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Unspeakable Bodies: Theorising Queer & Abject Embodiment in Literature, Art, Medical History, & Culture,1880-present - ENG00099M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Boriana Alexandrova
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

The relationship between language and the body is a perpetual negotiation of power: to what extent are bodies and embodied experience constructed by discursive frameworks, and to what extent is discourse dependent on a body’s ability and willingness to give it material form? When we imagine the body in literature, law, and discourse, what or who do we imagine this body to be? Who determines what the healthy, coherent, or desirable body looks, sounds, speaks, thinks, and acts like, and how does this standard impact the lived experiences of bodies in the world?

This module will critically explore these questions in relation to bodies who have historically been excluded from or disempowered by canonical discourse: the bodies of women and girls; queer and transgender bodies; enslaved and colonised bodies; foreign and immigrant bodies; injured, sick, or disabled bodies; bodies that have undergone sexual violence and trauma; bodies whose existences and experiences are unconceived and unarticulated in medical, historical, theoretical, legal, or political discourse; bodies whose lived experiences are unspoken or unspeakable. Students will engage with a varied range of literary texts, films, and performance artworks in dialogue with theoretical, medical, and historical sources concerned with the body as a discursive construct, a material object, a living organism, a creative resource, and a source of political resistance. You will cultivate a critical understanding of foundational theories of embodiment emerging from European and American scholarship, literature, and art. By the end of the module, you will have gained a transdisciplinary grasp of the philosophical, ethical, and political issues emerging from the study of the body in literature and art from the nineteenth century until the present day. You will gain some essential critical vocabulary to address key questions such as:

How has medical history contributed to the erasing, unwriting, and transfiguring of embodied experience? What are the social, cultural, political, racial, and individual factors that make historical and medical discourses selectively exclusionary? How have writers, artists, and theorists handled the unwriting and systemic abjection of particular bodies? How can art and literature articulate unspoken and unspeakable histories?

The module will engage with fields including (feminist) phenomenology; disability, literary, and performance theory; queer, transgender, and feminist theory; medical history and bioethics; trauma studies; multilingualism, cross-culturalism, and postcoloniality; and memory studies. Students are also strongly encouraged to bring their unique individual interests, backgrounds, and expertise (academic, political, artistic, or other) to cultivate new ways of approaching, understanding, and engaging with the module’s primary texts and key questions.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2019-20

Module aims

The aims of this module are to

  • Introduce you to key approaches to embodiment in modern and contemporary theory and arts;
  • Develop your skills of literary and theoretical analysis and interpretation in cultural and political context;
  • Enable you to practice interdisciplinary scholarship through engagements with a range of materials, including fiction, poetry, drama, film, and performance art, in dialogue with relevant critical and theoretical sources;
  • Develop your skills in critical and creative engagement with theory, literature, and art, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After successfully completing this module you should:

  • be familiar with the key theories of embodiment in European and North American literature, art, and scholarship;
  • be able to critically engage with a variety of scholarly sources and artworks presented in different media;
  • be able to critically assess their singular (embodied) position in relation to secondary sources and other subjects;
  • be able to demonstrate critical insight into the ethical, political, and cultural significance of different critical and creative approaches to the body in discourse.
  • have gained a working understanding of the complex interdisciplinary significance of the body/language relationship.


Task Length % of module mark
4500 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of approximately 2,000 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills. Material from the procedural essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.


Task Length % of module mark
4500 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Feedback on summative essays is normally available by the end of week 7 of the Spring Term (for Autumn Term modules) and Week 6 of the Summer Term (for Spring Term modules). You are encouraged to discuss their feedback with their MA convenor, module tutor, or supervisor.

Indicative reading

Recommended preliminary reading:

Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Stranger Fetishism and Post-coloniality,” 1-17. In Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2000. Both paper and electronic copies are available through the library catalogue.

Butler, Judith. Preface and Introduction to Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, viii-xxx. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1993, 2011. Both paper and electronic copies are available through the library catalogue.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception. Translated by Oliver Davis. Routledge Classics. London: Routledge, 2008. Available in the library.

Price, Janet and Margrit Shildrick. “Bodies Together: Touch, Ethics and Disability” (62–75) and Miho Iwakuma, “The Body as Embodiment: An Investigation of the Body by Merleau-Ponty” (76-87). In Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory. London and New York: continuum, 2002. Available in the library.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.