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Week 6--The Taste of Feminism

Anne Dalke's picture
We begin this week with the lesbian love poetry of Marilyn Hacker and Gertrude Stein, and end it with Monique Truong's novel, The Book of Salt. What were your reactions to the poems, and to the differences between them? What connections do you see between Stein's poetry and the fictional story of her cook's life? What sense (in the context of this class, and the questions it's asking) are you making of the novel? (For instance:) What role might the representation of taste--and sensation more generally--play in your understanding of feminism?
ssherman's picture

I believe I found "Lifting

I believe I found "Lifting Belly" frustrating because I could not understand it.  Not understanding the words and how the poem was constructed made it very difficult to get through and made me not want to deal with it. 

On the other hand, The Book of Salt seemed to bring me back to when I used to read novels and would create pictures in my head.  I understood what was going on, I felt like I even understood GertrudeStein, which was ironic as I couldn't understand her poetry.

I think that Binh doesn't feel understood by anyone and is very frustrated by it.  And he can't release that frustration it seems.  But maybe it is released when he cuts his fingers.

EG's picture

On a different note...

I've been thinking about this one for a little while--

I have a suite-mate who sort of hates the feminist movement, because she feels like the idea that women should be off their feet and working just like men makes her dream -- of marrying and staying at home -- invalid and dishonorable.  Sure, she said, women deserve equal pay for equal work and should never be discriminated against-- of course!  And she said she is all for women achieving great things --b ut she didn't want to be judged in voicing her desire for, or carrying out, a traditional gender role with a future husband. When she explained this to me, I said I thought that feminism was really about being able to pursue your goals as a woman, whether they be inside or outside the house, in the same way that men are able to pursue theirs.

 This quote from Bryn Mawr's president -- "only our failures marry" sort of threw me through a loop, then.  Is it feminist to say that women who only marry aren't feminists if it's really, truly, what they feel most content doing? 


skumar's picture

Sensual Satiety in The Book of Salt

The words in The Book of Salt are so enriched they secrete voluptuous pleasure. The consistency that Truong used in kneading sensation and sensuality with the physical act of cooking was alluring and effective. Whereas GertrudeStein's "Lifting Belly" was an exclusive conversation between two lovers barring everyone else, the sensations evoked by food in Truong's novel invite a wider readership.

For example:

When I place that first bite of boeuf Adrienne in my mouth and I am brought to my knees--figuratively speaking, of course, as I reserve that posture for love and prayers--by the white wine (cognac, laurel, thyme, and red currants, that elusive final ingredients that ends all of their compliments with a question mark, I know that my Mesdames are on their knees as well, saying a word of thanks for two heady days of marinating and one hour of steady basting (210).

It seems that the boeuf Adrienne evokes strong sensation for Binh and his Mesdames. In the same way, food is the foundation of most sensuality between Binh and Mesdames and between Alice B. Toklas and GertrudeStein and between the Mesdames and the women who visit for teas/dinners; Truong represents food as something provoking an inclusive relationship, one in which all characters in the novel and all outside readers share. Unlike "Lifting Belly," the omniscent narration of The Book of Salt and sexual outlet of food and cooking welcomes all food-lovers and cooking fanatics to relate to the pleasureful relations in the novel.

   Thus, from this I can extract that feminism is a declaration of choice. Some are aroused by enticing aromas of delectable food, some by sexual activity, some by males (as is Binh), some by females (as are ABT and GS). For me, Truong's novel synthesized the entire course and all of our conversations about sex, about gender, about identity, about sexual orientation.

