What Is the Body?
'The body' is often treated as a taken for granted entity that needs no explanation. We all have bodies; however, how and where we use our bodies varies greatly. Bodies are used to ground personal identity and to recognize other people's identity. Bodies are used for the assignment of various roles, tasks, and strategies, for practical action, for reproduction, and for the expression of moral judgments. Bodies may also be used as artwork or as a surface upon which meaning is inscribed. With the myriad of meanings associated with the body it becomes almost impossible to define what the body is.
Some theorists who have attempted to define the body remain puzzled as to what it actually is. The body has been thought of as a corporeal place and even as terra incognita. At best, the matter of the body might be thought of as: flesh, organs, muscles, nerves, skeletal structure, and concrete material organized and animated through social and psychical inscription. Bodies become human (as opposed to animal bodies) when a body coincides with the 'appropriate' shape and space of a psyche. In psychoanalytic terms, the body may define the limits of experience and subjectivity. This 'thing' – the body – is complicated and its meanings have changed over time and in different places. It may not be very useful, therefore, to attempt to offer an absolute or fixed definition of the body.
In trying to understand what the body is, human geographers have drawn on many different approaches from a variety of disciplinary areas such as feminist and gender studies, cultural studies, sociology, philosophy, social anthropology, and geography. As noted above, geography is a discipline that has traditionally ignored the body. During geography's engagement with positivist thought, bodies were quantified out of existence to the point that people of different shapes, colors, sizes, ages, and gender sexualities were reduced to points, flows, and movements in space.
An early exception to this type of disembodied quantitative geography was 'time geography'. Developed by Swedish geographers in the 1960s, time geography was a contextual approach to understanding human spatial behaviors based on the idea that space and time are resources on which bodies can draw in order to participate in personal projects or activities. Based on the assumption that a body's ability to do more than one thing at a time is limited and that people cannot be in two places at once this approach sought to examine the interweaving of bodies and activities in logical blocks of space and time. Life paths were mapped to show that a daily path was the sum of bodily movements. Cumulative maps of life paths were deemed to represent both the end result and contest of people's actions. The exploration of time–space routines became an important concept in the development of structuration theory. Time geography has been criticized as offering a limited understanding of humanity because they failed to represent a body with feelings, memories, knowledge, information, and identities. Structuralist accounts were similarly disembodied as they reduced humans to lifeless units of labor.
Phenomenology was one of the first approaches that offered a more human centered geography. Humanistic geographers in the 1970s, intent on understanding the relationship between human identity and place, considered the prediscursive lived body. One of the most useful contributions to come out of the phenomenological approach to embodiment is that subjectivity is not located in the consciousness but the lived body. The body becomes a locus of experience that exists prior to all conscious reflection and knowledge. Bodily awareness becomes inseparable from the world of perception. This type of sensuous corporeality means that it is also the object of spatial relations – without the body there would be no space. Using this approach, the body has its own intentionality and capacity to direct behaviors and function as a subject which expresses itself in a preconscious habitual and involuntarily way. A body may build up time–space routines where a series of behaviors or rituals are habitually repeated without conscious thought. Some humanistic geography scholarship rejected abstract theorization and modeling, yet other humanistic geographers developed experiential frameworks for understanding the relationships between people and place. The 'triad of environmental experience' emphasized the importance of movement, rest, and encounter. Routine and repeated movements in familiar places can be thought of as choreographed. The concept of 'place ballet' was used to describe the choreographed but complex movements of several bodies simultaneously. Humanistic geographies of 'life worlds' provided an intriguing forerunner to an investigation of differently embodied subjectivities in space, yet they failed to recognize embodied differences such as gender/sex, race/ethnicity, dis/ablities, age, class, and so on.
More recently, geographers with converging interests in embodiment and nonrepresentational theory have encouraged a re exploration of movement, practice, and senses. Nonrepresentation theory is concerned not so much with representations and textual discourse as the mundane and everyday practices and senses that shape bodies and places. Sensuous geographies usually involve considering some combination of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight although geographers have tended to privilege the visual over other senses. Attention to the surveillance gaze has opened up areas of research that involve understanding how and why bodies are interpreted and disciplined. Moving beyond the visual, however, has meant that geographers can understand the management of embodiment through other sensual information. Studies that focus on the social construction of disability and illness highlight embodied experiences of pain, what it means to be healthy and/or sick.
Hence, attention to things that words and representations cannot express is necessary to understand the rarely spoken of but constantly performed practical experiences of ordinary people. Exploring the way people 'do' subjectivities, there is now a large geographical literature on the way people dance, swim, walk, or sit their identities, as well as the way identities are performed through bodily gestures, styles of dressing, and modes of eating. Theories about the development of selfhood and identity through embodiment are combined with ideas about the way the body becomes caught up in collective experiences and power relations.
