the by now flaming slime to take his place as part of the Oedipal triad. The Law of the Father is recuperated, and the monstrous mother, blasted by the gun-toting male, disintegrates before the power of the phallus. But that, as the conventions of the genre and of a more nuanced understanding of monstrosity make clear, is far too simple to effect closure. Despite her sometime human form, the threat of Sil eludes corporeal boundaries, and in opening up to an alarming and engulfing viscosity beneath the skin, she exceeds instantiation as the absolute other. The final gunshot cannot resolve the complicity of the identity and separation that typifies the mater- nal space. With Sil’s extinction, the external threat of the absolute other is vitiated, only for the other within to re-emerge. Her splattered remains produce a tasty snack for a sewer rat which instantly begins its own process of monstrous metamorphosis. The complicity of the normal and abnormal, the pure and the impure, and above all the self and the other, is a theme that must haunt any postconventional understanding of the monstrous. The assignation of the term to all those who are devalued in western society speaks to a determination to hold in place a precari- ous system of binary difference that is always undermined by différance. It is not only pregnant women who confuse the boundaries of the selfsame; the impossi- bility of holding apart distinct categories of self and other is the omnipresent con- dition of being. Where the monstrous other, and more particularly the monstrous mother, has figured an anxiety about the disorganisation of the embodied self, the move has been to effect strategies of exclusion and vilification that deny full humanity to those who are ostensibly different. What is at stake is that the norma- tive claim to self-present autonomy and bodily distinction should be sustained against the putative threat of any being that represents the self as intrinsically insecure or unstable, vulnerable, that is, both in its potential dependency and in its loss of morphological boundaries. The extent to which we feel it is necessary to defend our investment in the sovereign self is a measure surely of an unac- knowledged apprehension that it is always too late: the other is already half us.



It is not my purpose to suggest that the reading of the monstrous which I propose here is the only one or without risk. Moreover, the anxieties generated by corporeal difference have most often resulted not simply in assimilation but in a violent policing of boundaries, both practically and metaphorically, and may con- tinue to do so. The task, then, is to take up the explicit challenge to normative cate- gories of being and to reconceive the monstrous, as would Butler I think, ‘not only as an imaginary contestation…but as an enabling disruption, the occasion for a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter’ (1993: 23). If the monstrous is indeed half us, half something else, then the encounter with the monster need not mark the place of external hazard, but rather the interruption of the dead-end of full presence, and the emergence of the imaginative and embodied complications within. As a move that speaks inevitably to the imperative to reformulate the relations of self and other, it is irreducibly an ethical project.



In order to shed more light on the predicament of the monstrous in western thought, my purpose in this chapter is to investigate further the precarious place of the body, and to bring it into relation with dominant conceptions of the self. During the last few years, both feminist scholarship and postmodernist philosophy have opened up afresh an interest in monstrous corporeality that moves far beyond a well-established clinical concern – where therapeutic modification is the major issue – to an altogether more discursive reading. Like the well-established configuration of matter and mother, to which it is also supplemental in the Derridean sense, the monstrous is somehow both excessive to and yet, as I shall show, embedded in the structuration of the western logos. What is at stake is not only the categorical integrity of bodies that matter, but also the hitherto taken for granted stability and autonomy of the singular human subject as the centre of the logos, of a self that is foundational without being embodied, and a body whose integrity is so unquestioned that it may be forgotten, transcended. Against this, the confused and essentially fluid corporeality of monsters makes them an ideal loca- tion for an enquiry into the closure of both subjects and bodies that characterises modernist philosophical discourse. As I have suggested elsewhere, the issue ‘is one of leaky boundaries, wherein the leakiness of the logos…is mirrored by the collapse of the human itself as a bounded being’ (Shildrick 1996: 1). It is not, of course, that modernist philosophy has shown any great interest in the organic substantial body as such, but rather in the human as the abstract uni- versal marker of the site of foundational voice, vision and vitality. In one major tradition, the body itself is simply the mechanical housing of the subject, and as such may be bracketed out, unrepresented, transcended. As Descartes puts it in the Meditations: ‘although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet, if a foot, or an arm, or any other part, is separated from my body, it is certain that, on that account, nothing has been taken away from my mind’ (1968: 164). The mind, in short, is an indivisible thinking substance, exempt from the laws of natural science that determine the nature of the body. The human has been of interest then not as a biologically defined category, but only to the extent that the term is elided with that of ‘person’ – the possessor, conventionally, in a Lockean formulation (Locke 1975), of a sense of self as a continuing subject of its own experiences. I will not rehearse here the by now well-known arguments identify- ing the subject of the western logos with the human male, 1 but will simply mark that insofar as their difference is specified, women are the non-subject other, the excluded, the embodied, the monstrous. As the masculinist subject surveys his



world he sees only that which reflects his own self-presence, the confirmation of his own wholeness and completion. As one alternative among the multiple histories of thinking ontology, the under- lying question of what it is to be a subject, and experience oneself and the world as such, is addressed increasingly through a phenomenological approach, which is perhaps more in keeping with our commonsense understanding of our embodied selves. Unlike the mind–body split effected by the Cartesian tradition, in pheno- menology abstract selfhood is seen as inseparable from material being-in-the- world. The two are intertwined such that it is in the spatial and temporal extension of our bodies that we become our selves. It is a model that calls for a radical rethinking of the concept of embodiment. Moreover, as Merleau-Ponty (1962) understands it, perception is no longer the inner representation of an outer world in the mind of a distinct perceiver, but is constituted in the ‘organic relationship’ between the self and the world. In consequence, the order of perception is from the first an interdependent relation between the perceiver and the perceived, in which the seeing ‘I’ is decentred. More importantly, Merleau-Ponty stresses the reversibility of every body as a visible-seer or tangible-toucher; in other words, the status of the self as a sensible-sentient being collapses the rigid distinctions both between mind and body, and between subject and object. Above all it is in the application of corporeal schema – habitual ways of seeing, touching and listening – that the body is constituted as meaningful, and integral to our sense of self. Although in our active relation to the world we remain open in principle to transformation, there is nonetheless a certain solidification of perception such that we can reflexively experience our embodied selves in more or less consistent ways. What matters is the practical competence in relation to our material context that enables us to act appropriately prior to conscious reflection or intent. As I read to the end of a page, for example, I turn it without thought. Yet, even when our own bodies are taken as that of which we can be most certain, the finite mate- rial site of the bounded individual, and the point of interface with a social world, there remains a breach between self and body to the extent that the latter can betray us as that which is beyond logic and reason. Even in the phenomenologi- cal tradition of Merleau-Ponty which stresses in particular the unity of matter and mind expressed through the dynamic being-in-the-world of bodies, the healthy body – as I have analyzed in more detail elsewhere (Shildrick 1997) – far from being consistently present to us, is scarcely experienced at all. It is what Drew Leder (1990) refers to as ‘the absent body’. Once, however, it is broken – that is diseased, damaged or otherwise unwhole – the body forces itself into our con- sciousness and that comfortable absence is lost. The body is now perceived, but is experienced as other. As Leder puts it: ‘The body is no longer alien-as- forgotten, but precisely as re-membered, a sharp searing presence threatening the self ’ (1990: 91). In consequence, there is a sense in which embodiment, in being symbolically associated with the disruption of the subject, runs the same risk of being ontologically devalued, being seen as potentially monstrous, in phenome- nology as it does in more conventional philosophies. There is too a related problem in that despite the nature of embodiment being a fundamental component of phenomenology, the method nonetheless assumes as



standard a ‘normal’ model of corporeal development, and finds it difficult to theorise from the grossly disordered body. I don’t mean to suggest that the pheno- menological perspective has not already figured prominently in staging the onto- logical and epistemological consequences of corporeal anomalies – be they the result of illness, trauma or congenital disorders – but rather that the integrated and fully functioning body remains an implicit standard. In other words, marked dif- ferences in embodiment are seen a priori as deviations from a singular model rather than as equally valid alternatives. Clearly there are many corporeal forms which signal an acute loss of previous bodily integrity and corresponding func- tion, but in the case of congenital conditions in particular, negative comparison to a putative model of normality seems more a matter of disciplinary regulation and control than of pragmatic value. But what if the focus were on the ‘abnor- mal’, on the explicitly monstrous? At this point, it is not my intention to offer a phenomenological account, but just as feminist phenomenologists such as Iris Marion Young (1990b) and Ros Diprose (1994) have moved to disrupt the assumption of a gender-neutral, ageless and universalised body as the centre of lived experience, so too we may gain further insights by theorising non- normative morphology, not as a failure of form (inviting therapeutic modifica- tion), but as an-other way of being. The existence of monstrosity may serve to define by comparison and opposition the delimited corporeality and secure sub- jectivity of the majority, but what is important is the realisation that the standard is not normal but normative. The question that haunts the western imagination – ‘Who am I?’ – and its implicit companion – ‘Where did I come from?’ – has been answered conven- tionally by reference to a sense of self having a transcendent detachment from the material business of the world, or at least effective autonomy within it. To be a self is above all to be distinguished from the other, to be ordered and discrete, secure within the well-defined boundaries of the body rather than actually being the body. Although from time to time we may experience ourselves out-of-body, what rarely happens – and then it is defined as a special type of madness – is that we should either inhabit the body of another, or find our own bodies shared – invaded we would say – by another. 2 And while the narcissistic pleasure to be derived from perceiving our image from the outside, most commonly in the mirror, may also evoke the sensation of strangeness and misrecognition, it is the unfamiliarity of the material body and the space it occupies that strikes us, not the perception that another subject might occupy that body. In short, though the integration of mind and body may be contested by a western discourse of trans- cendent subjectivity, there are few doubts as to which minds and bodies go together. Self-identity may always and necessarily be a case of misrecognition as Lacan would say, but it is precisely the mapping of the boundaries between sin- gular selves and bodies and those of others that authorises our being-in-the-world as subjects. Moreover, the inherent exclusivity of such a closure is marked, as I have noted already, by the realisation that the sovereign ‘I’, who defines himself against the other, the non-self, describes an intrinsically masculine subject. Given that the western logos is at best ambivalent about the ontological status of the body, the putative split between mind and body that it puts into play has



not resulted in disinterest in or disengagement from questions of corporeal being. Contra Descartes, we are obsessed with bodies, such that the desire to know one- self, to establish identity, involves always both the interface between singular bodies and the ‘difficult, even intractable, relations between self and body’ (Epstein 1995: 4). To the extent that the western notion of subjectivity in general is both guaranteed and contested by those who do not, indeed cannot, unprob- lematically occupy the subject position, the self-present subject who defines him- self against all that is non-self need scarcely acknowledge his own corporeality. The assumption is that if sovereign minds are housed in appropriate bodies, then those who are ‘inappropriate/d others’ cannot occupy unproblematically the sub- ject position. It is not, then, normative morphology that engages the greatest attention, but those bodily forms – the monstrous, the physically vulnerable, the disabled, the congenitally different like conjoined twins or hermaphrodites 3 which most clearly challenge the distinctions both between mind and body and between body and body. In terms of modernist ontology, epistemology and ethics, the ideal parameters of thought and action in the social world point to an inviolable self/body that is secure, distinct, closed, and autonomous. In setting up a model of such invulner- ability, it is inevitable that for all of us there is a struggle to maintain the neces- sary boundaries, while for a substantial minority who experience some form of corporeal breakdown or congenital anomaly, the ideal is beyond reach. Despite such a plethora of antithetical lived forms, however, morphological difference continues to figure the monstrous. What happens, in effect, is that normative dis- course, which is propelled by the notion of discrete and autonomous sites of being and agency, sets itself against such a blurring of distinctions and attempts to maintain physical and moral detachment from those for whom the boundaries of embodied selfhood are uncertain or plainly breached. Now those lines of separa- tion are not merely symbolic, but are realised quite literally in the material of the body. Accordingly, as the most visible boundary of all, the skin is both the limit of the embodied self and the site of potentially transgressive psychic investments. In consequence, any compromise of the organic unity and self-completion of the skin may signal monstrosity. Many fairly common congenital conditions are counted as deformities precisely because they breach the external margins of the body. Spina bifida, cleft palate, and exomphalos, for example, are all the result of a lack of material closure, the more serious arising initially from the failure of the infolding primitive streak to establish ever new but securely consolidated bound- aries in the increasingly complex organisation of the early embryo. What is more notable, however, is that the non-normative development of the surface pheno- menon can be taken to denote, both in the present day and historically, a far more significant disturbance to the structure of being. One need only look at the many representations of the Monster of Cracow (Figure 3.1) – a sixteenth-century favourite displaying both excess and displace- ment – to appreciate how violently monstrosity might breach the borders of humanity. The human-born infant is beset not only with manifold excrescences which burst through the surface membrane, but by an inhuman mix of fur, horn, skin and scale. It is, in other words, indiscriminately transspecies in appearance.



52 EMBODYING THE MONSTER Figure 3.1 differentis (Licetus 1634) The Monster of Cracow in De monstrorum

Figure 3.1

differentis (Licetus 1634)

The Monster of Cracow in De monstrorum natura, caussis et

Moreover, the deformities constitute a multiplicity of additional orifices, the crea- ture being described as having apes’ faces instead of breasts, dogs’ heads at both elbows and knees, toads’ feet, and cats’ eyes under the navel (Bateman 1581: 337). The emphasis on the points of exchange between inner and outer marks the crea- ture’s monstrosity as a matter of being as much as of appearance. Although it plays no part in the Cracow monster’s form, it is perhaps worthy of note that racial difference too has often been reduced to a focus on the sites of the body where there is an open intersection between inside and outside. The attention given to the forms of the mouths, noses, breasts and genitalia 4 may well speak, in its concentration on erogenous zones, to an eroticisation of the racial other, but I would suggest that even more is at stake. As breaches in the body’s surfaces – points of vulnerability for us all – such sites, in their evident or supposed differ- ence, mark an uncertainty about the putatively self-contained human being. Moreover, as with the Monster of Cracow, their contaminatory potential is clear.



That unusual bodily form has a long history of provoking fear, repugnance and frequently condemnation is widely evidenced in a variety of western texts. I am not suggesting that those are the only responses, but rather that whatever other explanations and interests are predominant at any particular time and cultural location, there does seem to be a continuous thread of anxiety. The elision of ethi- cal and physical affronts to the norms of human being has its roots in classical antiquity. If Aristotelian virtue is that which strikes the harmonious balance between the vices of excess and deficiency, the very same characteristics by which Aristotle defines monstrosity, then it is a simple step to corporeal disorder inviting moral condemnation, and indeed the institutional, as well as individual, response of erasure. In his history of the monstrous races, for example, Friedman cites customary Roman Law which states: ‘A father shall immediately put to death a son recently born, who is a monster, or who has a form different from that of members of the human race’ (Friedman 1981: 179); while wonder books and broadside ballads give endless accounts of infants being destroyed at birth, some- times along with their mothers. As we have seen, for medieval Christianity with its belief in human descent from the bodily perfection of the single progenitor, Adam, morphological difference represented the corruption of the species either by miscegenation, or as a result of divine punishment for collective or individual sin. In Bateman’s account of the Monster of Cracow he makes clear that the crea- ture is born to ‘honest and gentle’ parents, thus allaying the suspicion of parental transgression. Nonetheless, as I indicated in Chapter 1, the monstrous birth has portentous value in that it warns of the general dangers of sin, and reminds the sixteenth-century viewers of the coming judgment of the Lord. And despite the partial turn in subsequent centuries towards more scientific forms of knowledge, those exist alongside a persistent belief that non-normative bodies of all kinds are marked by moral deficiency. Given the highly negative historical value accorded the monstrous, the term may be suppressed today as an explicit description whilst still functioning impli- citly in relation to those whose bodies transgress normative standards. The infer- ence that people with disease or disabilities are morally at fault is clearly evident in the blame and stigma attached, for example, to cancer and subsequently to HIV/AIDS in the twentieth century (Sontag 1990). In the case of AIDS in particu- lar, the initial widespread public reception of the condition as figuring a gay plague, from which blameless heterosexuals were exempt, speaks to the notion that those affected were paying for sins in their past. The disruption of corporeal integrity and the open display of bodily vulnerability is always a moment for anx- iety and very often for hostility. Where disabled people in contemporary devel- oped societies are, more generally, accorded all sorts of legal and social rights which overtly challenge discrimination against them, there is nevertheless a per- sistent unease occasioned by corporeal difference. That such differences are more likely to be addressed by measures that are designed to minimise or cover over their effects, rather than by full acknowledgment of them, does little to allay dis-ease. It is as though the characteristic split between mind and body that marks modernist discourse enables us to bracket out the lived materiality of the flesh, especially when it threatens our sense of what Kristeva calls ‘the self ’s clean and



proper body’ (1982: 71). Yet the divisions which operate between body and body and between mind and body are under pressure from the very liminality of the monster – in whatever form it might take – and by its refusal to stay in the place of the other. For all that the monster may be cast as a figure vulnerable in its own right by reason of its own lack of fixed form and definition and its putative status as an outsider, what causes anxiety is that it threatens to expose the vulnerability at the heart of the ideal model of body/self. Although we might think of the Monster of Cracow, for example, as a semi- mythological construct that stands in contradistinction to the ‘natural’ possibili- ties of the human body, it should be recalled that techne is never absent from the construction of monsters, and indeed from bodies more generally. As a model of the proper in which everything is in its place and the chaotic aspects of the natural are banished, the so-called normal and natural body – and particularly its smooth and closed up surface – always remains to be realised. The task, as Bakhtin describes it, is one of normalisation: ‘That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts or branches off…is eliminated, hidden, or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade’ (1984: 320). In short, the normal body is materialised through a set of reiterative practices that speak to the instability and leakiness of the singular standard. The monster, then, rather than being simply an instance of otherness, reminds us always of what must be abjected from the self’s clean and proper body. Even the Monster of Cracow’s gross violation of external order, its suturing together of surfaces that should remain apart, its excrescences and ori- fices that ‘lead […] beyond the body’s limited space or into the body’s depths’ (Bakhtin 1984: 318) cannot disguise its claim on the human. It remains a figure of both horror and fascination. And as Kristeva (1982) makes clear, the abject is never completely externalised: alongside their external manifestation, monsters leave a trace embedded within. In collapsing the distinctions between self and other, monsters constitute an undecidable absent presence at the heart of human being. The monstrous may of course be the openly crafted result of techno-organic creation like Haraway’s cyborg (1990), or of intentionally transgressive conjunc- tions and displacements of body parts, as in the novel Geek Love (Dunn 1989), but for the remainder of this chapter I want to look at the epistemological and ontological status of wholly organic, unquestionably human, beings whose dif- ference is always already evident. The monstrosity they evidence is not, then, the result of accident, degeneration or disease, nor yet of self-willed modification, but rather the very condition of life. Nonetheless, such congenital monstrosity – especially as it pertains to my later focus on conjoined twins – facilitates an understanding of the processes of normalisation that underpin the so-called natural body. As I understand it, the concept of corporeal modification implies reference to a biological given that might be denaturalised, or at very least to the notion of a standard morphology which might then be altered or transgressed. But once such a standard of bodyliness is understood as an impossible ideal in itself – as something to be achieved rather than as a given – then it makes good sense to take the monstrous as the starting point rather than the end point of any enquiry



into the lived body. I shall be looking, then, at the issue of body modification as an intervention into the always already unstable corpus, whereby what is intended is not the practice of transgression, but is on the contrary a matter of managing – often clinically – what is inherently unruly. It is a process of normalisation, albeit one fraught with anxieties. The clinical encounter, then, though putatively directed towards the relief of supposedly fragile bodies – those affected by viral illnesses, disabilities, or the breakdown of auto-immunity, for example – is at least as much concerned with the restoration of normative forgetfulness. Indeed, it is hardly the broken body that is fragile and vulnerable, though clearly that may be perceived as monstrous – as the metaphors of cancer and AIDS in particular make clear – but the ‘normal’ body itself. Although the monstrosity of chronic disease or disability overtly undermines any notion of a securely embodied subject, that ordinary body is not given, but is always an achievement. It is a body that requires constant main- tenance and/or modification to hold off the ever-present threat of disruption: extra digits are excised at birth, tongues are shortened in Down’s Syndrome children, noses are reshaped, warts removed, prosthetic limbs fitted, ‘healthy’ diets recom- mended, HRT prescribed. And in such cases, it is the unmodified body which is seen as unnatural, in need of ‘corrective’ interventions. In short, the normal body is materialised through a set of reiterative practices that speak to the instability of the singular standard. That the standard may be achieved, or at least approxi- mated, by material intervention is of course highly dependent on levels of tech- nological expertise developed during the last hundred years, but there is already evident in historical texts an understanding that regular morphology could not be simply taken for granted. Writing in the seventeenth century, Thomas Bedford argued that what is demonstrated by ‘monstrous and misfeatured births’ is ‘that it is a singular mercy of God when the births of the womb are not misformed, when they receive their fair and perfect feature’ (1635: n.p.). In the modern day we are less likely to attribute flawless morphology to God, but we may well expect the gynaecologist or surgeon to eliminate or tidy up any defects which offend against the narrow canons of normality. The construction and maintenance of the self’s clean and proper body is not, however, a matter of material practice alone, but is fully imbricated with the dis- cursive mechanisms that constitute psychic unity. As I have indicated already, the security of human being is unsettled constantly by what Kristeva calls the abject, which she defines as: ‘what disturbs identity, system and order. What does not respect boundaries, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the com- posite’ (1982: 4). Human monsters, then, both fulfil the necessary function of the binary opposite that confirms the normality and centrality of the accultured self, and at the same time threaten to disrupt that binary by being all too human. Although the monstrous may provoke both the fascination and horror accorded the absolute other, that response is never unproblematic, but spills over into the anxiety and repulsion which is occasioned by the violation of internal order. And as Kristeva makes clear, that which is abjected is never completely externalised. It is, then, in their failure to wholly and only occupy the place of the other that such monsters betray the fragility of the distinctions by which the human subject



