Comps Reading 3: Volatile Bodies

In Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Elizabeth Grosz reexamines canonical philosophers and theorists and their thoughts on the body. She unpacks how they theorize the body, contextualizing it among other thinkers and placing the body at centre stage. In doing so, she examines the epistemological and theoretical gaps and inconsistencies that surround it. Ultimately she seeks an understanding of subjectivity and the body that exceeded dualism. In imagining the body as subjectivity, and subjectivity as nondualitist, Grosz intends to historicize the body, to see the body as sexed, as lived, as social. In refiguring the body to the centre of analysis, “so that it can be understood as the very ‘stuff’ of subjectivity,” Grosz explores “phallocentric presumptions which have hidden the culture and intellectual effacement of women” (ix). As such, “this project hovers close to many patriarchal conceptions of the body that have served to establish an identity for women in essentialist, a historical, or universal terms. But [Grosz] believe[s] it does so in order to contest these terms, to wrest a concept of the body away from these perils” (xiv). Grosz dives into a patriarchal understanding of the body in order to deconstruct it, and asks what terms, theories and thoughts might be of use to feminists, and a ontological understanding of the female, sexed, body. 


In this first chapter, Grosz suggests a move away from “dichotomour thinking” which “necessarily hierarchizes and ranks the two polarized terms” (3). As such, “body is thus what is not the mind;” the body takes on all the negative associations of the nonintellectual, passive, organic, etc (3). Here, Grosz gives a brief overview of how philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Christ and Descartes) have described the mind/body relationship. She further provides the 3 main lines of investigation of the body inspired by cartesian thought. 

  1. Body as object for natural sciences (8)
  2. Body as tool or instrument occupied by a willful subjectivity (8)
  3. Body as signifying medium— a vehicle of expression (9) 

Grosz suggests that Spinoza’s monistic from, which sees the body as a “series of processes of becoming,” is a good alternative to Cartesean dualism. She closes the chapter suggesting some ways feminists have approached the body in the past. 

  1. Suspicion towards body-based feminism= a belief to seek equality on conceptual terms (14)
  2. Egalitarian feminism: body as a unique means to access knowledge; biologically determined (15)
  3. Social Constructionism: “the body itself, in the strongest version of this position, is irrelevant to political transformation, and in the weakest version is merely a vehicle for psychological change, and instrument for a “deeper” effect” (17). 
  4. Sexual Difference (Grosz’s idea): power of the lived, social body. “On the one hand it is a signifying and signified body one the other it is an object of systems of social coercion, legal inscription, and sexual and economic exchange… less interested in the cultural construction of subjectivity than the materials out of which such a construct is forged” (18). 


This next section outlines what criteria/goals should govern feminist theoretical approach to the body. 

  1. avoid the impasse posed by dichotomous accounts (ie mind/body) (21)
  2. corporeality is not associated to one sex (or race) which then takes on the burden of the other’s corporeality for it (22)
  3. refuse singular models
  4. essentialism should be avoided (23)
  5. employ models that constitute the articulation (or disarticulation) between the biological and the psychological, while avoiding reduction to mind/brain
  6. body as a threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidedably at the pivotal point of binary pairs. “In dissolving oppositional categories we cannot simply ignore them” (24) 


In chapters 2 and 3, Grosz “explore[s] the way in which the body’s psychic interior is established through the social inscription of bodily processes, that is the ways in which the “mind” or the psyche is constituted so that it accords with the social meanings attributed to the body in its concrete historical , social, cultural, patriarchy” (27). She looks as Freud, Lacan and Schilder, and their main thoughts on the body in their work. 

Main points: ego, sexual drives, psychical topographies, Lacan, Perception, skin ego (34), Phantom Limb (41,70), mirror stage & childs idea of space (42), Oedipal complex (57), body image (67, 79-85), phantom phallus (73)

Concerns: reorganizing and reframing the (negative) terms by which the body has been socially represented (61); do not represent women’s interests; absence of female body in neurology (71), ignoring sexual difference in neurology (Schilder)


Again, Grosz looks at how Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Luce Irigaray address the body through Phenomenology, developing a corporeal phenomenology. Phenomenology views the body as not an object, but as a lived body: “Insofar as I live the body, it is a phenomenon experience by me in the world and make relations between me, other objects, and other subjects possible” (M-P 86). More than this, it is through the body that we access knowledge of the world. Through living the body. 

Main points:  visible/invisible (93); lived experience (94); the flesh (95); touch (98); the reversibility of the flesh— “the seer seen or the toucher touched” (101); Perception (flesh’s reversibility) (103); Irigaray: double touching; maternal body

Concerns: Merleau-Ponty ignores female sexuality (108); privileges vision (103) 


These next sections look at the outside-in of the body, as opposed to the inside-out of the previous chapters. In this chapter, Grosz explains Nietzsche’s thoughts on the body: “body as sociocultural artifact rather than manifestation or externalization of what is private, psychological, and “deep” in the individual” (115). In other words, the body is a social object, or “surface phenomenon” (116). 

