Foreign bodies and anti-bodies: queer transformativity in post-world war II literature and film


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FOREIGN BODIES AND ANTI-BODIES: QUEER TRANSFORMATIVITY  
IN POST-WORLD WAR II LITERATURE AND FILM 
 
By 
 
Nicole Seymour 
 
 
Dissertation 
Submitted to the Faculty of the 
Graduate School of Vanderbilt University 
in partial fulfillment of the requirements 
for the degree of 
 
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY 
 
in 
 
English 
 
August, 2008 
 
Nashville, Tennessee 
 
 
Approved: 
 
Professor Carolyn Dever 
 
Professor Paul Young 
 
Professor Dana Nelson 
 
Professor Judith Halberstam 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
For Jeremy, who had a doctorate in poetry but was, more importantly, a poet. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  
 
 
This dissertation could not have been completed without the help of a graduate 
fellowship from the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. Mona Frederick, Galyn 
Martin, and Sarah Nobles from the Center provided our group of fellows with tremendous 
professional support and the space to wrestle with our messy ideas. My fellow fellows – Mike 
Callaghan, Josh Epstein, Megan Moran, George Sanders, Davíd Solodkow, and Heather Talley – 
have been invaluable eyes and ears when it comes to this project. 
Carolyn Dever and Paul Young co-directed this dissertation, Dana Nelson was its 
secondary reader, and Judith Halberstam was its outside reader. I could have asked for an 
“easier” committee, but I could not have asked for a better one. I thank them all for their keen 
and engaged criticism.  
At Vanderbilt, I have been lucky enough to learn under a host of brilliant teachers and 
mentors, including Jay Clayton – whose willingness to let me sit in on an independent study on 
narratology was crucial to this project – Lynn Enterline, Leah Marcus, Deak Nabers, and John 
Sloop of Communication Studies. I have been inspired and encouraged by Teresa Goddu of 
American Studies every step of the way. The Women’s and Gender Studies Program and the 
Center for Teaching – and Allison Pingree and Patricia Armstrong in particular – have 
challenged me to become a more rigorous and well-rounded scholar. I am also indebted to Donna 
Caplan, Janis May, and the entire support staff of the English Department, for always smoothing 
out the paperwork wrinkles.  
I have also had a fabulous group of colleagues-cum-friends at Vanderbilt, from  
the members of the Queer Theory Reading Group – Donald Jellerson and Sarah Kersh in 
particular – to my cohort – including Ben Graydon and Christian Long. Their willingness to read 
 
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my work, and to kvetch with me over grad school life, has been invaluable. Gayle Parrott of 
Women’s and Gender Studies has been a beloved lunch date throughout my years here. Virginia 
Allison, Beau Baca, Natalie Cisneros, Will Funk, Katherine Fusco, Sarah Hansen, Justin Haynes, 
John Morrell, Brian Rejack, TC Ulman, and Jane Wanninger have been my beloved partners in 
petty crime while living in Nashville. While finishing this dissertation was a terribly exciting 
prospect, the fact that it meant I’d eventually see these people less was anything but.  
My parents, Mike and Cecilia, have supported me in my graduate career in countless 
ways. Their enthusiastic visits to Nashville, all the way from Southern California, always renew 
my appreciation for the life I’ve had here.  
Philip Seymour would be one of my best friends if he were not my brother. But good 
thing he is, or I would have no one with whom to gorge myself on Hitchcock, The Gilmore Girls
and fake meatstuffs during the holidays. 
Friends from far and away have sustained me throughout grad school with letters, emails, 
CD mixes, visits, hostings, and phone calls. My love to Julie Beauregard, Darin DeWitt, Joya 
Golden, Vilija Joyce, Michelle Horejs, Nathan Ihara, Audra Kudirka, Jeff Morse, Faye 
Ziegeweid, and my finest dearest Christine Bolghand.  
I will never end marveling at my fortune in knowing Jeff Menne. He should be thanked 
for keeping me in T. Rex tunes throughout the years, for remaining lovely in the face of 
difficulty, and for the root beer.  
While I was in the midst of writing this dissertation, my dear friend Jeremy Lespi  
– poet, teacher, troublemaker, and Alabaman Francophile – passed away. I could never  
thank him enough for bringing his unmatched drollness, evil wit, and gentle kindness into my 
life. This work is dedicated to his memory.  
 
