Exhibitionism can tingle with pleasure and power, says visiting human sciences Professor Elizabeth Grosz. She defies any notion of dusty academia, honing in on subjects labeled perverted in stodgier circles.
Her scholarship is fleshy and fascinating – penetrating the realm of the sexual, the corporeal, the naked.
GW’s human sciences program – the only one in the country – explores how people find meaning in their world by melding disciplines of study like English, anthropology, religion, philosophy and American studies. Under the program’s auspices, Grosz teaches her version of feminism.
Diverging from feminist criticism that relegates women to objectified, passive recipients of the male gaze, Grosz would free women to enjoy the electricity of being “looked at.” And the power of being lookers.
“I can go to a movie and enjoy it or not enjoy it without betraying my sex,” Grosz says.
Though her views separate her from “mainstream” feminist thought, which vigilantly decries artistic representations of women as passive and possessable, Grosz says feminism as a movement is “sophisticated enough” to handle criticism, especially criticism from one of its own.
Feminism, in fact, invites multiple voices, she says. “No one speaks the official party line.”
Grosz, an Australian native teaching two graduate courses at GW this semester, was “born with feminism,” she says.
As an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of Sydney, where she would later earn her doctorate, Grosz was part of a two-month walk-out of students and faculty angered by the philosophy department’s refusal to delve into feminism.
The department splintered over the issue. Today radical and traditional philosophy departments coexist at the university.
The early melding of Grosz’s academic career and feminism affords her familial intimacy when criticizing shortcomings of feminist thought. She slips easily into a feminism beyond early militancy – a feminism no longer fighting for a voice as much as fine-tuning that voice.
Thinking the body, again
A mind/body split is dishonest, says Grosz, and even feminists are buying into it.
Worse than inaccurate, the idea of a mind working separately from, and even in opposition to the body is damaging, Grosz warns. This stance is critical because mind/spirit/reason is privileged over body/passion/emotion – and society shackles women to the inferior “body” side of the divide, Grosz says.
Favoring the cold machinations of a mind divorced from the body, Western thought marginalizes women, miring them in physicality. Women are associated with the disruptive tremors of a body working against the mind’s potential, and thus socially subjugated, Grosz argues.
By re-evaluating the body as more than a biological machine that carries the brain, the body’s experience in the world – its senses, surfaces, skin color and sex – infuse “knowledge” with new life. And new participants.
Though she is quick to point out that the complexities of critical theory have limited street value, Grosz says the ideas themselves have trickled down from the work of academics to change how people think.
Changing your mind
Accepting a mind born of the body, formed by the body’s experience, means that different bodies produce different – and mutually correct – ways of understanding the world.
“You can no longer accept one kind of reason, one truth, one world,” Grosz asserts.
Creating new ways to think is Grosz’s aim, she says. She says the process of exploring, questioning and struggling is the way to pave new avenues of thought.
“Knowledge should be about how life could be, about how to live one’s life to make it better.”
Even outside of university enclaves of thought, “today there are things about women you shouldn’t think and can’t say; there are things about race you shouldn’t think and can’t say – and that’s a good thing,” Grosz says.
Society now is hearing the voices of the once-silenced, though things “haven’t changed enough,” Grosz says.
“It’s not a question of succeeding. The struggle is the more important victory.”
A nude woman melts like a candle on the cover of Grosz’s latest book Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism .
But U.S. readers won’t see this cover; Grosz’s publisher refused to print it in this country. The publisher’s decision to blur the detail of the cover was sparked by fear that feminist readers would be offended, Grosz says.
“A tradition of fundamentalism and Puritanism about the depiction of sexuality” strides through American thinking, Grosz says. This attitude, fused with a feminist hostility toward the possible consumption of the female body by the male gaze, doomed the cover art to obliteration.
But Grosz does not accept these limitations.
“You can never talk too much about sexuality,” she says. “It’s the endlessly fascinating subject . the great unthought thing” that sweats into all knowledge, power and desire.
Peacock feathers, baboon bottoms and orchid curves
Grosz points out that the human body lacks visual allure. Naked, it stands without the flourish of the peacock’s outrageous feather fan, the baboon’s scarlet bottom or the orchid’s explosion of seductiveness aimed at the nearest bee.
The human body is poignantly vulnerable, with only the delicate hug of the skin to protect it.
Society condemns the exhibition or observation of nakedness except in its children, lovers and artistic representations, Grosz says. The representation of nakedness offers safe distance – while being with an actual naked person demands action, reciprocity, protectiveness.
Artistic representation offers a refreshing chance for both men and women spectators to “dwell, savor and enjoy without obligation,” Grosz says.
Representations of the naked body elicit more than just “an ennobling or a salacious, perverse look,” Grosz says. Art is resourceful – it will defy limits, surprising the spectator and engaging a multitude of different “looks.”
“Make one’s self into a work of art,” Grosz urges, not to be a spectacle, but to “live in excess of discipline and aesthetics.
“Return to the body as origin and act in ways that are not habitually confined.”
(Photo by Tyson Trish)