The Body
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The Body

The Key Concepts

Lisa Blackman

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eBook - ePub

The Body

The Key Concepts

Lisa Blackman

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About This Book

Thoroughly updated and revised throughout with brand new chapters on affective bodies, indeterminate bodies, assemblaged bodies and a new conclusion, and featuring essay and classroom questions for classroom use, The Body: Key Concepts, Second Edition, presents a concise and up-to-date introduction to, and analysis of, the complex and influential debates around the body in contemporary culture. Lisa Blackman outlines and illuminates those debates which have made the body central to current interdisciplinary thinking across the arts, humanities and sciences. Since body studies hit the mainstream, it has grown in new regions, including China, and moved in new directions to question what counts as a body and what it means to have and be a body in different contexts, milieu and settings. Lisa Blackman guides the reader through socio-cultural questions around representation, performance, class, race, gender, disability and sexuality to examine how current thinking about the body has developed and been transformed. Blackman engages with classic anthropological scholarship from Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, revisits black feminist writings from the 1980s, as well as engaging with recent debates, thought and theorists who are inventing new concepts, methods and ways of apprehending embodiment which challenge binary and dualistic categories. It provides an overview of the proliferation of body studies into other disciplines, including media and cultural studies, philosophy, gender studies and anthropology, as well as mapping the future of body studies at the intersections of body and affect studies.

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1 Bodily matters


This chapter will review some of the body concepts that were introduced within anthropology, sociology and by black feminists in the call to take the body more seriously as an object of analysis. Nancy Scheper Hughes and Margaret Lock writing in 1987 argued that ‘Conceptions of the body are central not only to substantive work in medical anthropology, but also to the philosophical underpinnings of the entire discipline of anthropology’ (p. 6). As might not seem surprising, the discipline incorporated Western assumptions about mind and body, and individual and society, which they argued affected the theoretical viewpoints and the research paradigms and methods that were used to frame bodily matters. Similarly, Bryan Turner in 1984 argued that although sociology had appeared to neglect the body, bodily matters rather attracted a ‘furtive secret history’ carried by unexamined colonial assumptions about what it means to be and have a body.
The focus of Chapter 1 will be on these longer histories of scholarship that were calling for bodily matters to be foregrounded and given their due, and their attempts to replace problematic concepts of human nature with concepts of corporeality, flesh and materiality. In different ways, they drew important attention to the need for and importance of new concepts for analysing bodily matters. Importantly they argued that this was needed to address core debates central to many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology and related fields in exploring questions of how bodies are always made social or cultural. The earlier work included a concern with how inequalities, discrimination, and histories of oppression and colonial violence materialize in and through bodily matters. As we will see, the invitation to accord bodily matters a more central place did not mean that such matters until that point had not been considered. Rather, one of the strategies of this work was to reveal to researchers how conceptions of the body had always been central to sociological, cultural and anthropological analysis, albeit in a silenced and unacknowledged way. This earlier work drew attention to the central yet marginalized role bodily matters took in theoretical work, including the argument that conceptions of the body existed as an absent presence, often hiding in plain sight. Unexamined conceptions of bodily matters carried assumptions often based on Western dualist thinking and epistemologies. That is, that assumptions about the contribution of ‘the body’ to the question of how social, cultural, governmental and historical processes took hold was implicit in the theories put forward by those considered to be the founding figures of disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.
Although anthropology and sociology prioritized culture and social processes in understanding the governance of life, in different ways they were in dialogue with colonial assumptions, which determined whose lives were taken to matter. Colonial practices reified distinctions based on merit, worth, status and value, distributing populations through hierarchies from the so-called primitive to the civilized, continuing long legacies of racism and colonial violence. The legacy of colonial thinking and practices is embedded within both disciplines, appearing through unexamined conceptions of human nature and the natural body inherited from the biological sciences and evolutionary thinking. The critical race, disability and queer theory scholar Chen (2012) has used the term animacy to refer to the legacy of this thinking, which arranges human life, disabled life, and what is considered inanimate life (such as metal) within a hierarchy of value and priority (from the human to the less-than-human and even inhuman), which orders and contains difference.
The sub-disciplines of anthropology and sociology of the body were part of moves to make these founding assumptions more visible and to re-open questions of bodily matters that refused these legacies. As we will see, in different ways anthropology and sociology of the body started to offer revisions of what it means to have and be a body, and to explore how theorizing embodiment was central to understanding the workings of power. One trend of this work was a re-engagement with the concepts introduced by some of those considered founding figures who shaped early work in the disciplines. These are names considered to be part of the canon or intellectual heritage of contemporary disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology. They are names that appear in most discussions of the historical development of disciplines, reproducing a white hegemony that often determines which contributions are taken to matter. They are scholars who have been considered important to how the project of sociology and anthropology, for example, was shaped and framed so that it became distinct from other disciplines, such as psychology or media studies.
As well as outlining some of these debates, I also want to consider important contributions particularly made by black feminists, also writing during the emergence and shaping of the sub-disciplines of anthropology and sociology of the body. They were also grappling with concepts of the body, flesh and materiality to examine the legacy, production and reproduction of histories of slavery and racism. As we will see, the 1980s and 1990s were particularly fertile times for work exploring the importance of bodily matters to disciplines that were rather disembodied based on Western conceptions of the rational disembodied individualized self (white and male). Although the chapter is primarily an overview of key historical debates that have shaped some of the traditions which rejected the idea of a natural body as the starting point for analysis, including cultural inscription and social constructionism, I will also refer to more contemporary work where appropriate, and debates that will be developed in later chapters of the book. One issue that is foregrounded throughout the discussions is the role of emotion in embodied life, which forms a key focus of discussion throughout the chapter. This was an issue that was identified in early anthropology of the body by Scheper-Hughes and Lock’s attention to emotion in their ‘three bodies’ approach, and in the writing of black feminists, such as Audre Lorde and Hortense Spillers. Lorde and Spillers focused on how colonial violence, histories of slavery and racism feel, positing emotion as the focal point for examining the materialization and racialization of bodies and worlds.

