Sunday, June 26, 2011

The flexible body politic: fitter and healthier for what?

[An older draft post. Time to let loose].

A couple of quotes from Australian author of fiction and essayist Amanda Lohrey which nail the mode of neoliberalism she detected in sections of late-1980s Sydney culture. For Lohrey 'new age' practices of self-government are displacements of earlier utopian projects. These new technologies of self focus political-libidinal investments in the individual body because that's the last space of controllable shelter and control in a time of radical reform (a term popular in the Australian mainstream media in the 1980s which referred to the privatising and deregulating policies of the Federal Labor Government).

The title of Lohrey's essay is, of course, a reference to Jameson's famous essay, but something like a Foucauldian interest in the technologies of the self and the rationalities of liberalism can be seen in this essay and indeed in the trajectory of Lohrey's fiction, which shifts from the influence of aesthetic Marxisms like Brecht, Lukacs, Benjamin and Bloch's, to, as I say, a Foucauldian interest in the formations of the body and self, and in the forces of the psyche-body circuit acting in relation to social-historical changes. I think, for Lohrey, it is the role of narrative and language too on these more recent interests that make her fiction fascinating and a good resource to write PhD research from.

Her last two works of fiction The Philosopher's Doll (2004) and Camille's Bread (1995) move more firmly into the territory I'm attempting to describe above, after the more sustained focus on political party (Australian Labor Party) and State-based politics of the first two novels: The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) and The Reading Group (1988). Effectively Lohrey's interest in the poetics of politics, as Jenna Mead describes it, moves from a focus on the governmentality of state to one on the governmentality of the citizen-subject. Is this shift one that can be explained by her sensitivity to new social forms or is it (also, perhaps) a sign of 'the maturing author'?

From ‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism’ Australia’s Best Essays, 2001.
What are these new and emergent structures of feeling? This was something that first engaged me when I went to live in Sydney in 1987. . . . a new sensibility was developing that was a portent of how Australia generally might see the world ten or even twenty years from now. As for my Shiatsu practitioners, they differed from the mainstream only in degree not kind. In essence they were fierce materialists who, through a rigorous regimen of diet and physical training aspired to re-invent themselves by reconditioning their material base, the body – if necessary, cell by cell. They aspired to a kind of utopia of the body, and what could be more Australian than that? They were Zen surfers without the waves. (246-7)

Since then I’ve kept a watching brief on the evolution of the idea of the self as a constant work-in-progress and the concomitant growth of what might be described as privatised utopias; the utopia of one. . . . When all is free-floating, unstable, in a process of being dismantled or alienated from you [Z. Bauman’s liquid modernity], what is it you have left? And the answer is: the body. The body itself becomes a utopian site. And the project of the utopian body is primarily about the pragmatics of health, fitness and diets . . . ‘Fitter and healthier for what?’ (248-9)

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