I have a new graduate student who is beginning to hack his way through the jungle of “the geographic literature,” and with each falling branch he cries, like Alice in Wonderland,
“Curiouser and Curiouser!”
I am not surprised, for this jungle abounds in curiosities. His latest discovery is a curious article on recent “progress” in political geography. This begins:
“Geographers have lagged behind other disciplines when it comes to studying the body.”*
One might add that this is only one of the many ways that geographers have lagged behind other disciplines, and that geographers’ readiness to turn aside and study things like “the body” may be part of the reason they have fallen so far behind.
Anyhow, I though you might be interested in my attempt to explain the doctrine of “the body” to this student, since it touches on themes of longstanding interest to the Orthosphere.
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I believe the doctrine of “the body” teaches that every human self is imprisoned in a physical shell, and that this imprisoned self often suffers because of prejudices against that type of shell, and presumptions about the type of self it might contain. There seems always to be a strong suggestion of disconnection and mismatch between the outer body and the inner self. This is most obvious in the notion that the self of a transgendered person is imprisoned in a body of the opposite sex, and of course in operations to alter the appearance of that physical shell and bring it into line with the spirit of the inner self. When critical race theorists talk about assaults on “black bodies,” I believe they aim to analytically disconnect the self of a black individual from its “black body,” and to suggest that this self suffers because it is imprisoned in a shell that is unjustly denigrated and abused by the surrounding culture. Talk of fat bodies seems to work in a similar way.
This article states that theories of “the body” originated in feminism. This is true if we limit our attention to the past fifty years. The basic doctrine obviously goes back at least two thousand years to the Gnostics, a Christian heresy that argued dualism of body and spirit. The Gnostics taught that every man has a “divine spark” that is imprisoned in a gross body, and that recognizing the disconnection between body and spirit is the beginning of wisdom (gnosis). Many Gnostics argued that this disconnection meant the inner spirit could not be soiled by the sins of the body, and that spiritual purity was perfectly compatible with carnal indulgence.
This doctrine was able to make its way into geography because every self appears in space as a corporeal presence. You and I and everyone else appear in this world as the “skin suit” we were “assigned” at birth. According to the doctrine of “the body,” your self had the good fortune to be handed a white male skin suit as it went out the door, but the self right behind you had the misfortune to be handed a brown body that was too big and the wrong sex.
Because talk of “the body” is often mixed up with talk of human sexuality, and because it is often used to excuse carnal indulgence, it is easy to form the mistaken impression that it is a sensualist and hedonistic philosophy. But the doctrine of “the body” does not glorify the body and its pleasures. It deprecates the body in order to make lofty claims for the purity and freedom of the spirit (or self). In fact, resentment against “the body” runs through this whole discourse.
*) Alison Mountz, “Political Geography III: Bodies,” Progress in Human Geography42.5 (2018): 759-769