- The Contours of Loss
In Lost Bodies, Laura Tanner examines the philosophical, epistemological, and conceptual challenges that personal loss poses to prevailing discourses of grief. Taking as its focus photographic images, literary and nonliterary texts, and commemorative objects like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Lost Bodies explores "how cultural constructions of death and grief are inextricably bound with specific assumptions about the body" (4). What, asks Tanner, can the lost body—the wasting body of the terminally ill, the absent body of the deceased—tell us about our own bodies and our embodied experience of the world? Contemporary U.S. culture, she argues, disavows the absent body by narrativizing grief as re covery, by aligning bereavement with survival, or by depicting the deceased as present in another, better place. This dynamic of disavowal is informed by a fiction of disembodiment—a psyche unfettered by materiality and corporeality and a body that is autonomous, healthy, and invulnerable. Disavowing the absent body precludes examining how our bodies are intertwined with the bodies of others and prohibits acknowledging that loss is a physical phenomenon, as well as a psychological one.
"Cultural constructions of death and grief" is a very broad topic, and Tanner draws on an array of disciplines to approach it. She references recent work in disability studies and studies of aging to trouble the [End Page 663] distinction between the healthy and the dying; she relies on work in psychoanalysis and phenomenology to highlight the role of the body (or the implications of its absence) in perception and experience; she employs the methodologies of cultural studies and of sociology to expand the scope of her discussion beyond the literary; and she pays special attention to photography. Throughout, Tanner mobilizes her considerable talents in literary analysis to explore "the way in which the body of illness or grief is absent from critical discourse and lost to cultural view" (2). As this formulation indicates, hers is a conceptually tricky project—demonstrating the presence of the body's absence—and Tanner treats its challenges as an opportunity for close, careful, eloquent, and sometimes downright brilliant readings of images, texts, spaces, and objects. Lost Bodies alternates between brief discussions—some only a few pages long—of novels, short stories, condolence cards, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the medical waiting room, and the HBO series Six Feet Under (2001–5)—and more extensive engagements with poetry by Sharon Olds and Mark Doty; novels by Marilynne Robinson, Carolyn Parkhurst, and Don DeLillo; Roland Barthes's autobiographical meditations in Camera Lucida (1980); and the photography of Billy Howard, Nicholas Nixon, and Shellburne Thurber. Throughout, Tanner argues that the body and its loss, like embodiment and perception, are fundamentally intertwined. Given that we experience through our interactions with the tactile world, the body we can no longer touch calls into question both experience and world; focusing on representations of and approaches to the lost body throws both prevailing discourses of the body and the stakes of these discourses into high relief.
Tanner has an eye for nuance; her writing is rigorous but accessible, and her analysis illuminates each text she discusses. In the course of this book these discussions do become somewhat repetitive—one gets the sense that Tanner is enjoining us, again and again, to "see what is not there" (173). More problematic is the book's conceptual trajectory, which moves too quickly from illness to death and from loss to grief; and its theoretical scaffolding, which relies on Merleau-Ponty and Freud at the expense of more recent work and advances, without explicitly saying so, a quite vehement critique of the image and of the power dynamics of vision. Finally, though Tanner describes Lost Bodies as a critical engagement with "assumptions about embodiment and mortality in contemporary American culture" (3), she never explains what is uniquely American about the assumptions she explores. Most of the artists and authors she discusses are U.S. nationals (an obvious exception is Roland Barthes, whose Camera [End Page 664] Lucida is treated as a primary text), but...