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From Unbearable Weight*

Susan Bordo
Department of Philosophy
University of Kentucky

In this "polyphonic vocality" (as hooks describes it) these books are acutely postmodern. But because the insights that emerge are grounded in experience, the result is neither chaotic nor fanciful; rather, the security and elegance of theoretical unity are replaced by the different satisfaction of having sometimes incommensurable realities (that is, real life) described with precision, intelligence, and honesty.

But becoming a world-traveling thinker cannot, in my opinion, be accomplished by sight-seeing, textual or cultural. Nor does it require extensive coverage of "foreign" territory. As Lugones describes it, it has fundamentally to do with the desire and ability to explore reality "wearing the other's shoes." This means recognizing, wherever one goes, that the other's perspective is fully realized, not a bit of exotic "difference" to be incorporated within one's own world. The world-traveling thinker thus must be prepared, not only to "appreciate" the foreign, but also to recognize and nurture those places where worlds meet. And the world-traveling thinker will always be ready to abandon familiar territory when human understanding and communication seem to require it. It is in these senses that Yearning, in its complex and expanding understandings of race and gender politics, is beyond dualism not merely theoretically but also in intellectual practice, and so models the best of postmodern multiplicity for us.

At one extreme, our culture seems newly recaptivated by biological determinism. Although the Human Genome Project has had its critics, excitement over progress it has made in interpreting the entirety of the human genetic blueprint has been rekindled in 1992. Even as I write this, a friend has just come into the room, showing me a full page in the New York Times entitled "Blueprint for a Human" and illustrated both with a photo of a newborn and with the latest, most complete chromosomal maps devised by the project. Daily, newspaper articles appear declaring genetic and chemical bases for physical and psychological disorders of all sorts, including many - such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia - for which the evidence for cultural origins seems overwhelming. At the other extreme, it is being just as unequivocally declared that "Bodies are not born. They are in fact made by culture."

For many scholars, this commitment to cultural constructionism has gone far beyond notions that the biological body never presents itself to us in innocent or "natural" form but is always historically and politically "inscribed and shaped (a position I adhere to), to the much more radical position that the very notion of the biological body is itself a fiction. Popular culture has its own versions of this these, as we alter our bodies without regard for biological consequences, recklessly making them over through yo-yo dieting and plastic surgery and eagerly embracing and technology that challenges our various biological clocks. Arguably, we are more in touch with our bodies than ever before. But at the same time, they have become alienated products, texts of our own creative making, from which we maintain a strange and ironic detachment.

For Butler, contrastingly, there is one correct, unimpeachable position: it is that any conception of the "natural" is a dangerous "illusion" of which we must be "cured."

Butler's world is one in which language swallows everything up, voraciously, a theoretical pasta-machine through which the categories of competing frameworks are pressed and reprocessed as "tropes."

*University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, pps. 285-291

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]