Body in Cultural Studies

Until recently, the body has been either ignored or made marginal in philosophical, political and cultural theory. Thus, in philosophy, human agency and the identity of the person were traditionally seen to lie in the mind. The mind (or soul) was permanent and, in its rationality, was the source of all our knowledge. A key philosophical problem (for example from the writings of Descartes in the seventeenth century onwards) was the relationship of the mind to the body. A few thinkers, especially within the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century empiricist tradition of British philosophy (such as David Hume), could be seen to be making something of the human body by recognising that our experience of the world entirely depends upon our bodily sense organs. However, even this potential was stifled by emphasising sight and hearing as the sources of knowledge. The more obviously bodily senses of smell, taste and touch are sidelined, and so too are the implications that they have for our practical engagement with the world through our bodies. At the end of the eighteenth century, Kant demonstrates the problematic status of the senses in his Critique of Judgement (1987). On the one hand he argues that it is only as both rational and sensual (or embodied) creatures that we can experience the pleasure of beauty (as opposed to the purely rational delight in the morally good, or the purely physical agreeableness of food and drink). On the other hand, beauty rests in sight and hearing, not in touch, smell and taste.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Marx’s view of human beings as fundamentally beings that transform and create their own environment through labour offers some awareness of embodiment. It is perhaps only in American pragmatism, at the end of the nineteenth century, that the importance of the embodied, practical experience of the world is given thorough and rigorous treatment in philosophy. It is here that the importance of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, carried in the habitual skill and competence with which we use our bodies to manipulate and test the world, comes to the fore. In the twentieth century, this perspective is developed in Heidegger’s work, for example in his concepts of ‘ready–to–hand’ and ‘present–at–hand’ (1962:102–7). Normally, objects are used unthinkingly. While a tool works, we do not worry about it. When it fails, we step back and question and examine it. Thus, we acquire conscious, theoretical knowledge of the world, only when the world trips us up practically. Against Descartes’s assumptions, we cannot gain knowledge through merely reflecting on the world. We need a reason to reflect upon it, and that reason comes only through a bodily engagement. Thus Heidegger, like the pragmatists and even David Hume, introduces the body into philosophical thought by directly criticising the way in which Descartes does philosophy. Heidegger further emphasises the necessity of the body—along with all its contingencies—to our selfunderstanding as human beings in the demand that we must accept that we are mortal. The Heideggerian approach was influential on the development of French phenomenology, particularly in the analysis of ‘flesh’ by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (again beginning from the argument that consciousness is embodied in a particular world) (1962), and Jean-Paul Sartre (not least in his spectacular analysis of torture, as the attempt to capture and possess the freedom of the victim within his or her flesh) (1958:303–59).


In Western political theory, the body is again ignored until recently. Liberalism, for example, adopts a model of human being that stresses rationality. As such, it is the human intellect that matters. Indeed, the unrestrained pursuit of bodily desires may be theorised as a threat to political order. In addition, liberalism tends to assume a series of more or less implicit dichotomies. Reason is set against unreason, mind against body, and male against female. Liberalism’s traditional blindness to gender difference, and to the exclusion of women from politics, may in part be understood through this association of reason, mind and masculinity.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the revival of liberal theory through the work of John Rawls (1972), there also came a new criticism of liberalism from the communitarians. In this line of argument, Michael Sandel (1982) is critical of Rawls (and thus contemporary liberalism) precisely because the Rawlsian model of human beings is disembodied and disembedded. That is to say that Rawls artificially abstracts human beings from the bodily and cultural experiences that form them as the particular beings they are. In effect, Rawls is accused of assuming that the human being, as a rational personality capable of choice, exists prior to its embodied life in a particular community. Sandel argues that the very ability to choose and to hold values, and to be aware of ourselves as individuals, comes only from bodily experience, and cannot exist prior to it.

In cultural theory, there is a significant literature on the nude as a core subject matter of Western art. In part, this literature comes from the orthodox approach of a cultural historian, such as Clarke’s analysis of the idealisation of the body according to historically varying cultural norms (1956). More recently feminists and others (such as John Berger (1972)) have placed the nude in a political context, in order to question the ascription of intrinsic aesthetic value to it as part of the patriarchal or ideological structure of power in Western culture (Diprose 1994; Grosz 1994; Irigaray 1985a).

The understanding of the body develops in cultural studies through the recognition of the body as a site of meaning. A semiotic approach may be taken to the body Umberto Eco’s characterisation of the body as a ‘communication machine’ is telling (1986). The body is not simply there, as a brute fact of nature, but is incorporated into culture. The body is indeed a key site at which culture and cultural identity is expressed and articulated, through clothing, jewellery and other decoration and through the shaping of the body itself (through tattoos, hair styles, body-building and dieting, for example). It is through the body that individuals can conform to or resist the cultural expectations imposed upon them. Sociology has thus been able to turn to the analysis of ‘body-centred practices’ (see Turner 1984). Foucault’s analysis of the development of the prison system and state punishment focuses on the body as the subject of discipline (1977a). Crucially, the body is shaped and disciplined through systems of surveillance, either actual surveillance or surveillance that is imagined to be occurring. Analysis of the body can therefore increasingly see it as a product of social constraint and construction (which is a theme also found in Goffman’s work), or of the languages and discourses within which it is discussed and analysed (as, for example, in the languages of medical science, psychiatry and criminology).


Source: Edgar, Andrew, and Peter R Sedgwick. Cultural Theory The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.


Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: