Writing in the first half of the 17th century, René
Descartes radically transformed Western notions of the human body
and its significance. Prior to Descartes, the body was considered
a microcosm of the larger cosmological order. Composed by the interplay
and balance of four humors (an idea dating back to Galen), the bodys
fluid complexion was shaped by the forces and movements of the cosmos.
Descartes ideas, however, gave rise to a culture we now inhabit,
in which the body is sundered from the fabric of the world. Anatomically
redefined in terms of the circulation of blood (which no longer
mirrors the circuit of celestial bodies), the body is technologically
resynthesized as a machine and philosophically reduced to a material
The preeminence Descartes granted to rational consciousness severed
the reality of the body from its subjective and worldly existence,
reducing the body to a material, mechanical thing. It redefined
the body as an automaton understood only in terms of an idealized,
This technological legacy of Cartesian philosophy is most visible
today in the development of computerized modes of virtualization
that replace the living body with mechanical and thus inhuman analogs.
As a result, the materiality of the body is no longer constituted
by its unpredictable encounters with the world, but rather by
its reification as an object of knowledge.
Carla Gobers essay Mrs. Bradleys Body, in
the April/May 2003 issue of the Academic Exchange, offers
a striking example of how, in its quest for facilitating knowledge
and technological inquiry, medical science has, since Descartes,
stripped the body of meaningful signs of life experience and the
passage of time.
She recounts her experience as a nurse working with a patient who
had been in an automobile accident with his wife, who had died in
the wreck. The wifes body was immediately taken from the hospital
for cremation. When the husband regained consciousness, his one
request was to have the body brought to him so that he could see
it. The request met with tremendous resistance within hospital customs
Gober portrays a medical culture that assumes the body is something
to be discarded immediately once it is dead. That the body might
hold significance beyond its rational function is an almost alien
concept in the hospital.
It could be argued that our culture appears to have done away with
the body altogether by replacing it with various artificial or virtual
analogs whose logic erases the boundaries between the human and
the machine. It seems as if we are still caught up in the Cartesian
dreamor, rather, nightmarein which the body, reduced
to an automaton by the dominance of the mind, seeks to reclaim its
elusive attachment to human life.
The meanings attached to the body in our culture have been silenced
so decisively that they can only come to haunt us in the guise of
specters. While this Cartesian legacy has proven decisive for defining
our contemporary understanding of the body, it fails to tell us
how to address the body other than as an appendage to the mind.
How can we listen to and read the body, in order to understand the
worldly limitations that define it, through habit, custom, sickness
and pain, as well as pleasure?
Three centuries after Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to
reclaim the primacy of the lived body as the necessary locus of
culture by demanding that culture be inaugurated in the bodyin
its demeanor, diet or physiologyinstead of the soul. He called
for a return to a notion of culture grounded in the body.
In doing so, he attempted to recover precisely what philosophy,
beginning with Plato and especially since Descartes, had removed
from its own purview by positing the priority of reason. Nietzsche
urged a reengagement with the body through a radical reconsideration
of its philosophical and theological presuppositions in order to
reveal its modes of embodiment and, consequently, its ways of being.
Challenging the dominance of the mind or soul over the body, he
demanded an inquiry into the construction of the body, its cultivation
as a representation of culture.
Nietzsches call for relocating the notion of culture in the
body reiterated Michel Montaignes emphasis in the 16th century
on the culture of the bodythe deliberate cultivation
of the body as a function of experience, time and changing modes
of representation. Like Montaigne, Nietzsche argued for an understanding
that privileges embodimentbecoming rather than being. These
attempts to valorize the body as a function of culture seek to retrieve
its eviscerated corporeality by reinscribing its materiality and
cultivation within the fabric of the world.
Although considered to be most private and intimate, our bodies
bear extensively the imprint of our society and culture. Before
Descartes posited his argument for the supposed mastery of reason
over the body, Montaigne noted that custom and habit have imperceptibly,
yet decisively, imprinted their characters upon us, thereby defining
the bodys complexion. His claim challenged the seductive myth
that Descartes later originated. At the very moment we attempt to
experience the body in its most intimate sense through personal
and private habits and gestures, we find that the body has already
been scripted through the repeated force of social and cultural
practices. Montaignes legacy, however, also suggests that
the force of custom and habit is only provisional.
So the body speaks, even as its complexion has been
already scripted through custom and habit. But what does the body
say when it speaks? Does it have a voice,
a particular tone or tenor? Giving voice to desire and appetites
through experience, the bodys authority challenges the institutions
that attempt to devalue and regulate it.
In the case of illness, for instance, the remedy may be more of
a nuisance than the disease. If, as Montaigne noted, the disease
pinches us on one side and the rule on the other, at the risk of
making a mistake, let us risk it in the pursuit of pleasure. Echoing
the wisdom of antiquity, he reiterated the authority of desire.
His affirmation that the body should be governed by principles founded
on pleasure, rather than discomfort or pain, makes explicit his
effort to rehabilitate the experiential aspects of the lived body.
But the body in question here is more expansive than the physical
body. To speak about desire and pleasure means to speak about the
body both as experienced and as imagined. Insofar as imagination
makes desire tangiblein fantasy, dreams or art, for exampleit
brings representation within the purview of the bodys materiality.
The attempt to speak about desire in our culture inevitably brings
into view the question of sexual difference. In this context it
is useful to consider Mon-taignes comment that males and females
are cast in the same mold, and that except for education and custom,
the difference is not great.
His observation reverberates for us today with increased relevance.
The reversibility he ascribed to the two sexes is not to be understood
as a denial of sexual difference. Instead of physical difference,
he noted the difference made by education and custom in the cultivation
of sexuality. Insofar as embodiment implies the possibility of assuming
multiple positions within representation, it explains the differences
at play in the notion of sexuality. If sexual identity is fluid
in terms of gender determinations, this is because corporeality
is provisional upon its modes of materialization. Understanding
the logic of sexuality as a cultural construction opens up the notion
of sexuality to multiple determinations to an intersexual horizon
It is Descartess reduction of the body to a mechanical thing
devoid of experiential and historical reality that bequeathed to
modernity an understanding of the body that has ceased to be a culture.
The mechanization and ultimate spectralization of the body eviscerated
corporeality of the contingency of its multiple embodiments. More
importantly, it voided the possibilities of attending to the bodys
cultivation, to its management in order to enjoy life
To locate the notion of culture in the body is to recover the historical
meanings of culture as cultivation, as the care given to the rearing,
growth and development of the body.
This article appeared in the September 2003 Academic Exchange
and is reprinted with permission.