What is "the body"? If the question seems ridiculous to you, you are undoubtedly not alone. At any given time, in any given culture, most people have an intuitive, if not always easy to articulate, notion of what the body is, and probably regard that notion as shared by all human beings. The fact is, however, that human cultures have not only done an amazing variety of things to human bodies, but have imagined and experienced the nature, limits, and capacities of the human body—and its relation to the self—in extremely diverse ways.
For example, most people living in the early-twenty-first century West believe the body to be a border between the self and the external world, and one that houses only one individual self. Those whose experience departs from this are treated as suffering from a personality disorder. Many non-Western cultures, in contrast, do not regard the skin as an impermeable border between the individual and the natural world, and believe that the physical body may host multiple selves. Another example is the relationship of mind and body. Many cultural systems—Zen Buddhism is one—do not mark a radical distinction between mind and body. In contrast, mind/body dualism has been so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of Western culture that some may have difficulty imagining an experience of the self that does not partake of it.
From the significance of body parts to contemporary theory of the body, different conceptions abound. Neither "race," nor gender, nor sexuality is a universally uniform category. Different cultures imagine different organs as the center of bodily functioning, and privilege different senses; among the Suya of Brazil, for example, hearing is equated with understanding, as seeing is for Europeans and North Americans. And while contemporary biologists attempt to map a basic genetic blueprint, poststructuralists argue that the very notion of a biological body is a human invention.
From a philosophical and anthropological perspective—and to establish limits to an exceedingly broad topic—this article focuses on the intellectual, cultural, and political developments that various disciplines have regarded as landmarks in the history of the idea of the body.
A Brief Tour of Western Dualism from Plato to Plastic Surgery
Despite its familiarity, the notion that human minds or souls are fundamentally different from human bodies is a cultural construction that took many centuries to build. Arguably all human cultures, including prehistoric peoples, have had some concept of spirit residing in the body. But this does not yet imply belief in an immaterial substance distinct from the body. For many cultures, spirit is simply "aliveness," the vital principle that animates all living things, from plants to humans, and is itself conceived as a kind of material substance. In both Homer and the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the words spirit and breath are used interchangeably.
The notion of an immaterial substance that is separable from the body emerges in historical documents first as part of ancient Egyptian and Chinese beliefs in a "dual soul," one aspect of which is joined to the body, while the other travels, after death, to the realm of the ancestors. Greek philosophers visited Egypt and were aware of such notions; their influence is especially striking in Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.e.), who believed that the soul exists both before the birth and after the death of the body. With Plato, however, it is no longer the realm of the ancestors in which the disembodied soul resides, but the world of true knowledge—the Forms. With this innovation, Plato introduces what was to become a central ingredient in later versions of dualism: the elevation of the life of the soul (or mind, or reason, depending upon the system) to the pinnacle of human achievement, with the body imagined as the enemy of its aspirations.
The body as enemy.
For Plato, the body is the enemy of the soul primarily because it apprehends things through the senses—and the senses, notoriously, can lie, can deceive one into mistaking imperfect and transient versions—of love, beauty, and justice—for enduring realities. Reality, for Plato, is composed of eternal, universal Ideas that can only be seen with the mind's eye, and so can only be known by human beings after death (or before life—Plato believed in reincarnation) when they are liberated from their bodily prison. But although Plato mistrusted the body's perceptions, he revered the beauty of the human form and did not view the desires of the body, sexual or otherwise, as sinful. In the Symposium (360 b.c.e.), in fact, it is desire for another human being that first touches the philosopher with a passion for beauty, and initiates him into a quest for its timeless essence. The desires of the body, for the Greeks, are only a problem when they are permitted to overrule reason (as they were imagined, for example, to function in women). The Greek ideal was management of the desires of the body in the interests of self-mastery, not, as for Christian thought, denial of the desires of the body in the interests of purity.
