chapter
17 Pages

Introduction: The Turn of the Body

ByBryan S. Turner

Growing academic interest in the human body, in both the humanities and social sciences, is an intellectual response to fundamental changes in the contemporary relationship between bodies, technology and society. Scientific advances in medicine and genetics, in particular the new reproductive technologies, stem-cell research, cryonics and cloning techniques, have given the human body a problematic social and cultural status. The global market for the sale of organs has also raised many legal and moral questions about the ownership and economic value of human bodies. For many bio-gerontologists, ageing, disease and death no longer appear to be necessary, immutable facts about the human condition, but contingent and therefore malleable features of human existence. Quite simply the longevity project of rejuvenative medicine proposes that death is avoidable. Many of these medical techniques – such as cryonics for freezing bodies – are still at an experimental stage, but aspects of these technologies will eventually begin to influence our lives in dramatic ways. Alongside these developments, there is an array of procedures associated with cosmetic surgery that are now simply routine features of the management of personal appearance. The emergence of the body as a topic of research in the humanities and social sciences can be inter-

preted as a response to these technological and scientific changes, and to a range of diverse social movements that have been associated with them such as the women’s movement, environmentalism, animal rights movements, anti-globalism, religious fundamentalism and conservative politics. More importantly, the human body is now central to economic growth as a consequence of the growth of biotechnology industries; the management of disease itself has become a productive factor in the new economy. Disease is no longer simply a constraint on the productivity of labour, but an actual factor of production. Many Asian societies such as Thailand and Singapore offer medical services to foreigners as part of a tourist package. The body as a code or system of information can now generate huge profits through patents rather than merely through the sale of actual body parts. The study of the human body has consequently enjoyed significant growth and increasing attention over the last three or four decades, culminating for example in 2009 with recognition by the American Sociological Association of ‘the body and embodiment’ as an area of professional growth and academic relevance. (The theoretical background to the growth of body studies is presented in the two sections on ‘Body, Self and Society’ and ‘What is a Body?’.) One can obviously identify early turning points in this development such as the publication of the first

issue of the journal Body & Society in 1995. The first edition of my The Body and Society appeared in 1984 (Turner, 1984). There were many influential publications that marked the development of this academic field including Chris Shilling’s The Body and Social Theory (Shilling, 1993 first edition; 2003 second edition)

and The Body (Featherstone, Hepworth and Turner, 1991). Within the broader field of the humanities, Fragments for a History of the Human Body Part One and Part Two (Feher, 1989) was indicative of an important depth of scholarship in the humanities. Over the subsequent decades, there was a surge of publications in history, women’s studies, cultural sociology and philosophy. Almost at random one might identify Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics (Shusterman, 1992), Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (Laqueur, 1990), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1985), John O’Neill’s Five Bodies (1985), Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body (1987) and Loic Wacquant’s Body & Soul (Wacquant, 2004) as works that carved out a new site of social, cultural and historical investigation. By the 1990s the history of the body had become a major academic development in research on sexuality, culture and the representation of the human body (Costlow, Sandler and Vowles, 1993; Delany, 1998; Lindman and Tarter, 2001). The sociology of the body has also influenced the research questions of social archaeology (Meskell and Joyce, 2003; Wyke, 1998) and by the late 1990s, Arthur Frank (1990) could write ‘a decade review’ of ‘bringing bodies back in’. While the body began to appear in the study of micro-interactions, it also had major implications for the

historical sociology of the norms of civilized behaviour undertaken by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (Elias, 1978). The training of the body, especially in relation to martial arts, dance and general comportment, was studied by Elias in the transformation of court society. Domestic utensils, such as the fork or spittoon, were important features of the regulation of manners through the training of the body. Elias’s work emphasized the complex entanglements between physiology, training and deportment in different civilizational complexes (see Chapter 3 by Mike Atkinson). However, Michel Foucault has in more recent research been a dominant influence in late twentieth-century historical and sociological approaches. His research on sexuality, medicine and discipline gave rise to a general theory of the government of the body (see Chapter 7 by Nikki Sullivan) and my own work on diet was deeply influenced by Foucault’s historical work on discipline (Turner, 1982). The distinction between the discipline of the individual body (‘the anatomo-politics of the body’) and regulatory controls (‘a bio-politics of the population’) in The History of Sexuality (Foucault, 1979) stimulated a general sociological investigation of ‘governmentality’ (Burchell, Gordon and Miller, 1991). Significant intellectual breakthroughs were stimulated by the English translations of the work of Foucault such as The History of Sexuality in 1981. Subsequent publications of his lectures at the Collège de France from the early 1980s including The Hermeneutics of the Self (Foucault, 2005) have only served to reinforce his importance to the debate on the body and techniques of the self. Behind all this development and from a much earlier period, there was controversially Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time from 1928 (see Chapter 4 on embodiment and practices by Bryan S. Turner). Behind Heidegger’s understanding of the body and embodied practice stood the philosophy of Nietzsche and his criticism of nihilism in which he attacked those who despised the body (Stauth and Turner, 1988). In retrospect, however, the body had been an important focus of research, for rather obvious reasons, in