is fixed and maintained as fully present to itself and autonomous. In collapsing the boundaries between self and other, monsters constitute an undecidable absent presence at the heart of human being. Alongside their external manifestation, they also leave a trace embedded within, that, in Derridean terms, operates as the signi- fier not of difference but of différance. What is at stake throughout is the risk of indifferentiation. In illustration of the operation and force of such theoretical con- siderations, I want to look specifically at a set of embodied forms which radically challenge normative standards of human selfhood. The phenomenon of conjoined twins has been recorded throughout history, and it is estimated that, even prior to the development of present day surgical tech- niques of separation, several hundred have lived to adulthood. 5 As a thread that runs through the socio-history of monstrosity and teratology, the material mani- festation of the body that is not one – whether as functioning adults or dying neonates – demands specific epistemological and ontological reflection in which the issue of the boundaries of subjecthood, and in earlier periods of a soul, is particularly acute. I will leave aside the very many recorded instances of the sup- posed conjunction of human and animal bodies, to concentrate on what remains to this day an area of deep-seated fascination. Unlike the hybrid variety which leaves room for a wholly exclusionary approach, the incidence of corporeal doubling in which both bodies are visibly human is highly disruptive to western notions of individual agency and personal identity. Rather than such twins being absolutely other to ourselves – and that response as I have indicated is in any case finally untenable – they are in effect the manifestation of the mirroring process that underlies and founds identity in the doubling of the selfsame (Lacan 1977a). Textual evidence suggests that conjoined twins have always counted among the monstrous, though their portentous value was sometimes positive rather than nega- tive. 6 Although most undoubtedly died at birth or soon after, they are often por- trayed in archival texts as fully formed children or adults, thus throwing up not simply the urgent question of which twin has the soul, but also whether one or both should be considered autonomous persons. Medieval and early modern theo- logians adopted a kind of fail-safe with regard to baptism, which required the priest to baptise one, and then turn to the other head or body with the words: ‘If you are baptised, I do not baptise you, but if you are not yet baptised, I baptise you’ (quoted in Friedman 1981: 180). It remains unclear how great a degree of sepa- ration was required for the formula to be invoked, but the doubling of limbs alone was not sufficient. Excess is merely monstrous, whereas the conjunction of that which could and should be separate invites and requires discursive normalisation. The significance of morphology, and the relationship between the body and the subject is put centre stage by the wide range of forms that conjoined twins may take. The simplest from the point of view of understanding them as separate indi- viduals are those whose bodies appear relatively self-complete externally, albeit joined by fleshy material and shared circulation, though they might also lack two complete sets of internal organs. The anomaly of conjunction is overridden in such cases by the commonsense judgement that in all other respects such twins are two autonomous beings. The famous nineteenth-century Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, for example, were indeed sufficiently independent of each other



THE SELF’S CLEAN AND PROPER BODY 57 Figure 3.2 (Source unknown) Chang and Eng, the Siamese

Figure 3.2

(Source unknown)

Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, photographed in 1860

to contract marriage to two sisters and for each to father several children. The conjunction of Chang and Eng was relatively simple, consisting of a five-inch band of cartilaginous material between their chests, with the liver as the only shared internal organ – although even that was not apparent until post-mortem examination (Figure 3.2). Although surgical intervention was considered and rejected as too dangerous, it is not surprising that they were each accorded full social and legal identity. Nonetheless, despite such strategies of normalisation, the unmodified corporeal excessiveness of the twins’ condition labelled them as freaks, who existed only as a unit, and they were frequently exhibited as such. The fascination for the viewing public, and for the wider media who followed Chang and Eng throughout their long life, was the simultaneous possibility of objectifying them as the monstrous other and identifying with them – in their role



as upright American citizens – as the same. The twins themselves on the one hand endured conjunction and are known to have insisted on the semblance of auto- nomy, by maintaining two marital households for example, yet on the other they were so identified with one another that the idea of separation is said to have filled them with dread. The perception that separation is in the best interests of conjoined twins rests on the prior assumption that two distinct persons with distinct identities have, as it were, become trapped in a single morphology. Whatever the visual form, there is an overriding need to find distinctive selves. As Hillel Schwartz writes: ‘That it or he or she or they might be neither exactly one nor exactly two [is] too logi- cally distressing or emotionally unsatisfying to be true’ (1996: 52). In the non- clinical sphere, even a writer as non-judgmental as Fiedler seems to concur with the common cultural anxiety of losing individuality. Of Chang and Eng he remarks, ‘nothing but death could deliver them from this lifelong bondage’ (1981: 217); and of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined vaudeville and film stars of the early twentieth century, ‘they remained slaves to each other to the end of their lives’ (1981: 209). Modern medicine wholly reflects such attitudes, and the issue of surgical intervention and modification is taken as settled in principle, and subject only to technical feasibility, as though there is nothing at stake except an inappropriate body. But what is not taken into account is the complex inter- relationship of body and self, the phenomenological sense of being-in-the-world, in which corporeal extension is indivisible from subjecthood and identity. In short, there is no clear distinction to be made between corporeal exteriority and psychical interiority. Nonetheless, in western discourse, the evident privileging of singularity and autonomy implicitly premised on the bodily separation, and the value accorded bodily self-determination combine to erase any consideration that there might be other ways of being. I am not suggesting that conjoined twins, and others whose morphology defies normative categories of embodiment, should be denied personhood; rather it is the defining parameters of the self, still more of the subject, that are inadequate to embodied difference. Moreover, the ques- tion of identity, which is commonly taken to indicate what is the unique core of each person, may equally well express that which is the same. In any case, if, as Merleau-Ponty (1964) asserts, identity is realised only as the lived body is immersed in the lived bodies of others, then concorporation is scarcely hostile to that model. In contrast, the dominant discourse of the singular and bounded subject, together with the privileging of corporeal self-completion, where exclusive property rights in one’s own body stage the meeting with the other, enact a closure that suspends more open and ambiguous modes of exis- tence. Though in the majority of cases the drive is to see conjoined twins as two persons, it might be more appropriate to say instead that the symbolic distinction between self and other that is taken to found identity in difference is deferred by the persistence of identification. For conjoined twins, the other-self is indivisible, not just as a facet of early infanthood, but as the very texture of experiential being. And where in general the Lacanian mirror stage marks ‘the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity’ (1977a: 4) and inaugurates an illusory corpo- real integrity and singularity, 7 for conjoined twins the undecidable other-self is



figured in a very different kind of reflection. The (mis)recognition of the mirror stage is in a sense the permanent condition of such twins, with the evident dif- ference that in that moment they may refuse identity in its symbolic sense and choose identification. What conjoined twins have in common with other monozy- gotic twins is not that they are visually identical, for many are not, but that they cannot be told apart. For external observers, the incommon materiality of such twins disconcerts the discriminating gaze, but what is equally confusing is that they may, in both types, experience a kind of internal merging. 8 Given that twin studies have often been notorious for their question-begging assertions of mental and behavioural coincidence which seem to point to some peculiar quasi-telepathic power, they should be approached with some caution. Dorothy Burlingham’s psychoanalytically based study (1952), for example, which followed the lives of three sets of identical twins in a wartime boarding nursery over a period of many months, is rigorous in its observation of behaviour, without ever adequately addressing the issue of whether family-based pairs might produce different results. In being separated from their mothers, it seems highly likely that close siblings would forge substitute relationships with each other in which both intense love and hate formed a large part. Burlingham does record, nevertheless, an exceptional number of instances where an individual twin seems genuinely uncertain as to his or her own unique identity. Mirror images are espe- cially confusing to them. Most telling of all is that despite episodes of intense anger and (self ) rejection, all the twins are unable to cope with separation. Burlingham herself is in no doubt that the twin relationship is every bit as impor- tant as the mother–child bond. Even though some of it may be scientifically dubi- ous, there is here and elsewhere plenty of evidence that monozygotic twins in general habitually blur the boundaries between one and the other – simultane- ously thinking the same thoughts, making the same choices, speaking together as one – and it should not be surprising that conjoined twins, who share experiential being, do not make the separations that are commonly taken for granted. 9 If being-in-the-world, and still less identity, is not a given, then might not a differ- ent morphology ground other ontological and ethical relationships between self and other? In non-autobiographical accounts of conjoined twins, both modern historical and contemporary, the one consistent factor that overrides differences in morpho- logy is the reiteration of their essential separateness. 10 Clinical understanding is far from decisive, however, and as the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: ‘(s)uch double malformations probably arise following the less than complete separation of the halves of the early embryo, or from partial separation at later stages’ (New Encyclopaedia Britannica 1992: 367). What this suggests to me is a difference between putative twins who remain anomalously joined at birth, and a putative singleton whose body has unfortunately begun to divide prenatally. What is at stake with the latter case is perhaps even more ontologically disruptive than the former, and I have yet to see the implications of such specificity addressed. Instead, the question with regard to all conjoined twins is rarely if they should be separated, but rather how and how soon. As Schwartz puts it: ‘The pressure to cleave them is not narrowly medical; it is broadly cultural’ (1996: 61). The



expected birth of conjoined twins in Manchester in 1996 was, for example, the occasion for a spate of articles reviewing similar cases and looking at the prospects of the present pair. Most telling of all were the attempts of the prospec- tive parents to normalise the birth. The father is quoted as saying: ‘We have made up our minds to look on the bright side and focus on having two lovely girls who will eventually lead normal separate lives’ (Guardian 11 October 1996: 5, my emphasis). Quite clearly, and understandably, he and the medical advisers could conceive of the twins’ lives only as being on hold until they were separated, stripped as it were of their power to disrupt. So deeply is the ideal of corporeal and mental autonomy written into the western understanding of what it is to be a person, that any suggestion that the infants could function as a merged unit was swiftly rejected. Even a sympathetic observer such as the attending paediatric surgeon was constrained to find signs of independent personhood: ‘They are exploring each other, each touching the other, sparring away with their tiny hands’, while a clearly unsympathetic reporter interprets the same behaviour as ‘involving struggle, discomfort and distress for each half of this bizarre whole’ (Observer 17 October 1996: 12). A similar emphasis is evident in a recent television documentary entitled Separate Lives (BBC TV 1999). The programme focuses on a pair of Pakistani twins, Hira and Nida, who, we are told and shown, are joined at the scalp in such a way that they are unable to stand upright. Right from the beginning the com- mentary sets the tone with the assurance that ‘they had come halfway across the world…for the chance of a normal life’. The stress on such factors cannot but carry, I feel, certain racist overtones both in terms of the superior civilisation of the west, and in the implicit allusion to the racialised chain of being that moves from apes through stooping black bodies to the upstanding white figure, which in turn evokes the Christian notion of the human being as ‘upright, erect’. In con- tradistinction to the acceptance shown by the girls’ mother who expresses her joy at seeing them laugh and play together, and their father when he says ‘I see them as one life that God has given to two children’, the Canadian neurosurgeon who examines the twins treats them primarily as a clinical problem, albeit one with an interwoven but unacknowledged value judgement: ‘There’s a possibility of cut- ting this into two normal children’ (my emphasis). Ironically his desire to con- struct ‘normal functioning’ is spoken over shots of the twins playing happily with building bricks, just as other children of their age might do. In the view of the medical specialists, however, the strain on the kidneys and the heart in ‘Hira’s’ body which are doing the work for both twins is sufficient in itself to justify sur- gical intervention. In the absence of any real discussion of the ethical issues of separation surgery itself, the major question that they must consider is the bioethi- cal and legal one of whether Hira, as a child, can donate a living organ (a kidney) to her sister. This is indeed a pertinent consideration, which raises the issue of whether the twins can be regarded as one or two, but it is couched in the charac- teristically western terms of the ownership of body parts. As an audience we are implicitly invited to empathise with the professionals’ dilemma in their treatment of a perplexing vulnerability in the body of the other, but not to reflect on the phenomenological difference of such a body. When Nida fails to survive



separation (‘her brain was not enough…to keep her alive as an individual’), the commentary reassures viewers, without any sense of doubt, that Hira is thriving. The clear implication is that where no properly constituted subject could exist in the unmodified twin body, at least there is now one. 11 I want now to look in greater detail at the story of the Irish conjoined twins, Katie and Eilish, whose early childhood and subsequent separation features in two television documentaries shown initially in 1993 and 1995. The twins’ body is merged from the upper thoracic area, giving them just two legs and two func- tioning arms – with two other residual upper limb stumps having been already excised in the expectation of future separation surgery. There are separate hearts and lungs, but all other organs are single. What is at stake throughout for both the parents and the medical team is how best to balance the risk of separation – and it is made clear that the twins’ degree of conjunction exceeds any in which sur- gical intervention has been previously attempted – with the normative desire that each should have a functionally autonomous existence. The issue of corporeal normalisation, is, however, clearly distinct from a more complex and contradic- tory understanding of what constitutes normality in the specific case of the twins. For the parents, Katie and Eilish already operate as two ‘normal’ children, hav- ing individual personalities which they do much to encourage; while for his part, the consultant surgeon is constrained to stress that he cannot promise the twins a ‘normal’ life if they are separated. The characteristic western split between mind and body is mirrored in the assumption of an existential normality that is merely obstructed by the abnormal morphology of the children. As they are not one, then they must become two. The voice-over suggestion that ‘although we value indi- viduality, they might not value it. They might prefer togetherness’ (Yorkshire Television 1993: Katie and Eilish: Siamese Twins) is, then, both a disturbing glimpse of other ways of being, and a reminder of what the normative regime of individuality must repudiate. Although at that moment the commentary may reveal an unresolved tension in our response to the normative operation of self and other, its reflection of a nos- talgia for togetherness does not challenge what we take to be a developmentally necessary split. It is not, I think, that there is any recognition that the concorpo- ration of the twins might speak to new and more fluid forms of embodied sub- jectivity, but rather that the ideal of the autonomous subject is contested by the twins’ concurrent and co-operative intentionality. Their successful negotiation of their environment largely depends on their acting as one, even in such small mat- ters as unscrewing a bottle. Nonetheless, the sense that being-in-the-world might imbricate with body and environment is not explored; to those who must decide their future, the discrete subjectivities of the twins are already given and simply awaiting release. The twins’ embodiment is, then, a monstrous insult to the norms of human corporeality, an other mode of being that defies the binary of sameness and difference into which medical intervention is designed to recuperate them. Although both parents and doctors are sensitive to the implicitly ethical question of potentially disrupting the twins’ current contentment, the phenomenological and epistemological questions remain unexplored in the face of an overriding concern with the material risks of surgery. Following a visit to some ‘successfully’



separated conjoined twins, matters of procedure become paramount. The operation is undertaken with some real confidence, but although Eilish recovers, Katie unexpectedly dies. The point of turning to this often very moving narrative is not so much to cri- tique the current medical practice – for in this case the participants, whether detached professionals or closest family, are all properly caring and reflective 12 but to illustrate the power of ontological anxiety. Against the corporeal exces- siveness of Katie and Eilish, the attempt to radically reconstruct their bodies speaks eloquently to the notions of closure and containment assumed to be at the heart of being. What is finally unacceptable about the twins is not the degree of their disability – and indeed it is uncertain that a successful outcome would have increased function – but the ambiguity of their concorporation. For all the dis- cursive efforts to normalise their life in terms of assigning dual individuality, it remains undecidable whether they are one or two. In contrast, the conventional understanding of the only proper form of subjectivity requires a clarity of bound- aries between self and other, an affective and effective autonomy that is fully realised only by singular embodiment. Despite the death of Katie, then, the father of the twins is constrained to justify the operation by remarking on the surviving twin’s enhanced quality of life after separation: ‘She’s free of being joined to another human-being’ (Yorkshire Television 1995: Eilish: Life without Katie). In fashioning Eilish’s body so that she may comply with normative ideals, she is realised as an intelligible subject, and a body that matters. The impossibility of the ideal is made clear, however, in the acknowledgment that for Eilish, body modification must be continued throughout life: her prosthetic leg and body harness must be periodically replaced to ensure scopic normalisation. It is ironic that although no-one seems able to articulate the real extent of Eilish’s corporeal disruption, the doctor worries that in losing her first prosthesis, she will think some part of her is being taken away. For her own part Eilish renames her new leg ‘Katie’, in recognition of the absent presence of her self/other. The phenomenological specificity of concorporate being-in-the-world is addressed by no adult in the films, except perhaps in the psychologist’s half- recognition that Katie is still incorporated into the life of her surviving twin. At bedtime, Eilish gets what she calls her ‘Katie kisses’, but even that observation is normalised in the remark that the ritual happens ‘in a healthy way, not in any way that is holding Eilish back’ (YTV 1995). That implicit rewriting of the twin rela- tionship as obstructive is reiterated in an interchange between Eilish and her sisters. When asked what she remembers of her sister, Eilish replies: ‘She used to bring me round everywhere’, only to be interrupted by an older sibling who declares: ‘Eilish couldn’t go wherever she wanted.’ What matters to the family is that Eilish should be well adjusted, and indeed, despite the four months spent in hospital post-operatively in which she is described as traumatised, she does appear happy and talkative in the second documentary shot over the next two years. For her parents, her social and physical recovery is a matter of relief, but it is evident too that for Eilish herself, the splitting of her (subject) body has produced an effect somewhat akin to the phenomenon of the phantom limb. As Merleau-Ponty explains it, to experience such a phantom is to remain open



to the presence of what is lost (1962: 80–6). The wound she experiences, unacknowledged, is as much psychical as material, a severe disruption to the uni- fied, albeit imaginary, body map that founds the ego. 13 When Teresa, the elder sister, says of Katie, ‘She had freckles’, the response from Eilish is both confused and defiant: ‘So did I, so do I, [pushes Teresa], I still do.’ Katie both is and is not there, a shifting body memory and continued inscription on the flesh of her twin. What these stories emphasise is a dominant postEnlightenment discourse in which our psychic investment in the corporeal is covered over by the illusion that the body is merely instrumental, a source only of impediment or advantage to the subject. Biomedicine in particular proceeds on the basis that any intervention into the materiality of the body can be divorced from the patient’s own sense of self and from her phenomenological engagement with the world. The clarity of corpo- real boundaries is what grounds existential and moral personhood, while the meeting with the other is premised on bodily self-determination and property rights in one’s own body. The conjunction of two consciousnesses is charac- terised only in terms of a meeting of self and other, properly mediated by contract or the calculation of individual best interests. What separation surgery attempts then – aside from cases where it is medically indicated to preserve life – is a reconstitution of autonomous subjecthood as the only proper way of being in the world. In a move that strongly calls to mind Foucault’s theorisation of assujet- tissement, it is the very subjection of the body to the forces of normalisation which enables the emergence of the subject herself. 14 But for conjoined twins, the other is also the self – a transgressive and indeterminate state in which corporeal, ontological and ultimately ethical boundaries are distorted and dissolved. As Clark and Myser put it, the assumption is ‘that conjoined life, precisely because of its imagined phenomenological unintelligibility must be intolerable’ (1996: 351). And one might add, intolerable to society rather than to the twins themselves. There is no sense here that corporeality might constitute the subject, only that a somehow foundational subject – or rather two – is thwarted by a monstrous body. I want finally to look briefly at other forms of concorporate twins whose monstrous bodies do not afford the contemplation, theoretical or material, of sep- aration into self and other, although less radical modification may be possible. The horror of losing one’s singular identity to a parasitic other is a powerful motif in monster narratives of all kinds, and is, Judith Halberstam claims in her book Skin Shows, paramount within the genre of Gothic monster fiction. What the trope of parasitism expresses is an ever present threat within, ‘an internal not an external danger that Gothic identifies and attempts to dispel’ (Halberstam 1995:

