Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

Synopsis

Nudity features regularly in all major media. So why is it illegal to appear naked in public? Nudity has always been paradoxical. In modern consumer culture, it is actively encouraged in some contexts, but criminal or deviant in others. Images of nudity are everywhere. Advertising uses nudity to sell everything from housing loans to appliances, perfume to cars. Nudity has, in fact, become the latest fashion. This is not surprising. Advertising and fashion need a constant stream of novelty and theres nothing so new as nudity, the oldest fashion of all.Aside from being big business, nudity is a legal and moral minefield, the object of psychological study, and a mundane fact of everyday life. We alternately think of it as a perversion and a state of absolute innocence. Why does nudity mean so many contradictory things, and why is it treated so differently in different contexts? Drawing on a wealth of examples from popular culture, literature, philosophy and religion, as well as first-hand interviews, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy goes deep into the naked underworld to answer these questions. Barcan encounters morticians, nudists, strippers, nurses, tattooists, artists and makers of pornography. She demonstrates that ordinary people, popular culture and high philosophy are all sources of wisdom about the naked body. Nudity is one of the most fundamental metaphors in the Western tradition indeed, it is a metaphor for human nature itself and yet this book is one of the first to explore its paradoxes in depth. Barcans mission is to shine a light on a topic that has been largely ignored even within cultural studies, despite its ability to titillate, shock or entertain. From pubic hair fashions through to a Royal "full monty," Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy is a fascinating blend of meaningful minutiae and big philosophical questions about the most unnatural state of nature in the modern West.

Excerpt

One of the early chapters of Anatole France's quietly devastating satire on modernity and civilization, Penguin Island (1909), is entitled “The First Clothes.” Penguin Island is a fable about a group of penguins baptized mistakenly by a doddery saint. Since baptism is a rite signalling the shift from the natural state to the social order – and thus a rite specifically about humanness – the baptized penguins present God and His assembly of saints with a dilemma that can be resolved only by transforming the penguins into humans. God is initially reluctant to do this, but finds Himself trapped by the logic of His own doctrines. On rolls this logic, inexorably: the newly transmogrified penguins must next be clothed. “Since they have been incorporated into the family of Abraham,” sighs the saint, “these penguins share the curse of Eve, and they know that they are naked, a thing of which they were ignorant before” (France 1909: 43). Once the penguins are clothed, they start to lose all modesty. The novella depicts clothing as the first human hypocrisy, to be followed by a train of others: property, wealth, class and war. Human morality, it seems, is based on hypocrisy, vanity and violence. The Devil, in the form of a monk, carries off the first clothed penguin and rapes her: “Then the penguins felt as if the sun had gone out” (France 1909: 48).

This fable tells us a number of things about nudity: first, it replays the familiar moral argument that it is clothing and not nudity that provokes desire, and that modesty comes into existence only with the category of sin. Nudity (like modesty) does not precede clothing; rather, it comes into being with the invention of clothing. The story also follows a long tradition in seeing clothing as a form of alienation from a primordial unselfconsciousness, a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. In short, clothing is part of the sad story of “civilization.” The fable also recognizes that both clothing and nudity are bound up in a quite primal way with the fundamental ordering categories of societies – especially gender and rank (or class) – and with the power, politics and pleasures of sex. Most profoundly of all, it recognizes that nudity is a human category, for the penguins, while ever they remained birds, were not naked.

I have chosen this episode as a kind of exemplary tale because it captures many of the themes and arguments of this book, which aims to clothe with . . .

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