The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

From the Editors

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, recalls a startling pronouncement once made by a fellow academic: “Oh, it’s very important that everyone does something to the body!” What struck Bauerlein, even more than his colleague’s words, was how he meant them: “as a general moral injunction, a necessity.” That hortatory urgency, almost religious in its intensity, resonates with something deep and widespread in our culture, something powerfully anticipated in the famous closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.”

As philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues (in a book that takes the poet’s line as its title), Rilke was one of the early prophets of the self-transformative enterprise that has become the object of so many religion-like practices that flourish in the late modern world. Self-making, or self-remaking, is at once the great liberation, challenge, and burden of our age, bound up as it with the larger project of identity (elective identity, in particular) and what we have come to call identity politics.

What does all this have to do with the body? Quite simply that new ways of understanding and treating the body—the focus of the thematic essays in this issue—are one strong expression of the relocation of the sacred that is bound up with our self-making projects. What we make of our bodies, in short, testifies to a great rupture.

For most of human history, the body enjoyed special, even hallowed, status because humans believed that it was a gift, bestowed upon them by a power greater than themselves. To those within theistic traditions, this power was divine; to those from nontheistic traditions, that power might be the inherent order of nature and the cosmos—the Tao, for example, of many Asian spiritual traditions. The body, by both understandings, was an endowment intended to support humans in their passage through this world, ideally for the attainment of a good life marked by virtue, heroism, or wisdom. It was also a forceful reminder of both the limits and commonality of the human.

Modernity’s slow onslaught on the traditional gods, as announced by Nietzsche and other thinkers, did not destroy the sacred itself. Instead, the sacred was relocated, dispersed, renamed. And new understandings of the sacred were supported by new dogmas, many of which were formulated and expounded in the academy. As Bauerlein says, summarizing the philosophy of his colleague:

The body is NOT a natural thing or divine form. It has no natural or supernatural status. That’s what my friend meant when he insisted on coloring hair, writing words on forearms, inserting studs in tongues, and otherwise modifying the physique. We must de-naturalize the body, redefine it as a human construct.… Yes, each one of us is stuck with the one we’ve got (at this point in time), but we can re-create it, fashioning it into an expression of the identity we prefer.

Champions of identity and identity politics who see this new understanding as an unquestionable good might reconsider. Even those who see the modern turn to identity as a necessary and laudable challenge to older conceptions of a universal human nature—conceptions that were often used to advance the interests of the privileged few of the right class, race, or gender—may sense how a project intended to liberate can easily be turned to opposite ends. Consider, for example, how the preoccupation with identity and difference has been exploited through the subtle (and not-so-subtle) processes of objectification, commodification, and commercialization.

There are even larger stakes. The reduction of the body to a kind of billboard or platform, to something infinitely malleable, inscribable, or plastic, comports all too neatly with the denial of a common humanity—and of those rights attendant upon that shared humanity—that is now in the ascendant around the world. Although his essay is not a part of our thematic treatment, Ronald Osborn’s reflections on the origins of our conception of universal human rights is an apposite reminder that it descends from the particular and “scandalous” proposition that all humans deserve equal treatment and consideration because all are created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. The body—with all its imperfections, individual variations, and limitations—tethers us to the sacred ground of our being. We deny that connection at our possible peril.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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