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  • Writing the Body: Problematizing Cultural Studies, Postmodernism, and Feminism’s Relevance
  • Mahmut Mutman
Vicki Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal. New York & London: Routledge, 1997.

As the newly branded Cultural Studies makes its way into Western academia, it seems as though we have left a number of dogmas behind. A strange, hybrid blend itself (of Gramscian Marxism; semiology; psychoanalysis; ethnography; post-structuralism; Frankfurt School, feminist, and post-colonial criticisms), the emergent field of cultural studies is apparently established on an epistemological refusal of truth or reality and in relentless opposition to a positivistic or realistic concept of natural laws. We are produced by signifying practices and ideologies, discourses motivated or determined by power, and our gender or cultural identities are contingent politico-cultural constructions, not natural givens. Culture thus becomes a new object of study in a new broadly “constructionist” ethical and political framework.

Endorsing its critical conceptual and political insights, Vicki Kirby is nevertheless skeptical of the current state of cultural theory and provides us with a productive criticism of its present linguistic framework. Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal focuses on the nature/culture divide as this binary opposition is implicated with other binarisms which inform the data of cultural studies: man-woman, mind-body, sex-gender, sign-referent, west-rest. Kirby convincingly demonstrates that an argument which takes the sign as that which institutes culture should attend to the fact that the sign is not a homogenous object, and the strange duality internal to it is never closed. At the moment we accept a final closure as the identity of sign or of language in opposition to body and substance, we inevitably inscribe nature into culture precisely under the guise of their radical separation or difference. Given the association of woman and cultural “others” with nature, an uncritical acceptance of the culture-nature divide would have critical ethical and political consequences. Kirby’s argument is refreshing, opening the path where it is closed. Thus, where many of us find a home for radical theorizing, a secure new beginning in the tranquillity of the cultural sign, Kirby finds a risk, an unnoticed reversal which might leave “nature” intact in its very institution or inscription of “culture.” To her, cultural studies is hazardous terrain, one where we must move vigilantly. More importantly, Kirby develops her argument in the no less hazardous terrain of feminist theory, through a deconstructive engagement with the arguments of its most eminent writers in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Telling Flesh is no easy read. But, a book of exceptional significance and merit, it has much to offer to the patient and meticulous reader. In the opening chapter of the book, Kirby accomplishes a fascinating reading of Saussure and post-Saussurian theory of the sign. As intriguing and complex as it is, this chapter draws the main contours of her argument. Taking her lead from Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Kirby offers an original account of “what Saussure saw without seeing, knew without being able to take into account,” and evokes the rich potential implications of Saussure’s predicament for the present work in feminist theory and cultural studies. We must remember that, as cultural studies owes much to semiology, it is a commonplace to the radical cultural analyst/critic that the sign is arbitrary. What this is supposed to mean, however, is little asked, while the implications of rooting the sign in the real object are regarded as naturally conservative. Kirby shows how Saussure’s definition of the sign as arbitrary is constantly visited by the ghost he wished to expel: the nomenclature theory as simple naming of objects in the real world. Hence the complex, repetitive, and often contradictory account of sign and language in Saussure’s text calls for close scrutiny, especially given that, in their disciplinary haste to begin from a methodological foundation, “the interpreters have tended to defend the value of its legacy by separating its insights from the peculiar ambiguities of the text’s failures” (9). The inevitable result is that they have missed its most radical implications. While Saussure’s ambiguities implied that the referent is not easily dispensable, the followers have insisted on a radical...

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