Theory@Buffalo: The Word Flesh

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Department of Comparative Literature, State University at Buffalo
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Call For Papers
Editors: Jana V. Schmidt, Brian O’Neill
theory@buffalo issue 17: “The Word Flesh”

Flesh is the element that connects us to the world and the objects that inhabit it. In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s conception, the “flesh of the world” designates our shared carnality and our sensual connectedness with our surroundings as an alternative model to the classical dichotomy of spirit and matter. In this sense, the flesh is pre- and even anti-individual. It is an inbuilt distance, a sensible strangeness to ourselves from ourselves simultaneously creating a proximity and thus folding in upon itself. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty conceives of language as a system of meaning that always refers back to its own corporality. Meaning grows out of this self-relation of the flesh to itself.

Merleau-Ponty is not alone in his insistence upon the relationship between flesh and meaning. With his concept of delayed action (Nachträglichkeit), for instance, Sigmund Freud imagined trauma as a language and he developed a vocabulary to incarnate the meanings of flesh into language. While recent developments in the human sciences are increasingly collapsing the difference between matter and meaning – and thereby retroactively confirm some of Freud’s sharpest insights – they have offered us little by way of a language to describe the materiality and significance of this fusion. The problem of fleshliness and its relation to symbolization is not unique to psychoanalysis or phenomenology, however. Theorists as diverse as Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Luc Nancy, Luce Irigaray, and Frantz Fanon have all made this issue central to their thinking, and the question of embodiment more generally has preoccupied disciplines ranging from gender and performance studies to theology. Issue 17 of theory@buffalo “The Word Flesh” seeks out submissions that confront the relationship between acts of inscription, metaphors of physicality, and the ontotechnologies of the flesh in the age of neuroscientific discovery.

New materialisms in literary theory, philosophy, and the sciences are currently reformulating the relationship between flesh and language in ways that direct out attention away from the traditional points of reference. In the humanities, fields of inquiry such as affect and trauma studies, speculative realism and actor-network theory no longer take their cues from literary texts but, instead, have turned to the natural sciences for new ways to articulate the relationship between flesh and word. Thus, the interest in matter over meaning, or in objects over subjects, evinced by the anti-hermeneutic turn poses the problem of language and its ability to embody the relationship between flesh and word in novel ways. As Rosalind Krauss writes in reflecting on the medium of art and the process of recovering her memory after a brain aneurysm, “if you can remember ‘who’ you are (never a certainty if you’ve been comatose), you have the necessary associative scaffold to teach yourself to remember anything.”

Issue 17 “The Word Flesh” seeks to engage these new materialisms and question their potential to generate meaningful descriptions of our fleshy communion with the world. We want to ask what differing concepts of meaning underlie such approaches? Will the new materialisms in science and philosophy leave us speechless in the confrontation with our sensate being? Are we losing the ability to offer “thick descriptions” of our fleshy existence? What new (and forgotten) metaphors can we invoke to conceptualize the way social and material forces inscribe themselves on the flesh? Is there anything to be gained from an insistence on the split and relation between psyche and body? How can we conceptualize the swing between object and subject in sensitive and pertinent ways? What is the place of literature and visual art in this problematic? Can we construct narratives that pose an alternative to Christian dualisms and the doctrine of incarnation?

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