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TABLE OF CONTENTS 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
    Page  
DEDICATION.................................................................................................................... ii 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS............................................................................................... iii 
LIST OF FIGURES ........................................................................................................... vi 
Chapter 
I.      INTRODUCTION: FRAMING BODILY CHANGE.................................................1 
II.     SOMATIC SYNTAX: REPLOTTING THE DEVELOPMENTAL NARRATIVE IN 
CARSON MCCULLERS’S THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING ..................................48 
III.    “CASTRATION AIN’T DE MAIN TING”: TRANSGENDERISM, CAPITALIST 
CRITIQUE, AND THE DEPLOYMENT OF PUBERTY ................................................95 
IV.     VISIBILITY AND TOXICITY: SAFE AND UNSAFE BODILY  
ENVIRONMENTS ..........................................................................................................159 
V.     “IN CASE OF A HEALTH DISASTER”: TESTING PATERNITY AND  
POSTERITY IN SILVERLAKE LIFE AND PALE FIRE................................................224 
CODA ..............................................................................................................................304 
BIBLIOGRAPHY............................................................................................................310 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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LIST OF FIGURES 
 
Figure                                                                                                                              Page 
1. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................159 
2. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................160 
3. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................160 
4. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................161 
5. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................161 
6. Image from Safe...........................................................................................................162 
7. Image from Silverlake Life...........................................................................................224 
8. Image from Silverlake Life...........................................................................................224 
9. Image from Silverlake Life...........................................................................................224 
10. Image from Silverlake Life ........................................................................................224 
11. Image from Silverlake Life ........................................................................................225 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Chapter 1:  
Introduction: Framing Bodily Change 
 
“Queer is not outside the magnetic field of identity. Like some postmodern architecture, it turns identity inside out, 
and displays its supports exoskeletally.” – Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction  
 
“We live in a moment of vigorous suspicion about naturalized categories of bodies. However … it is important to 
note that the denaturalization of one identity category is often achieved through a renaturalization of another 
category. Current contestations over race, gender, and sexuality enact a productive search for new language and 
models of subjectivity. At the same time, the affirmative potential of these debates may be at risk if the analogies 
that enable that denaturalization are left uninterrogated.” – Siobhan Somerville, Queering the Color Line 
 
“The defining feature of the modern is its narrative structuring of time as the progressive realization of an ideal of 
human emancipation. … Postmodernity signals the dissolution of such a unilinear narrative of history with its 
corollary notions of progress and overcoming … Yet … the elevation of the postmodern over the modern reproduces 
precisely that same gesture of historical overcoming.” – Rita Felski, “Fin de Siecle, Fin du Sexe” 
 
 
In Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body (1992), the unsexed, ambiguously-
gendered, homodiegetic narrator ruminates on normative social life: “Is that what I want? The 
model family, two plus two in an easy home assembly kit[?]. I don’t want a model, I want the 
full-scale original. I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new” (108). Just 
eight pages after these musings, we encounter the same pondering, reflective tone, but this time 
in a description of the cancer of the blood spreading through the narrator’s beloved:  
In the secret places of her thymus gland Louise is making too much of herself. Her  
faithful biology depends on regulation but the white T-cells have turned bandit … they  
 
