Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adam's Belly-Button(s)

I've been in Paris since early Friday morning.  And its great.
To tell the truth I'd been feeling a little guilty about coming this year, since I'm not doing any work here that I couldn't do at home - no research, just writing, reading, and thinking.  And staying home I would have saved myself a lot of money.
But then I got here and went for a walk in the city - from the apartment where I'm staying near the Place des Voges over to the cathedral and back - and all of that guilt just disappeared.  This is where I want to be.  The money is so worth it.
Sunday I was planning on going to a group French language class, since I'm trying to do more in French when I'm here (and by the way, Blogger is in French right now and I don't know how to tell it to be in English).  But the class was cancelled at the last minute and so I went to the Cluny museum instead.  I've spent a lot of time at the Cluny in the past, when I was here looking at Virgin and Childs (Virgins and Childs?  Virgins and Children?), but this time I just walked through, looking for whatever stood out to me.
And it was this statue of Adam from Notre Dame, which I've seen before but never really looked at.  What struck me is Adam's belly-button.  Or really, belly-buttons!
Ok, so its weird enough for Adam to have one belly-button.  Because, if you think about it, he really shouldn't.  The belly-button (le nombil in French, I just looked it up) is the mark of being born from a woman.  Its the mark of the body's origin inside of the mother's body, of the body's original dependence on that other body, and of the rupture of the connection between those two bodies.  As the original man, Adam shouldn't have that mark of another origin, of originating inside of another/mother. 
And then there is the second, the mark slight above and to the left here.  I'm assuming it's actually a bit of damage, since there are nicks and missing bits all over the sculpture.  Yet the shape is so similar to the belly-button below and the two marks are in such close proximity that I can't help putting the two together in my mind.
And doing so is helping me think through some of what I am here to write.  I'm returning to the first chapter of this book that I've been working on for about 9 years now (yes, that's a long time, but its been an on and off thing, and a lot has happened in the meantime).  While the book is about medieval sculpture and medieval women's experiences of motherhood, this first chapter was about medieval forms of "visuality," that is, how these sculptures would have been seen by medieval viewers.  But that needs to change now, with the turn from visuality to materiality and from seeing to perception more broadly.   Rereading the chapter as I originally wrote it, I was struck by just how little I had taken into account that the images I am writing about are sculptures and so not just images but also material objects.  This is related to the issues I was having with my Kalamazoo paper that I wrote about in my last post, which was at least in part a problem with sorting through the relationship between sculpture-as-image and sculpture-as-object.
And so we have the two belly-buttons: the first, the original, the intended, the carved, as part of the sculpture-as-image; and then the second, the unintended, the accidental, a mark of this sculpture's history as an object in the world.  To borrow some language from Graham Harman (who has it from Heidegger and that right now I have from Ian Bogost since I spent yesterday's rainy afternoon reading Alien Phenomenology at the cafe), the first belly-button is part of the sculpture-as-image's status as ready-at-hand, that is, as something that you don't really even think about since it's doing its job for you, in this case its job as a representation of a human body (and don't really think about to the degree that you don't even realize that it's weird for Adam to have a belly-button at all); but then the second belly-button makes the first seem strange and so the sculpture-as-object comes to stand out as present-at-hand, as an object in the world with a history - a story, a life - of its own.  The two marks are juxtaposed on Adam's abdomen/the stone's surface, but they do not overlap: the sculpture-as-image and sculpture-as-object are related to one another, but they are not the same thing, and neither one can or should be subordinated to the other.
And I don't think I could have come up with that at home, since it took the chance of going to the Cluny and having Adam and his belly-buttons jump out at me.  So Paris is paying off already.


  1. Loved this post. It really resonates with something I was thinking this morning about the tomb effigies I study. I realized that for me these large stone figures are not representations of someone, but are in some sense actually that someone for me. That is why I hesitate to refer to a given figure as it when I am teaching but invariably call the effigy by name or her or him. Yes, the turn to materiality is upending all my thinking--probably a good thing.

  2. This is wonderful. I've been playing with the vorhanden/zuhanden distinction in my mind, as well, and I sometimes suspect that ALL works of art are "present-at-hand" in some way or another. They can't help calling attention to themselves; they necessarily resist sliding into being ready-to-hand.

    And I think there's some fun to be hand with the second belly button as a mark of the sculpture's coming into being, just as the "original" one is the mark of a human's generation. The facture of that nick is a reminder of all the nicks, marks, scrapes that brought the sculpture into being, and moreover, this particular nick evokes (if only vaguely) the process by which this sculpture become the one standing in the Cluny, the re-birth that transformed it from a cult object to a museum piece.

  3. Marian - very nice. It also made me think of Asa's chapter in /Maps and Monsters/ on the Wonders of the East blemmye, who also has a bellybutton, but it looks like a third eye (which, come to look at it, so does Adam's - hmmmmmmm.).

    ~ Martin

  4. Maybe one is Adam's belly button, and one is the sculpture's belly button. In neither case should he have an intra-uterine origin, but there they are, staring you in the face. Two monstrous births. Oh, there is fun to be had here!

  5. Very cool. I had never thought about Adam's bellybutton, and I bet he and Eve have them in most images. Also, I love the way that the unintended damage reveals qualities of the image that would have perhaps otherwise gone unnoticed.