by Cecilia Righini
Gender, Affect and the Body
How might we understand the affective body as agentic through the experience of ‘dys-embodiment’? This paper, written for the unit ‘Gender, Affect and the Body’ for the MA Gender, Media and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, studies the affective body during COVID-19 ‘social distancing’ and isolation.
In late 2019, a new virus started spreading from the city of Wuhan, in South-East China, infecting more than 3,000,000 people and by the end of May killing over 350,000 people globally. This disease, Coronavirus or COVID-19, can be transmitted very easily through any face-to-face activity and has forced governments around the world to declare an emergency state of lockdown, in which citizens who have the means to are expected to work from home, schools have been closed and households must keep to themselves, practicing ‘social distancing’ at all times. Being in isolation can be particularly upsetting, but it might help to make sense of the ways the body mediate emotions and feelings. This paper is going to analyse how a sense of dys-embodiment, the lost or altered connection with one’s own body, can be caused by a sudden change and/or lack of interaction with the world and demonstrate how the body itself is deeply involved in the mediation of affect – and therefore could be described as agentic.
In the first section, I explore the concept of the ‘normal body’, in particular the female body, through the analysis of Butler’s theory of performativity, Barad’s concept of agential realism and Ahmed’s argument on (dis)comfort. Here, I am investigating how the lockdown is changing women’s attitude towards shaving and wearing makeup – grooming processes usually considered ‘normal’ which are now revisited. The second part of the essay tries to make sense of how a technologically mediated interaction with people alters the way we process our emotions. In particular, it examines the concept of absence through the work of theorists such as Drew Leder, Sara Ahmed and Lisa Blackman and demonstrates how video calls in particular lead to a distorted way of being embodied. In the last section, I try to make sense of the body as agentic through the employment of new materialist academics such as Coole, Frost and Alaimo. Identifying the body as not limited or bounded, but rather as a dynamic entity of multiplicity and becoming – as respectively discussed by Annemarie Mol and Rebecca Coleman – allows us to understand the body as key in the mediation of affect and thus, as agentic and vibrant.
The ‘Normal Body’
‘Is there anything natural about the human body? […] What can be said to be distinctly human about the body, and how do we make such differentiations?’
– Lisa Blackman (2008: 1)
The concept of dys-embodiment is strictly linked to the idea of the ‘normal body’. Because of the forced lockdown, we do not get to follow all the grooming processes we are used to – blow dry our hair, wearing makeup, selecting an outfit, etc. – in order to to go out and interact with the world as we would normally do, and when we do – perhaps for an online meeting – it does not have to be the full process, as our video call interlocutors are only able to see us from the chest up. Not being able to fully be – or perform – our usual bodies leads to an experience of dys-embodiment or an altered and distorted way to be embodied. Social media and online magazines and newspapers are buzzing with posts on how to take advantage of the forced isolation to ‘improve our appearances’. For women in particular, the focus is on body hair and makeup, while the recurrent question seems to be: should we try to get accustomed to our ‘natural bodies’? Media messages are divergent: some journalists
believe we should take a break from harmful chemicals before starting to wear makeup again after the lockdown (Harper 2020, Ritschel 2020), while others promote the idea of getting used to our ‘real bodies’ to ‘smash the patriarchy’ and finally revisit harmful and misogynistic beauty standards (Asher 2020, Aspinall 2020). To make sense of these trends, I find it necessary to investigate some theories around the concept of the ‘normal body’: how can we define ‘natural’ or ‘real’ body? Furthermore, is it helpful to try and get as close as possible to the idea of it?
Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble (2007) is crucial in the understanding of women’s relationship with feminine-assumed processes such as makeup and body hair removal. It is necessary here to explain Butler’s terminology and distinguish biological sex from gender: while the first simply refers to the DNA a person was born with – XX or XY chromosomes, vagina or penis, etc. –, the latter is much more complex. In fact, according to Butler ‘[g]ender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’ (2007: 45). This means that not only gender is performed, but it is performative: acting our biological sex within society also constructs our understanding of female and male. ‘Gender reality’, she explains, ‘is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed’ (1988: 527): if we refuse to perform gender, it will cease to exist. Butler’s theory is useful to understand that (1) the idea of dys-embodiment will be different for different genders and (2) the application of makeup and body hair removal is a performative ritual which defines – but it is not necessarily always valid – the very notion of ‘normal (female) body’ in our society. To make sense of this point, it is useful to extract some opinions from current media. Instagram user @rubyrare, author and sex educator with more than forty thousand
followers, posted two illustrations depicting pubic hair in days 1 and 49 of lockdown (fig. 1). Claiming that this was the longest time she did not shave, she wrote that she finds it ‘oddly grounding’, and this is a good time to ‘familiarise yourself with your body and try something new without the judgement of others’ (2020). Misogynist responses aside, the comments on the post are mostly positive, featuring many stories of women finally taking the courage to do what they wanted to do for a long time. This example proves both points which emerged from the analysis of Butler’s theory: women are constantly under the pressure to follow particular grooming standards that do not enable them to act for their own interest, but rather push them to follow what is required by them to perform their gender. Another case is presented by Cosmopolitan’s writer Chelsea Asher, who covered the trend of women who are shaving their heads during the lockdown. Her own explanation of the phenomenon is that ‘COVID-19 has been a time of emotional upheaval and self-reckoning’ thanks to ‘the empowering actualization that you don’t need to worry [about] what other people think [or] how you look’ (2020). She continues stating that ‘[q]uarantine has gifted these women, in a world where our bodies are so heavily policed and objectified, the solace of decision-making without public opinion’ (ibid).
Once again, this is another example of how women constantly feel a societal gaze which forces them to behave and look a certain way when in public; when there is no one to prove a female body is feminine enough, a woman is free to act for her own comfort, instead of other people’s – as I will explain later in this section with the support of Sara Ahmed’s theory of (dis)comfort. Even though the article was inclusive in regards to race – issue which is most absent in the work of Judith Butler (2007) –, it is necessary to acknowledge that beauty standards are not the same for all women, and this phenomenon might affect women’s bodies in very different ways.
On the other side of the coin, Karen Barad’s theory of Agential Realism (2007) describes the universe as constituted by phenomena, or the ‘ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting agencies’ (2007: 139). Barad specifically uses the term intra-action to differentiate from interaction: while the latter assumes that two elements exist and they are limited and bounded before they relate with each other, intra-action expects the two elements to be defined by their relationship, meaning they could not be quite the same without each other (2003). ‘What is important about causal intra-actions’, explains Barad, ‘is the fact that marks are left on bodies’ (ibid: 824): in this sense, we may understand the world through Barad’s eyes as an entanglement of non-bounded and non-constrained elements, or agents, which constantly transform and reconstruct each other and exist because of the very same intertwinement with each other. If we apply this theory to the concept of the ‘natural body’, we realise that the way we ‘perform’ our bodies – wearing makeup, shaving, etc. – constitutes the body itself: if a person cannot leave their house without lipstick and mascara, perhaps that is how they can define their ‘normal body’. Furthermore, Barad points out that in order to simplify the analysis of phenomena we execute ‘agential cuts’ that separate intra-acting components. This process is crucial
because ‘in the absence of a classical ontological condition of exteriority between observer and observed’ – in which two components are assumed to be bounded and independent – ‘it provides the condition for the possibility of objectivity’ (2003: 815). Furthermore, the agential cut performs a ‘local causal structure among “components” of a phenomenon’, enabling a cause/‘measuring agencies’-effect/’measured object’ system (ibid). Performing Barad’s agential cuts is necessary for the analysis of the relationship between women’s bodies and female grooming styles and eventually in the understanding of how a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ body is constituted.