   Feminism is not about hating men, feminism is not about making a political statement, feminism is not about only loving women.  Feminism is a doctrine of choice... Feminism is supporting choices.



skumar's picture

Politics of Feminism

So I realized, after talking to lperry this evening, that my "definition" of Feminism leaves out politics. But, I am just not sure how to incorporate all of my ideas of feminism ...with politics. I guess, then, I still don't know what feminism is. Just wondering, does anyone have a self-proposed definition of feminism or a understanding of feminism? Maybe I am thinking too much into this...
lrperry's picture

I don’t see how you could

I don’t see how you could possibly separate your definitions/ideas from politics! How could claiming the label of feminist not be political? I’m not saying that you’d have to run for office, but that part of being a feminist is engaging with the world around you… Not engaging in a superior way, not thinking “I must educate the ignorant”, but in the way where because you adhere to a “doctrine of choice” as you put it, you live your life in a certain fashion and interact with the other people around you as a feminist. Thoughtful and deliberate choices are a part of your "doctrine of choice" too, and those choices that you make in how to interact with your world (where to donate money, for example, taking it back to Woolf) are political choices.

The other thing I realized last night was that I don’t think all your definitions have to cancel each other out. My definition of feminism doesn’t fit into the sentence construction “Feminism is”. I think you can have different sentences floating around in your head, and you can be comfortable in your uncertainty. Because as soon as you say “Feminism is…” you start leaving people out. I know that a clear definition of feminism might be easier politically, but I just don’t think it works.


aaclh's picture

poem that has no meaning

A friend showed me this poem online at:


I immediately thought about our discussion in class about whether there needs to be meaning in words. Here is the poem along with it's 'translation':


< > ! * ' ' #
^ " ` $ $ -
! * = @ $ _
% * < > ~ # 4
& [ ] . . /
| { , ,

The poem can only be appreciated by reading it aloud, to wit:

    <  >  !   *  '  '  #
     Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,

    ^  "    `    $   $  -
     Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,

    !  *  =  @  $    _
     Bang splat equal at dollar under-score,

    %   *   <  >  ~   #   4
     Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,

     &     [    ]   . .  /
     Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,

     |       {      ,    ,   SYSTEM HALTED
     Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH.


rchauhan's picture

the activities we did in

the activities we did in class were really interesting. It's interesting how a picture can create so many different meanings for people; people describe things very differently. In class we had many similarities when describing the picture, but it was interesting how some took it further by linking memories or thinking of the person in the picture and how that person would react about certain things. I had always heard that a picture is a thousand words, but i had not thought that a word could have many pictures. i think its harder to think of pictures or memories of a word, because a word is limiting. it has a definition and all the memories that one could associate with the word is linked to the definition.

skumar's picture

The word-picture debate

I am going to have to disagree with you, rchauhan. You say that "words are limiting." When, in fact, I believe words are anything but restricting. Let's take, for example, the phrase "lifting belly." I am using Stein's poem as an example because I think she, too, would agree with me in saying that words have a more significant impact on a reader/onlooker than would a picture. So, "lifting belly" is a action often repeated in Stein's lesbian love poem. Had Stein taken a picture of the same lesbian romance as depicted in her poem and titled it "Lifting Belly," the image would have less of an effect on me. I think there is only so much to a picture. Of course, pictures can be interpreted by viewers in thousand ways, as you mentioned. However, words can be interpreted, I think, in a thousand and one ways.

Just in the two words--Lifting Belly--there are a kaledioscope of images and thoughts that come to my mind.

1) The word "lifting" as opposed to "carrying," gives me, the reader, a sense that the woman being "lifted" is recieving the pleasure whereas the woman engaged in the strenous task of "lifting" is providing the pleasure.

2) The use of the word "belly," a much softer, sensual choice than "stomach" reinforces the sexy conversation of Stein's poem.

3) "Belly" implies that this is a poem about a woman because woman, unlike men, ordinarily have more of a stomach/hips for baby bearing.

4) The linguistic analysis of "lifting belly" as given by Becky in class (It was too complicated to remember!)

5) We can look up the words "lifting" and "belly" in the OED and find the history of the words as it relates, or does not relate, to sexual activity or physical interactions. The lineage of the words provides yet another dimension to the word.