The sociological and anthropological body

The emergence of sociology and what has been referred to as the ‘sociological imagination’ has been linked to two key questions: how to account for social change, and how to account for social reproduction. Early sociology was concerned more with the latter question and is often aligned to the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argued that sociology should be an examination of the constraint and imposition of social structures on the formation of human subjects. What puzzled sociologists, psychologists, biologists, economists and other scholars in the 19th century was how ideas, beliefs, practices, traditions and even emotions could spread throughout populations to such a degree that they would achieve a uniformity or social unity. Durkheim argued that sociology should be an examination of this social unity and made the concepts of imposition and constraint central to his project. He fiercely rejected the contribution of other disciplines such as anthropology and psychology to this question, and instead reified the importance of social structures in the formation of what it means to be human. Durkheim’s approach is now regarded as functionalist as social structures were seen to constrain the individuality of subjects so that there appears to be no room for manoeuver. The term ‘functionalism’ identifies how the privileging of the role of social structures ignored or devalued the agency of the human subject, who was seen to be at the mercy of social institutions and practices. So what kind of body was Durkheim implicitly mobilizing within his analyses? As we can see, Durkheim starts from the presumption that institutions and the state are the seat or centre of power, that individuals are mere pawns within broader ideological processes. However, these processes are effective for Durkheim because they change or transform human subjects. The changes are realized both in the bodies and minds of subjects with the result that they become particular kinds of subject or citizen.
This approach to the formation of human subjects has become part of a tradition within sociology known as cultural inscription. As this term suggests, what is important is how social or cultural processes inscribe or speak through individuals. These processes are manifested in the thoughts, actions, bodily dispositions and habits of subjects with the result that they appear natural and automatic. The body, within these accounts, is important for understanding the workings of ideology and power, for example. However, Durkheim assumes a generic body, what he termed an organismic body, through which power and ideological processes inscribe their effects, assuming an unmarked whiteness in his theorizing. What is brought into the analysis, albeit in an under-theorized way, is the already existing assumption within colonial practices that certain bodies cannot be socialized or ‘civilized’ because of a recalcitrant human nature. Thus Durkheim ignored the already existing contribution of colonial knowledge, power and practices to the perpetuation and reproduction of racism, sexism, able-ism, and so forth. Durkheim makes blanket assumptions about how bodies are socialized, whilst ignoring the contribution of colonial power and the biological and psychological sciences to strategies of governing populations, in and through assumptions made about what it means to have and be a body. In light of these assumptions, Turner (1991: 5) argues, forming the backdrop to sociology is an assumption that ‘the body is the central metaphor of political and social order’. However, in his earlier work on the subject, Turner also argues that although a central metaphor, the body tends to make a ‘cryptic appearance’ (1984: 2). Thus, Durkheim assumes ‘the coercive nature of moral facts’ (Turner, 1984: 21) to be such that power is taken to work through constraint and repression of bodily and psychic processes. Durkheim was not interested in what he termed the organismic basis of the body, for bodies were always ‘made social’ and existed within a network of ties, obligations and duties. These social ties were what mattered, relegating ‘the body’ (as a possible collection of instincts, drives, desires, passions, physiological processes and so forth – what we might now call materiality) to the sidelines. Although he made the argument that sociology should maintain itself as separate and distinct from the psychological and biological sciences, he did, however, increasingly turn to these areas in his later writings to reflect more explicitly upon the concept of human nature (see Durkheim, 1960).
We can see, then, that although he turned his attention to biopolitical processes, he reproduced dualistic thinking, such as the separation between mind and body, nature and nurture, and individual and society. He assumed that materiality was mechanistic and that civilizing processes were those which made humans ‘social’. This ‘civilizing process’ was conceived ultimately as a process of overcoming what was seen to link the human with the animal. His approach is ultimately part of a colonial legacy, which sets up distinctions between the human and the animal, reason and emotion, mind and body, the primitive and the civilized, and Western and non-Western, which reveal the unmarked whiteness of the discipline. He ignored or obscured how assumptions of the natural body or human nature were already part of how populations were governed through colonial practices, such that ‘socialization’ already contained assumptions about who could be socialized and in what ways.
