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Bodies matter. How they are given, or more frequently deprived of significance is the topic of Leslie A. Adelson’s study. Tracking the production of modern subjective agents capable of “retaining a capacity for choice that defies the hegemony of dominant structures” (27), Adelson emphasizes the importance of examining history as it manifests itself in “the discursive status of the body in literature” (34). Her scholarly enterprise, both feminist and political, is theoretically anchored in her firm belief than any conception of subjective agency must raise the question of “to what extent the body is subject of or to the cultural process of signification” (12). Adelson sees theories that “prioritize language over sensory experience”—deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis, for example—as omitting the body as a locus of articulation and political action. To rectify this problem, she develops in her first chapter a notion of a socialized, constructed, historically positioned, contextually specified entity, in short, an embodied body, by drawing upon a diverse group of theorists that includes Peter Sloterdijk, Oskar Negt, Alexander Kluge, Teresa de Lauretis, Bryan Turner, Bruno Bettelheim and Agnes Heller.
Chapters two through five initiate a discussion of the specific status of the body in West German culture of the last twenty years. In an effort to “track the embodiment of positionality in literary representations of heterogeneous identity” (127), Adelson analyzes three contemporary German novels written by women: Anne Duden’s Übergang, TORKAN’S Tufan: Brief an einem islamischen Bruder, and Jeannete Lander’s Ein Sommer in der Woche der Itke K. Her reading of Duden’s text in [End Page 906] chapter two of her study teases out the tension between the novel’s feminist precepts and its racist underpinnings. Chapter three opens with a critique of the universalizing tendencies of feminist scholarship and then proceeds to analyze how TORKAN’s novel successfully resists reductive essentialism through its nuanced presentation of a protagonist whose body is inscribed by internally and externally conflictual constructions of Iranian, Muslim, female and German identity. Adelson’s final chapter presents an analysis of a text that has received little critical attention, in spite of its fascinating attempt to renegotiate the oppositional definition of “Jews” and “Germany” that has characterized post-W.W.II German representations of Jews.
The vitality of Adelson’s study makes itself felt in her admirable commitment to an engaged form of scholarship that wants to make a difference. Adelson’s agenda is political, and she makes no attempt to conceal this. Her politics of positionality is also meant to be a corrective to poststructuralism, which, according to her, denies “the work—and accountability—of historical agency” (57). In doing this “work,” Adelson’s study raises important questions about what it means to deploy a practice of reading designed to produce political meaning. At times Adelson delivers moral judgments whose truth rests upon the unquestioned, and perhaps prescriptive, assumption that the value of literary analysis resides in its ability to adduce thematic lessons from texts. So, for example, Adelson’s critique of the racism of Duden’s novel includes a statement of what the novel is “missing,” namely, “an articulation of the historical context in which the manifestation of racial conflict acquires historically and socially particular meaning” (53–54). Adelson’s scholarship, committed as it is to producing pragmatic interpretative results, leads me to wonder whether important aspects of reading and representation are not being foreclosed through the logic of production and consumption organizing Adelson’s mode of critique. Specifically, her analyses do not acknowledge or attempt to trace the effects of a force that, while not necessarily productive of the subject, is certainly one with which the subject must reckon: namely, the force of the unconscious (in psychoanalytic terms) or radical alterity (more generally speaking). Adelson’s theory of embodied subjectivity leaves no room for the effects of alterity upon history, or, for that matter, upon reading. One cannot help but wonder about the nature and impact of these effects [End Page 907] on the revolutionary potential of the...