According to Julia Jansen and Maren Wehrle, normality is ‘not merely a descriptive category, nor does it refer to a statistical average; rather, it bears an inherent relation to an optimum, and these optima are relative to culturally and historically specific normative frameworks’ (2018: 39). In other words, the two authors’ definition of normality is the culturally relative idealistic scenarios we aspire to during our lives. In 2015, Superdrug conducted research to unveil the perception of women’s beauty in different countries, asking female freelance designers to ‘Photoshop a female form by making her, in their opinion, more attractive to other citizens of their country’ (Superdrug Online Doctor, 2015). As just one freelancer was involved per country, there is little certainty that the photoshopped image fairly represents a unified beauty standard; however, the outcome (fig. 2) does demonstrate how a ‘normal body’ is not an objective concept but rather, as previously mentioned, an ideal based on culture and different folklore norms.
Furthermore, as pointed out by Jansen and Wehrle, in order to achieve ‘normality’, the woman’s body is subject to ‘body schemas’ and restrictions which do not allow it to move and comport in an ‘optimal’ way; thus, the process that women start to resist gender norms does not feel ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ until the body becomes familiar with the new body schema. This internalisation of disciplinary habits and models regarding how a female body should look and behave produce what Michel Foucault called ‘docile bodies’ (1979: 135), or bodies subjected and practised by discipline. Jansen and Wehrle investigated this phenomenon and suggested that this is the part where ‘normal’ gets confused with the sense of ‘natural’: female bodies ‘rely on normalization and are thus inevitably also vulnerable to modes of normalization that are constraining and oppressive’ (2018: 45). This is true to the point, in fact, that many women confirm they wear uncomfortable high heels or follow extreme diets for themselves and no one else because these actions give them a sense of empowerment – or as mentioned before, they believe to be closer to the ‘optimum’, or ideal scenarios.
Many accounts of women’s experiences during lockdown confirm these concepts. For example, writer Georgia Aspinall told Grazia she stopped shaving completely and, although she ‘committed [to get rid of] deeply engrained misogynistic notion that tells [her she] need to look perfect at all times’, she still hates it. She confessed: ‘Every time I catch a glimpse of my now bushy armpit, I flinch. “You look dirty. You look like a man. You look ugly,” my brain screams’ (Aspinall 2020). However, determined to escape these gender norms that have deceived her into thinking that she is not beautiful nor ‘female-like’ with body hair, she is trying to ‘trick’ herself into loving them with positive affirmation and, in her words, ‘telling [herself] lies until [she] believe they’re the truth’ (ibid). This article confirms Jansen and Wehrle’s theory that ‘[t]he subjective body […] necessarily has the desire to reestablish a former normality or to create a new normality (through repeated experiences of another kind)’ – e.g. the ritual of telling yourself you love something you are not accustomed to – ‘otherwise, it no longer experiences herself or the world as concordant, evident, that is, real’ (2018: 41). In other words, bodies need to find a ‘new normality’ in order to avoid an extended ‘abnormal’ experience of dys-embodiment.
Another feminist theorist who discussed normality and normativity in her books is Sara Ahmed. Similarly to Butler (2011: 9), she suggested that the world is constructed by the repetition of norms, which also create limits and boundaries: ‘[s]uch norms appear as forms of life only through the concealment of the work of this repetition’ (Ahmed 2014: 12). She argues that bodies are shaped by repeated and forced norms, which ‘surface as the surfaces of bodies; norms are a matter of impressions, of how bodies are ‘impressed upon’ by the world, as a world made up of others’ (ibid: 145). In other words, norms are constructing and constructed by the perception – or the image – of other people on the surface. Furthermore, she examines feelings of (dis)comfort and argues how comfort, understood as the intersection between two bodies, is not a feeling that is paid attention to enough. One becomes aware of a situation of comfort only at the moment when it is taken away and substituted by the feeling of discomfort. Her analysis focuses on queer feelings within a heteronormative society: queer discomfort remains unnoticed by heterosexual people because of their situation of comfort. As a result, due to their different perception of culture and society, queer individuals might inhabit spaces in different ways, setting new norms and possibly transforming the discomfort into excitement for uncertainty (Ahmed 2014: 146-155). In the same way, we can perhaps apply this theory of (dis)comfort to women and female-presenting people who take the decision to move away from heteronormativity and stop wearing makeup and/or shaving:I identify as non-binary, but my appearances lead people to think I am a woman. I gave up shaving, wearing bras or applying makeup – any ‘female-required’ grooming – more than a year ago, and although it took some time to get used to, confirming all theories mentioned above, I now feel well in my body. However, I believe I cannot define my body as ‘natural’ nor ‘normal’: acknowledging the history behind the norms that police the female body, mine was – and is every day – a political choice. For as much as I can be comfortable with my body, my decision to rebel against heteronormative structures generates discomfort in many spaces. In this way, perhaps we can understand dys-embodiment and a situation of discomfort.
