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.
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 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.
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.