M. Jimmie Killingsworth recently wrote, “I do not use a body; I am a body.” His reflections on the no longer "recent" move toward recovering the body characterizes a central step in the material turn—a paradigmatic shift probably best called a re-turn. For it was more than a century earlier that Nietzsche counseled, “Behind thy thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage it is called Self; it dwelleth in thy body, it is thy body.” This return to the body (and the material, to matter itself) has been the dominant thread in the fabric of my graduate work. Materiality, for me, is always embodied in some way and thus signals always to the body as the original matter. I mean this not in the sense of the first in material history, but in that all matter as we conceive it comes from the production of and interaction with the body—what Nancy Mairs poetically calls the “bone house.” The vast and established field of body studies is home to various emergent sub-disciplines, which carry with them a collective but unique set of questions: New Materialism has revised the discursive turn’s boon in socially constructed performativity allowing for reconsiderations of essentialism and lived, embodied experience; biopolitics and medicine have envisaged a new bio-social-culture, citing the rise of the AIDs epidemic as a prime example; anthropologists, like Clifford Geertz, revised (not without controversy) their ideas of the symbolic to include a bodily situatedness that recognizes, after years of neglect, the importance of the emic as well as the etic; and Critical Disability Studies has found firm footholds in English and cultural studies, enabling human inquiry a new lens of physical difference and bodily variance.
Very much in hilaritatis causa, I run head first into the midst of these intersecting communities. As one may or may not expect, I often find there laughter, play, and great joy. This has led to a recent interest in the history of laughter and its role in various forms of performance. A body in the throes of laughter, after all, is a transformative act; there is a loss of control, we may become like "barrels" or "heaps," bark and roar like other animals, our speech might tremble and break, and any sense of a prior "self" dissolves if only for a moment. Bakhtin and I may disagree on a great many things, but on this we are in complete communion: Laughter is "the gay, regenerating element... which is precisely the creative element of the human." This affective energy which is transferred and transformed (blunted and deformed even), situates the role of laughter as a type of action which, like Shakespeare’s otherworldly language, demands a particular kind of literacy and praxis: a Rosetta Stone as strange as laughter itself, by which one may peer into the wyrd of life, death, and all that’s in-between. Where better to look than a body, performed and performing?
To put my take on bodies and selves concisely, I'll simply refer to Coleridge's poem, "Fragment" (1810). He wrote:
Eternal Shadow of the finite Soul,
The Soul's self-symbol, its image of itself.
Its own yet not itself--
Well... Coleridge was wrong.