6 Bodies 6 Bodies

Body politics

We tend to delete the body from political discourse in favour of the mind: we focus on the rational over the corporeal and physical, on cognition over emotion, on orality and literacy over style and dexterity. Yet the human body remains central and essential to the conduct of politics. This is because all action is embodied – obviously so, but we should be careful not to take the needs, capacities and affordances of the body for granted.

This two-dimensionality is important because it describes a body that is at the same time lived and efficacious, and constrained and vulnerable; one that is accordingly both vehicle and victim of power. If it is used instrumentally as a rhetorical prop or dramatic prosthesis to add colour to discursive performances, it also exerts power in its own right and according to its own visceral talents and experiences. It extemporises and plays; it is unruly or recalcitrant; it has a life of its own. It interprets, negotiates, communicates; it wields and responds to myriad signs. Its acts become lodged in an intersubjective field where they are learned and disseminated as memories and habits of the flesh; sedimented and reproduced as the corporeal equivalent of ideology… But the flesh also rebels and enacts its own mode of refusal or innovation.

Diana Coole, ‘Corporeal communicators and the embodiment of power’, 2007

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, Diana Coole explains that the body is ‘inherently reflexive’, meaning able to know and think about itself. It is a folded, ‘two-dimensional being’ where there is ‘a body of the mind, and a mind of the body and a chiasm between them’ in Merleau-Ponty’s words. The body touches and is touched; it sees and is seen.

Bodies signify, both in and of themselves as objects, and because they are moved and motivated in particular ways by persons: raising or extending a hand, sitting at the head of the table, standing in a crowd. One of the ways in which they signify is in their clothing: think of the cloaked neutrality of the civil servant’s sober suit, or the orange overall of the Guantanamo prisoner.

The body is an instrument of politics. It remains perhaps the principal vehicle of protest: for all that social media were important in organizing and supporting gatherings and uprisings in Cairo, Istanbul, New York and elsewhere, the point and principal effect of communicating that way was to get people – numbers of bodies – into the streets. And as politicians and policy makers of all kinds know, when something’s at stake what matters first is simply to ‘be in the room’.

In order to understand why one engages in politics, we cannot rely, as has been traditionally done, on disembedded and disembodied reconstructions of politics-in-action. Instead we must attempt through up-close observations and detailed descriptions to reconstruct the feel of the action and the ‘immanent sociality of human experience’ – or what we might say are the lived realities of the political animal.

Matthew Mahler, ‘A sensualist understanding of political engagement’, 2006

In the coming together of human beings, and in their talking, politics produces and mobilises collectivities. Speech produces collective subjectivity, as we have seen, but so does shared sensory experience: of music, for example, or eating together. To the extent that the capacity and propensity of human beings to act is predicated on the properties and parameters of the human body, body politics is shaped by bodily functions. The need to eat and sleep structures the organization and process of meetings, while hunger and illness afford both opportunities and constraints for other kinds of engagement.

Politics exists within our bodies, as an often dormant knowledge.

Dana Yahalomi, founder of Public Movement, cit Oliver Marchart, ‘Protest, dance, body’, 2012

Bodies and minds are the locus of thought, and also of what Deborah Gould calls ‘political feelings’, drawing attention to those physical actions through which affect is articulated, channelled and transformed. For political work is emotional labour, too, to use Hochschild’s term: not much politics happens without joy or anger, anxiety, excitement, boredom, love and hate, or without their being incited, managed and mismanaged in some way. We should acknowledge, too – and perhaps even celebrate – the extent to which doing politics is a physical pleasure. What is it we call ‘the buzz’, which is at once a sensual, situated and specific thrill and a shimmering awareness of shared identity and purpose?

It is the centrality of the body to human action and experience, this significance of corporeality which begins to account for the importance of the face-to-face encounter in our study of politics. The special quality of direct, unmediated interaction is that it is conducted between human beings experienced as wholes, in more than mere words.

If the social is always past, in the sense that it is always formed, we have indeed to find other terms for the undeniable experience of the present: not only the temporal present, the realization of this and this instant, but the specificity of present being, the inalienably physical, within which we may indeed discern and acknowledge institutions, formations, positions, but not always as fixed products, defining products. And then if the social is the fixed and explicit – the known relations, institutions, formations, positions – all that is present and moving, all that escapes or seems to escape from the fixed and the explicit and the known, is grasped and defined as the personal: this, here, now, alive, active, ‘subjective’.

Raymond Williams, ‘Structures of feeling’, in Marxism and Literature, 1977

All I wanted to do was just photograph his mouth because, really, that is him. I’ve photographed him in the past and made pictures of him yelling at people in town halls but they didn’t really show the bare crux of what he is, or what his power is as a politician, which is his ability to just shout down anybody else’s opinion.

Mark Peterson in Paul Moakley, ‘Seeing Politics: Go Inside Mark Peterson’s Political Theatre’, 2016

Diana Coole (2007) ‘Experiencing discourse: corporeal communicators and the embodiment of power’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9 (3) 413-433; ‘This two-dimensionality…’ is p 416

‘In order to understand…’: Mahler, M (2006) ‘Politics as a vocation: notes toward a sensualist understanding of political engagement’, Qualitative Sociology 29 281-300, p 291; Mahler himself is citing James Ostrow on ‘the immanent sociality of human experience’: Ostrow, Social Sensitivity. A study of habit and experience, New York: SUNY Press, 1990

On political feelings, see Deborah Gould, Moving Politics. Emotion and ACT UP’s fight against AIDS, Chicago, U Chicago P, 2009, p 3 and passim; also Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart, Berkeley, CA: U California P, 1983

Dana Yahalomi is quoted by Oliver Marchart, ‘Protest, Tanz, Körper: die Passage von Kunst zu Politik / Protest, dance, body – the passage of art to politics’, in Demonstrationen. Vom Werden normativer Ordnungen, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2012; p 110

‘If the social is always past…’: Raymond Williams, ‘Structures of feeling’, in Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977; p 128

Mark Peterson was talking to Paul Moakley, ‘Seeing Politics: go inside Mark Peterson’s Political Theatre’, time LightBox, 18 January 2016