The Performativity of Saint Orlan’s Carnal Art

How do we describe women? If gender is form and body is matter, which should we use to describe women? The questions came up with me in the discussion of this week. According to conventional dualism, we can say women are human beings with the female organs, or women are the people with female identification. However, can we totally separate bodies and minds? How to define women is a complicated issue that we can’t simply reduce it to a result of either one.

I think Sarah Hallenbeck’s “Toward a Posthuman Perspective: Feminist Rhetorical Methodologies in Every Day Practices” provides us a good method to think this question. Hallenbeck suggests we should adopt the concept of “agency” form posthuman that “rejects the human agent as the primary source of change but redeems that agent as a participant in the larger network of which he or she is a part (19). She perfectly uses the concept of agency to analyze the relevant issue about the bicycle craze in 19th century. Rather than adopting a simple cause-and-effect way, she tries to put the phenomenon in a network and seek a topical constellation to interpret it. Just like Deleuze’s concept of “rhizome”, the relation between each element is horizontal instead of vertical. The relation between bodies and minds is also as rhizome which integrates with each other rather than bodies define minds or minds dominant bodies.

Saint Orlan’s Carnal Art is a good instance to investigate the relation between bodies and minds. In the work Carnal Art, Orlan underwent several plastic surgeries to meet the criteria of aesthetics. During the process of surgeries, she articulated discourses about subject and body and broadcasted her body show all over the world. Orlan strongly challenges the relationship between minds and bodies, showing how bodies shape our identifications. Just like the concept of Judith Butler’s “Bodies that Matter”, Orlan’s body surgeries are the intersection of performativity. She can use her body to perform what she wants to demonstrate. Her body and mind are fluid, integrating with each other. The relationship between minds and body are constellation, or rhizome, which shape Orlan with each other, without any hierarchy.

If you ask me again how to describe women, I would say women are the synthetic which cannot be described.  Women, like Orlan, can be any image you want to perform.

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