November 10, 2006

Deborah Slicer on ‘The Body as Bioregion’

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Deborah Slicer

In this essay Slicer wonders which representation was first used to represent the other: the violation of women’s bodies or the rape of the land? According to Slicer, both are sometimes viewed as a resource, as property, as a guarded secret. Barrenness in women and in nature is often thought of in terms of wasted production.

Slicer refers to Patricia Williams whose research into commerce law showed ‘multiple categories of oppression’ (110) Williams found a contract of sale for her great great grandmother who was a slave. On investigating the story further, Williams discovered that her ancestor had been forced to bear her white master’s children, who were later encouraged to believe that they owed their lives and livelihood to their father. Williams recognises the institutional coercion that views women, especially those of non-European origin, as passive matter.

Slicer quotes Emily Martin who has studied the language of western reproduction. According to Martin, in some cases, the uterus is equal to a machine, while the body is simply a product. It is economically, socially disadvantaged women who are coerced into work as reproductive labourers.

Susan Bordo also notes that women of non-European origin who are pregnant and poor are legally mere bodies. Similarly, the land ‘does not, cannot , own itself’ (111). People continue to think of minor subjects as chattel and deny eco-systems subjecthood. In both cases, there is a desire to extract resources.

Slicer sees the body as a bioregion. Slicer does not mean that the body is identical with a geographical place, because to do so ‘denies others their subjectivity, the coyote her otherness’ and ‘risks mistaking his or her own desires for the desires of others’ (112).

However, the body is significant:

To be “home” is first to inhabit one’s own body. We are each as body, a biological ecosystem as complex, efficient and as fragile as the Brooks Range, the Everglades, a native prairie. (113)

Slicer refers to Wendall Berry who notices similar characteristics in the treatment of bodies and the treatment of the earth, especially when it involves contempt for bodies. For Slicer, this kind of contempt is bad, because she sees bodies as holy. This does not mean ‘reducing women to essential bodies, to nature, as distinct from culture, or as distinct from any other of the binary categories – reason or the transcendental’ (113).

Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and the Environment. Ed. Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson and Scott Slovic. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1998. 107-116.

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