‘Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body’ by Peggy Shinner
Author: July Westhale
May 6, 2014
“The domestic made lethal—that’s the legend.”
We live in a society entrenched in matters of the body. Sexualization, fetishization, policing, ableism, movement, tangibility, and the body politic, our corporality is absolutely everywhere. Despite the fact that bodies are subject to intensive scrutiny, the historical origin of how bodies have been perceived throughout time (everything from feet to slouching to undergarments) remains mysteriously out of the realm of everyday knowledge. How is it, for example, that foot shape determined class and stature, traditionally? How has the body been commodified in times of martial economies (i.e., dowry economy)?
In her illuminating book of essays, Peggy Shinner tackles those exact discussions. Using the craft of braided narrative, Shinner weaves together historical fact, socio-political theory, and personal experience to create essays that grapple with our culture’s multitudinous interactions with the body. In her essay “The Knife”, for example, the reader is taken through Shinner’s personal experience as a martial arts teacher, the history of karate and fighting with weapons, the concept of arming oneself against a world that is marginalizing, and what it means to work with your hands in a world of abstract technological importance. Similarly, her essay on kleptomania offers insight into the history of the word (and how it was used to describe a sexual disorder, primarily occurring in women who found amorous rapture in stealing things from department stores), while laying the tracks for her own stories to shine through.
Truly, this is a collection of essays that takes the idea of making the personal global extremely seriously. In a recent review by Aimee Levitt of the Chicago Reader, Shinner was lauded for her capacity for multiplicity in her essays. Writes Levitt: “Her obsessions—family, identity, the various imperfections of her body—are familiar, but she discusses them with disarming frankness. (“I want to be taken for who I am,” she writes at one point.) Her interests are wide-ranging, fueled by a deep curiosity and a talent for research. The connections she draws between them are frequently surprising and delightful, and sometimes devastating.” The intertextuality at times seems randomized, but Shinner’s gracefulness and dexterity with language ties the narrative together in a bundle that reads as wholly intentional, experiential, and warming. And, despite discussing at great length the familiar tropes of the body and self-criticism, her work reconstructs the history of the body as it applies to modernity in a way that retells and reclaims not only the narrative of her own body, but how we might approach ours and the bodies of others, as well.
You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body
By Peggy Shinner
The University of Chicago Press
Paperback, 9780226105277, 254 pp.