Thoughts on the body

What is the body? ‘The human body has the strange quality of being a given. It’s as if the body is so fundamental to our existence that we take it for granted’ writes Chris McAuliffe in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue ‘The body, the ruin’ (Crone, 2005). This may be the case but questions concerning the body and mind have engrossed philosophers and writers throughout history. Many theories have been put forward to explain how the body, mind and soul cohabit to form an individual person, either as separate entities or intertwined in some way and which predominates over the others.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago sustains that we alone are responsible for our actions, suggesting that the mind can control the body:

Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. Othello Act I, Scene iii

Whether we are controlled by our minds or our bodies has long been debated. Plato believed the body to be the prison of the soul, a stand which, years later, Foucault used in reverse to say that ‘the soul is the prison of the body’. Both ideas presuppose that one has control over the other but Foucault’s soul ‘unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint’ (Foucault, 1977) According to Foucault, institutions like schools, hospitals and prisons discipline the body to re-educate through ‘processes that effect a transformation of the individual as a whole – of his body and of his habits by the daily work that he is forced to perform, of his mind and his will by the spiritual attentions that are paid to him.’ (Foucault, 1977) Not all would agree with the notion that total re-education is possible: ‘Spinoza recognised the resilience of the imagination and its resistance to change. “No affect,” he claims, “can be restrained by the true knowledge of good and evil insofar as it is true, but only insofar as it is considered as an affect” (quoted in Lloyd 1998, 162). What he means by this is that we cannot change people’s way of experiencing the world simply by offering them contrary facts.’ (Lennon, 2009)

Around the turn of the first century A.D, the Roman poet Juvenal wrote that a ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ is a thing to be prayed for (Satire X), a phrase which was cited by John Locke and has been quoted frequently ever since in relation to education. A healthy body and a healthy mind are both qualities to aim for but it is within phenomenology that the two have become thought of as being mutually dependent. Merleau Ponty, in his influential book Phenomenology of Perception, and feminist writers such as Butler, Gatens, Lloyd and Weiss and have put forward the idea that thought and perception are embodied as experience consists of both mental and bodily experience. Jacques Lecoq corroborates the importance of the body in a learning experience when he says ‘The body knows things about which the mind is ignorant.’ (Lecoq, 2009)

Since the 1970s interest in the subject of embodiment has flourished as acceptance of the Cartesian philosophy of mind-body dualism has diminished. An enormous amount of literature has been written on and around the subject of the body in relation to a variety of topics including gender, image, embodiment, space and socio-cultural themes. The extensive array of scholars listed in the first two chapters of Helen Thomas’s book The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory (Thomas, 2003) illustrates the ‘overwhelming interest in theories of the body and performativity in sociology and cultural studies in recent years’. (Palgrave, 2003)

Our bodies are not just flesh and bones, they are the fundamental perceivers of things situated in the world. “The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project” (de Beauvoir, 1988) The senses are personal fields, each sense has its own mode of relating to the world around us. Although perception is uniquely personal ‘the body is not an isolated entity, but the result of a complex set of interactions with the environment and with others, where intersubjectivity plays a crucial role.’ (Violi, 2009) As Kathleen Lennon and Jean Grimshaw note, the body is never neutral: “The body as lived is always a body in a situation, a body always subjected to culture” (Lennon, 2014) and ‘subject to changes that are beyond our control and to unpredicted effects born of changing circumstances or lifestyle.’ (Grimshaw, 1999)

Everything exists in a context: social, cultural, political, spatial, temporal. The meaning of individual elements of an experience depend on their relationship to the whole experience. ‘Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it’s caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.’ (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1961:163) A person is an individual in the world, but at the same time, part of a bigger picture, not an isolated being immune from outside influences. ‘Individuals, groups and cultures generate different worlds’ (Ardener, 1993) but ‘bodies are always plural entities: always situated in a cultural environment where they interact with other bodies, always immersed in a complex world of intersubjective and inter-objective relationships that must be continuously interpreted, and out of which people must make sense’ (Violi, 2009) Interaction with others is a fundamental part of how our worlds are constructed and understood.

In ‘Private Parts in Public Places: Actresses’, Julie Blair argues that, onstage, an actress embodies womankind.  She undertakes a ‘social role as ‘Public Woman’’ where the stage becomes a forum for shedding light on the ‘private interpersonal sphere of women’. (Blair, 1993) Blair continues by talking about the strength an individual can gain from the solidarity offered by a group. As an example, she quotes an anonymous actress working in community theatre: ‘When we think and write and act about our own innermost problems as individuals, the audience and the group discover that they are not isolated individuals, and this gives us strength to actually do things en masse to change ideas and institutions.’ My experience of working with Cetec and San Vittore Globe Theatre corroborates this idea.