Even though we seek normality and comfort throughout our lives, Jansen and Wehrle remind us that ‘such normality can never be fully achieved, and so it always remains a regulatory ideal, or an optimum we continuously strive to reestablish. This in turn moves us to constantly redefine the limits of our bodies, that is, to enhance, optimize, and technically extend them, while we simultaneously seek a supposedly lost, “natural” identity’ (2018: 38). Therefore, to strive and adapt for a never-fully achievable ‘normality’ delineates the construction and the boundaries of the body.
Absence and Dys-embodiment in Video Calls
‘Technologies of rapid communication and transportation allow us to transcend what used to be the natural limit imposed by the body. Operations are mediated by the written word or the computer calculation, where once a living human presence was required. A rising interest in finding ways to “return to the body”, whether via exercise, hatha yoga, body therapies, craft-work, or intimacy with nature, is but a reaction to this general trend toward a “decorporealized” existence.’
– Drew Leder (1990: 3)
Jansen and Wehrle conclude their essay The Normal Body explaining that processes of normalisation and optimisation, which, as analysed in the previous section, are what we aspire to in order to experience a ‘normal’ embodiment, require a new understanding of embodiment which can merge physical and lived bodies with virtual bodies (2018: 50). As perhaps we are yet not accustomed to this new way of being in our bodies in isolation, I will argue that technology, and in particular video calls, can highly influence how we make sense of our surroundings, mostly leading subjects to the experience of dys-embodiment. Perhaps it can be useful to ask: how can we reimagine the affective body through the experience of dys-embodiment? In this section, I am describing how the lockdown is forcing us to move our relationship with other people to online spaces and how this digital mediation is generating a sense of dys-embodiment. To better understand this, I find it useful to explore some concepts and theories about the affective body and embodiment, in particular the work of Drew Leder (1990), Sara Ahmed (2006) and Lisa Blackman (2008).
