- Extremities of the Body:The Anoptic Corporeality of As I Lay Dying
From the point of view of death, disease has a land, a mappable territory, a subterranean, but secure place where its kinships and its consequences are formed; local values define its forms. Paradoxically, the presence of the corpse enables us to perceive it living—living with a life that is no longer that of either old sympathies or the combinative laws of complications, but one that has its own roles and its own laws.—Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic
Martin Jay claims that the materializing body, that physical otherness recalcitrant to mental self-conception, threatens to reduce bodily experience to "the sameness of the cadaver" (175). The cadaver at the center of As I Lay Dying, however, markedly refuses to function according to "sameness." While Addie Bundren's corpse does suggest the inert material "stuff" immune to psychic and discursive definitions of the body, it also attains a macabre animation as it decomposes during the protracted trip toward burial. Extending beyond the borders of the singular body, the corpse, I argue, also becomes a more abstract and ubiquitous presence through a figurative corpo-realizing and cadaverizing of both the natural world and characters' perceptual, subjective experiences. As I Lay Dying's "necropoetics," an experimental and vertiginously uncertain tropology through which [End Page 739] the body is composed and decomposed, becomes the defining mode of corporeal experience in the novel.
Turning between a cadaverous materiality and more abstract figurations, the novel's tropology anticipates recent theoretical debates about the status of the body, which tend to take polar forms: the Foucauldian body produced or "inscribed" by social power, and the body whose materiality precedes the influence of culture. The Foucauldian body perhaps never attains the certainty of form; he writes, famously, "The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration" ("Nietzsche" 83). The Foucauldian body is not only material other, an occasionally betraying strangeness failing us in moments of duress, illness, or death, it exists as a state of perpetual inscription, perpetual destruction, perhaps as that which is thus always elusive. Foucault's commentators have discussed the ontological difficulty of his conception of the body; Judith Butler in particular notes that his most pointed descriptions of bodily ontology—the body as a "surface," for example—necessarily revert to metaphorical terms ("Foucault" 603). Theorists of embodiment, in contrast, claim the primacy of the body as a certain base from which culture and discourse emanate, such that a notion like "progress" would follow from the basic sensorimotor experience of navigating space.1 Thus, for Foucault, discourse creates a body that can only be understood as metaphor; for theorists of embodiment, discourse, culture, and knowledge are metaphorical extensions of an ontologically prior body.
This article claims metaphor as the salient hinge between these two conceptions, arguing that relations among body, subject, and power are most significantly questioned and negotiated in As I Lay Dying through its unstable figurative bodies, rather than through the necessarily allegorical fate of characterological bodies. Deviating from criticism that upholds the mimetic value of the corpse as a signifier of sheer materiality from which consciousness is necessarily disembodied, I argue that the novel uses the corpse to stage a range of interrogative representational strategies. "What is a body?" is a question the novel continually poses through the corpse whose ontology is outside traditional conceptions of the body. Butler points out that models of inscription tend to imagine the prediscursive body as cadaverously passive, its prior or "underlying" materiality the "blank and lifeless page" that is "always already dead" (Bodies 4). As I Lay Dying would seem to reverse this formulation, the corpse inaugurating the strange life of a previously unaccountable corporeality, while cultural definitions of bodily form in the novel tend to ossify and render [End Page 740] the body dead. Where culture would define the body through, for instance, the medical diagnosis, the anatomical model, the illustrative cadaver, or the discrete image, the novel erodes such certainty...