The Body ReaderReview - The Body Reader
Essential Social and Cultural Readings
by Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore
NYU Press, 2010
Review by Edyta J. Kuzian
Oct 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 42)

The attention on the body has been growing in the academic discourse over the last years, and The Body Reader, edited by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, contributes to it greatly. It presents an interdisciplinary exploration of why the body should matter in an academic discourse and attempts to develop a proper conceptual framework for assessing its significance.

At the outset, the body is defined as "(...) the medium or raw material through which we navigate the world" and also "invested with meanings." (p. 1) An ambitious attempt of theorizing from the perspective of the lived body, as opposed to treating the body as a mere social construct, this book focuses on the following question: if the body is a site of the 'performance of the self and identity,' what then can we learn from looking at different embodiments about the relationship of the body to one's own and others shaping of identities. The essays are grouped into four major discussions, 'Vulnerable Bodies' (Part I), 'Bodies as Mediums' (Part II), 'Extraordinary Bodies' (Part III) and 'Bodies and Media' (Part IV), which exhaustively bring forward accounts of the significance that illness, organ transplantation, tattooing, plastic surgery, prosthesis, and bodily involuntary acts have for shaping thinking about the body.

'Vulnerable Bodies' offers an array of essays of phenomenological accounts of bodies in illness, laboring, sexually abused and even dead bodies. Arthur Frank in his "The Body's Problem's with Illness" suggests a conceptual framework in which to discuss the body. He proposes to look at the body in the relationship to self and its environment and distinguishes four types of relation: bodies defined by relations of control, body-relatedness, other-relatedness and desire. As he suggests, these relations of the body correspond to the range of body types respectively: the disciplined body, the mirroring body, the dominating body and the communicative one. The author is careful to note that these conceptual distinctions serve merely as descriptions of some empirical tendencies, but nevertheless one might find them helpful in reading the essays that follow.  

  'Bodies as Mediums' invokes the McLuhanian thesis that 'the medium is the message' to explore the body as both having a cultural content (being an agent) and bearing cultural significance (having an identity). The view of agency is that which is formed by the practices that shape us culturally and echoes Judith Butler's view of the performative body: we choose what social role we enact. Here one finds accounts of the bodies exposed to extreme physical practices of inducing pleasure or pain (tattooing, suspending one's body by the skin, drugged bodies, and bodies of cosmetic surgery). This part stands out as the most interesting for cultural anthropologists, for it tells stories of what it means to follow, or not, some of the social routines that stigmatize the body. For one of the most striking accounts I would suggest Jason Pine's article on "Embodied Capitalism and the Meth Economy", which looks into the economic mechanisms and entanglement of the bodies in the methamphetamine production in the rural areas of the American Midwest. 

'Extraordinary Bodies' focuses on the impoverished bodies, or bodies which betray us in involuntary action. This part seems to pose a direct question to the previous section. If 'Bodies as Mediums' suggests that we can freely choose the practices that shape our body as in order to associate ourselves with certain social groups or movements, this part examines how much are we not in control of what we do with our bodies. Lisa Jean Moore's essay, "Incongruent Bodies: Teaching While Leaking", nicely exemplifies this challenge.  She suggests that by revealing our bodies as vulnerable we can demystify and reconstruct our identity. If the question of agency hinges on how our body is represented, this part looks into what determines who we are.   

There is no clear conceptual transition to 'Bodies and Media', which forms the last part of the reader. This section investigates bodies as they are represented in mainstream media and its influence over the production of norms of beauty and of the cultural identities. This part addresses both the questions posed in the second and third sections, with a focus on the dangers of the mainstream production of norms governing the body.

Much of the overarching conceptual agenda of the editors of The Body Reader suggests a new platform different from the Cartesian dualism where the body can be translated, and assumes that by demystifying physiognomy and more specifically physiology (like in Lisa Jean Moore's "Incongruent Bodies: Teaching While Leaking"), by showing our bodies bare, we can not only deconstruct or reconstruct our identities, but introduce the lived body is into an academic discourse. The problem with the Cartesian dualism signalized in the introduction never finds a satisfying explanation, and the reader might not fully grasp the stakes of the arguments to follow and why in the first place should we avoid the evils of dualism when talking about the body. Instead, the pursuit shifts its focus onto 'revealing' the body through its functions and shows how bodily stigma influence one's socially constructed identity. The attempt to give an account of the lived body results in another constructivist account of the body as a material substratum of social inscription.

 

© 2011 Edyta J. Kuzian

 

Edyta J. Kuzian, New School for Social Research, New York


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