In The Absent Body (1990), Drew Leder explored how the body is removed – absent – from the rational and conscious mind. Referring to the lived body as ‘the embodied person witnessed from the third-person and first-person perspective alike, articulated by science as well as the life-world gaze, including intellectual cognition along with visceral and sensorimotor capacities’ (1990: 7), Leder tried to move away from the Cartesian dualism that has characterised the way we think about our bodies for centuries and investigated the relationship between medicine and phenomenology in theories regarding the body and embodiment. His theory suggests that the body tends to disappear when everything functions correctly, while it calls for our attention when there is a dysfunction. Therefore, in these times, we make sense of the body as ‘the very absence of a desired or ordinary state, and as a force that stands opposed to the self’ (ibid: 4). However, Leder also explained that when we become more aware of our bodies and we move away from their ordinary state of invisibility, the body ‘dys-appear’, revealing a ‘corporeal self-presence experienced not as the recessive ground of our being but rather dys-functionally as its delineated figure’ (Leder 1990 in Sobchack 2010: 56, emphasis in original). According to Leder, ‘dys-appearance’ originates ‘from the absence of an absence’ (1990: 91). Recurring to the etymology of the word absent – from the Latin ab, ‘away’ and esse, ‘being’, thus meaning ‘away from being’ – Leder suggested that ‘[t]he body could not be away, stand outside, unless it had a being and stance to begin with’ and thus it is ‘never fully eradicated from the experiential world’ (ibid: 22). Furthermore, uncovering how the bodily surface is our first mediation in the engagement with the world, he described how all of our senses are intertwined in the perception of the Other: we do not respond to our perception as a simple modification of the body part involved in the perception, but rather while doing so we make sense of the world around us. In Leder’s words: ‘My being-in-the-world depends upon my body’s self-effacing transitivity’, or the body’s capability to be absent during the perception of our surroundings. This becomes most evident when we need to relate to other people virtually, rather than in-person. For example, while video-talking with someone there is always a portion of the screen that shows us ourselves mirrored on the camera, distracting us and mostly encouraging us to focus on the way we look rather than on the other person talking. Furthermore, in online video chats we have to deal with the lack of engagement of all of our senses, which don’t allow us to mediate the experience as we would do in a face-to-face relationship – we are not able to ‘read the room’, empathetically understand the atmosphere, interpret a full-body language, etc. Our body is not absent anymore, and as we can make sense of it through only a camera image, we may suggest it dys-appears. Therefore, perhaps a question to ask is: is the dys-appearance of the body strictly related to its dys-embodiment?
According to Sara Ahmed, there is an issue in the adoption of the terms absent and present, as they suggest the possibility of bodies to be able to easily appear or disappear. Instead, she implies that we can be more or less aware of our bodies and bodily surfaces ‘depending on the range and intensities of bodily experiences’ (2014: 26). On the other hand, another way that Ahmed discusses absence is through the concept of the background, which can be interpreted in multiple ways (2006). A background can be understood as a spatial characteristic, or the physical environment surrounding our object of interest; the word background can also be intended in a temporal way, as the cultural and experiential baggage each person carries with them. A background is only ever ‘co-perceived’: ‘[w]hat this flow of perception shows is the partiality of absence as well as presence: what we do not see […] is hidden from view and can only be intended. The partiality of perception is not only about what is not in view […], but also what is “around” it, which we can describe as the background. The figure “figures” insofar as the background both is and is not in view’ (ibid: 37). When participating in an online meeting, we experience a limitation in the perception of the background: we cannot see the whole physical environment and the full body of the person we are intra-acting with. Although during isolation we might try to keep things ‘as usual’, the change of background will unquestionably alter the experience of any interaction that shifted from physical to online. Furthermore, Ahmed pointed out how difficult it is for a body to occupy spaces in a background that does ‘not extend their shape. Having arrived, such bodies in turn might acquire new shapes’ (ibid: 62). Although here referring to queer individuals invading heteronormative spaces, Ahmed’s theory can be applied to our examples in online meeting rooms. People adapt with difficulty to a space that is designed for direct communication but purposefully leaves behind all background information – e.g. some software adopting tools to cancel the noise in the room and enhance only the voice of the person talking. The type of engagement we employ while talking to someone face-to-face is, as previously discussed, very different from the one we need to stay focused during an online meeting, and therefore it takes time and effort to get accustomed to. Hence, once again this example of body dys-appearance can be linked to the experience of dys-embodiment as the perception of our body as functioning in a new way.
