In today’s class we a) did awesome with all this heavy embodied thinking b) started with some of the principal ways in which Western philosophical traditions have shaped contemporary conceptions of the body. We unpacked how these historical conceptions hold an insidious role in society, our everyday lives and are embedded in the language we use. This includes: “stop acting like such a guy; she’s moody and acting irrational, she must be on her period.”
We explored how “the status of the body within the dominant Western intellectual tradition has largely been one of absence or dismissal.” Despite the body providing the very “stuff” of life, theory has “proceeded as though the body itself is of no account, and that the thinking subject is in effect disembodied, able to operate in terms of pure mind alone.” This is due to specific philosophical forces —Plato, Aristotle, and Christianity—that have promoted somatophobia and the mind/body split.
Cartesianism by separating the mind from the body, separated the mind from nature and the world, and established a scientific discourse premised on detachment, rationality and objectivity (male), leaving corporeality (the body) as subjective, and irrational, uncontrolled (female). The attempt to get rid of the (complexity of the) body echoes the beginnings of image-based technologies with the experiments of Etienne-Jules Marey and Edward Muybridge.
Three thinkers —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler— provide different but related answers to the chokehold of the mind/body dualism in Western thought. Phenomenology, the study of lived experience, illustrates that the mind and body cannot be split and consciousness cannot be separated from nature/environment. A living thing is always exchanging matter with its environment. It depends on this exchange. This is what it makes it living – its active dependance upon the environment, “Doing” is what is required “to be”. So we can suggest that Instead of I think, therefore I am, we can argue for I do, therefore I am. Doing is crucial, as the body must be understood by what it can do — the body’s capacity to affect and be affected. In other words, have an effect on / produce an effect on, and be influenced or touched by external factors. Grosz tells us that “the body must be seen as a series of processes of becoming rather than a fixed state of being.” If we define the body in this way – we don’t hold an a priori knowledge of what it is capable. This is crucial in undoing the kinds of oppressive biologically determinant justifications we have of bodies – such Eugenics / forced sterilization.
Judith Butler provides us with a language to attempt to undermine and undo these oppressive biologically determinant justifications of bodies. The justification of the hierarchy of bodies place men (of the mind) above women (of the body). Butler argues that processes that conceive the body are limited by regulatory norms, such as the ‘tyranny of thinness’. In this way, matter matters. It is our bodies and their materiality that are at stake to be oppressed by ideology. Such as racist discourse espousing black bodies as ‘dangerous‘. It is their materiality (their skin) that is then read as dangerous. She also explains that your gender/identity is what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are —gender is a performance. Ideology (the organization and management of power relations) produces the body.
The identity may appear to be written on the body, it is because we are constantly performing those identities. Since they are not fixed, they are always on the verge of slippage, and as such we have to constantly re-enact, repeat and orient towards them—the partners we have, the way we style our hair, the way we approach/judge others, our makeup, our speech, our intonations, which can all change meaning over time. A certain style of dress now denotes and connotes different meanings than it did 50 years ago. This means that we are constantly performing our identities, and therefore hold the power to perform them in resistant and opposing ways. However, we must recognize that certain bodies have more privilege/access to shapeshift their identities than others.
We also analyzed a Louie clip in which Louie is questioned for his way of positing a particular a priori identity on a body, which is a result of what Susan Bordo calls “the tyranny of thinness”.
Questions to Consider
- Descartes argues that impersonality is equivalent to objectivity, and that more detached the person is from something, the more objective they can be. A type of belief that has penetrated all forms of discourse. What are some examples that refute that argument?
- What is at stake for bodies that make art?
- Think to an example when you judged a person based on their bodily features. Interrogate that feeling without trying to dismiss it.
- We spoke a lot today about the mind / body split and its way of mapping onto other binaries such as male / female. How do new modes of being and gender identity complicate these binaries? What are some ways we can undo gender binaries in our everyday lives?
- In class, we brought up the idea that our mind takes precedence when we are engaging in activity on the internet and this is a kind of mind/body split. How can we argue that the utopia of the disembodied subject in cyberspace is false?