Practical Transformations of the Body
Even to speak of contradiction between social process and the body is not to have moved far enough from doctrines of natural difference and biological determination. For this is still to treat the body as unmoved mover, as what is fixed in relation to what is fluid, as what gives meaning and does not receive it. The body in relation to the social system still seems like the monster looming outside the bright lights of the space station, alien and immovable, compelling by its sheer presence.
That the body is intractable and recalcitrant is important. More than one radical theorist has found in a kind of biological intransigence an ultimate grounding for human freedom in the face of overwhelming social powers: Herbert Marcuse on the bodily basis of Eros, Noam Chomsky on the biological basis of speech. This may be valid as a speculation on ultimate limits to social control; I am not sure. But it should not imply that in general the body becomes a social agertt as if from pure nature, from some standpoint outside society. The body-as-used, the body I am, is a social body that has taken meanings rather than conferred them. My male body does not confer masculinity on me; it receives masculinity for some fragment thereof) as its social cJefinitkm. Nor is my sexuality the irruption of the natural; it too is part _o£-a social process Tn the most extraordinary detail my body’s responses reflect back, like the little mirrors on an Indian dress, a kaleidoscope of social meanings.
The body, without ceasing to be the body, is taken in hand and transformed in social practice. I do not have a systematic analysis of this process to offer, but it may be helpful to illustrate the point. What follows are brief notes on three examples: symbolic eroticism, the physical sense of masculinity and the history of body politics.
Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes
Commenting on Herrick’s remarkable poem, Judy Barbour notes that the force of its eroticism depends a good deal on the connotations of silk as a sexual and status fetish, operating within a closed system of social thought (which she calls ‘mythical’) about men’s and women’s sexuality. Maureen Duffy makes a similar observation on Spenser’s Faerie Queen, an erotic dream-poem in which some typical problems of Renaissance sexuality and culture are explored and resolved in violence. Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers is equally striking as a document of the link between imagination and eroticism. Genet creates here a world of erotic objects in whose ritual dances masculinity and femininity dissolve and coagulate, now taking on sharp edges in the form of the hard youth who combines criminality and desirability, now ambiguous in the shape of Divine.
The importance of ritual in sexuality is familiar. In some forms of sexuality it becomes the matrix for an amplification of the tension set up by working against the body. Using pain, fear and humiliation, sado-masochistic rituals with ‘forbidden symbols and… disowned emotions’, in the words of Pat Califia, practically turn the body against itself in the pursuit of pleasure. In the milder fetishisms where pleasure comes with rubberized raincoats or white kid gloves, the role of the imagination and the centrality of socially constructed meaning – here non-verbal and built into tactile response – is very obvious. (Even here, however, the ideological ‘naturalization’ of the social is under way. The standard fantasy in fetish pornography is about the unpremeditated discovery of an uncontrollable ‘natural’ response to the fetish, whatever it is.)
Fetishism and fetish pornography work to a large extent by playing with and recombining elements of the symbolism of gender. As sexuality, they presuppose a connection between this symbolism and the body – social definitions of the feel of femininity and masculinity. This physical sense of genderedness (to coin a horrible word) needs exploration. I will take the case of masculinity, as femininity has been analysed more extensively.
The physical sense of maleness is not a simple thing. It involves size and shape, habits of posture and movement, particular physical skills and the lack of others, the image of one’s own body, the way it is presented to other people and the ways they respond to it, the way it operates at work and in sexual relations. In no sense is all this a consequence of XY chromosomes, or even of the possession on which discussions of masculinity have so lovingly dwelt, the penis. The physical sense of maleness; grows through a personal history оПосіаІ ргяТТтАу я lifp-histniy-in-snricty.
fn Western countries, for instance, images of ideal masculinity are constructed and promoted most systematically through competitive sport. Though adults are spectators more often than participants, schoolchildren do play sport a great deal and are taught to regard sporting success as a matter of deep importance. The combination of force and skill that is involved in playing well at games like football, cricket and baseball, and which is central even in highly individualized sports like surfing, becomes a strongly cathected aspect of an adolescent boy’s life. Though rejected by some (a point that will be explored in chapter 8), for most it becomes a model of bodily action that has a much wider relevance than the particular game. Prowess of this kind becomes a means of judging one’s degree of ma^ulunty.