15). It is a moment of semiotic confusion in which inner and outer are indistin- guishable, bodies are both doubled and diminished, and meanings flow into one another. In non-literary sources, the same concerns are in operation with regard to concorporation, particularly in extreme instances. Of the cases of monstrous excess considered here, one is specifically called parasitic twinning where the very naming speaks to a putative insult to an ideal of bodily self-determination; the other concerns the mirroring of heads on a singular body. 15 In both instances the infants involved survived birth and lived for several years in a state of mon- strosity. The appearances of the seventeenth-century Coloredo brothers – the



64 EMBODYING THE MONSTER Figure 3.3 Magazine (1777) Lazarus and John Baptista Coloredo from The Gentlemen’s

Figure 3.3

Magazine (1777)

Lazarus and John Baptista Coloredo from The Gentlemen’s

wholly formed Lazarus, and his parasitic twin John Baptista – are extremely well documented in popular histories, contemporary ballads and official documents (Figure 3.3). Although for the most part they were viewed benignly as marvels, the existence of so extraordinary a body raised worrying questions. The follow- ing is an account from a pamphlet of 1640 referring to Lazarus, who:

from one of his sides hath a twin brother growing, which was borne with him, and liv- ing still; though having sence and feeling, yet destitute of reason and understanding:

whence methinks a disputable question might arise, whether[,] as they have distinct lives, so they are possessed of two souls; or have but one imparted betwixt them both. (1640 A Certain Relation of the Hog-faced Gentlewoman quoted in Rollins 1927: 8)

The second case was even more extraordinary, the more so in that the child involved survived until he was four years old, when he was killed, reputedly, by



THE SELF’S CLEAN AND PROPER BODY 65 Figure 3.4 the Royal Society 80 (1790) The Bengali

Figure 3.4

the Royal Society 80 (1790)

The Bengali Boy (Basire) from The Philosophical Transactions of

a cobra bite. The so-called Bengali boy was born with two heads – not unusual within the context of conjoined twins, except that the second head grew not from his neck but was attached upside down and back-to-front on the top of the child’s scalp (Figure 3.4). The bone casing of the craniopagus skull, as it was known, was fused where crown met crown and, as a contemporary post-mortem report to the Royal Society put it, ‘the two brains were…separate and distinct, having a complete partition between them’ (Home 1790). Moreover, the bodiless head during life was not in itself unusual in appearance, having well-formed facial fea- tures, ears, and a crop of hair, and separate affect. Nonetheless, the anxiety that such an occurrence might be expected to generate was effaced by regarding the skull, not as the site of contested subjecthood, but merely as an object of biomedical enquiry. The significance of the craniopagus skull to the British scientific community of the day was not, as it might have been in the past, an occasion for reflection on the notion of maternal imagination – though the initial report from the East India Company was clearly obliged to assert that the mother had suffered no fright or accident during her pregnancy – but rather as ammuni- tion in a wholly medicalised controversy regarding the process of evolutionary development. As Evelleen Richards notes in her detailed analysis of that debate:



‘historical monsters…may be understood at one and the same time both as anatomical objects and as the embodiments of different strategies of power’ (1994: 405). In her understanding of what she calls ‘political anatomy’ Richards is reluctant to pursue a Foucauldian deconstruction of what she sees as ‘concrete historical events’, but nonetheless her account does point up the discursive con- struction of the meanings inscribed on the monstrous body. The widespread scientific interest excited by the craniopagus skull, which became and remains a prize exhibit in the Hunterian Museum, indicates too that by the rationalist mid- eighteenth century, monsters were – as before – a primary ground for competing discourses, but stripped now of questions of personal agency. For my own part, however, I want to return to those very questions. If the issue of subjectivity or identity is at very least problematised in the indis- tinct corporeality of those conjoined twins with two relatively well-formed bodies, both internal and external, or more remarkably where two heads append the same body, then it is radically challenged by such incomplete instances of doubling. In her essay entitled ‘Freaks’, Liz Grosz remarks: ‘it is no longer clear that there are two identities, even if the bodily functions of the parasitic twin occur independently of the will or awareness of the other. In such cases, is there one subject or two?’ (1991: 34). The question haunts the historical accounts of the cases I have mentioned. Contemporary descriptions of the Coloredo brothers often touch on such a point, and, like the distinctive affect of the two heads of the Bengali boy which Everard Home recorded, make frequent reference to the inde- pendent physical sensitivity of the parasitic body. The inherent confusion of embodied identity is apparent in William Turner’s depiction which describes first the ‘little brother’:

his left foot alone hung downwards; he had two Arms, only three Fingers upon each Hand: Some appearance there was of the Secret Parts; he moved his Hands, Ears, and Lips, and had a little beating in the Breast. This little Brother voided no Excrements but by the Mouth, Nose, and Ears, and is nourished by that which the greater takes: He has distinct Animal and Vital parts from the greater; since he sleeps, sweats, and moves, when the other wakes, rests, and sweats not….Lazarus is of a just Stature, a decent Body, courteous Deportment, and gallantly Attired; he covers the Body of his Brother with his Cloak: Nor could you think a Monster lay within at your first Discourse with him. (Turner 1697: Chap. 8, 8)

What marks a difference between the two cases, however, is that whereas the Coloredos are always referred to and named as two distinct people, and indeed each was baptised according to report, the Bengali boy is already singular. Although surgical intervention was not a possibility in either case, a discursive normalisation of the excessive subject has taken place. That the singularity of all subject bodies is similarly constructed and reiterated by regimes of normalisation that defer the slippage of excessive embodiment is obscured by the insistence that monstrosity is radically other, the exceptional case that secures the norma- tive standard. So what type of subjectivity or identity could fit such a range of differences, and how does the monstrous corporeality of my examples imbricate with the sense of self? Where Liz Grosz, in her paper ‘Freaks’ (1991), posits a continuum of



identity – ranging from the autonomous, self-complete and individuated subject, which western discourse assumes as the standard for all, to a non-differentiated, quasi-collective subject in which the symbolic moment of distinction between self and other is endlessly deferred – I am inclined to caution. The desire for full self-presence is, I think, never realised, and results only in a phantasmatic struc- ture of subjectivity. As I understand it, monsters both define the limits of the singular embodied subject, and reflect our own ultimately insecure and unstable identities. As Rosi Braidotti puts it: ‘the monstrous other is both liminal and structurally central to our perception of normal human subjectivity’ (1996: 141). And it is the move to forcibly impose the norm of one body/one mind, the move to erase difference either by exclusion or by processes of normalisation, that underlines the instability of the ideal. Where monsters blatantly blur the para- meters of being, they invoke in us all – and this seems particularly true of the doubling of twinned bodies – both a nostalgia for identification and the horror of incorporation. They demonstrate that the relation between self and other, as with body and body, is chiasmatic, precisely insofar as corporeality and subjectivity – body and mind – are themselves folded back into each other, overflowing, enmeshed and mutually constitutive. Though bodily modification may hope to avert the overtly transgressive, its very practice alerts us to the crisis at the boundaries of the body which is never one. As the in-between, as différance, the monstrous shows us that neither the one nor the two is proof against deconstruction. Promise and risk lie equally in the move beyond/before – it is undecidable – the one that determines ontological and corporeal unity, or the two that mark difference as opposition and relationship as the quasi-contractual exchange between autonomous beings. It is the necessarily incomplete abjection of monstrosity that guards against the successful closure of what Derrida has called ‘an illegitimately delimited subject’ (1991b:

108). If, then, such closure is merely a myth of modernity, the attempted limita- tion of the monstrous body by both surgical and discursive means is doubly doomed to failure. Rather than attempting to recuperate the monstrous, might we not refigure it as an alternative, but equally valuable, mode of being, an alterity that throws doubt on the singularity of the human and signals other less restric- tive possibilities? As such the monster might be the promising location of a reconceived ontology, and an ethics centred on a relational economy that has a place for radical difference.



In the last chapter, I outlined the extent to which the western ideal of the self’s clean and proper body with its attributes of integrity, closure and autonomy is in a sense as imaginary as the monsters that threaten it. Nonetheless, the strength of the normative standard is so powerful that our society is constrained to go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate a clear distinction between what is considered normal and acceptable, and what is abnormal and intolerable. It is not the case that what constitutes the standard remains static over a period of time, but that, despite a certain fluidity of definition, there remains always an oppositional rela- tionship between the relevant categories of self and other, human and animal, normal and abnormal, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Moreover, for all that the ideal is reiter- ated both discursively and materially, it fails continually to exclude the tensions and slippages that point to a very different model of embodied being. Within modernist paradigms, however, stubbornly founded as they are on a binary struc- ture that shapes epistemology, ontology and ethics alike, the force of denial directed both at the radically other that cannot be subsumed by the binary, and at the excessive elements that threaten to burst out of the model of the same, creates an illusion of stability. Above all, vulnerability must be managed, covered over in the self, and repositioned as a quality of the other. And yet for all its putative lack of integrity and closure, that same other – monstrously embodied – poses the greatest risk to the self’s clean and proper body. In view of the lack of definition, and the potential leakiness across borders, the monstrous body is not just deviant in itself, but is characteristically metaphorised as dangerously contagious, capa- ble of spreading its own confusion of identity. The function of the gaze, then, is in part to arrest such a process by fixing the other at a safe distance, but even so, the monstrous is no respecter of boundaries. In this chapter, I want to build on an autobiographical moment that illustrates the implausibility of constructing a self untouched by, and invulnerable to, the monstrous other. Some time ago in Dublin, while I was researching representational forms of historical monsters, I visited the highly regarded Gallery of Photography to see a new exhibition by Karl Grimes. Still Life records the chance visit by Grimes to the specimen room of an Italian hospital at which he was working on a different project. The exhibition comprised a couple of dozen large photographic portraits of late foetal and neonatal infant bodies with gross congenital deformities, of whom most were preserved in vast glass containers, in some cases after partial dissection. There were several concorporate twins, and many bodies with hydro- cephalic disorders, exposed spines, or other gaping orifices, their corporeal



borders dis-integrated. In clinical terms they would be classed as monsters, in lay terms as freaks. The collection was deeply disturbing; it touched me and many others who saw it. As might be expected, some of the press reviews constructed the staging of Still Life as exploitative, voyeuristic, as something that should not be put on public show. It was as though the aw(e)ful vulnerability of those bodies put us, the viewers, at risk, as though they were contagious. But that was and is to miss the point. The encounter with the others who define our own boundaries of normality must inevitably disturb for they are both irreducibly strange and disconcertingly familiar, both opaque and reflective. They enable us to recognise ourselves; they are our own abject. As Grimes (1998) himself notes, ‘Images of what we have denied turn towards us’. And once the initial shock of confronting what is usually excluded had passed, I found myself not repulsed, but moved to tears by the unaccountable beauty of the bodies. Beyond the marks of a violent and violating science that were evident in their confinement, both mate- rially to specimen jars, and discursively to the category of abnormality, it was possible to acknowledge a siblingship which claims us all (Figure 4.1). 1 Is it possible, then, to theorise these autobiographical moments in the inter- locking context of vulnerability and contagion without betraying the shock of recognition? Among the several meanings of the word ‘contagion’ – all of which are deeply negative in their import – is the notion of a disease process spread by touch, or even by proximity. We understand that a contaminated object is one to be avoided or kept at a safe distance, lest we too become affected, our bodies opened up to the forces of disintegration. Our well-being, our very lives, are dependent then on the maintenance of a self-protective detachment, an interval not only between ourselves and evidently dangerous others – be they microbes, parasites, or infected human bodies – but also between ourselves and the mere potential of risk. Contagion is a familiar term in medical discourse, and at the macro level, public health, for example, relies, in large part, on the success of epide- miological measures designed not simply to control, but also to avoid the threat of an other that would expose our underlying vulnerability to bodily degenera- tion. Similarly immunology explains at the cellular level the internal processes by which the body counters intrusion by potentially damaging non-self organisms. Thus the prophylactic strategies of, for example, the vaccination of children, anti- malarial drug regimes for travellers, or the practice of safe sex all make good sense. The probability that any one threat might materialise may be extremely low, but nonetheless our well-being is seen to be enhanced by the erection of pro- tective barriers. There is nothing particularly contentious in any of this, except perhaps in the calculation of risk, but I want to move away from the notion of contagion as a material effect alone in order to consider its wider discursive import. The significance of contamination is not limited to the physical effects in and on the body, but enmeshes with our understanding of what it is to be a self. The discourse around HIV-AIDs is a particularly good example, as it concerns not just the clinical breakdown of the immune system in the face of a proliferat- ing virus, nor the epidemiological defence of attempting to isolate the vectors by behavioural regulation, but the perceived disintegration of the bounded and singu- lar self exposed to an alien and engulfing other. 2 I shall go on to explore more



70 EMBODYING THE MONSTER Figure 4.1 Conjoined twins from Still Life (Karl Grimes 1997) closely the

Figure 4.1

Conjoined twins from Still Life (Karl Grimes 1997)

closely the implications of attempting to cover over the vulnerability of human bodies, and indeed of human being, and to suggest that far from being a simple matter of prudent protection, what is at stake in our vulnerability to non-self factors is an ethics of relationship. My argument is that in western discourse, the notion of the diseased, the unclean or the contaminated is never just an empirical or supposedly neutral descriptor, but carries the weight of all that stands against – and of course para- doxically secures – the normative categories of ontology and epistemology.



In short, as the realisation of a contaminatory threat, contagion can figure any transgression of the categories of sameness and difference, any breach in the unity of the embodied self. As postmodernist theory makes clear, the normative construct of the self’s clean and proper body is under constant threat, on the one hand from the potential of internal leakage and loss of form, and on the other, from the circulation of all those dangerous bodies – of women, of racial others, of the sick, of the monstrous – who both occupy the place of the other and serve to define by difference the self’s own parameters. At particular times and loca- tions, when two or more forms of threat come together, what may be menaced is not just the singular self, but a normative category as a whole. The fear of species degeneration and contamination which has played so large a part in recent history, from the eugenic movement of the early twentieth century to contempo- rary notions of ethnic purity, is a powerful example of the latter. The conflation of the diseased and the racial and sexual other, in a paradigm of contagious monstrosity, may have reached its peak perhaps in the genocide of World War II, but the exclusionary impetus – which, taken to extremes, motivated that murderous fervour – both preceded and survives the historical moment. The desire to protect the unity of the ideal social/racial body is instrumentalised always through a pro- gramme of measures that speak not to strength but to uncertainty, to an implicit recognition that vulnerability is not on the side of the other, but is embedded in the heart of normativity. In this chapter, I shall be looking more closely at the microcosmic effects of a notion of contagion, and specifically at the condition of physical disability 3 as the site of modernist discourses that figure the human body, or at least the white male body, as ideally closed and invulnerable. That is not to say of course that disabled people have not been the collective object of macrocosmic initiatives which have been both eugenic and genocidal, and indeed they were explicitly targeted during the period of National Socialism, but what I want to point up here is the way in which we are all implicated on an everyday level in a process of discursive othering that serves to establish and perpetuate standards of normativity. From historical archival material through to current research into the prenatal genetic manipulation of potential congenital abnormalities, the stress throughout has been on controlling or eliminating the conditions of vulnerability as though science could settle ontology. But what, precisely, is at stake in the western imagi- nary with its dream of containment, and what marks the disabled body as a threat, as though it could contaminate? My concern is to suggest new ways of concep- tualising disability that demand a deconstruction of existing ethical parameters in the light of an always already vulnerability as the disavowed condition not only of all bodies, but of all embodied selves. I want first to set out the ground on which, in western modernity at least, vulner- ability is figured as a shortcoming, an impending failure both of form and function; a predicate that marks its subject as potentially beyond normative stan- dards of being. It is not exactly that vulnerability is denied in and by the norma- tive subject, but that the ‘proper’ unfolding of human life, and the exercise of selfhood, is taken to overcome such dangers. Those who too readily admit or who succumb to vulnerability are either weak or unfortunate, beset by moral and/or



material failure. Although the heroic narrative of individual transcendence over corporeal adversity – the triumph of mind over matter – is highly familiar, and constitutes the greater part of auto/biographical accounts of illness and disability (for example Couser 1997), its claim to our admiration exists alongside contrary tendencies. More usually vulnerability is feared as a condition of both mind and body, an ontological as well as physical state, an embodied being in which those familiar mind/body distinctions enacted by postEnlightenment thought are sus- pended. As with the traditional view that women are ruled by their biological processes, the anomalous body contaminates the will. Instead of triumphant tran- scendence, the compromised body may invite the assumption of intellectual insufficiency – those with physical disabilities are all too commonly denied access to standard education as children and find themselves spoken for as adults – or alternatively the outward appearance of an ailing body may be taken as the sign of an inner deficiency of will, or prior moral dereliction. And while the first of those more negative responses might be evidence of the unsettling dis-ease occasioned by the non-normative body such that engagement is avoided, the latter speaks to a sense of moral superiority in the face of the other’s vulnerability. It is not my suggestion that our response to disabling conditions is always as crude, or sets up so blatant a division between the categories of the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’, between the supposedly whole-bodied and those whose bodily boundaries have in some way been breached or distorted. And nor are ‘healthy’ bodies seen as uniformly invulnerable: for infants and children whose bodily well-being is largely dependent on others, for older people facing the finitude of death and bodily decay, and for women whose intrinsic leakiness marks a body that is always already breached, the ideal of a closed, powerful and self-defined corporeal schema is never less than compromised. Nonetheless, at the beginning of a new millennium in which ever more detailed biomedical accounts of the body are passing into lay usage, and in which we are invited to marvel at the capacities of biomedical technologies to remake the body, reminders of uncon- trolled corporeal vulnerability are highly unwelcome. The cultural theorist Rosemarie Garland Thomson recounts her own shock at being given a copy of Robert Bogdan’s scholarly study Freak Show – ‘“Freak” disturbingly summa- rized the accusation I had most dreaded my entire life’ – and she goes on to describe how owning her personal and very visible physical disability was akin to coming out:

Indeed, pressures to deny, ignore, normalize, and remain silent about one’s own dis- ability are both compelling and seductive in a social order intolerant of deviations from the bodily standards enforced by a quotidian matrix of economic, social and political forces. (1997: xvii)

What I would want to add to Thomson’s matrix is the power of psychic and onto- logical anxiety that must itself be denied. Where the fully self-present sovereignty of the modernist subject is taken for granted, there is an expectation, and indeed biomedical discourse encourages us to believe, that our bodies are similarly under control, predictable, determinate, and above all independent in form and function. The mapping of the human genome, which promises both a measure of individual uniqueness and a template



for enhanced control and manipulation, signals that the perfect body, marked by its consistency, predictability and self-transparency, is available to all. Such a standard serves to deny corporeal vulnerability, and, as many commentators have already pointed out, further strengthens the othering of those whose bodies fall short. The more we believe that we can control our bodies, the greater the anxi- ety that is generated by the evidence of vulnerability, whether as the result of the accident of disabling conditions, both chronic and acute, or in the form of those routine biological processes of change in which the feminine is overdetermined. The challenge to what have been seen as masculinist values with regard to embodiment has been a particular concern of feminism as part of its general pro- ject to revalue women. It is, then, somewhat ironic, as Susan Wendell (1996) points out, that in contesting the traditional identification between women and their supposedly unruly bodies, feminist theory has itself often displayed a certain somataphobia. The noticeable paucity of academic interest, both there and elsewhere, in disability studies 4 may look like indifference, but I suggest it plays into the wider issue of our perception of non-normative corporeality. The dis- abled body, the body that resists the conscious control of the will, that is effec- tively out of control, may carry no infectious agents, and yet – regardless of gender investments – it is treated as though it were contaminatory. Although such a potentially dangerous entity must be kept at a distance, beyond the capacity to touch, it is nonetheless a privileged object of the gaze. What is evoked at worst is a kind of revulsion and dehumanisation, characterised histori- cally by the public display of human ‘monsters’ – both dead and alive – as, for example, in the freak shows of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or today, as Andrea Dennett (1996) suggests, by the enfreakment of corporeal extremes – especially of the ‘fattest’ or ‘heaviest’ variety – on many American television daytime talk shows. What is striking about such spectacles, however, is that they may elicit the contradictory responses both of horrified disengagement, and of fascination and recognition. The present day staging of disability may seek to avoid the offensive excesses of the past by flying the banner of education or social concern, but the invitation – like the freak show barker’s pitch – appeals, more or less explicitly, to the model of the abnormal viewed from a safe distance. In his fascinating analysis of US charity telethons in aid of various illnesses and disabilities, for example, Paul K. Longmore (1997) demonstrates both the dis- tancing effect of the gaze, and the way in which the apparently altruistic structure of the events authorises the contemporary equivalent of finger pointing. In such orgies of public ‘compassion’, Longmore sees as the prime motivation the con- spicuous display, not of links of sameness, but of difference. As he puts it: ‘People with disabilities are ritually defined as dependent on the moral fitness of nondis- abled people’ (1997: 136). Although agreeing with the outlines of his analysis, I believe the relationships are more complicated than Longmore allows. Where he would see vulnerability – which he characterises in terms of dependency – as fixed by the gaze as the property of the differentiated other, the underlying anxiety of the encounter with the corporeal anomaly needs further explanation. It is of course precisely the failure of the monstrous body to observe a mate- rial and metaphorical cordon sanitaire, its failure to wholly occupy the place of



the other, that grounds anxiety. Thinking, for example, of the negative responses

to the pictures in the Still Life exhibition, it is evident that the triple confinement

of the unruly foetuses, in death, in glass containers, and in the photographic image, was nonetheless insufficient to allay the uncomfortable feeling that there was risk of contagion in the encounter itself. Clearly the artist was well aware of the power of his images, which were intended to breach the immunity of the gaze, yet the gallery was constrained to give a written warning to visitors that they might be disturbed. So powerful is the impulse to avoid actual contact with anomalous bodies that certain city ordinances, effective in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, actually banned those with visible disabilities from appearing in specified public places. In Chicago, for example, a 1966 provision of the Municipal Code states:

