It might seem strange to focus a reflection about the spirit of our time on the body. While ideas appear to be changeable and fickle, we see the body as something given, fixed, unalterable in the presence of the changes that characterize human history. However, the body is a privileged register of the historical conditions of our existence. Technologies and myths, religious beliefs and scientific knowledge, eating habits and work practices converge to modify the body: its conception, its functions and even its own materiality. It has been said that each era has the truth that it deserves, and we could add that each era also has the body it deserves. In Greco-Roman antiquity the body worked gymnastics, sports and pederasty; in medieval times it was a temple of the Holy Spirit, a surface for flagellation and purifying abstentions. Later on, science conceived it as a machine and subjected it to the laws and metaphors of mechanics and psychology. Capital turned it into an operative body, useful and disciplined, and a consuming body, seduced and controlled. What can we say of Puerto Rican bodies at the dawn of the 21st century?
What image will substitute that shirtless well-built worker”s torso operating the wheel of progress that celebrated Puerto Rican modernity in the no longer existent factories of the Industrial Development Company? Or the blond with sunglasses, pouring Coppertone over her body, that transported us to the consumerist circuits of the prodigal north? In the century of our industrialization -that still languishes- bodies are formatted in somewhat contradictory terms of economical productivity and consumer needs. On one hand, the capitalist society seeks to transform us into disciplined producers, able to control our appetites and desires, and make bodies useful for work. On the other, it seeks to turn us into useful consumers, eager to buy all it produces, and pushes our bodies to unrestrained desire and indiscipline. It wants us to be puritans when working but playboys when buying; says Michael Featherstone.
In the 21st century, as we enter late capitalism, what new ways of subjectivization will tie our bodies to the evolutions of power? Will they be carried out in the ways built on digital processing anticipated by science fiction, which we already see in the substitution of identity cards with pictures or fingerprints for chips set under the skin, or bar codes with our socioeconomic profile, consumption habits and clinical history tattooed on our necks? If our bodies were spatially confined by school or factory walls during industrial capitalism, will they now be cybernetically tied or perpetually attached to information streams? Such a tendency is already anticipated in cell phones, those electronic shackles that make our bodies continually available; in cameras that make us continually visible and watched over; in credit cards and chips that will permanently tie us to pointless jobs because we are unable to pay off debts that reproduce like Medusa heads.
Our body was our letter of presentation. Visible, bearer of shared codes, it allowed us to assume an identity and send messages about who we were. Today, those bodies are hiding. They hide in a somatic narcissism that may be part of our new conception of what is public and private. They hide in cars, where the body is encapsulated by the armor of the automobile. They also hide on the Internet. Face to face encounters in bars or town squares used to initiate love. Today it`s more frequent to fall in love on line, based on a picture or a description through which the sign of identity is built digitally. We do the same buying online or playing cybernetic games, never putting our bodies on the line.
Bodies are also hidden by virtue of the segregations of space. The sickened body is hidden in an aseptic hospital and even the dead are expelled from the funeral parlor and destined to the crematorium, where they disappear in quick decomposition. By separating urban areas by commercial use vs. residential use, by classes, by ethnic groups and even by sexual preferences, we avoid the risk and the opportunity- to come in contact with a foreign body. In the mall there is no close contact of bodies, only with similar ones. The crowd of bodies has been dispersed and when it meets it is only to witness a show in the coliseum or to consume in the mall in a passive and narcotized way, instead of exercising other, more complex and participatory activities. This way, distance education displaces the instructive body to body contact of the classroom. Richard Sennet holds to the belief that post-modem technologies separate the word from the body, and suggests than through digital and mass media one`s own body is experienced in a passive way. Having in mind that spatial relations between bodies -if they are touched and smelled, seen and heard- influence the way one reacts to others, he asks: will we be less sensitive to and conscious of other people`s bodies that our grandparents were?
What consequences does sitting in front of the computer, or living in outlying suburbs where it is only possible to move the body around by car have for our bodies? According to Paulo Virilio, the world is subjected to an aesthetic of disappearance due to the speed of the movement of our bodies. Riding fast vectors, cars or jets, but also riding Internet waves, our bodies are unable to capture the world but as flying shades, in sensations blurred by speed. Transformed into perpetual passengers, inhabiting insipid malls and airports-spaces without history or personality- bodies are unable to set roots, they do not find their place. Without exhibition time, they are unable to register the world and feel only the vertigo of movement.
