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  • Writer's pictureellen angus

Leaky Vessels

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

A Vessel's Special Power

A vessel is spatiality characterized by outside and inside spaces. A vessel’s “special power” comes from the idea that it can be seen as a metaphor for an act of transference between these two conceptual points (what is inside the vessel can be poured outside the vessel and vice versa.)

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes our modern obsession with restricting things, geometrising everything by cutting it up into isolated spaces . This is how we think of vessels; things or substances locate themselves either inside or outside, and these two spaces are distinctly isolated from one another. He calls this “geometrical cancerisation,” which makes “everything [take] form, even infinity”.

The Body as a Vessel

In Early Modern England, humoral medicine attributed women with an excess of fluids, and with an openness and looseness that was understood as primitive lack of self-control (Gail Pastor The Body Embarrassed.) Not only were women the weaker ‘sex’ but they were also the leakiest. Women were seen as suffering from an excess of inferior blood which was regarded as a form of excrement. So nature provided menstruation as both a remedy to this excess of gunky blood as well as a punishment. Women were basically innately diseased. We can see both the configuration of gendered selves and the protocols of shame directed at women bodies.

Unsurprisingly, ’The ‘whore’ was the leakiest of all female vessels in part because her vaginal cavity, full of her customers’ seminal outpourings, was moister than any other women’s, in part because of her tendency to linguistic overflow (talking/ gossiping and chatting too much.) The whore’s “unchaste” body was seen as “grotesquely open" and hyper-effluent.

Relations and Transgressions

Hygiene and dirt imply two conditions: a set of relations and a transgression of that order. The body can be seen as a vessel that is spatially characterised by the dichotomy of outside and inside spaces, but also the dichotomy of dirty and clean. Once bodily fluids or matter travel from inside the body to outside the body they are regarded with a greater disgust and apprehension.

‘We cannot possibly interpret rituals concerning excreta, breast milk, menstruation, saliva and the rest unless we are prepared to see in the body a symbol of society; and see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced on small on the body.’ (Douglas, 1966, p121)

Douglas is suggesting that the body can be seen as a metaphor for a much larger structure, that of ‘society’ itself. I believe that the physical transgression of the body’s margins corresponds to society’s borders of acceptability. The surface of the body must conceal the ‘abject matter’ of the interior of the body. The obscene body is the body without borders or containment and obscenity is representation that moves and arouses the viewer rather than bringing about stillness and wholeness. Ideas about demarcating, separating and punishing transgression have, therefore, as their main function the imposition of a system of symbolic order on what is in effect an inherently messy or untidy experience: symbolically (re)ordering this matter out of place as means of ritually protecting the vulnerable margins and threatened boarders of of the broader body politic.

‘...Transitional states pose a threat anything that resists classification or refuses to belong to one category or another. And once again it is in the margins, the very edges of categories, that are most critical in the construction of symbolic meaning.’ The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, Lynda Nead. So we can think about this in the sense of gender construction, those who resist classification, that could be anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning societal norms, those of us who are queer, trans bodies, the differently-abled.

For me, Leaky Vessels can then be used to symbolise a break in these dialectics- inside/outside, object/subject, inclusion/exclusion clean/dirty heteronormative/queer. Leaky vessels defy their original function. As objects that are hyper-effluent, and thus absurd they can chatter, scream, drip. Leaky Vessels as bodies can leak and lactate, gloopily, awkwardly rehashing, this negotiation between ‘inside and outside’ as well as reconsidering the marginalisation of the promiscuous body, the obscene body, the body that refuses to conform to any dichotomy, it could be as simply put as the body that violently laughs too loudly, maybe out of place at a funeral or the body that trips up, spits and erupts in yellow heads.


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