rhizomes.03 fall 2001

Practicing What They Teach
Reviews by Carol Siegel

Joanna Frueh. Monster / Beauty: Building the Body of Love. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. pp xi-339. ISBN 0-520-22114-1.

Ladelle McWhorter. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. pp vii-260. ISBN 0-253-21325-8.

[1] Once upon a time the life of the mind was supposed to be sweet, deviant fun. It was the defiant alternative to "being come to sense" and so electing to "fumble in a greasy till." It was the choice of those who could not endure that "Getting and spending: we lay waste our powers," and preferred to spend their days and nights "getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time." Many of us still teach the texts from Yeats, Wordsworth, and Pater containing these passages, but when one looks at the solemn, joyless business that now dominates most of academe, it is hard to maintain that these texts are still, as we used to say in the 60's, relevant to our lives.

[2] Americans inhabit a divisive culture, one of whose greatest divides has traditionally been between those who choose to invest in creating a more secure financial future and those who choose to spend their time and money on pleasurable experiences. Historically, few have been affluent enough to achieve a satisfactory degree of both. The current shrinking of the middle class and increasing national opposition to support for fine arts and education, at least in the form of paying professional-level salaries to the people who make the art and those who teach in the Humanities, has pushed many such intellectuals to live prudently bourgeois lives. This is most noticeably manifested in the tendency of the majority of academics to prioritize property ownership above more directly pleasurable aspects of life, including our traditional indulgence in books and the visual arts. And for evidence that this is so, one need look no further than the current practice of academic search committees who arrange for meetings between prospective hires and local realtors as a matter of course, but rarely even suggest showing the job seeker local libraries, museums, galleries, or theaters. Is it any wonder then that the so-called theory revolution has so far resulted mainly in a lot of abstract talk and very little revolutionary change in theorist's daily practices? Or that Foucault, who frequently tried to remind us that "one is not radical because one pronounces a few words; no, the essence of being radical is physical," is remembered primarily as a theorist of discourse, which is conceived by many as if it had no concrete, real world sources? No, but help for the would-be radical academic is here in the form of two autobiographical, philosophical guides to transforming one's life through pleasure.

[3] In his preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Foucault sets out as an "essential principle" for everyday life: "Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force." This could serve as well as an epigraph for both Bodies and Pleasures and Monster / Beauty. Above all else these are books about joyful revolution through physically connecting with the real world around us.

[4] Although Joanna Frueh mentions Foucault's ideas from time to time, her book centers on her own experiences as a performance artist, a professor, and a lover, and explores the luscious overlap between these roles. Ladelle McWhorter's book is more conventionally academic in that its ostensible purpose is to defend Foucault from the much repeated accusation that his theories cannot lead to effective political action. Therefore, I will start with McWhorter, for she lays the theoretical groundwork for understanding radical self-transformation not as a possible activity we might engage in if we have some spare time, but as an essential element of the life of any politically-engaged academic. Once one sees how logically and unavoidably her conclusions derive from post-structuralist philosophy, one can see that a life like Frueh's should not be considered a curiosity but a model for anyone who professes to be an intellectual today.

[5] Above all else, McWhorter's book is a detailed description of how Foucauldian askesis remade her sense of bodily presence. Through "intense and reflective self-cultivation" she trained her body so that it was no longer one of "the normalized natural bodies" formed in relation to the "functional norms" of our culture, but instead a site of resistance to the discourses of homophobia that had previously filled her with impotent rage (189, 157). Her "psycho-physical development" through pleasures like learning to line dance and creating an organic garden reconstructs her as a free being, not because she has escaped oppressive forces but because she feels confident, in her flesh as well as her mind, that she can stand up to them and assert her own perspective (172).

[6] This hard-won confidence is movingly illustrated by her tale of a confrontation with the Virginia General Assembly, when tradition demands that the Assembly members stand and applaud all visitors, including the pink triangle-wearing group of gay rights activists to which she belongs, Virginians for Justice. Before facing these notoriously conservative politicians, she "takes several long, deep breaths" and then goes on because she knows that only through physically standing before them and demanding her rights can she "ever learn to feel, all the way down to [her] gallbladder and deep into [her] bones, that their support and civic respect are something [she] deserve[s]" (220). She describes the forced recognition she received that day as "thrilling beyond description." However, her vivid account does conjure up much of the exhilaration she felt at "causing a room full of homophobic good old boys to look into our queer faces, to share space with our queer bodies, and to greet us like fellow citizens" (222).

[7] One of the most charming things about McWhorter's persona in this tale of the development of her body and mind is how ordinary she represents herself as being. The child of a white, rural Southern family without much money, McWhorter initially resists being defined as "different." Three paragraphs in her account of her early life begin, "I did not want to be a homosexual." This is no defiant rebel, seeking an identity in opposition to the mundane world around her. Even after accepting being labeled a lesbian, McWhorter retains a strong identification with the people she came from. Here's how she confronts her own uneasy recognition that the line dancing she enjoys "more than anything else" is quintessentially a "redneck" thing:

"I could give in to the vast majority who equate rednecks with ignorant, violent bigots and who devalue all aspects of rural Southern culture, including its music and art forms. In order to fit the mold of the well-educated, sophisticated, enlightened and unprejudiced college professor, I could distance myself from my heritage. I could act as if I didn't come from there. I could stop dancing and put the boots away. But I love them far too much. . . . I just have to accept and live with the reality of race as part of the practice of overcoming dualism."

