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Power Structures and the Human Body

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Wordcount: 3394 words Published: 22nd Apr 2019

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“Structures of power are inscribed on the body and are reproduced by the body”, discuss.

From the 20th century onwards, the body ceased to be a mere biological entity. It began to be recognised as site of articulation of power and resistance. As a politicised entity, the body in modern society is vulnerable to its environment’s socio-political, economic and cultural moorings (Hancock 2000). This essay shall focus on the socio-somatic theories of Bourdieu and Foucault, while considering the intellectual atmosphere they were guided and limited by and the consequent literature that they inspired. The quote above is within the purview of the habitus described by Pierre Bourdieu, encapsulated in his major works like Outline of a Theory of Practice, The Logic of Practice, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, to name a few. Based, on his fieldwork in French controlled Algeria in the late 20th century, his theories of ‘habitus’, ‘field’, ‘doxa’, and ‘capital’ wielded much influence in his time and even today.

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Bourdieu’s conception on bodily dispositions influenced by an interaction between the field and the habitus was within a contemporary scholarly tradition of breaking away from the rigid Cartesian duality of the mind and the body. It also was within a growing poststructuralist and postmodernist critique of Enlightenment and Victorian essentialist concepts like ‘culture’, ‘society’ and ‘rationality’ (Hancock 2000; Turner 1995). New ways of examining the body as an entity within and influenced by pervasive social and economic ambits had begun to gain currency. It was in this milieu in which Bourdieu’s dynamic concept of the habitus was born, having drawn some inspiration from Marcel Mauss’ ‘techniques of the body’ within a social habitus (Bourdieu et al.eds 1990).

Mauss exegesis on bodily habits of individuals is explained through several examples across a cross-cultural spectrum. Techniques displayed by one’s body are influenced by the social circumstances of the person – especially dictated by authority. Mauss’ focus on taught body habits are explained through circumstances of ‘education’ or ‘training’ that commands mimesis, compelled by social necessities. Hence, body techniques vary across several societies, sexes and age groups, involving a physio-psycho-social approach to mimesis (Mauss 1973). The text albeit in its reductionist and formulaic tone, bore some basic tenets that inspired Bourdieu’s theory of practice.

In describing the habitus, Bourdieu posits a unique concept about generative structures that are determined by their historical roots and constantly enable those structures through unconscious, embodied mental and physical values and habits. Historic conditions that generate such dispositions and structures perpetuate themselves by operating at the levels of individual unconsciousness, themselves being influenced by the same structures that birthed them (Bourdieu 1990, 2010).

Ardently believing in the fusion of empirical output and theoretical knowledge, Bourdieu’s theory of practice was informed by the fieldwork he carried out in Algeria among the Kabyle community. Here, the socially embodied Kabyle men and women exemplified the spaces within which they operated through their manner of walking, eating, posture, speech, values, etc. The general dualistic male-female scheme of the Kabyle houses and values system were represented by the men and women who in their daily activities – the men upright, confident and public whereas the women private, docile and stooping – personified Kabyle society . Differentiating between conscious imitation and unconscious bodily mimesis, the social field is constituted by the latter.

The body then can be described as a tangible architecture of its habitus – never separate from it and unconsciously reproducing it. The bodily dispositions of one are a product of their class, sex, age and social milieu (Bourdieu 1990, 2010).

When Bourdieu discusses class domination, it is not defined in the Marxist idea of class as determined by the nature of relations of production (Bourdieu et al.eds 1990). ‘Social class’ is defined by its position and its seminal ‘natural’ dispositions and associated materiality. Here, the body of the dominated class if defined by the standards set by the dominant, even when they consciously resist appropriating those dispositions.

Distinguishing between the materiality and values upheld by bourgeois, middling or petty bourgeois and the working class, control is exerted by the particular (cultural and economic)‘capital’ possessed by the bourgeois. Certain bodily characteristics and habits embody these notions of class difference and are constantly improvised by the dominant to maintain distance (Bourdieu & Nice 2008). Here, we find the same dual male-female scheme generated in the way Bourdieu describes the embodied habits of bourgeois and non-bourgeois classes. In manners, dress, food, aesthetics, sport, the bourgeois are feminised in their body techniques, while the middling kind is more ‘male’. Examples like fish eating, gentlemanly beautification, idle sport, etc. are cited to indicate bourgeois feminisation, contrasting with the rough and tumble sport, meat eating, and lack of beautification in working class men to indicate maleness of their social class.

