- Somaesthetics and Racism:Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that "The human body is the best picture of the human soul."1 There is a basic truth in this assertion that we recognize (I want to say) intuitively: the notion that human beings are parts both mental and physical, that these facets are ultimately interdependent, and that they are in some measure correlated was a commonplace in the intellectual culture of ancient Athens, especially among Socratic thinkers. It can also be found as a central part of the basic ontology and ideals of self-cultivation espoused in much East Asian philosophy. In the West, however, this deep appreciation for the relationship between mind and body appears somewhat sporadically after the Socratics, only to be fervently reasserted as a main plank in the lived philosophy of the early American pragmatists, as when Henry David Thoreau proclaimed that "We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins to refine a mean's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them."2
I use the word "sporadically" above because it is likewise a basic truism that canonical Western philosophy has a long and storied history of rejecting, ignoring, or degrading the human body—that most formative part of our being and connection to the world and to others. The position of the later, more metaphysical Plato is iconic in this regard, and it effectively set the tone for much Christian theology and the Cartesian philosophy of consciousness. For Plato and his adherents, the longing to escape our embodiedness, conceived as a necessary means to human (or perhaps superhuman) perfection [End Page 69] by achieving a godlike existence, requires effectively divorcing ourselves from the irrational brutes of terra firma. The body is conceived as a static constraint to human flourishing rather than a dynamic enabler. It is more or less an adversary, something that we must endeavor to be freed from or subdue.3 Its base senses and unruly passions deceive us epistemologically, while its inexorable power to situate us in space and time limits our objectivity. In its inevitable pains and infirmities, the body is also a constant reminder of the aging process and of our ultimate mortality. Deeming the body as at best a mere servant of the mind, philosophers typically have portrayed it as a veritable prison of deception, temptation, and suffering. Moreover, it is well-established that such thinking has been particularly pernicious in light of the historical identification of women and other marginalized groups with their variously enfeebled, depraved, or uncivilized bodies.4
Against this disquieting backdrop, it is only relatively recently that the human body, and the significance of our existence as embodied beings, has received sustained positive attention by leading lights in Western philosophy and criticism. These luminaries include, among others, "feminist" thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and, of late, Susan Bordo and Judith Butler (with a nod to Michel Foucault, Pierre Bordeau, and others); pragmatists William James and John Dewey (with a nod to Emerson and Thoreau); phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (with a nod to Jean-Paul Sartre); analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (with a nod to James); and postmodernist Michel Foucault (with a nod to Friedrich Nietzsche, George Bataille, and the ancient Asian ars erotica tradition5). While these thinkers do not universally praise the body and its active, conscious cultivation for human flourishing (about which more later), they nonetheless acknowledge its necessity for all perception, action, and even thought.6 In short, they all seek to recognize and elucidate the significance—cognitive and affective, discursive and nondiscursive—of our full embodied intelligence.
Looking specifically at the architectonics of the body espoused by the trio of Dewey, Foucault, and Wittgenstein, this article uses what philosopher Richard Shusterman terms "analytic somaesthetics" to examine some of the primary embodied dimensions of feeling, perception, action, and thought, particularly through the functioning of habit.7 In doing so, it seeks to expose the way various ideologies of domination (for example, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, ageism, etc.) are covertly (and at times overtly) materialized...