No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, (or) shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense. (1966 Chicago, Ill., Municipal Code, 36–34 [repealed 1974])

Similar restrictive rules were imposed around the same period on travellers, with the Air Traffic Conference decreeing that member companies should not carry persons with ‘gross disfigurement, or other unpleasant characteristics so unusual as to offend fellow passengers’ (1962 Air Traffic Conference of America). What

these examples seems to speak of is not just the individual fear of contagion, but

a public desire to defend the wholeness, regularity and cohesion of the body

politic. It is as though the metaphorical organic unity of the socius, with its system of well-controlled functions, rules of inclusion and exclusion, and protec- tive boundaries, has come to express an actual bodyliness that is at risk from corporeal dissidence. The psychological category of mysophobia – the excessive anxiety occasioned by the real or imagined risk of contamination – works, then, at a number of levels,

though it is clearest in relation to the individual. In its operation, the putative fear of contamination mirrors the psychic structure of phobia in general in that what

is feared marks the site of projection for an intrinsic condition, in this case vulner-

ability. Although the ascribed content of that vulnerability may vary from one psychoanalytic interpretation to another, 5 what is consistent is that the self’s own vulnerability cannot be spoken. Although, as a result, the corporeally deviant may be secretly despised, a more usual and seemingly positive response is that of com- passion. Nonetheless, as Susan Wendell reminds us, the desire to eliminate ‘dif- ferences that are feared, poorly understood, and widely considered to be marks of inferiority, easily masquerades as the compassionate desire to prevent or stop suffering’ (1996: 156). And even when at best there may be an attempt at empathy, that empathy is about trying to smooth out differences, to find the grounds of sameness, but it is not about opening oneself – becoming vulnerable – to an encounter with irreducible strangeness. Indeed, insofar as the gaze remains oper- ative, we might say that no real encounter takes place, for the emphasis is not on exchange in which mutual transformation might occur, but precisely on fore- stalling such a move. Monstrously embodied selves are, then, fundamentally



disturbing in that they cannot be accounted for within the binary parameters of sameness and difference, in which the latter is measured in terms of the former. Instead, they transgress boundaries in being simultaneously too close, too recog- nisable (threatening merging and indifference), and in being excessive, in being irreducibly other to the binary itself. Before going on to theorise that in more clearly postmodernist terms, I want to retrace briefly the aporias within modernism itself. What is really unsettling about non-normative embodiment is not simply the reminder of the empirical instability of all bodies, but the intuition that despite the privileging of mind in western discourse, our embodied selfhood is a matter of complex interweaving. Whenever the body is at risk, it is the stability of the self that is threatened. In short, corporeal and ontological anxiety are inseparable. Nonetheless, despite an intuitively phenomenological experience of being-in-the-world, we do still see our bodies almost as though they are suits of armour protecting a core self. We are unsurprised and unembarrassed by references to the ‘real me’ inside. Any breach in the ideal impregnability of the surface flesh signals potential contami- nation, an openness to the assault of the other. Moreover, the postEnlightenment ideal of autonomous subjectivity and agency relies on a spacing, an interval between self and other that covers over the putative threat of engulfment by the other. And as becomes repeatedly evident, that threat is rarely gender-neutral. In the western imagination, the female body just is monstrous, the necessary locus of wor- ship and disgust whose corporeality threatens to overflow boundaries and engulf those things which should remain separate. As Liz Grosz notes, it is ‘inscribed as a mode of seepage’ characterised as ‘a leaking, uncontrollable, seeping liquid: as formless flow; as viscosity, entrapping, secreting; as lacking not so much or simply the phallus but self-containment…a formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order’ (1994: 203). The transhistorical hostility towards the femi- nine expresses, then, a fear of, and revulsion from, bodies that appear unable to maintain the distinction and definition required by the sovereign self. As might be anticipated, the dominant systems of western ethics, and this is as true of bioethics as elsewhere, reflect that ideal of distinction and separation and characterise individual bodies primarily as the property of autonomous selves. The rights I hold in my own body are both protective and must be protected against the incursions of others. In such a system the interaction between subjects is mediated by implicit contract, which assumes the independence of each. In principle, biomedical law and ethics, even though constituted in part to secure the rights of persons at points of self-evident vulnerability – in illness or disability – devolve on the assumption of autonomy, as is evident in a seminal judgment of the sixties: ‘Anglo-American law starts with the premise of thoroughgoing self- determination. It follows that each man is considered to be master of his own body’ (Natanson v. Kline 1960). As a corollary of such formulations, vulnerabil- ity is positioned not as an existential state, but as a contingent physical depen- dency. In practice, nonetheless, that dependency is often taken to justify paternalism 6 towards those in ill health; and moreover there appears to be a whole class of others – the very young and old, those who are mentally ill, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and so on – who are in any case deemed incapable



of fully autonomous agency, and in whom vulnerability is intrinsic. Given the extent of the exclusions from the ideal of self-determination, what is thrown up, as Thomson puts it, is ‘the troubling question of whether any person is indepen- dent of physical limitations, immune to external forces, and without need of assis- tance and care from others’. Taking up her own particular focus, she goes on: ‘The disabled body exposes the illusion of autonomy, self-government, and self- determination that underpins the fantasy of absolute able-bodiedness’ (1997: 45–6). It is just such resonances, however, that remain largely unacknowledged, and the source of a persistent anxiety in the face of the corporeal other. What causes unease is not that those named as disabled are helpless – indeed the majority are far from it – but that the inviolability of their bodies, the inviolability that confers an aura of self-mastery, appears to have been breached. They are in other words visibly vulnerable. Given, however, the failure to successfully separate off lack of integrity and completion as a wholly oppositional category, the western logos finds its very structure under contest. Alongside a mainstream bio/ethical dis- course saturated with the notion of vulnerability as the property of the other, where vulnerability signals dependency (and in ethical terms a claim on the duties of beneficence and non-maleficence), it is paradoxical that both biomedical and lay discourse see the normatively embodied self as vulnerable to contamination by proximity to those same others. Insofar as what we characterise as disability as opposed to disease is not in itself literally contagious, then could it be that the desire to deter the approach of those who are thus labelled, through limiting access, through isolation and silencing, speaks not to the reality of an external threat so much as to a simultaneous apprehension and denial of our own inherent vulnerability. 7 It is not a vulnerability to some(thing) other, but rather the incom- mon vulnerability of self-becoming. Few such ontological reflections or psychic complications trouble the persis- tence of binary models of understanding, and vulnerability remains positioned as some kind of falling short which is attributed to others – in one strand among others – by virtue of their devalued embodiment. In their failure to reflect norma- tivity, such figures may be seen as the objects of the benevolence of securely embodied subjects, where the moral traffic is taken to be one way. Accordingly the dominant ethical response is to suppose that those who are in any degree unable to fulfil normative standards of self-care may, for that reason, have spe- cial claims to care from others. Indeed, benevolent concern for the vulnerable is one of the hallmarks of the highly influential ethics-of-care strand of feminist ethics. Yet curiously, such claims arising from a perceived vulnerability may serve not to alleviate but rather to mark the position more clearly relative to the other. In her analysis of the use of disabled female figures in ‘sentimental’ novels of the nineteenth century, for example, Thomson remarks that such women – often poor and black – are deployed as ‘icons of vulnerability’ (1997: 82), whose relative powerlessness creates a bridge of sympathy, acceptance and identifi- cation to their more privileged – that is middle-class and white – sisters. Nonetheless, it is an affiliation which empowers not the disabled women them- selves, but their benefactors, who are confirmed in their own capacity to act as the agents of liberal society. 8 The relations of power at work are similar in effect



to those of the present day telethons to which I referred earlier. Regardless of ethical intent, those on the receiving end of (limited) beneficence are never able to claim equal agency while their vulnerability remains. Vulnerability is posi- tioned, then, as that which impairs agency in the ‘damaged’ other while inspiring moral action on the part of the secure self to make good the perceived lack. In line with an analysis of vulnerability that grounds what is intended as a normative ethics, the philosopher Robert Goodin has developed a model of moral responsibility that derives from the wholly negative notion that to be vulnerable is to be open to harm. As he puts it: ‘You are always vulnerable to, and depen- dent upon, some individual or group who have it within their power to help or harm you in some respect(s)’ (1998: 79). Although Goodin goes on to acknow- ledge some degree of vulnerability in us all, it is strictly speaking, in his view, an empirical and contingent, rather than ontological, condition of human being. In consequence, what he has in mind is an intrinsically asymmetrical model in which some are called upon to respond to and protect, ideally, the vulnerability of others. This is made particularly clear in his claim that there may be ‘analo- gous responsibilities…for protecting animals and natural environments’ (1998: 73). Although he is explicit, and at least partially successful, in his contention that the principle of protecting the vulnerable involves a move beyond special moral obligations – which are individual, case specific and usually a matter of personal involvement, Goodin’s inclusion of certain classes of strangers does not contest the attribution of vulnerability as a misfortune of individual or collective others that may be countered by appropriate response. Indeed he goes on to argue that the degree of responsibility that arises out of obligation is proportionate to the level of dependent vulnerability suffered by the other. Even though the exercise of responsibility is intended to mitigate the asymmetry of the power dynamic, there is little sense in which those who are positioned as the objects of concern, as recipients of attention, are acknowledged as participants in a mutual ethical encounter. It may well be that the particular condition of an individual disabled woman, for example, prevents or constrains her full engagement, but my concern is that the model is one in which the unlikelihood of mutual exchange is not merely anticipated, but scripted in advance. It is precisely this kind of binary thinking, which supports existing power relations, that I want to unsettle. There are, of course, already within the terms of conventional discourse, strate- gies implicitly resistant to such reductionist thinking, one such being the claim that we are all just temporarily able-bodied (TAB) in the sense that disabling ill- ness, accident and old age are the possible or certain fate of all. Useful though such accounts are in challenging the stigma of disability, however, they remain locked into a positivist account of embodiment which may itself be disturbed by reading the body and vulnerability through a postconventional perspective. In such a spirit, Megan Boler’s critical consideration of the supposedly radical call for empathy with the other – a kind of caring for the other by the effort of putting oneself in her place – more adequately breaks with the convention (Boler 1997). Unlike many other feminist ethicists who work within a liberal humanist frame- work and see such ethical responses very positively, Boler concludes that empa- thetic identification remains trapped within a self/other binary that ultimately



consumes and annihilates the other. It is, in effect, a refusal to hear the other’s voice as uniquely her own, a refusal to acknowledge irreconcilable difference. Moreover, if we accept that the form of embodiment cannot be split from self- hood, such that issues of sex, age, race, physical ability, and many more – the very historicity of the body – are irreducible, then we cannot simply enter into the experiential being of an other. But is the alternative of an attentiveness of listen- ing without assimilation necessarily as free of its own ethical difficulties as Boler seems to imply? As Foucault (1979) has pointed out, the one who elicits all from the other, as in a confessional, is in a dominant position of power. The act of speaking itself can heighten vulnerability in the asymmetry set up or perpetuated by the power/knowledge relation. Instead, like Boler herself, I prefer a testimo- nial response that requires the encounter with vulnerability to rest on an openness to the unpredictably strange and excessive, an openness that renders the self vulnerable. It is not to reduce the response to a fear for one’s own vulnerabilities, so much as to take the risk of working through the incommensurable layers of power and emotion that mediate the relational economy. This seems to me an altogether more fruitful approach that recognises both that the self and the other are mutually engaged, and yet are irreducible the one to the other. What meaning, then, would vulnerability have if we stepped back from the relentless binaries of western epistemology that set health against illness, confor- mity against disparity, the perfect against the imperfect, the self against the other? What would it mean in other words to address the issue of vulnerability not with- out recourse to normative standards, but with a critique that exposed not simply the limits set by the cultural specificity of normativity – as opposed to the claim of a general if not universal validity – but more radically yet that the dichotomous structure is itself unstable? One immediate effect would be to place less empha- sis on vulnerability as the dependency of others, and more on the notion of vulner- ability as the risk of ontological uncertainty for all of us. And what if the question of contagion, of contamination were found to reside not only in the sup- posed materialities of bodies, but in the structure of discourse itself? I propose to reread the body as a discursive construction, by now a widely familiar move to poststructuralists, but one that still often seems to stymie those who work in the health care disciplines. The problem is that aside from a thoroughgoing decon- struction of the discourses of sexuality, such as Judith Butler’s work on queer bodies (1993), and a relatively small number of specific studies like Catherine Waldby’s book on AIDS (1996) or some of my own previous work with Janet Price on disability (1996, 1998), it is hard to find many postmodernist texts that address the body of biomedicine not just as a concept but, the body as it is lived, in pain as well as pleasure. Although I am highly sympathetic to the notion of corporeal inscription, that approach tends to ‘flatten out’ the problematic such that certain issues concerning the fully three-dimensional, mobile, breathing, excret- ing body that encompass the interplay of internal and external space cannot be adequately addressed. What is called for is a rethinking that challenges the conventional opposition of the material to the discursive, and marks them as fundamentally intertwined. It is a matter of mutually constitutive modes of becoming, where ‘(t)he flesh



and blood givenness of the physical body is not a passive surface, but the site of sensation and libidinal desire…in continuous interaction with textual practices’ (Shildrick 1997: 178). Moreover, in the area of biomedicine in particular, the problematisation of the distinction between what claims to be a transparent science and its social implications results not just in the blurring of that distinc- tion, but in a more thorough reconceptualisation around the concept of a bio- medical imaginary. The supposed objectivity of scientific knowledge is itself inevitably contaminated by its specific cultural construction such that what is both spoken and acted on refers not to some given truth, but to a slippery chain of re-presentations. The imaginary anatomy of the body – a term used by Lacan, but reflecting too the ‘philosophical anatomy’ of earlier centuries – operates not simply at the level of lay speculation, but is intrinsic to the discipline of biomedi- cine. 9 Any understanding of the form and functioning of the body is always shot through with metaphor, with psychic significances, with idealisations and ideo- logies that continually shape and reshape that which is presented, nevertheless, as a stable entity. However strongly bioscience might resist the deconstruction of its own belief system, the importance of making such a move, for me, is not just whether we can successfully retheorise the taken-for-grantedness of bodies, for clearly feminist theory in particular has generated many such reconfigurations, but whether those can be carried forward to make a difference in practice. The project is, I think, ultimately an ethical one of being enabled to act differently because we can also think differently. But how does this all relate to bodies, and more particularly to disabled bodies? Where the convention insists that some bodies are or become vulnerable by default, the postmodernist understanding of discursive instability speaks to the intrinsic vulnerability of all bodies and indeed all embodied selves. Moreover, the corpus to which I have been referring as though it were a given materiality is more properly a body schema, a psychic construction of wholeness, that – in most cases – belies its own precariousness and vulnerability. I want to look briefly, then, at some psychoanalytic models before turning to consider the implications of a linguistic approach. In Lacan’s account of the mirror stage in infant develop- ment, it is clear that the emergent sense of embodied and bounded selfhood is phantasmatic to the extent that the infant’s actual experience of ‘motor incapacity and nursling dependency’ is covered over. But it is more than merely physical inadequacy that is disowned. From the time of birth, as Lacan postulates, the infant is psychically exposed to ‘images of castration, mutilation, dismember- ment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body, in short… imagos of the fragmented body’ (1977c: 11) that it is necessary to disavow. This is how Lacan characterises the process:

The mirror stage is a drama…which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality…and lastly to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. (1977a: 4) 10

The stability and distinction of normative embodiment relies then, from the first, on a re/suppression of the dis-integration which belongs to the subject as embodied,



and, indeed, precedes the subject as such. The originary lack must be made good by a lifelong desire to recognise oneself, and to be recognised as a unified and stable self. What Lacan’s insight suggests to me is that any body which manifests signs of insecurity may become the repository of both corporeal and ontological anxiety. In the encounter with the disabled or damaged body, the shock is not that of the unknown or unfamiliar, but rather of the psychic evocation of a primal lack of unity as the condition of all. The specular moment that juxtaposes the ‘whole’ and the ‘fragmented’ body is not about an absolute difference, but on the contrary about an unnerving doubling of the one in the other. The unified embodied self is faced not with an unknown other, but rather with its own being stripped of the ‘armour of an alienating identity’. In investing, for political and social ends, in a specific identity for disabled people that is as powerfully protected and policed as its able-bodied counterpart, very few theorists of disability have been prepared to engage with the psychic roots of our sense of embodiment, or have taken up the implications of Lacan’s analysis. One exception, with whose analysis I largely concur, is Lennard Davis, who is concerned with how disability occupies a field of vision and ‘translates into psychodynamic representations’ (Davis 1997: 52). As he astutely recognises, the issue is less about the qualities and nature of the observed object than about the investments of the observing subject. On the question of physical difference, Davis writes:

The disabled body, far from being the body of some small group of victims, is an entity from the earliest of childhood instincts, a body that is common to all humans….The ‘normal body’ is actually the one that we develop later. It is in effect a Gestalt – and therefore in the realm of what Lacan calls the ‘imaginary’. The realm of the ‘real’ in Lacanian terms is where the fragmented body is found because it is the body that precedes the ruse of identity and wholeness. (1997: 61)

Yet, as Lacan makes clear, repression is the price of self-identity, and the sensa- tions of early infancy must remain unacknowledged and unacknowledgable, albeit in a state of instability. 11 Moreover, given that the unified sense of self is constructed, at least initially, in the visual image and detachment of the mirror, then it is not simply the psychic dimensions of the body that are repressed, but the indeterminate physicality of touch and being touched. In consequence, what constitutes the inherent vulnerability of the self embodied as normative is pro- jected on to the other, who must then be avoided, and above all not touched, for fear of contamination. While it is not difficult to recognise the mechanisms at work in the response to disabled bodies, I want to stress that similar moves operate in relation to all forms of monstrosity. It is, above all, the corporeal ambiguity and fluidity, the trouble- some lack of fixed definition, that marks the monstrous as a site of disruption. If, as I have been arguing throughout, the predictable, knowable body with which we think ourselves familiar is a construction secured only by the processes of normal- isation that must seek to abject, name and exclude the monstrous other, then any risk to those processes is fraught with danger for the embodied subject. What is at stake is the impossible desire for transcendence, and the denial of the impure and uncontrollable materiality in which all of us find our existence, and that



renders the subject always already vulnerable. What makes the other monstrous is not so much its morphological difference and unfamiliarity, as the disturbing threat of its return. It is in its failure to fully occupy the category of the other, in its incomplete abjection, that the monster marks the impossibility of the modern- ist self. Monsters haunt us, not because they represent an external threat – and indeed some are benign – but because they stir recognition within, a sense of our openness and vulnerability that western discourse insists on covering over. Monsters, then, are what Freud would call the uncanny which he defines as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long fami- liar’ (1919: 220). Like the feminine, the monstrous may remain the other, unre- flected as itself, but it is nonetheless evident as das Unheimliche, as the anxiety-provoking double that haunts the margins of self-presence, and, Freud says, ‘arouses dread and creeping horror’ in our selves. 12 At a similar level of analysis of the psychic constitution of the subject, the Kristevan notion of the abject puts into play an even clearer explanatory model of the contaminatory potential of non-self materiality. For Kristeva, the abject is the term for all those things which a subject must disavow in the attempt to secure ‘the self’s clean and proper body’ (1982: 71). They are most notably those sticky, viscous, or amorphous things which are associated primarily with the female, and more particularly with the maternal, body. It is through the dynamic of abjection that the subject must distinguish both between inside and outside the body, and between one body and another. In other words, the abject exists prior to self–other differentiation. Any substance, then, that crosses corporeal boundaries – pus, blood, saliva, breast milk, faecal matter – is a significant focus of cultural anxi- ety and regulation. The womb is especially dangerous for not only does it pro- duce the outflow of menstrual blood, but it nurtures new life which must itself eventually cross the boundary from interior to exterior existence, carrying with it the contaminatory potential of meconium, cervical mucus, amniotic fluid, placental material and so on. The disgust and anxiety invoked by the abject is that felt by the clean and proper subject faced with the memory trace of her own origins, which both repel and attract, and throw into doubt the project of self- completion. The abject, then, figures a highly ambiguous response to the maternal body, for, as Kristeva puts it, we ‘do not cease looking…for the desirable and terri- fying, nourishing and murderous, fascinating and abject inside of the maternal body’ (1982: 54). Moreover, the abject is never fully expelled; it is properly nei- ther subject nor object in the binary sense, but occupies a liminal space in between where it partakes of both. It is, then, the other others – the feminine, the monstrous, the unclean – who resist both arrest as the other of the same, and successful exclusion as the absolute other, who inevitably contest the closure of self-identity. It is as though subjectivity is always already contaminated by its own archaic memories. In other words, the abject never really leaves the subject- body, but remains as both reminder of, and threat to, the precarious status of the closed and unified self. As Kristeva puts it: ‘It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulf- ing us’ (1982: 4).



