November 8, 1999
Volume 52, No. 11
Judovitz's new course exposes 'Culture of the Body'
In our present world, many social and political issues revolve around the body and its image. Enormous amounts of thought, financial resources and energy are openly dedicated to reshaping or reconstructing the physical self, claiming new genders and exploring sexuality.
In art, the image of the body has been increasingly deconstructed or framed in a psychological or sexual context. But what is the history of these transmutations? Is the body a material fact or a social construct? How has the representation of the body in art been altered through time?
These are some of the questions answered in "The Culture of the Body," a course taught by French Professor Dalia Judovitz. The course sketches a genealogy of the modern body by examining its cultural transformations as a representation from the late Renaissance to the 20th century. Instead of simply accepting the body as an objective manifestation, students examine how the body has been constructed historically through different interpretations of knowledge and representation. They explore questions of gender and sexual difference, along with the body's relationship to power and to systems of social exchange.
"Culture of the Body" first traces "bodies of experience," an expression referring to French essayist Michel Montaigne. In the writings of Montaigne, the body is fluid: its changing complexion, sensations, appetites and desires reflect the movements of the larger world.
Student discussions often move toward the philosophical, extending to the topic of sexuality and sexual difference. Both are essential to writings and images studied in the class.
"By sexuality, I do not mean the anatomical differences between men and women," Judovitz said. "Already in Montaigne the body and its sexuality is understood as a variable construction that changes over time and reflects social and cultural customs and conventions. The sexual body is the site and sign of cultural inscriptions that constitute its identity, that structure its desire and its physical and imaginary semblance."
Class participants read René Descartes' 1637 "Discourse on the Method." Descartes describes the body in terms of its blood circulation, redefining it as a purely material entity, a mechanical object devoid of spiritual attributes. Students see how the physical, finite body is subject to reason by being equated with matter under the tutelage of the immortal mind or soul.
Some of Descartes's ideas find visual expression in the paintings of Dutch artist Rembrandt. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" (1656), for example, represents the submission and objectification of the body to the practices of medical institutions. Though the body is on display in "Dr. Tulp," it is rendered invisible by the fact that the surgeons are either examining a book or returning the viewer's look. The hand of the corpse is manipulated with forceps to generate a mechanical reflex, demonstrating the body's nature as a machine that may be instrumentalized by the power and vituosity of medicine.
"This technologization of the body signals the secularization and abjection of the physical body in the early modern period," Judovitz said.
Student Danielle Sered, an English major and French minor, has a strong interest in literary theory and gender studies, so the course's treatment of the body is complementary not only to a great deal of literature she's studied, but also to her thesis work this year. "The most vibrant part of the course for me has actually been our examination of images, including Rembrandt, [Théodore] Géricault and [Gustave] Courbet," she said. "The theory and ideas we develop come to life visually and really disrupt any fixed sense we might have of what the body can and does mean. The body is a vibrant, changing, mobile idea, and the visual element of the course has made that exceptionally clear."
"Culture of the Body" explores other ideas through novels and short stories that critique the representation of sexuality and eroticism and the construction of desire in reference to images. Students read Marguerite Duras' The Lover and Honoré de Balzac's "Sarrasine". As writers, both Balzac and Duras expose the social and cultural codes that constitute what Judovitz terms "the horizon of sexuality" as idealized images that dehumanize desire.
In Balzac's tale, for instance, the discovery that the image of the ideal woman is embodied by a castrato renders the hero incapable of loving any women and ultimately leads to his death. In Duras, the representation of eroticism attests to her efforts to find a new language of desire through the elaboration of a feminine, experimental writing.
Judovitz said her own scholarly writings provided a direct source for the course. The French professor's research interests focus on the construction of gender and sexual differences in the modern and postmodern context. The University of Michigan Press will soon publish her The Culture of the Body: Genealogies of Modernity, and her 1995 Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (University of California Press) is scheduled to be published in French translation.