Elevate Difference

So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance

Traversing critical theory, body studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, political theory, cultural studies, and performance studies, Patrick Anderson’s So Much Wasted captures the “politics of morbidity” embedded in the act of self-starvation. Anderson focuses on three settings—the hospital/clinic, a gallery, and a prison—to consider the way people who refuse food remain subject both to institutional means of force and control along with ideological constraints and mechanisms of discipline. What can these emaciated figures, hurling themselves toward death (or, as Heidegger calls it, “being-toward-death”), teach us about subjectivity, political resistance, and the production of power through everyday disciplinary practices?

Anderson’s central claim—that self-starvation both refuses and reproduces the power of the state, and as such produces bodies and subjects capable of radically unsettling the status quo—weaves itself through many seemingly disparate moments: the political resistance of Turkish prison hunger strikes, the state’s imposition that Terri Schiavo must live despite her husband’s wishes, the life-threatening starvation performance art of Chris Burden (who, after staging his own shooting, street death, and near electrocution, asked others to watch as he wasted away for twenty-two days in a Venice Beach, CA art gallery), and Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, and Marina Abromovic’s staging of self-starvation as provocative, artistic disappearance. Perhaps most compelling is Anderson’s reimagining of leading feminist theorizing about anorexia as the internalization of misogyny (e.g., Susan Bordo, Susie Orbach); instead, he argues that anorexics may cultivate a “taste for power” that subverts dominant ideas about women, gender, and queerness as they dramatically rebel against state intervention.

Playful and sharp, astute and extraordinarily sympathetic, Anderson captures the inherent tragedy, power, and radical potential in this seemingly “powerless” act of self-starvation. Not only does he write with breathtaking clarity, at times frolicking between mother-child psychoanalytic theories of feeding and sexuality only to later arrive in the world of masochistic performance art, but he also genuinely extends the leading critical theories of the body, performance, power, and subjectivity (e.g., Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Louis Althusser, and the like). Anderson insists that self-starvation is not simply perversion, but rather, a mechanism that produces troubled reactions from other bodies (individual or the state). Thus, he subtly asks whether psychological treatments, historiographies of starving bodies, force feeding, extensive monitoring, and even photographs might serve an even more perverse purpose: investing the state with the authority to say “who must live and who may die.”

Suitable for numerous audiences—graduate courses in psychology, sociology, gender studies, and performance; scholarly audiences interested in bioethics, fatness studies, prisons, and the philosophy of selfhood; and those practitioners who work with self-starving or self-mutilating clients—this book carefully outlines a politics of resistance through dying, near-death, and “wasting away.” Even if it sometimes floats above its subjects a bit—for example, I kept wanting more content directly from those who have survived their self-starvation attempts—Anderson has written a book worthy of attention and study. By imagining rebellion as a refusal to consume, he forges new and powerful links between gender, sexuality, the body, and the ideological apparatus of the state as it faces the many rebellions of its subjects.

Written by: Breanne Fahs, February 10th 2011