philosophical and social anthropology through most of the history of the discipline. It is hardly surprising that Marcel Mauss’s ‘techniques of the body’ (Mauss, 1979) from 1934 is repeatedly quoted as a seminal contribution and major conferences on the anthropology of the body were taking place in the 1970s (Blacking, 1977). Robert Hertz (1960, 1973) on handedness and Mary Douglas (1966) in her studies of Purity and Danger influenced thinking about the symbolic significance of the right and left hand and the inside and outside of the body. Social anthropology continues to make major contributions to the emergence of body studies. Alongside social anthropology, the human body has also been a major preoccupation of archaeology (Joyce, 2005) (see Chapter 11 by Dr Stratos Nanoglou). The study of the ancient world raises important questions about the extent to which humans have shared a common embodiment across time. Archaeological research on clay figurines in social life has raised intriguing questions about the possibility of a shared understanding of the ontological status of the body (Boric and Robb, 2008). Given the problem of death, decay and regeneration, religion plays a central role in human understanding of the finitude and vulnerability of the body around the problems of pain and suffering (see the Section on ‘Religion and the Body’). The body has unsurprisingly become an important topic in religious studies, for

example in Sarah Coakley’s Religion and the Body (1997) and Howard Eilberg-Schwartz’s People of the Body (1992). Once various disciplines began to coalesce around the study of the body, especially in sociology, it

became almost a convention to observe that the body was absent in the ‘founding fathers’ of social theory, where it had only enjoyed a secret or implicit history. The list of ‘hidden’ or anticipatory contributions came to include an assembly of major sociologists: Norbert Elias, Erving Goffman, Anthony Giddens, G. H. Mead and so forth. Yet another source of inspiration in the growth of the sociology of the body came from the tradition of symbolic interactionism in which research into everyday interaction could hardly avoid issues to do with embodiment (Plummer, 2000b). Often enough the list of classical contributions has been somewhat spurious and in fact the professionalization of sociology rendered it resistant to these developments in the first instance. The real contributions came initially not from sociologists but from a diverse collection of social philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty, 1962) and Arnold Gehlen in Man (Gehlen, 1988). It was Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology that came to play an important part in the development of

Peter Berger’s theory of institutions (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). Following Nietzsche, Gehlen argued that human beings are not yet finished animals. Man, to use Gehlen’s terminology, is, by comparison with other animals, a ‘deficient being’. By this notion of lack, he meant that human beings are biologically poorly equipped to cope with the world into which they are involuntarily thrown. They have no distinctive or specific instinctual equipment to a given environment, and require a long period of training in order to adapt themselves to the social and material world. This condition of being unfinished compels them to become creatures of ritual and discipline; their very survival requires self-discipline, training and self-monitoring. In order to manage this world openness (Weltoffenheit), human beings have to create a cultural world to replace or to supplement their limited instinctual legacy. Ontological incompleteness provides an anthropological explanation for the human origins of social institutions. In this sense, we can define ‘philosophical anthropology’ as a perspective that employs the findings of anthropology and human biology to address traditional philosophical problems concerning ontology. The core of Gehlen’s work was a theory of institutions. Human beings are characterized by their

‘instinctual deprivation’ (Instinktarmut) and therefore they do not have a stable structure within which to operate. Social institutions act as the bridge between humans and their physical environment, and it is through these institutions that human life becomes coherent, meaningful and continuous. In filling the gap created by instinctual deprivation, institutions provide humans with relief (Entlastung) from the tensions generated by undirected instinctual drives. It is as if humans have an abundance of needs but are poorly equipped to satisfy them and hence social training is essential to survival. Habit and ritual are central features of relief, because it reduces the expenditure of effort otherwise necessary for motivation and control in everyday life. Over time, these institutions are taken for granted and merge into the background of social action, while

the foreground is occupied by reflexive, practical and conscious activities. With modernization, there is a process of de-institutionalization with the consequence that the background becomes less reliable, more open to negotiation, increasingly precarious and routinely an object of reflection. Accordingly the foreground expands, and life is experienced as risky and unpredictable. With de-traditionalization, objective and sacred institutions suffer erosion, and modern life becomes subjective, contingent and uncertain. In fact we live in a world of secondary or quasi-institutions, which are fragile and subject to constant change. Institutions, which are exposed to persistent reflection, cannot provide humans with a reliable framework of relief. As a result there are profound psychological consequences associated with these changes. Primitive human beings had character, that is a firm and definite psychological structure that corresponded to reliable background institutions. In modern societies, people have personalities that are fluid and flexible, like the institutions in which they exist. Gehlen’s work on body, individuation and institutions can be regarded as the precursor of recent theories of risk society and the new individualism (Beck, 1992).