Bourdieu regards ‘education’ as training grounds like Mauss did but also as enabling bourgeois dominance. Education is an relic of their control and the body that is disciplined in educational institutions is a body that represents dominant norms through learnt ‘sophisticated’ articulation, etiquette, etc. – values understood as desirable (Bourdieu et al.eds 1990). It is a way of beating the ‘peasant’ or the uncivilised out of the body, thereby exercising control. Grenfell discusses how Bourdieu’s early boarding school experience was marked by institutional and pupil condescension towards his humbler background (Grenfell 2004). His shaming and disciplining to embody ‘culture’ is rooted in the French context of society where qualifications were important (Bourdieu et al.eds 1990). His precepts on education must hence be contextualised and understood in terms of 20th century French education.

One may bemoan the apparently rigid and static suggestions by Bourdieu of the social structures that govern individuals and their habitus, leaving no scope for agency and change. What one misses out on with a speedy critique like that is that the level of dynamism and flexibility that governs the theory of Bourdieu’s habitus. People alter the socio-historical acquisitions of their bodies by acting as active agents and improvising and are not just pushed around by external forces (Grenfell 2004; Wacquant 2011).

However they are limited in this change by the historically produced socially motivated structures.

Wacquant, who worked under Bourdieu’s tutelage, tested the scope of his theory within sociology by studying a boxing ring (habitus) in a ‘black’ American ghetto in Chicago.

Studying a habitus where socio-historical embodiment is unconscious among individuals could be a complex task. Wacquant thus discarded the usual linear textual approach for a multifaceted one, writing three texts for ethnographic input, bodily reflexivity and analysis (Wacquant 2011). Over the years other ethnographic studies inspired by the concept of habitus have surfaced. They study the impact of symbolic violence mediated by social structures on vulnerable groups in their everyday life and habits, constantly reinforcing their beliefs in doomed destinies and normalised ethnic disparities explained through defects in their moral characters or communities. These include the study of African-American and white drug users in San Francisco by Bourgois and Schonberg who call to attention the fact that despite addiction to the same chemicals and the state of homelessness, the lifestyle and bodily differences between the two ethnic groups are mediated by their social histories and inherently racist structures at play in the United States (Bourgois & Schonberg 2007). Similarly, Phillips’ ethnography of a Chicano tattoo artist focuses attention to his body that bears the engravings of social structures at play as he goes through life participating in gangs, tattooing, pornography and recursive incarceration – a life predestined by his habitus (Phillips 2000). Such studies reinforce racial stereotypes about particular ethnic groups but contextualise them in the nuanced concept of the regenerative habitus that explains social trajectories in terms of self-generating power structures.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice has enjoyed tremendous currency as a social philosophy and is used in a wide range of social science disciplines. Its ethnographic nature (since theory was informed by fieldwork in Algeria) was a departure from his earlier statistical methodology. However, as Jane Goodman argues, this theory was informed by problematic representation and understanding of the Kabyle people, something that passed muster as the habitus became a popular concept. The Levi-Straussian structuralism embedded in Bourdieu’s methodology denoted the Kabyle people as a timeless illiterate peasant people in a simple/non-complex society that could not articulate the moorings of their own conditions. This incapability necessitated the analysis of an outsider who could better discern the power structures at play (Goodman 2003). Goodman questions the validity of a theory based on such an essentialist colonial view of the people it studied. Furthermore, the dual male-female ordering of social space and things/bodies is highly reductionist. Laden with post-Enlightenment rhetoric, these dualities have no real value and are unrepresentative of the multiple identities of gender and sex.

A discussion of power inscriptions on the body and its reproduction is incomplete without a look at the theoretical concepts of Foucault’s ‘biopower’ as manifested in the body. Unlike Bourdieu’s habitus-inscribed body that perpetuates socio-historical structures that it is a product of, Foucault’s obvert focus on the power-laden body has been more compelling to scholars in somatic studies. According to Foucault, gone are the days when power was exercised through physically coercive means like militaristic control. Social control in modern Western society is exercised through individual self-discipline and self-surveillance by regulating the body through self-imposed practices that people adopt and subjugate themselves (Foucault 2012; Pylypa 1998). ‘Biopower’ derives its force from ‘knowledge and desire’ – the construction of scientific knowledge that dictates a discourse of norms, normality and deviance, and people’s consequent desire to conform to such standards. Power is not something that clamps down from above since Foucault argues that individuals are implicated in their own oppression through bodily regulation. Power operates to generate ‘docile bodies’, meaning subjugated and productive individuals who are of utility to society. Time, space and techniques are organised around this disciplinary mode, institutionalised through hospitals, schools, prisons and workshops that produce ‘knowledge and desire’ to maintain control over bodies.