Sociologists of the body in the 1980s and 1990s began to revisit some of this earlier sociological work that had been central to the shaping of the discipline (Featherstone et al., 1991; Shilling, 1993; Turner, 1984). As Shilling (1993) argues, one of the important insights of Durkheim’s work is that the bodies are always unfinished entities. In other words, the body is not simply a body defined by a fixed human nature, but, rather, bodies can, will and do change and transform given the particular set of historical circumstances within which they are socialized. Thus, Shilling argued that talk of the body is always talk of the social context, social practices and ideological processes that produce bodily matters. However, somewhat ironically, the body that is ‘a hidden base, under-theorized and taken for granted’ (Shilling 1993: 20) is also deemed to be a body that cannot be explained by understandings of its biological or material processes. Thus, what characterizes, and has characterized, models of cultural inscription is a distance from those disciplines that have historically taken bodily materiality as their object, such as the biological and life sciences. What has been reified are social structures in the importance of understanding bodily matters. Although Turner characterized the development of sociology as ‘a somewhat hostile reaction to Darwinistic evolutionism, eugenics or biologism’ (1991: 7), it was only with the emergence of the sociology of the body in the 1980s and 1990s that sociologists turned more attention to the impact and legacy of Darwinistic evolution, eugenics and biologism on the discipline. This can be seen in the unexamined assumptions that we can now, with hindsight, clearly see within Durkheim’s theories, for example.
Debates within the sociology of the body were also important for medical anthropologists such as Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987), who were making important interventions within anthropology. In dialogue with sociology of the body they encouraged anthropologists to problematize the assumptions about corporeality that were naturalized within the discipline (also see Mascia-Lees, 2011). Engaging in a critical and extended discussion, which I will refer to as the ‘mindful body’ they argued for a ‘three bodies’ approach to displace unexamined assumptions of human nature and dualistic thinking on the discipline. The first conception of the body in their approach is characterized as a ‘phenomenologically experienced body-self’ (or embodied self), the second as a ‘social body’ and the third as a ‘body politic’: ‘the body as an artifact of social and political control’ (Scheper-Hughes and Lock, 1987: 6). These three bodies are interrelated, and an analysis of emotion, they argued, was the key to exploring these connections, which demonstrate the indeterminacies and variability of what it means to have and be a body. This classic intervention within the field of anthropology is still highly relevant and has been revisited in Scheper-Hughes’ (2019) reflection on the ongoing importance of their ‘three bodies’ approach. As the three bodies they identify appear throughout discussions in this chapter, I will weave their arguments through the following sections and explore what was prescient about their intervention, which appears in more contemporary discussions.
In similar ways to sociologists of the body, such as Turner, they argued that assumptions about corporeality that structured disciplines such as anthropology were based on Western constructions and dualistic thinking falling prey to what they termed the ‘biological fallacy’ (p. 6). The biological fallacy they refer to is based on what Turner called the ‘naturalistic body’ derived from the legacy of colonial thinking embodied in the concept of human nature. This produced racial taxonomies of hierarchy, worth, merit and scale, which positioned colonial subjects as dangerous, inferior, emotional and irrational, grounded in fixed biological characteristics of a supposed natural body (see Tolia-Kelly and Crang, 2010).

The naturalistic body

Darwinistic evolutionism

This critique of the foundations of sociology and anthropology is really important for some of the moves that have been advocated in contemporary work across the field of body studies.
In different ways both anthropology and sociology of the body began the important work of critiquing what Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987) termed the ‘biological fallacy’. Anthropology and sociology of the body were engaging with deep-seated assumptions about the naturalistic body, rooted in colonial thought, epistemology and practices. We will start with the tradition of Darwinistic evolutionism and ex...

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