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Fleshly Embodiments: Early Modern Monsters, Victorian Freaks, and Twentieth-Century Affective Spectatorship



Sara E. S. Orning

Fleshly Embodiments: Early Modern Monsters, Victorian Freaks,

and Twentieth-Century Affective Spectatorship

The primary theoretical concern in this dissertation is to put the embodied, non-Cartesian subject at the center of the emergence of the normative human body and the experience of affective spectatorship. My investigation is set against the backdrop of the ontological privileging of the human in Western culture since the Renaissance, and an aim of my analysis is to provide an account of how the human came to occupy this position. I draw in particular on Michel Foucault's genealogical method, which focuses on the emergence of phenomena instead of searching for their origins, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology to make a claim about the sustained effect of Descartes's cogito on how we conceive of our humanness and embodiment.

In the first part of the dissertation, I examine the development of humanness by looking at its relationship with monstrosity in popular and scientific literature from the mid-1500s to the late-1800s, especially Ambroise Paré's On Monsters and Marvels (1543) and nineteenth-century medical literature. From existing on a continuum with a range of other agents - animals, gods, monsters, nature - in early modern Europe, the human gradually became the advantaged being towards the end of the seventeenth century and other agents ceased to matter in any meaningful way. This shift occurs around the same time as the emergence of a systematic anatomical knowledge of the so-called normal and abnormal human body, based on dissection. I argue that the normative body is challenged and deconstructed by the lived experience of the female, literary freaks in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1983) and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984). They refuse the Cartesian split that enables the designation of normal or abnormal in the first place.

In the second part of the dissertation, I draw on phenomenological approaches to film, especially Vivian Sobchack's Carnal Knowledge (2004), and my own experiences as a spectator to formulate a theory of spectatorship built on embodied knowledge. In my examination of recent uncomfortable French films, such as Romance (1999), The Piano Teacher (2001), and In My Skin (2001), I argue that the affective, affected subject is key to theorizing cinema because it opens up for considering the lived body as a site for generating and interpreting knowledge. In conclusion, this study offers a corporeal history of the emergence of humanness, focusing especially on the trajectory of the mind/body split and ending with a call to revise our Cartesian vocabulary.

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