It is precisely the threat of engulfment with its breaching of boundaries and loss of self-containment that makes clear the psychic function of abjection. In order to enter into the symbolic as a proper self, the subject must break the power of the mother–child bond by disavowing all those things which belong to the state of primary indifferentiation. As Barbara Creed puts it in her discussion of the monstrous feminine in film: ‘by constructing the maternal figure as an abject being, the symbolic order forces a separation of mother and infant that is neces- sary to guarantee its power and legitimacy’ (1993: 69). In consequence, what sig- nals the monstrous is any sign of the failure of the paternal order to enforce and maintain the break. Within overtly literary sources, of course, the mechanism of the return of the abject is made acceptable, even pleasurable, by its sublimation in fantasy, but it remains, nevertheless, a powerful phantasm in the dynamics of everyday life. The powerful images of Still Life again come to mind in Iris Marion Young’s description of the dangers of return:

The expelled self turns into a loathsome menace because it threatens to re-enter, to oblit- erate the border between it and the separated self….The abject must not touch me, for fear it will ooze through, obliterating the border….The abject provokes fear and loathing because it exposes the border between self and other as constituted and fragile. (1990a: 143–4)

In her long discussion of the notion of abomination in biblical texts, Kristeva argues that while it is not lack of health itself that ‘causes’ abjection, but rather the confusion of identity, system, and order, nonetheless the disabled body is, by virtue of its corporeal nonconformity, among those things which may represent abjection. If the process of giving birth is in all cases a matter of abjection, then how much more so when the product itself is a morphological aberration. In marking its debt to nature – the supposedly violent tearing away from the mater- nal insides – on its own flesh, such a body cannot be proper, that is it cannot be wholly one’s own. And if, as Kristeva indicates, it is the disavowed trace of the maternal body that grounds the concept of the abject, then it becomes clear why the marked disabled body should threaten contamination. In her more recent book Strangers to Ourselves (1990), Kristeva develops her early concept of the abject to give a psychical account of the often negative and fearful human relationship to the irreconcilable other. The emotional intensity of the loathing directed at those who display unacceptable differences is never a matter of external factors alone. Rather, the potentially catastrophic encounter with that which appears foreign to us – the stuff of violent aversions of every kind – is the expression of the disavowal of the ‘improper’ facet of our own uncon- scious. As such the subject is in an unstable and highly vulnerable relation to its supposedly exterior others, but it is a vulnerability that can be overcome not by repression but by acceptance. Just as Derrida sees différance as the trace within, so Kristeva understands the phenomenon of strangeness to be the interior pres- ence of what she calls the ‘other scene’, that, as she puts it: ‘integrates within the assumed unity of human beings an otherness that is both biological and symbolic and becomes an integral part of the same’ (1990: 181). What is at issue is that our ambivalent response to the external manifestation of the strange, of the monster, is an effect of the gap between our understanding of ourselves as whole and



separate, and the psychical experience of the always already incorporation of otherness. Moreover, that otherness within remains unheimlich, simultaneously both integrated with and irreducible to the self. For Kristeva, it is this double status that opens up the possibility of a radically ethical response, which she calls ‘an ethics of respect for the irreconcilable’ (1990: 182). In owning ourselves as dis-integrated, we can give up both the urge to reduce others to the selfsame, or to persecute them as absolutely different. The analytic of the uncanny, in Kristeva’s view, ‘sets the difference within us in its most bewildering shape and presents it as the ultimate condition of our being with others’ (1990: 192). Compelling though I find such psychoanalytic accounts, which seem to reso- nate with a wide variety of cultural practices and beliefs whilst giving due regard to their specificity, I want to push the argument into territory which breaks entirely with biologistic explanation. I am thinking in terms of the linguistic regis- ter, and particularly of the analytic offered by Jacques Derrida and the way in which it has been taken up in Judith Butler’s more recent work. As critics of both are all too ready to claim, the level of theorisation involved often makes it diffi- cult to see where or how their abstract insights could be applied to lives as they are lived. If, however, we take seriously, as postmodernists surely must, the claim that bodies and subjects are discursively constructed – materialised rather than material, as Butler (1993) has it – then the problematic of language cannot be ignored. At a relatively simple level, it is clear to see that if, as I have outlined, biomedicine itself is structured by a culturally and historically unstable series of metaphors imbricating with a wide range of other discourses, then it can make no claim to purity. It is from the start inherently contaminated by its discursive others, and always vulnerable, therefore, to alternative readings that contest received truth. And at a more complex stage, what seems to me to warrant further thought in particular is the structure of iterability. Iterability is the process of resaying, a process which functions not simply as the repetition that seeks to authorise and sediment meaning by repeated reference to a prior context, but as the moment of slippage inherent in repetition, that destabilises meaning even as

it establishes it. It is, in other words, the rearticulation that introduces the interval

of transformation. My question is, what difference does a consideration of iter- ability make to our understanding of contamination and vulnerability? But first

I want to recall briefly what the primary moves of the deconstructive approach

already entail. In contradistinction to the binary system that seeks to divide self from other so completely that each may have mutually exclusive properties, one major insight of poststructuralism is that each term is fundamentally reliant on the other for its definition, in the sense both of meaning and outline. Presence defines itself against absence, good against evil, unified against fragmented, able-bodied against disabled, and so on. In place of the closed and complete boundaries that ostensibly mark difference and separation as absolute, the move of deconstruc- tion has been to demonstrate that both primary and marked term are mutually dependent, and measured against a single standard in terms respectively of wholeness and lack. Each term is, as Spivak puts it, ‘an accomplice of the other’ (Derrida 1976: lxviii), or to put it more materially, they are opened up to one



another. But what that description misses perhaps is that because the constitutive interdependency – that is, the trace of the one in the other – is overlain in western discourse by a binary structure of sameness and difference, a more appropriate expression of the relationship might be that each term is contaminated by the other. And the implication of that mutual contamination, or what Derrida calls différance, the operation of the trace that defers and detours meaning, is that all claims to purity are radically destabilised. Can we not say then, as I have sug- gested elsewhere (Shildrick 1997), that the inherent leakiness of meaning in the logos is paralleled by a necessary uncertainty about bodies, as themselves dis- cursive constructions? In other words, vulnerability comes not from the outside, but just is implicit in ontological and epistemological structure. Moreover, among the many synonyms of différance, those paradoxical expressions that interweave opposites without settling on either, Derrida proposes the term pharmakon, which can denote both poison and cure. It is then a small step to see that very same undecidability in the figure of the pharmakos – the scapegoat – that both cleanses and is cast out by the community as the nominated carrier of contamination. Not surprisingly Kristeva (1982) marks the scapegoat as a figure of abjection. In understanding how the deconstructive move operates, then, we are already alerted to a certain anxiety at the borders of both concepts and bodies. The scape- goat after all may only speak for the ideal of a secure, untroubled, bounded order after it has been excluded. But as Judith Butler reminds us in a much-quoted phrase, it is the very process of exclusion that ‘produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is after all, “inside” the subject as its own founding repudiation’ (1993: 3). And moreover, to the extent that the constitution of the subject and the materialisation of the body are performative and discursive, the process is never complete, but must be repeated constantly: it must be re- iterated. There is in consequence no way of securing the purity of the subject, not least because in the mode of becoming, in the iterative structure itself, there is always slippage such that the ‘standard’ effects its own internal othering. In other words, iteration is not simply the repetition that ‘fixes’ what is performed, but the scene of its difference from itself. As Derrida insists: ‘Iterability alters, contami- nating parasitically what it identifies and enables to repeat “itself”’ (1988: 62). Now although Derrida here and Butler in her later work Excitable Speech (1997) are concerned primarily with the analytic of the speech act, it seems to me that the very same trajectory is at work in bodies. However much we speak our being in the body as closed and secure, the ideal invulnerability that we intend to per- form is breached in the very repetition. Derrida again: ‘[iterability] limits what it makes possible, while rendering its rigour and purity impossible. What is at work here is something like a law of undecidable contamination’ (1988: 59). The impli- cation, which Derrida later spells out, is that iterability ‘troubles the binary and hierarchical oppositions that authorize the very principle of “distinction”’ (1988:

127), and he is explicit that this is as true of common parlance as of philosophi- cal discourse. The iterative process, it must be stressed, is to be understood more as constitu- tive than as the operation of an already established subject. Nevertheless, more is needed to explain the coming-into-being of that subject, and Butler for one turns



back to the Althusserian concept of interpellation. In her somewhat transformed version, the subject to be is inaugurated in the address of the Other such that ‘the address constitutes a being within the possible circuit of recognition and, accord- ingly, outside of it, in abjection’ (1997: 5) Whilst it is not entirely clear what rela- tion this abjection bears to the ‘constitutive outside’ that Butler refers to in her earlier book, Bodies That Matter, her formula emphasises again the inherent vulner- ability and instability of our existence regardless of whether we are assumed to be within or beyond discursive normativity. As Butler puts it: ‘There is no way to protect against that primary vulnerability and susceptibility to the call of recog- nition that solicits existence, to that primary dependency on a language we never made in order to acquire a tentative ontological status’ (1997: 26). In conse- quence, although interpellation must precede subjectivity, it is not a once and for all process that fixes our status as embodied subjects, and neither can it deliver the radical autonomy that modernist models take for granted. In view of our mutual immersion in a discursive realm that continues to make and unmake us, our morphology can never be certain. Yet again, what is at stake is the instability of the boundaries that divide ‘whole’ bodies from ‘broken’ ones. In emphasising once more the discursive nature of embodiment, the deconstructive turn serves not to occlude lived experience, but to further attest to the necessary vulnerabil- ity, the undecidability, at the heart of becoming. As should now be established, what is at issue, for me, is a radical undoing of the very notion of embodied being as something secure and distinct from its others. Although the postEnlightenment standard of a wholly autonomous body and mind can be critiqued for its failure both to accommodate – at very least – the patina of a functional or emotional vulnerability due to us all, and to recognise the interrelatedness of social life, the western imaginary is remarkably resilient. Even within that tradition, Martha Nussbaum’s observation that ‘(t)he peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability’ (1986: 86) – a remark, note, that preserves the subject – is a rare insight indeed. In contrast, my purpose is to reconfigure vulnerability, not as an intrinsic quality of an existing subject, but as an inalienable condition of becoming. The deconstructive enterprise does not of course aim to change things in and of itself, but to provide a critique which gives some account of the violence with which the process of othering different forms of bodyliness is conducted. That violence, it is worth noting, operates on both a discursive and a metaphorical level – as the violent hierarchies of the binary system that Derrida refers to; and as material violence to which the eugenic programmes of sterilisation or even extermination of the ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘feeble-bodied’ bear witness. And clearly, similar fears of the contamination of a notional purity are operative in the response to racial others. All this poststruc- turalism understands, and in a telling phrase, Gayatri Spivak refers to decon- struction ‘as a radical acceptance of vulnerability’ (1990: 18). Her insight does not supplant that of Nussbaum, but gives it rather more depth and urgency. Always more than mere abstract considerations, those perceptions together add further explanatory depth to my own face to face responses to the images of the Still Life presentation in Dublin. The shock, the putative threat to my own well- Being that the figures seem to offer, and the parallel feeling of recognition, both



spring from the unavoidable realisation that as an embodied subject, I too am fragile. Not only is my own unity of being uncertain, but what has seemed intoler- able, even unthinkable, is precisely constitutive of my self. The notion of an irre- ducible vulnerability as the necessary condition of a fully corporeal becoming – of my self and always with others – shatters the ideal of the self’s clean and proper body; and it calls finally for the willingness to engage in an ethics of risk.



The question of vulnerability, as I have developed it in the last chapter, is one that has played a strictly limited part in normative ethics, and still less has it been explored in any depth in ontological philosophy. There is, however, in the work of Emmanuel Levinas a thoroughgoing attempt to position vulnerability as the mobilising feature of an ethics that precedes and thus constitutes the ontological moment. Rather than seeing ethics and ontology as mutually constitutive and inextricable – as I have so far done – Levinas suggests that we should reverse entirely the order of the western convention in which an already self-identified subject engages as an agent in the moral landscape. According to Levinas, it is only through our pre-ontological face to face encounter with the other, 1 a situa- tion of the utmost vulnerability, that we may become subjects enjoying self- consciousness and freedom. Like Derrida, Levinas wishes to stress the ethical necessity of response and responsibility, but with the difference that it is not so much the occasion of a deconstruction of the subject as of a construction. As with much postconventional theory, the work of Levinas is highly abstract and diffi- cult to apply outside a conceptual frame. Nonetheless his insistence on vulnera- bility and responsibility as the modalities of the existent, together with the concentration on terms such as encounter, proximity, and above all the face, may provide, I believe, a further understanding of the issues that concern me. So radi- cal is his approach that, despite some misgivings, I want to look at it at some length as a model in which the concept of vulnerability is opened up in just the way that advances my own project. At no point does Levinas speak of the monstrous, at least in the sense that I have been using it, but he is engaged with the stranger, the one whose appearance may seem to threaten me, and yet whose own vulnerability calls out to me. In a similar way, what concerns me is the other, not so much in a difference which may be reduced to the same, but as an alterity whose strange(r)ness is absolute. As such, it may be possible to think further such empirical circumstances as those of the Still Life encounter. In terms of conventional philosophy which has pre-eminently concerned itself with the question of Being, the privilege that Levinas gives to ethics signals an extraordinary realignment of the central problematic. Throughout the western tradition, ethics has been considered as a subset only, an area of specialist enquiry that does not emerge until the issue of ontology has been settled. It has been a theme only in an already thematised context, in which ethics is understood largely as the study of morality as a system of principles, or of moral behaviour in a substantive framework. Throughout this work, I have tried to unsettle the



plausibility of the apparent detachment between ontology and ethics, focusing instead not on a state of being, but on a process of becoming that is always rela- tional, always intrinsically ethical. In his own turn to ethics, Levinas sees the rela- tion with and response to the other as that which founds the self as a subject, that instantiates its very being. Ethics, then, assumes an inescapable priority that over- turns the ‘proper’ order of things, and what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence. It should not be supposed, however, that Levinas intends a chronological sequence that culminates in a fully formed subject, but rather a constant inter- ruption in which ethical response – the Saying – disturbs the thematisation, the regulatory moral apparatus, of the Said. 2 It is as though the ethical moment, in its originary form, recurs as a trace that challenges the sedimentation of stable subjectivity and determinable moral agency. How, then, does Levinas characterise the originary relation? In his two major words, Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, first published respec- tively in 1961 and 1974, he develops a quasi-phenomenology of self and other that grounds ethics and thus ontology in the inescapable encounter between the putative need or demand of the other and the hitherto undisturbed pleasurable solitude of the self. The one who finds herself not alone in the world must forfeit her sensuous enjoyment, in which, as Levinas puts it: ‘Life is love of life, a rela- tion with contents that are not my being but more dear than my being: thinking, eating, sleeping, reading, working, warming oneself in the sun’ (1969: 112). Yet to relinquish that state of sensibility and immediacy, of the ego at home with itself, of interiority in the face of the other, is not a loss as such but the threshold of freedom and self-conscious subjectivity. It is a moment not of being, but otherwise than being, what Levinas calls ‘the very possibility of the beyond’ (1989b: 179). From a situation of egoistic self-sufficiency, the one is called upon to respond to the vulnerability, destitution and nakedness of the other, to act not for-oneself, but as the one-for-the-other. What is implicitly commanded is that in the response the one should take responsibility for the other, whom Levinas habitually refers to as the stranger, the widow, the orphan. It is, in other words, a call for an ethical response to an other who cannot be recognised within any shared cultural or political context. It is expressly the alterity of the other, then, and the absolute dissymmetry between us, that mobilises ethics: ‘The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and possessions, is precisely accomplished as the calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics’ (1969: 43). It is from the start an asymmetrical relationship, rather than one between putative equals, for equality is a modality of the Law which is yet to come. Aside from its positioning as a pre-ontological moment, there is at first sight little to distinguish this relation from many other such formulations that pose vulnerability as a condition that might be expected to evoke an ethical response, such as that which duty, virtue or utility might command. Although we may fall short of or wilfully ignore the moral good, we are unlikely to be unaware of the ethical principles that are designed to mediate response. For Levinas, however, such considerations are beside the point for all they do is return the self to itself, preserving, in other words, the purity of the sovereign subject. His point is that in conven- tional discourse, where ethics is subordinate to ontology as first philosophy,



moral response speaks to a model of power and domination. In a gesture of symbolic violence, everything is reduced to self-consciousness, and to the self- presence of a pre-determined knowing subject: ‘Knowledge is re-presentation, a return to presence, and nothing may remain other to it’ (1989a: 77). In the encounter with the strange, we do no more than grasp the other, strip away her difference, and assimilate her to our selves: ‘It is not a relation with the other as such but the reduction of the other to the same’ (1969: 46). The normative sub- ject exercises moral agency by taking itself as the model to which others must be made analogous. Removed, then, from its alterity, difference is put to the service of the same and becomes lost in the totalisation of being. To locate ethics as prior to ontology, therefore, enables a very different reading of the encounter in which the distinction, the absolute difference, between the one and the other can be recuperated. Moreover, it establishes that identity begins in, and relies on, the engagement with radical otherness. The encounter, for Levinas, is not so much a phenomenological experience, reliant on vision or contact, but rather the figurative moment of the face to face with ‘the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself’ (1969: 39). It is a breach in the self-sufficiency of the one, an opening to, and acceptance of, exteri- ority. We will be reminded, in another register, of the uncanniness of the monster to which I have already referred. In his use of the term ‘face’, Levinas wants to suggest that which is resistant to the grasp of appropriation. As he explains:

The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face….To approach the Other…is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. (1969: 50–1)

This is a very different mode to that in which an object is given to sight, given up to my knowledge and power. The face is always incommensurable with my own, excessive to representation, and always beyond any mutual recognition. On the contrary, to regard the face, as Cathryn Vasseleu points out, is not so much to look at it as to have a regard for it, to display a generosity towards it (1998: 88). Moreover, in his suspicion of vision, Levinas privileges language – albeit a non- verbal language of sensibility – as the medium that necessarily presupposes plurality and difference: ‘The other is maintained and confirmed in his heterogene- ity as soon as one calls upon him’ (1969: 69). As interpellation or expression, language breaks up unity and continuity and establishes a relation of separation and transcendence:

The fact that the face maintains a relation with me by discourse does not range him in the same; he remains absolute within the relation…the ethical relationship which sub- tends discourse is not a species of consciousness whose ray emanates from the I; it puts the I in question. (1969: 195):