Plato's ideas about the body do not constitute a theory but must be patched together from remarks and arguments in various dialogues. For that very reason, however, they could be selectively recruited—and significantly retooled—to serve later systems of Christian thought, where they have exerted a powerful historical influence. Saint Augustine (354–430) was a key architect of such ideas, which have shaped the theory and practice of many strains of Christianity, particularly Catholicism. In Augustine's hands, Plato's prison of the senses becomes the home of "the slimy desires of the flesh," and the judicious management of sexual desire is replaced with the requirement to totally subdue the body's "law of lust." Judaic, African, Eastern, and Greek systems of thought had not viewed sexual desire as an impediment to spirituality, except with regard to an elite, ascetic caste of philosophers or priests, or when indulged in without restraint. Now what had been regarded as a natural human need became, at best, a necessary (to procreation) evil.
The body as machine.
Despite their differences, the dualism of Plato and Augustine shared the ancient view of the living body—and the natural world—as permeated with spirit. René Descartes (1596–1650) was to decisively change that, in a reformulation of mind/body dualism that would herald the birth of modern science. For Descartes, the body is a mechanically functioning system with nothing conscious about it—simply the interaction of fluids, organs, and fleshly matter. Mind, in contrast, became pure consciousness—the famous "I think, therefore I am." This was a separation far more decisive than anything imagined before, as mind and body became defined as mutually exclusive substances.
These abstract reformulations had enormous cultural consequences. For one, the human intellect became elevated to almost God-like status, as it could be imagined as capable—given the right methods of reasoning—of seeing through the illusions of the senses to the underlying reality of things. At the same time, the notion of the body as an intricate but soulless machine made radical experimentation and intervention less troubling to religious-minded scientists and doctors, and liberated human ambitions to explore, dissect, and correct the defects of nature.
In the early-twenty-first century, the body-as-machine is no longer just a guiding metaphysics or metaphor; it has become a material realization. Every day, in hospitals throughout the world, human body parts are being repaired, reconditioned, and replaced, sometimes by the organs of other humans, sometimes by machines. Normally automatic respiratory functioning, the cessation of which used to be a marker of the death of the body, now can be prolonged indefinitely by sophisticated life-support machinery. The domain of cosmetic surgery not only includes the correction of disfiguring accidents and birth defects, but prevention and repair of the physical effects of aging, the rearranging and contouring of face and body to particular beauty ideals, and even—very recently—the promotion of extreme makeovers, composed of multiple surgeries designed to produce wholly new physical selves.
Whatever one's attitude toward such developments, what is clear is arrival of a "cyborg culture." It is not only through the achievements of science that a cyborg culture has been established—or, as others would emphasize, the marriage of medical technology and consumer capitalism—but by virtue of a conception of self for which the body is mere matter to be manipulated at the will of the true "I," the "thinking thing." Such living, historical connections between theory and practice make studying ideas about the body more than a scholarly exercise.
The Mind Embodied
From Plato to Descartes, the body has been imagined as merely attached to—and decidedly inferior to—an idealized intellectual or spiritual essence in which all hope of human accomplishment lies. In the background of this denigration of the body is the virtually obsessive need of Western philosophy and religion, until the nineteenth century, to distinguish "man" from "the animals." Descartes is explicit: Animals have no soul, cannot think, and are mere bundles of instincts, prepackaged by God. The man/animal distinction was already there, however, in remarks strewn throughout philosophy and religion, and (with a few exceptions—for example, Thomas Hobbes and other early materialists) it gathered momentum after Descartes.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the human being begins to be naturalized, imagined more as a complex animal than a potential God unfortunately trapped within a mindlessly craving material body. The foundational contribution to this transformation was Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theory of evolution, which demoted the human being from a fallen angel to a species that had evolved from other forms of animal life. Evolution not only placed human beings on a continuum with the "mindless" creatures from whom philosophers and theologians had struggled to distinguish them, but suggested that their vaunted, God-like intellect was merely the result of a larger brain, itself the product of environmental contingencies that had allowed certain biological features to "survive" over (that is, outproduce) others.
Not a Darwinian per se, Frederick Nietzsche (1844–1900) insisted forcefully on the instinctual nature of the human being, and far from regarding it as base or evil, viewed it as a force for life and an essential dimension of creativity. He mocked the notion that humans can attain disembodied existence or pure spirit, and mounted a fierce attack on those philosophers and priests who (as Nietzsche viewed it) had made life-denying, ascetic values the standard of human perfection, all the while seeking their own earthly power. For Nietzsche, such "will to power" was a positive thing, so long as it was joyously embraced in oneself and allowed to flourish in others; what he despised about the priestly caste—those "despisers of the body," as he called them—was their professed humility and meekness, even as they dictated the terms of existence for their followers.
