Saturday, 23 May 2009

Utopian Bodies

At the regular Keele sociology seminar on Tuesday, Mark Featherstone presented a condensed version of a book chapter looking at utopian bodies. Mark has written extensively for the burgeoning field of utopian studies, which has proven to be an insightful and interesting branch of ideology critique. Utopian thinking and utopian politics has a long pedigree in Western thought stretching right back to the ancient Greeks. This history has seen all manner of weird utopias proposed but they all share two key principles. Utopias are spatially and temporally closed to the outside world, and internally they are socially identical, which is enforced by overt regulation or an implicit ideology. Furthermore utopias come in two flavours: the conservative (i.e. rigidly hierarchical) or egalitarian.

There is a further assumption undergirding utopian thought. As perfect communities utopias rest upon an orderly person with their orderly personalities. In pre-modern utopias this was part of Aristotle's great chain of being, of uniting the micro with the macro scales in one essential unity, which is exemplified by DaVinci's sketch of the Vitruvian Man (pictured). However this cosmic unity (which was carried over into mediaeval thought) started breaking down with the advent of modern thought. Rather than one vast ribbon tying all the elements of creation together, science, philosophy and sociology disassembled social phenomena and demonstrated how it was constituted out of the social relations obtaining between people. This argument can be observed most forcefully in
Emile Durkheim's sociology, and particularly his The Division of Labour in Society. Durkheim was not the first to use the body/organism metaphor to describe society, but (along with Marx) he was a pioneer of theorising the consequences of the growing division of labour, a process leading to greater social differentiation, a decomposition of 'traditional' relationships and the formation of new norms and values. However the rate of breakdown can and does outpace the speed of recomposition, leading to outbreaks of anomie.

Contemporaneously Freud's development of psychoanalysis undid the essential unity of personhood and offered an explanation of ordered and disordered bodies. Personalities were not coherent wholes, they were made up of the chaotic and impulsive id, the tyrannical ideal personhood of the superego and the mediating element, the ego. Later on
Jacques Lacan reinterpreted these core Freudian concepts - the id became 'the real', the feeling, the phenomenology of one's body that cannot be communicated. The ego was translated into the imaginary, combining the functions of ego and superego and presenting a representational sense of self-image. Therefore the id and real denote the unrepresented (and unrepresentable) while ego and the imaginary refer to (internal/external) representations of the unified self.

This is where utopianism comes back in - the ego and the imaginary represents a utopian body form shaped by the ideologies, discourses, hegemonies and technologies of the body circulating around society. In the West this has always involved a privileging of order of disorder, male over female bodies and the ideal body beautiful as opposed to the real lived body that breakdowns and dies ('excremental bodies', as Foucault put it). To show up the persistence of utopian bodies Mark turned to their treatment in ancient Greece (and their representations today), the New Testament, the French Revolution, Soviet, Nazi and the contemporary capitalist body.

Beginning with the Greeks, Plato's
Phaedo describes the death of Socrates, which emphasises the transient nature of the flesh and the transcendental soul. But the more familiar image of the classical body is handed down to us from the Polykleitos sculptures - the Doryphoros, Discophoros and Diadumenos and which more recently has resurfaced in 300. In this images the Greek body is always upright - it is a phallic body but is denuded of sexuality thanks to the diminutive nature of their genitals. Instead the phallus is transferred to the utopian (male) body, and is distinct from the feminised depictions of Dionysus, women and slaves.

Similar themes appear in
The New Testament. Mark's reading of Corinthians has distinct parallels with the Phaedo. The body is to be disciplined by the soul to ensure, upon death, communion with the mystical (utopian) body of Christ. Here the soul is the source and guarantor of purity and self-identity whereas the body is both corruptible and corrupting - hence the reason for eschewing the flesh altogether.

The utopian body of the French revolution drew on all these themes. It was incorruptible, upright, virtuous and selflessly dedicated to the revolutionary public. Common imagery of the time depicted Hercules locked in combat with the Hydra - Hercules' utopian body condenses revolutionary value, the Hydra symbolises the multi-headed aristocratic conspiracy. The enemies of the revolution were variously portrayed as feminine, as animals, and as feminised animals promiscuously engaged in sex.

The imagery of the USSR under high Stalinism incorporated these themes. The explosion of new art in the early soviet republic (for example, El Lissitzky's
New Man) conceived humanity as an abstraction, rejecting the constraints of lived bodies. It was the art appropriate to an industrial utopia in which mechanism exists as a possibility. But as the power of the bureaucracy consolidated its hold over post-revolutionary Russia, these artistic sensibilities became married to the new technocratic order. The body as abstraction became the body as motor, the robot worker unencumbered by fleshy limits, the worker that founds its propagandistic expression in the figure of Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement. The flipside of the Stakhanovite body was 'Oblomovism' - the decadent, indolent, work shy and idle bodies that were said to represent a cultural threat to socialist construction. The corrective mechanism was the gulag.

If Soviet utopian bodies were geared around work, Nazi bodies were all about combat. For example, the neo-classicism of Arno Breker's
sculptures emphasise the martial qualities of the (male) utopian body. The conservative German writer, Ernst Junger chimed with prevailing Nazi hegemony by writing about near-painless superhuman soldiers that in many ways prefigured Terminator cyborgs. This celebration of hyper-masculinity and glorification of war was the Nazi and conservative response to a perceived masculine crisis of the Weimar years, both in terms of a flourishing cultural liberalism and the emasculation of the Fatherland at the hands of the allied powers. These utopian bodies were actively differentiated from the feminine and the decadent, corrupting bodies of the homosexual and Jew.

Post 1945 liberal democratic political culture embraced human rights and explicitly committed itself to saving excremental bodies. This however is undermined at every turn by the relentless exploitation of workers' bodies by capital and the hegemonic status of the body as worker, consumer and marketing device. The contemporary utopian body is ageless, flawless, cybernetic and networked. The excremental body of now is not eliminated, but is to be pitied (recipients of charity, impoverished workers overseas) or condemned (chavs, the overweight).

The most interesting point fleshed out in the discussion was the place of gender. All of Mark's examples are conspicuously male bodies - are there female utopian bodies? Does utopian thinking demand they are disciplined in similarly gendered ways? Mark replied these representations tended to fall into either 'mother' or 'loose', but required more thorough investigation both in and of themselves and their interaction with male utopian bodies. For example, how does this play out in pornographic culture? Does it uphold the utopian body? Another interesting point was on the depiction of utopian bodies throughout history - they are a-relational. They stand alone because the utopian body fights shy of contagion - individuals relating to one another, especially outside sanctified structures, run the risk of degeneration. Hence the proliferation of cultural organisations under the 20th century's totalitarianisms.

Returning to gender, on reflection there is an important point that comes to mind. Utopian studies offer a interesting angle to begin a sociology of the body throughout the ages, but the gendering of women as an undesirable other to the male utopian body is a theme long explored and critiqued by feminists. For example, is utopian studies really saying anything new when it talks about the marginal status of female bodies in ancient Greece and Nazi Germany?

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