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Metaphors of Inscription: Discipline, Plasticity and the Rhetoric of Choice

Pippa Brush
Feminist Review
No. 58, International Voices (Spring, 1998), pp. 22-43
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395678
Page Count: 22
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Metaphors of Inscription: Discipline, Plasticity and the Rhetoric of Choice
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Abstract

The metaphor of inscription on the body and the constitution of the body through those inscriptions have been widely used in recent attempts to theorize the body. Michel Foucault calls the body the 'inscribed surface of events' (Foucault, 1984: 83) and Elizabeth Grosz argues that the 'female (or male) body can no longer be regarded as a fixed, concrete substance, a pre-cultural given. It has a determinate form only by being socially inscribed' (Grosz, 1987: 2). The body becomes plastic, inscribed with gender and cultural standards. While Foucault assumes the existence of a pre-inscriptive body, many theorists reject that idea and argue that 'there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings' (Butler, 1990: 8). The constitution of the body rests in its inscription; the body becomes the text which is written upon it and from which it is indistinguishable. Starting from Catherine Belsey's suggestion that to 'give the metaphor literal significance... is to... isolate it for contemplation' (Belsey, 1988: 100), I discuss this metaphor of inscription, using cosmetic surgery as one literal example. While some theorists reject the pre-inscriptive body, the popular discourses advocating changing one's body assume unproblematically the existence of a body prior to these 'elective' procedures and reinforce the mind/body dualism which recent theory has sought so insistently to reject. I examine how popular discourses of body modification enforce a disciplinary regime (in Foucault's sense) and impose degrees of both literal and figurative inscription. Juxtaposing these two perspectives, I explore how both discourses efface the materiality of the body and the social contexts within which bodies are experienced and constructed. While the rhetoric surrounding cosmetic surgery denies the physical process and the economic constraints, so theories of the body which stress the body's plasticity also deny the materiality of that process and the cultural and social contexts within which the body is always placed.

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