Magazine article New Internationalist

The World Made Flesh [Social Aspects of the Human Body]

Magazine article New Internationalist

The World Made Flesh [Social Aspects of the Human Body]

Article excerpt

A long the white corridors are garish, coloured illustrations showing parts of the body I hardly knew existed, let alone cared about.

They take on particular significance now, some organs and their functions especially so.

We make our way, down one floor, to the operating theater. Above its twin doors are strict instructions not to enter. A few yards a away, opposite the doors, are a couple of table with blue covered chairs. Here we sit and wait.

Not for the first time am I aware of a horrible congruence. I was in the early stages of putting together this issue of the NI on 'the theme of the body' and had just finished commissioning the main articles, when there was a phone-call saying that a close relative has been taken quite unexpectedly, seriously, ill.

He is now behind those swing doors, fighting for his life.

Strangely, during these hours, while his actual body is undergoing a massive medical assault, it's not his body that fills my consciousness. Maybe because it doesn't bear thinking about. But I don't think this is the only reason.

As I gaze out of the window, up to the dark, ragged fringes of fir trees on the snow-clad mountains, I think not of his body but of his love for snow. And as I watch the birds darting and weaving between the eves, their lives and gestures so vital yet vulnerable, it's his vitality, his spirit that fills my mind.

After ten hours in the operating theater the surgeon comes out. The operation was very tricky, but it's worked. The patient has age and strength on his side.

The next day we visit him. The first thing he does, in between all the tubes, and without a moment's hesitation, is to beckon and kiss us each in turn.

And it's perfect. The simplest, most direct way of expressing all the love, fear, relief, hope, gratitude. Bodily communicating what desperately needs to be said, but would take volumes to say in words.

Body politics

Returning to Oxford I find, on my desk, the piles of books I'd started reading on 'the body'. It's a trendy, 'hip' area of study these days. Much of the work is being done not by biologists but by philosophers, psychoanalysts and feminist theorists, drawing inspiration from French thinkers such as Helene Cixous, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida or Luce Irigaray. Debates on the 'materiality' versus the 'discursivity' of the body abound. And a lot of it is frankly impenetrable to the general reader.

I flick open one of the less jargon-bound collections and read: 'The body of woman is the site where culture manufactures the blockade of woman.' My mind quietly boggles at the prospect. Another text offers: 'Poststructuralist discourse analysis engages with the extra discursive of social reality (social practices, institutions etc) and of corpo-real bodies (their physical beings)...' Well, there you are.

I find it hard to relate these writings either to the feelings aroused by the personal experience of the body of a loved one at risk or to the subjects that lie at the heart of the New Internationalist's concerns. Issues like the right to the basic, vital things your body needs to survive: food, water, shelter, access to healthcare. The right not to have your body violated by others, be they oppressive regimes, employers or those with most clout within your family or community.

But there is a connection. These texts may not dwell on what bodies need, but they do examine what bodies 'mean'. And what bodies 'mean' in a particular culture or society actually plays a crucial role in determining who can have what they need in their lives and who can't.

More explicitly, inequalities in the world are established and maintained by the 'meaning' that we give different bodies.

It's often extremely crude. For example, in many parts of the world, if you are born with a female body you are automatically denied control over your own life. You are the possession of your father or your brothers or your uncles until you become that of your husband and later your sons. …

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