How Bodies Act: Leslie Scalapino’s Still Performance

Elisabeth A. Frost


Consider Brancusi's 1926 sculpture “Fish”: an abstract brass shape rests on a wooden pedestal, whose round metal top suggests a fish bowl. Metal and brass shine with a high polish; the fish reflects the viewer's watching eyes. Other than in its pointed, elliptical shape, the beautiful bright brass contains no figurative detail to suggest fish-ness. Brancusi explained: “When you see a fish you do not think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through water. If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement and hold you by a pattern, or a shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit.” 1 The transcendent housed in the immanent, spirit accessible through body. That spirit is “flesh,” as “flash” — cousin to F. T. Marinetti's beloved train speeding straight through time. In the stillness of sculpture, movement. A body not at rest.

Leslie Scalapino's writing shares something with Brancusi's “Fish”: its preoccupation with materiality, with representation of an animal body, and with spirit, sight, perception — all of them bracketing language itself like some unnecessary appendage. Scalapino, too, contemplates surfaces, including the surface of her medium, and she pursues at the same time carnality, an incarnate energy of body and word. But Scalapino's goal, unlike Brancusi's (at least in “Fish”), is not transcendence, nor is it speed or even “flash”: rather, it's the body in stillness, for bodies are in any case interior and exterior at once. Scalapino writes of her play Goya's L.A. : “I want the play to be, to reduce to, one's inner apprehension as action.” Externality in the mind of the beholder. In “Note, 1996,” Scalapino argues that “One's physical motions are the same thing as their conception.” There is, then, no Cartesian split. Thus New Time affirms, “the mind is action literally.” 2 In the modernist “Fish,” Brancusi renders a body's animal action — movement, flash — through abstraction. Scalapino denies the distinction.

Seeing the Brancusi recently, I wondered what happens to bodily performance in the mind of a poet who disavows distinction between how bodies act and how a mind conceives. I thought of Scalapino's use of photographs in Crowd and not evening or light (and, of course, in the recent cross-genre work The Tango , which I will not, however, discuss here). What happens to bodies — which are everywhere in Scalapino's writing, her obsessional subject — in a text devoid of Cartesian assumptions? What I'd like to suggest is that Scalapino's fascination with bodies as minds — the mind as action — is realized, performed, through stillness, not in evocations of speed or even motion, but in frames of moments stilled to images, the very “arrested” movements that Brancusi wanted passionately to avoid, to overcome through aesthetic representation. In particular, I suggest that it is the very stillness of the performance captured in Scalapino's photographs that shows us how bodies act.

It's no simple action, for Scalapino enacts our historical moment's ambivalence toward bodies. Unlike Brancusi, who confidently asserts the immanence of spirit in the material world, Scalapino, like a number of recent conceptual artists and writers, inquires into the very nature of both cultural identities and corporeal existence. As a woman artist, as a feminist, she works along the borders. On the one hand, she inherits a full generation of feminist work devoted to body politics; on the other, she partakes of the more recent post-structuralist feminism devoted to exploring how language — discourse — constructs perception, expression, identities. In the one kind of feminist politics, identities are unproblematically embodied, corporeal, often essentialized. Political commitment means putting one's body on the line — both ethically and practically, strategically. In order to do so, one needs to take for granted how bodies act. This was largely the orientation of second-wave feminism, Black Power, and other political movements based on a firmly corporeal definition of identity. On the other side, Scalapino inherits as well those recent (Western) theories that destabilize this very sense of self, of identity, residing in the body: post-structuralist theory, questioning the nature of subjectivity, exploring how identities exist only as simulacra, social fictions, linguistic constructs. But perhaps most to the point, long before either of these sets of discourses, Scalapino had inherited from an early introduction to Japanese and Zen philosophy and religion a similarly non-Cartesian sense: as in the concept of qi , often translated as body / self (therefore implying the social body as well). These are the sources she identifies as shaping her earliest as well as her recent work. As I see it, Scalapino's meditations necessarily involve all of these traditions concerning how bodies act.

I'd like to look at part of Scalapino's 1992 book-length poem Crowd and not evening or light, specifically the title series, with its mix of photographs and hand-written text. The collage composition of “Crowd and not evening or light” parallels what Johanna Drucker calls the “material word” in avant-garde poetics. As Drucker puts it, “writing's visual forms possess an irresolvably dual identity in their material existence as images and their function as elements of language.” Composing a text of both “material words” and discursive images, Scalapino — like other feminist experimentalists — mixes signifying systems and modes of representation to get at a new conception of bodies. 3 It's a post-structuralist approach, in which the signifier takes on increasing materiality even as the body becomes less material — a Foucauldian product of discourse. Yet, at the same time, Scalapino also evokes a tradition that articulates social critique in and through an empirical body, an eroticized and a social body, through which “the personal is political” and “body politics” matters. In all her work, Scalapino gives us intersections of the symbolic and the material, a fascination with a human body whose materiality is unavoidable even as its cultural construction is a given. Charlotte Furth describes the search for a similar middle ground between the vanishing point of social construction and the literalism of a positivist approach. “On the one hand,” she argues, “the body cannot be considered an object…. On the other hand, basic bodily functions — menstruation, conception, childbirth, lactation — cannot be treated just as the products of the languages through which they become culturally known. [Such functions] stand across cultures as stable, materially grounded forms of human embodiment.” 4 