There is a growing area in human geography that studies how power is articulated through geographies of exclusion. Some bodies are deemed to be 'out of place' in particular spaces and the exclusion of certain people happens at a variety of scales. The effect of this exclusion is often understood as Othering. To explain further, bodies are considered as markers of difference between Self and Other in ways that maintain distinctions between valued landscapes and marginalized landscapes. Psychoanalytic theory is another important approach to understand the relationship between the Self and the society, why feelings of repulsion and fascination attach to particular bodies, and how some bodies are labeled as Other. Psychoanalytic approaches tend to focus on the unconscious, rather than the conscious, and this has enabled some geographers to try to understand the relationship between the individual and the external world. It is often argued, and hotly contested, that the unconscious is formed from individual's sexual drives and residues of infantile experiences, and hence the experiences of early childhood are generally accepted to be critical. Children may cope with early painful and upsetting experiences by repressing them from their consciousness. It is from this repression that a split is formed between the conscious and unconscious. Theories of socialization suggest that people suffer crises of identity if they do not conform to the positions described by the 'Oedipus complex'. This Greek story suggested that both male and female children regard their father as an opponent and competitor for the exclusive love of their mother. The female child supposedly experiences 'lack' which can only be resolved through the displacement of desire from mother to father.
Some feminist geographers interested in the ways in which bodies become sexed/gendered have adopted this psychoanalytic work. In particular, the idea of the Oedipal phase has been taken up to rethink the formation of patriarchal culture, spaces, and sexed bodies. Some psychoanalytic thought offers theories of how people's subjectivities – such as mother, father, daughter, and son – are formed. Psychoanalytic approaches are useful to understand how certain subjectivities and identities – women, children, ethnic minorities, gay men, and lesbians – may be both socially and spatially marginalized. Ideas from object relations psychoanalytic theory have been used by geographers to help understand how some groups of people are feared or loathed and how this attitude to cultural difference is then played out in space, with particular attention to how groups have been subject to spatial segregation and regulation. Cultural and social values in Western societies construct particular groups as abject – 'dirty' or 'polluting'. People may respond to these 'abject Others' with hatred and attempt to create social and spatial boundaries to exclude or expel them. This approach is useful to understand how exclusionary landscapes are developed in different times and places.
Another approach is to conceptualize the body as a site of cultural consumption and inscription upon which social meaning is inscribed. The body becomes significant mainly in terms of the social systems or discourses that construct it and make it intelligible. The philosopher Michel Foucault noted there are a myriad of techniques through which bodies are subjugated, disciplined, and populations controlled. In relation to sexuality, disciplinary techniques include laws concerning the policing of particular sexual practices so that same sex practices are repressed or censored. Ideas of morality, social laws, and values are inscribed on the surfaces of bodies. Bodies are 'disciplined' so that certain sexual practices are deemed pleasurable (and acceptable) while others are deemed unacceptable and in need of reform.
This approach shows that bodies are historical constructs that have been disciplined, regulated, and controlled. The individual body is the effect of an endless circulation of power and knowledge and using this approach it is possible to understand how whole populations are controlled. Many geographers have used this approach to understand bodies and spaces in, for example, the asylum, the workplace, the prison, and the state.
Within this far reaching 'body as a site of cultural construction' approach some geographers have emphasized the active and transformative role the body plays in relation to the capitalist processes that produce it. Focusing on the connections between appearance, esthetics, and capital show how the body is tied into hegemonic social identities. The body, it has been shown, can be conceptualized as an accumulation strategy, being used by people to acquire money and status. The relationship between social status and modes of dressing is complex and geographers have researched, to name just a few, merchant bankers who 'power dress' in the City of London, young Muslim women who prefer to wear 'Asian' clothing but conform toWestern clothing in UK secondary schools, as well as body projects such as plastic surgery, body building, tattooing, and piercing.
Feminist geographers taking this constructionist approach to embodiment are able to trace the history of the way genders and sexualities have been discursively produced. It is possible to identify how heterosexual relations have been produced as the norm and other forms of sexuality have been classified as Other or deviant. As such, constructionist feminists argue that bodies are produced by discourses and that essentializing discourses – references to biology and physicality – tend to naturalize that which is social difference. A constructionist approach opens up opportunities for geographers to consider how place is written on the body and vice versa.
A focus on the body as discourse may ignore the materiality of embodiment, and it is not necessarily useful or indeed possible to conceptualize constructionist and essentialist approaches as distinct and separate. These opposing positions, it has been argued, are inseparable. The physical reality of material biology (a sexed body) is often considered by constructionists as irrelevant to women and men's gendered positions in particular places. The distinction between sex (biological differences between men and women) and gender (masculine and feminine) does not hold and is a product of historically specific Western dualistic thought which laid the foundations for the development of modern science. Philosophers have examined this dualism, plus others, such as mind/body, culture/nature, reason/passion, white/black, and positive/negative.