Body Literature

A conversation about the relationship between literature and the complexities of embodied life


Fields of Knowledge
  • Artistic legacies
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions



Jean-Michel Rabaté


Department of English, University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Body Literature," a conversation about the relationship between literature and the complexities of embodied life, on Wednesday, November 18, 2015, from 6-7:30pm. This program features scholars Ulrika Maude, Yue Zhuo and Jean-Michel Rabaté in dialogue, and has been organized in conjunction with the publication of The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature (2015).

In her 1926 essay "On Being Ill," Virginia Woolf writes of the need in literature to represent such experiences as "heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness," sensations and bodily expressions that are so crucial to the everyday experience of being in the world. Woolf suggests that literature can help us understand the complexities of embodied life: literary texts deal with the more ambivalent and amorphous areas of experience, where simple definitions break down or prove inadequate. Literature has always been interested in concrete, non-conceptual aspects of knowing and feeling, and often these emerge most potently through the sensuous immediacy of embodied cognition.

While authorities (medical and socio-economic and political) have powerfully-vested interests in constructing bodies in particular ways, literature works to remind us of this fact and thereby to deconstruct these myths, often by reinstating the delirium and the scandalousness of the body. For the body is never simply a passive depository of cultural fantasy or the workings of power; it resists all reification and fixity. The authoritarian construction instills ideas of normativity, health, discipline, 'petrification' (to use Frantz Fanon's term) – ideas that literature often challenges. The literary, like the somatic and through its relation to the somatic, unbinds all forms of fixity – those of individual identity as well as the stereotypes and hierarchies that accompany them. The five senses, as Rimbaud wrote, are themselves 'disordered' by the literary.

In its innate propensity to reinstate ways of knowing and to escape cognitive forms of control, the body is perhaps closer to the literary than to other disciplines. In confronting us with the legible materiality of the body, literature often provides powerful forms of resistance to socially instituted perceptions and demands. In its very existence, the literary field constitutes a challenge to the disciplining of embodied discourse and affect, since from the point of view of authority, literature is usually felt to be little more than an unruly waste product, a non-normative body, a leaky vessel or a bloated, flabby thing. As such, it can help us to move beyond such disciplinary regimes and habits of thought.

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Today the body is open to 'atavistic reawakening', prosthetic enhancement, cloning and genetic re-coding. Biomechanical technologies also have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the embodied subject. And technologies of reproduction interrogate essentialist notion of genetic inheritance, fundamental assumptions about origin, nature and nurture, and especially traditional conceptions of 'selfhood.' This conversation thus builds upon the understanding that body is subject to historical and cultural change.

And yet, premodern authors, like those of (post)modernity, were also endlessly engaged in interrogating and reimagining the living body and its relation to its surroundings and to others. In the end, it is above all our perplexities regarding enfleshment and its meanings that we share with earlier times.

Ulrika Maude is Visiting Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (2015-2016), and Reader in Modernism and Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Bristol, UK. Publications include Beckett, Technology and the Body (2009), The Body and the Arts (2009) and the Bloomsbury Companion to Modernist Literature (with Mark Nixon, 2016).

Jean-Michel Rabaté is Senior Curator for Discursive Projects at Slought, Professor of English and Comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author or editor of more than 35 books.

Yue Zhuo, formerly Assistant Professor at Yale and currently a Mellon Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is finishing La force du négatif, Georges Bataille et la question du sacré (forthcoming). She has published on Bataille, Roland Barthes and Pascal Quignard in French, English and Chinese.

"Bodies (in literature, but not only there) always need other bodies. Bodily satisfaction (in pain or pleasure) is of the essence of human identity; but such satisfaction is never fully achieved by a body alone; as Bill Burgwinkle puts it: 'one body is insufficient' – even if that body belongs to an ascetic hermit.

Literature, medieval or modern, offers 'an admission that your body is never really yours exclusively, that it can change and evolve through ingestion or penetration, even while retaining its putative identity.' Satisfaction is achieved somatically, through ecstatic identification or fusion with another (whether divine or human), or, often, through the corporeality of performative (and interactive) display, which is why drama and cinema figure frequently."

-- David Hillman and Ulrika Maude, The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature