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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]

Modernity, modernisation and the body

Omur Harmansah
A response to Discussion Week 2: Sept. 15. Body in recent critical/social theory

Posted: September 20, 2006 Wednesday 5 pm.

"Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds. But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine... Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft..."
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (Picador 2002), 95.

It has been argued that the 19th century industrialization and the “incomplete” project of modernity has disciplined the human body and circumscribed it as a finite unite of maximized production and labor force. In the intoduction to Incorporations (Zone 6), editors Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter write: “the flux and energy of human life became increasingly reduced to finite quantities of force and sensation, allowing it to be evermore efficiently subsumed and deployed in schools, factories, hospitals and households by the productivist and rationalizing imperatives of a capitalist megamachine”. The body was therefore conceptualized as a managable biological organism, reconfigured as an efficacious machine. One can’t help but remember Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis, where such process of mechanization was represented in a utopic cine-drama. The body, now fully controlled, disciplined, surveyed and made operational with maximum efficiency, was left without agency. Modernist education involved the structuring of the bodily acts, gestures, habits, in uniforms and aimed at a democratic homogeneity. This utopian and positivistic social constructionism of the project of modernity on the everyday life is precisely the context in which we need to see Marcel Mauss’s “Techniques of the body”. Mauss likens bodily training with the assembly of a machine, as “the search for the acquisition of an efficiency” (Mauss 1973 (1934):77). He concludes towards the end of the article: “I believe this whole notion of the education of races that are selected on the basis of a determinate efficiency is one of the fundamental moments of history itself: education of the vision, education in walking-ascending, descending, running.” (Mauss 1973 (1934):86). In fact, several of Mauss’s entertaining anectodes point to the clash between the socially and culturally ubiquitous bodily habits with the structured formalities of modernist institutions, such as that of the army, schools, hospitals and sports-halls. One of the mottos of modernist leaders of 19th and 20th century nations states have been the idea that “a healthy mind resides in a healthy body” aiming at encouraging the young generations for sports and exercise, while bearing the implicit assumption that the body and the mind are split entities and not one.

In fact, Michel Foucault identified hospitals, prisons, museums, the army and similar institutions of modernity as heterotopias, real but marginal spaces, cut apart from our everyday existence. They require different bodily practices than those we are accustomed to during our everyday lives: to enter those spaces, one would be required to deviate from his/her usual bodily movements and gestures but adopt the corporeal performative rules of these spaces. As a sidenote, it is, I believe, crucial acknowledge the idea that spaces are defined with the specific performances they embody and the ubiquitous bodily acts that they require within them. These performances and bodily practices, in return, constitute the social imagination as well as the materiality of those spaces. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it: “Alehouse, coffeehouse, church, law court, library, drawing room of a country mansion: each place of assembly is a different site of intercourse requiring different manners and morals. ” (The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986: 80). I would however argue that one does not need to understand the place of assembly as an apriori established site of material and cultural conditions that mold the human body into specific performances and gestures: on the contrary, social space is precisely the product of those bodily practices.

Discussing structuralism and the “ordered body,” Chris Shilling (49) discusses “how people represent themselves in social space” but he does not explore how those representations constitute social space. We do not have to assume that there is always a predetermined social space within which individuals and social groups present themselves and take part in politics of collective representation: we however need to seriously explore how such representational practices continue to reconfigure the public realm. Those representational practices, then I would like to argue, are saturated with body symbolisms, spectacles and performative actions. Modernism has moved away from the concept of space as socially constituted but embraced abstract and formal qualities of Cartesian space. This indeed meant yet another marginalization of the human body and its ability to alter, configure, demarcate, shape space. The return of the body studies in contemporary theory is now fortunately turning more and more towards the “social relations of the production of space” where embodied subjects and their material practices take the central role. More on that in the coming weeks.

Returning to the project of modernity and its colonization of the human body: the reduction of the body to a finite efficacious unit, is implicated but not fully explored in Foucault’s project on the body as a target of institutional control (see Discipline and Punish, but check Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition). Beyond the discourses of the regimes of power, the living body however has an irreducable “menacing and delirious concreteness” (Crary and Kwinter 1992: 13) and cannot be reduced to “an organic substrate or historical object”. The contemporary flourishing of academic interest in the body perhaps partly has to do with the decolonization of the embodied subject in the post-colonial world.

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Image Credit: Crary, Jonathan and Sanford Kwinter (eds.). Incorporations (Zone 6). Zone Books: MIT Press 1992: image on page 454, paired with Marcel Mauss's "Techniques of the Body". The photograph is by René Burri.