With this critique, Nietzsche introduced two themes concerning the body that were to become increasingly prominent in modern and postmodern thought. For many intellectuals, both before and after Nietzsche, the history of philosophy and religion has been imagined as a conversation between disembodied minds (or, more colloquially, talking heads); not only are the class, race, gender, and historical period of participants considered irrelevant to their ideas, but so are emotional attachments, self-interest, and personal history. The seeker of Truth is supposed to be above all that. Nietzsche was the first to insist that such transcendence of embodied existence is impossible, "The eye that is turned in no particular direction," he wrote, "is an absurdity and a nonsense.… There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing" (p. 119). Such notions have played a central role in twentieth-century critiques of Western culture mounted by feminists, deconstructionists, and Foucauldians.
The instinctual body.
The second body theme Nietzsche introduced, which Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the father of psychoanalysis, was to elaborate and systematize, is the high price human beings have paid in the process of becoming "civilized." For Nietzsche, a decisive historical moment was the banishing of the Dionysian element—ecstatic surrender to the body, the unconscious, and the erotic—from Greek culture. Freud, unlike Nietzsche, viewed the repression of (sexual and aggressive) instinct as necessary to the preservation of human community and order. But he agreed with Nietzsche that the cost of instinctual repression in the interests of civilization was "discontent"—neurosis, depression, phobias, psychosomatic conversions, and just plain "ordinary unhappiness" (as he termed the usual condition of modern man). Much of Freud's writing describes the developmental stages—both in the individual and in the species—that inevitably take the human being from an instinctual existence devoted to "the pleasure principle" through stages of renunciation and accommodation to the demands of reality (which Freud believed were unable to gratify all human needs, even in the most permissive society) and morality (first experienced through parental authority, later internalized as the super-ego).
Freud represents, in many ways, a synthesis of several of the trends outlined in this article so far. In the tradition of Judaic and Greek thought (and unlike Augustine), he did not regard the desires of the body as sinful. Like Darwin, he looked to nature, not God, to understand the design of the human being, and described what he believed he had found with the dedicated detachment of the Cartesian scientist. Like Plato, he believed the "higher" accomplishments of humanity—art, music, literature, philosophy—require the sublimation (or redirection) of the body, from the original aim of sexual fulfillment to the less intense gratifications of art and intellect. But like Nietzsche, he was continually drawn to the exploration of the underside of progress—the unconscious drives and desires, never fully banished from human life, and a constant reminder of the primacy of the body.
The lived body.
Another philosophical spokesperson for the primacy of the body—but with a very different understanding of that primacy than Darwin, Nietzsche, or Freud—was Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). Merleau-Ponty, in the tradition of philosophical phenomenology, did not believe the human body could be reduced to a scientific or social object of study. What such perspectives left out, he argued, was what phenomenologists call "the lived body." From the perspective of the lived body, human beings do not have bodies (as they might possess hats or coats), they are bodies; and as bodies, are more than physically encased minds or collections of instinct. Rather, bodies are the medium of human experience, through which they engage with their surroundings. Merleau-Ponty, unlike Plato or Descartes, was not concerned with some reality beyond or behind the way things appear, but with the way the world is given to embodied beings. For many twentieth-century continental philosophers, this was the definitive rejection of dualism; by doing away with "two worlds" and concentrating on the world as it appears to us, already saturated with the meaning that bodies give it, Merleau-Ponty reunited mind and body and made them natural allies in the quest for understanding.
Culturally Variable Bodies
Freud drew his conclusions about the inevitable struggle between ego and id from his own psychiatric practice, largely composed of well-to-do Victorians whose problems, arguably, were more the product of the culture they lived in than universal forms of human discontent. The point seems obvious in the early twenty-first century, after half a century of criticism of the many questionable assumptions about gender, class, and sexuality contained in classical Freudian theory. Many people associate such criticism with feminism—and indeed, feminism played a major role in placing Freudian theory in historical perspective. But it was anthropologists who first called into question the universality, not just of Freudian theory, but of the Western tendency to regard the body—sexuality in particular—as a source of unruly impulses that are fundamentally in tension with the need for human order.
