[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: David Harvey: The Body as Referent

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David Harvey: The Body as Referent
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Discourses in the academy and in the movements that engage in
    identity politics have increasingly framed identity in terms of the
    body as the basis for understanding and values. Opposite this
    micro-level "body talk," another key discourse has emerged around a
    macro-level issue, the globalization of the market economy. These two
    discourses seldom overlap and little attempt has been made to
    integrate them, David Harvey argues, in part because the body has been
    conceptualized in individual terms and as an irreducible given.
    Drawing on insights from Marx, he links the two discourses, describing
    how the body is deeply affected by the conditions under which people
    work and how conversely the globalization process has changed these
    conditions for massive numbers of people. Recognizing the role of
    labor on the body makes it possible to conceive of the body not simply
    in individual terms but also as a referent for collective identities,
    drawing together those similarly situated in the labor process. Harvey
    briefly traces the rise of interest in the body and argues that it is
    not an irreducible referent but is itself shaped by the social forces
    that operate upon it.

          David Harvey is Professor of Geography at the Johns Hopkins
    University. His many books include The Limits to Capital, The
    Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural
    Change, and Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference.

          The extraordinary efflorescence of interest in "the body" as a
    grounding for all sorts of theoretical inquiries over the last two
    decades has a dual origin. In the first place, the questions raised
    particularly through what is known as "second-wave feminism" could not
    be answered without close attention to the "nature-nurture" problem,
    making it inevitable that the status and understanding of "the body"
    would become central to theoretical debate. Questions of gender,
    sexuality, the power of symbolic orders, and the significance of
    psychoanalysis also repositioned the body as both subject and object
    of discussion and debate. And to the degree that all of this opened up
    a terrain of inquiry that was well beyond traditional conceptual
    apparatuses (such as that contained in Marx), so an extensive and
    original theorizing of the body became essential to progressive and
    emancipatory politics (this was particularly the case with respect to
    feminist and queer theory). And there is indeed much that has been
    both innovative and profoundly progressive within this movement.

          The second impulse to return to the body arose out of the
    movements of poststructuralism in general and deconstruction in
    particular. The effect of these movements was to generate a loss of
    confidence in all previously established categories (such as those
    proposed by Marx) for understanding the world. This in turn provoked a
    return to the body as the irreducible basis for understanding. Lowe
    argues that:

      There still remains one referent apart from all the other
      destabilized referents, whose presence cannot be denied, and that
      is the body referent, our very own lived body. This body referent
      is in fact the referent of all referents, in the sense that
      ultimately all signifieds, values, or meanings refer to the
      delineation and satisfaction of the needs of the body. Precisely
      because all other referents are now destabilized, the body
      referent, our own body, has emerged as a problem.[3]^1

          The convergence of these two broad movements has refocused
    attention upon the body as the basis for understanding and, in certain
    circles at least, as the privileged site of political resistance and
    emancipatory politics.

          Viewing the body as the irreducible locus for the determination
    of all values, meanings, and significations is not new. It was
    fundamental to many strains of pre-Socratic philosophy, and the idea
    that "man" or "the body" is "the measure of all things" has had an
    extraordinarily long and interesting history. The contemporary return
    to "the body" as "the measure of all things" provides, therefore, an
    opportunity to reassert the bases (epistemological and ontological) of
    all forms of inquiry. The manner of this return is crucial to
    determining how values and meanings are to be constructed and
    understood and how politics can be imagined. Foucault, for one, strove
    to shift our political horizons away from monolithic categories such
    as class and hence away from class politics to embrace the
    micro-politics of the body as an alternative site for radical
    politics. Foucault writes:

      This work done at the limits of ourselves must, on the one hand,
      open up a realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put itself
      to the test of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the
      points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the
      precise form this change should take. This means that the
      historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects
      that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience
      that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so
      as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another
      way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has
      led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions.[4]^2

          The warning is salutary and deserves to be taken seriously. But
    the turning away from all projects that claim to be global is, in my
    view, deeply damaging. It leads Foucault to prefer projects that are
    "always partial and local" and to hope these realize generality in a
    different way. It drives a wedge between the discourses of
    "globalization" and "the body" so as to conform to Foucault's other
    view on the inherent heterogeneity, radical pluralism, and
    incompatibility of multiple discourses.

          While not everyone has followed Foucault into such a political
    position, it is undeniable that much of the recent discourse about the
    body has been constructed as an antidote to discourses about class and
    has played an important role in generating a massive discursive shift
    away from interest in Marx. And it has, pari passu, made it not only
    undesirable but seemingly impossible to try to link discourses about
    globalization and the body in any systematic way. Yet there is
    something odd about how this has occurred for there is much in the
    contemporary literature on the body that is perfectly consistent with
    the fundamentals of Marx's argument.

