Events in Modern Languages & Cultures
Inaugural Lucille Cairns Memorial Lecture: “Watching What We Eat: Disorderly Eating in Contemporary Women's Writing”.
Lecture in Memory of Lucille Cairns (1963-2017)
Lucille had a range of interests in modern and contemporary French writing (particularly women’s writing) and film, including, notably, Queer and Jewish texts – all somehow both political and intensely personal, the two crisscrossing without merging or separating, enabling passionate and analytical criticism. On this occasion I shall be particularly inspired by her final project Eating Disorders in Contemporary French Women’s Writing to ask some questions about disorderly eating. Eating disorders, grave and painful as they are for individuals and their loving-loved ones, also play a social role as symptom and alibi – screening a widespread agonistic relationship with food and the way that food marks the body. This has been particularly noticeable/noticed for Western women under late capitalism, and so I shall focus on this sex, place and this period as Lucille did – although I believe attention to the long and broad history of self-starvation, gluttony, and other relationships to food and drink that we label aberrant, is valuable in helping the analyst identify what is particular about ‘our’ present moment. Women today, in some parts of the world at least, are urged to consume, but not to consume ‘too much’; they are encouraged to be seen, but in ‘the right way’; to take (a) part, but still stay in ‘their place’. Contradictory patriarchal and capitalist imperatives do not add up to setting the goal of a golden mean of modest consumption (healthy eating with little treats) as might sometimes be fondly imagined, but, ideally, to sickening, anxiogenic and profitable spirals of gorgeous consumption and strict self-denial for us all. Quite how these play out (and quite how much suffering balances out the pleasure) will depend in part on group or individual location in socio-political structures (class, ethnicity, sexuality) – codes that cut the subject and the body – as well as personal circumstances. Eating today is disorderly, albeit to differing degrees, I shall argue, not only in its ‘chicken and egg’ impact on Western human minds and bodies, but also in its devastating consequences globally, including on other animals and the natural world. It is true that the pathologizing of specific eating disorders seems at least to offer therapeutic help to those in pain, indeed in mortal danger – although Lucille’s analysis of various autobiographies and autofictions shows how cruel the medical establishment can be, particularly to women whose illness is ‘their own fault’. I shall dip into a range of Anglophone and Francophone women’s writing to suggest that bingeing and self-starvation, and the relationship to fat and flesh in or on the body, relate not only to individual disorder but to the socio-political generation of the disorderly.