I had an upsetting experience last week.
You may remember from past episodes that I have been struggling with headaches. This has been going on for months, and if I am being honest, on and off for about a decade. So in August I had a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to reduce the pressure in my head. The pressure wasn’t all that high, so there wasn’t too much to reduce, and for a while that seemed to have done the trick. But in the last few weeks my headaches have returned. And sometimes they are bad. This is, of course, really frustrating because I’ve got school, which doesn’t exactly slow down for my discomfort.
I had a follow-up with a neurosurgeon who I had seen over the summer. Initially he had said, “Let’s see what happens after the lp and then I’ll make a recommendation.” Well, the lp happened and it didn’t solve the problem, so I was somewhat nervous going to that appointment. Turns out, my nerves were justified.
The neurosurgeon has offered to do surgery. It’s not a real recommendation, it’s just an option. He won’t say it’s a flat-out recommendation because he says he can’t guarantee anything. He says there is a 60-70% chance surgery would alleviate my problems. But, as he says, the chronicity is the issue. Something is causing my problems. My malformation seems a likely culprit.
The surgery would be what’s called a decompression surgery. Basically, the surgeon removes a small section of bone in the back of the skull, relieving pressure by giving the brain more room. In many cases, the covering of the brain, called the dura mater, may be opened and a patch is put in. As in any surgery where they are opening up your head, and really your brain like that, there are risks. You have to be concerned about infections like various forms of meningitis, for example. You stay in the hospital for 3-5 days and then you’re looking at about 6 weeks of recovery time.
As you can imagine, I’m freaking out a little. That’s a lot to drop in my lap. I need to do a lot of information gathering and get a lot of opinions from experts before I make any major decisions, you know? But the fact that an expert is even talking about this with me is really daunting. I’m sure it’s not surprising that my stress level has gone through the roof in the last week.
All of this has had me thinking a lot about the body. It’s a wild and complicated thing. And it’s a hell of text.
Descartes subscribed to mind-body dualism. In other words, he believed in the view that the mind and body are distinct. Cartesian dualism argues that there are two kinds of foundation: mental and physical. This philosophy states that the mental can exist outside of the body, and the body cannot think.
This thinking guided science for a few hundred years. But modern medicine and psychiatry and psychology tend to reject Cartesian dualism. In the current paradigm we see the mind and body as connected. Your mental state directly affects your physical state, and vice versa. The mind and the body are inextricably connected.
But anyone who struggles with mental health can tell you that. When you are depressed, you feel physically bad. At the same time, when you are happy, you feel physically better. And fitness buffs have long touted the mental benefits of regular exercise. The mind and the body aren’t divided. They work in harmony.
The body is more than just a jar in which we keep our brains. We aren’t just machines. Our bodies mean something.
Rhetoric and certain rhetoricians recognize the importance of the body to communication.
Helene Cixous, for example, considers the feminine body a central part of her theory of writing. Cixous first coined écriture féminine in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” in 1975, where she asserts “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” because their sexual pleasure has been repressed and denied expression. American feminist critic and writer Elaine Showalter defines this movement as “the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.”
According to Barry Peter, “Ecriture féminine, then, is by its nature transgressive, rule-transcending, intoxicated, but it is clear that the notion as put forward by Cixous raises many problems. The realm of the body, for instance, is seen as somehow immune to social and gender condition and able to issue forth a pure essence of the feminine. Such essentialism is difficult to square with feminism which emphasizes femininity as a social construction…”
So Cixous’ theory was an attempt to write the body. Women have been denied themselves, their will, and their bodies since writing began, so they must write these very things. It is an attempt to move away from phallocentric thinking and writing into a space where women have access to power, place, and resources, and this includes our bodies.
But Cixous was not the first to connect the body to the text. You don’t have to be an elite feminist theorist to understand the power of the body as text. In fact, the potency of the body as text is evident to speakers from the exact opposite end of the spectrum as Cixous.
In 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered a speech we call “Ain’t I a Woman?” to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 and died in 1883. She was an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in New York but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. When she went to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside. “Ain’t I a Woman” is her best-known address. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for formerly enslaved people. She continued to fight on behalf of women and African Americans until her death. Truth is a powerful reminder that great speakers can come from any background. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth stand as unassailable evidence that Black people can, and will, achieve great things, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. What would the world be like if those odds were evened?
In her speech, Truth asks of the audience, “Ain’t I a Woman?” She asks if she is not also a woman and deserves the rights that white women of the First Wave are demanding, even though she is Black.