Scalapino partakes of this same ambivalence. She investigates what Judith Butler calls “the constraints by which bodies are materialized.” Her focus is not stable forms but “a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter.” 5 Crowd and not evening or light reveals a dissonance around the body, a fuzziness at the edges that renders it (in text and image alike) provisional, contingent, “illegible.” This is particularly keenly performed in a dialogic page whose field is a fluctuating photo-text.

There is no doubt that Scalapino's work is very bodily, preoccupied with the actions of the material world, both sentient and non-sentient. And the pictures in Crowd and not evening or light are of bodies. Crowds of them, semi-nude, half-immersed in the ocean, lounging or upright, talking or swimming. They are less erotically charged than in many of Scalapino's earlier works, but these bodies share with Scalapino's other depictions a frank kinship with non-human animals, and in this respect they highlight the corporeal as well — instinct and necessity over psychology or ratiocination. To go back a bit in Scalapino's oeuvre, the subjects of her early series ‘hmmmm,' for example, are archetypes of overwhelming bodily presence and sexual drive. Succumbing to a debilitating desire, a woman reverts to infancy (making “a sound like the word Mama”) and to a still more primal state: she “mews,” approaching the non-human, removed not just from the social world to which the erotic is frequently opposed, but also from her identity as a self-aware subject. As the body claims her, language fades, an after-thought, the instrument of the observer. Many of the narrators in Scalapino's early work attest to this liminal state. The writing describes animal sounds, from “kissing and barking” and “a bird's call” to a nagging desire to elicit a “yelp” from a passerby. In ‘The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs,' a woman believes the movements she feels during labor come from “a foal / which was inside me and was kicking me with its four legs,” while another thinks “of a man / (someone whom I don't know) as being like a seal.” 6 In the epilogue to ‘hmmmm,' ‘anemone,' the aroused body is described variously as “a plant,” “the feelers of an anemone,” and a fish “as if it were about to swim up into the dark water above the bed.” The bulk of ‘Instead of an Animal' is devoted to images of lactation and suckling, from “the as yet unweaned 12 or 15 year old” nursing to “the male opening his shirt in public, / and applying an infant to his chest as if he had breasts.” 7 

Defamiliarizing female and male bodies, this is writing that requires us to consider ourselves as bodies. In this respect, Scalapino anticipates such theoretical positions as Butler's in Bodies That Matter : the post -post-structuralist question has become how to get back to the body, to materials that matter, to frank corporeality — this in a way that Brancusi might welcome.

At the same time, though, in Crowd and not evening or light humans are also pictured as quintessentially social animals. We move in herds. We feed in packs. We groom and play in groups. Such is the anthropological feel of Scalapino's series of photographs. In addition, these images are accompanied by hand-written phrases. The scrawled script (such as “drunks who are homeless wading in grass” and “people who've always been wealthy not knowing suffering”) bears only oblique relation to the photos, most of which are of groups of people at the beach. 8 The everyday scenes suggest the “crowd” of the volume's title and, in their very ordinariness, they defy traditional standards for the art photograph. Neither posed nor produced in any way, the photos appear to be amateur snapshots — candid, awkward instamatic pictures. Scalapino described the process of putting together this photographic series in an interview I conducted with her about a year after Crowd and not evening or light was published:

I was using a cheap camera that focused automatically, and I'd not taken many pictures before…. I was trying to photograph people standing in the ocean — something that fascinated me was watching them as herds, a crowd of people, just standing and chatting with each other. I simply stood in one place and kept snapping the camera and didn't do anything to organize it…. The terrain is completely flat, and so are the photographs. They give the impression that everything's flat, that there's no inside to them. It was as if they give the inside of something else. I also wanted the photos to be a nonverbal surface that cannot be separated from the writing. 9

In exploring the dual surfaces of text and image, Scalapino blurs boundaries between the human and the animal, returning to a less erotic version of the motifs that comprise sections of the earlier prose work that they were at the beach (1985): the words “trunk” and “elephant” recur in conjunction with pictures of people, as though referring to the human body. The most surreal photographs show fields of cattle with words that suggest social privilege, as in “floating on those who have - nothing” (76). Deliberate ambiguities of reference (are “we” the cattle? the innocuous bathers?) invite us to consider what it means to be human, or, more pointedly relevant to contemporary U.S. culture, to “have – nothing.”