Main points: textualized body: body as surface to receive meaning (117); the will to power; body as political/social organization; body writing: body as always etched, inscripted; inscription not simply metaphorical but literal and constitutive (137). 

Concerns: presumption of body as blank page “cannot explain how incision and inscription actively produces body as such” (119). 


This chapter looks specifically at the body as inscriptive surface. While many theorists are addressed, it focuses on Foucault and his concepts of power and knowledge as they refer to the body. As opposed to Nietzche, who sees formation of knowledge as an unrecognized product of bodies, Foucault argued that the “body is that materiality, almost a medium, on which power operates and through which is functions” (146). While Neitzche sees bodies a the cause of power, Foucault sees them as the field on which power operates. Foucault says the body is produced through history, and power produces specific body qualifiers or types. “The genealogy as an analysis of decent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to explore a body totally impaired by history and the broussel of history’s destruction of the body” (Foucault 146). 

Main points: corporeal inscription through clothes, hair, makeup (142); interface between bodies and knowledge (146); body imprinted by history (146); power (148); punishment (151); sex& sexuality: social constructs and chains that tie groups to the “biopolitical control of bodies” (155). 

Concerns: body as blank/passive page; ignores possibility of strategic occupation of hysteria as form of resistance; no space in Foucault for women’s accounts, and histories of their bodies, and histories that could be. 


In this final chapter of the section, titled “Intensities and flows,” Grosz asks: “Can accounts of subjectivity and physical interiority be adequately explained in terms of the body?” This chapter begins with some feminist concerns around Deleuze and Guattari, and their theories, but ultimately embraces them for their concept of the body as process and performance, “not lack, absence, rupture but rather becoming” (165). In this, if naive, narrative, Grosz embraces their 'both-and' ethos, and dreams of a deluzian feminism where “things and relations are not read in terms of something else or in terms of where they originate or their history but rather, pragmatically, what they do, what they make” (181). 

Main Points: Becoming women; rhizomes; body as discontinuous;  body as action/performance (165); body as becoming; assemblage (167); body without organs (169); both-and (181); radial anti-humanism (179)

Concerns: metaphor of becoming women is male appropriation, romanticizes, depoliticizes and rephallicizes (163); ‘becoming’ becomes broadly human; romanticizes psychoses; technocracies historically exclude women


The final chapter acts slightly as a summary of some important point for Grosz (Möbuis Strip as metaphor being one), but ultimately seeks to “question the ontological status of the sexed body” (189). As if her previous chapters have all been leading up to this final one, she concludes with another dense chapter on the sexed body, asking specifically about the abject. “Abjection” she tells us, “links the lived experience of the body with the social, culturally specific meaning of the body, the cultural investment in selectively marking the body, the privileged of some parts and functions while resolutely minimizing of leaving un or under represented other parts and functions” (192). Here she sees sexual difference as a form of abjection itself. In focused on body fluids, and our different reactions to, say, period blood versus sperm, she puts tentatively her hypothesis: “women not as lack, but as leaking;” “women’s corporeality is inscribed as a mode of seepage” (203). 

In conclusion, while this book was incredibly dense, it is a useful source for anyone looking to do a feminist reading of the body through contemporary theory or history. Grosz takes on quite the task in unpacking, comparing, contrasting and contextualizing these theorists for the feminist reader. Ultimately, I believe the most interest addition Grosz make is in the final chapter, where she attempts to fill some of the gaps left by theory and history. I am also incredibly moved by her positivistic approach, and her aim to explore the female body, not just in complex terms, but positive ones. Final, her goals of surmounting (without ignoring) binarization, as well as her möbius stripe that goes outside-in in the same breath that it goes inside-out, helped me contextualized the theorists I was familiar within the larger field of thought. Overall, this dense and insightful book has well worth the inclusion on my list. 


“Being a Body is something that we must live”  (xiii)
“The body is the most peculiar “thing,” for it is never quite reducible to being merely a thing; nor does it ever quite manage to rise above the status of thing. Thus it is both a thing and an nothing, and object, but an object which somehow contains or coexists with an interiority, an object able to take itself and others as subjects, a unique kind of object not reducible to other objects” (xi)
“the body is the ally of sexual difference, a key term in questioning the centrality of a number of apparently benign but none the less phallocentric presumptions which have hidden the cultural and intellectual effacement of women.  
“The body is literally written on, inscribed by desire and signification at the anatomical, physiological and neurological level” (60)
“Until female genital and women’s bodies are inspired and lived (by the subject and by others) as a positivity, there will always remains paradoxes and upsetting implications from any notion of femininity” (73). 
“Notion of body as discontinuous, nontotalizing series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances, and incorporeal events…. might be useful for feminists looking to reconceive bodies outside the binary oppositions imposed on the body by the mind/body, nature/culture, subject/object, interior/exterior oppositions” (164).