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to
slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Truth uses her body as the text to argue her personhood and her womanhood. She demands that the audience look at her – at her arm. Her arm has worked just as hard as a man’s arms, but she is still a woman. Her body can work and eat like a man, and bear the brutal punishment of slavery, but she remains a woman. Her body has born children, and she has lost them to the horrors of chattel slavery, and she has cried as mothers do, so isn’t she a woman? Her body bears the evidence of her humanity, and she presents it to her audience to show them that she is not just a human, but a woman. She uses her body and her physical presence to demand the same from them that they demand for themselves.
It’s a short speech. The rest of it is largely theological in nature. But she begins with her own body. One of the most powerful arguments she has is her body itself. The text she presents to her audience is her arms, her back, and her womb. That’s her argument.
Truth shows us that you don’t have to be a trained theorist to know that the body is a powerful text. In some ways it’s the most basic text we have.
At first blush it doesn’t seem like these two people have much in common. Cixous is a French feminist theorist of the 20th century and Truth was born into slavery in the 1800s. But they share a very important thing – they are both women.
Now, I’m not an essentialist. I don’t think there is anything inherently “feminine” about any particular kind of rhetoric. But I DO recognize that some people are drawn to some kinds of speaking and writing. I don’t think that’s because of any in-born characteristics, but because of socialization, circumstance, or opportunity or environment. I think context explains a lot of what we think of things like “masculine” or “feminine.” I’m a big proponent of gender as social construct.
Which brings me to a little-known figure from the 1600s, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
She was a Mexican writer, philosopher, composer and poet of the Baroque period. Her contributions to the Spanish Golden Age gained her the nicknames of “The Tenth Muse” or “The Phoenix of America.” Historian Stuart Murray calls her a flame that rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism.”
Sor Juana lived during Mexico’s colonial period, making her a contributor both to early Spanish literature as well as to the broader literature of the Spanish Golden Age. Beginning her studies at a young age, Sor Juana became known for her philosophy in her teens. Sor Juana educated herself in her own library, which she inherited from her grandfather. After joining a nunnery in 1667, Sor Juana began writing poetry and prose dealing with such topics as love, environmentalism, feminism, and religion. Her criticism of misogyny and the hypocrisy of men led to her condemnation by the Bishop of Puebla, and in 1694 she was forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity towards the poor. She died in 1695 of the plague.
She was controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her argument for the ability of women to speak – she was often at odds with church elders.
She argued that the canon of invention should include the life experiences of women. In other words, her life experience as a woman was not incompatible or inferior to academic inquiry.
Consider that for a moment – de la Cruz wanted to put women’s personal experience on an equal footing with things like invention and logic. I want us to think about how radical that was.
Logic had been at the heart of education and learning for hundreds of years. And something that is really hard for my students to understand is that logic is not contingent. They think of logic as an individual or personal thing because everybody has their own sense of logic, but that’s not it at all. Logic is a system that exists on its own. Outside of and irrespective of us. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or agree with anything, logic is a systematized, universal set of rules that takes a set of variables and gets you to a conclusion. And rhetoric uses that system as part of its invention. De la Cruz argued that women’s personal experience should be elevated to the same level of acceptance as logic.
You have to understand what a bold move this was for women. Women had been left out of the educational system. Women didn’t have access to logic. Women hadn’t been taught logic. It wasn’t something they knew. Logic was reserved for wealthy men. So in essence, legitimate arguments were reserved for wealthy men. As long as logic remained the realm of elite men, arguments were out of reach for anyone but them. So for de la Cruz to argue that a woman’s life should be a matter of invention is to invite women into the world of rhetoric. She is opening that aspect of the upper echelons of society to women. If personal experience counted as invention, women had a means to make arguments. Women had access to rhetoric. And rhetoric was power.
So I don’t necessarily buy that women are inherently more in touch with their bodies than men BECAUSE they are women. But, there may be some sense and history to the idea that women recognize the power of the body as text because women have been cut off from things like the canon or a tradition of rhetorical education or being socialized into argumentation, so women may be more ready or even may have more of a need to recognize the body as text because they need that topoi.
If the body is what you have access to, then the body is what you write and argue.
All of this is swirling around in my mind while I’m also thinking about this Judas of a body I’m walking around in. What argument can I make with this body? What can I write?
I have to advocate for myself with doctors and medical professionals over the intricacies of this body, and it is hard, and it is hurtful and painful. In so many ways it feels like a betrayal.
But, this body keeps me close to my family. It is how I hug my child and hold my husband’s hand. It is how I cook a meal. It is how I stand in front of a class and try to make a difference. This body is how I argue every day this is all worth it. It sometimes feels like a weak argument, but I am writing it, nonetheless.
We all speak with our bodies, day in and day out. Sometimes loudly, like taking up as much space as you can in a crowded place, or sometimes quietly and timidly, by closing in on yourself and hiding as much of yourself as you can. But we say something with our physical selves. Our bodies are texts to be written and read. Perhaps it’s time to consider what we are saying.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.