Mead and Mauss.
Margaret Mead's (1901–1978) pioneering research in Samoa and New Guinea, for example, was concerned with debunking Western ethnocentrism, including with regard to sexuality. In Samoa, Mead (1928) found that adolescence was not a period of rebellion from parents, nor was adolescent sexuality fraught with the moral constrictions of the West. By revealing the more relaxed child-rearing practices and less rigid sex roles in Samoa and New Guinea, Mead critiqued American patterns and called for their modification.
Marcel Mauss's (1872–1950) reflections on cross-cultural variations in what he called "techniques of the body" constituted another important moment in the development of anthropological thinking about the body. Mauss noted (1934) that while, universally, people successfully hold themselves upright, walk, gesture, talk, and eat, the precise renderings of these activities varies from one society to the next. Later (1938), he formulated the important distinction between the self (moi ) and the social or culturally constructed person (la personne ). The former refers to individuals' private, personal sense of themselves; the latter to the cross-culturally variable ways in which societies define the contours of individuals, such as expectations and rights varying by gender and life stage; the degree to which cultural members are perceived to be connected to one another and to nature; and beliefs about the human soul, its essence and location, and how it and the souls of deceased relatives influence the affairs of the living.
Personhood has been the realm of rich sociocultural research, yielding cross-cultural data with myriad implications. For example, in preindustrial societies, where perceptions of the demarcation between nature and culture, and between the living, deceased, and yet-to-be-born, are more gradual than in the postindustrial West, the proper or improper actions of humans are perceived to directly influence the well-being of entire communities (including the spirits of the dead and future generations), and nature's bounty and benevolence as well. A closer connectedness to the suprahuman world is expressed through the greater homage paid to its deceased, to widely varying burial practices centered on the corpse, and to a host of prescriptions and proscriptions concerning the bodies of the bereaved, which vary by gender and kinship status.
Biology and culture.
With Mauss, Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, and others leading the way, anthropologists began to accumulate a storehouse of knowledge concerning the tremendous cultural variation that exists in ideas about the body and their corresponding implications for attitudes toward and practices of sexuality, reproduction, abortion, infanticide, child mortality, breast-feeding, child-raising, pawn-ship and slavery, and gender roles. It was from such cross-cultural knowledge that anthropology's concept of the body emerged. It is one that sees the corporeal body and its constituent parts, as well as its movements, gestures, needs, and desires as inextricably both physical and sociocultural. While language, social interaction, eating, drinking, and sexual activity are primary needs for which human bodies contain intrinsically biological capacities, none of these primary needs can be undertaken apart from culture. Thus the physical body is never just a biological organism. It cannot be, because human beings, as Clifford Geertz has observed, "are caught in the webs of significance that they themselves weave" (p. 5).
The Social Skin
Mary Douglas's work, as well as feminist deconstructions of the meanings contained in representations of the female body, inspired a generation of anthropologists and cultural theorists to explore the human body as a text that can be read to reveal a great deal of cultural information. This symbolic function of the body applies not only to the taboos and rituals described by Douglas, but to parts of the body, to representations of the human body—in artworks, medical texts, racial ideology, and advertisements—and to decorations and modifications of the flesh, from ornaments, hair fashion, cosmetics, masking, costuming, tattooing, piercing, and scarification, to body fattening or thinning, muscular development, and cosmetic surgery. However extreme or seemingly whimsical the practice, it always has meaning, always is shaped by the sociocultural context in and through which people act. Anthropologist Terence Turner called this dimension of the body the "social skin," a concept that applies just as aptly to the nineteenth-century corset and twentieth-century implants as to the traditional neck rings of the Karen peoples of Burma or lip plugs of the Amazonian Kayapo.