          Consider, for example, the two fundamental themes that dominate
    the recent literature. Writers as diverse as Elias, Bourdieu,
    Stafford, Haraway, Butler, Diprose, Grosz, and Martin, agree that the
    body is an unfinished project, historically and geographically
    malleable in certain ways.[5]^3 It may not be infinitely or even
    easily malleable, and certain of its inherent ("natural") qualities
    cannot be erased. But the body is evolving and changing in ways that
    reflect both an internal transformative dynamics (often the focus of
    psychoanalytic work) and external processes (most often invoked in
    social constructionist approaches). This idea is powerfully present in
    Gramsci's analysis of Fordism and can be traced back, as I have shown
    elsewhere, to the very core of Marx's work from The Economic and
    Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital.[6]^4

          The second theme, broadly consistent with (if not implicitly
    contained in) the first, is that the body is not a closed and sealed
    entity, but a relational "thing" that is created, bounded, sustained,
    and ultimately dissolved in a spatio-temporal flow of multiple
    processes. This entails a relational-dialectical view (most clearly
    articulated in queer theory) in which the body (construed as a
    thing-like entity endowed with transformative powers) internalizes the
    effects of the processes that create, support, sustain, and dissolve
    it. Here, too, an argument can be made that a relational dialectical
    reading of Marx's work is entirely compatible with such a view.[7]^5
    The body which we inhabit and which is supposedly the irreducible
    measure of all things is not itself irreducible. There is far more
    agreement between, say, Marx and Foucault on this point than there is
    fundamental difference. Much of what Foucault has to say, particularly
    in his early works such as Discipline and Punish, is prefigured in
    Marx's chapters in Capital on "The Working Day" and "Primitive
    Accumulation." Conversely, there is much in Foucault that can be read
    as a friendly and thoughtful extension of Marx's concerns rather than
    as a rejection and rebuttal.

          But here we encounter a conundrum. On the one hand, to return to
    the human body as the fount of all experience is presently regarded as
    a means (now increasingly privileged) to challenge the whole network
    of abstractions (scientific, social, political-economic) through which
    social relations, power retaliations, institutions, and material
    practices get defined, represented, and regulated. But on the other
    hand, no human body is outside of the social processes of
    determination. To return to it is, therefore, to instanciate the very
    social processes being purportedly rebelled against. If, for example,
    workers are transformed (as Marx suggests in Capital) into appendages
    of capital in both the work place and the consumption sphere (or, as
    Foucault prefers it, bodies are made over into docile bodies by the
    rise of a powerful disciplinary apparatus from the eighteenth century
    onwards), then how can their bodies be a measure, sign, or receiver of
    anything outside of the circulation of capital or of the various
    mechanisms that discipline them? To take a more contemporary version
    of the same argument, if we are all now cyborgs (as Haraway in her
    celebrated manifesto on the topic suggests),[8]^6 then how can we
    measure anything outside of that deadly embrace of the machine as an
    extension of our own body and the body as an extension of the machine?

          So while returning to the body as the site of a more authentic
    (epistemological and ontological) grounding of the theoretical
    abstractions that have for too long ruled purely as abstractions may
    be justified (and provide a proper grounding, as in the cases of
    feminism and queer theory, for an emancipatory and progressive
    politics), that return cannot in and of itself guarantee anything
    except either the production of a narcissistic self-referentiality or
    the sacrifice of any sense of collective political possibilities. So
    whose body is it that is to be the measure of all things? Exactly how
    and what is it in a position to measure? And what politics might flow
    therefrom? Such questions cannot be answered without a prior
    understanding of exactly how bodies are socially produced.

    [9]^1 David M. Lowe, The Body in Late-Capitalist USA (Durham, NC: Duke
    University Press, 1995) 14. ] [10]^2 Michel Foucault, The Foucault
    Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 46. ] [11]^3 See
    Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process: The History of Manners and
    State Formation and Civilisation, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford:
    Blackwell, 1978); Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of
    the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge, 1984);
    Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in
    Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Donna
    Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
    (London: Routledge, 1991); Judith P. Butler, Bodies That Matter: On
    the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Rosalyn
    Diprose, The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference
    (London: Routledge, 1994); Elizabeth Grosz, "Bodies-Cities," Sexuality
    and Space, ed. Beatriz Colomina (Princeton, NJ: Princeton School of
    Architecture Press, 1994) 241-253; Emily Martin, Flexible Bodies:
    Tracking Immunity in American Culture--From the Days of Polio to the
    Age of AIDS (Boston: Beacon, 1994). ] [12]^4 See David Harvey, "The
    Body as an Accumulation Strategy," Society and Space (forthcoming). ]
    [13]^5 See David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of
    Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). ] [14]^6 See Donna Haraway,
    Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London:
    Routledge, 1991). ]

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