Then she adds, "it makes me very angry that there is so little room in our society for the notion of a well-educated, decent, peace-loving redneck" (174). The profound joy she experiences in a dance so well-suited to her sense of self inspires her to fight for that sense of self as something valuable, rather than shameful. As with her appearance before the General Assembly, McWhorter emphasizes that these are political acts that have as their essence the pursuit of physically pleasurable sensations.

[8] Letting us in on the process of this sort of self-examination is not the only way that McWhorter keeps it real. The examples she uses to explain complex philosophical concepts and to illustrate her arguments have the freshness of reference to a world immediately, recognizably similar to that which the majority of people inhabit. For instance, in order to show us why Foucault's much criticized belief that discourses of resistance cannot exist outside the dominant discourses they oppose "does not necessarily lead to either relativism or nihilism," McWhorter tells us a little story about what happened when her "second cousin Rory decided to close out his checking account and buy his family a new refrigerator" (43). Such passages succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in making a whole seminar full of students I was trying to introduce to theory comfortable with contemporary philosophy. If you are looking for a book to help your upper-division and beginning graduate students understand central debates over Foucault's usefulness to feminism, queer studies, and radical political thought, this is it.

[9] But, despite how ideal an introductory philosophy textbook this is, Bodies and Pleasures is much more. It reads like an exciting novel about a timid and in many ways unexceptional woman who has the good sense to be terrified of the dominant powers that have worked all her life to impose degrading labels on her and to rob her of self-respect and happiness but who one day decides that she is "tired of being demoralized." After describing the State of Virginia's "lack of civil rights and protections for gay people," she tells us, "If I lose my job, I thought, let it be because I stood up and challenged the law rather than because some sneak outted me to the authorities" (218-19). Without a single touch of self-aggrandizement, McWhorter makes us understand the courage it takes to be a Foucauldian philosopher in the true spirit of queer "Saint Foucault." Perhaps her most important lesson is this, "We can't just say no to sexual regimes; if we want to undermine the regimes of power and knowledge that oppress and threaten to dominate us, we have to cultivate a new way of life that stands counter to them and eventually that is just other to them" (190).

[10] I certainly would not want to claim that this sort of resistance is easier for McWhorter than it would be for a heterosexual or to imply that she is fortunate that she belongs to a group so despised and persecuted that she is forced to choose either the living death of compliance or else the revolutionary "self-overcoming through aesthetic pleasures" (a chapter title) that her book promotes. However, as McWhorter herself points out, heterosexuals face different challenges because heterosexual desire's only defense in our sex-phobic culture is that it "contribute[s] to the perpetuation and strengthening of the species" (129). In other words heterosex is tolerated because it is seen as useful to the group in the largest sense. Thus the heterosexual would-be sex-radical must find, and make public, a relationship to the body and its pleasures that does not treat sexual experience as a means to a putatively greater end than pleasure. Art historian and performance artist Joanna Frueh's Monster / Beauty is a testament to just how equal she is to this challenge.

[11] Filled with exquisite photographs of herself and other women whose beauty exceeds the narrow categories of mainstream aesthetics, this is a book to savor. Like McWhorter's, it can be read as if it were a novel, for enjoyment alone, because it tells highly entertaining stories about the author's uninhibited, pleasure-seeking. Unlike McWhorter, Frueh shows herself fully aware of how unusual she is, and revels in that difference. The worst horror for her seems to be feeling ordinary:

"I look at people marked by fear and fragility and glutted with information, which has become false lifeblood. Their skin is lackluster. This is bloodcurdling for sometimes I can't tell if I am any different." (315)

Luckily such moods are of very short duration.

[12] What makes Frueh different from the "lackluster" people she often sees milling around her is that she has the beauty that comes from a profound appreciation of her own fleshly, bodily life and the erotic enjoyment it can provide. In addition, she glories in a feminism characterized predominately by delighted perception of the beauty of other free-spirited women. As she says, "Pleasure is an ultimate antidote that detoxifies women's bodies both of intimate's criticisms and of the medical and beauty industries' poisons" (27). And although she takes pleasure in recognizing how different she is from those around her who are stunned into dullness by the processes of normalization, she generously praises notable women -- and men -- who pursue sensual pleasures as a means of radical self-fashioning.