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are swelling with pride … Here they come, hurtling through the bloodstream trying to  
pick a fight. There’s no-one to fight but you Louise. You’re the foreign body now. (116) 
Written’s withholding of basic somatic information about its narrator
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 makes all the more 
prominent the novel’s inclusion of institutional and social discourses about the body – from the 
interpolation of contemporary medical textbook passages to the narrator’s hyperbolic romantic 
blazons about the female form.
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 Written indicates that the various means available for grasping 
the body are laden with investments and agendas – exemplified in these quasi-humorous 
descriptions of cells as “bandits,” or as having “pride;” the use of the colloquial rebuke of 
“making too much of [oneself]” to describe what contemporary society considers to be the 
random, non-punitive experience of cancer;
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 and the collision of “impartial” scientific 
knowledge and moralizing in the phrase “faithful biology” – a doubly ironic phrase, insofar as 
Louise is committing adultery with the narrator. In fact, these passages invoke the long history in 
which social pathology and medical pathology intertwine; the narrator (re)produces too little, 
while Louise produces too much. Cancer begins to look just as queer as non-reproductivity. Such 
constructions might make us wonder if it is possible any longer, if it ever was, to apprehend the 
body in its “real” materiality; as the narrator says to a friend after searching for the beloved after 
a long estrangement, “I couldn’t find her. It’s as if Louise never existed, like a character in a 
book. Did I invent her?”  
In such metatexual moments, not to mention in its self-conscious titleWritten on the 
Body trains our eye on the body as text, and as known through texts – and, further, it collapses 
the divide between “fictional” and “non-fictional” access to the body. It plays with classical 
narrative conventions on the level of content and as regards corporeality: a “fragmented, 
chapterless, multi-tensed novel” (Miner 21), it never addresses the sex or gender of its narrator, 
 
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frustrating the critic and/or reader who expects revelation and closure at the novel’s end – and 
who equates corporeal data with “meaning.”
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 Likewise, Written never tells us what happens to 
the dying beloved, even prompting us to question if Louise, if she did actually exist within the 
diegesis, was ever ill at all.  
So what to make of the narrator’s insistence on “making something entirely new?” Might 
the narrator be playing with the possibility of escaping textuality and discursivity altogether, and 
inventing new ways of talking about, looking at, and loving the body, or being embodied? When 
we consider several elements, this seems unlikely: throughout Written, the narrator uses the same 
syntactical structure of disavowal and avowal over and over, with some small variation: “I don’t 
want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new” (108); “I don’t want to be fated, I 
want to choose” (91); “I don’t want to be your sport ... I want the hoop around our hearts to be a 
guide” (88). The structure of disavowal-avowal suggests that the desire cited is always 
conditioned by a negative desire; “making something entirely new” is an impossible prospect, 
premised as it is on something old. Moreover, the form this desire takes (language), also, 
ironically, keeps the speaker from the speaker’s own desires: in stating that one does not want to 
reproduce, one calls upon language – that which predetermines us, that which is laden with 
cultural sediment, that which reproduces the social order. “‘I love you is always a quotation,’” 
the narrator reminds us on the very first page (9). 
We might therefore surmise that the novel trains its eye on something more precise than 
non-narrativity or non-discursivity. Written’s counternarrative impulses might not offer the 
obliteration of, or even a full alternative to, narrative – especially in that it plays off of literary 
conventions. And it certainly leaves us with no idea of how we “really should” talk about, look, 
or love the body, or be embodied. But one of the narrator’s reminiscences offers us a clue for  
 
