In the following abstract and the talk based on it, I would like to explore the relationship between power and the body in a recent fictional text. I have chosen J. M

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6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”

Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”

Abstract “J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”

Maisun Sharif

In the following abstract and the talk based on it, I would like to explore the relationship between power and the body in a recent fictional text. I have chosen J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace as an example to discuss this relationship, because the novel manages to combine and discuss topics such as sexuality, violence, history and power in a way that sheds an interesting light on the complex interrelations between these aspects.

Most importantly, the text does not represent bodies as mere symbols of historical constellations; nor does the novel show bodies simply as victims of power discourses. Although bodies in Coetzee’s work do not exist beyond discourse, this is by no means to say that discourse constructs a passive body, but that one cannot refer to the body outside of discourse. The body does not exist in a ‘natural’ pre-discursive condition on which social processes then inscribe themselves. The construction of bodies is rather seen as a permanent process of discursive practices, that determine which bodies are intelligible and which are not. This body concept based on processes includes the possibility to perceive of the body as active.

While Disgrace depicts how abstract forces like history and power literally inscribe themselves upon the body and how in consequence these violent inscriptions are constitutive for the construction of the individual subject, the novel does not stop there. It does not view bodies as passive battlefields for history or as empty surfaces which need to be inscribed upon to acquire meaning. Instead, in Disgrace, as in Coetzee’s work as a whole, bodies become important agents in the processes of creating meaning, of writing history. The characters of the novel use the norms that have been inscribed upon their bodies in a self-assertive manner and redefine themselves through them. In Judith Butler’s terms, one might say that they quote these norms subversively. They exert power by turning themselves into bodies and subjects that are knowable, readable to themselves and others.
After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, the South African author J.M. Coetzee has become known to a wider public. Still, I have the impression that he is one of the authors who are more talked about than read. I shall therefore provide a short introduction to the main text of reference of this talk.

In 1999, Disgrace won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was Coetzee’s second Booker (after Life & Times of Michael K in 1983) and the novel was widely praised. Nevertheless, its reception was by no means uniformly positive. Criticism has ranged from enthusiasm to indignation, even disgust. Occasionally, the novel itself has been described as a disgrace. These negative responses to the novel are mainly based on the critics’ readings of the events revolving around one of the novel’s minor characters: Lucy Lurie. In heated debates critics have tried to decide whether the text is racist and/or misogynist or not. Opinions range from the charge that Disgrace expresses white South Africans’ fears to be marginalised in the new South Africa to the claim that the novel promotes the unhealthy acceptance of this marginal role. I would like to take up this point of criticism and provide a different reading of the text. But first of all, I shall sum up the most important basic facts about the novel and its plot.

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