- The American Body in Context: An Anthology
The American Body is the third volume in the American Visions Series from Scholarly Resources Inc. The series provides scholarly, student, and general audiences with a collection of seminal articles that introduce the reader to a central, but previously overlooked, aspect of American Culture. This particular volume gathers a variety of items focused on a fundamental aspect of human identity—the body. Johnston in her introduction stresses the importance of examining [End Page 796] the culture of the body because of its centrality to human perception and expression. Yet, the volume is not simply a descriptive account of our historical and contemporary understanding of the human body. Johnston asserts that more fully grasping the meaning of the body in American Culture ought to make us more aware of the ways the dominant discourse concerning the body produced by powerful social institutions such as popular media, advertising, medicine, and schooling affect us. She believes that increased awareness of the forces that control our perceptions of the body will allow us to escape from this dominance. She declares, “This book is constructed with this type of resistance in mind.” (xix)
Johnston selected fourteen articles and one print advertisement divided into four sections with introductory essays by the editor weaving connections among them. The four topics addressed include: basic understanding of the inadequacy of the predominant Cartesian dualistic perception of the body and mind; interaction between social perceptions/depictions of bodies and the maintenance of the social order; the role of evolving rules of etiquette, medicine, and schooling in disciplining “unruly bodies”; and individual agency in resisting and redefining the dominant discourse on the body. A head note, with specific questions to direct the reader’s attention, accompanies each selection. Each section also includes a final item from the popular press. The head notes for these final items provide more elaborate questions that incorporate the scholarly concepts developed in the preceding articles. The text also contains a well-developed glossary and bibliography. These additions, the reading level of the articles, and the structure of the head notes signal that, despite the publishers’ assertion that they aim toward a broad audience, the primary target for this work is upper-division undergraduates.
The articles represent a range of scholarly approaches including traditional qualitative analysis of documents, quantitative psycho/sociological investigation of perception, ethnographic observation of human activity, and theoretical explorations of contemporary society using the notion of the panoptic vision as developed by Michel Foucault. The editor consciously selected articles to provide balance in interpretation. Articles deal with male and female bodies, young and aging bodies, well and disabled bodies, thick and thin bodies. Her bridging essays cover alternative explanations and introduce conflicting interpretations of our understanding and use of the body. One notable effort at weighing alternative views is Johnston’s use of materials that address the academic argument over cultural determinism and human agency. In an article on pop star Madonna, Susan Bordo specifically outlines this scholarly debate and concludes that current discussion of agency needs to take into account the differential power of the individual resistant viewer and the social institutions producing narrow depictions of the ideal body. The final section of the work is devoted to pieces that examine the ways in which individuals adopt, adapt and resist the dominant discourse on the body.
Nonetheless, the overall impression of the work reveals some unsettling predispositions. Like all cultural studies this collection covers a fairly broad sweep of time and place. A few articles touch on historical understanding of the body before the twentieth century, but do not present very detailed interpretations of the changes in the societies that produced these differing ideas. Additionally, the title of the book is somewhat misleading; the articles incorporate materials [End Page 797] from “America,” and Western Europe (particularly England) and Australia. While it may be true that the Australian early childhood teacher’s instruction to “put your hands in your own lap” is parallel to my...