A key difference between the body modifications of traditional societies and those of postmodern culture is that the former are dictated by group membership and are nonnegotiable by individuals. The status-significance of the size of Ethiopian lip-plates among brides-to-be is set by custom, as is who may engage in such modification. In contrast, many contemporary body modifications based on traditional practices—piercing, scarification, and tattooing—are freely adopted for their potential to express an individual's choice of alternative values or group identifications. Other contemporary modifications—for example, exercising to change the shape or fat composition of the body, or having one's face lifted to achieve the appearance of youth—are freely engaged in and (in principle) open to members of all social groups, but reflect norms of beauty to which there is considerable pressure to conform. Those who resist or cannot afford to conform pay a stiff price, in lesser access to jobs, mates, and social power.
Whether traditional or contemporary, all body modifications carry meaning, expressing cultural ideals (and anxieties), racial biases, social status, and membership in particular groups. Those meanings may be complex—both female slenderness and male muscularity, for example, are arguably overdetermined to be attractive in the late twentieth and early twenty-first-century context for reasons having to do with anxiety over changing gender roles, the increasing association of bodily discipline with self-control and power, and the moral valuation of leanness in a "super-sized" culture of indulgence (Bordo, 1993, 1999). Bodily meanings are also unstable and highly context-dependent, raising questions about the changing politics of the body: Does hair straightening by blacks, for example, have the same significance in 2004 as it did when "natural" styles were an expression of racial pride? There is no one answer to a question such as this; different analysts will interpret such practices differently. But however controversial or layered, no bodily style can be considered to be "just fashion," the expression of meaningless or arbitrary taste.
So, for example, while human differences in skin color, hair texture, and body size and shape have been variably selected by the pressure of different environmental conditions, there is no biological basis for the racial classifications that have been built upon those differences. Such classifications arbitrarily abstract particular phenotypical traits from a human array that is both much more varied and much more continuous than the concept of race allows. Race is not a biological "fact" but an idea—an idea around which an elaborate web of significance, with enormous and destructive consequences for the treatment of human beings, has been woven.
The classification and regulation of sexuality and gender, too, always involve the mediation of meaning, of human ideas, in the physical or biological realm. For example, as Malinowski first showed through his groundbreaking ethnographic research among the Melanesian Trobriand Islanders, ideas about conception affect patterns of sexual control. In matrilineal societies, in which the female is believed to contribute the blood—commonly thought to be the substance that ties lineal descendants to one another—to the fetus, female sexuality is not as strictly controlled as in patrilineal societies, where descent is believed to pass through males. In patrilineal societies, female sexuality tends to be closely monitored to insure that the line remains pure of foreign male intrusion. Depending upon the multitude of ways in which patriliny is interpreted, this monitoring may range from the moral sanction that sexual intercourse be confined to marriage, to the female bodily coverings of Muslim societies, to sharply segregating the sexes, or to various forms of female circumcision that, while often performed as a rite of passage, have the effect of decreasing sexual pleasure.
Research on male same-sex intercourse also highlights how similar physical acts can have widely differing social meanings. In some Latin American cultures, males may perform same-sex acts, but according to machismo ideology, it is only if a male plays the role of the passive partner that he is considered to be a homosexual. Among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, where the conception of the human body is rooted in bodily fluids, same-sex intercourse isn't even considered sexual but is a ritual of maturation. Within this system, as Gilbert Herdt's research demonstrates, adult men are believed to be created through male elders' constant insemination of boys.
The cross-cultural evidence produced by anthropologists is a powerful argument against the notion that there is a single human body whose blueprint is invariant across history and culture. Evolutionary psychologists may argue that patterns of mate selection, gender differences, and even ideals of beauty are universally inscribed in human genes, but most contemporary biological and social scientists believe that whatever the role of biology—and many consider that role significant—it never manifests itself in pure form, untouched by the guiding, shaping, and disciplining hand of culture. Even such pheno-typical results of the genetic code as human height, stature, weight, as well as physiological processes such as sexual orgasm and the onset and cessation of menstruation are more responsive to the socioculturally determined physical environment than was previously thought.
Many psychologists and biologists, too, now believe that genetic determinism does not square with the facts of human physiology. The human brain is extremely large; thus if humans are to squeeze out of their mothers while it is still possible to get through, most of the neural maturation must occur after birth. In the first two years of life, the brain fixes countless synapses it didn't have at birth, while weeding out many others. Which connections are reinforced and which atrophy is the result of the infant's (unavoidably cultural) experience, not inalterable hardwiring that maintains its timeless demands regardless of the particularities of environment and upbringing.
