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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.2 (2002) 57-89

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Female Peristalsis

Jean Walton

Feminists have written extensively about women's eating practices as they pertain to capitalist consumption and compulsory femininity; analyses abound of the cultural implications of anorexia, bulimia, dieting, fasting, or in other words, of women as consuming bodies. But little attention has been given to female bodies as sites of expulsion, or to the pervasive incidence of constipation or irritable bowel syndrome in women (to mention only the pathologized aspects of bowel habits), and nothing has been written about how bowel “regularity” becomes one of the means by which women exercise “control” in their daily lives. In the following pages, I would like to lay some of the groundwork for a project that examines how women manage and attach significance to their bowel habits, or more generally, to the movement of substances through their bodies, even as their bodies are moved through, or positioned within, social, political, domestic, erotic, and ideological systems.

Peristalsis is at once an organic, autonomic process of the body and a psychological phenomenon, subject to the vicissitudes of emotion, cognition, and disciplinary training. Evacuation cannot be willed, but neither is it as automatic as breathing, the heartbeat, the pumping of blood [End Page 57] through the veins, the growth of hair and nails. Some people experience more than others the necessity to engage in certain rituals, activities, postures in order to bring on a movement. Peristalsis thus marks the indistinction between the organic and the psychological, between fuel and waste in the body-machine, between natural and technological operations, between the compulsive and the compulsory.

The early decades of the twentieth century saw an especial intensification of the monitoring, measuring, and enhancing of substances as they pursued a peristaltic progression through systemic structures. In a recent study of the history of “inner hygiene,” James C. Whorton has charted an astonishing medical and cultural preoccupation with “intestinal stasis” in the U.S., Britain, and Europe. A widespread obsession with bowel regularity was accompanied by an ever increasing marketing and consumption of pharmaceutical, behavioral, dietary, surgical, and mechanical cures for the costive that reached a climax in the 1920s. During this same period, as cultural historians Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller have argued, American and European modernist architectural design entailed not only an aesthetics, but an economics of “waste.” Situating their study of domestic kitchen and bathroom design in the context of a capitalist consumer ethos and of the adoption of “time and motion studies” to engineer the most efficient domestic workspaces, they set the scene for a more thoroughly elaborated account of how the human digestive tract is caught up in larger systemic flows and schizzes.

While both men and women have thus been interpellated as “peristaltic subjects,” I would argue that the female body as a site of waste production and management deserves particular attention, not only because of its unique positioning in the history of modern health practices and domestic architectural design, but also because of its exclusion from a long-standing tradition of literary critical analysis of what might be called the canon of excremental modernists including the likes of Sade, Swift, Rabelais, Sterne, James, Jarry, Joyce, and Beckett. Studies abound of the literary, political, aesthetic, and satirical implications of fecal imagery in male-authored masterpieces of modernist literature, but one is hard put to find much discussion of anal impulses in women's writing. In the pages that follow, I will survey some of the historical details and arguments made, on the one hand, by Whorton in his account of constipation remedies in the early twentieth century and, on the other, by Lupton and Miller in their linking of domestic design with consumer capitalism. These studies of a broad cultural preoccupation with the regularization of movement [End Page 58] will help us to understand how women were specifically targeted by what we might call a peristaltic imperative. Lupton and Miller's work will lead us to Christine Frederick's enormously popular book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the...


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pp. 57-89
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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