All in all, I think it is easier to play with/"have sex with" words than it is with a picture. If we had just seen an image of "lifting belly" it would not do justice to the erotic word play in Stein's poem. In other words, I do not think we could come up with 1000 words that would accurately explain lesbian sex just by looking at a picture. Words, however, invite us to gather additional words and even mental images/pictures that ensue from certain words. (Ie, "lifting belly" allows me to imagine a softer, more delicate interaction as opposed to "pushing stomach" or "moving belly" or "carrying belly"). The degree of ambiguity in Stein's poem does not lessen the strength of verbal expression.

Given my example of "lifting belly" as a collection of words OR a detailed image, I would be interested to know how you thought (if you still thought) pictures are worth a 1000 words.

ebock's picture

I would have to say my

I would have to say my thinking is similar to rchauhan's when thinking of the role of words and experience/story.

The way I've been thinking of it is like this: "Lifting Belly" doesn't tell us a story, it introduces us to an experience. Not with the words and their definitions, but with the sound and feelings that the words give to us.

Thinking about the picture activity we did in class on Thursday, we each saw the same image, but what made our reaction to the picture different to that of "Lifting Belly" is that we each wrote our own story in our minds about what we had seen, and what that might have brought up in our minds in terms of memory, personal experience, fantasy, imagination, etc. There is the potential for endless possibilities in terms of stories that could result from looking at this photograph.

I think that difference in the words we read from "Lifting Belly" and the photograph we saw in class and our experience with that is that Stein had a specific experience/sensation in mind for us to feel for ourselves with her words. She wanted us to feel that sensuality, experience the "sexiness." I also don't think that she was trying to tell us a "story" or lead us to some particular event, but she did have something in mind that she tried to re-create with the sequencing and selection of her words.

Photographs may be shot in a way that are meant to evoke certain sentiments, but in general, a word will evoke something more specific than an image. A word has more socialized content: there is a broad connotation that goes with certain words. With a photograph, words will be raised, but for every person they will be different, and the stories that may also be evoked will be different. In a story or poem, the words are presented for you to experience, as pre-selected by the author.

Does this resonate and/or make sense? I feel like that was super-duper abstract, haha...

Charlie_C's picture

A Recommendation

Our conversation in class about the sound of words versus their meaning got me thinking about one of my favourite short plays: "The Universal Language" by David Ives. In it, a student attempts to learn the "universal language," Unamunda, by someone who only speaks it. I mean, it's only a warped version of English, but watching the play, you start off with this character who only speaks in weird sounds and phrases you don't understand, yet at the end, come to understand them completely. At one point, all of the dialogue is solely in Unamunda, yet an audience member retains a good understanding of what's going on. This is someone's production of it, that they put up on Youtube. It's much more effective to watch it than to read it, because the author includes translations of the lines. Otherwise, it's in All in the Timing by David Ives.

It's also hilarious. :)

sarahk's picture

After class today, I was

After class today, I was left with the impression of the difference between the creation of words to describe a picture and the creation of an image in our heads to describe words. Describing the photo of Alice was very hard for me because I felt self-conscious that I was going to over-categorize her or, worse, wrongly categorize her. This self-consciousness inhibited my expression of the photo through words. But when describing the image/taste of salt through my words, I felt open to anything. The power of metaphor is that its strength comes from comparing two things things that do not exist as commonly perceived categories of the same thing.

As for the Gertrude Stein poetry, my opinion changed drastically about "Lifting Belly" just from the beginning of class to the end. I should have thought about the power of words without their meaning when I read it the first time. I was trying to decode the entire thing, and when I couldn't make sense of the patterns in a representative light, I gave up, in a sense. But once we discussed the importance of the sound of the language as a means for shattering contrived representations of lesbianism or sexuality or feminism, I saw the fact that I couldn't discern the meaning of the words as VITAL to the poetry. I saw it as a vital thing to think about in a society where the word "feminism" is becoming more and more obsolete and associated with negative schema. 

rfindlay's picture

I was intrigued when

I was intrigued when someone (Julie, I think) said that Lifting Belly made her feel excluded, whereas I felt as though I had my own glimpse into this private world.  Now I don't know how I feel about it, about just how much I was allowed to see, and how much was only my own input.  When we tried to "understand" Lifting Belly, we got hung up on single words, trying to translate them and identify how exactly the metaphor was structured.  However, each of us sees every word differently.  Sometimes we approximated each other, and it even seemed as though we had the same idea in mind, but in reality, we were still nuanced by our own experience.  When we were discussing the poem in small groups, Eve mentioned that she felt excluded, too, but because if this was portraying lesbian sex, her own experience was so unlike it.  

