Saturday, December 8, 2012

Body Identity

Let us consider the power of art to construct body identity, be it gender, political, or individual identity. Usually, the analysis leaves one with a general distaste for the apparent abuse of arts. I would like to explore a few aspects of this recurring theme.


There is an implied desire to have body references be neutral. However, neutrality doesn’t seem to be an option in art, since the very construction of art is shot through and through with value associations… and in the context of art, neutrality is the equivalent of not choosing. But in not choosing, nothing gets made… and art is something that must be made.

A similar notion to neutrality is freedom. We hear writers refer to the body being freed from body images.  But I wonder, what would the body look like if it were free… and free of what? I think this idea of freedom is simply the idea of a neutral, nude body.

If no particular body can be neutral, can we at least have a generalized notion of a neutral body? Oddly enough, since every separate body is unique, to even speak “of the body” is to speak of a concept of the body. But to conceive of the body, we have to first observe several bodies, and then abstract from them certain characteristics that are (to us) relevant. So again, we are in the position of having to impose meaning on bodies even to form a concept of them.  How can bodies be free, if in the very thinking about them we have already conformed them to essentials?

Neutrality seems like a pervasive desire… the desire for freedom… but the desire for freedom can never be satisfied. Yet it comes up over and over again in the essays. I suspect that, ultimately, concerned writers are not interested in neutrality… but rather positing neutrality as a placeholder virtue, which when combined with the apparent evil of imagery full of non-neutral bodies, will buy them enough time to substitute their preferred imagery for the current status quo. Meet the new boss…

Private Body VS Social Body

I think another approach to body image neutrality is to define it in terms of a private body image, where a socially defined body image is seen as non-neutral… but that which we create from our own body is neutral.

This is intriguing, because it raises the questions of where body image comes from. As was stated above, body image (being a conception of the body), must obey the rules of any conceptual knowledge. That means, it’s creation is ruled by three things… first, perception of several bodies… secondly, the full context of what we already know about bodies at any point… and thirdly, the purpose we have for pursuing the knowledge in the first place.

Knowledge is purposeful; it is a means to an end. We don’t pursue knowledge for it’s own sake; we pursue it for our sake... as a means to some end we provide. Even intellectuals, who seem to read for no apparent purpose, actually have a purpose in mind. After all, even the absent minded philosopher doesn’t read just anything… but reads that which attaches to some pre-existing interest.

So if all knowledge begins (at least) with purpose… and purpose must be of value, then what is the purpose (or value) of a private body image? What would be the basis for a private image of the body? What would be the purpose?

I suspect that conceptions of the body are really of two sorts… public and private. It is tempting to say that conceptions of our own body is the primary conception… and that public body images are grafted over top of this at a later date as part of the general socialization we experience.

However, does awareness of our own bodies count as a conception of it… or as an image of ourselves? We don’t see ourselves as multiple, but as a singular self… and singularities don’t require conceptualization. In fact, the idea of singularity is a more advanced concept.

I suspect that our idea of the body is really the idea of bodies other than our own; since that is the thing we are always looking at, especially when we are young. And other bodies are multiple, and require conceptualization in order to be dealt with. Of course, we understand other bodies because we have our own body… we have a reference point.

I could argue that it doesn’t matter that we have a body or not, since we could still form the idea of bodies. After all, I understand the concept of “chair” despite not being a chair. Couldn’t I understand “human bodies” in a similar way… whereby the things about it I comprehend don’t require my own humanity?

But, I suppose that since we do have our own bodies, that our conception of bodies draws upon our awareness of that body. I suppose too that we end up including our own body into the collection of bodies that we consider when we form conceptions of bodies. In this way, I think our idea of self is inevitably drawn into sync with our ideas of others.

Along the lines of public body image… I wonder, what was the status of appearance in pre historical society? The analysis of prehistoric art typically yields insights into the anthropological sources of imagery.  In prehistoric art in which bodies are basically stick figures, seems to suggest that the human body was seen as irrelevant. I wonder if this argues for a public conception of the body as being the primary one.

If prehistoric thought is meta-social thought, then wouldn’t the lack of identity of the human body argue for the primacy of external reality as the fundamental focus of human thought? Since these prehistoric societies were not very socially sophisticated, wouldn’t the emergence of body image (as related to the development of figures in images) be tied to the emergence of society? Would the body become gain in significance as a locus of conceptual focus only when other bodies had social survival value to us? And if this is so, it would seem to tie body image into social forces, and in fact would make body image a function of culture.

I think that when we speak of public or private body images, we are speaking of two very different things. Body image, as it is most commonly referred to in critical writing, seems to be the public body image. As such, it cannot be neutral, and it cannot be outside the grasp of cultural forces. In fact, it will mirror the nature of cultural forces, and must necessarily do so. Private body image seems like a more advanced conception of the self. Its existence is implicit in self-awareness, but doesn’t exist as a conception until such time as we conceive of other bodies, of ourselves as similar to other bodies, or ourselves in opposition to other bodies. In either case, it is other bodies that frame the full awareness of ourselves. 

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