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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

'The Body' as an Object of Study

(Emanuela Bocancea)

Last week’s readings and class discussion really got me thinking about the whole notion of ‘studying the body’.  What are the necessary conditions for such an endeavor, and what are its ultimate implications?  Such a question cannot be easily answered, nor do I hope to attempt such an answer in this brief response, but I will lay out some of the things that I’ve been mulling over which I think relate to this issue.

Firstly, as I mentioned briefly in class, the notion of ‘studying’ anything automatically posits the Cartesian dualism of subject/object.  Therefore, the first condition for an attempt to ‘study the body’ involves conceiving of a Subject (the ‘scientist’, or simply the ‘one who does the studying’) and an Object (the ‘object of study’ or ‘thing being studied’).  In this sense, ‘the body’ is the Object, and academics who engage with this topic are the Subjects.  And yet, if one starts to think about this a little further, a serious problem seems to become apparent: aren’t we all ‘bodies’?  Aren’t we, as Subjects, the same as the Object that we are attempting to separate from ourselves and analyze ‘objectively’?  In other words, how can you truly study ‘the body’ by using ‘the body’? It would seem that there is therefore an inevitable collapse of the distinction between subject/object, which parallels the dissolution of the divide between mind/body.  After all, how can you separate yourself from yourself?  One quickly starts to realize that these are entirely inextricable concepts – the very notion of labeling something which is really one indivisible unit by using two separate (seemingly opposite) terms is problematic.  So, in studying ‘the body’ we are really studying ourselves by using ourselves.  This is essentially a hermeneutic circle which has widespread implications.

So what are some of these implications?  Firstly, we cannot escape our own bodies and physical/psychological/emotional/sexual/cultural (etc.) embodiment in our world.  Everything we experience (our very perception and understanding of ‘reality’) is informed by and through our ‘body’ – this is inescapable.  Therefore, we can only conceive of ‘the body’ as the object of study in what is essentially an intensely personal way.  Everything that I understand about what it is to be ‘a body’ comes from my own personal experience as one, and that is automatically projected onto any sense that I may have of what ‘a body’ is in general terms. 

And yet, another necessary condition of positing ‘the body’ as an ‘object of study’ is the act of defining it.  All ‘objects of study’ need to be clearly defined – that is, they need to be totalized, and bounded.  The definition of ‘the body’ needs to have limits placed on it (i.e. ‘the body’ is x, y, and z) and it needs to be generalized to the point of being recognized and understood (even agreed upon) by a larger group of individuals (all of whom are themselves separate, subjective, bodies).  This need to clearly define the ‘object of study’ is just as necessary for those who want to study ‘the body’ as it is for an archaeologist who wants to talk about ‘the Greek Archaic period’ (for example).  In other words, you need to define something very clearly before you can go about ‘studying it’ – and if more than one person is going to attempt this or will be engaging with such work, then the definition needs to be comprehensible and accessible to a wide range of different individuals.  In the case of something as intensely personal and subjective as ‘the body’ (for reasons outlined briefly above), this task is like shooting a moving target which you will never be able to hit - it can’t really be done.  So, in the scholarly discussions about ‘the body’, this object of study has been defined by being totalized as a generalized/universal entity  or category.  This may ring a bell if you remember Chris Shilling’s concept of ‘corporeal realism’ (in our readings from last week) – which necessarily implies a generalized universal conception of ‘the body’.  And this is where we are caught in a kind of ‘double-bind’ – we have to define ‘the body’ if we want to study it, but the only definition that will be accessible, comprehensible and therefore useful to a larger group of individuals (themselves ‘bodies’), is one which universalizes and generalizes ‘the body’.  And the implications of this are not insignificant.

So, if ‘the body’ as the object of study is a generalized, universal category, the implication is that we study a ‘typical’ or ‘normal body’ within the most general/universal category.  What exactly is this body?  Is there really a ‘universal’ or ‘generalizeable’ body?  And who decides what constitutes it?  What are the implications for ‘deviance’ (i.e. ‘bodies’ that do not match the generalization – which are not ‘typical’)?  Is a universal definition of the body even possible or helpful if we recognize that bodies are gendered, sexed, aged, ‘able-bodied/‘disabled’, ‘ill’/ ‘healthy’, etc. etc. ?  Terms such as ‘disabled’, ‘deformed’, or ‘ill’ are value-laden judgments placed upon bodies which seem to ‘deviate’ from some sort of universally recognized ‘norm’ (implied to a certain extent in many generalized definitions of ‘the body’ and often ignored in many studies of ‘the body’).

So, we are all bodies.  We can only talk/think about ‘bodies’ or a universal ‘body’ within the framework of our own bodily experiences and embodiment within time and space.  And yet, we have to universalize and generalize about something which cannot be universalized or generalized in order to be able to talk about it coherently with each other.  That is the ‘double-bind’ of any attempt to study ‘the body’.  This is not to say that such attempts are futile.  Although we have to recognize that for the reasons outlined above (among others) ‘the body’ as an object of study will forever be elusive, contentious, and problematic, the very attempts to think about ‘the body’ critically open up the many questions and insights which can help us better understand ourselves and (hopefully) each other, while learning to respect diversity.  It is through the inevitably failed attempts at coming up with a universal, ‘normal body’ that we can recognize the diversity of experience and ‘embodiment’ which exists among human beings.  The very realization that we can never adequately define or pinpoint any universal/general 'body' (that exists outside ourselves for the purpose of study), is in itself an extremely important insight which has much to contribute to our general understanding of what it is to be human.