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“We are and we are not our bodies.” - Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Definition and Context
In contrast to the Cartesian mind-body dualism that suggests the life of the mind and the life of the body are two distinct entities—in which life of the mind is considered more important than the life of the body—the concept of embodiment conceives of the body as absolutely central to our existence in the world. Theories of the body suggest that the lived bodies we inhabit affect our self-identity and beingness in the world, thereby affecting our experiences, belief systems, and worldviews. In other words, it is impossible to experience the world without our bodies! Through this lens, the body is not simply a biological object that is acted upon, but an interface through which we interact with the world. Rather than posing the body as something to be “overcome,” concepts of embodiment find value in the lived experience of the body.
Theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz historicize this dismissal of the body by suggesting that Western culture has been steeped in a deep “somatophobia,” or fear of the body, that dates back to ancient Greece (5). Within this mind-body dualism, the sentient (feeling) body is viewed as a hindrance to logic and rational thought. In fact, in Volatile Bodies (1994), Grosz goes as far as to suggest that “philosophy as we know it has established itself as a forming of knowing, a form of rationality, only through the disavowal of the body, specifically the male body, and the corresponding elevation of mind as a disembodied term” (4). This is a problem for Grosz on many fronts. One of her main issues with this view is that it devalues the experiences of people who are not encased in male bodies, in addition to discounting perception and emotion as fundamental to a three-dimensional understanding of human existence.
While certain theories and philosophies continue to downplay the importance of the body, other fields of knowledge locate the body at the center of their fields of inquiry. For example, the centrality of the body as a site of knowledge is deeply important to the disciplinary fields of sociology (the study of social behaviors and society) and anthropology (the study of peoples and cultures). Within these fields of study, the body is considered the focal point through which cultural norms and stigmas are played out. These bodies of thought are rooted in a phenomenological framework that reject an artificial separation between mind and body.
Theories of Embodiment
Social theorists, particularly those in gender studies, ethnic studies, and critical race studies, also position the body as an essential component of study. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, in addition to The Combahee River Collective Statement, were foundational texts in framing contemporary social theorists’ understanding that it’s not just “the body” that is important to understanding human existence, but bodies in their specificities and multiplicities. In other words, there is no neutral, one-size-fits-all body upon which theories of embodiment are founded. One cannot talk about a “woman’s body” without also discussing race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, nationality, etc. This is because what it means to be “woman” cannot be separated out from the unique social matrix that accounts for all of our self-identities and embodied experiences!
In fact, because it is the white male body that is considered the “default” body in Western culture (as Grosz reminds us), it is not enough to consider the specificities of bodies on an equal playing field; we must also consider them in relation to institutions of power. Because not all bodies are given equal power, or social capital, in society, and we must attend to what the cultural norms are that determine which bodies are viewed as more valuable, and therefore allotted more privilege, in any given society. This is what French theorist Michel Foucault refers to as biopolitics, the practice in which certain bodies and lives are granted more cultural worth than others. How such value is determined is connected with Foucault’s concept of docile bodies. To articulate this concept he argues that contemporary Western society increasingly regulates the body and treats it like a machine. In this sense, the body is “subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (136) to better uphold the cultural norms of the dominant society. This governance of the body is another reason why studies of embodiment matter—if the body has become a central mechanism of societal manipulation and control, then it is vital we understand how and why the body “means” in a myriad of social contexts.
Of course, concepts of embodiment are not only concerned with the “natural,” biological body. Increasingly, body theorists are interested in how technology changes our embodied experiences. In her germinal essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1991), Donna Haraway goes as far as to suggest that our increasing dependence on technology has extended the boundaries of the body, making each of us a cyborg of sorts. Whether we are typing on laptops, playing video games, utilizing virtual reality, using smart phones, or driving in the car, technology has become a fundamental aspect of our daily lives.
In short, theories of embodiment allow us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. When we start to pay attention to the lived body as a integral part of what it means to be human, we are better positioned to understand not only cultural norms, but also how many ways there are to “be” in the world.
Sources and Further Reading
Foucault, Michel. “Docile Bodies.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 2nd Edition. Vintage: New York, 1995: 139-145.
Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power Over Life.” The History of Sexuality, Volume I. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vintage: New York, 1990: 139-143.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Introduction: Refiguring Bodies.” Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1994: 3-24.
Howson, Alexandra. “Introduction: An embodied approach to self.” The Body in Society. 2nd Edition. Polity Press: Cambridge, 2013: 16-18.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Routledge: New York, 1991: 149-181.
Patricia DeRocher, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Core Division