Julia Reichenpfader – Opened Female Bodies

Opened Female Bodies: Body Modification and Its Impact in Texts from German-language Female Writers

Since its release in 2008, barely another book provoked such a medial uproar in Germany like “Feuchtgebiete” by Charlotte Roche, but some similarities can be drawn to Sybille Bergs “Sex II” (1998) and “Die Klavierspielerin” (1982) by Elfriede Jelinek. The female protagonists of these works either “open” their bodies or explicitly describe other “opened” bodies, modificate their genitals or cut their own skin willingly. While visual and performative arts illuminate the sociocritical elements of body-modification and skin-cutting by putting it on display, literary studies basically didnt recognize this potential due to its failure to implement critical theories of loathing into its research. Instead, the loathsome elements are used as a distinguishing attribute to classify such works as trivial. In contradiction to this overcome elitism, contemporary literature and the reactions towards it are both referring to a collective unconscious a knowledge in which our contemporary bodies are mentally formed and aesthetically positioned by pushing or setting powerful boundaries.

Throughout our cultural history, the female body as an aesthetic subject is figuratively conceptualized as a closed vessel of which specifically the vents are items of regimentation. This idea of a closed female body diametrically opposes the art-historical imagination of the “Vetula”, the archetype of an old, rotten hag with sexual desires as the epitome of all that is tabooed. This anti-ideal unifies all the loathsome defects of the body, like uncontrolled excretions, leaking secretions, orifices or wrinkles. Therefore, the permeable skin can be seen as a remembrance to human mortality. This fear of death makes us uncomfortable and also makes these images loathsome as reflected in the antithesis of the Virgin Mary versus the Vetula, which is one of the most-known iconographic and literary allegories in at least the Christian cultures.

Due to the significance of this discourse in our cultural history, there is enough evidence to suggest that the female body when depicted as open acts out as a disturbance of the symbolic and patriarchal matrix determining our past and contemporary society. Since the 1970s, the scope of the artistic field concentrated on the body as an artistic tool or canvas has been especially amplified by female artists raising questions about the embeddings of our body in the collective knowledge and society. This fact can be seen as a result of the power shift in the roles of the sexes since that time. Visual and performative artists are still proving their arousing relevance like Marina Abramovic, who gained worldwide attention and uproar by cutting her body or being cut by audience members. Our attention to this body-related works strongly emerges from its abilities to challenge and seize the ideal of the body and especially the skin as a vessel for something which is as the logic of the hegemonial discourse suggests for others to define.

Scientific research in various disciplines between psychology and social studies indicates a lucid dissimilarity between gender categories when it comes to auto-aggressive behavior as a valve for mental pressure. This behavioral pattern is far more common as a strategy used by women then by men. Considering the dissimilarities regarding the objectivation of the male and female body throughout the cultural and intellectual history, it is fair to suggest that these phenomenons interact on the threshold between society and psyche as well as practice and discourse .

Classified as an auto-aggressive behavior or disorder, harming the skin is socially ostracized. But simply seen as a cultural practice, skin-cutting can also be understood as a kind of body-modification where the skin becomes the threshold between the psyche and the external. Considering this, skin-cutting occurs as a phenomenon recurring on the occidental ideal of the unharmed, aesthetically perfect body. As a practice, skin-cutting is also a controlled intervention on ones own body and therefore an experience of “agency”. The innards evert externally and the perfect veneer erodes. Defining skin-cutting as abnormal makes it an usurpation of the own body. Acknowledging the element of self-empowerment against repressive discourses of the body in this practice, it seems more adequate to conceptualize it as an appropriation not “unlawful”, but legitimate.

The three considered works from Roche, Berg and Jelinek are illustrating the skin as a border, for the body as well as for the society itself. As works scandalized by the media they also give hints to contemporary taboos in our culture, which is only enlightened on the surface when it comes to the cultural embedding of the body. To perceive the subversive elements of this three works by coincidentally and critically considering the similarities in theme, structure and language as well as on the level of the medially conveyed critical rejection they provoked, it is necessary to concentrate on the texts themselves, to move on from the veneer of loathing evoked by the texts to an outlining of the archetypes and collective fears the texts are communicating as well as disavowing them simultaneously.

Previous Publications:
Reichenpfader, Julia: Verletzte Hüllen, fehlende Häute. Frauenkörper in der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur. In: Haut und Hülle - Umschlag und Verpackung. Techniken des Umschließens und Verkleidens. Ed. Ute Seiderer, Michael Fisch. Berlin 2014, 333-352.
Reichenpfader, Julia: Ekel in der Zahnmedizin. Dentalfresh 4, 2011, 14-19.

Author: Julia Reichenpfader