Let's get physical

Body and Society

October 18, 1996

"WHAT you have brought us is the body." So a Melanesian is recorded as having responded to the anthropologist, Maurice Leenhardt, on being asked what his culture had "received" from the West. For western anthropologists, however, bodies were more often than not taken from the societies they encountered in their travels and researches. The results of these expeditions were to become the sad tokens not only of rapidly disappearing human societies, but of the dedication of western scientists to the "body" as both a key to cultural understanding and an object of consumption in its own right.

Now bodies are crossing the equator in the reverse direction. European ethnographic curators are troubled individuals. If the stuffed body of a Kalahari bushman may not appear to represent an equivalent cultural investment to the "Elgin" marbles, that may be because we are the children of the gatherers, not the gathered.

The new anthropologists of the body, under the guise of cultural studies, sociology and literary studies, have turned inwards. Today, the evidence of the western pursuit of the "body" is more usually to be encountered in fashion magazines, tattoo parlours and health farms, even the Ann Summers catalogue.

To deny the reality of such material as a worthy object of academic study is also to deny the reality of a multimillion dollar industry. Aids, and the reappearance of the age-old association of carnal pleasure with death, have also refocused our attention. If this journal brings to this phenomenon a tiny portion of the energy with which classical anthropology once sought its exotic subject matter, it will serve us all well.

The problem, however, is that the field of study encompassed by the "new somatics" (as a prominent British literary critic has dismissed this "turn to the corporeal") is vast: not only must it encounter the writings and practices of the high priests of body culture - surgeons, organ transplanters, health professionals - but all the varieties of bodily behaviour to which our culture bears witness. How will it be possible to traverse such diverse regimes as cybersexual behaviour, professional boxing, the body-machine interface in computer environments, gender and film, or dance, to say nothing of the competing philosophies of mind-body interaction, and still retain a semblance of coherence? Yet it is to the credit of this journal's editors that all of these topics have been visited in the first four issues, even if the reader is sometimes left (as our forbears once stood before their glass cases) standing in bewilderment before this tribute to the body as an object of desire, horror, and fascination.

In their introduction, the editors observe, rightly, that "in the last decade, there has been an outpouring of literature on the importance of embodiment and the body as central issues for the humanities and the social sciences". Feminists, Foucaultians, sociologists of sport and technology have alighted on the body as though discovering a continent awaiting both classification and exploration.

But that very metaphor of the body as a continent (first developed by the contemporaries of Vesalius and Harvey) conceals an important arena within which, it is to be hoped, Body and Society will also seek to perform. As our understanding of the nature of current western theories and practices of embodiment grows, so it may be possible for us to return to that vanished history of the body which the empiricism of the New Philosophy of the 17th century seemed, once, to have all but submerged.

Body and Society promises an exciting and informed critique of our contemporary patterns of body behaviour. Whether it will be possible to engage with the history of the body, a history fraught with such contradictory cultural and political tensions, is another matter.

Jonathan Sawday is senior lecturer in English, University of Southampton.

Body and Society

Editor - Mike Featherstone and Bryan S. Turner
ISBN - ISSN 1357 034 X
Publisher - Sage
Price - £85.00 institutions £28.00 individuals
Pages - -

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