Fleshing Out the Ambiguous Body: J. M. Coetzee's "The Humanities in Africa" as a Critique of Binary Conceptions of Embodiment
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Fleshing Out the Ambiguous Body
J. M. Coetzee's "The Humanities in Africa" as a Critique of Binary Conceptions of Embodiment


In the short story "The Humanities in Africa," a chapter in his novel Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee unfurls two antithetical Western approaches to subjectivity.1 The first outlook, revolving around the body of the suffering Christ, views embodiment as a source of pain that torments the soul and the true self. Here Jesus on the cross symbolizes the rejection both of embodiment and of the idea of attaining knowledge through the body. The second outlook raises the banner of the classical body of the Greeks, which was revived during the Renaissance. Giving pleasure to the eye and raising the spirit, this body is beautiful, clean, and impenetrable—but nevertheless, as in the first approach, here too the reliability of the body as a source of epistemic truth is in doubt. Coetzee, however, appears to be unsatisfied with this dichotomy, and at the end of the story he hints at another, more ambiguous conception of the body and of the embodied subject. This third alternative is presented as, first and foremost, an erotic, fleshy body. In contrast to the suffering/beautiful binary, it is a desirous, pleasure-seeking hybrid body that is composed of different layers and is not necessarily either wretched or beautiful.

Coetzee's interest in embodiment is in evidence in many of his works.2 It is subjectivity—as always, complexly embodied, as I show next—that is at the center of his reflections: we are not abstract, transcendent entities, independent minds that "happen" to inhabit a "mechanical" body, but we are deeply entrenched in a living, carnal, animal body. And indeed, nonhuman animal bodies are overwhelmingly present in Coetzee's oeuvre, including Elizabeth Costello. Some scholars have interpreted Coetzee's pervasive use of nonhuman animals as always related to insights that concern human subjects as well. Louis Tremaine, for instance, believes that "Coetzee's narrative use of animals … reveal[s] a deeper, foundational concern with the condition of living [End Page 67] beings, one that at least partially accounts for the source of Coetzee's response to the various forms of human oppression that he records."3 Cynthia Willett maintains that Coetzee's ethics as displayed in his compelling Disgrace might be best understood not by appealing to Kantian principles or an ethics of alterity but precisely by calling on a new understanding of the meanings revealed in "the human encounter with other animal species."4 Chloë Taylor attempts to expand Judith Butler's ethics through an animal ethics derived from Coetzee's Disgrace, an ethics of empathy that involves both human and nonhuman animals.5 On this subject, specifically as it appears in Elizabeth Costello, Stephen Mulhall argues that the pervasive interest in the human body, and especially in its suffering, that Coetzee displays in the novel (and in his work in general) is by no means solely focused on the precarious condition of human subjects. The suffering of nonhuman animal bodies is always present, speaking simultaneously of itself and of human suffering.6 And it is by way of our condition as primarily embodied that, according to Mulhall, we may best be able to understand the intimate connection that is drawn between human and nonhuman animals in Coetzee's reflections (as presented, for instance, in Elizabeth Costello):

For nonhuman animals, too, can be seen as our fellow creatures. … Their embodied existence, and hence their form of life, is different; but in certain cases, the human and nonhuman forms of creaturely existence can overlap … and in many ways, some nonhuman animals can be seen as sharing a common fate with us. They too are needy, dependent, subject to birth, sexuality and death, vulnerable to pain and fear. … Costello's counterconception of animal life can plausibly be related to such thinking.7

In this article I endeavor to bolster Coetzee's criticism, as offered in "The Humanities in Africa," of the binary conception of embodiment, while offering the additional alternative of knowledge through the ambiguous carnal body. To this end I avail myself of several existing conceptions that deem embodiment...