Fearing the social deconstruction of the body

Those who follow this blog will notice that the last posting was more than a year ago. They may correctly surmise, given the pre-text for that last post (the need for a “next of kin” to make decisions for a “significant other”), that the lapse has to do with the suffering of that “other,” my wife of 47 years who died on May 26, a month before her 77th birthday.

A year ago, scared but hopeful, I wondered how to learn to ask what I kept discovering I did not know and from whom. I wondered about the ignorance revealed by having to act at a moment I had never experienced. This happened to be the theme of the book on which I had been working and which is now available (Educating in life. Routledge, 2019). My experiences in the neurological floor of Columbia Presbyterian hospital, and then the Wartbug Rehabilitation Center, White Plains Hospital, etc. could have become another ethnography of a very challenging new normal (the sub-title to the book). But the last two months pushed these concerns to the background. The then new normal has become moot. In the past two months, what became salient is the power of the body to resist all social and cultural attempts to reconstruct it as a living body. While watching the impressive efforts of the medical professionals, and the spiritual and emotional turmoil of all other bodies affected, I remembered Robert Murphy’s powerful tale of such a struggle told by an anthropologist experiencing his, and all others’, impotence as they confronted what Murphy called, in his book a “body silent” (1987). At the same time, I had to read several student papers struggling with queer and gender theory. Looking at my pile of unread books, I noticed Judith Butler’s Bodies that matter (1993) and started reading it for this blog—expecting to be provoked.

I was not disappointed. First, is the fact that “I” “am” an “anthropologist,” not a “philosopher” (the scare quotes are actually citations to linguistic forms Butler “critiques” as “ontologizing” such social categories as “being” “anthropologist” and “I”). Butler is not an anthropologist but she directly challenges what I do and what I teach anthropologists must do. And she challenges it from a reading of anthropological work she inherits and expands from one now quite traditional reading of their early work, particularly those of the Saussurian (through Lévi-Strauss) and Boasian traditions. This reading is grounded in Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure, and particularly of Saussure on the arbitrariness of the sign, and on the social conventions that link signifier to signified, and arguably (as many in this tradition have done) thereby arbitrarily (in the political sense) constitute this signified. Thus the word ‘sex’ (always surrounded by scare quotes in Butler’s writing) “functions as norms” and is “part of regulatory practices” (Butler 1993: xii). That may be true in the many political activities within which the word appears. But there is no evidence that this function exhausts what the word may also do for those who use it. When teaching this, I first mention another philosopher, Merleau-Ponty who, when facing Saussure, went in a different direction from Derrida’s. It is not that there is “nothing at the center” but that the center 1) cannot be reached and 2) all attempts to reach it must proceed through words (symbols, discourses, practices) that will, not so paradoxically, succeed in giving a glimpse of the center through the silences between the words. And then, when teaching all this to ethnographically inclined anthropologist, I invoke the act of ☞ (indexing) that I learned from Garfinkel.

That is, words like ‘sex’, the ‘body’, ‘death’ are very much “part of regulatory practices” that … fail to capture and dominate that which they do desperately attempt to control. More graphically, when a body is captured by a hospital, it immediately (as in the first seconds of approaching an emergency room) becomes an object for an immense network of practices (in laboratories, universities, state regulatory agencies, insurance companies, etc.) embodied by the highly differentiated, controlled, regulated, bodies who are the medical staff one encounters from the moment when an attendant tells you to park not here but there, to the time when a physician “pronounces” one dead (itself quite a moment of cultural hubris as if the body had waited for the pronouncement to die). This process is well summarized in what should be required reading for all anthropologists of the body, the paper by Barney Glaser and Anself Strauss “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage” (1965). This is powerful ethnography even if it fails to state the obvious: the ongoing re-identification of a body by the professionals, the changes in their demeanor, or the formal transfers from some professionals to other (e.g. from oncologists to hospice doctors) is occasioned by bodily processes over which the hospital has no ultimate power.

In brief that which words like ‘body’ (sex, death) index is NOT a (social) construction, even though it always is, by every evidence we have ethnographically and experientially, a trigger for constructions (such as words, norms, and regulatory practices) that are essential to human life even though they will always fail to capture it. Dismissing the struggle of all when confronting the ever mysterious and ineffable that some humans index as ‘the body’ is the ultimate act of disrespect towards the human.



Butler, Judith   1993     Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.. Publisher

Glaser, Barney and Anselm Strauss   1965     “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage.” American Journal of Sociology 71: 48-59.

Murphy, Robert   1987     The body silent. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

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