“Pulling the World In and Pushing it Away”: Participating Bodies and Survival Strategies

Article Summary by Robbie Duschinsky

What do thinking, eating and engaging in sex have in common? This seems a strange question. Participation in thinking, food and sex are really quite different activities. But Monica Greco’s work helps us think about the meaning of participation. In this paper we draw on ideas from Greco and Lauren Berlant in considering the book Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill. Gaitskill’s book dramatizes the ways in which thinking, eating and sex may have much in common. In particular, they can all function as ways to dial up or down a person’s exposure to others and to the world, and therefore as symbols of self-control or lack of self-control. In this, together they can tell us something important about how coping works, in general but also especially under oppressive conditions where other resources are scarce or unavailable. As Berlant emphasises, all three practices hold out ways in which we may feel less powerless – but this may be quite different from actually being less powerless. Gaitskill’s work also suggests ways that these practices can also have incremental long-term consequences for the body. To further explore this, the paper then looks at the ethnographic findings of Alexandra Michel, whose thirteen-year study traced the process of physical burnout among investment bankers. Michel’s ethnography offers insight into how the body’s cues about what is or is not sustainable are variously interpreted, heeded or ignored. The work of Berlant, Gaitskill and Michel together illustrate principles in Greco’s conceptualisation of participation and embodiment, and her new interpretation of the idea of ‘psychosomatics’.

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