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understanding the work of such a novel:   
At school, in biology I was told the following [were the characteristics of living things]:  
Excretion, growth, irritability, locomotion, nutrition, reproduction, and respiration. This  
does not seem like a very lively list to me. If that’s all there is to a living thing I may as  
well be dead. What of that other characteristic prevalent in human living things, the  
longing to be loved? No, it doesn’t come under the heading Reproduction. I have no  
desire to reproduce but I still seek out love. (108) 
In citing the discourses through which we articulate corporeality, in depicting a non-gendered  
speaking subject, and, finally, in posing this simple want, the text raises the question of the 
modern Western criteria that constitute “the human.” The desire to “make something entirely 
new,” then, might mean shifting us away from those criteria and, in turn, revealing them – 
forcing the reader to ask just how “growth” and “reproduction,” and not love, could still stand as 
the marks of the human in a self-consciously postmodern moment.  
Premises  
Written on the Body’s musings are clearly informed by post-structuralism, and feminist 
poststructuralist work in particular – skeptical as it is of claims about essential being, and selves 
that preexist discourse. I draw on this same work here, maintaining both that “real” bodies are 
themselves representations, and that representations determine how we see “real bodies.” This 
project’s scrutiny of represented bodies should therefore not be misunderstood as either a 
compensation for looking at “real bodies,” or as an aping of material analyses. In Bodies That 
Matter (1993), Judith Butler challenges us to consider how “the production of texts can be one 
way of [re]configuring what will count as the world” (19, brackets mine). While one may be 
interested in a particular text as a text, it is not fully divisible from the terms by which people 
 
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understand “real” lives, or from the terms by which people may want to change those 
understandings. Moreover, as Butler continues, “because texts do not reflect the entirety of their 
authors or their worlds, they enter a field of reading as partial provocations, not only requiring a 
set of prior texts in order to gain legibility, but – at best – initiating a set of appropriations and 
criticisms that call into question their fundamental premises” (19). Using Butler’s argument as a 
springboard, I take two particular theoretical paths in this project: thinking of the films, novels, 
and other narratives I read as texts, and thinking of bodies themselves as texts. Thus, this project 
claims that the reception of particular bodies also depends on “sets of prior texts” – the bodies 
that have been previously represented, and made representable, in public culture through various 
means and for various reasons.  
I examine a selection of literary and filmic texts produced between 1946 and 1995, a 
period I will refer to here as late modernism – stretching across, as it does, both the “post-
modernist” post-war period, and “postmodernism.” (Later in this chapter, I offer a fuller 
discussion of this periodization, and the problem of periodization itself). I show how, in offering 
instances of bodily transformativity that we might term “queer,” these texts expose, rework, and 
offer alternatives to the epistemological frames which govern our understandings of bodies at 
large. More specifically, these texts make formal and theoretical critiques of dominant narrative 
form,
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 and of normative vision – indicating that mainstream post/modern Western culture largely 
grasps the body not through biological data, but through the systems that govern textual 
comprehension. Those systems, dominant narrative form and normative vision, offer readers and 
viewers a sense of “revelation,” “enlightenment,” “improvement,” and/or “growth” as they 
process texts – and, thereby, they train individuals into the shared values of culture. What counts 
as “success” for a body depends on how we recognize “improvement,” just as what counts as 
 
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“the truth” for a body depends on how we envision “revelation.” Thus, while this project draws 
on my expertise as a reader of twentieth-century literature and film, its findings have great 
import for the wider arenas of contemporary theory and cultural studies – which include queer 
theory, feminist theory, transgender studies, postmodern studies,
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 and narrative theory.  
The Argument 
 
The bodily experiences treated in my archive are diverse on the levels of sex, gender, age, 
race, class, and sexuality. They range from the AIDS-related decline of white, privileged adult 
bodies; to the “organic” second puberties of Third World transgendered individuals; to white 
female adolescences that do not portend adulthood. Taken together, the works that depict these 
experiences represent a tendency in late modernist literary and filmic production, one that takes 
up bodily transformativity as a site for exploring the dominant standards that shape what we 
typically – statically and broadly – term “the body,” and for in turn prompting the following set 
of questions: What role do the vicissitudes of the body itself – and not its practices, desires, or 
even its appearance – play in invoking “queerness” in this late modernist period? What allows a 
representation of bodily change, or of bodily stasis, to challenge the modern limits of the human? 
And what forms of tradition and knowledge do such challenges speak to?  
While, as I have indicated, these works are distinguished on the highest level by how they 
indicate that classical narrative form and normative vision overdetermine understandings of the 
body, they bring an unprecedented focus to this relationship in several ways. First and foremost, 
they show how these paradigms inform and are further perpetuated by developmentalism – the 
turn-of-the-century discourse of human growth that arose at the very same time that 
homosexuality as a distinct, innate identity was being consolidated – just two processes to which 
scientification contributed greatly.
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 The developmental discourse posits as universal
 