Our life expectancy rocketed in the 20th century. While many miseries and pains of the body were conquered, new illnesses related to aging, like Alzheimer and prostate conditions, to pollutants, like allergies and asthmas, or to unhealthy diets, like obesity and diabetes, began to appear. In our contemporary cities it is so difficult to walk that our anthropological definition, neatherless biped, seems to be in danger. Technology affects our body`s physical condition, perhaps more radically than before. There is somewhat of a narcotizing effect of the body, similar to the one felt by a spectator that sees the climbing of the Everest on television, or by the person that plays soccer on the computer. Technology liberates the body from invigorating resistance and discomfort.
What future does technology promise the body in the post-work and welfare society? Instead of working machines, will our bodies turn into parasitic bodies, with their functions degenerated by the sweet trap that liberates them from work? Or will the liberation of such tasks cause energies to be redirected in order to propitiate a creative leisure that reinvigorates the body?
Moving on to a more symbolic register, it was around the differentiation by gender where our conception of the body -its place in society, in imagery, and in daily life- seemed to change the most at the end of the century. The feminist revolution, that complex phenomenon triggered by the evolution of capital and work technologies and the political action of many women and men, radically modified a social and sexual order that was preached by anatomy as destination. Gender differences used to stipulate that a well socialized man had hair on his chest and that he had his pants in place. The metro-sexual at the end of the 20th century -the byproduct of the feminist revolution- seemed to rebel against such image of virility. He shaved his chest and wore his pants on low, precariously supported by his buttocks. He liked make-up and femininely soft and florid clothes and objects. Although he seemed to assume the market logic in his consumption strategies, the metro-sexual also made his position clear on the discursive practices of gender. Like women in pants, he redid his body consuming codes that subverted gender drama, buying disguised symbols that transgressed the traditional codes of masculinity.
Today, it seems that we have a replica of these styles in the glorifications of the macho man to the rhythm of reggaetón. Nevertheless, the most widely diffused musical gender of our time seems to contradict most of what we have said thus far. Hedonist and booming, this music cannot be understood if one does not think of the exposed bodies reverberating to the rhythm of café con pan. It participates in gender notions that we thought we had overcome with the feminist revolution-submissive women and sexual object- and by the metro-sexual fashion – obese, dominant brute of a man.
Having inherited hip hop, born in the streets of the desolate city, near the drug point and under the sign of force, barbarity, and violence, perhaps it could have not have been otherwise. But reggeatón bodies operate in complex ways with new technologies. They are highly cultured bodies -tattooed and perforated- that travel in cars with enormous horns and tiny steering wheels, in order to emphasize perception and devaluate action.
Perhaps the fragmentation and hybridism of our society, its deep complexity and the differentiation of its segments prevent the elaboration of a coherent profile of its bodies. The contrasting attitudes toward the body are acute and evident; suffice it to contrast the exposed bodies on No te duermas and the ankle-high skirts of tambourine-playing church girls. While the gym-going ladies transform organic soy into a status symbol, the obese ones go from the alcapurria fat to the McDonald”s transgenic fat. While many bodies do not walk, others mount treadmills at the gym or go to the track in Central Park. And while -long live Viagra- -many bodies go on medication to induce life, too many young bodies go to suicide because of drugs.
Today, of course, our cultural construction of the body is not limited to our attitudes and values, or to the practices that they bring about. Science allows us to materially recreate our anatomy. In a way, it has always been this way, since we invented the cane, and clothes, and eyeglasses. We have materially forged ourselves a body. That`s why Freud called us the prosthesis of god. But today it is evident that this capacity to build bodies expands and intesifies, as we understand the complex relations between our genes and our enviroment and society; as bodies become operable. We even hear of the postorganic human as a cyborg.
Today, the human ability to create reaches new dimensions. Molecular biology and computer science arrogantly try to decipher the mystery of life. The challenges -dangers and opportunities-launched by culture and faced by the body are unprecedented, even with the literary imagination that created Frankenstein. Facing fatalism and apathy, and the determinisms of biology and culture, new possibilities to take control over our bodies are offered. But this also opens to new possibilities of manipulation. Antonio Negri, a pessimist, notices that nowadays, the discursive devices with which power regulates bodies and social practices are being liberated by prosthesis and communication technologies. But philosophers like Peter Sloterdijk believe that the new technologies will facilitate new dimensions of human responsibility.
Technology based bodies, redone with operations and prosthesis, with tattooed skins and reassigned sexes, cyborgs; bodies with selected and manipulated genes. Such an incarnation of the technologies and modernization of bodies seems to overcome the dichotomy of nature and culture. The question is whether such conditions of historical possibility, which erase the frontiers between culture and biology like never before, will take us through dehumanizing paths traced by power or allow us, instead, to take control of our bodies.
Rubén Nazario Velasco
Professor, General Studies Departament
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
This post is also available in: Español