How Bob Flanagan centers his body
The knowledge produced through researching rhetorically is “simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (Latour 6).
Between nature, discourse and society, which area of expression do you believe you have the most agency within? Which areas are dominated by other voices and gatekeepers? Which areas are bent and misshapen to fit the standards of the larger systems of capitalism and imperialism?
Sadomasochist performance artist Bob Flanagan plays in all three layers. For example, the pain caused by nailing his penis to a board is “real, like nature.” The loud violence of the act resonates out into narratives and the collective reactions of society, while his poetry and interviews bring his written and spoken perspective into both realms. That being said, I believe at least, whatever is said after someone nails their penis to a board will never resonate quite as loudly as the initial violent act itself. In this way, Flanagan keeps the message centered on his own body.
In keeping the center of his message on his own body, Flanagan was able to exert agency not only over his illness (cystic fibrosis), but also over public interpretations of his illness and the positions that the public wanted to pigeonhole him into. He wanted to be the “poster child from hell” and exerted control over that public identity largely through the way in which he used his own body (McRuer 194). He broke the dominant narrative of what it meant to have CF by keeping his message anchored to material reality with physical acts that could not possibly be overshadowed by the discourse and narratives surrounding them. I mean, if you’ve never heard of Bob Flanagan before and this is the first time you’ve heard of someone nailing their penis to a board, have you been able to pay attention to literally anything else that has been written so far in this post? I don’t blame you if you haven’t. It is an anchoring act that centers the camera.
But not everyone, myself included, may feel their message will be carried through public self harm and this isn’t a deficiency or a lack. Our private understandings of our bodies is an ongoing and constant insular conversation and to perform our body publicly in a way that is incongruent with our private understanding of our body will muddy the message and may even cause us to lose control of its messaging. Many of us need our bodies to work for us in order to survive in the time of constant capitalism. It’s a privilege to be able to escape it. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to use our bodies the way we want to instead of having their agency worn threadbare by our work. All that being said, our bodies are being used by someone to contribute to some project or maintain some system and it doesn’t hurt to explore how you can grab back some agency over your own body.