A similar point has been made by Lisa Blackman, who mentioned that ‘[t]he somatically felt body has aliveness or vitality that is literally felt or sensed but cannot necessarily be articulated, reduced to physiological processes or to the effect of social structures’ (2008: 30). Analysing multiple examples, such as McNeill’s study on the affective experience produced when people move together at the same rhythm (1995) and Game’s account of horse-human relations (2001, both in Blackman 2008), Blackman suggests that in the connection with the other, being human or non-human, there is a rhythm and a flow of rhythms, a form or ‘tuning in’ which is felt in the body (2008: 9-10, 30). In this way, we may understand the felt body as never singular nor bounded and constituted by the relationship with other bodies. The body is a thinking body that empowers it to be attuned to the environment, a receptiveness that Charlesworth called ‘tactile intelligence’ (2000 in Blackman 2008: 66). ‘What one experiences and how one experiences is in this sense dependent on one’s bodily conditions’ (Jansen and Wehrle 2018: 40): as the concept of attunement is mostly referred to face-to-face interaction, it demands a physical condition that online meetings cannot provide. Once again, because of the lack of engagement of the senses, it can be highly difficult, if not nearly impossible, to reach such an affective state with someone we can only partially see and hear online.
Agentic Matter and Dys-embodiment
‘The body is not a thing to retreat to, a material basis to explain how social processes take hold. The body is in process and is assembled and made up from the diverse relays, connections and relationships between artefacts, technologies, practices and matter which temporarily form it as a particular kind of object. […]
Bodies are processes that are articulated and articulate through their connections with others, human and non-human.’
– Lisa Blackman (2008: 132-133)
As briefly mentioned in the previous section, Western history has been characterised by the mind/body dualism and the conception of matter as inert and non-agentic. According to many new materialist academics (Barad 2003, Colebrook in Alaimo and Hekman 2008, Coole and Frost 2010), this understanding was made most evident after Descartes’ theory which states that matter and material objects are concrete and bounded and they only act under the influence of external rational – agentic – forces. The cogito ergo sum – ‘I think therefore I am’ – allowed postmodernists to grant too much power to discourse and language (Barad 2003), and the attention needed to be brought back to the body and materiality. Although new materialists are not the only wave in Academia which ‘turn’ to the study of matter and bodies – as pointed out by Ahmed, a longer tradition exists in feminist studies (2008) – they provide important analysis with their understanding of it as agentic and vibrant. In fact, according to Samantha Frost, new materialists ‘consider matter or the body not only as they are formed by the forces of language, culture, and politics but also as they are formative’, implying that matter has its own ‘peculiar and distinctive kind of agency’ which is independent of human intentionality (2011: 70). What new materialists are trying to achieve is a shift in critical analysis from a unidirectional methodology – rational forces shaping and giving meaning to inert objects – to one that considers all elements in relation to each other as agentic and has the possibility to affect one another. In their book New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Coole and Frost define materiality as ‘an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable’ (2010: 9), enabling to reposition human subjectivity away from the centre of the universe, but rather intertwined and constantly in relation and intra-action with its surroundings. New materialist Stacy Alaimo defined this concept as ‘trans-corporeality’: we cannot separate ourselves from the environment which surrounds us, but rather this becomes ‘the very substance of ourselves’ (2010: 4). She uncovers, similarly to Frost (2011: 74), that there is a certain porosity of the body in relation its surroundings; because of this concept, which is comparable to Barad’s theory of Agential Realism discussed in the first section on this paper, we can make sense of the world as in intricate interaction of nature and culture.
Furthermore, such conception of bodily porosity has also been shared by Lisa Blackman – who is more interested in body studies and affect theory rather than new materialisms. In the introduction of her book The Body, she suggests that the latter ‘has vitality, an aliveness that provides the potential to connect in ways that trouble and challenge the very mind/body dualism that we have already encountered’ and she continues explaining that the affective body is ‘permeable to the “outside” so that the very distinction between the inside and the outside as fixed and absolute is put into question’ (2008: 10). According to Blackman, it is problematic to think about our bodies as a mere intersection of physicality, biological processes and culture/society. Instead, Blackman proposed that we assume ‘the permeability of boundaries and the inextricable connection of mind with body, human with non-human and biological with social’ (ibid: 58) to ‘think through the body’ and find a way to merge processes that are often considered separate from each other. Furthermore, she introduces a concept originally developed by Dutch anthropologist Annemarie Mol, who is interested in the intersection between medicine and anthropology. Her theory of the body multiple suggests that a body is never to be understood as bounded and singular, but rather as always extending and connecting to others, human and non-human, ‘to practices, techniques, technologies and objects which produce different kinds of bodies and different ways, arguably, of enacting what it means to be human’ (Mol 2002 in Blackman 2008: 1). According to Mol, practices of ‘discord, tension, contrast, multiplicity, interdependence, co-existence, distribution, inclusion, enactment, practice, inquiry’ (2002: 180) both define the body and enable the possibility to think about what the body might become and do.
