The Inscribed Body   6 comments

Since this is the first semester I have engaged in group work (in two classes), I was particularly interested in Susan Wells’ descriptions of distributed writing. She recalls of her own experience with the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves that she “was used to struggling to represent the nuances of [her] own understanding, to taking full responsibility for [her] text and all that it said” (212); this is how I feel about my own writing, especially the struggling part. I am finding the experience reassuring as well as challenging, and appreciate Jane Pincus’ position that “the distribution of authorship [is] not a matter of convenience,” but an expression of “knowledge as situated in practice and plural” (82). Coming at material from multiple viewpoints brings the benefits of combined experience as well as knowledge, and that is the secret to the staying power of Our Bodies. By embracing the diversity within their group, the authors were able to adapt to post-second wave challenges outside their group, and their practice of exploration and plurality made them aware of and responsive to the needs and wants of their growing audience.

Despite the success of Our Bodies, It seems the idea of the autonomous author is still prevalent. One of my students asked just a couple weeks ago “how that worked” while we were discussing collaborative authorship in an article we were reading. I wonder is this true predominantly in the humanities? I notice in my research that other disciplines, such as environmental biology or psychology, often list more than one author.

Wells’ text also reminded me of our discussion on Emily Martin of the complex nature of the “boundary between self and nonself” (53), and how some of us felt at war with our  own bodies when our bodies did not function as we perceived they should. In Wells, this dichotomy is reflected in women who felt ashamed or disgusted by their bodies: “The mind complicates the relation between body and self, since it haunts them both, and is the source of feeling, emotion, and judgment” (164). The mind/body duality that appears in the context of auto-immune disorders seems to be echoed here with the idea that the body is an antagonist at times and not entirely under the mind’s control.

The concept that “Emotions are internal objects, even internal agents” leads the way into other ways of moderating responses, such as biofeedback. The collective may have seen bodily action as the key to transformation, but their primary “action” of writing is also a transformative move, and reminds me of Hélène Cixous’ comments: “Woman must put herself  into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (875). Through their collective knowledge and experience, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective was able to inscribe change into contemporary perceptions of the female body.

My question is, since the internet provides a base context for distributed authorship, is it providing the same level of self editing, self examination, self awareness, and adaptation that we see in the creation of Our Bodies? What are some similar examples of transformative inscription available today?

Cixous, Hélène. “Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. JSTOR. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

Martin, Emily. Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture From the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print.

Wells, Susan. Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.

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Posted October 12, 2010 by MGalbreath in Uncategorized

6 responses to “The Inscribed Body

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  1. I see parallels between Wells’ description of writing and the work I do every day in software development. Large programming projects are authorless, or collectively authored, to the point that very little expression of individuals can be discerned. This is particularly true from the perspective of the end user, who only sees the external behavior of the compiled source code. Even from the perspective of the source code viewer, so much editing and changes go on that an individual’s mark is mostly effaced, except for comments and idiosyncratic structures. Another aspect of software development that parallels the development of OBOS is the multiple revisions. Authorship is distributed not only across the body of the text, but across its history. Wells recounts many cases in which a chapter or part of a chapter was written by one person, only to be revised or rewritten by someone else or another group in a later edition, sometimes effacing all traces of the previous version. This is the norm in software development.

    Obviously similar points can be made about collaborative work done with Google Docs. While it may not be the case for scholarly work (and Wells declares in the Postscript that “for me, scholarship was a domain of individual authorship”), business and technical writing has embraced the collective authorship approach.

    To respond to the question “is it providing the same level of self editing, self examination, self awareness, and adaptation that we see in the creation of Our Bodies?” I think the answer can be a qualified YES, depending on the degree to which the writer is conscious of how he/she is interacting with the environment. Back to the example of software development, when you are working in a distributed environment on a common code base, you are encouraged to be aware of your style and how it coheres or clashes with the style of the program code around you. Moreover, in an ideal environment there is code review by the group, so that everyone is seeing everyone else’s code and commenting upon it in a group meeting. Web-based tools will not by themselves generate the same levels of awareness as the OBOS group, however they certainly help promote them in groups that are not so tightly connected.

    • The process of distributed authorship is an interesting one to me, and I think it’s changed especially because of the accessibility of communication via the Internet. Be it a physically published book, software, a website, or a group assignment edited on Google Docs, all these forms of collaboration become different when more than one person contributes to them, and I think more people are able to contribute to them because of digital technology.

      I think it will be a long time from now (if ever) that the autonomous author is no longer an expectation. Like you said regarding software, John, it’s a lot harder for the end user to see the collaboration in the coding that went into a software package, and I don’t know anyone who knows any (let alone all) of the programmers who worked on something like Microsoft Office. Indeed, the Office Suite is regarded as being a product of Microsoft, a single collective entity, not of any individual programmer or groups of programmers. Even so, the product wouldn’t be possible without the work of many people working collaboratively. (And yes, I fully expect some of you to be saying we’d probably be better off without it; nevertheless, the end product is the result of lots of time from lots of people, just as are most expensive software suites by other companies.)

  2. Great answer, John. What do others think? This line of discussion reminded me of Chris’s post, too. One way the collective reappropriated medical language, according to Wells, was by “smashing” it up and “transposing” it into narrative forms. So a form of remixing that transforms the possibilities of meaning and use.

    I wonder how much the collective’s distributed writing and editing practices have changed with the use of new media–of course a number of other historical variables would affect such practices, so it might be difficult to tell.

  3. Marcy says: “Wells’ text also reminded me of our discussion on Emily Martin of the complex nature of the “boundary between self and nonself” (53), and how some of us felt at war with our own bodies when our bodies did not function as we perceived they should.”

    So true. . .good connection, but I do wonder how much of this frustration could be accounted for, in the case of women, on the way that women’s bodies are percieved historically, as a site for sin–leaky, weak, etc. . .

  4. I’ve been looking hard at contemporary medical sites, and I’m puzzled. There are sites run by doctors and institutions that give more or less accessible information; there are patient chat rooms that talk about patient experiences in some detail. But that rich border between expert discourse and embodied experience seems to be totally deserted. Has anybody found sites that work that territory?

  5. From the limited amount of searching I’ve done so far, I would have to say no. But I venture that part of the problem is just the open nature of the internet, and the size of the terrain: we suffer from too many choices. The appealing ready availability of information on the internet can be both blessing and curse, as we noted when we looked at some patient advocacy sites in class the other night. An enormous amount of data comes into these discussions, and many of us were struck by the confusion inherent in such a torrent. Entering these discussions as an outsider is an awkward experience, and I wonder if it is any less confusing for those who already identify with a diagnosis?

    It seems that one of the things that made Our Bodies, Ourselves accessible from the beginning was/is the willingness of the authors to sift through the medical information and self-police prior to offering it to a wider audience. By assimilating and assembling the data, they provide a filter so the end result is not overwhelming to the reader. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective self-consciously, cohesively, and deliberately shaped the health care narrative. I don’t necessarily see that self-reflexivity in a blog with 5,000 individual responses, or even in an autonomous blog that offers experience and some information, but no collective revision or editing.

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