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The Body

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 [1970] 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.

Additional topics

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