Overview of Special Session

Beginning with the medieval and ending with the late modern periods, this panel brings together three cross-sections of a long and expansive conceptual history of the human body and the relationship of its parts. German Studies is a particularly rich context for this exploration. First, the panel's historical trajectory seeks to demonstrate how a chronological expansion of the current German cultural studies model, which focuses primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, can productively shift the questions that drive scholarly inquiry in this field. Second, the papers seek to demonstrate that the literatures and cultures of German-speaking lands make significant and unique contributions to Western European cultural frameworks for understanding how the human body has been made and/or unmade piece by piece.

Each individual paper will investigate the status of metonymy, namely the connection between either severed or framed parts and the notion of a whole body. In so doing, the papers will assess whether, how and why body parts approximated or even exceeded the symbolic value of an intact body. Three tropes figure centrally into all three papers: first, the case studies address the violence at work in metonymy. To what degree does violence actually multiply the body instead of subtracting from it? Secondly, the investigations bring to light the role of gender in the processes of corporeal division and re-signification. To what degree is the male or female body a privileged sight of dismemberment and how does the gendered part impact the gendered whole? And thirdly, the three papers function together in an effort to expand a working hypothesis on historical trajectory of corporeal metonymy as it has traveled forward in time: whereas the intact body in the medieval world is not a whole until it exists as a mere part, the intact body in the modern world is an illusion predicated on displacing the trauma of a body in parts. By positioning papers squarely in the medieval period, at the cusp and golden age of modernity and at the threshold to the postmodern, the panel is poised to open up larger questions about the temporal shifts in the discursive construction and destruction of the body.

Individual Papers

Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture

Ann Marie Rasmussen will discuss in her paper animated penises and female pudenda that populate late medieval comic literature. These same body parts appear in religious contexts, for example on material objects such as pilgrim's tokens. Not only is this extraordinary German material largely unknown outside of medievalist's circles in the field of German studies, even important medieval studies scholarship such as Caroline Walker Bynum's work on saints' relics (Fragmentation and Redemption) and E. Jane Burn's work on medieval literature (Body Talk) do not consider it. After a brief survey of the material, the paper addresses two larger questions in turn. First, it considers the extent to which the German material modifies, challenges, or fulfills recent findings in medieval studies on what we might call the "medieval" body. Second, it sets out and evaluates the challenges such material presents to psychoanalytic theories of violence and subjectivity, which underwrite modernist and post-modernists discourses of the body.

Two Sisters Sleeping in One Bed: Wieland and the Early Modern Breast

Moving away from severed body parts to corporeal metynomy, Simon Richter turns his attention to Christoph Martin Wieland whose fantasies of the female breast remained singularly unaffected by the pressure to reduce the breast to its maternal function. This pressure was most evident in the overwhelming anti-wet nursing discourse in the later half of the eighteenth century. In this paper Richter will explore the possibility that Wieland's resistance is grounded in a lustier conception of the breast to be found in the gallant and ribald poetry and novels of the early modern period.

Automated Limbs: Peter Weiss and the Traumatic Legacies of Surrealism

Postwar author Peter Weiss's early work is showered with body parts. His first so-called micro-novella, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, originally penned in 1952, assembles together sets of men's hands, a female breast, a disembodied uterus, a pair of ears, severed and broken limbs, and two headless puppets, but the work leaves readers to decide the significance of these images for the narrative. Richard Langston's paper brings into dialogue 1) the body parts in Weiss's novella with 2) the mechanized body parts that populate his surrealist film studies from the same period as well as 3) his earlier visual depictions of cannibalism, autopsies, and torture. Understood in in terms of their historical, formal, and substantive contexts, Weiss's array of body parts from the 40s and 50s reveal not only the ways in which surrealism underwent a fundamental paradigm shift after fascism, but also (and more importantly) how the spectacle of the violated body was an overdetermined, contradictory site for the exile Weiss: first, body parts signify the violence that engendered the exilic condition, a condition thrown into relief by the persistent absence of the unified body. Said differently, the body in pieces brings about a heightened perception of the self as the very embodiment of exile. Conversely, Weiss's assemblages of body parts must also be read as carefully choreographed fantasies of mass death and destruction, the exile's presumed fate had he remained home.

Time and Location

This special session will take place on Wednesday, December 29, at 7:15–8:30 p.m. in the Jefferson conference room in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel (1200 Market Street 19107).

Questions about this special session can be directed to its organizer, Richard Langston.