The irreducibly different and incommensurable, unknown other demands a response which is not that of knowledge, recognition, of representation to one- self, or even of communication. As Waldenfels points out, a communicative ethic, such as might be implied by the turn to language, is no part of Levinas’ pro- ject for it fulfils the demand of the other by stripping it of alterity and making it commensurable with my self-fulfilment (1995: 43). In contrast, in Levinasian



ethics, I cannot gather the other into myself. The very singularity of the face precludes any form of identification, and calls instead for a response to its unique need. To respond to the call, to answer ‘Here I am’, as one must, is to be inaugu- rated into responsibility. Indeed, far from exercising moral agency on one’s own behalf – with all the connotations of autonomy and rationality which that intends – the response to the other is, for Levinas, no choice at all. As he puts it: ‘The recur- rence of the self in responsibility for others, a persecuting obsession, goes against intentionality, such that responsibility for others could never mean altruistic will, instinct of “natural benevolence”, or love’ (1998: 111–12). Rather, the response is compelled, not even in recognition of a spoken or sensed demand, but as Levinas insists before any demand by the other, or commitment of the self, has been made. In the sensibility of my exposedness to the other, I have already been offered without any holding back, in a non-present, and without commencement or initiative (1998: 75). The one is infinitely obligated before the transcendent other, not in respect of a predetermined moral duty, but simply by virtue of the face to face relation. To be responsible for an other without limit, to be a self-for-the-other, is, as Levinas pointedly names it, to become the hostage of an other. It is not, nonethe- less, a state of unfreedom, a capturing of the will, for in his ethics the will does not yet exist. The finite parameters of conventional moral agency – freedom, rationality, and self-identity – have no part in Levinasian ethics. Rather, in the face of the unavoidable call to responsibility, the question of being, and thus of agency, is yet to come. Insofar as Levinas speaks of or implies being before the ethical moment, it is as an artefact of a necessarily ontological language, and should always be read sous rature. In place of the calculability of moral duty which theoretically at least treats everyone alike, an ethics of responsibility posits the other as a unique and irreplaceable individual. And moreover, it is precisely as the one called, the one who must respond to the vulnerability, the suffering, and the need of the other who meets me face to face, that I am instituted as a sub- ject in my own right. My interiority, my unselfconscious enjoyment of the world, is opened up to exteriority and to the infinite. Moreover, insofar as the call is directed to me alone, not as a demand for the satisfaction of pre-existing rights but as a personal reaching out, even though the call may come only from a silent face, it establishes me as singular and unique. No-one, Levinas insists, may take my place; it is from me alone that the other requires response. In being subjected to the needs of the other in ‘a passivity more passive still than the passivity of matter’ (1998: 113–14), I become a subject. It is my very election as a hostage that establishes my freedom. There is a very significant difference, then, between Levinasian ethics as they open onto infinity, and the more usual conception of morality with its totalising schema organised around the ontologically given. But where the latter schemata are clearly normative, we could ask whether Levinas offers prescription or simply description. In transforming the semantic meaning of ‘ethics’, he refuses the ascription of value as such, but makes clear that to ‘be’ ethical is ‘otherwise and better than being’ (Levinas 1989b: 179). Moreover, it would be misleading to conclude that the response to the encounter is empty of more or less preferable



alternatives. Certainly his language implies that in the face to face encounter things could not be otherwise, that the call or demand is inescapable, that the one has no choice but to respond. Nonetheless, it is not the case that one will neces- sarily take responsibility: the opportunity to enter into ethics may be passed over. Although the criticism that Levinas is being merely utopian carries some weight, he is well aware of the shortcomings of humanity. To hear the call, to meet the other face to face, and to ignore her, is not after all to fail to respond. Indeed as Levinas makes clear, the initial response to the unknown stranger may be no less than murderous; we would kill what seems to threaten us. Such a reaction chimes with the encounter with what we call monstrous, but the point Levinas wants to make is that the threat is apparent only, the violence is all mine. Though the other infinitely exceeds my power, it arises not through the exercise of force, but by the overflowing of every idea I can have of him (1969: 87). To kill the other, then, to annihilate, is literally without meaning. In the pre-ontological moment, it is the defenceless transcendence of the other that stays my hand. Murder is a real possibility, but an ethical impossibility: ‘There is here a relation not with a very great resistance, but with something absolutely other: the resistance of what has no resistance – the ethical resistance’ (1969: 199). The point is not that I cannot respond with violence, but that it will fail in its aim; in absolute alterity, the other, that which is non-self, is always beyond my grasp. In her critique of Levinasian ethics, the philosopher of religion, Grace Jantzen (1998), asks why violence rather than welcome should suggest itself as the first proclivity, and although she provides a partial answer with reference to Levinas’ own understanding of the western logos, her question, I believe, misses the mark. As Jantzen rightly points out, Levinas sees the ontological impulse as founded in mastery, an overcoming of otherness that secures the same in a gesture of vio- lence. In contradistinction, the face to face constitutes an ethical moment which forbids murder. As Levinas insists, the originary encounter – prior to an ontology that opposes self to other – is pre-eminently peaceful; alterity displaces violence, because the absolute other is inviolate. At first, this seems to make good sense, but there is, nevertheless, a problem both for Levinas’ rethinking of the ethical, and for Jantzen’s critique: it is difficult to understand why, in the pre-ontological, there should be ascriptions such as violent or peaceful at all. To whom or what do they pertain? The question is especially acute given that Levinas makes clear that the face, rather than displaying finite characteristics, opens onto infinity. As several commentators have pointed out, Totality and Infinity, in which the dis- cussion of violence develops, is beset by the complications of writing the pre-ontological in the language of self and other, and perhaps it is up to the reader in the encounter with the text to disabuse herself of assumptions of meaning. Despite a remaining hesitation, a more generous approach cannot fail to appreci- ate the novelty of a project that demonstrates how ethics might be constituted otherwise. It should be remembered, besides, that the face to face relation is both an-archic and recurrent. In encountering the stranger-neighbour, I may be called back to the ethical from my immersion in the ontological; I may be interrupted in my being. Whatever the status of my initial response, then, violent or wel- coming, it is the move to responsibility that matters. The other who calls to me in



unprotected openness, ‘does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness’ (Levinas 1969: 200). As Levinas develops his model, it becomes clear that his notion of vulnerabil- ity is one which will answer to my own use of the term to mark a state which is as much that of the one as of the other. Although initially it is the other who is vulnerable, who is figured as homeless, poor, widowed, orphaned, and whose suffering humanity invokes response, that response itself – or rather the irrestistibility of the call – pitches me also into vulnerability. I am exposed before the nakedness of the face, the certainty of my own existence thrown into doubt. It is my moral subjection to the other, my vulnerability in exposure to her vulner- ability, that instantiates me as a subject. At the level of my corporeity, of my incarnation ‘before being tied to my body’ (1998: 76), the relation with the other – before any conscious determination – is characterised by Levinas as maternal. This is not intended to denote that I give birth to the other, nor yet that she is dependent on my prior existence for her own. Certainly I am for-her, rather than for-myself, but it is in that that I become. In responding to the need of the stranger-other with a hospitality without limit, by giving shelter and nourishment, I enact a donation without return which positions me not as a beneficent subject, but as a pre-ontological maternal hostage. It is hardly surprising that for feminist critics the lack of concern with maternity as birth-giving, and the focus on what seems to amount to a form of self-annulment raises serious misgivings. As Cynthia Willett remarks: ‘however much ethical sacrifice brings honor to the mother, this sacrifice is also suffered as an effacement of the female self’ (1995: 84). Although Levinas might respond that there is as yet no real self as such to efface, one might wonder, nonetheless, whether the subject who emerges from the ethi- cal encounter could ever be a feminine self. What is clear is that my suffering as one-for-the-other effectively ties together the concepts of maternity, vulnerability and proximity. The proximity of the encounter is, for Levinas, ‘quite distinct from every other relationship’ (1998: 46), and is very different to the closeness of two beings in communication, be it verbal or tactile. As Vasseleu puts it: ‘Prior to any sensation and irreducible to it, proximity is a sensibility which is distin- guished from the conjunction which occurs in experience and knowledge’ (1998: 98). In other words, no-thing is grasped in the here and now. Proximity is an an-archic concept, reducible neither to the simultaneity of objects in time, nor as Levinas says, ‘to any modality of distance or geometrical contiguity, nor to the simple “representation” of a neighbour; it is already an assignation…an obligation, anachronously prior to commitment’ (1998: 100–1). It is rather a non-phenomenal state of vulnerability, ‘an abyss’ as Levinas remarks. Strictly speaking, proximity signals neither presence nor yet absence to/of the other, but an openness or exposure that traverses the space of difference. Although it is pri- marily an auratic and not a tactile relation, there is no exchange of words, nor even mutual awareness. The one and the other are not known to each other, and yet the relation – if it can be called that – is intensely personal. In proximity, I am claimed by an an-archical and ‘persecuting obsession’ that remains always non- reciprocal. I am alone and singular in my exposure to the call to responsibility.



Moreover, I am called to suffer not only as the hostage of the other, but in the place of her responsibility. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas unfolds the concept of substitution as the crux of his understanding of the ethical relation between the one and the other. It is not simply that I must respond to the other, I must substitute myself for her and take on both her suffering and her responsibility, even to the extent that she causes me to suffer. Yet substitution is not an act, an intentionality towards the other, but an absolute passivity, beyond the usual binary of active and passive. I do not put myself in the place of the other, so much as I am occupied by it. It is, then, neither a form of respect in the Kantian sense for an equal and autonomous other, nor an empathy that would collapse difference into the selfsame. The ques- tion of agency, as it is usually understood, does not arise; there is as yet no will- ing I. Indeed, ‘(t)hese are not events that happen…to an ego already posited and fully identified, as a trial that would lead it to be more conscious of itself’ (1998: 115–16), but that happen to the being in-oneself-for-the-other, what Levinas calls ‘otherwise than being’. In substituting myself, ‘I exist through the other and for the other, but without this being alienation….The psyche can signify this alterity in the same without alienation in the form of incarnation, as being-in-one’s skin, having-the-other-in-one’s-skin’ (1998: 114–15). Although, then, I am summonsed to expiation before any fault of my own, and prior to any act of will, the substitution is not a submission to an-other ego, but rather the mark of the irreplaceability and uniqueness of my self. In short, the self is ethically liberated. It is only in the mode of substitution that suffering, which otherwise is ‘for noth- ing’, can take on a meaning: ‘the suffering for the useless suffering of the other person, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the Other, opens upon suffering the ethical perspective of the inter-human’ (Levinas 1988: 159). As Levinas understands it, the problematic of the pre-ontological being-in-itself disrupts the philosophical question of why others concern us. Unlike the self- conscious being-for-himself who ‘washes his hands of the faults and misfortunes that do not begin in his own freedom or in his present’ (1998: 116), the one-for- the-other – the hostage, the substitute – who responds without prior commitment opens on to human solidarity. I am ethical because ‘I am’ only in response to all the others. And yet the originary relationship remains deeply asymmetrical in that although I substitute for the other, neither she nor any other may substitute for me. There can be no reciprocity, no expectation of the return of my gift of respon- sibility, 3 for that would be to enter into an economy of exchange which Levinas considers to be post-ethical. At the level of the ethical, there are no grounds on which I can judge the transcendent other; my task is responsibility alone. If I am persecuted by the other, then, in my limitless responsibility for her and in her place, I am guilty. In consequence of my openness to the other, in a proximity unmediated by any principle, I open myself to the utmost vulnerability. It is precisely the relationship of non-reciprocity on which Levinas insists that theorists such as Cynthia Willett (1995) – who is equally concerned to reconfigure the dialectic of self and other – have found deeply problematic. In specifically feminist ethics, even with a postmodernist slant, the appeal to reciprocal exchange



is paradigmatic. Except perhaps for Luce Irigaray who fully embraces a Derridean notion of the gift (Irigaray 1992: 73), such a reading entails an under- standing that renders the gift without return as untenable. Willett, moreover, is suspicious of the ‘unmeasured generosity’ of Levinasian ethics and perceptively remarks: ‘the gift given without regard to the particular context of the other, the gift given ex nihilo, may be regarded as an insult or violation, a wilful form of misrecognition or misattunement’ (1995: 82). Certainly Levinas’ implication that the gift occurs before any specific demand has been made would seem to support such a concern, but for him the gift nevertheless always takes the form of a response. There is little reason to suppose that it is, or could be, imposed. On the contrary, it is a matter of risk, a reaching out to the unknown other that is not con- ditional on an appropriate return. Although the notion of a pleasurable, inter- personal exchange that Willett develops with regard to the paradigm relation between caregiver and infant is appealing, and like the Levinasian model does not presuppose the meeting of full subjects, it cannot easily be extended to the ethical encounter between strangers. Were response indeed dependent on the expectation – if not the calculation, then at least the erotics – of mutual exchange, then there would be little incentive in enter into any unfamiliar encounter. The extent to which Levinas is willing to forgo the safety of mutual response, and embrace the vulnerability of unknowingness, is precisely the measure of the potential inclusiveness of his ethical imagination. Nonetheless, this is an extremely harsh understanding of ethics, and though it forecloses the ontological split between the one and the other, and refigures vulnerability away from negativity, it is difficult to see how to progress to the socio-political world in which we must live together. Levinas could scarcely be described as a social or political philosopher, and yet he is not detached from the prevailing climate of postwar, post-Holocaust Europe; rather he is responding to the horrors that had already been perpetrated. Indeed, Otherwise than Being is dedicated to the memory of those affected by National Socialism, and to other ‘victims of the same hatred of the other man’. We must concede that his text is intended to have substantive import. Though, for Levinas, ethics cannot be grounded in either a pre-given ontology or in universal reason, the priority, imme- diacy and particularity of obligation itself gives rise to the community of subjec- tive meaning, and to general laws. But how are we to move from a severe personal ethic of infinite responsibility, in which judgement and reciprocity play no part, to one that engages with justice in the socio-political sphere? It is just such a ques- tion that Simon Critchley (1992) addresses when he claims that Levinasian ethics do lead back to politics insofar as I find myself to be an other like all the others. Although it is hard to agree with Critchley that the ethical relation never takes place in an a-political space outside the public realm – for surely it is just such interruptions to the polity that Levinas intends – it is clear that ‘the relation to the face is always already a relation to humanity as a whole’ (Critchley 1992: 226). Rather than being already political, as Critchley contends, ethics, as I see it, subtends the political. What mobilises the crucial move relies on two things. First is the point that in the face to face relation with the other, I am also in ‘the presence of the third party, the whole of humanity, in the eyes that look at me’



(Levinas 1969: 213). The entry of the third party is not an empirical event so much as a realisation that the other, my neighbour, is also in a relation to other others. It is not just that the third stands against the danger of closure and complicity in the interpersonal relation; it is the presence that mitigates the originary asymmetry and links me to a community of equal others. In opening up to a multiplicity of others, the third party allows for ‘the thematization of the same on the basis of the relationship with the other’ (1998: 158). And second, the oblig- ation placed on me in proximity to the other – even though I cannot be replaced – is addressed too to everyone else in their uniqueness. In other words, I am not alone in my singularity and vulnerability, but one among a multiplicity of others. It is these other others, then, who mark, as Levinas puts it, the limit of responsibility and the birth of the question of justice, where justice is ‘an incessant correction of the asymmetry of proximity’ (1998: 158). It is not that the non-reciprocity of the rela- tionship with alterity should be reversed, but that in the plurality of such relations, justice arises. But are we not then returned to the sphere of totalisation, the realm of the Said, of universal laws and principles that erase difference? Could I not, to return to my earlier theme, regard the images of the Still Life exhibition as those of undifferentiated beings deserving of respect for their vulnerability, but making no personal call to me above that to moral decency? There is room, I believe, in the concluding sections of Otherwise than Being, for an alternative approach within the concept of justice. Far from turning away from the specific, Levinas insists that justice ‘must not be taken for an anony- mous law of the “human force” governing an impersonal totality’ (1998: 161). Even as I am able to move to another dimension beyond the exacting nature of the asymmetrical relation, I am aware that because it arises from that original proximity, justice itself can preserve the non-indifference to difference that proxi- mity demands:

All the others that obsess me in the other do not affect me as examples of the same genus united with my neighbor by resemblance or common nature….The one for the other of proximity is not a deforming abstraction. In it justice is shown from the first, it is thus born from the signifyingness of signification, the one-for-the-other, signification. This means concretely and empirically that justice is not a legality regulating human masses….Justice is impossible without the one that renders it finding himself in proximity. (1998: 159)

What justice enables is ‘a society where there is no distinction between those close and those far off’, but that resists totalisation. Moreover, ethical discourse in the Levinasian mode is neither determinate nor definitive, precisely because the Said, the formalisation, must be thought back to the Saying of the ethical moment of proximity, vulnerability and responsibility. The recurrence of the face to face disturbs the complacency that fixed principles and rules of behaviour might effect, and ensures the ongoing development and adequacy of universal, but not totalising, laws. It is because of the evolution of ethical discourse in the face to face, that it remains open to the trace of the originary relation and to absolute difference. It appears, then, that Levinas is fully committed to an account that resists the assimilatory power of the same and relies on the continuing alterity of the radically



other. His rejection of the ontological moves that return the other to the self signals the need for an acceptance of the irreducibility of otherness, although it is less clear that his model serves to mark the otherness within the self. Nonetheless insofar as the self becomes a subject only through proximity to and by substitu- tion for the other, it is evident that the two are not strictly bounded or divided one from the other. Even before the Law, the realm of justice, the trace of that proxi- mity remains as the guarantee that the community of equals is one sensitive to difference. As Levinas puts it, justice is necessary for compassion, co-existence and co-presence, but as a regulatory power it is always non-indifferent in its oper- ation. And yet despite the concentration on an irreducible alterity, critics of Levinas make two major claims against him: first that his ethical position is deeply egoistic, and second that he betrays the claims of sexual difference as per- haps the most radical difference of all. The latter point is of interest here, not because it constitutes an explicit theme in my approach, but because, as I outlined in Chapter 2, the feminine and the monstrous are habitually conflated the one with the other. Although Levinas may seek to save the stranger – which is surely another form of the monster – how far do, or could, his ethics encompass all forms of radical alterity? I shall move on to consider briefly some critical responses to his work. The accusation that there remains a fundamental egoism at the heart of Levinasian ethics is serious indeed for it would seem to challenge the very priority of ethics over ontology that is the crux of his approach. The charge, as I understand it, is supported in at least two different forms. The first arises precisely from the move that would seem to negate the selfsame in the acceptance of infi- nite responsibility for the other. But does this not suggest a self who is unable to acknowledge the limitations of finite being, who imagines that she is entitled to answer the call of the infinite? Moreover, in the putative opening on to infinity in the place of the other, do I not simultaneously efface any intuition of my own need, and erase the sense that the demands and needs of the other may be local and specific? In the focus on infinity, I take my self to encompass both nothing and everything. As always with Levinas, it is difficult to avoid confusing the abstract and the empirical register, but there is some validity in David Wood’s comment:

our exposure to the other is not some huge, excessive obligation, but rather a complex openness to requests, demands, pleas, which call not just for acknowledgment of my obligations, but for scrutiny, for negotiation, for interpretation, and ultimately for recognizing both opportunities and limitations. (1997: 110)

As Wood sees it, the restricted and calculative nature of rule-bound morality should not be put in an either/or opposition to an excessive responsibility. Certainly, the Levinasian self can at times sound almost messianic in its putative capacity to substitute, to suffer for the other, but it should be remembered too that Levinas does not in fact set up the binary which Wood discerns. Rather, he wishes the empirically active moral agent to be called back to infinite responsi- bility as an interruptive and corrective trace that continuously repositions ethics as prior to ontology. The second charge of egoism is best exemplified by Luce Irigaray (1991a), who, whilst admitting that Levinas’ work is temporarily useful and partially



worthy of respect, is also highly critical. She accuses him of depriving the other of identity in the notion of substitution. But this surely is to beg the question, for if my own identity is not yet formed, then is not the same true of the other? In the register of the face to face, the ego, for Levinas, is not yet an identity as such, or is in any case set aside, as it were, in the recurrence of proximity. It is precisely that ethical moment which interrupts the ego. It should be noted, however, that his concept of proximity does not imply contact as such, still less an intertwining as it would do with Irigaray. 4 Rather, it is an approach. But what then is it that keeps itself apart, even as it is given up to the other? Even in his account, in Totality and Infinity, of the caress – which is somewhat different from the indeter- minable face to face – Levinas seems to Irigaray to maintain distance and be con- cerned only with ‘the elaboration of a future for himself’ (Irigaray 1991a: 179). She goes on:

This autistic, egological, solitary love does not correspond to the shared outpouring, to the loss of boundaries which takes place for both lovers when they cross the boundary of the skin into the mucous membranes of the body, leaving the circle which encloses my solitude to meet in a shared space. (1991a: 180)

The complaint is that as an ‘approach’, the caress fails to open on to a future for both the one and the other (Irigaray 1993a: 188). Instead, the one seeks transcen- dence at the expense of the other. The lover (whom Irigaray identifies as male) does not truly encounter the other in her own specificity, but reads only his own desire through her. The question of egoism cannot of course be separated from the more sustained charge that Levinas himself is not merely indifferent to sexual difference, but positively repressive of the feminine. What he intends in his account is that the ethics should be organised around an alterity before the mark of sexual differ- ence, which is thus subordinated to a supposedly more fundamental division between self and other. In his earlier work in particular, however, that priority is under strain as gendered terminology threatens to swamp any claim to neutrality. Irigaray is highly critical of Levinas here, but in a characteristic move that recu- perates the emphasis given to alterity, she turns the Levinasian model around so that a radical sexual difference is the very threshold of ethics (Irigaray 1993a). Where other feminists also, such as Gayatri Spivak, have no hesitation in refer- ring to the work of Levinas as ‘prurient, male-identified ethics’ (Spivak 1992: 77), critics like Derrida, who has himself been accused of anti-feminism (though mis- takenly in my view), make similar points. As Derrida remarks, Totality and Infinity could not have been written other than by a man (1978: 321), and although clearly attracted to Levinasian ethics, he expresses the view that in attempting to write without a thematised philosophical language and context, Levinas fails to escape the grip of an ontological discourse that, as he himself avers, collapses the other into the same. By the time of Otherwise than Being, Levinas has more successfully pre-empted ontology, but his new work too is sub- ject to a Derridean critique. In ‘At This Very Moment in This Work Here I Am’ (1991a) Derrida mimics the voice of Levinas, and plays on his initials, E.L., to replace them finally by the fully fledged ‘elle’ the dissident feminine voice that has hitherto been missing.



