Book Review: This Mortal Coil

BookReviewLogoReview by Stephanie Hudson.

In her new book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), Fay Bound Alberti writes that “our bodies are products of the stories we tell” (19). And this is the work Bound Alberti takes up, to explore stories of bodies and how these stories impact our embodied experience. She works to trace, and perhaps complicate, origins and potential futures of stories of bodies, with particular focus on women’s bodies.

26401367Bound Alberti is a cultural historian whose work is situated within histories of medicine and the body. Her previous work includes Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she is an honorary senior research fellow. Through a Western lens, This Mortal Coil is located in Britain, and in part, North America.

Bound Alberti’s work in This Mortal Coil was motivated by an interest “in looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, and why it was that some parts take on particular significance and meanings at certain points in history” (206). Each chapter focuses on a different body part—spine, breast, genitalia, heart, brain, skin, tongue, and gut—taking the reader on a journey “from inside out, from our very core to the surface of our body and the boundaries between self and other” (16).

She writes from a feminist perspective, with interest in the construction of the female body, as a means to challenge the naturalized differences and inequalities of the binary model of sex and gender. And while she considers the limiting effects of language on the lived experience of gender-transgressive people, I wonder how this project might work to take the adjectives “male” and “female” out of our vocabularies for describing bodies and body parts.

The discourses of bodies are rich with metaphors. And Bound Alberti explores the metaphors of bodies and the lines of thought which gave rise to them, asking what does metaphor do in each context, how does metaphor shape bodily experience. The body is socially constructed; it is its history. And we can create new metaphors of bodies. Bound Alberti contends that “…by taking the body apart…we might even be able to construct it anew” (19).

Stephanie Leo Hudson is a Doctoral Student and Senior Teaching Assistant in the Cultural Foundations Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with an interest in feminist cultural studies of technoscience and critical studies of the body.

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