Three new publications intimately concerned with difficult bodies
I’ve got an earworm. I’m walking down East 4th Street, yellow leaves, blue sky, and I keep repeating ‘an orgy of specificity, an orgy of specificity’. It takes six blocks before I figure out the source: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015, Graywolf), her magnificent memoir-cum-philosophical treatise about transness, motherhood, queer politics, devotion, love. ‘An orgy of specificity’ is how she describes the task of talking about her then-lover, now-husband, the artist Harry Dodge, without resorting to a gendered pronoun. But it strikes me that the phrase does double duty, serving as a manifesto for what amounts to an explosion of new writing about the body: libidinal, politically engaged, ardently invested in multiplicity and difference.
Take Dodie Bellamy, whose new collection, When the Sick Rule the World (2015, Semiotext(e)) is likewise intimately concerned with difficult bodies: disruptive bodies, bodies that resist categorization, not least among them Bellamy’s own. Let’s get specific. In the virtuosic, expulsive Barf Manifesto (2008, Ugly Duck Press), which somehow manages to find connections between the nausea-inducing op art of Bridget Riley, Bellamy’s spiky friendship with the poet Eileen Myles, vomit, dog urine and incestuous mother love, Bellamy repeatedly reveals herself in states of abjection. This self-exposure culminates in a scene in which she inadvertently clogs Myles’s toilet with her own shit and then frantically tries to plunge it while Myles watches from the doorway, barking unsympathetic instruction.
Out it all comes: ‘It’s first thing in the morning and I haven’t had coffee, and it’s hot as hell, I’m wearing this thin white organic cotton nightgown, with peach and white embroidered vines on it, and I’m sweating and as I pump my breasts are bobbing crazily for all the world to see, the water finally goes down and I flush and the toilet fills up again with my horrible smelly poo, my shame.’
What does it mean to display the body like this: to let it sprawl and smear onto the page? It means being able to talk about power and vulnerability; it means being able to test abstract ideas on the proving ground of the actual. Barf Manifesto is, at heart, in form as well as content, an argument against generality, which is never truly universal and which always necessitates more or less ruthless omissions and excisions. Like Myles’s essay that provoked it (‘Everyday Barf’, 2007) and like The Argonauts, Barf Manifesto is ‘a manifesto of complexity, ambiguity, indeterminacy, layering, contradiction, blurring of boundaries’, which seeks to track ‘how the personal intersects content intersects form intersects politics’.
The memoir is a morphing form and it seems to me that this particular approach represents a new development. If we’re at an intersectional moment, a moment of realizing that gender is complicated by race is complicated by sexuality is complicated by class, then it’s perhaps not wholly surprising that current accounts of bodily experience should likewise be valuing complexity over simplicity, contradiction over unidirectional truth.
First published in Issue 176