The Doctrine of “the Body”: a Note on the New Gnosticism

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.

* * * * *

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

10 thoughts on “The Doctrine of “the Body”: a Note on the New Gnosticism

  1. The new Gnostics like the old hate reality as it is given because what is given imposes itself authoritatively and implacably – because what is given limits the range of possibility available to libido. The new Gnostics again like the old confuse the categories of experience and embroil themselves in irresolvable contradictions. The new Gnostics are materialists so that the category of the spiritual should be irrelevant to them, but, as you point out, the only thing that can be mis-located in this body or that is spirit. The new Gnostics therefore need to invoke something like spirit when they invoke “gender dysphoria” (or whatever they call it) although in almost all other situations they would deny the existence of the spiritual, classing it along with religion as superstition.

    If generally speaking for the new Gnostics spirit has no reality and belongs only to superstition, then all that remains to them is matter, of which the body is a manifestation. And yet they show signs of despising the body. This tendency appears in pop-culture in tattooing and other forms of scarification, and more radically in the disfigurements, chemically and surgically produced, of the transgender delusion, which supplies a perfect example of the rejection of what is naturally given. If what such people do to themselves by election were inflicted on someone involuntarily, all morally perceptive people would recognize it for what it is, namely torture.

    In the last four decades, hundreds of motion pictures have appeared in cinemas in which the appeal is the brutalization of the body. Think of slasher movies or zombie movies or those movies whose action consists entirely in realistic gun play. The popularity of such movies would be linked to the new-Gnostic abhorrence of the body, which, all by itself and simply through its existence, seems to solicit punishment. One could even say plausibly that aberrant sexual activities that abuse the body amount to the infliction of punishment on the body. Again however if matter is all that exists, the new-Gnostic hatred of the body can only be, at a deeper level, a prior hatred of matter. Since the new Gnostics reject the existence of anything immaterial, such as spirit, it follows that the new Gnosticism is a pure nihilism. It aims at the obliteration of the cosmos so that, precisely, nothing remains.

    • By the way — congratulations on attaining your sixty-first year. If I live long enough, I will attain my sixty-fourth this coming Saturday.

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  3. The term “the Self” is simply a misconstrual of the reflexive pronoun, under the influence, one suspects, of the Cartesian Ego.

    Thus, “self-consciousness” is assumed to be consciousness of a “self.” The self is then reified into something that some things (people, for example) are or have: a sort of mysterious, immaterial entity. How this self is connected with this particular living human body is by no means obvious.

    In reality, “self-consciousness” simply means “consciousness that such-and-such holds of oneself.” It goes without saying that here “oneself” is simply the indirect reflexive, the reflexive of indirect speech. Understanding indirect speech we know what the related direct speech is. That is all. “So-and-so holds of me” is not at all problematic; “me” refers to this living human body that is currently operating this keyboard and thinking these I-thoughts (and who, in distant childhood, learned to have them by saying what I had done, was doing &c)..

    • Your comment on the role of ‘self’ as a grammatic structure reminds me that in ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years,’ David Graeber argued that mind-body dualism originated in a slave-based conception of property, where ones own body was your property in the same sense that one’s slaves were one’s property. ‘The Self’ commands the body the same way the master commands a slave.

      I don’t take Graeber’s commentary on the nature of property very seriously, but he does make a good point regarding the dual nature of acting and being acting upon. Maybe this is just a weakness of modern English grammar, but moderns have a hard time understanding that a thing can be either the subject or the object of an action. This makes the delusion of an animating spark separate from themselves necessary to explain any worldly action.

      • Graeber’s suggestion is interesting.

        Dominus membrorum suorum nemo videtur: No-one is to be regarded as the owner of his own limbs, says Ulpian in D.9.2.13. pr. That a leading jurist thought it worthwhile to make the point suggests that some at least had fallen into that very error.

  4. What you say is no doubt true of the grammatical use of the word myself, but I still believe the word “self” is often used as a substitute for “soul,” especially by people who wish to disown the religious metaphysics that are connoted by the later term. The grammatical self solves semantic problem of identity between the subject and object of a sentence, but the gnostic self solves a problem of a felt disconnection between one’s public presence in the world (i.e. “the body”) and one’s private essence. When we say a man is trying to “find himself,” I believe we mean that he has somehow lost touch with his soul, with the substance that unites all his roles, aspects and moods. It seems to me that there are two types of self-consciousness. One, perfectly normal and healthy, is an an ability to see and judge one’s self from the outside. The other is a pathological overdevelopment of this faculty. Both are absent in small children, which sometimes makes them charming and at other times makes them intensely annoying.

    • “[T]he substance that unites all his roles, aspects and moods”

      Again, this sounds suspiciously like the Cartesian Ego. Locke provides the reduction ad absurdum: might not the thinking substance which thinks the thought “I did it” — the genuine thought of agent-memory — nevertheless be a different thinking substance from the one that could have had the thought: “I am doing it” when the act was done? Thus he detached the identity of the “self” or “person” from the identity even of the thinking being which does the actual thinking of the I-thoughts.

      What guarantees the self I call “I” has anything to do with ME? Or, if we say “the self connected with a man” meant just the one he means by “I” at any given time, whatever self that is, it would be by mere luck it had anything else to do with him.

      However, if I say that I am this living, human body here that has reflexive (non-observational) awareness of its actions, postures, intentions &c, then no problems of re-identification arise. Likewise, Descartes’s Ego becomes simply this Frenchman, born on 31 March 1596 and christened René &c. As for “person,” we all understand (except when we are doing philosophy) the meaning of “the person over there” or “Offences against the Person.”

  5. Pingback: Gnosticism Sighting at The Orthosphere – The Gnostic War


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