ScTTHe”- concern with force and skill becomes a statement embedded in the body, embedded through years of participation in social practices like organized sport. And it is not a ‘statement’ that comes from the void. Its meaning condenses some crucial features of the social structures that environ, and participate in, those masculinizing practices. One of these is the structure of class relations. The system of individual competition in sport has taken on a particular form in advanced capitalism, as recent analyses of the Olympics and the culture of sport have shown. More directly important is the structure of power in gender relations. The meanings in the bodily sense of masculinity concern, above all else, the superiority of men to women, and the exaltation of hegemonic masculinity over other groups of men which is essential to the domination of women.
The social definition of men as holders of power is translated hot only into mental body-images and fantasies, but into muscle tensions, posture, the feel and texture of the body. This is one of the main ways in which the power of men becomes ‘naturalized’, i. e. seen as part of the order of nature. It is very important in allowing belief in the superiority of men, and the oppressive practices that flow from it, to be sustained by men who in other respects have very little power. The importance of physical aggression in some of the major forms of working-class masculinity is familiar. A vignette: among a peer group of South London boys in a particular club (where a youth worker interested in the issue of masculinity works), the mark of friendship is hitting each other – playfully, but hard. No one who is not a friend is admitted to this intimacy.
The violence implicit in the physical construction of hegemonic masculinity points directly to the social distribution of violence outlined in chapter 1. It was noted there that at least some features of this distribution change historically. This is one facet of a much larger politics of the body.
Our bodies grow and work, flourish and decay, in social situations that produce bodily effects. For instance the class system that we live in produces malnutrition for the children of poor people, obesity from overeating and overdrinking among the affluent. The institutionalized racism of the Australian social order means massively higher levels of eye disease among Aborigines than among whites: in a national study of rural areas 38 per cent of Aborigines had trachoma compared with 1 per cent of whites.
The politics of the body has a gender dimension as well – which is to say, physical effects that follow from the gender structuring of social relations. Alcoholism provides a clear example. In an Australian national study of 1980 it was found that 14 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women were at intermediate to very high risk levels. Another kind of physical effect is lucidly documented in studies of the material circumstances of working-class family life. Margery Spring Rice’s classic Working-class Wives, for instance, traced the physical effects on women of the division of labour that assigned them to back-breaking daily labour in ‘the small dark unorganized workshop of the home’.
That was in Britain in the 1930s. A number of social processes gradually altered those physical effects. One was the spread of effective and reliable contraception. The history of contraception shows that the term ‘politics of the body’ is no metaphor. Marie Stopes, leader of the contraception movement in early twentieth – century Britain, was a political organizer and propagandist of genius – though not, it seems from Ruth Hall’s biography, much of a technical expert on her subject. From World War I through the 1920s and 1930s she fought a long and sometimes bitter campaign to establish openly available contraceptive services. The story in Australia shows more clearly the other side of the struggle: that is, the mobilization of political resources against contraception in the early years of the century by propagandists like Octavius Beale. Fear of the ‘yellow peril’ from Asia overwhelming the white settlements, imperial patriotism seeking to bolster the British ‘race’ against the German, fear of working-class depravity, combined with medical mythology and a rational distrust of available methods of contraception to fuel a widespread pro-natalist campaign. The
state was, for a while, swung to pro-natalist positions.
Concern about imperial and racial decline fed into another kind of body politics, the attempt to cultivate physique by education. As an organized practice in the schools, general physical education (distinct from sport and from military drill) developed in capitalist countries in the late nineteenth century. Some key innovations came from Sweden and the scheme for a ‘scientific’ physical education was known elsewhere as ‘Swedish drill’. It spread through the mass schooling system in the twentieth century, with particular vigour where interventionist states developed a concern with the military or industrial efficiency of their populations. Nazi schooling, in consequence, was a model of physical education for its time. In somewhat less militarized but still ideologically loaded forms physical education continues to be an essential part of contemporary mass schooling.
We may say, then, that the practical transformation of the body in the social structure of gender is not only accomplished at the level of symbolism. It has physical effects on the body; the incorporation is a material one. The forms and consequences of this incorporation change in time, and change as a result of social purposes and social struggle. That is to say they are fully historical. Symbolically, ‘nature’ may be opposed to ‘culture’, the body (fixed) opposed to history (moving). But in the reality of practice the body is never outside history, and history never free of bodily presence and effects on the body. The traditional dichotomies underlying reductionism now have to be replaced by a more adequate and complex account of the social relations in which this incorporation and interplay occur.