When I began reading The Book of Salt, I immediately felt like I, as the reader, had been an instrument for GertrudeStein (love the mononame).  Binh explains on page 2, "My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but also loved seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place around my Mesdames; tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot they would have to leave."  I took this to mean that they loved to include people, make them feel as though they were "in the circle," only to reveal they are irrelevant, like Serena the Soloist showed that "the man is irrelevant." Were we all just invited to get a small glimpse of Stein's world, drawn in and intrigued, only to be pushed out again by our own inability to understand?  And was I just another person stroking Stein's ego even after death, willing to claim she was the "brightest star in the Western sky?" 

I'll allow myself the conceit that when I said I loved the poem,  I wasn't praising Gertrude Stein's ability as a poet, but my own as a reader.   Hmph.

Dawn's picture

The Power of Words - Letters from Vietnam

One thing that struck me about the first chapter of the Book of Salt was the incorporation of the title. When Binh receives the letter from his brother, he said that he could smell the salt, but if he had not been watched, he would have tasted the paper to see what kind of salt: kitchen, sweat, tears, or the sea. This was interesting, because salt is one of those flavors that is so widely used and craved, and can be found in so many different circumstances. The descriptions are almost refreshing, because the sense of taste is very undervalued in a lot of writing. This story seems a lot richer with the use of it.

Another thing I liked about the letter scene was when Binh made the "mistake" in punctuation when he's talking about being alone and afraid. "Walking away alone, I am afraid." becomes "Walking away alone. I am afraid." Finally the sentiment is expressed in a type of poetry at the end of the chapter: "I do not want to start all over again./ Scanning the help-wanteds./ Knocking on doors./ Walking away alone./ And, yes, I am afraid." This has something to do with our discussion on "Lifting Belly". The arrangement of words, sentence structure, and punctuation change according to the emotion behind what the writer is trying to say. It is easy to feel the drastic changes, even though the words are the same. That's why Gertrude Stein's stream of consciousness style with the lack of punctuation, fluctuating pronouns and arrangment works for "Lifting Belly". Regardless of what the words mean, the reader can feel what she was trying to say.

skumar's picture

Lifting Belly and then, Book of Salt


Your post reminded me of two things.

1) You say: "Regardless of what the words mean, the reader can feel what [Stein] was trying to say." I agree with you here. Once we start to loosen up and appreciate the sensual sounds of the select words as chosen by Stein, we admire the poet's ambigious, unorthodox writing style. What it is an interesting question, though, is whether or not an appreciation would ensue from Stein's sinuous poem if the reader had not known this poem was about lesbian love, if the reader had no idea of the context of the poem. I mean, sure, we can make a list of the ways in which Stein's poem is a sexy conversation, a sexual word play. Had we not been given the underlying context (Stein as a lesbian; "lifting belly" as a lesbian love poem), I do not think the class would be able to appreciate the winding puzzle that is "Lifting Belly". What do you think?

2) I wanted to comment on the idea you brought up about Binh's hesitation to insert a punctuation between "alone" and "afraid." Binh says: But on paper, a period instead of a comma had turned a dangling token of regret into a plainly worded confession (8)." I think this scence depicts a struggle between written and verbal communication. The tension between writing and talking was brought up in one my class last semester. It was discussed that writing, unlike talking, welcomes revision. It is because we cannot revise our conversations, revise our speech, that makes us think more about what we say as opposed to what we write. You can often clarify what you meant when you wrote something, but when you revise yourself in a conversation you are regarded as inarticulate. In my class last semester and still now, I think that writing and speaking are one and the same. I think you can be just as powerful in saying something as you can writing something.

