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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
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Defining the Body:
The Call for Definition in J.Z. Smith, C. Shilling, and B. Turner

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

J. Singletary

Posted: September 21, 2006 Friday 14:55 pm.

In his many seminal essays on the state of the academic study of religion, J.Z. Smith theorizes a methodology that explicitly calls for strategies of definition, classification, comparison, and taxonomy. According to Smith, without an explicit theorization of the perimeters of a discussion, scholarly treatments devolve into a mere descriptive account. In short, his thesis is the following: a theory, a model, or a conceptual category cannot be simply the data writ large. Or, in other words, as Smith quips in many of his essays, "a map is not territory." As R. McCutcheon describes it, the failure of a scholar to construct a definition and a theory to govern their work is like playing a game of tennis with no white lines: he quotes Mack’s statement that without these things, “the data pursued by critical inquiry have no frame of reference to give them any significance.” In other words, as Smith and McCutcheon have pointed out, without definitions that can be articulated, applied, critiqued, and defended, how does anyone know precisely what their colleagues are talking about when they make claims about a particular field of inquiry? For example, without a definition of the parameters of the field of the study of the body, how can anyone know what, precisely, the scholars involved in debates concerning the body study?

Despite their many differences, C. Shilling and B. Turner, like Smith, share a dedication to the importance of a methodology that includes explicit definitions. Both critique current theorizations of the body for lacking an attempt to define the study of the body; each seeks to remedy this gap. A key feature of both Shilling and Turner’s attempts to define the parameters of “body studies” is their multiplicity: neither of these theorists is wedded to the search for a single, monothetic definition of the body, or to its theorization. Rather, the important accomplishment of both these theorists is the presence of the explicit recognition of the importance of scholarly definitions and parameters for the field. Unfortunately, both attempt only a definition of the field, still laying aside a proposal for a definition of the body itself.

In Shilling’s introduction to his book, Body in Culture, Technology and Society, one of the major problems that he identifies with recent examinations of the body is that “the physical subject has come to possess an exceptional academic popularity, yet still seems to fade away when we ask the question, ‘What is the body?’” He argues that this elusiveness of the body is exacerbated by Foucaultian social-constructivist accounts that depict the body as inscribed by external social powers, the focus on the effects of social phenomena on the body’s surface alone, and the conception of the body as “disappearing.” According to Shilling, these and other diverse trends in recent theorizations of the body have resulted in a problematic situation in which, “the body appears for many to have become a mere metaphor through which particular concerns can be pursued. In this context, it is increasingly difficult to define the body or to even say what was being examined within the field.” Shilling’s project is thus largely dedicated to filling the second lacuna: “the conclusion (of the book) makes the case for a consolidation of body studies around an agenda that can impart a greater degree of coherence to the subject.” In an effort to accomplish this goal, Shilling proposes a form of “corporeal realism,” which he hopes may be used to “reduce the analytical elusiveness of the body and overcome some of the theoretical limitations of recent approaches.”

B. Turner also recognizes the importance of defining the field of “body studies” in his article, “An Outline of a General Sociology of the Body.” He states his purpose as follows: “The attempt to spell out an agenda for the sociology of the body in this chapter is driven by the assumption that, without an adequate research and analytic agenda, the sociology of the body would become yet another passing phase of sociological fashion.” Like Shilling, Turner identifies the fact that “sociology does not as yet have a coherent and comprehensive theory of the body,” as a major shortcoming of current theoretical trends. Thus, he too attempts to draw up boundary lines for the field, which are encapsulated in his five-fold suggestion for an outline of a theory of the body, as well as proposing a list of four components that should figure in a definition of “embodiment.” Both these scholars thus attempt to draw up some white lines for the game, an effort in which other theorists of the body would be well-advised to participate.

Posted at Sep 28/2006 12:19PM:
omur: Very intriguing. Cassandra in her response also brought up the problem with the lack of definition of what is meant by "embodiment". I was wondering, while reading on performance, whether the slipperiness, the fluidity of the concepts of the body as well as performance may be appealing, even reassuring to certain scholars rather than alarming. The fixed and structured definitions of theoretical concepts may simply be a utopia, no?.

Jennifer: Fixed and structured, or monothetic, as J.Z. Smith calls them, definitions are indeed not helpful in my view. But I think that what Smith is suggesting is the importance of stating a definition, preferably polythetic, that can then be contested by other participants in the discussion: he considers the argument that will naturally follow on a scholar's statement of a particular definition just as important as the act of formulating the definition itself.