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Carrie Noland. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture.

Carrie Noland. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Pp. 264.

Carrie Noland's Agency and Embodiment- Performing Gestures/Producing Culture examines the question of how human agency persists through and, indeed, because of the reifying pressures of society and culture. Rather than a Marxist take on reification, however, Noland's analysis is guided by what she calls the human body's social "inscription"; a conspicuous gesture to underscore that the work of Marcel Mauss and Andre Leroi-Gourhan anticipates the later development, specifically within the Frankfurt School, of the notion of social control of the self and its "agentic" means of countering this control. If the question is an old one, Noland's approach is novel: she examines the question through five chapters that cover Mauss's anthropology of the human body and motion, Henri Bergson's "bodily affects" (63), Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work on "verbal gesticulations" (60), and what Noland calls "embodied cogitation" (55), which she pairs with consideration of the video artist Bill Viola (specifically the slow-motion video of gestures in his 2003 Passion series) to consider the "affects" that constitute the subject through a series of bodily motor functions or series of "I cans" rather than a series of cogitational reactions or "I thinks" (92).

In chapter 3, Noland dusts off Leroi-Gourhan's ethnography of tentative, scrabbling human gestures or "tatonnements" (104) in their relation to human technology to conclude: "Agency emerges as a result of embodiment, of possessing a body that moves and feels" (105). Here Noland's analysis is at its most compelling when she reads Jacques Derrida's "structure of the trace" in relation to his apparent omission of Leroi-Gouhan's theory of sensorimotor feedback, and a more far-reaching "theory of distributed agency" (110). One is left to wonder, though, if what is at stake is not so much an omission as the demonstration of the fallacy of this "distributed agency" imbricated in what Noland calls "the concrete materialities of a singular body and a precise environment" (113). Chapter 3 concludes with a coda titled "moving to read, moving to write," which explores the marriage of poetry and the digital age, an exploration that deserves a full chapter, since it raises the issue of the gestural both from the perspective of its emitter (the poet) and from that of its receptors or readers.

In chapter 4, "Inscription as Performance: Henri Michaux and the Writing Body," Noland reads the influence of "prehistoric visual culture" (139) on Michaux's work, whose "gestural signs" she explores in the context of the history of his turn from writing to the repetitive gestural pictographic "signing" of his 1951 Mouvements, in order to conclude that "subjectivity is kinetically as well as discursively conditioned"; a condition that, as in the previous chapters, is yet another opportunity for the self to resist and subvert its social inscription.

The goal of the previous chapters appears to be largely chapter 5, "The Gestural Performative: Locating Agency in the Work of Judith Butler and Frantz Fanon," in which Noland attempts to take to task Butler's views on the construction and gendering of the subject by suggesting Butler does not adequately account for the centrality of kinesthetic experience in the generation of the (gendered and raced) subject, and that she refuses to distinguish between "bodily gestures" and "discursive acts" (189). The juxtaposition of Michaux and then of Fanon to Butler is less convincing than Noland's counterreading of Foucault's displacement of the subject through "discursive formations" and Derrida's work on iterability and the supplement, which more dramatically crystallizes Noland's own argument for the agentic power of the "gestural performative." For Noland, Butler fails to distinguish between gestural and verbal performatives and does not recognize that the gestural is composed of more than the "meaningful component" (194) of the discursive. One might argue, however, for the somatics of the discursive, where the physical impact and feedback between words and the body goes beyond simply the bodily mechanics of emitting or receiving speech. Emitting or receiving speech, written or oral, can hurt, as much as the painful gesture of curtsying (an example to which Noland often turns). As such, by the end of the chapter there is no compelling reason for why the gestural and the discursive cannot be conflated (specifically since both, in their iterations or reenactments, do follow a certain syntax that puts varying strains and stresses on the subject). In the final pages, the axis for the analysis of Fanon inexplicably shifts away from Butler to a more traditional reading of the relation between Jean-Paul Sartre and Fanon and to the suggestion that Fanon's weeping is just such a kinesthetic experience determining his agency when, in fact, one could just as well argue that Fanon's gesture is to write that he "began to weep" (while "straddling Nothingness and Infinity"), without his dwelling on the sensorimotor details or "convulsive motility" (205) of crying that Noland provides to reinscribe Fanon's rhetorical gesture into physical gesturing.

In her conclusion, "Illegible Graffitti," Noland returns to the scene of writing as kinesthetic experience to argue that even as the hand inscribes a given text and a given meaning, the act or gestures of writing generate their own "dialectic with the body on its own terms," which, for Noland, suggests that we might thereby access the "host material" of "the natural body, before it has been subjected to cultural marking" (213); a precultural time when and where there still is the hope of deflecting or inflecting these markings. Perhaps, but as Noland also notes, the end result would be merely the production of "new cultural meanings" (215). Through its own dialectic of hope and despair, Agency and Embodiment does also invite us to consider the potential for restructuring the space and time in which these meanings are reproduced. For this reason alone it provides for a fascinating read. (JAMES PETTERSON, Wellesley College)
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Author:Petterson, James
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2012
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