I would be interested to know what you thought about this dynamic between speech and writing/ Binh's hesitation to do what seems better in a written address to his brother. How do you think his words would differ if Binh could converse with his brother in person?

kgbrown's picture

Heterosexual vs. Homosexual poetry?

I would like to address the issue that Melissa raised in class about not liking the differiniation that calling the poetry of this week "Lesbian love poetry." Julia pointed out that by calling these poems "Lesbian love poems" we were implying that all other poetry was, by definition, heterosexual and, therefore, exclusive. These two thoughts made me think about the way in which I have always been directed to study Shakespeares' sonnets: by dividing them into two groups, those written for/about his female lover and those written for/about his male lover. There has always been a major distinction in my mind about the division of these poems, mostly because those that he wrote for/about his male lover always seemed so much more passionate than those for his heterosexual partner. If Shakespeare was more passionate about his male lover, then why did he feel the need to write sonnets to his female counterpart? Then I thought that perhaps, as Anne mentioned in class Rich's reaction to heterosexual women reading her poetry to their partners, that we are getting bogged down by how we should catagorize the poems and not about the content. Passion, I think, is a concept that transcends the arbitrary lines that society has drawn between hetero- and homo-sexual love. As Anne described Stein's poem as "sexy" in class, I wondered whether it really mattered whether or not the poem was about two women, two men, or one of each. If a poem really is "sexy," can't we catagorize it as just that and leave the hetero- and homo- out of it?
hope's picture

while reading the Book of

while reading the Book of Salt i was thinking that it would be interesting to have Stein's poem read outloud to people who do not speak english and ask about their reactions to it. perhaps they could apreciate the rythem or flow or general sound of the words better since they would not be focused on attaching meaning to them.
anorton's picture

Bình on "Lifting Belly"

I think that what caused a lot frustration with "Lifting Belly" was our, as readers, preference for discovering the meaning of the words. It seems reasonable that most readers enter texts expecting them to communicate something from the writer to them. What was suggested as a helpful and perhaps more beneficial way to tackle "Lifting Belly" in class was to ignore the urge to find meaning within the words. Indeed, "find" is the wrong word for this poem, as no meaning would readily reveal itself; instead, we merely have the option to "make" meaning from the words, though that too is a difficult task.

In The Book of Salt, Bình very easily abandons our need to understand the meaning of words: "I free myself from the direct translation of your words into understandable feelings and recognizable acts. I leave your words raw, allow myself to experience your language as a medium of songs..." (111). I find Bình's relation of unintelligible language to music useful: instrumental music has no words yet still communicates. The question is whether this—and any—type of non-verbal communication is reliable. If we listen to a piece of music or watch/listen to someone's "body language," do we understand what the musician or the person is trying to communicate?

Certainly, we never fully understand what another person is trying to convey in words, either. Perhaps I put too much trust in the power of words, though personally I have had little reason to doubt them. What are the experiences that can't be described, and how are they best expressed?

jzarate's picture


I’m completely bummed that we did not discuss the article about sexual reassignment in Iran. I feel that the article does not do give enough cultural background to the strict enforcement and division between those who are physically “male” and those who are “female”. In the Islamic faith, there is an important division of the sexes. This division is based on the idea that Allah creates in pairs and binary opposites. Therefore deviation from the binary is seen as dangerous and potentially leading to sexual transgression. Homosexuality is seen as sinful, but acting as the passive partner is especially frowned upon. The genders are divided by their sexual roles, the penetrator and the penetrated. This passive role is reserved for those who are not “male/men.” I find these societal standards defining gender roles in terms of sexual interactions extremely rigid. In order to maintain order and avoid “sexual transgressions” people are encouraged to change their physical gender traits. It seems like it should be a choice not a strongly encouraged suggestion.

