4 Where does the body begin and end?
Even the way people think about bodies is determined by the cultural scripts of the culture in which they live. For example, some people may take it for granted that they possess a body on the one hand, and a mind or soul on the other, but this idea is in fact one that they have received from the culture in which they live, and other cultures have very different ways of perceiving the relationship between physicality, thoughts, physical drives and emotions. What we consider to be our body is also determined by our culture.
For an introduction to how wide-ranging perspectives and beliefs about the body can be in different parts of the world, read John Robb and Oliver Harris, ‘O brave new world, that has such people in it’ (2013). As you do so, think about the following questions:
- What do Robb and Harris list as key issues in the modern world that pertain to where the human body begins and ends?
- Why do these things matter so much to us?
- How is the body defined in the different case studies that are briefly mentioned by the authors?
- How universal is the idea of a ‘natural body’?
Robb and Harris make the point that many of the controversial issues discussed in the media in the western world at the time of writing relate to the body: sexuality, genetics, bodily alteration and death. Some of the most divisive of these relate to the limits of the human body: is a foetus a human? Is a corpse still a human? Should biological material from other people, other species or even artificial substances be introduced to a human body? If yes, are they foreign to it or do they become part of it? The sheer quantity of debate surrounding issues such as these shows that we, as humans, are very concerned with what makes up our bodies and what we do with them. The human body is at the heart of key questions of our civilisation, and authors and philosophers have spent a lot of time mapping out what successive changes in how we deal with our bodies can mean for the way our society functions.
In the case studies Robb and Harris cite in the section on ‘natural bodies’, we are presented with three very different cultural scripts in terms of viewing the body in various parts of the world. For some groups in the Amazon, the human body can change in form depending on who – or what – is viewing it. In Trinidad, clothing is an essential part of the human body, not just a covering for it. What you wear doesn’t just express who you are, it determines it. And in the case of Siberian shamans, regardless of what we would see as biological sex, gender is something that is fluid and mutable, and relates not to what a person is, but what he or she does, and the powers they possess. As a result, there is no simple categorisation of ‘male/female’ but up to ten different categories of gender. In other words, what makes up the ‘natural body’ varies from culture to culture – it is dependent on habitus and cultural scripts.