Rüdiger Kunow, Material Bodies: Biology and Culture in the United States (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 483 pp.
Rüdiger Kunow’s Material Bodies: Biology and Culture in the United States begins with a kind of memento mori: a reminder that the body asserts itself, that humans lead embodied existences in which biology becomes “a figure of intervention which disrupts human designs, social conventions and cultural performances” (xviii; emphasis in original). It is this physical side, which scholars in American Studies, a discipline with a certain affinity for tracing “endless processes of cultural semiosis” (xiv), tend to forget, and which the volume brings into the foreground. Kunow uses this initial juxtaposition to clarify that his project decidedly aims at the consideration of biology and culture, which demands that one resist a biological essentialism as much as a cultural pantheism that subsumes all areas of human life under the moniker of social construction. Material Bodies successfully achieves this balance and makes significant contributions to the field of American Studies by teasing out various intersections of biology and culture with a specific focus on U.S. America.
Kunow impressively demonstrates just how manifold the connections between biology and culture are. Their joint examination is a timely endeavor particularly within the context of American Studies. The author convincingly shows that since the late twentieth century, biology has become an “integral, even indispensable part of the public life and the public culture of our time” (7), and that this is especially true in the United States. The “increasing biologization of the signifier America” (17; emphasis in original) itself ranges from a biological exceptionalism, for instance the belief in the alleged fitness of the American Adam, to the envisioning of the “War on Terror” in biological terms, such as “self-replicating sleeper cells” (8). Even aspects of human existence that are firmly understood to be cultural constructs, such as race, can very well have biological consequences. The social construct of race, for example, impacts access to health care, access to safe jobs, access to healthy living environments, etc. For this reason, “the biological dimension of embodied human life remains a stubbornly unavoidable point of reference” (40), yet one that is equally unavoidably anchored in socio-cultural settings (42).
In the volume’s three analytical parts (that span eight chapters overall) each section’s inquiries are embedded in theoretical considerations and discussions of central terms, as Kunow’s argument builds on seminal research from areas of cultural studies including disability studies, aging studies, and scholarship on illness narratives, while also drawing on further disciplines, such as medicine, politics, ethics, history, and philosophy. But Material Bodies is also rich in examples, from U.S.-military interventions in Cuba in 1898 to curb the spread of yellow fever (107-08), to the “social and cultural normativities” of clothing sizes (198), to Audre Lorde’s writings about her mastectomy in her Cancer Journals (404-06). Kunow’s methodological approach is that of a materialist cultural critique, focused on the “insistent presence of social and […] economic forces in cultural practices” (14). Throughout the book, he offers numerous historical, cultural, and literary illustrations that elucidate how biological facts and cultural practices are shaped by but also produce material circumstances.
Part I, “Embodied Encounters: Emergence and Emergency,” traces processes of meaning-making prompted by biological encounters, i. e., the passing on of “mobile biotic materials” (62) ranging from fatal viruses to life-giving stem cell transplants. Kunow investigates the “intense emotional investments” (65) that accompany such processes, via examples of immigration and U.S. imperialism. Productively employing historical frameworks to illustrate the ways in which government interventions, for example to restrict and regulate biological encounters, break down the barrier between private and public body (77), he highlights the central roles of the body and embodiment within cultural contexts.
Part II, “Not Normatively Human: Cultural Grammars and the Human Body,” moves from historical to contemporary examples. The section foregrounds biological and medical norms and their creation of pathologies, pointing out, that norms possess the cultural agency to produce material consequences, which means that they effectively “become the lynchpins of a wide-ranging distribution of life-chances” (162). Kunow outlines the perilous consequences of neoliberal attitudes towards human beings perceived to “fail” the norms of the “good human life,” such as disabled or old persons. He also illuminates the ways in which such attitudes go hand in hand with the proliferation of “for-profit interventions into the genetic or otherwise biological endowment of human beings” (191).
In Part III, “Corporeal Semiotics: The Body of the Text / the Text of the Body,” the author examines the relationship between soma (body) and seme (meaning). Focusing on instances in which “the usual functionality of the body is suspended, in moments of disease and acute misery” (331), he analyzes processes of meaning-making attached to physical emergencies. These emergencies cover a range of scenarios, from the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, to abortion in the eyes of the Christian Right. Additionally, Kunow underlines the particular relevance of examining biology and culture’s intersections in the twenty-first century, noting a significant shift in “attitudes towards the biological basis of life” (339), driven by the ever-progressing technologies available. It comes as a bit of a surprise that while both feminism and ecocriticism are referenced at different points in Material Bodies, eco-feminism, a research area that variously explores and questions the biological specifically, does not feature in this work.
Nevertheless, in the course of the book, the author weaves together a true plethora of topics such as disease, technology, mobility, citizenship, and privacy, without, however, losing sight of the anchoring framework of American Studies. His polymathic approach underscores the embodied nature of human experiences as a reality that enters all areas of human life, and calls attention to what he terms “biological endowment” as a physical actuality that shapes our lives. Mindful that bodies are of course nevertheless moored to cultural discourses, power relations, and normative regimes, Kunow is specifically interested in the questions how material effects shape cultural processes and how cultural processes create material consequences.
Material Bodies engages perhaps the most fundamental and also largest question of the Humanities: what does it mean to be human? Accordingly, the volume presents a tour de force that can at times be a bit overwhelming. Yet, the book is fascinating precisely because of its reach concerning the multiplicity of nodes in which biology and culture intersect within the field of American Studies, and the sometimes-paradoxical juxtapositions that emerge from their encounters. In this way, biology often marks the “involuntary dimension of human existence” that complicates claims to autonomous individualism (434; emphasis in original), thus opposing one of the most enduring myths of U.S. America. Yet, at the same time, state of the art biotechnology also finds ever-new ways of “enhancing” one’s physical body and interior biology, and these possibilities in turn foster individualistic quests of self-improvement, thus feeding into myths of neoliberal individualism. Throughout the book, Kunow illustrates how fundamentally biology permeates the concerns of cultural studies’ scholars. His proposition to read biology as “a figure for the collective” (435; emphasis in original) that human cultural existence cannot evade provides not only a new lens through which we may examine critical questions within the humanities, but also serves as a reminder of the vital role that the humanities play in investigating issues that have too often and too easily been ceded to the “hard” sciences.
Linda Heß (Frankfurt a. M.)