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Penelope Ingram The Signifying Body: Toward an Ethics of Sexual and Racial Difference
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Marcel Proust Has Proposed that we can only truly know ourselves, and others, through the work of art. Thus, for Proust, I come to know myself in artistic expression or in my experience of the art of another, wherein their mental landscape is made known to me, and, in turn, illuminates my own. In Penelope Ingram’s The Signifying Body: Toward an Ethics of Sexual and Racial Difference, a similar move takes place in relation to the Other: in film and text I encounter bodies that signify outside of representational language structures and it is through these freer bodies that I come to understand my foreclosed material body, opening up my own “significatory potential” (92). Ingram is proposing, like Luce Irigaray and Frantz Fanon, that to circumvent hegemonic discourse, we must have a new language. In Ingram’s text that new language is bodily. She states in her introduction that “the role of language, and its relation to ontology and ethics is central to” her study, and it is the performative capabilities of the body, she argues, that are ontological and demonstrate ethics (xi). Ingram draws upon literature and film to demonstrate instances of bodily signification that function linguistically, turning to works such as Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.

In their sexed and raced difference, the signifying bodies that Ingram looks to have not only been left out of a Symbolic order, they have served as the ground for the becoming of the white male subject. On a traditional metaphysical model, race and sex are ontic qualities and thus, as Ingram points out, “true racial and sexual difference do not exist” (xv). Following Martin Heidegger’s critique of metaphysical dependency on representation, Ingram sees the articulation of an ontology that is not dependent on representation as a first step to an ethics of sexual and racial difference. Being is revealed, not already given, and it must be sought out, as Irigaray suggests, building on Heideggerian Mitsein, through proximity with the other. Ingram follows Irigaray’s departure from Heidegger in positing the sexed nature of Being and uses Fanon to show that Being is raced, too. This is quite a departure from Heidegger’s unmarked Being, and neither Irigaray nor Fanon would concede to a conception of Being that is both sexed and raced. Nevertheless, Ingram argues that ontology ought to be seen as sexed and raced, and she draws these thinkers together to show that while they might not agree on the necessary ontological underpinning of race and sex, each sees an “indispensable relation” between language and Being, and between language and ethics (120).

But how are we to create a new language when the grounds of representation—the grounds of Being itself—are so fully enmeshed in an established Symbolic order? Is language the approach that yields the most productive route? Ingram suggests that it is bodies that we must look to, and specifically “those bodies which belie representation” by actively demonstrating their noncompliance with cultural, behavioral, and sexually dictated norms, showing themselves, signifying a different way of being (2). Through these bodies Ingram asks: “Is it possible to signify without representation?” and her book is a journey through metaphysics, ontology, ethics, psychoanalysis, feminist theory, and race theory to come to the conclusion: yes, we can, and we come to new ways of being and living ethically by doing so (21).

To get at what Ingram means by “significatory potential” opening up ontology and ethics, we have to look at her foray into psychoanalysis and her analysis of the Real. She suggests that we ought to see “the Real not as an effect of discursive production, either as its retroactive positing (the poststructuralist position) or as signification’s limit (the Lacanian position), but as of an order entirely separate from representation” (2). To circumvent views, such as Judith Butler’s, that the body is entirely made up of discourse, or Jacques Lacan’s, that the subject is formed of the lack that is inherent in representation, Ingram posits a Real that is devoid of representation, but not of signification. As we see...

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