What Can a Body do?
(Art)iculations and (Reflect)ions on the Liminality of Self and Other
M Sarvi Zargar
“To have a body is already to be folded into the things
rather than to stand at a distance from them.”
Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005: 53)
A fully known, perfectly (re)presented, and politically free body does not exist except within the realms of ideology and propaganda. No definition, in the meantime, can fully answer the question of what a body is, since excess is always present in each and every body; either attached to or detached from it. Thinking about a body, thus, is a constant move beyond the new realms of un-translatable, un-thinkable, and un-decidable.
A body, argue Deleuze and Guattari, is the outside of thought. Questioning a body is not aimed to ask what a body is but, instead, to ask what a body is capable of doing. Two bodies, accordingly, ultimately end up either with a border conflict on their edges or an affective intimacy in the thresholds. In both cases, bodies inter(act) and ex(change); hence, trans(form). Therefore, bodies are linked to actions and changes. Reflections on bodies, thus, are articulations on the why-ness and how-ness of the doings of a body: interactions, exchanges, and transformations. Here, all these qualities can be encapsulated in two overarching themes: potentialities and multiplicities of a body. It is within this context that Yushi Li’s work moves beyond the Anthropocene-oriented perception of the relations between the self and the other. By de-forming the latter into a rabbit or an octopus, the artist puts emphasis on what a body can do: love, desire, dream, and fantasize while it frees itself from the other’s desire to oppose or even defuse the imposed presupposed categorizations of how to love, how to desire, how to dream, and finally how to fantasize.
Beside potentialities and multiplicities, a body is a skinned space. The skin is an interface between the self and the other: a grey area of affection and effects. At the same time, it is an open-ended space which goes beyond its limits. Not only does a body see, touch, smell, taste, and hear, but it is also (direct)ed to the other. In Elsa Gregersdotter’s photos, skins are where bodies expand; prolonging to give testimony to the otherness of a set of united bodies right exactly when they stop being familiar bodies: when they pose to the photographer. Bodies, therefore, connect while they remain singular. From a singular body arises a total, universal body. The link between the two, here, is actualized through remembering, i.e. re-constituting belonging, while longing for a collective identity. A universal body, therefore, embodies all singular bodies across identities, whether personal, national, or any other. The outcome, right opposite to the naive notion of Gestalt as it has been discussed repetitiously in psychology, becomes a montage; fractured, boundless, shattered, in bits and pieces, folded with(in) and while unfolding with(out), bent and expanded bodies; all together, they are not aimed to bring the self to meet the other, but make a single body an indissoluble part of the plural body through the principle of recognition. How come that one’s closest individuals become the other? Without recognition, what kind of life are we supposed to live?
Categories of formal and informal bodies have mainly been translated politically to the citizens vs. non-citizens. It is within such a divided framework of thoughts on bodies that boundaries emerge between, first, the self and the other, and secondly between different levels of citizenship, i.e. citizen’s bodies and non-citizen others’ excluded bodies. A non-citizen possesses a marginalized body that has become the main site of domination through complex forms of exclusion and suspension. It is exactly on the border of formality and informality, i.e. on the edge of marginalization and suspension, that a body folds, or bends towards the inside from the outside, brings the outsider inside and makes the inside visible to an outsider. Through becoming a marginalized (dis)member of a with(in) space from with(out), the side-lined body of the other negatively constitutes the (un)ethical domain of the self: a superior citizen. In this line of argumentation, all bodies become political. There is no apolitical body.
Between bodies, there exists the third space, the term itself being a borrowing from Homi Bhabha. The third space is a dialogic site for annunciation, identification, negotiation, and recognition. When bodies come together, they (juxta)pose. Forces, coming out of bodies, engage with one another. The result is a new form of inter(section)ality of forces; the forces that are nothing but an act of taking the risk of recognizing the other’s desires. It is exactly within the third space, one could argue, that Joshua Tarplin constitutes his A Stress-Free Point of View. Within such an immanent space, built up for the recognition of the other, a potentiality becomes actual intrinsically right in the borderline of the self and the other; on the threshold of being and becoming, within the liminality between irreducible bodies and banal totalities based on nationality, flag, race, gender, dialect, and the like. Such liminalities reveal not only the foreignness of the other’s body but also the estrangement of one’s own body. Similarity and alterity, therefore, come together in the very momentum of liminality in A Stress-Free point of view.