Politics Re-Conceives the Body
Environment and upbringing, of course, include patterns of social inequality. A new attention, not merely to the shaping and disciplining hand of culture, but to the body's role in the maintenance of (and resistance to) the inequalities of gender, race, class, and sexuality was a keynote of the political, social, and intellectual movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Black Power, Women's Liberation, and the politics of the body.
For example, Black Power, a movement that raised consciousness of racist aesthetics and ignited the "Black is Beautiful" philosophy, extended the conception of racial politics to include the body. Until the emergence of Black Power, the struggle for civil rights in the United States had focused on legal obstacles to equality. But Stokely Carmichael and others insisted that this was not sufficient, that blacks must reclaim the cultural heritage and pride that slavery had robbed from them, that they must decolonize their bodies and souls. As people became aware that racism had left its imprints on the body as well as on social institutions, that then-dominant standards of beauty—light skin, blue eyes, straight hair, narrow noses—were as much an expression of white dominance as "whites only" drinking fountains and bathrooms, allowing one's hair to go "natural" began to be seen as a political act.
Taking their cue from Black Power, early second-wave feminists (or women's liberationists, as they were then called) began to redefine the gendered body in political rather than biological terms. The 1950s had been rife with ideology about woman's nature, true femininity, and the horrible consequences of deviance from them. In the late-1960s, these notions, and their bodily accoutrements—speaking softly, moving gracefully, deodorizing, plucking, shaving, and decorating the body to appeal to men—began to be seen as training in subservience and central to the social production of gender. "In our culture," wrote Andrea Dworkin in 1974, "not one part of a woman's body is left untouched, unaltered. No feature or extremity is spared the art, or pain, of improvement." This constant requirement to modify and enhance one's body, she went on to argue, is not merely cosmetic, but disciplinary, as it prescribes "the relationship that an individual will have to her own body … her motility, spontaneity, posture, gait, the uses to which she can put her body." Anticipating both Foucault's description of "docile" bodies and later feminist arguments about the "performative" nature of gender, she described "the experience of being a woman" as a "construct" and a "caricature" created not by nature, but arising out of the habitual practices of femininity (pp. 113–114).
This was a pivotal moment in the history of the idea of the body, and hardly confined to Dworkin's work. Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes had collectively created the metaphor of "the body politic," comparing the state to a human body, with different organs symbolizing different functions, forces, and so on. Authors such as Dworkin, Germaine Greer (whose book The Female Eunuch  was the first systematic exploration of the social construction of the female body), Anne Koedt, Shulamith Firestone, Angela Davis, Mary Daly, Barbara Omolade, and Adrienne Rich collectively inverted the metaphor, imagining the female body as itself a politically inscribed entity, its physiology and morphology shaped by histories and practices of containment and control—from foot-binding and corseting to rape and battering to compulsory heterosexuality, forced sterilization, unwanted pregnancy, and the gender-specific abuses of racism and slavery. The "politics of the body" was born.
Gender and the body: from Beauvoir to Butler.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was the first philosopher to insert gender into discussions about the body, connecting the social subordination of woman to the cultural associations and practices that tie women to the body, weighed down and imprisoned by her physiology (while men imagine they can transcend their own biology and physicality to commune with pure ideas). The association of woman with nature and body—particularly reproductive processes—became an important theme of early feminist theory throughout the disciplines. Some of the most influential contributions include Susan Griffith's Woman and Nature (1978), Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), and anthropologist Sherry Ortner's "Is Woman to Man as Nature Is to Culture?" (1974). Ortner argued that menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and breastfeeding are biological processes that everywhere in the world tie women to nature in ways that male biology and physiology do not. Hence cultures everywhere interpret women as closer to nature than men. Because people universally value culture over nature, men are thereby awarded more prestige than women.
Ultimately such notions were challenged in the 1980s and 1990s, as feminist anthropologists turned their attention to the myriad ways that women's (and men's) reproductive biology and physiology have been interpreted through different "webs of significance" (to use Geertz's phrase) throughout the world. Their projects reflected an "anti-essentializing" turn in feminist thought that became a unifying project among postmodern feminist scholars throughout the disciplines, skeptical of generalizations about gender and more attuned to the variable cultural structures and assumptions through which human bodies are perceived, experienced, and socially organized.
