Ruth Barcan responds to Joanne Finkelstein

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In responding to Joanne Finkelstein’s essay on the legibility and meaning of fashion and body styling practices, I want to take up what for me is the most interesting aspect of the “meaning” of our fashioned body — that is, the question of the legibility or otherwise of the body itself. As a person interested in “alternative” therapies and the modes of mapping or knowing the body that they assume, and the various modes of being in one’s body that they help to activate, I found this to be the most suggestive aspects of Finkelstein’s essay since it’s the point where the cultural dimensions of fashion meet the materiality of the biological body and call into question the limits of the body’s plasticity.

Finkelstein’s essay makes clear the extent to which, in a consumer culture saturated with signs, our self-presentation is a highly charged semiotic affair, and just how intensely our decoding processes are set in motion by the presentation of others. Like other post-Foucauldian writers on fashion (eg Jennifer Craik), she extends the notion of self-fashioning to include disciplinary labour on the body itself eg body-piercing, tattooing, hairstyles and so on. Finkelstein describes the collision in postmodern culture between the logics of fashion and “Cartesian precepts of a stable interiorised identity”. She claims that in postmodern culture, longstanding traditions of physiognomy combine with our heightened consumerist semiotic sensibilities to create the illusion that we can interpret the human body as expressive of a knowable, readable interior identity. “This is hard to claim with humans,” she says, presumably with a deal of understatement.

Despite this, systems of healing that rely on sometimes reductive bodily typologies are enjoying extreme popularity in the postmodern West. Louise Hays is one of the most well-known exponents of this way of thinking of the body. Her books explain illness as a bodily manifestation of an emotional pattern, upset or disorder, and see bodily symptoms as metaphors. The back, for example, “represents our support system” and “Problems with the back usually mean we feel we are not being supported.” 1  Her more recent books outline the body’s symbolic capacities in the most minute detail. Thus, post-nasal drip is characterised as “Inner crying. Childish tears. Victim”; cellulite is a sign of “stored anger and self-punishment.” 2  Her books are an extremely detailed and prescriptive version of the more general New Age orthodoxy: that illness results from an imbalance or “dis-ease” in the mental or emotional life of the sufferer.

These theories are incredibly seductive, to many. Last week, I was conducting a tutorial on phenomenology, and brought Hays’ book in as a demonstration both of the possibilities of thinking about mind-body interactions and as an exemplum of precisely that reductively mentalist conception of the influence of mind on body that Merleau-Ponty was arguing against . While most of the class were engaged in a very lively discussion about both the possibilities and problems of such ideas of illness, two young women next to me were surreptitiously “looking up” illnesses and covertly copying down their “meaning.” It was one of those moments that showed up the seductiveness of such causal thinking, as well as raising some interesting pedagogical issues.

Such understandings of the relationship between mind and body are appealing to many in part because they are a mode of causal thought. They offer the reassurance that there are no accidents, that everything has a meaning, perhaps even a purpose. They help to make sense of a world that often doesn’t seem to have much sense in it.

It need hardly be stated that Hays’ account of both the relations between mind and body and the causes of illness is reductionist in the extreme. It reduces the body to a mere screen on which the “real” drama of an inner life is projected. As Merleau-Ponty states, “the body does not constantly express the modalities of existence in the way that stripes indicate rank, or a house-number a house. 3  Hays’ theories, while recognising some dimensions of the mind/body relationship undertheorised, perhaps, in western biomedicine (that is, a more thoroughly psychosomatic account of illness in general), finally end up remaining within a Cartesian conception of the body as a relatively inert counterpart to spirit (or in Hays’ account, emotion, unconscious thought patterns). Her formulations give us no sense of the infinitely more complex and multidirectional interaction between mind and body.

Despite all this, I’m not actually wanting to do the sensible academic thing and merely satirise Hays’ theories or the bodily practices in which they are imbricated. Hays’ theories are popular, it seems to me, precisely because they do struggle towards a theory of the interrelationship between mind and body, an interrelationship which so many of us know, intellectually and experientially, to be true. The idea that the body is a bio-poetical system, a kind of living metaphorics, makes a lot of sense to a post-Freudian culture. So what might happen if we returned to Finkelstein’s questions about “reading” fashion and applied them in more than a passing way to the body?

Finkelstein argues that all fashions are ambiguous. Thus, it’s hard to know whether to read the peaked sports cap worn backwards or the use of fake fur, to use two of Finkelstein’s examples, as examples of “oppositional dress” or merely as “a new consumer aesthetic.” If you want to decide what fashion “means,” then it matters a lot what theory of hermeneutics you’re working with. Of course, it all depends on what “meaning” itself means — which is a function of the particular critical or hermeneutic framework being put to work, be it the interpretative mechanisms activated by all of us in our everyday life, or a specialised academic framework.

As with many contemporary theorists of postmodern culture, one of Finkelstein’s preoccupations in this essay is the political or personal possibilities of an ironic, parodic or subversive uptake of consumer cultures in everyday life. Rightly, she is suspicious of the potential glibness of invocations of irony, parody or subversion. My own view is that irony is wearing thin as a solution to postmodern crises of meaning, identity and belonging, since it relies so much on notions of authorial intention and on membership of an often privileged social group.

Nonetheless, what might happen if we turned the question of irony to the body? Every human action [and thus every bodily event] ‘has a meaning,'” Freud (and Merleau-Ponty) tell us. New Age theories of health and healing agree. There are no bodily accidents. But must bodily occurrences have a meaning, and if so, whose? What happens when we set Foucauldian notions of disciplinary self-fashioning on a collision course with postmodern celebrations of irony, parody and subversion and phenomenological and psychoanalytical symptomologies?

Fortunately, I’ve chosen a limited textual context in which to ask this question (the “response” genre, with a word limit), so I don’t have (yet) to try to answer this question. But I do have one way of rephrasing the question itself. I like to pose the question this way: Does the unconscious have a sense of humour? We all “know” that it operates like a language, that puns, jokes and slips are some of its modes of expression. If it’s true that repressed emotions, unconscious (or subconscious) thought patterns and so on might have a major impact on bodily health, then it matters a lot whether you conceive of the unconscious as capable of dealing with irony and parody. Many New Age therapists claim that it can’t: that everything we repeatedly say, think or joke about is recorded “unironically” in our unconscious and eventually in our body.

Are the unconscious and the body such unsophisticated readers? I really don’t know, but many health practices and social policies depend on our answer to this question.

Ruth Barcan lectures in Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney.


1. Louise L. Hays, You Can Heal Your Life, Concord: Specialist Publications, 1984.

2. Louise L. Hays, Heal your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them, Concord: Specialist Publications, 1988.

3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.

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