What is really disturbing to most feminist readers of Levinas is that although he may intend to posit an originary humanity before sexual division, the supposed neutrality of that project is undermined by the evident masculinity of the one, and by his use of the feminine metaphor, often to characterise otherness as such. Certainly his deployment of terms associated with a traditional view of the femi- nine as ‘less than’ – in which guise it has been associated with the strange, the unknown, the monstrous in general – works to give the impression of a mascu- linist philosophy in which radical alterity is constantly subverted. As John Caputo notes, for Levinas, ‘the instantiation of the Same and the Other par excellence is the Macho Man and the Modest Maid’ (1997: 151). In particular, the vulner- ability and frailty of the other is clearly marked as feminine, a destitution that can be relieved only by the one. But in contrast to the traditional model of dominance which it might seem to evoke, the Levinasian response to the suffering other is not one of power, but of infinite ethical responsibility. It is not a relationship of mastery. Moreover, as we have seen, the oneself is called into question, exposed before the other, subjected to an unanswerable demand; revealed, in short, in its own utmost vulnerability. Yet this presents a further moment of hesitation for the feminist reader, as Levinas clearly identifies the infinite responsibility and vulnerability of the one with the concept of maternity. The pre-ontological mater- nal body is one that suffers without limit for the other, that always already bears the full weight of the hostage, the substitute:

In maternity what signifies is a responsibility for others, to the point of substitution for others and suffering both from the effect of persecution and from the persecuting itself in which the persecutor sinks. Maternity, which is bearing par excellence, bears even responsibility for the persecuting by the persecutor. (1998: 75)

Unlike the subject of ontology who would incorporate and consume difference, maternity is devoted to feeding the other, to offering the gift of oneself-for-the- other without return. When Willett (1995) complains that the mother, as subject, is yet again effaced, she may overlook the priority of Levinasian ethics over ontology, but expresses a legitimate anxiety that the feminine is as ever the marked term. Despite his frequent use of the term ‘woman’ in Totality and Infinity, Levinas has in other work pointedly denied any substantive connection between the femi- nine, as he uses it, and ‘any romantic notions of the mysterious, unknown, or mis- understood woman’ (1989c: 49). And yet there remains an unease that his terminology is marked by binary sexual difference. One commentator, Grace Jantzen, has suggested forcefully that the problem lies in Levinas’ failure to prob- lematise the face of the one who responds, which, she claims, ‘is indeed his face, the face of an adult male with sufficient ability and privilege to be able to choose its response’ (1998: 241). What, she asks, if the face of the oneself were that of a woman? But surely this cannot express the problem, for on the one hand, the ques- tion of choice has been deferred, and on the other, Levinas has already identified the one who responds with the maternal figure. If this is sex specific, then he has effectively disrupted the negativity associated with woman. If not, then the purpose must be that in being called first to ethics, the virility, mastery, and violence of the western symbolic – in which the unknown other is perceived as a



threat – is suspended in favour of those qualities associated with the feminine. The ontological anxiety that underlies the assumption of dominance over, and violence towards, the other is displaced. If the Levinasian project of radically rethinking the other, and of breaking the hegemony of sameness over difference, is successful, then I am inclined to agree with Tina Chanter when she says: ‘we cannot understand Levinas’s account of the otherness which “accomplishes itself in the feminine” as a restatement of the traditional domination of the Other by the same’ (1988: 36). Because the I in its singularity is instituted in the summons by the other, we can accept that ‘(t)he otherness with which the feminine has always been associated is rethought by Levinas’ (ibid.). I will leave aside further consideration of whether Levinas has given an ade- quate account of sexual difference in its radical Irigarayan sense, to ask instead the question more pertinent to my own immediate project of whether the other has really been recuperated in a specific and absolute alterity. Although I am will- ing to accept that the gesture of subsuming the other under the ontological cate- gory of the same has been avoided, might there be some other violence involved? Given that Levinasian ethics, even when opened out to encompass the arena of justice in a universal sense, is rooted in the immediacy of the face to face encounter, does that not pose a risk of forgetting the other others, all those who never do, or could, appear to me? As Levinas characterises it, the departure from myself is explicitly the approach, the proximity, to a neighbour, or at least a stranger in my neighbourhood, but what, then, of those who do not, cannot, pre- sent themselves, who remain truly alien, or even monstrous? At the beginning of Totality and Infinity, where Levinas identifies ethics with metaphysics, he describes the latter in its general form as ‘a movement going forth from a world that is familiar to us…from an “at home” (“chez soi”) which we inhabit, toward an alien outside-of-oneself (hors-de-soi), toward a yonder’ (1969: 33), but it is precisely this sense of the not-yet approachable that seems to disappear from the ethics. What I am suggesting is that Levinas, in his concentration on the encounter as the wellspring of all ethics, may unwittingly assimilate the unencountered others to what the face to face already gives up to the thematisation required by universal law. It is not a matter of knowledge as such, for to know the other is already to be unethical. It is more a case of failing to think the radical alterity between all the others. The assumption is that justice and the law will refer back to – be interrupted by – my own originary position in proximity to the other, though that, we should remember, is necessarily limited. The voice of the ethical hostage is strongly personal in Levinas’ work and suggests the struggle of the writer to produce a delineation of ethics that is adequate to his own experience. There is nothing wrong with that as a starting point – indeed in the absence of pre-determined values, it must be the starting point – but how can it go on, with- out supplement, to account for the complexity of other relations? As Spivak remarks: ‘An ethical position must entail universalization of the singular….But if there is one universal, it cannot be inclusive of difference’ (1992: 75). In illustra- tion of the difficulty, let me recall briefly the dedication of Otherwise than Being to which I referred earlier. More fully, it remembers ‘the millions on millions of all



confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism’. Whilst the general appeal against the murderous violence of intol- erance is irreproachable, it is not clear to me that all hatreds take the same form. Would, for example, a homosexual man or woman, or a mentally disabled person – even to stay within the circuit of those persecuted under National Socialism – recognise themselves as experiencing the same hatred of their other- ness as that directed towards Jews? Would the Still Life neonates, as objects of fascinated repulsion rather than hatred, have demanded the same ethical response as any of the foregoing? With the problem of the possible erasure of specificity in mind, Sara Ahmed has raised the question of whether we need to examine how the other is figured as such in the very process of being designated ‘the other’. She suggests that once ‘otherness’ is ascribed as a quality of the neighbour-stranger, then, that ‘is surely to fill the other in, to know the other as being in a certain way, and thus to ontolo- gise the other as a being, albeit an alien one’ (2000: 142). As such, Levinas’ ethi- cal project defeats its own terms, and, moreover, otherness is fetishised to the extent that it conceals the particular other in her difference. Nonetheless, Ahmed argues that it is misplaced to assume that in the name of ethics we could or should seek to gain access to an other at the level of individual specificity. Instead she suggests that we turn our attention to the particularity of modes of encounter, in a move that would account for a multiplicity of others. As she puts it: ‘introduc- ing particularity at the level of encounters (the sociality of the “with”) helps us to move beyond the dialectic of self–other and towards a recognition of the differ- entiation between others’ (2000: 144). The effect of such a shift of focus would be to open up the encounter to the question of elsewhere and otherwise. Rather than holding the other in place, Ahmed claims, I would need to ask about the con- ditions of possibility for the encounter itself, about its historicity and its future, and about what it is of the other, and the other others, that exceeds the presence of this face to face. In short it is an opening on to broader social processes. The problem in relating this to Levinasian ethics is that the emphasis on finite and particular of modes of encounter may fall short of the demand for infinite respon- sibility. Again Ahmed suggests an answer. By drawing some distinction between responsibility for and response to the other – as indeed I have already done with regard to the question of violence – we might reasonably satisfy both the infinite call to responsibility, and the here and now need for a finite response within the particular encounter. As Ahmed comments: ‘One’s infinite responsibility begins with the particular demands that an other might make, but the particularity of my response cannot fulfil my responsibility’ (2000: 147). Indeed to exceed the singular moment is precisely to open oneself to ethics. The difficulty with the Levinasian model is that while it convincingly expresses the originary moment of ethics, and provides an answer to the classic puzzle of why be ethical, it is more problematic when dealing with material situa- tions in which power and other differentials are already established and have a history. The encounter that Levinas describes both is and is not a phenomenal event, but unless it can bear some substantiality, it remains too abstract to deal adequately with the issue of difference in its multiple forms. One area that is of




particular concern to me is whether or not the ethical, for Levinas, is embodied. Despite a plethora of corporeal terms such as face, skin, body, pain, nakedness, birth and so on, it appears that they do not figure any material entity. Although critics such as Critchley refer to an ethics grounded in a flesh and blood sensibil- ity (1992: 179), it seems to me that the body eludes expression or slips away even as it expresses. This is especially clear in relation to Levinas’ conception of the face, which he wants to remain separate from that which can be seen – apprehended – by a perceiving consciousness which would return it to the same and thus defeat its absolute alterity. Instead, as Levinas puts it: ‘The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me, the idea existing to my own measure and to the measure of its ideatum – the adequate idea’ (1969: 50–1). But can the abstraction of the transcendent face without fea- tures ground an ethics that is able to differentiate between a multiplicity of speci- fic others? Levinas maps out no explicit route to move from one to the other, but it may be possible to extend his approach precisely by fleshing out the face, by noting the particularity of its expressive features, as well, as Ahmed suggests, as the mode of the encounter. My response in proximity to the faces of the Still Life series is explained best not by the austerity of strictly Levinasian ethics, but by a double movement that encompasses the abstract form, focuses in on the ‘real’ face of a whole body in a particular context, and opens out again to being other- wise. The encounter touched me deeply both in its finite specificity and in its infi- nite implications. What is at stake here speaks to a central conundrum with regard to the encounter: unless it is described to an extent at least in the language of bodily materiality the relation is no more than an ideal abstraction, but if it is taken to be only phenomenal, then it risks being grasped to the selfsame. In the next chapter I shall address some other ways of thinking the contact between bodies which both rely on their fleshy corporeality and withstand the possessive impulse that would overwhelm difference and specificity. To enter into an embodied and sensuous engagement will entail a return to the analytic of the ‘real’ bodies from which Levinas seems distanced. Nonetheless, despite this and other serious reservations about what is inherent in his work, there is much in Levinasian ethics that is of value and relevance to my own project. At its sim- plest level, the resistance to totalisation, and to the impetus of assimilation that characterises the western logos, opens up to a reconceived concept of difference. In eschewing a calculative morality tied to pre-determined principles, to expecta- tions of balanced exchange, and to standards of equality, ethics, for Levinas, as for Derrida, is always a matter of risk. In addition, the notion that the encounter with the other precedes self-presence and self-determination marks not just the points about becoming-in-the-world-with-others that I develop in the next chapter, but the more radical realisation that exposure, a vulnerable openness in the face of alterity, is the very condition of becoming. In the place of the reac- tions of violence, intolerance and fear in the face of the strange encounter – all of which seek and necessarily fail to preserve an impossible separation – we might see that greeting and welcome are more appropriate. I am not suggesting that there are no instances in which the protective function of distinctive boundaries is necessary, for clearly some approaches are hostile in intent. Rather it is a matter



of forswearing judgment in advance, of refusing to place pre-determined limits on my ethical response, or to limit the other to the categories of the known even as she is unfamiliar. To hold open the idea of the other, in whatever form she takes, is to enter into the risk of mutual becoming. In short, it is vulnerability itself, of the one and of the other, and the responsibility that it engenders in the one and for the other, that is the provocation of ethical subjectivity.



The issue of what is at stake in the relational economies of self and other – in effect the question of difference – has been taken up in feminist thought as possibly the most urgent and critical focus of postconventional theory in general. Is it possible that the encounter with the other can be mediated such that the inter- val of distance – the spacing that separates self-complete subjects and that makes possible the objectifying and disciplinary operation of the gaze – will lose its determining power? In this chapter I shall reflect on monstrous corporeality, both as a category and in some specific examples – again turning to the instance of the Irish conjoined twins – not just to problematise further the relation between the non-normative and the normative subject as they are embodied, but to reconsider the issue of subject relations in general. While the notion of contamination figures an other whose anomalous body is leaky and noxious, the perceived risk of con- tact is not limited to the realm of the ab-normal, but encompasses too the coming together of those normatively embodied subjects who are supposedly marked out by closed boundaries of the skin. In focusing on those organic beings whose difference is always already apparent at the surface, I want to open up the question of touch, the very thing that signals potential danger in a specular economy that privileges separation. In analysing the gendered exercise of the gaze, it has seemed to many feminist theorists that the emphasis on the detachment of the specular at the expense of the immediacy of touch is a characteristic of a mascu- linist logos. Although it may express the operative nature of those relations between autonomous subjects most valued in the dominant discourse, it is scarcely an adequate image of relational economies that are lived in phenomeno- logical complexity. The value put on the clarity and distinction implied by clear sight, the lack of affective engagement, and the minimisation of interconnection are all aspects that could flourish only where the materiality and voluminosity of the flesh is reduced to a surface phenomenon that ideally reflects back the unity and completion of the viewing subject. In contrast I shall look instead at the issue of 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. As paradigms of clear-sightedness, images and metaphors of the mirror, in both its speculative and its self-reflective capacity, constitute a familiar trope in western metaphysics. 1 To look into the mirror of nature or of the soul, to reflect on matters of judgement, is to exercise a distinctly human capacity in which the enquiring mind constitutes distance and objectivity as the mark of truth.



Moreover, in the period of modernity in particular, the parameters of knowledge, once the absolute domain of God, are fixed in the (self)reflective mind of the human being, or more specifically the human male. By gazing on the natural world, man, it is claimed, has been enabled to gain mastery over all things exter- nal to him, while at the same time looking into himself for knowledge of his own being. The self-certainty of the Cogito in the abstract mode of self-reflection carries with it, however, the risk of splitting off as other those things, such as ever-changing bodily substance, which seem to carry no ontological consistency. For the subject of the masculinist logos, the whole and unified self is affirmed by reference to an ideal of unvarying sameness that demands the disavowal of the dynamics of becoming. Contact, and still less interchange, finds no place in the stasis of abstract being. As it constitutes its other, nonetheless, the speculative gaze is sustained only insofar as it is reflected in its own exteriority. The self can- not come into being without the other, which is positioned either in terms of iden- tity as the selfsame, or in terms of difference as the other of the same. In both cases, self and other are inextricably co-dependent. As Alphonso Lingis puts it:

A thing is by engendering images of itself, reflections, shadows, halos. These cannot be separated from the core appearance which would make them possible, for they make what one takes to be the core appearance visible…the reality that engenders the phan- tasm is engendered by it. (1994: 41)

Nonetheless, in the specular economy, such intertwined relations cannot be acknowledged, and the ethics of modernity are predicated on the separation and independence of subjects. In the work of Luce Irigaray, the image of reflection is central to her under- standing of how the history of philosophy, and the logos it supports, is structured by a series of exclusions, and although her focus is on the place of the gendered woman, I believe her insights can be extended to the linked term of the anom- alous and monstrous body. As I indicated earlier, the monster, as a figure of the imaginary, may be read most fruitfully alongside, and as supplemental to, the already familiar composite of matter and mother through which feminism in particular has staged a critique of the dominant forms of western discourse. Within the masculinist forms, those conditions of matter and maternity are both irrecuperable in themselves, and yet at the same time – as feminism has come to recognise – they are quasi-foundational, albeit unacknowledged, in the structura- tion of the logos. In this context, Irigaray’s work has been highly influential in uncovering the paradoxical relation that underpins the ambivalent reception of the mother/matter/monster configuration, as it incites both nostalgia and fear in the interplay of sameness and difference. Rather than working within a model that positions all epistemological phenomena either in terms of identity or as the other of the same, Irigaray’s project demands recognition of the radical other, of what is other than the same. Against a subject who sees only that which reflects his own self-presence, or which confirms his own wholeness and completion, Irigaray proposes a third term uncontained and unreflected by the binary of self and other. Moreover, as she shows in ‘Hystera’ (Irigaray 1985a), despite the lack of acknowledgment for its radical difference, the excluded other is the necessary support of the whole system. And it is the very move of excavating that structural



function that disrupts and throws into doubt the modernist phantasy – for no such figure exists – of a bodily closure and self-completion. Throughout her deconstructive critique Irigaray asserts that the quality of redu- plication that sustains the logos is predicated on and perpetuates a move in which the feminine, as the marked term of the masculine/feminine binary, is merely the reflective surface, the other of the same whose only function is the reproduction – in all its senses – of masculine subjectivity: ‘Mother-matter-nature must go on forever nourishing speculation. But this re-source is also rejected as the waste product of reflection, cast outside as what resists it’ (1985b: 77). It is an image that at best speaks to the passivity of women, and by extension of all who share their exclusion, at worst to their erasure. What interests Irigaray, and concerns me here, is how the unreflected excess, that which is other than the same, nonetheless destabilises the system and points up its inadequacy as a model of existential rela- tions. In short, the apparent clarity of the mirroring process, the regular doubling of the selfsame, cannot be taken for granted. As Baudrillard warns, and as Irigaray is very well aware in her own strategy of mimicry, ‘(t)here is always sorcery at work in the mirror….Reproduction is diabolical in its essence; it makes something fundamental vacillate’ (1988: 182). Though the two-dimensional plane of the mirror may seem to faithfully reiterate the original, 2 it has in its unrepre- sented excess always the potential for subversion. It is the image of the mirror as a hard reflective surface that is taken up too by Lacan, who sees it as that which metaphorically and literally inaugurates the accession to being-in-the-world as a subject, a singular self in a singular body. Just as Irigaray’s analysis recalls the exclusionary operation of (self)reflection and the denial of maternal origin, Lacan too uses the metaphor of the mirror to figure the infant’s turning away and repression of its early experience of ‘nursling dependency’ (1977a: 2) in favour of a sense of bodily unity and selfhood. Instead of the circuit of bodily exchanges that characterise the early maternal/infant bond, and which rely on the physicality of unmediated touch, the move is one to a scopic drive that heralds differentiation. Where the early infant is unable to recog- nise the distinctions between self and other, or between inside and outside, and experiences only fragmentary and uncoordinated motor impulses, the mirror stage founds the ego as ‘both a map of the body’s surface and a reflection of the image of the other’s body’ (Grosz 1994: 38). In Lacan’s account, it sets the scene for the infant’s ‘jubilant assumption of his specular image’ (1977a: 2), and the succession to ‘the armour of an alienating identity’ (1977a: 4). It is, in other words, the point at which a subject becomes distinguished from its objects, and yet both the corporeal unities that it posits, and identity itself are fictional. The closure and distinction of normative embodiment pivots on a (mis)recognition, which, whilst apparently inaugurating wholeness, in fact relies on a splitting at the heart of subjectivity. Although Lacan explicitly saw his account of the for- mation of the subject as counterposed to the disembodied Cogito, the body- images that are (mis)recognised in his model enact their own exclusions, again most particularly of the feminine. But it is not simply that the feminine is repre- sented only as a lack – the nothing to be seen with nothing of itself to reflect – it is also the site of an unruly excess that must be repressed. The conventional



