A popular theoretical concept in the humanities in recent years, ‘the body’ is not just a lived reality but a concept. We have labelled this thing we observe in the mirror, this collection of organic matter and intangible thought. How and why we do this, I would like to suggest, is an important underlying question for all who study humans, their impact in the world, and their interactions with each other, in any field of study, and through any scholarly frame.
Margrit Shildrick, the disabilities studies scholar, asks us to consider ‘all bodies to be discursively constructed rather than given.” [i] But what does that mean? Well, I think Sherryl Vint lays it out neatly for us when she states that there is no one ‘body’, one concept that we can study and philosophise on, because “there are only various bodies differentiated by endless permutations of race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, geographical location and any other category we use to discipline and value bodies.” [ii] The theoretical body is too often viewed as some neutral, some unreal ideal, that can be endlessly conceptualised, and reconceptualised. But this stance ignores the lived reality of us all, and does a great disservice to those who have worked so hard to make race, gender, and sexuality visible and present in our thinking about our bodies in culture.
As it is the international day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, on May 17th, I wanted to raise this because the idea that there is some norm against which we should measure people, or some neutral 'humanity' that can be universalised, is at heart what enables prejudice – whether deliberate or present in implicit bias. This affects us all in every area of our studies. There is no universal experience of being human, there is no universal experience of being a woman, there is no universal experience of being queer. There are only endless possibilities and a vast range of experiences. This is, I believe, the exciting heart of the humanities; engaging with the scope of what it means, has meant, can mean, will mean, might mean, to be human. If we start to set definite limits to this, then we limit what we can discover.
Nikolas Rose observes that, if embodiment is in fact essential to an understanding of subjectivity, then the universalised, naturalised, and rational subject envisioned by the Enlightenment philosophers is “an erroneous and troublesome” construct.[iii] Let’s treat it like the problem that it is, and interrogate it thoroughly when we encounter it in our studies, our activism, and our lives.
[i] Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. (London: Sage, 2002), p.4
[ii] Sherryl Vint, Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction, (London: University of Toronto Press, 2007)
[iii] Nikolas Rose, Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power and Personhood, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.7