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  • Unsettling Bodies
  • Mayra Rivera Rivera (bio)

Redeeming the body or questioning the body—these are familiar goals for many feminist theologians. But becoming flesh? Feminists have argued for decades that the devaluation of flesh contributes to the subordination of women and thus we work to rescue the body and materiality from patriarchal deprecation. For feminist theologians, this also entails liberating the divine from confinement to imagined realms of immateriality. Yet feminism also questions "the body" wherever it serves to anchor definitions of "woman" based on biological determinism, persistently criticizing the axiom "nature is destiny." Thus we attempt both to reclaim the epistemological and spiritual import of corporeality and to unsettle cultural representations of body—especially in relation to "woman."

Sharon Betcher's essay offers feminists an invitation and a challenge to rethink the implications of body-talk. Betcher suggests that "body" fosters an illusion of completeness and wholeness easily naturalized, normalized, and deployed as part of cultural systems of representation and capitalist production. In such systems, bodies are defined as visible, individual units, thus excluding from "normal" all those who do not conform to its increasingly narrow aesthetic and productivity standards. Such standards clearly jeopardize persons living with disabilities. But the stakes are high for everyone, because the fear of falling outside the limits of the normalized body—an ever-present possibility for all human beings—shapes our experiences of corporeality. This anxiety is evidenced by the scarcity of cultural discourses about and practices to deal with pain and mortality, as well as by the proliferation of discourses and practices aimed at shaping the body to fit accepted standards.

Betcher suggests, in my reading, that if "body" names a coherent unit amenable to representation and normalization, feminist challenges to the idealist foundation of kyriarchy are better served by embracing "flesh" rather than "body." Flesh here names a "lived capaciousness"; it is dynamic and fluid, exposed to others in its irreducible vulnerability. Having engaged in a fair amount of theological body-talk, I recognize the conceptual difficulties of holding together the critique of the cultural and political production of the normalized body, on the one hand, and the articulation of alternative discourses of corporeality, on the other; and I welcome the opportunity to think about these in relation to body and flesh, respectively. I offer here an initial attempt to build on Betcher's suggestions, by revisiting some aspects of my previous explorations of Latina theorizations of corporeality as a way to ponder the implications and possibilities of the proposed approach.

In the variegated intellectual traditions that constitute Latina studies, theorizations of corporeality commonly emerge in tandem with explorations of the [End Page 119] legacies of colonialism in the Americas. There are very concrete reasons for this: colonial-sexual violence against African and indigenous women indelibly marked the bodies of many of their descendents. Greed, violence, and enslavement literally became incarnate. They have left "memories in the flesh" that seek theoretical articulation.1

The corporeal effects of colonial histories cannot be separated neatly into physical and cognitive elements. For the genealogical traces of colonial-sexual violence are experienced in conjunction with the materialization of gender arrangements also introduced by colonial power. These new structures served as tools for "the organization of relations of production, of property rights, of cosmologies and ways of knowing," all of which would have lasting effects in local and global understandings and experiences of embodiment.2 The justification of colonial power arrangements depended on complicated physiognomic scales—depicted in charts of scientific/aesthetic representations of "types of bodies"—purporting to make character legible from visible bodily traits. In those regions of Latin America where it was hard to locate physiognomic traits within one of the defined "races," the number of categories in such scales of being multiplied to absurdity, attributing great significance to barely noticeable differences.3 The colonial obsession for classifying body-types intensified colonized people's vigilance of their own appearance in an effort to hide those physical traits related to lower rungs of the social/ontological ladder. We can see, then, the aesthetic representation of bodily norms and the anxieties thus produced as precursors of contemporary globalized systems—where technologies offer more effective ways...


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pp. 119-123
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