model of subjectivity – be it Cartesian or Lacanian – has no room for corporeal being that is either uncontrollable or less than perfect. It is a model that disavows existential vulnerability. The supposedly intrinsic leakiness of female – and monstrous – bodies is, then, a threat to well-Being, a breach in the boundaries of selfhood that blurs the distinctions between self and other, and between one corpus and another. The implication is that as self-identity and self-image are fundamentally unsta- ble, they must be protected from any/body that is either insecurely bounded in itself, or that threatens to fracture or expose the corporeal and ontological vulner- ability of the singular subject. As Lacan remarks: ‘There is something originally, inaugurally, profoundly wounded in the human relation to the world’ (1988: 169). As such, the shock, even horror, invoked by the monstrous and more particularly the conjoined body is not so much that of an extraordinary morphology, as of a psychic reawakening of an originary confusion of form and lack of singularity as the condition of all. The specular interval that holds apart the autonomously embodied subject from the body without clear boundaries is less a staging of dif- ference than a moment which risks the reflection of the disunity inherent to the self. As I have already remarked, theorists of disability – with which bodily conjunction is classed – have been reluctant to take up such themes. On the con- trary, their emphasis is more usually on establishing that extraordinary forms of embodiment are no obstacle to the full participation of the subjects involved in an ethics of autonomy that privileges clear distinctions between self and other. The phenomenological and especially psychic dimensions of embodiment are scarcely considered. Yet if, as Lacan implies, the unity of the self relies on the reflective unity of the specular other, then that dependency is radically shaken by any mark of disunity in the external image. As Samuels notes, ‘consciousness is always consciousness of the other…without the reflected image of the other, the ego is nothing’ (1993: 73–4). The (mis)recognised template of the body that maps the ego can only be secured by a set of exclusions of the excessive other – most notably the feminine and the anomalous body. Regardless of a fundamental divergence in approach to the question of sexual difference, there is much in Irigaray’s themes that resonates with the ‘descriptive’ element of Lacan’s work. For Irigaray, the masculinist subject can flourish only by disavowing its own origins, its own initial place of embodiment, in the incon- stant, mutable and excessive materiality of the maternal body. In her potent analysis of the denial in the masculine imaginary of matter and of the mother, she asserts that the horror of fluidity is characteristic of the male: ‘All threaten to deform, propagate, evaporate, consume him, to flow out of him and into another who cannot be easily be held on to’ (1985a, ‘Volume-Fluidity’: 237). What are lost are the hard, smooth reflective surfaces that reduplicate but never vary the subject. And just as uncontainable feminine excess must be erased from the clean and proper masculinist subject, so too must the disturbingly fluid corporeality of the monstrous. So powerful is the need to protect itself against the threat of dis- solution inherent in the gross materiality of the maternal body, that the subject must claim autogenesis, ‘(r)eproducing itself instantly and in(de)finitely, in self- likeness, in a process that closes up/off past time’ (Irigaray 1985a: 289). In its



quasi-transcendent form, nothing must remain for the subject as a reminder of the indeterminate form of its origin, and yet such a project must necessarily fail. I have already outlined how Kristeva’s concept of the abject refers to those things – such as the originary envelopment of the maternal bond – that must be kept at bay lest they threaten the subject’s extinction, but which thereby serve to emphasise the contingency and vulnerability of the symbolic, what she calls ‘the frailty of the law’ (Kristeva 1982: 4). A similar point is made by Lyotard when he com- ments that entry into the symbolic is never complete:

It is not ‘I’ who am born, who is given birth to. ‘I’ will be born afterwards, with language, precisely upon leaving infancy…[but] when the law comes to me, with the ego and language, it is too late. Things have already taken a turn. And the turn of the law will not manage to efface the first turn, this first touch: the one that touched me when ‘I’ was not there. (1993: 179)

What Lyotard introduces here, which I want to develop, is that notion of an ineradicable touch. It is, in short, the corporeal ambiguity of touch that disrupts the distinction between self and other, that institutes and perpetuates an in- difference that is deeply alien to the notion of a disembodied subject. That ambi- guity figures an uncanny such that it is not simply that monsters are always there in our conscious appraisal of the external world; they are the other within. Given that persistent sense of ambivalence which seems to ground a deep- seated anxiety not simply about the monstrous other, but about the corporeal as such, it is easier to understand modernist attempts to fix the epistemology and ontology of the monstrous. If the price of a unified self-image, illusory though it may be, is repression, then the subject must be in a relationship of mastery over all that is alien to the clean and proper self. Far from entering into engagement with the strange(r), the modernist subject would figure the other as an object that might be possessed. Despite the best endeavours of the disciplinary and regula- tory impulses, evident in the gaze of both popular culture and science, that which is monstrous evades the limits of classificatory and representational systems, and remains on the side of the unthought. It is neither reflective of the ‘proper’ sub- ject nor reflected in itself, and yet it is not entirely absent nor present. Describing the unthought of western culture, Foucault refers to the Other as ‘not only a brother, but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality’ (1970: 326). 3 This is the selfsame in its constituent parts, who would see in the mirror not the authorised reflection that constructs and defines the parameters of self-presence, but an unnerving double that is yet irreducible to the bounded subject. It is not simply that the self is split, but that duality is the condition of becoming. As such, the image that looks back at us could mirror our own disturbing and half-recognised selves. And in looking for a reflection of our own autonomy, security and sepa- ration in the others from whom we are ideally distinct, it is as though we were to see instead the leaks and flows at the boundaries of, and the vulnerabilities within, our own embodied being. But while the mirror remains resistant to such possibilities, it is through touch that we may come face to face with our other selves. As such, the monstrous is always with us, as our own necessary ontologi- cal excess. Can we then reconfigure the (ethical) relation between self and other,



not in terms of a reflective interval, but as a moment of contiguity where the boundaries are necessarily blurred? I want now briefly to renew my focus on the phenomenon of conjoined twins, for whom the cotangibility of the other is of particular significance. Unlike the Monster of Cracow, or other similar figures of the early modern period, the dis- turbance at the level of the skin does not, for conjoined twins, necessarily signal an inner transgression of normative humanity, at least insofar as it is assumed that there are two separate persons, each with their own identity embodied in a shared morphology. In non-autobiographical observations, the much repeated claim that beneath the skin such twins are essentially separate and autonomous – as though concorporation were merely a surface effect – acts almost as a necessary strategy of ontological reassurance. It is as though the body were merely instrumental and the shared organ of the skin – which is the minimum condition of conjunction – bore no relation to the ‘real’ persons beneath. What is primarily at stake in such an account is the conceptual separation between subject and object in which pro- perty in one’s own body is the ground of selfhood. As Luce Irigaray puts it:

‘Property, ownership, and self-definition are the attributes of the father’s produc- tion….To be. To own. To be one’s own’ (1985a: 300). Yet though that model would seem to position the unmodified corporeal excessiveness of concorpora- tion as only skin deep, such twins do have a clear history of being regarded as freaks, who exist only as a unit. Their doubled and shared bodies point up an extraordinary disturbance that problematises, as I have put it elsewhere, ‘not only the protection of one’s own body from encroachments, but a denial of the leaki- ness between one’s self and others’ (1997: 178). What is missing, then, from the ‘commonsense’ version, and its appeal to the modernist privileging of the self- identical, singular subject, is not only the affective complexity of perception, as it is mediated in this case by mutual touch, but also the psychic investments that accrue to body image and the significance of a phenomenological sense of being- in-the-world-with-others. In the attempted recuperation of the anomaly of con- joined twins as nonetheless potentially conforming to the western standard of singularity and self-determination, there can be no acknowledgment that a radi- cally different form of embodiment might ground other relational economies and demand a rethinking of our limited parameters of ethical being. As I understand it, the phenomenon of conjoined twins provides a kind of limit case in our perception of the self/other relationship, in which the uncertainty that lurks always at the edges of being is exemplified in a particularly acute form. Despite their highly unusual morphology, such twins are, then, by no means redundant to a consideration of ontology and ethics, but rather serve to crystallise what is at stake in a normative economy of self and other. They encourage us to pose the unthought question of what would emerge if instead of the interval of separation and distinction, we were to experience the other, as Foucault suggests, always as a twin, ‘an unavoidable duality’. I am not suggesting, of course, that Foucault intended his remark to be taken literally, but given his own interest in the theoretical import of the anomalous body – such as that of Herculine Barbin (Foucault 1980a) – I have no hesitation in moving between material and abstract registers. Indeed, an understanding of the discursive nature of both could scarcely



demand otherwise. I want, then, to sketch out a quite different way of grasping the significance of concorporate bodies, and more specifically the coextensivity of the skin. For conjoined twins, the cotangibility of the other is an ever present reality, but alongside that literal materiality, the condition may suggest a theoreti- cal pathway in its staging of an economy of touch. Before returning to some rele- vant narrative material, however, I will review the existing development of the notion of tactility in some psychoanalytic and philosophical texts. In comparison with the visible, with its clarity and distance, the tactile – a sensation that both frustrates detachment and compromises objectivity by reason of its reversible nature – is thoroughly devalued. And yet, touch is recognised as the originary sense through which we begin to interact with the world. As Didier Anzieu puts it:

From before birth, cutaneous sensations introduce the young of the human species into a world of great richness and complexity, a world as yet diffuse, but which awakens the perception-consciousness system, forms the basis for a general and episodical sense of existence and opens up the possibility of an originary psychic space. (1989: 12–13) 4

Postnatally, the skin is an extraordinarily sensitive surface which both registers sense impressions of the external world, and transmits, through and on its surface, information as to the baby’s own state of being. Alongside the apprehension of the skin both as a containing sac for physical and psychical apparatus, a unifying

envelope for the self as it were, and as a protective barrier between that self and

a potentially threatening outside, it is apparent that the skin is also the primary organ of communication. Touch, then, is an essential component of the infant’s

well-being, and the skin itself is of ‘both an organic and an imaginary order, both

a system for protecting our individuality and a first instrument and a site of inter- action with others’ (1989: 3). In the first months of life, as Anzieu makes clear in his psychoanalytic reading of what he calls the ‘skin ego’, there is, for the early infant, no distinction between internal and external corporeality marked by the epidermal membrane, but rather a coextensivity with the mother in which they seemingly share a com- mon skin. In Anzieu’s words, ‘(t)his common skin ensures direct communication between the two partners, reciprocal empathy and an adhesive identification: it is

a unique screen which comes to resonate with the sensations, mental images and

vital rhythms of the two’ (1989: 62–3). But, as he explains it, the baby’s initial inability to distinguish between inside and outside, and between itself and the maternal body, is progressively displaced as the intermediary and communicative nature of mutual touch gives way to self/other differentiation in which the skin functions more as a barrier than as a permeable interface. The task for the develop- ing infant is to move beyond corporeal and psychical indifferentiation to a state where what is experienced at the surface of the skin serves to constitute a distinct and increasingly self-aware ego. It is as though a hierarchy develops in which the enveloping function of the skin is privileged, rather than the reciprocity of cotan-

gibility having continuing value alongside the protective function. In short, as the conceptual interval between self and other is established, the intermediary role of the skin loses ground, or perhaps more accurately is repressed in the drive to enact normative and symbolic self-identity. But in the light of the sensory



richness and psychic significance of the surface flesh, could there be a quite different imaginary order in which a sense of self did not depend on the distanc- ing of separation, or on the mode of reflection in/of the other? Both Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray seem to me to offer a means of understanding the significance of cotangible bodies that makes redundant the interval of the Lacanian mirror. 5 Despite their very different theoretical agendas, each signals a way forward in the exploration of touch, which Irigaray claims both as characteris- tic of the feminine and as the substratum of all the senses. Most importantly, touch constitutes, in Cathryn Vasseleu’s words, ‘a scene which defies reduction to the dis- criminations of vision’ (1998: 17). Despite her strong critique of Merleau-Ponty’s text, The Visible and the Invisible (1968), for its apparent privileging of sight – which in her view consigns the other to passivity – Irigaray concurs with him in marking the tactile as that which not simply precedes, but more accurately defers, the separation of the subject from its objects (Irigaray 1991b: 108; Merleau-Ponty 1962). Taken as a whole, Merleau-Ponty’s project focuses on the phenomenology of the lived body in which the interface with others – both objects and living beings – constructs a dynamic sense of self in which abstract singularity plays no part. In a forthright rejection of the Cartesian split between psychological and physiological modes, he makes clear that the two always and necessarily overlap at every moment of existence (Merleau-Ponty 1962). It is through the habitus and comportment of the body, as well as in the imaginary and in desire, that we experi- ence self-becoming. Moreover, the body and the world are inseparable, and:

every perception is a communication or a communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, on the other hand, the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and a coition, so to speak, of our body with things. (1962: 320)

This intertwining is by no means limited to the tactile, but it is especially through touch, the originary sense, that we are made aware of the limitations of reading the world through sight alone. Above all, as the subject of touch, I cannot simply objectify external things: ‘Tactile experience…adheres to the surface of our body; we cannot unfold it before us and it never quite becomes an object’ (1962: 316). Nor can I forget the order of precedence in which ‘tactile experience occurs “ahead” of me, and is not centred in me’ (ibid.). In the focus on co-presence and in what is effectively a decentring of the sub- ject, there are clearly some resonances between Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, particularly with regard to the latter’s concept of proximity. For both, our nearness and contact with the other is inescapable, and for Levinas grounds an explicitly ethical relation that contrasts with the impersonal distance required by the realm of conventional morality and the law. As I outlined in the preceding chapter, proximity figures an attentiveness and responsibility to the other who meets me face to face, an encounter that precedes being as such. Nonetheless, it is impor- tant to note that Levinas has a very different understanding to Merleau-Ponty on the question of touch. He writes: ‘To be in contact is neither to invest the other and annul his alterity, nor to suppress myself in the other. In contact itself the touching and the touched separate, as though the touch moved off, was always already other, did not have anything in common with me’ (Levinas 1998: 86).



Indeed, for Levinas it is contact that, in frustrating the knowing grasp, instantiates the individual uniqueness of self and other, that inaugurates the move to an onto- logy of being. As I have already noted, however, there is little sense of bodily materiality in proximity, even in the mode of the caress. As he puts it, an erotics of touch does not grasp, but ‘consists in seizing upon nothing, in soliciting what ceaselessly escapes its form toward a future never future enough in soliciting what slips away as though it were not yet’ (1969: 257–8). Moreover, as with all forms of proximity, there is for Levinas no sense of an interchange. On the con- trary, proximity is the asymmetry of the relationship that marks it as the site of the responsibility of the self for the other, but never vice versa. I am not suggest- ing that in contrast Merleau-Ponty gives equal weight to both sides of the touch – and in fact Irigaray rebukes him for it, almost as forcefully as she criticises Levinas for his egoism – but that it is above all the reversibility that he posits that opens us onto a world of others. Although in his early work, Merleau-Ponty’s focus on touch is relatively underdeveloped, the significance of that reversibility becomes far more central as he elaborates his concept of flesh ontology. The term ‘flesh’ is used in The Visible and the Invisible to designate not matter, nor mind, nor substance, but an elemental medium – like air or fire – in which self and the world are constituted in mutual relation (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 139–40). It expresses a way of undoing the binaries that structure our knowledge of our- selves in the world, not to the extent that subject and object are redundant, but such that we experience 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. 6 As Sue Cataldi explains in her commentary on that aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s work, the notion of flesh enables us first ‘to think through embodiment beneath sub-ject dualism by developing a radically unified ontology’, and second ‘to accommodate difference (between perceptible phenomena in themselves and between that which is perceiving and that which is perceived) and distance (as the ‘form’ or possibility of perceiving) in an ontology of perception’ (1993: 58). As an undifferentiated medium in itself, flesh is the dimension in which ‘things simultaneously envelop or copresently implicate each other (1993: 28). The task for Merleau-Ponty is to set out the fundamental unity of existence while at the same time not reducing it to a matter of the knowing sub- ject. The move he makes is to claim that touch is always reversible in that the hand that touches is also touched, a double sensation that is especially evident in the contact between two animate surfaces. His insistence that we are all part of the same flesh functions, then, to establish ‘other landscapes besides my own’ (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 141) yet woven together with mine by the reversibility of perceiver/perceived and subject/object. It is important to note that the reversibility

is never such that the two participants merge; there is always an excess. The chiasm,

the cross-over, is the point of both convergence and divergence; it is not a loss of distinction, but a coming together in difference. The subject accordingly is in a mutually constitutive relationship with its objects, intertwined one with the other through touch. In other words my own expressive body is in a chiasmatic and pre-reflective relationship with other bodies. What Merleau-Ponty enables here is

a new opening on the question of responsibility.



It is in contradistinction to the disjunction intrinsic to the specular image that the significance of the chiasmatic nature of touch becomes apparent. The point for Merleau-Ponty is that I am able to see and touch only because I am seen and touched, not in the negative Sartrean mode of vulnerability to the other, but as a co-functioning. This is far indeed from the narcissistic gaze or the possessive touch that characterises dominant discourse. As Merleau-Ponty says of the tactile hand: ‘through the crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it’ (1968: 133). Nonetheless, a form of hierarchy remains in the external relationship in that the reversibility is never in the form of indeterminacy: ‘I am always on the side of my body’ (1968: 148). But what of the body that is not one? By taking the human corporeality as a structure which exemplifies the flesh in itself, as well as being of it in the wider sense, Merleau- Ponty shows how the sensations of the individual body are themselves chias- matic. If I reach out my own hand to the other, I can experience a reversibility between touching and being touched such that ‘the world of each opens upon that of the other’ (1968: 141). In other words, I am coincidentally both subject and object to myself. But although he analyses at some length the tactility between one’s own two hands or lips, he does not, I think, offer an account that satisfies questions about the extraordinary bodies with which I am concerned. The irre- ducible flip that he proposes between the active and passive is premised on the image of one hand reaching out to touch the other, not on two surfaces that are always already touching. Part of the difficulty lies, I think, in a point made by Drew Leder who claims that the sensible/sentient surface, on which Merleau-Ponty focuses, speaks to an ontology of perception alone. It cannot stand in for the living body as a whole, in which ‘our corporeal depths are perceptually elusive’ (Leder 1999: 203). In short, the flesh ontology is limited by its failure to address the visceral dimensions of the body: ‘Beneath the surface flesh, visible and tangible, lies a hidden vitality that courses within me. “Blood” is the metaphor for this viscerality’ (1999: 204). As Leder goes on to insist, my relation to the other is a relation of flesh and blood, and he explicitly cites the maternal/foetal bond as an example of chiasmatic identity-in-difference: ‘the two bodies are enfolded together, sharing one pulsing bloodstream’ (1999: 206). Although acknowledging that gestation and natality are lost to us, he recognises nevertheless that ‘this bodily intertwining is never fully effaced from adult life’ (ibid.). It is not my claim, of course, that conjoined twins or other concorporate bodies are similar to intrauterine forms, but as Leder’s point makes clear there are certain metaphorical and material correspon- dences. Moreover, in her own take-up of the themes of the flesh ontology – which mesh with an understanding of the feminine as always (self)touching, containable as neither one nor as part of the subject/object pair – Irigaray sees the originary relationship as precisely that which must be suppressed in a specular economy. For Irigaray, feminine morphology is never singular and self-complete: ‘the birth that is never accomplished, the body never created once and for all, the form never definitively completed’ (1985b: 217). In her view, the significance of tactil- ity is not simply that it is the first sense, but that it remains primary for those who



are excessive to the binary division of self and other. It is only those who are locked into the dominant models of masculinist subjectivity who can overlook the fact that the world of which they are a part is (de)structured by continuous change, the flux and flow of material form, a viscerality that is not limited to the body. The thematics of touch have a place of great importance in Irigaray’s work, from which it is possible to derive an account more adequate to the issue of con- corporation. For Irigaray, it is the notion of a specifically feminine desire that is addressed through the image of bodily contact, not necessarily as an anatomical event, but in the imaginary. Nonetheless, her evocation of the woman’s body as, in a sense, always already concorporate – ‘the birth that is never accomplished’ – is highly pertinent to the problematic of (self)identity, and to the particular con- text of conjoined twins. For the body I