This leads me to consider cultural and societal definitions of sex, the idea that some combinations/compositions of sexual interactions are “acceptable” while others are not. How have different religious and cultural standards shaped our views and definitions of licit and illicit sex?

aaclh's picture


I was surprised to see that Truong's Book of Salt used taste so heavily. I don't think I've thought about taste much before, let alone saw taste as a useful was to describe other human emotions. For example,

"Under their gentle guidance... even I can disgorge enough pathos and cheap souvenir tragedies to sustain them. They are never gluttonous in their desires, rather the opposite." p 20

This book really reminds me of the poem Cantone because of how it is using language AND taste to describe something else, something more hidden. For example
"for every coarse, misshapen phrase, for every blundered, dislocated word, I pay a fee. A man with a borrowed, ill-fitting tongue, I connot compete for this city's attention. I cannot participate in the lively lover's quarrel between it and its inhabitants." p 18

sarina's picture

Feminism and sensation

I am not a fan of Gertrude Stein’s writing style. I like punctuation, and knowing what the writer is saying. I did gain more appreciation for “Lifting Belly” from the class discussion, but while reading it alone it seemed too jumbled.

The idea of associating taste with feminism threw me off in the beginning.  I could see more of a tie between sensation and feminism because sensation in general could be more associated with sex. Although taste has associations with sex, I think first about food when I hear taste. Sex certainly has a place in feminism.  Under the “personal is political idea”, how people have sex plays into feminism. Sex is of course much more than personal. It’s in advertising, the news, etc.  Porn is also a large industry.

Back to the “personal is political”: as a feminist, does every action I take have to be feminist? Can you see and feel in a feminist way? I don’t really think so, not in the literal seeing things in front of you way.  While feminism is a state of mind, it is mostly a set of actions and you behave in the world.
ebock's picture

Back to "Lifting Belly..."

To respond to some of the interpretation of "Lifting Belly" raised by skumar in the thread, it feels like somehow lesbian sex has been taken without context and overanalyzed. The intimate interaction between two women is often objectified and commodified, and I think it's easy to slip into the space where it can be exoticized or made into a spectacle. I don't think, however, that Stein creates or infers an image of lesbian intimacy that becomes like that stereotypical interaction that is frequently turned to spectacle.

To go on with that, I don't think the use of the word "fire" is problematic, if in fact, Stein was inferring physical intimacy with the use of the word "fire." I think regardless of the sexual object choice, "fire" is and always will be "fire." I think it is overanalytical (is that a word haha?) to infer that the use of this particular word devalues or underestimates the love of a woman by another woman. Of course, physical attraction, like in any other relationship of a different sexual object choice, is important. To think it isn't would be to misunderstand humans.

lrperry's picture

Until Proven Otherwise...?

Several comments have referenced the interpretative difficulties posed by Lifting Belly, and the gender ambiguity of both poems. On the one hand, I feel as though that ambiguity could come out of decades of institutional and historical silencing of lesbian sex… as though there is no way to come to speech about lesbian love – or, at least, no way that does not simply conform to the heterosexual paradigm or the language of othering that has been used to describe lesbian sex. But I also feel that we do not usually wonder about the gender of two lovers – that we usually assume heterosexuality until proven otherwise. This could make the explicit naming of lesbian sex important, but it could also make it important to NOT name the sex as lesbian. This seems kind of counterintuitive and I don’t know if I believe it myself, but I do wonder if to make it explicitly clear that this is lesbian sex we are writing about is to also allow for a process of othering, of marginalization. I am thinking of the phrase “woman artist”, which has simultaneously been used to recognize those artists who have worked within the constraints of the dominant patriarchal discourse, but it’s also been used to keep those artists still separate – to have “woman artist” exhibitions, while the big exhibitions remain male-dominated.