To recognize the other is not to merely recognize the rights, dignities, formalities, but also to recognize positions and voices that are already untranslatable and unreadable. It is, paradoxically, from such untranslatability or unreadability of the positions that translations and readings become possible. When the bodies of the self and the other encounter, it is within the impossibility of unity that affection becomes possible. In Yushi Li’s collection, accordingly, the artist is aimed to deconstruct what is being inscribed onto a body through an unreadable gaze. The project deconstructs Laura Mulvey’s theory of a male gaze, according to which, fe(male)ness and (wo)manhood have been constituted through a male gaze perspective. Through changing the angle, the artist radicalizes the established notions of a gendered body and gaze. Performed by a male subject/object, gazed at by an invisible artist, and observed by a gender-nameless audience, the artist puts her viewers in an unsettling position of constant retreatment of identities, positions, and indeed gazes. How can we, then, understand scopophilia or voyeurism, when a gender-nameless gaze is looking at some(body)? Isn’t it that without recognition of an internal alterity one can indeed not be able to connect with the other? Not only does Li deconstruct the gaze, the gendered body, and the spectacle, but she also fundamentally deconstructs her own self.
Liminality emerges from the sea of immanent potentialities, inherent in all bodies. Thus, any imposed, transcendental imperative presupposition aimed to categorize the rationale behind inter(connect)edness of bodies must be deconstructed in order to make room for the emerging potentialities. In Yuxin Jiang’s Instagram-based work, inherent sniffy mockery is being deconstructed in order to translate the inherent othering in photos into an irony. Science, meanwhile, is deployed successfully to mediate here for not making another disdainful result: reversed orientalism. Ultimately, the project is aimed to bring sympathy amongst viewers and subjects as a way of actualizing potentialities amongst the existing bodies.
In today’s surveillance-dominated world (dis)order, security is the main threat for the potentialities of our bodies. In other words, imposed and reinforced by the state apparatuses on bodies, security discourses disconnect connections amongst our bodies, be it short-circuits of contingencies or organized togetherness. Security, in its disciplinary and punitive totality, is targeted towards our bodies not just through pieces of machinery or even torture mechanisms, but also through surveillance apparatuses that have turned to be the main regulatory paradigm of the post 9/11 era. Aimed to turn collective bodies into detached apolitical entities, the security-based paradigm of our time smashed our collective bodies through its othering mechanisms. Promises driven out of terms such as globalization, bringing people together, global village and the age of full connectedness via social media, followed by the nightmare of ultra-nationalism, growing xenophobia, much more highlighted borderlines between the existing nation-states and the formation of new homelessness out of proxy-wars.
How could we restore our collective bodies? What forms of newly invented connections and inter-connections do we need to form and re-form? How can a body activate its potentialities anew? What are the names of new forms of solidarities in the age of the Covid-19, upcoming possible pandemics, proxy-wars, deep othering processes, and smashed bodies? Without gravity, Anka Gregorczyk argues in her statement, our bodies would not be human anymore. She takes gravity here literally to reflect and speculate on the limitations of one’s body and mind. However, we can take the notion of ‘gravity’ metaphorically to argue that we need to re-activate new gravities to fold into bodies around us, not to stand at a distance from them. Gravity, in this sense, entails potentiality; that needs to be discovered again and again.
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin argues that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. Then he reflects on the united us between which and our bodies we can make analogies. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us, contends Benjamin, exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women [and men] who could have given themselves to us. In other words, continues Benjamin, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. Similarly, the image of our happy bodies must be articulated and represented artistically in its inherent ties to the image of redemption; that, according to Benjamin, is necessarily collective. No single body can claim its sole happiness unless it has already been recognized by another body, while it at the same time recognizes the other. As a materialistic approach to re-invent the self and the other potentialities through the medium of the body, this is what we need to pursue in our troubling age: a new politics of hope.
Benjamin, Walter (1968). Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Harry Zohn (trans.), Schochen Books.
Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture, Routledge Publications.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Harman, Graham (2005). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Thing, Open Court Publications.
Mulvey L. (1989). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In: Visual and Other Pleasures. Language, Discourse, Society. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sarvi Zargar is a Tehran-based researcher. He is mainly focused on social and media studies, historiography of ideas, and film studies. His recent projects include new developments in the Middle Eastern intellectualism and Iranian film history.