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The Body

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.


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Susan Bordo

Monica Udvardy

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Bilateral symmetry to Boolean algebraThe Body - A Brief Tour Of Western Dualism From Plato To Plastic Surgery, The Mind Embodied, Culturally Variable Bodies