As a term that designates the physical or material frame of human and other living beings, “body” has a long career in the language and a relatively brief one as a focus of critical engagement in the study of culture. For Christian theology as for speculative philosophy in the West, the body figures as the devalued term in a structuring dualism of body/soul (in sacred thought) and body/mind (in secular traditions). These dualisms apprehend the body as a material substrate of human life that is fundamentally distinct from and subordinated to the privileged term in the dichotomy (mind, soul), which alone comprehends the human capacity for knowledge and self-knowledge as well as the repertoire of human sensibilities, dispositions, and affects on which the salvation, expression, or advancement of humanity is understood to depend. In Christian theology as in humanist philosophy, the body turns up on the side of animality or merely mechanical existence and so dwells outside the bounded domain of what is proper or essential to human culture, a domain that the exclusion of the body guarantees.
At the same time, classic political economy and social contract theory grant the body a certain limited dignity as the organic container of human personhood. For social contract theory, the body constitutes the inalienable property of human subjects. To sell oneself bodily is tantamount to selling one’s self, to an erasure of personhood that, paradoxically, would suspend the seller’s ability to enter into such a contract in the first place. In this way, social contract theory affirms the rationality and justice of wage labor (the selling of one’s capacity for physical or intellectual labor) by setting a specific limit on the attributes of personhood that may circulate in the marketplace. The claim to an inalienable property in the body animated moral opposition to chattel slavery in the New World, although as David Brion Davis (1975) has argued, abolitionism was at least as much an apology for the immiseration of wage labor under industrial capitalism as it was an indictment of slavery and plantation economics. For Marxist political economy (in contrast to the classic political economy of Locke), the very distinction between alienable labor and inalienable embodiment cannot hold, as the abstraction of labor from the embodied person of the laborer makes possible the theft of his or her energy and creativity in the production of value to which the laborer loses all claim. Marxism is certainly the major intellectual tradition before the twentieth century to understand human creativity and the production of value as fully bound up in the materiality of embodied life. It refuses the dichotomization of body and soul, of matter and spirit, that otherwise dominates philosophical and theological inquiry in the West.
In the other main sense of the term relevant to contemporary cultural study, the body may be understood as a collective entity, “an artificial person created by legal authority for certain ends” (e.g., a corporation), or a political entity, a “body politic,” which in its widest sense may signify “organized society” as such (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). This meaning of the term is of more modern provenance (the OED cites 1461 as the first recorded usage of “bodie corporate” and 1634 of “body politic”). As the product of legal discourse and political theory, the use of “body” to reference abstract collectivity is from its origins at once descriptive and analytic. In the twentieth century, the European tradition of the history of ideas began to give this analytical concept an expressly culturalist turn by framing the study of political bodies as a question about the iconography of power. This historiographical tradition considers how figuring institutionalized political power and identity as corporeal animates these abstractions; the power of the monarchical state is an abstraction remote from the lives of ordinary subjects who submit to its authority, but the sacred body of the king is an awesome iconic image that can be widely disseminated across the ranks of a stratified social order (Kantorowicz 1957; Starobinski 1988).
This type of critical reflection on the embodiment of political authority comes belatedly to American studies, perhaps because of the insistence in US law and political theory on divorcing political bodies from most forms of sensational corporeality and so rendering them as pure abstractions. The reflections on the appropriate size of the representative bodies of government in the Federalist Papers, for example, underscore how such political bodies were not conceived as the practical means to reproduce the agora of the ancient Greek democracies in a modern state, where size and population make impossible the massing of all its citizens in any one physical space. Rather than an abridgment of this embodied totality of citizens thronging the agora, the representative bodies arrayed in the US Constitution were envisioned as different sorts of bodies altogether, purged of the mass physicality of the crowd. In the early national period, to claim political authority in civic matters required that one speak in the guise of disinterested reason, rather than render one’s particular viewpoint, so that print became the privileged medium of public debate, exactly because it detached the voice of the author from the evident partiality or particularity of his or her embodied person (M. Warner 1990). Citizenship on this model is an ideally disembodied identity, while citizens’ bodies remain a private matter.
Critical attention to forms of material and abstract embodiment in American studies has been fostered through its interface with feminism, race and ethnic studies, and postcolonial studies. These critical projects enable a turn to those human subjects who have been historically associated with the discredited life of the material body and so constituted as marginal to the arenas of cultural production and political representation: women, Africans and their New World descendants, indigenous peoples, mestizos, and Asians, among other categories of “overembodied” ethnic, sexual, and classed identity. As American studies emerges transformed from this intellectual contact zone, it has addressed how collective and impersonal forms of political agency are routinely embodied in propertied white men, whose political privilege depends on the association of other genders, races, and classes with corporealized identities. The circulation of such “overembodied” identities as public icons and spectacle has been crucial to the protection of established political privilege. At the same time, the visibility of disqualified political subjects within public culture has also generated important opportunities for contesting their disqualification.
Minimally, these contestations require a denaturalized understanding of the physical body as a social text rather than a given form. While some critical accounts of embodiment continue to honor this distinction by framing the human body as a quantity of physical matter imprinted with social meaning, theories of performative identity reject the idea of a natural body altogether. Judith Butler’s (1990) account of performative gender is one example. It suggests that the sexed body does not precede its social realization as a gendered person but rather that its material configuration is itself an effect of gender norms that operate through imitation. We “assume” a gender through the repeated bodily enactment of intelligible gendered identity, and it is this repetitious performance that constitutes the body in its very physicality (in its boundaries and receptivities; in the sensational geography of its surfaces). In this view, there are no bodies without culture, since the body as a kind of material composition requires a cultural grammar of embodiment. Although theories of performative identity have been most influential in the study of gender and sexuality, significant intellectual ground has also been broken in the study of race, ethnicity, and class as performative embodiments (Lott 1993; Muñoz 1999; Foster 1999).
The turn to cultural studies within American studies has also fostered critical attention on forms of public and political corporeality, particularly the orientation of cultural studies to mass culture. Because mass culture insistently links abstract identity to iconic embodiment, it proliferates the public bodies evacuated from early national political culture. The norms of commercial and political culture in the United States are thus historically at odds, yet today the life of the body politic is entirely transacted within the mass media, which may help explain the contemporary salience of identity politics as well as the tendency to stake claims for political recognition on the basis of embodied particularity. But mass culture also circulates bodies promiscuously; its technologies and commercial logic ensure the production of desirable body images made available to the widest market. Access to particular corporeal identities becomes paradoxically generalized; within mass culture, one can “have” (identify with or as) iconic forms of gendered, racial, ethnic, sexual, or classed embodiment that have no necessary relation to the cultural consumer’s assigned (“natural”) body. (In virtual environments, for instance, a white, middle-class man might adopt the avatar of a working-class Asian woman.) Much of the contemporary scholarship on US political culture, then, draws on notions of performative identity to parse the ways in which identity politics entail a contest over the grammar of embodiment (Spillers 1987; Harper 1994; Berlant 1997). The central question that arises from this new scholarship concerns which subjects will claim what forms of embodiment and with what effects.