[13] She recounts how one day, as a young woman in therapy, she realized that "pleasure is the point of living" and she afterward "never doubted the truth of my statement" (208). She finds fidelity to this credo in diverse places. The book discusses female body builders, women who take pleasure in their own aging, s/m practitioners, artists of transgression, and various other self-made "Icons of Pleasure," including even "Vampiric Strategies." She even takes the risk of defending academic sexual outlaws. In resistance to administrative/cultural demands that professors present themselves as asexual, she asserts, "the parent-child model denies that everyone is more or less erotically embodied and potentially extremely so and that such embodiment provokes amorous feelings" (225). Her text does look into the negative repercussions of such denial, but mainly it explores the territory with which she is more familiar, "the delight one experiences in being a relatively unashamed body" (291).

[14] A surface description of most of the personal practices Frueh discloses here would not sound particularly radical. She does not think professors should have sex with their students. She seems to enjoy committed, long term relationships. She obviously cares about her attractive home, and she puts considerable energy into maintaining its beauty and that of her garden. She enjoys weight training and talking with friends in outdoor cafés. And she loves to sit at her desk and write. But she does all these things with a distinctive difference. Activities that I never imagined could have any erotic component, such as shopping for furniture, are revealed to be sources of delicious experimentation with new ways of feeling and of being. Frueh's radicalism inheres in the ways her practices refresh the everyday and inextricably link feminism with ecstasy:

"Without pleasure one dies aesthetically and erotically -- poisoned by thinking that the prosaic is boring, by existing in amusement rather than in erotics. Assenting to pleasure and thereby activating it is a key to women's taking themselves seriously, to their becoming erotically large -- elegant and thinking bodies" (186).

Beauty, pleasure, intellectualism, feminism. Frueh insists that they are not in opposition to each other and, indeed, when they are fully physically realized, belong together. Just as McWhorter, and Foucault, and Wordsworth, and Pater, and Yeats do.

[15] But the very act of placing these authors among those more famous names could raise questions about their radicalism. One may ask whether a radical agenda can really be advanced by the texts of canonical authors or by books like these which come to us with the endorsement of major academic presses. Can the academic bourgeois status quo really be troubled from within? Foucault, of course, would answer that it is only from within the discourses of power that resistance can speak, but let us leave him aside for the moment and compare these books some others in what seems to be rapidly developing into a genre, feminist autobiographical criticism/theory.

[16] Historically feminism has often relied on personal testimony and the authority of experience. But the modes in which experience is employed to authorize opinions vary. The most apparent difference is between authors who generalize their own experience as representative of women as a group and authors who present us with their experience as exemplary of differences between women and within feminism. The much discussed problem with first group of writings is best represented for me by Jane Thompkins's famous 1987 essay, "Me and My Shadow" in which she assumes women find the language of Foucault and Deleuze "incredibly alienating," a poor fit to our lived physicality, "like wearing men's jeans" (1110, 1105). Since my initial experience of Deleuze's prose made me understand Keats's reaction to Chapman's Homer and my body shape is such that men's jeans are the only comfortable pants I have ever known, Thompkins loses me, as do Elaine Showalter and Marjorie Garber, among many others, who try to tell me how (all) women feel, by presenting themselves as emblematic.

[17] Women of color have always been leaders in the other mode of autobiography-based theorizing. Sister/outsiders from Audre Lorde on, position their lives as extraordinary to effect, among other goals, a deliberate problematizing of bourgeois feminism's totalizing vision of Woman. Sex radical theorists like Eve Sedgewick and Amber Hollibaugh insist on queering the norms of female identity in the name of feminism. And then there is Gloria Anzaldùa, whose position between races and genders, has been the basis for a re-envisioning of feminist identity as inescapably and transformatively mixed.

[18] Frueh's and McWhorter's books stand out in that they resist this dichotomy. They are feminist theoretical autobiographers whose self-presentation neither essentializes nor aims to combats essentialization. They each recognize that some of their experiences have been typical of most women and that many others have been extraordinary in the extreme. But this is never their main point. The main point is always their insistence on the value of pleasure as a force that deconstructs the social and cultural identities forced upon us, that takes us beyond the binary oppositions so useful to political structures that must literally divide and conquer not just groups of women, but the body and the mind.

[19] Post-structuralism was supposed to take us beyond binarity, to deconstruct the either/or thinking that makes most people's lives such hell that, as Freud observed, their the only pleasure they can know is the reduction of unpleasure. The system in which we now live is built on a binary opposition between mind and body, as both McWhorter and Frueh discuss, and also on an opposition between erotic pleasure and bourgeois respectability, especially as the latter is manifested in the pursuit of material security. We are told that, as thinking, intelligent people, we should want to comply with mainstream values. For only thus will we deserve the material comforts allowed by the salaries that we are so begrudgingly given. Our allegiance should be to the bourgeoisie whose offspring we teach and not to the often radical and disruptive works of art and philosophy that constitute the actual subject matter of our teaching. Our bodies should be valued because we devote them to serving the forces of normalization. They and all the practices in which they publicly engage should stand as the living signs of our compliance to mainstream standards of propriety. These two wonderful books show us what it might be like to live otherwise. And exactly how Foucault's promise is fulfilled because when one lives otherwise, one can think that way, too.