"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," wrote Simone de Beauvoir in 1952 (p. 301). In retrospect, one can see much of feminist thought since the early 1970s as an elaboration of this idea, from early-second-wave writings on the socialization of Western women—Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran's path-breaking Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (1971)—to feminist anthropologists' more global perspectives on gender symbolism and sex-role organization, to bell hooks's protests against white-biased assumptions about womanhood, to Iris Young's studies on the phenomenology of female embodiment, to Judith Butler's enormously influential work on the performative nature of gender.
Butler's work was not entirely original. Both Erving Goffman and other feminists had articulated what were essentially performative theories of gender—the notion that there is no stable, essential reality behind the (culturally constructed) acts that constitute gender identities. But by crystallizing, elaborately theorizing, and attaching a set of specific technical terms to ideas that had been in the air for some time, Butler seized a moment that was ripe for being marked as a new turn in feminist and postmodern theory. She also pushed anti-essentialism and social constructionism one step further than others, arguing that not just gender but biological sex has no "core" reality. For Butler, the illusion of such a core—the belief that sexual bodies have a "natural" heterosexual configuration—is itself produced by constant repetition of the bodily gestures and practices that create sexual identity. For Butler, not only are man and woman "made" by cultural discourse and practice, but so, too, is the illusion of their biological reality.
The body as symbol of society: Mary Douglas.
Until the 1960s, philosophers, cultural theorists, and anthropologists had incorporated observations, perspectives on, and ideas about the body in their work. But it is only in the 1960s and 1970s that the body itself became a focus of systematic theorizing. A foundational figure in this development was Mary Douglas, who introduced the notion of the body as a system of "natural symbols" that metaphorically reproduce social categories and concerns—an "image of society" (1970, p. 98). So, for example, when societies are under external attack, the maintenance of rules governing what belongs inside and outside the body becomes especially strict. Or—a different kind of example—"a natural way of investing a social occasion with dignity is to hide organic processes" (1970, p. 12). Hence important social occasions dictate that the body be held stiffly, the limbs and hands under careful control. And in general, manners and etiquette require the conscious withholding of bodily excreta: It is impolite to spit, fart, burp, laugh out loud, or to interrupt conversation with such involuntary expulsions as sneezing, coughing, and runny noses.
Underlying the use of the body as a social metaphor, Douglas argued, is a pan-human need for order, achieved by culturally classifying and systematizing objects, including persons, events, and activities, and by instituting routines. Having established those classifications and routines, people avoid all ambiguous or anomalous objects, states, events, and activities because they interpret them as disorderly and polluting. Douglas coined the phrase, "dirt is matter out of place" to mean that "dirt is a by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter" (1966, p. 35). Thus what any human culture considers to be dirt is a function of that culture's particular system and what is considered to be outside and inside its established boundaries.
The theory has broad application, not least of which is to human bodies. An excellent example is the application of her general theory of pollution to the margins of the human body. Douglas argues that everywhere, the boundaries of the body are imbued with heightened metaphorical potency—people react to them intensely; they are "loaded." This includes hair, the bodily lining itself, the skin, as well as all the bodily orifices—the mouth, nose, tear ducts, anus, vagina, and others—and all the bodily wastes that pass through that bodily lining or boundary—such as sweat, tears, saliva, menstrual blood, and semen.
In her earlier work, Douglas concluded that all such bodily marginal phenomena are universally interpreted as defiling. Later (1970) she revised this to a more neutral position, maintaining that they contain enhanced metaphorical potential, but, depending on sociocultural context, they are either heightened to sacred valuation or else denigrated as polluting. It is this latter, more versatile position that has proved most attractive to later anthropologists. For example, feminists later pointed out that the widespread taboos segregating menstruating women may in some cultures be due to an interpretation of menstrual blood as signifying the power of fertility, rather than a polluting substance (see especially Buckley and Gottlieb).
The social management of bodies: Bourdieu and Foucault.