How are we to “read” the images, often in dissonant relation to the text? It would all be more familiar, easier, if there were more Brancusi-like “flashes” of spirit in the fleshy creatures that occupy these frames. But there is little transcendence on offer; as Scalapino points out, the images reduce to their surfaces, despite the materiality of their subject matter (that is, human and animal bodies). What there is is an often-inaccessible body, coupled with an ironically immanent text — hand-written, immediate, process-marked, never-to-be-finished. Despite the physical proximity between photos and text, each subverts notions of caption and illustration. The field of the page is like a pad covered with notes facing different directions, as though scrawled in a hurry, from the most convenient angle. Hand-written, the phrases are   material. They partake of, register, a body.

One picture shows bodies in the ocean; the text below it reads, “stretched out hams up wading on / grass” (50). Mentioned throughout the text, men's “trunks” stand for social convention (swimming trunks), while at the same time they suggest that these male humans (that is, animals) indeed stretch out proboscises that look rather like elephant trunks. These men also possess vaguely sexual “stems” (both phallic and plant-like, perhaps aroused, or perhaps altogether non-sentient). At the same time, in the extremely material text that appears alongside, indeterminate reference and open-ended deictic statements subvert the transparency, and the corporeality, of the captured beach scenes: “That is that,” “not quite that,” “not like anything,” “on this” all appear, like refrains or like the circular thoughts of an obsessive, over-active mind. Used for the book's cover, the seductive phrase, “Floating on those who have — nothing,” puns not just on the beach imagery but on the floating referents that surface throughout Scalapino's hand-written pen-markings. Floating as a condition of the corporeal, floating as a condition of cognition — “that is that,” “it's the same.” Words as bodies. The mind as action.

One of the body-puns is the phrase “scratch on it,” apparently referring to the accompanying pictures (see 87, 90, 91). There are indeed scratches, vertical and horizontal, that appear in some of these low-tech, low-budget photos. They appear as bleached-out lines on the images, folds dividing a glossy surface. But just in case we miss these reminders of the material nature of these “transparent” images, a line outside the frame of the photos extends the trajectory of the “scratch” in strong, straight black pen. “Scratch on it.” And yet other language appears below these images as well: “the nudity of poverty / and calm” (87) next to a picture of a woman swinging on a pair of rings, captured with body mid-air, hair swinging out, upside down, suspended. Her body defies earthly rules. Is there a scratch on her body? Does she want to scratch it somewhere? Is “scratch” a verb, an imperative? If so, directed at whom? Or the possibility of slang: scratch as money. Then, too, “the nudity of poverty”: poverty in the extreme results in a form of gross nudity — exposure, extremity, physical (and keen emotional) distress. Text refers to image, image to text. Body to body.

Troubling the borders of symbolic bodies (bodies of language) and of human bodies (corporeal selves), Scalapino insists on the social construction of the animal self and on the material construction of the symbolic itself. Erasing our expectations of distinction and difference, Scalapino permits the mind-as-actor to meet her material text. The action that occurs takes place in us only. Here is not speed but rather stillness: the frozen, arrested motion Brancusi's “Fish” sought to subvert: woman suspended on swing, motion stopped, or men “grazing” in a field that is an ocean of water, not moving, lodged in a (Steinian, Zen) eternal present. There is no speed, but the images perform. They make a motion of mind: as Scalapino puts it, “watching as being itself action.” 10 That is how bodies act.




1. From the gallery note for “Fish” at the Tate Modern, London.

2. Goya's L.A., a play (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1994), 6; ‘Note, 1996' in Green and Black: Selected Writings (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1996), 70; ‘New Time' in Green and Black , 78.

3. Johanna Drucker, Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics (New York: Granary Books, 1998), 57.

4. Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960-1665 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 13-14.

5. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), xi-xii, 9 (Butler's emphasis).

6. ‘hmmmm' in Considering how exaggerated music is (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982), 10, 11, 17, 21; ‘The Woman who Could Read the Minds of Dogs' in Considering , 42; ‘hmmmm,' 11; ‘EPILOGUE: anemone' in Considering , 24, 26, 29.

7. ‘Instead of an Animal' in Considering , 55, 56.

8. Crowd and not evening or light (Oakland, CA: O Books/Sun & Moon Press, 1992), 65, 61; future references will appear parenthetically in the text.

9. Elisabeth A. Frost, “An Interview with Leslie Scalapino.” Contemporary Literature 37:1 (Spring 1996), 18.

10. The Public World /Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 13.


BIO: Elisabeth Frost is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa, 2003) and is an associate professor of English at Fordham University. She has published poetry in such journals as Boulevard, The Denver Quarterly , and The Yale Review , and she has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio Center and the MacDowell Colony, among others. She is currently writing a critical study called In Another Tongue: Image, Text, and the Body in Contemporary Feminist Art and Poetry.

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