Ultimately, Blackman points out that rather than investigating what a body is constituted by – reinforcing the existing dichotomy nature/culture – we should perhaps look into what a body can do and become – because of the very intertwinement between the two. In new materialists Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s words, ‘we know nothing of the (social) body until we know what it can do’, therefore we should aim our attention on the study of the potential of bodies (2012: 113). According to Elizabeth Grosz, bodies, ‘in their materialities, are never self-present, given things, immediate, certain self-evidences because embodiment, corporeality, insist on alterity’, which is ‘the very possibility and process of embodiment’ (1994: 209): understanding bodies as becoming may shift how we make sense of dys-embodiment not just as an altered way of being in our bodies, but perhaps as a process. In her essay The Becoming of Bodies (2008), Rebecca Coleman unfolds the Deleuzian concept of becoming as a way to escape dualisms. Becoming describes the world as ‘processes of movement, variation and multiplicity’, as transformation (168) – not only in the sense that objects transform themselves, but rather, in Barad’s term, as a constant intra-action of phenomena.
A possible next step would be trying to make sense of a ‘post COVID-19 normality’: after experiencing dys-embodiment and understanding our bodies as agentic, will we try to get back to the exact routines we lost? Or perhaps, will we learn from these events and re-imagine our lives in acceptance of dys-embodiment as part of life equation? As Jansen and Wehrle explained, examining our bodies as non-inert and externally constructed objects enable us to take a distance from our them to critically analyse our experiences: ‘this distance within our embodiment […] is a precondition for reflection and freedom’ (2018: 39). Therefore, a temporary dys-embodiment may be a necessary condition to free ourselves from the normalised quest for the fulfilment of our potential which is refraining our bodies from living – and enjoying – the process of becoming.
‘The “new” is what is possible when […] our background […] does not simply ground us or keep us in place, but allows us to move and allows us to follow something other than the lines that we have already taken.’
– Sara Ahmed (2014: 62-63)
In this paper I unfolded the phenomenon of dys-embodiment, understood as the lost or altered feeling of being in one’s own body, demonstrating how this is useful, if not at times necessary, in multiple circumstances. In the first section, I tried to make sense of the concept of the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ body, an analysis that allowed me to define dys-embodiment as a temporary state of altered embodied experience while aiming for the optimum or the ideal – a goal that can never be fully achieved and construct the limits of the body. This led me to a discussion on dys-embodiment and body dys-appearance: in this section, I argued that the lack of engagement of all of our senses together during an online video call, which is supposed to substitute the face-to-face interaction during this extraordinary lockdown situation, can contribute to an altered way of engagement with our surroundings – and the surroundings of the person/people we are talking to through a screen – and therefore to a dys-embodied experience. The first two sections were useful to understand the concept of ‘normal’ embodiment and the ‘normal’ affective body, while in the last section, through the help of new materialist academics, I demonstrate that the affective body cannot be anything else but agentic, as without a ‘normal’ embodiment we are not able to make sense of the world ‘normally’. However, we saw that perhaps dys-embodiment is a necessary phase in the constant process of becoming which does not only concern our bodies but the whole environment.
Overall, with this essay I attempted to give an explanation to the feeling of dys-embodiment which is currently shared by many people around the world: I found useful to go back to some core notions concerning the body and embodiment, while to make sense of the affective body as agentic was beneficial in the understanding of this world-wide spread process.
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