"The Revolt of the Body"

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2005 Second Web Papers

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"The Revolt of the Body"

Orah Minder

The economic success of a society, according to Foucault, hinges on its ability to control the bodies of its citizens. The individual's experience of his own body is different from his experience of all else; one, therefore, experiences the body as separate from society. There is tension between the individual's experience of the body and society's systematic use of the body. This tension, however, springs from a common desire to control the body. Full control over the body is not thwarted by the tension between the individual and society, but rather, by the unstable nature of the body. While domination over the body seems to be a point of constant struggle between society and the individual, the inevitable decay of the body works against both the goal of the individual in relation to his body and society's use of the body. For both the individual and society, therefore, the body represents that which cannot be controlled.

The imprint of the individual's attempt to possess the body comes, Foucault says, in the form of fitness. In an interview called Body/Power he says, "Mastery and awareness of one's own body can be acquired only through the effect of an investment of power in the body: gymnastics, exercises, muscle-building, nudism, glorification of the body beautiful. All of this belongs to the pathway leading to the desire of one's own body" (Power/Knowledge, 56). This display of power over the body is not something that is achieved and maintained, but rather, depends on a constant act of articulation on the body. The individual's constant enactment upon the body does not lead to a declaration of possession over the body. The act of possession demands a separation between that which possesses and that which is possessed. The individual cannot possess the body, because he is attached to the body through a constant process of recreating the body. He cannot declare ultimate ownership of the body, because he must constantly reassert his dominance over the body.

Foucault separates the individual even farther from control of the body by saying that these imprints of power only lead "to the desire of one's own body." Just as the act of possession demands an objectification, the act of desiring requires a level of detachment. To desire is to want something that is lacking. The constant act of imprinting power onto the body attaches the individual to the body and disables him from viewing the body as a separate object. Through these expressions of power over the body, the individual hopes to be on a path that will lead to a static relation with the body. Since the body cannot be brought to stasis, however, the individual plays the constant role of creating the body into an object that can be desired.

While the creative act marks the individual's relation with his own body as active, desire for a body is a still communication. The moment before the object is physically acted upon is the moment of desire. The object and subject are connected in the still space of a gaze. Since the individual is in the constant act of creating his body, he can never participate in the act of gazing at his own body. In relation to his own body he is in constant movement. The detachment enacted in gazing at another's body admits to a lack of possession over that body: an inability to create that body: a witnessing of another's creative action.

Foucault studies the evolution of the way in which society gazes upon the body. Society's colonization of the body must take a detached form, lest a connection be made between the body and the colonizer that renders the body something other than a detached object. Fullness of possession depends on the maintenance of the body's desirability as another's creation. The goal of the colonizer is to affect the individual's creative act through stillness.

Foucault's theory of modern discipline marks a shift in society's method of colonizing of the individual's body. Before the eighteenth century, power was acted upon the body in a repressive form. If a body strayed from a certain code of laws it was tortured. Society declared possession over the body through a demonstrated destruction of the body. The pre-modern attempt to possess the body, destroyed the body.

The focused gaze of the sovereign, however, was not upon the body that was destroyed, but rather, on those who witnessed the destruction of the body. In the act of witnessing the destruction of the condemned body, the citizens were taught certain body movements that were permitted and those that were not permitted. The sovereign's active role in the torture spectacle, therefore, was an attempt to influence the way in which the citizens moved their bodies. While the destruction of the condemned's body was unlimited, the sovereign's communication with the citizens was meticulously detached. The communication was mediated through the tortured body. This mediation enabled the sovereign to possess the bodies of his citizens.

The demonstrated restriction on the body in pre-modern times was meant to influence the citizen's creation of the body. This form of possession, however, was limited to the attention that the citizens gave to the torture spectacle, and the will of the citizens to create and recreate themselves in respect to the demonstration of the sovereign. The extent to which the body of the condemned was destroyed, therefore, determined the extent to which the sovereign was able to influence the witnesses' creation of their own bodies.

While the sovereign's possession of the body was, therefore, a primarily destructive act, the shift to modern body-relations is marked by a manifestation of power in a primarily creative form. Control over the body does not come only in the form of threat, but also in positive encouragement to create the body into a specific form. By idealizing certain body-form and movement, society creates a goal for which the individual strives. The pre-modern control of the individual's body was attainable because it allowed for a body freedom within the set parameters. In modern society, the unattainable nature of the body-goal perpetuates a body-economy. The goal that society sets is the creation of a body-form that fits within a set of mechanized movements. The ideal body is the body that is imprisoned into unchanging form.

Foucault says in the Body/Power interview, "An economic (and perhaps also ideological) exploitation of eroticization, from sun-tan products to pornographic films. Responding precisely to the revolt of the body, we find a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation" (Power/Knowledge, 57). Society's influence of the body is through a 'stimulation' that opens new options of ways in which the individual can create his body. While in pre-modern times, society demonstrated the ways in which the individual was disallowed from using his body, modern society colonizes the body by expanding the horizon of body-creation. This difference marks a heightened level of detachment between modern society and the individual body.

The unachievable nature of this body-goal insights, according to Foucault, positive action. While the individual strives for an achievement of the body-form, society thrives from the quest for this form. This difference in relation to the body-goal is a point of tension between the individual and society. The changing nature of the body perpetuates this body-economy by preventing the individual from possessing and desiring the body.

For the same reason that the individual is unable to control the body, however, society's efforts to control the body are thwarted by its constant decay. Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish,

By the late eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made; out of a formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit (Discipline and Punish, 135).

While the body-economy is perpetuated by the fact that the body cannot be molded into permanent form, other societal economies strive, like the individual, to create the body into an unachievable form. The mechanization described in Discipline and Punish refers not as much to the physical body, but to the habituation of the individual. The "calculated constraint" refers not to a new ability of the body, but rather, to a new way in which the individual uses the body. Society teaches the individual to use the body as a machine. The body, however, unlike a machine, will wither and the soldier's posture will sag.

While the body-economy thrives because the body decays, other economies thrive because of the individual's creation of the body as an unchanging machine. The body-economy is used to feed unchanging bodies to other economies. The unreality of the unchanging body dooms these economies to failure. While the body-economy watches the creative acts of the individual to form the ideal body, other economies use the mechanized body. In these economies the body looses its objectiveness. There is movement in the space between object and gazer. He who is defined by his eyes reaches with his hands. The body lives, speaks its non-mechanized nature, withers, and dies in his grasp. In the economies that depend on the use of the mechanized body, the body is acted upon and, therefore, no longer detached. The stillness of possession is ruptured by the revolt of the body. The body is free.

Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison trans. Alan Sheridan Vintage Books, Random House, inc. New York, 1977

Foucault, Michel The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume 1 trans. Robert Hurley Vintage Books, Random House, inc. New York, 1978

Foucault, Michel Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 edit. Colin Gordon trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper Panteheon Books New York, 1972 [an error occurred while processing this directive]