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transhistorical, and inevitable human processes including puberty, adolescence, and 
reproductivity. The works I treat here pointedly take developmentalism as a plot, through which 
events such as puberty, adolescence, and reproductivity are plotted – effecting in turn either the 
validation or pathologization of bodies that conform to or run afoul of this plot. I thus trace both 
developmentalism’s late modernist life, and how literature and film have been formulated in 
response to, and formulated queer responses to, this paradigm. 
While these texts’ engagement with modern developmentalism shows that it deeply 
pervades even the so-called postmodern period, milieu is not all that distinguishes their 
engagement; whereas other literary and filmic works address developmentalism and its effects 
thematically – if they address them at all – my archive does so metatextually, not just citing but 
playing with narrative and visual norms. These texts insist that the classical standards that inform 
Western views of the body must be dealt with directly – meaning not just “specifically,” but 
“formally” as well. Thereby, another unique feature of this archive becomes clear. Works from 
other periods, as well as from within the late modernist period, can be read as queer for the ways 
in which they depict strange desires and strange affiliations; conversely, works from other 
periods, as well as from within the late modernist period, can be read as innovative for the ways 
that they play with literary form, subvert readerly expectations, or shift viewers from normative 
foci. But the works in my archive cannot be reduced to either the formally queer or the 
thematically queer; their formal innovations have queer effects, and their queerness is tightly tied 
to their formal innovations – not least of all because of how, as I explore through my analyses, 
traditional formalism functions as a central technology of heteronormativity. What all of these 
chapters reveal together, then, is the queer streak of late modernist literature and film – one that 
does not just take on heteronormativity at large, but zeroes in on the heteronormative power of  
 
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developmentalist schema, and does so by adjusting the narrative/visual standards that inform 
them. 
This project provides in-depth readings of exemplary works of this kind, considering how 
each troubles the progressive schema of developmentalism through literary or filmic techniques, 
thus challenging the persistent modern limits of “the human.” To take two examples, it is not 
simply that Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946) depicts adolescents being 
“left to their own devices,” or that Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven (1987) shows that 
transgender persons seek to decide their own fates; these works indicate through form and 
rhetoric just how and why adolescents are apprehended in a particular manner, and just how 
cultural pressures corral the trans person under the rubric of Western medicine. In Chapter 2, I 
argue that the techniques employed in The Member of the Wedding create an adolescent 
character whose body does not actually portend adulthood. In “violating” the progressive schema 
of human development, McCullers necessarily violates narrative norms as well – not dispensing 
with narrative altogether, but showing how it structures our understanding of bodies in often-
oppressive ways. To paraphrase Written on the Body’s narrator, then, it is not that such authors 
(want) to “make something entirely new” narratively speaking, but that their narrative 
innovations make something new, culturally speaking – such as, in the case of Member, the non-
futurist adolescent. Chapter 3’s consideration of trangendered life narratives shows how these 
texts queer the developmental narrative by positing the concept of a second puberty – a body 
with two genders in one lifetime; a recursive rather than progressive body. “Deforming” the 
developmental schema in these ways, I argue, leads us to consider the normative shape that it 
lends to life stories. Such “deformations” are also inextricable from the endeavor of queering 
temporality itself – critiquing the racist, colonialist, and capitalist underpinnings of our concept 
 
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of modern time, with its insistence on progress and overcoming. To wit: the postcolonial 
articulations of transgenderism that I also consider in Chapter 3 offer us a vision of trans life that 
problematizes Western interventionism and the medical complex – paradigms that bank heavily 
on “progress” and “overcoming.” 


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