‘Body’ is a term that is quite common in everyday life and has several topics to which it can apply. Defining the ‘body,’ therefore, in all its possible meanings and in all possible contexts, can be challenging. First, one should begin with considering what is means exactly to define a word. Is it simply stating what an object is? Is it a description of an object’s nature, or its functions, or what it looks like? In addition, one must also consider if he is attempting to define the word as it relates to its current usage or if he is seeking to find a broader meaning under which several usages could apply.
One might start with listing off traits that are generally accepted by society. Beginning with the physical, a body is a carbon-based collection of cells that each form different organs and systems. For humans, bodies have arms, legs, torsos, hands, feet, eyes, mouths, ears, and many other parts that each perform a mechanical function. Animals have bodies, too, although appendages vary by species.
Continuing on from the physical, one might also describe the body as living or dead, healthy or diseased, functional or non-functional. Many would also say their body is integral to who they are. Examples of this include handicapped individuals from Crip Camp who consider their disability to be a part of them as a person or the ideas revolving around racial identity presented through the stories of Sara Baartman and Beyonce. In contrast, some philosophers have assigned relative unimportance to the body such as Plato, who, in his work Phaedo, argues that the body a little more than a fleshy encasing to be shed in death for the freeing of the mind. In a similar way, Borges entertains the notion that all bodies, and all physical matter, are part of one substance, devoid of true uniqueness and instead manifestations of the same force.
So now, the body can be seen as both a physical composition of parts that are themselves parts of a whole, and it can also be seen as a representation of identity, or lack of identity from other points of view. But is there more to the body than this? Is our physical self more than just something for ourselves to exist in? Introducing topics from the theater seems to imply that the answer to that question is yes. From exercises with Dr. Green, one can clearly see that the body not only allows for a sense of identity but for the ability to share that identity with others. There are countless ways to say hello, but a wave is universal. There are countless phrases to express pain and grief or joy and excitement, but meaningful expressions can communicate even more powerfully. Bodies are a method of expression that are fundamental to people: we all have them after all (unless that 25% chance of being in a simulation is true :P). But metaphysics aside, bodies are what relates humans to each other, physically speaking. We feel, see, hear, smell, and touch with the same kind of body, and these inputs can be interpreted differently of course, depending on culture and other factors, but at the root level, our bodies operate the same.
Now we a physical, fleshy thing that is part of who we are and allows us to interact with the world and each other. It is complex and amazing, and each gives the person inside both a sense of uniqueness and relatability. There is another part to the discussion on the body, however. A prescriptive definition is supposed to include how things should be, and to begin this conversation it might be easier to consider when things are not as they should be. Referring back to the story of Sara Baartman, we can see a case of when a person is abused because of their body. Baartman was a spectacle to Europeans, paraded around on display to entertain the audience. Her own wishes for her life were disregarded; she was caught, trapped, and pulled further and further into a life that she did not want. She was reduced to just her body and stripped of meaning beyond her “exotic” skin tone and physique. We empathize and feel pain when hearing about Baartman in a way similar to that of when we view other desecrations of the body, like the Rwanda Genocide, and we also “desire a closer look” and “are properly disturbed by [our] curiosity.” We want to understand things like this and are strangely attracted to another’s body in a state of imperfection.
The devastating effects of the reduction of Baartman and the feelings it and the Rwandan Genocide evoke are proof that there is more to a person than their body, more than just flesh and blood. Not everyone believes in the soul, but I believe it is fair to say that the last part of the definition of the body is that it is not the be all end all of one’s existence; it is not the ultimate indicator of what a person can become. In sum, we have the body: a wondrously complex structure that allows us to interact with the physical word in both a linguistic and mechanical sense. It may sometimes be burdensome when trying to stay in the realm of the mind, but it is nevertheless an important part of one’s identity. The body, however, appears not to capture all of a person’s essence but rather seems to unite it into one visible structure. And thus, the body is defined, or at least attempted to be defined. There is more that could be said, as is with many things, but this is a start, and good start is often the most important part.
. Plato. Phaedo. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.
. Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1962.
. Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador, 1998, 19.