Middlesex and The Book of Salt are both written from the point of view of a man (though these men do have marginal narratives, in their intersex and homosexual lives)… and, indeed, Middlesex is even written by a man. I find it comforting that we did spend some time talking in class about the ability or position of Eugenides writing from an intersex point of view… but I hope that we spend the same time discussing the limits of Truong’s representation of a gay male. I think it’s important to talk about the respective positions of subject and author, but I also worry about allowing these narratives to become marginalized simply because they discuss marginalized subjects.

EG's picture


We discussed briefly yesterday about how purposeful ambiguity  in both straight and LGBTQI prose can be frustrating for the reader.  In fact, Stein's ambiguity of subjects, objects, nouns and banter in "Lifting Belly" was likely the culprit of the distaste that some of us voiced in class.  Alex spoke briefy, also, about how gender ambiguity can be frustrating from the outside; when we can't make sense of concrete things, we get bored or annoyed; we find the work personally inaccessable or meaningless (as Julia said in class, we feel excluded).  Then some people (read: Becky) found that ambiguity sort of intriuging, powerful, mysterious.  This whole conundrum reminds me of (while we're on the topic of lesbian love prose) a love scene in my favorite Jeanette Winterson novel, Lighthousekeeping, in which gender has been left out completely.  Though the writing is perhaps easier than Stein's to comprehend, by leaving out gender, I would imagine that some people would feel there is some key information missing.  Is that okay?  And because of it, doesn't this passage  have a completely different feel from love scenes we're used to?


Whatever it is, it's kind of hot, if it's your thang.  If you don't have too much time, read the second half.  Here it is again.

jlustick's picture

Feminist Food for Thought

Some thoughts...

1. When considering the "lesbian love poems" that we looked at on Thursday, I see a major focus to be the inadequacy of langauge. In many way, language interferes with a certain modern feminist agenda, for it forces us to create labels and names and differentiate outsider from insider. One similarity that I saw between food and love is the impossibility of experessing each in language. Both food and love trigger the senses in a way that is undescribable. It seems that the poems we looked at, especially Hackers'. are attempting to create a sensational experience with words. The Hacker poem arouses the reader intellectually and, perhaps, emotionally and physically. How do we describe the feeling of arousal? It is interesting to consider how picky we are about what's an acceptable means of arousal. In other words, is it a problem if food arouses us? (How do we consider the popularity of aphrodisiacs such as raw oysters among even the most conservative poulations?) What if literature arouses us? What about someone of the same sex? Opposite sex? Why does the means of arousal matter more than the resultant state?

2. I was reading the NY Times Dining Section and found an interesting article called "Old Gender Roles With Your Dinner?"

In this piece, restaurant critic Frank Bruni discusses the prevalence in restaurants of unequal treatment based  on gender. Many waiters continue to treat women as though they are vulnerable flowers capable of blowing away at any moment. Waiters offer women the "better" seat, give them the menu, take their order, and deliver their food first, and typically give the man the check. Such treatment encourages the belief that men are and need to be both stronger and more financial powerful. The article explains that the waiters continue to act in this manner because "ignoring gender is risky." Overall, it seems safer to stick with the status quo than to attempt social reform and risk receiving a measly tip. Restaurants are hesitant to change their ways because they want to "offend the least number of people." Food service is an industry, and so upsetting the customers is a highly unfavorable option. Waiters would rather treat "female diners as second-class citizens" than risk upsetting men (the typical check-payers) and getting a bad tip. Thus, we see that social reform is poorely suited to areas of society where pleasing people is of the utmost importance. The final problem with such restaurant tradiitons are that they propagate the "perfect" male/female gender divide. The diners must be classified as either male or female- not questioning, queer, or other alternatives.

skumar's picture

Food or Sex as Arousal: Any Difference?