Embodied space situates us in the world and colours our perception of it. As Ardener says in her introduction to ‘Women and Space’, ‘behaviour and space are mutually dependent’ (p2) and interrelated. Space ‘exerts its own influence’ and “defines the people in it” (p2-3) but at the same time ‘people define space’. Objects, like people are defined by space and context, ‘affected by the place in space of other objects’. (Ardener, 1993) Merleau-Ponty makes a clear distinction, however, between the body and objects: ‘My own body is not in space for me in the same way as other objects. It inhabits space. The space around me, the objects in it and the possible movements

of my body are integrated for me in an overall orientation, and they all gain significance from each other.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1990)

Ardener argues that women occupy space in a different way to men and ‘that it is not adequate to say that men and women merely have the same viewpoint [as] their social constructions and their experience must often (but not always) differ fundamentally if only as a result of their accumulated experiences and the way these will inevitably affect their perceptions. [Even where experiences are similar and] look superficially the same they cannot be, because differences in other elements will cause a ‘shadow’ effect or exert ‘pull’ and thus will affect their meanings’, therefore ‘one element in a cosmology can only be fully understood in relation to all the other constituents.’ (Ardener, 1993) In ‘Women’s bodies: Cultural representation and identity’, Grimshaw also talks about the way men inhabit space in a different way to women and ‘the ways in which men’s occupation of the maximum possible amount of space around them may be oppressive and inhibiting to others.’ In relation to this, Julie Blair makes an interesting point about the difficulty that social anthropologists face in trying to map the boundaries of different social systems as ‘The silence of sisters, mothers and daughters, which was interpreted as a tacit confirmation of the male models of the worlds they lived in, can no longer be seen as a gesture of affirmation. It might hide a secret or muted language […] through which another conceptual order of society may be approached.’ (Blair, 1993)

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, questioning the nature of gender. Commenting on this, Judith Butler wrote: ‘As an intentionally organized materiality, the body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical convention. In other words, the body is a historical situation.’ (Butler, 1988). Tamsin Wilkins also argues that ‘Being male or female is an embodied, time-situated social process, which involves a lifetime of interactions at the interface of the body and the social’. (Wilkins,1999) She quotes Ken Plummer who sees the need to find ‘a way of telling stories about the body that enables us to see it not simply as bounded “there”, “in us” but something that resonates socially’ (Plummer, 1995:156) and states that ‘there is always a sense in which the body is a text.’(Wilkins,1999)

‘The body is a nexus of lived and related meanings, related not only to present positions and intentions but to past and possible future ones as well’. (Merleau-Ponty, 1990) Our experience of the past, present and future, however, are only ever lived in the present. Memory, sensation and experience are embedded in social and cultural contexts. ‘We understand ourselves relative to the remains we accumulate’ writes Rebecca Schneider in Archaeologies of Presence Art, Performance and the Persistence of Being. I would suggest that ‘remains’ can be both material and psychological. Memory is a fundamental part of who we are: ‘phenomenology has taught us that perception has at its basis an obvious link between sensation and representation. In order to perceive, one has to find in one’s memory…a representation’ (Feral, 2012)

These first thoughts about the body are only a start at trying to analyse the vast and complex amount of literature on the subject which, according to Patrizia Violi, needs to be approached with caution: ‘The diffuse use of the singular term ‘the body’ is revealing: it alludes to a non-gendered, pre-discursive phenomenon, hiding the concrete reality of the many different bodies all persons possess, with all their social, cultural, and discursive determinations.’  (Violi, 2009)


Ardener, S. (ed.) (1993) Women and space: Ground rules and social maps, 2nd edn. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Arthurs, J. and Grimshaw, J. (1999) Women’s bodies: Cultural representations and identity. London: Continuum.

de Beauvoir, S. and Parshley, H.M. (1988) The Second sex. London: Pan Books.

Blair, J. (1993). Private Parts in Public Places: Actresses. In: S. Ardener, ed., Women and space: Ground rules and social maps, 2nd ed. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519-531. doi:10.2307/3207893

Crone, B. (2005) The body, the ruin. Publisher: Ian Potter Museum of Art. Melbourne, Australia

Foucault, M. and Sheridan, A. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Giannachi, G. /, Kaye, N. and Shanks, M. (eds.) (2012) Archaeologies of presence: Art, performance and the persistence of being. London: Taylor & Francis.

Horgan, T. and Tienson, J. (no date) The Phenomenology of embodied agency. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2017).

Lecoq, J., Carasso, J.-G., Lallias, J.-C. and Le, D.B. (2009) The moving body (Le Corps Poetique): Teaching creative theatre. London: Methuen Drama.

Lennon, K. (2014) Feminist perspectives on the body. Available at: (Accessed: 30 April 2016).

Merleau-Ponty, M. and Landes, D.A. (2012) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Thomas, H. (2003) The body, dance, and cultural theory. BASINGSTOKE: Palgrave Macmillan.

Violi, P. (2009) How our bodies become us: Embodiment, Semiosis and Intersubjectivity, Cognitive Semiotics, 4(1). doi: 10.1515/cogsem.2009.4.1.57.

Wilkins, T. Temporality, Materiality: Towards a Body in Time. In Arthurs, J. and Grimshaw, J. (1999) Women’s bodies: Cultural representations and identity. London: Continuum.