Alicia Christoff Responds to Livia Woods

I am fascinated by the way Livia Woods’s response to Still Life picks up on the body as a site of “unknowing,” and I’m grateful for the extended bibliography she offers on the subject of “the somatic turn” in literary studies and in Victorian Studies in particular. I might raise two sets of questions in response:

1) Is the body a site of unknowing or rather the site of a different kind of knowing or knowledge? Can we maintain the distinction, and is it important to do so? What would the consequences be for making one or the other conceptualization of the body a foundation for critical practice, as Woods suggests? In the chapter on George Eliot that Woods zooms in on, Cohn describes the body as “a repository for more sensation than individual consciousness contains” (82) and argues that Eliot “align[s] embodied experiences with opacity” (94). But to say that the body is debarred from conscious knowledge is not to say that the body doesn’t contain or even comprise a knowledge all its own, a knowledge of a different order.

2) In this way, Livia’s response brings to my mind psychoanalytic literary criticism that I find to be a surprising absence in Cohn’s book. Specifically, I am thinking of Shoshana Felman’s pivotal claim that literature, like the unconscious, “does not know what it knows.” For Felman, it is indeed this dispossession of mastery and debarring from conscious knowledge that defines the unconscious as another order of experience and that, in Felman’s view, defines the unique status of literary language in turn. Could we say, following Woods, that the body does not know what it knows? The final sentences of Woods’s review call for “methodologies of not knowing.” What would those methodologies be, and would they take us further than methodologies of knowing otherwise?

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