Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

By Luckman, Susan | Cultural Studies Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy


Luckman, Susan, Cultural Studies Review


uncovering nudity RUTH BARCAN Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy Berg, Oxford, 2004 ISBN 1-85973-872-9 RRP $69.00 (pb)

In so many ways it's an incredibly banal thing to note, but for me at least H really wasn't until I was reading a book on the subject did I realise nudity is everywhere. Sure, there's the fetishisation of nubile young bodies in advertising; the salacious comments about nudism and peoples' mixed experiences of nudist beaches; the nude in art; and the nakedness (in its many guises) of sex, streakers, and the daily rituals of (de)robing we generally all experience. Further, due to the contentious standing of public nudity in contemporary Western societies (the specific focus of this book) and its association with sexuality, it does of course constantly feature in news reporting. My reading of the book coincided with a number of media reports which registered perhaps more than they would otherwise: the damaging in a drunken pub incident in Melbourne of the landmark Young and Jackson hotel's famous nude 'Chloe' (the painting itself gets a mention on page 31); the proclamation of Dame Helen Mirren as 'naturist of the year' by peak British group British Naturism; and, most worryingly, reports from Swaziland that bus drivers were apparently taking it upon themselves to sexually assault young women wearing mini-skirts, following a ban issued by some drivers earlier in the year. Certainly, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy definitely gets you thinking about how nudity, or the relative perception of it, is indeed a foundational point of organisation for the Judeo-Christian world.

Wishing to move beyond the already relatively charted examination of nakedness and representation (Ruth Barcan especially draws attention to the oft-explored figure of the 'nude' in the 'implicitly masculinist visual arts tradition in Western art' (5) and in the feminist cultural criticism of pornography and theorising of the 'male gaze'), Barcan's focus in Nudity is also upon the actual embodied experience of nakedness, bodily adornment practices and relative undress. Given the breadth of issues such an examination necessarily involves, Barcan offers what she refers to as a 'horizontal' rather than 'vertical' study in order to accommodate wider coverage of a hitherto under-explored area. What this means for the reader is that while they may at times be left wanting a deeper analysis on particular topics, Nudity can lay some claim to being if not an exhaustive study, then certainly a thorough and entertaining overview of the field-one which gives rise to further questions perhaps, but that provides a solid philosophical foundation from which to explore more specific issues.

Setting up this philosophical terrain, the book explicitly concerns itself with nudity within what the author refers to as the Western tradition and from here it focuses on two core metaphysical traditions that it is argued provide the foundation for Christian approaches to the body: Platonic and Jewish. Given this focus, and the imperial history and subsequent multicultural reality of the Christian world, Barcan discusses not only Western bodies, but also how this hegemonic Judeo-Christian paradigm of morality has informed post-settlement approaches to indigenous peoples, and frequently racist hierarchies of morality and humanity. Thus it is only within this framework that non-Western bodies are discussed-that is, as viewed by the Western world view-in order to further elaborate upon the meaning of nakedness within this Western paradigm. In so doing, some of the most fundamental ordering belief structures can be revealed in terms of the role of clothing within this ideological system; namely, clothing as being inextricably bound to humanness and 'civilization', with obvious ramifications for the reading of various unclothed Others' (indigenous peoples, the 'uncivilised', 'deviant' or 'insane').

Chapter 1 sets the philosophical groundwork for the rest of the book by exploring nakedness/ dress as a complex dichotomy mobilised variously depending upon the needs and beliefs of the discursive community. …

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