By viewing the body as a text on which societal taboos and values are symbolically inscribed, Douglas's symbolic structuralism focuses on the reproduction of static rules rather than the production of human subjects whose bodies are experienced, trained, and regulated in very particular, practical ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, this emphasis changed, as anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), systematizing what in many ways was already implied in feminist body politics, shifted attention to the social "disciplining" of the body.
Bourdieu's emphasis was on what he called "practice"—the everyday habits by means of which the body is inculcated with cultural knowledge. Banally through "the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners," culture is "made body," as Bourdieu puts it—converted into automatic, habitual activity. As such, it is put "beyond the grasp of consciousness," where it exercises "the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy … through injunctions as insignificant as 'stand up straight'" (p. 94).
Michel Foucault brought both practice and power onto center stage in contemporary theory. His work on sexuality, gender deviance, madness, and punishment historicizes the changing ways in which people are disciplined to conform to their culture, from the public torture and gallows of the middle ages, to today's largely unconscious self-monitoring and policing of one's own body. Foucault emphasizes that in the modern and postmodern world, people no longer need physical manipulation by centralized authorities in order to create socially disciplined bodies. Rather the spatial and temporal organization of institutions such as prisons, hospitals, and schools, and the practices and categories of knowledge—for example, ideas about what constitutes sickness and health—create norms (gender and sexuality among them) that work on individuals "from below": not chiefly through coercion, but through individual self-surveillance and self-correction. Thus, as Foucault writes, "there is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze … which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point where he is his own overseer" (Foucault, 1977, p. 155).
Foucault's model has been influential throughout the disciplines, inspiring many writers to perform their own genealogies of various historical discourses and practices relating to the regulation of sexuality and health. Queer theory has developed, in large part, from his historicization and denaturalization of heterosexual norms. Feminist cultural theorists such as Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo find Foucault's model of self-surveillance useful for the analysis of femininity, so much of which is reproduced "from below," through self-normalization to cultural ideals of the perfect face and body. For Bordo, Foucault's notion of power was an ally, too, in the development of a model of gender that discards the notion of men as oppressors in favor of an emphasis on systems of power within which people are all enmeshed. This rejection of an oppressor/oppressed model has been salient in the emergence of third-wave feminist theory, as well as recent attention to the male body and masculine acculturation. Postmodern theorists have seized on Foucault's ideas about resistance—"where there is power, there is also resistance," he wrote in his later work (1978, p. 95)—to support studies in the instability of culture and the role of human agency.
The Body in the Early Twenty-First Century
Bodily life in the early twenty-first century is full of contradictions. On the one hand, people appear freer than ever to become individual artisans of the physicality that they present to the world; virtually everything, from the shape of one's noses to one's sexual morphology, can be changed. On the other hand, as Western imagery and surgical technology, deployed throughout the world, makes slender, youthful beauty a global ideal, the choices seem less expressions of individuality than self-correction to standardized (and often racialized) cultural norms.
Increasingly medical technology has become an extension of human bodies, which are now subject to extensive intervention in order to repair malfunctioning organs, to prolong male sexual functioning, to facilitate conception, to determine fetal sex and to avoid genetic defects, to ensure pregnancy to term, and to determine when and how birth and death takes place. The benefits of this technology to alleviate human suffering and extend human choice seem undeniable. However the sweeping dominion of what Foucault called "biopower" has raised questions for which there are not yet clear answers, as many fundamental assumptions about the body are being physically, metaphorically, and ethically challenged.
When adults insist on gender reassignment surgery, are they realizing long-sought-for gendered identities or are they falling victim to the tyranny of genitalia as gender designation? When hearts, livers, and kidneys are implanted in needy persons from brain-dead donors, are some essences of the latter thereby perpetuated? How does such organ transfer influence Western constructions of the body as the sharply bounded sanctuary of the highly individuated self? When a child today can have five parents—genetic mother, surrogate mother, nurturing mother, genetic father and nurturing father—how is kinship relatedness constructed? When bodies can be perpetuated indefinitely on life-support machinery, where and when does life, and by extension one's body, end? The body, clearly, will always be an unfinished concept in the history of ideas.
See also Biology ; Death ; Dress ; Feminism ; Fetishism ; Gender ; Life ; Life Cycle ; Person, Idea of the ; Sexuality .
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