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Foucault argues that power operates in a way to produce bodies that society requires. For instance modern capitalist societies require productive bodies to maintain production and consumption, and thus we see a health discourse that sets norms like normalising thin/healthy bodies and tabooing fat/unhealthy bodies. Discourses on health is clothed in medical jargon to create knowledge that idealises and rewards the norm and punishes and disciplines the deviant (Greenhalgh 2012; Pylypa 1998). Values of virtuosity, beauty, emancipation is associated with the ‘healthy’ body while the diametrical opposite is associated with ‘unhealthy’ bodies like ugly, lazy, unproductive.

The discourse is internalised and reproduced by individuals who self-regulate to remain ‘normal’ by controlling diets, exercising and etc. Similarly Davis-Floyd and Millard’s respective studies on obstetrical ‘rituals’ and breastfeeding exemplify how medical institutions monopolise and privilege ‘scientific’ knowledge over mothers’ bodily knowledge by making reproductive processes the sole subject of and dependant on medical technology. Mothers are reduced to ‘docile bodies’ that conform to routines, dietary regulations and scientific knowledge that deems them normal and rational (Pylypa 1998).

Some criticism concerning Foucault’s concepts is regarding the pervasiveness of power in all walks of life. Hartsock argues that this makes it difficult to delineate dominant-subordinate relations and locate power nexuses. Foucault’s suggestion that resistance is also a rejuvenated version of power is not acceptable to some feminist scholars since it implies that change (from patriarchal/misogynistic norms) is impossible. Second, there is a question concerning the value of embodied norms. Is exercising really a negative attribute? Some like Crawford argue that physical fitness can be empowering (Pylypa 1998). Terence Turner’s charge against Foucault is his abstraction of the body into a single monolithic entity separate from the social relations around it. Basing his ideas on Mauss’ conception of somatic integration with their social environment, Turner argues that the body is an active and willing agent that reproduces certain bodily modes to conform to its own social standards (Turner 1995). His theory is based on his ethnographic study on the Kayapo of Brazil and their rituals, dress, adornments, body aesthetics, gender and age related norms. He argues that instead of the homogenous Foucauldian body that is passively pressed by structures of power, people compliantly use multiple bodily faculties (sensory faculties, perceptions, feelings and etc.) to interact with others within their social environment. Hence the body cannot be reduced to something abstract or biological, but should be viewed as a participating social body.

Turners’ charge is somewhat unfounded since on close reading of Discipline and Punish, one finds that Foucault’s definition of the subjected body defies this wholeness and abstraction that Turner discusses. Foucault clearly spells out that the body is fragmented in its use and ultimately integrated with technology and temporal materiality to produce a socially controlled ‘body-machine’ complex (Foucault 2012).

Furthermore, what Turner describes as wilful social subjection/authority Foucault describes as subjugation to power. It is primarily a difference in perspective.

Criticisms apart, one cannot deny the compelling nature of the argument that power is inscribed on bodies and are constantly reproduced by it. The somatic theories of Mauss, Bourdieu and Foucault have inspired a wide range of scholarship in the social sciences.

More contemporarily, it has counselled the study of the nature of government policy towards immigrants in Western Europe. Didier Fassin delineates the French government’s attitudes towards immigrants from the late 1940s till the 1990s. He argues that policies that accompanied this period focused on the nature of the immigrant’s body. Whereas a post-war France in its infrastructural ruins welcomed the healthy, able and agile migrants who could comprise the productive labour necessary to rebuild France, at turn of the century, a renewed France changed this policy. The focus was more on the sickly, dying immigrant who had no productive capacity to participate in France’s economy (Fassin 2005). Such changes unleashed politics of moribund that involved doctors and doctored certificates; grades of ‘sickness’ and inspection.

Accompanying this was the discourse of governmental ‘compassion’ that Fassin argues was actually ‘repression’ of immigrants through policy.

On a different note, in American politics, anthropologists examined the burgeoning popularity Donald Trump during the Presidential election process in light of the candidate’s use of his body as a medium of satire, spectacle and political expression.

What is argued is that the body of Trump became a crucial site for articulation of his competence against his opponents as he employed hand, facial, and other body gestures to ‘entertain’ and compel the electorate (Hall et al. 2016). What is prominent here is the suggestion that the body is used to sway and assert influence instead of the other way around!

One can conclude by arguing that however problematic the relationship between fieldwork/participants and theory/theorist might have been when Bourdieu conceived of the body within its habitus, it is without doubt that it inspired a re-examination of people’s locus within histories and social positions. Similarly, Foucault’s work challenged all to view ‘power’ with a new lens, nesting all nooks and crannies far and wide – the body being the most credible arena. The relevance of the body in anthropology as a socio-cultural, economic and political participant cannot be circumscribed. It is deeply enmeshed in relations with its milieu and is unfathomable to separate the two in contemporary scholarship, whether one views this integration with cynicism – ‘subjugated’ bodies – or with admission – ‘participating’ bodies.


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