I am fascinated by the question you introduced, about whether it matters that we are aroused by food as opposed to what generally arouses us (sex)? This really got me thinking, especially since we recently covered arousal in my psychology class. To answer your question, then, I will post here a summary of what a psychology textbook says on the issue. There is nothing that is it "like" to be aroused (that is why arousal of food and sex is so hard to express in common language). Arousal is simply a brain state, namely a neural interaction that activates, or "arouses" the nucleus accumbens-- the brain's "pleasure center." Whether we eat a tantilizing meal or engage in vigorous sex, our brain does not know the difference. All it knows is that there is something, someone or some activity, that has sent the "arousal" horomore to our nucleus accumbens. So, to reiterate, it is difficult to express arousal because there is no way to understand the brain state of arousal. Studies by psychologists interested in the issue have been done to show that a lesion of the nucleus accumbens rids a person of feeling pleasure or being aroused, be it by food or sex. This explaination goes to show that this why we can be aroused in so many ways--intellectually, physically, and mentally. All arousal exists in one portion of our brain, so it just a question of how we want to arouse ourselves.

skumar's picture

Fire in lesbianism

It was mentioned in class that the playful and creative use of language in "Lifting Belly" can represent the poem as a "comfy" conversation between two women. While I agree that "Lifting Belly" can be viewed as a more covert expression of lesbian sex, I still regard Stein's sinuous poem as a lesbian memoir of sexual activity--be it covert or exposed. It is a specific word, a specific metaphor for lesbian love, that challenges the idea that "Lifting Belly" illustrates anything more than lesbian sex.

The word I am referring to Stein says: "We like a fire and we don't mind if it smokes (66)." It was said in class that a sexy, erotic relationship between two women posits concern or alarm or attention of smoke that is caused by fire. Stein's choice of the word, fire, worries me. When I read the above mentioned quote in the poem and reconsidered the quote again in class, I could not help but associate it with a Hindi (south asian) film about lesbian relationship that is expectedly titled: FIRE. While the close reading done in class does provide an accurate explaination of lesbianism (provoking smoke), it amazes me that there is a sort of commonality or generality in the word, fire--even across regional and cultural boundaries. Are there no other words in the English language that posits the same effect as "fire"?

Then, it leads me to the question I posed in class--one about lesbian love poems and the generalized theme of lesbian sexual activity. "Fire" seems like universal term that arouses an image of hot lesbian sex. With this it can be said that lesbianism can be reduced to a physical attraction. I guess I have always had the understanding that lesbianism is one woman's attraction--not necessarily a physical or sexual attraction--to another woman. In heterosexual relationships, though, it is not always--but more often than not--a physical attraction to someone else. I have trouble viewing lesbianism as a preference of sexual interest/physical attraction as opposed to something...well, less superficial. I want to believe that lesbian woman, and gay men for that matter, have attractions to woman and male, respectively, to each other as individual human beings more--not bodies. If lesbianism is nothing more than sexual pull towards women, well, then I guess it reduces humanity to physical, biological frameworks. This insists that we are nothing but our bodies.


Anne Dalke's picture

there's nothing else


you're getting lots of mileage out of body/mind dualism this week!

Last night I saw the most amazing play, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, @ the Wilma Theater in Center City. And the most powerful scene is a dialogue between an academic and his dying wife:

Eleanor: "They've cut, cauterised and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished. I'm exactly who I've always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me, that's the truth of it....I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine. I want what you love me with.”

And Max answers, “But that’s what I love you with. That’s it. There is nothing else.”

kscire's picture

Off Topic

The article Truth of sex makes me re-consider the relationship between biology and gender/sex. At least in Iran, "one's gender is rooted in one's biological make-up which may have not adjusted well with socializing norms, thus producing abnormality and gender disorder." This would lead me to believe that there is not fault in biology that results in gender disorder; but that whatever sex a person is born as is not at all unnatural...because at least coming from a scientific standpoint there are no "gender identity" disorders. These "disorders" are only social. 
Anne Dalke's picture

right ON topic

I'm smiling, kscire, only because this is so NOT off-topic. You've nailed exactly the topic we've been worrying for weeks now, and I can't imagine saying it any better: "there are no 'gender identity' disorders. These 'disorders' are only social." See Culture as Disability.