Postmodern philosophers and cultural critics would have us believe that facts are no longer with us. Fat may linger, but facts have apparently been lost to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the multiplicity of voices, the recursive nature of claims about truth, and the overwhelming presence of simulacra. Things are not what they seem; what's more, things are never the same.
This sense that the world is indefinitely unmeasurable, or incommensurate, is what distinguishes postmodernists from modernists, who at least believed in the fact of discontinuity. To be modern was to be completely different from being medieval or pre-modern. To be modern was to embrace the speedy, efficient, self-reflective, self-transformative individual and those sciences, technologies, and therapies by which the world was newly parsed and then compacted-a world which, like a dynamo, was rapid, tireless, and undeterred by emotion.
Modernity was progress, and its progress was indisputable. Using that new language of modernity, statistics, and wielding that new tool, the public opinion poll, you could be positive that things actually were better: low infant mortality rates, higher literacy rates, greater social or geographical mobility, more leisure time (for men), greater demands for a bacteria-free, well-vacuumed, nutritious domestic environment (upon women), and a larger ambit of individual freedoms. The modern world was obviously a new improved world, cleaner, brighter, more - directed, more electric, and more equitable.
To be modern, it would follow, was to be thinner, leaner. Fat was atavistic, a leftover from prehistoric or medieval times. Fat was baby fat, meant to be shed as one advanced toward the maturity of modernity.
So scientists began demonstrating that fat was exiguous or excessive. Technicians converted fat into "grease," a lubricant for quick paced gears. Efficiency experts looked for ways to cut the fat from bloated social systems and factory floors. And therapists introduced weight-loss and dietary regimes that were increasingly low or anti-fat.
The facts became clear: fat lay in the way of being truly modern. For all but infants, fat was an impediment-an impediment to love, to marriage, to good sex, to business success, to social esteem, to athletic prowess, to beauty, to life.
Indeed, though occasionally this columnist or that well-rounded actress would protest, fat became a fact of death. If children were unabashedly to learn the facts of life at an early age in these modern times, they were also and unavoidably to learn the facts of death: fat as the basic cause, or central symptom, of sluggishness, physical awkwardness, mental torpidity, strokes, heart attacks, premature death. Fat held you back, wounded you, killed you before your time-before modern times.
Those were the facts, regardless of our continual amusement with the antics of fat comics and clowns (who usually died young), of fat wrestles (who disappeared and probably died young), of fat plutocrats (who stayed out of sight and died ugly).
That was then, the modern world. This is now-the postmodern world, which has devoured all facts from their insides out, like a great cultural tapeworm. Whatever the postmodern world maybe, it only may be; people, societies, environments are fractious and in flux. For the postmodernist, it's not that we have all become insubstantial but that none of us any longer has a commanding identity. The tapeworm of postmodernity, like other worms, wriggles into multiple bodies, regrowing heads and tails.
If that's the case, isn't it doubly curious that even the tapeworm of postmodernity seems to accept without quibble or equivocation the modern fact of fat as a fact of death. Why should fat remain intact, given the precision and power of postmodernist deconstructions? How can fat resist the prevalence of media relativisms?
A marxist structuralist answer would be that postmodernism is itself a relatively straightforward reflection of an advanced stage of a self-inflating, self-destructing capitalism-multinational and intercorporate, but still enamored of the modernist ideals that originally made global expansion P05sible. Postmodernists simply exalt what others have deplored about post-industrial capitalism. For them, the lost anchors of traditional behavior are deadweights at last cut off and thrown overboard; for them, the thinness of our ethical systems is rather a healthy leanness.
A social-psychological answer might be that postmodernists accept the modernist fact of fat as a fact of death because they need to feel physically, psychically, and politically light, and whatever else they may have done to subvert modernism, they are unable to come up with a new definition for what is heavy and what is light. Why? Because, in order to gain a foothold, even a stronghold, in the cultural consciousness, they need to be acknowledged as profound yet lithe, portentous yet limber. In other words, they must accept the cultural standing of certain highly-valued modernist adjectives so as to be recognizable and important as the successors to modernism.
A philosophical answer would be that postmodernism is at heart an extreme take on modernism, so postmodernists tend to take modernist aversions, like modernist desires, to their extreme. Modernists wanted clarity; postmodernists want multiple transparency. Modernists wanted a steel-hard streamlined world; postmodernists see a universe of hidden attractors pulling all lines of force into a secret and beautifully random coherence. Modernists wanted to work on behalf of the common man (and, rarely, woman); postmodernists see a planet where everyone's uncommonness is celebrated.
So too for fat. Modernists saw fat as excess and morbidity; postmodernists see fat as that which keeps life at a distance from the living.
A fourth and phenomenological answer would be that the fact of fat as a fact of death is the root experience of postmodernists. Perceiving that modernism never achieved the goals it set for itself (radical democracy, rationality, efficiency, freedom of expression, egalitarian action), postmodernists lay the blame for this failure upon (a metaphorical) fat as its most visible sign: fat as the grinding weight of grotesquely obese political systems; fat as the victory of desire over logic; fat as the squandering of resources; fat as the smothering or expression and individuality; fat as the uneven consumption of goods. Fat therefore at once underlies and threatens the very livelihood of postmodernism, which depends for its energies upon ambitions to do what modernism never got done.
We need to consider all four of these answers before arriving at any full explanation for the perdurance of fat as a fact of death. But all four together are insufficient to account for that perdurance, which crosses all national political borders, all church thresholds, and all boundaries of age. People who rarely agree on anything els~even about the dangers of smoking or the problem of traffic noise~seem generally to agree that the slightest amounts of "overweight" (i.e., fat) are unsightly, unhealthy, unfortunate, and unacceptable. People who would have nothing to do with modernism and no sympathies at all for the postmodernist sensibility can nonetheless and casually and most agreeably deplore fat as a fact of death.
