If one were to look up “body” in the dictionary, most definitions they would find focus on physicality: the physical substance of an organism, the principal part of a building (ex. church), a form or shape. One may also find synonyms such as the following: corpse, cadaver, substance, or part. But these words seem so removed and dehumanizing, so detached from life. Is a living body really the same as a dead body? And in this example, should the word ‘body’ be interchangeable with the word ‘being?’ If so, then one can argue that a body is more than just a physical makeup of matter that holds our internal organs; it is part of what makes us human. But do our bodies set us apart from other organisms? Do our bodies define our humanity?
When addressing the concept of ‘the body,’ remember that bodies are not specific to human beings, although I focus primarily on the human body (the body is an essential part of the human experience, which connects directly to the other key term of our course, humanities). While human bodies are unique from other living beings, life is not a necessary condition to define a body. A work of art can have a body. Buildings have bodies. Bodies are essence, they are substance, but they are not enough on their own; they are an essential part of a whole. The human body, for example, cannot function without the eleven systems that make up the body. But even with these systems, a functioning body is not whole on its own, and it’s not enough to define a human being. However, the body is essential in defining the human experience.
Human beings interact with the physical world through sensory experiences with their bodies, but they also rely on their bodies to navigate their mental and spiritual health. Consider the mind-body connection: what we go through physically affects our thoughts and our understanding of the world around us, and the opposite is also true. As Professor Tamura said, emotions have physical aspects, so our bodies reflect our state of mind. Ancient practices like yoga and mediation use this connectivity to promote unity of the mind, soul, and body. One can find peace of mind or connection with a higher being through movement of the body. However, other theories and beliefs view the human body as a separate entity from the mind and soul. Further, some may see the body as a prison for the mind. During Sapere Aude, we discussed Buddhist beliefs on the notion of ‘the self’ and the separation of the self from the physical body. They used the analogy of a house: physically, a house is just a construction of materials, so it is impossible to define the essence of a house. However, in my interpretation of this analogy, the house is the body for a home. When it is filled with a family and memories and collections from one’s life, the essence of the home becomes intertwined with the house. So must we separate the body from self as we separate house from home? Further, does this distinction only occur after death and our “self” no longer lives inside our body?
Appiah asked a similar question about the separation of the body from the soul in his “What is Knowledge”: will Albert, a man getting a brain transplant, still exist once his brain is in a new body? And while the brain is outside the body, does Albert still exist? The brain doesn’t need the body to continue functioning if it is connected to the computer, but can we still call this brain Albert? Without his body, Albert is missing an integral part of his humanity. Our bodies are how we connect to other humans and the outside world– they are our mark of existence. We also learn and communicate through our bodies, but Albert’s brain cannot perform all of these abilities on its own. Therefore, while whatever part of Albert that is made up by his brain still exists, Albert as a whole does not.
Appiah’s examination of the role of the body connects to the question: is our body our identity? Although we typically use our bodies for expression, there can be conflict between the body and the ‘self.’ This may be true for someone who identifies as nonbinary or transgender. When this conflict arises, the body becomes a burden rather than a tool. Therefore, while our physical bodies can be our greatest tool or weapon, they can also be a source of vulnerability.
The body is a language, it is a form of art, it is our self-expression. Firstly, individuals use their bodies to reflect their inner thoughts and their state of mind. For example, facial expressions reflect emotions, and we can also reflect them through our posture or movement. Additionally, we express our individuality through bodies, whether this be with clothes, tattoos, hair colors, etc. But our individuality is more than just physical appearance: therefore, our bodies can also be a tool to advocate for our individual beliefs. In Unit 2, we studied how performers use their bodies to advocate for social change. Participants in the Theatre of the Oppressed performed to practice social and cultural revolutions. They expressed their suffering, their anger, and their pain through their movements and their actions, but they also turned their bodies into a weapon for freedom and equality. Similarly, Anna Deveare Smith used her own racialized body to illustrate the systemic racism and violence plaguing American societies during her performances. She connected the audience to the characters with her body as her only tool. Her body was simultaneously her art, her expression, and her voice.
The body is freedom, but it can also be our greatest limitation. Throughout history, the human body has been our entry ticket, the connecting feature among human beings. However, it has also separated us from each other, created social hierarchies, and caused specific populations centuries of oppression and trauma. Once a person or population loses control over their own body, they lose their dignity and humanity. For example, humans of African descent differ from those of European descent by the color of their skin. This single feature has been used to degrade them and separate them from the rest of society. Additionally, it has been used as justification for using them as slaves and treating them like animals. Their own bodies are turned against them and become weapons of self-destruction. In Black Venus, we watched as Sara Baartman’s body became her own source of torment as she was forced to dance and act like an animal in front of white audiences. The white men running her show took advantage of the innate curiosity that white people had for bodies that were different from their own; the men allowed audiences to stare at her, touch her, and ultimately humiliate her. Her body was infiltrated and infected by others, but she had no control over her own body. Even in death, she never found peace or dignity. In the final scene of the movie, we witnessed white male scientists stripping Sara Baartman of her dignity as they dissected her body post mortem. During this dehumanizing treatment, Sara became simply a body and no longer human, although this dehumanization had occurred long before her death. Sadly, hers was not a unique story, and her story demonstrates how black bodies, specifically black female bodies, have been exploited for centuries by white society.
We do not choose our bodies. Those of African descent did not choose to have dark skin, nor did Europeans choose to have light skin. So how has something beyond anyone’s control become an indicator of their social status? In Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, she analogizes racism to an alternate universe where height is the defining feature of the superior race: short people are inferior to tall people. Her purpose is to raise questions as to how an uncontrollable feature such as skin color became an indicator of superiority in the social hierarchy. This conflict among different bodies connects to a question raised during our discussion in Professor Tamura’s unit on empathy: do we have to see ourselves in others to empathize with them? In other words, are we only capable of empathizing with those who are similar to us, who have similar bodies to ours? If this is the case, then mankind faces the constant threat of division and separation.
In Unit 4, we explored the body as an archive of the human experience. Physically, individual bodies are spotted with scars and marks of our past. We are each made up of our family history as well. The body’s responsibility to be an archive can therefore be a burden, for we don’t get to choose our past. We don’t get to decide what genes we inherit, where our family comes from, or what our body looks like. In this sense, our bodies may be our greatest source of vulnerability, for there is always a question of whether our body is truly our own. Collectively, our bodies are made up of moments in human history. In some instances, they may be reduced to numbers: 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, almost 70 million Covid-19 cases worldwide, over 11 million slaves traded in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. But as discussed with Professor Tamura, it is important to remember the people behind the numbers. When bodies become archives, they face the threat of dehumanization.