Vocalizing “silent” sensations and other problems with objectified bodies.   2 comments

“Silence” is one of those key words that I tend to glom onto for various reasons, so I immediately took notice in the chapter on What is the Body That We Read when Wells claims, “The text strove to offer frank and detailed information, rather than euphemisms or silence” (134).

I always bristle when silence is juxtaposed with powerlessness or subjugation, especially when dealing with issues of embodiement. A silent body, as we all know, can be a powerful thing. I always think back to the phenomenon occurring in John Cage’s silent concert 4’33’’. The performance, which consists of a pianist walking on stage, sitting at the piano, and then playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, often with a timer on the piano and occasionally flipping music sheets, problematizes the roles of performer and audience. In effect, the audience and the performer are working together to complete the performance, filling the silence with bodily sounds—throats clearing, shifting in seats, heartbeats, breathing, etc. Moreover, the audience doesn’t just become part of the spectacle, they also become aware of themselves. Attention is brought to their bodies, to their bodies in relation to others, and the collective whole of a house full of “silent” bodies.

Additionally, we all know the power of “the silent treatment” where withholding of ones voice causes the withholder to become a presence, and the pressure turns toward the “other” to engage in conversation. Moments of communication then gain the weight of silence. We say nothing in order to open up communication and be seen, and then we speak in order to be seen and heard.

I was thinking of these things when I came across the statement in Wells that, “this awkwardness convinces us that even if sex is a natural way of expressing ourselves, we have no natural way of talking about it” (144). And yet, that’s one of the difficulties that the collective attempted to overcome. And the solution they found—beyond the language/rhetorical moves—was to encourage their audience to explore their physicality.

There’s a complex difficulty with conveying physical sensation in language. It never seems to come out right. Even the “reafference” that Wells talks about relies heavily on silent exploration and sensation. Attempt to explore an aspect of your physicality while talking. It’s not an easy thing to do. The act of speaking numbs the physical sensations. You’re never as in tune with bodily sensations as you are during silent meditation. Even Lacan’s Mirror Stage (which Wells discusses in the chapter), the point where the individual first begins to recognize individuality, relies more on sensation than language. Merleau-Ponty adds to Lacan’s discussion by pointing out that it isn’t just our visualization of two different selves, the one in the mirror and the one outside of it, it’s our physical sensations—the proprioceptive and reafferent sensations—that tell me I am not the person in the mirror; I am distinct from the mirror image because I cannot feel the mirror image.

Of course, as Wells points out, “sensory experiences have a property of unity, and no edge separates the reader’s experience of naming from her experience of doing, so that both the text’s invocation of wholeness and the reader’s understanding of her experiences as integrated suspend and buffer the profound divisions that the text enacts” (157). Language affects how we interpret sensations, and oftentimes we need the language before we can consciously recognize the sensations. Our Bodies, Ourselves is a perfect example of this. A whole generation of women began to feel sensations that they never felt before consciously (despite the fact that these weren’t new sensations) after reading the text.

So, despite my original assertion that silence can be powerful and that there is never adequate language to describe sensations, clearly it’s important to muddle along with whatever language we can come up with because doing so allows us to feel sensations in a more vivid way.

And there is the whole problematic of objectification that Wells addresses in this chapter which could tie in nicely with the issues I’ve already brought up, but this post is getting too long and I want to leave something for other people to address 🙂

-John L.

 

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Posted October 14, 2010 by lamothej in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Vocalizing “silent” sensations and other problems with objectified bodies.

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  1. Great post, John. I think you are onto something here. . . even if you used words that I had to look up–again (proprioception. . .really?! 😉

    It is all dualistic: both language and silence. One isn’t good and the other bad that is obviously reductive, and both are communicative to ourselves and to others.

    Wells asserts that “knowledge of anatomy would give women tools to combat the imposition of medical knowledge, would dismantle the doctor’s right to proclaim what was happening in the body of a female patient. Knowledge of medicine, particularly knowledge of medical vocabulary, was a practice of power” (177). This is a clear move to be on a level playing field with medical professionals, but at what cost?

    I think that this was addressed in Mary Lay’s text when she *very briefly* talks about those midwives who were not interested in legal sanctions for their practice. Those midwives did not want to assimilate. They felt their practice would be compromised by allowing an outsider to impose sanctions and discourse on their practice.

    Wells seems to lament in the “Meloncholy” chapter the changes to OBO after it was sanitized for public consumption. Something was lost in translation. When the book was handed from woman to woman there was a particular kind of power that was transferred—a subversive power. Part of the text’s subversive power was traded in for mainstream dissemination and copies, copies, copies. I am not sure how I feel about this—I can see the benefit, but there is a clear loss, as well.

  2. Great post, John–you are clearly getting primed to take the comps. Your discussion reminded me of Wells’ reading of the OBOS as metaleptic (e.g., coming out of its frame or reaching out of itself) in moving among various locations, from the stories of the authors to the staging of the reader’s own self examination.

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