But how do facts become facts in our society? Aha! That's the key. The process by which we imagine that fat becomes fat is identical to the process by which our facts become facts. Let me repeat that, slightly rephrased. Fat is such an intransigent fact because the way that someone in our society acquires the attribute of being fat is identical to the way that something in our society acquires the attribute of being a fact
In "superstitious" premodern societies (I am writing as a snooty modernist), something became a fact when it was invested with one or several of the following auras:
- the aura of divinity (a fact is a fact because the gods, or God, or a divine monarch, told us it is so);
- the aura of eternity (a fact is a fact because there is no evidence in living memory or in ancient records that it was ever otherwise);
- the aura of tradition (a fact is a fact because our ancestors regularly assumed and assured us of-its facticity);
- the aura of sanctity (a fact is a fact because holy men and women-saints, martyrs, prophets-said it was to be trusted and may have died defending its reality);
- the aura of ubiquity (a fact is a fact because it has been everywhere recognized as a fact);
- the aura of imperturbability (a fact is a fact because it can't be dislodged, no matter how hard one tries).
In more critical, scientific, modern societies (I am writing ironically here, like a postmodernist), these auras are still around, but they have grown weak as other auras have come to the fore:
- the aura of the weight of testimony (a fact is a fact because the preponderance of people say it is);
- the aura of epiphany (a fact is a fact because it is so immediately striking);
- the aura of transition (a fact is a fact because it catches at and manages to hold something that is evanescent);
- the aura of in/sanity (a fact is a fact either because it seems reasonable or because it seems so unreasonable that no one would think to make it up unless it were truly so);
- the aura of repeatability (a fact is a fact because it is constantly repeated by the media and by your friends);
- the aura of replicability (a fact is a fact because it turns out to be the case no matter how many times you test it);
And how are we taught that a person become fat? In modern American society, certainly not by divine edict or by martyrdom to a cause. Nor, any longer, is it deemed inevitable that one should become fat by devotion to an ethnic or indeed any other tradition. Nor is it deemed socially acceptable, despite mounting evidence, to claim that one is genetically driven to be of a certain undesirable poundage and volume. Nor is it allowable to protest that more people in American society are fat than otherwise; the ubiquity of fat bodies does not seem to excuse fatness anymore than the ubiquity of fatty foods is permitted to explain it.
It is true, however, that fat has become a fact of death by virtue of its imperturbability, but imperturbability has been lifted out of its pre-modern context to fit a modern cultural image of fat as a substance which cannot easily be dislodged. The image of fat people as short, ugly, and brutish is equally difficult to dislodge, especially when coupled with our confusion of fatness with facticity.
Here is how we now regularly confuse the process of something becoming a fact with the process of someone becoming fat:
- the aura of the weight of testimony: you become fat when your weight is the slightest bit above a statistical national average for your height and gender;
- the aura of epiphany: you become fat when others suddenly observe that you are fat, or when you, looking in a mirror or a store window, suddenly come to believe that you yourself are fat;
- the aura of transition: you become fat when people notice that your weight or your shape have changed for the worse, that is, for the heavier and larger;
- the aura of in/sanity: you become fat when you act in obvious disregard of our exaggerated respect for calories and lipids and our inflated fears of saturated fats;
- the aura of repeatability: you become fat when friends or acquaintances tell you so, time and again;
- the aura of replicability: you are fat when, no matter how many times you diet, you regain your original weight and shape.
This confluence of fatness and facticity would seem to put fat people in an even tighter prison of logic than the imperturbable notion that inside each fat person is a thin one screaming to be released. But there may-just may-be hope left for fat people, and that help may-just may-come from the selfsame postmodernists.
Of the many peculiarities of the postmodernist impulse, one of the most prevalent is the desire to get beyond facticity itself, to rely for argument and for paths of action upon discriminations intrinsically more valuable and humane than facts. Henry James, a favorite of Anglo-American postmodernist critics and of 1990s movie goers, wrote in The Spoils of Poynton (1897) of "the fatal futility of Fact," and postmodernists these days seem willing to let go that futility in favor of what the poet John Keats called "Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason....' By advocating "Negative Capability," Keats (trained as a physician) meant to defend neither the demagogue nor the mystagogue, and (as a word-driven poet) he did not mean to substitute either gibberish or silence for speech and debate, but he was struggling toward some manner of truth telling that could transcend logic-chopping and the marshalling of facts.
That truth could lie with our bodies. Postmodernists have not quite reached this point; they cannot embrace the body as a whole because the body itself, "as has been demonstrated," may itself be socially and culturally constructed-it is no more a FACT than the image of a whirlwind in a funhouse mirror. And yet, many a postmodernist recognizes that each of us needs some grounding in this densely refracted world of ours, and that grounding could be our experiences of our bodies-if only we were at home there.
Would it be too much to argue that once we have gotten ourselves out of the straitjacket of fat as a fact of death, we will also and willy-nilly have begun to shrug off the straitjacket of fatal, futile fact itself? Would it be extravagant to maintain that, if fatness and facticity are so tightly twinned, then a new (a postmodern) vision of the body must entail a new (postmodern?) way of being in the world? It may be a fact that you can't go home again; however, if we moderns (or postmoderns) have never been allowed to be at home in our bodies or in our world, we could do worse than trying to find a way back to where we should have been a long long time ago. ß
HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the size acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.