October 6, 2003

The culture of the body

Dalia Judovitz is National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of French and Italian.

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 body’s 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 thing.

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, virtual reality.

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 Gober’s essay “Mrs. Bradley’s 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 wife’s 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 and protocol.

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 dream—or, rather, nightmare—in 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 body—in its demeanor, diet or physiology—instead 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.

Nietzsche’s call for relocating the notion of culture in the body reiterated Michel Montaigne’s emphasis in the 16th century on the “culture of the body”—the 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 embodiment—becoming 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 body’s 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. Montaigne’s 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 body’s 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 tangible—in fantasy, dreams or art, for example—it brings representation within the purview of the body’s 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-taigne’s 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 of becoming.

It is Descartes’s 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 body’s 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.