When Margaret Grebowicz writes about the body, she usually means the female body. The body is the main site where pornography and life happen. It is the private place where we make decisions and plan on asserting who we are. But it is also the public space that limits how others see us. In one of the last chapters of Why Internet Porn Matters, Grebowicz offers a beautiful account of the value of the body as a private and public site. Her analysis stands out for its recognition that aspiring to overcome the materiality of the body relegates bodies to the dangerous category of “just things.” From Grebowicz, in extent:
For many proporn feminist activists, for example, the task is to undo the reduction of women to bodies, to animate the pornographic body so that it becomes a person rather than a mere body and enters the public/political sphere, participating in the creation of new social identities. For Butler, who remains continuously critical of identity politics, the place of the body in the public/private distinction is quite complicated. “To be a body is to be given over to others,” so that the body is precisely not the thing that stabilizes an identity. It is onto bodies that gender, sexuality, race, and all other social markers are inscribed from the outside, in ways the subject cannot control. The body as a site of social signifiers functions as the condition of the possibility of sociality. “The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. . . . Given over from the start to the world of others, bearing their imprint, formed within the crucible of social life, the body is only later, and with some uncertainty, that to which I lay claim as my own.” Because the body relates to me, places me in relation to others, it is public first and only later becomes claimable as private and a site of autonomy.
To put it more generally, the claim that women are not “just” bodies hides an implicit assumption that bodies are “just”objects or things, thus reinscribing the age-old denigration of materiality and embodiment at work in the denigration of women. As Ann Cahill shows, the feminist critique of objectification in turn relies on an overly Kantian model of the person, which prioritizes the interior and marginalizes the body, failing to account for the role of materiality and embodiment in intersubjective relations and in ethics in general.
What exactly do we communicate with our bodies, and how can we do so better, more authentically, and in a way that is both liberating and secure? How do we read (or impose our views on) other people’s bodies? Is the body really public first and then private? As I reflect on this passage, I note that the fine line separating private from public is still far too fine for me to distinguish…and the possibility of reflecting on it proportionately stimulating.
—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor
Photograph: Aomawa Baker (Andromache) in The Trojan Women, directed by Brad Mays at the ARK Theatre Company in Los Angeles, 2003.