On the Edge of the Body

By Renata Carvalho

Anthropology’s many attempts of conceptualising the body into clear and useful analytical categories has raised significant ontological questions that problematise the very basis of the western understanding of the body and the self.

But before we begin, take a moment to notice your own body.

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Take some deep breaths.

Notice the way your clothes feel on your skin. Notice the warmth or chill of the air. Notice your weight dropping down onto the seat and the solid ground beneath you. In this brief moment of stillness, take a minute to delineate the boundaries of your body in your mind. What constitutes your ‘Self’? Does it stop on the surface of your skin? Does it include the air that sustains you, the ground that supports you, and the clothes that keep you warm? Does your body’s inherent symbiotic relationship with the world around you affect the way you make sense of who you are?

A rather philosophical line of inquiry, but one that underlines decades of theorising in anthropology regarding the notion of ‘the body’ and its legitimacy as an analytical framework. Legitimacy in the sense that most categories into which the body has been broken down seem to shift the moment it is cemented into academic text. The boundaries of the body, and the frameworks they inspire, appear to be in constant motion; alive even. From Lock’s delegation of the body to the natural sciences to focus on the ways the body replicate, represent and act the culture from which it originates1; to Scheper-Hughes’ view of the body as a vehicle for political expressions of power, repression and resistance2, the anthropological understanding of the body has changed and evolved in a similar rhythm to the wider processes of development taking place.

In a sense, it is exactly the process of theorising frameworks for the analysis of ‘the other’ that has brought anthropology face to face with the notions of its own ‘Self’. The ultimate question is not whether we have come to the end of ‘the body’ as an analytical category, but what will anthropology do to integrate the discomforts raised through this debate? And it is where it first started that we could begin to find ways through—not answers to—the many questions raised along the way. In the intersection of anthropology and science, a subdiscipline that emerged in the 1980’s and investigated the many facets of health and healing: medical anthropology opened the way for the study of the very basis of knowledge production in the west.

By drawing parallels between the reproductive system and ‘the Fordist body’, and between the immune system and the emergence of a new body, adapted to capitalism, Emily Martin’s ‘The End of the Body?’ sheds light on the relationship between the development of scientific knowledge about the human body and the ways in which that knowledge comes to shape our own sense of ‘Self’, and by default, shaping anthropological frameworks. This shift from symbol to metaphor signals to a moment in anthropology where indeterminacy and ‘nonfixity’ are afforded consideration in theory and praxis3. It is this ambiguity and uncertainty that Annemarie Mole explores in her long-term study of “living with diabetes”, arguing that beyond being something defined as “located under the skin” in biomedicine (the body as object), or experienced from the inside by patients (the body as subject), hypoglycaemia is also ‘done’ through the multitude of common and unique practices its patients enact every day (the body we do)4.

Through stories of measuring blood sugars, of ‘feeling’ and counteracting a coming hypoglycaemia, and of tailoring one’s environment to its specific needs, Mol demonstrates that hypoglycaemia not only involves the body as a whole, but it also exists beyond its boundaries. This conceptualisation of the body as “neither a whole, nor fragmented”, “but has semi-permeable boundaries”5 encompasses both action and relations. As an analytical frame it posits a focal shift towards the multitude of ways in which bodies act and conditions are enacted. Mol’s ‘body multiple’ not only asks that science opens itself to the possibility of treating patients as multifaceted and interconnected bodies but also brings science to an arena devoid of exactness and universalities, alluding to the existence of other, different, maybe better ways to make sense of one’s reality. Concepts that not only exist in other cultures but that have consistently been discredited by the west.

By exploring the Daoist concept of ‘tianrenheyi’ (oneness) and its potentials within Chinese and western medicine, the work of Mei Zhan resonates closely with Mol’s notion of ‘the body we do’. ‘Tianrenheyi’, described “as the dynamic oneness of the human in the world”6, situates the human and their condition within a multifaceted and interconnected web that includes not only their own ‘bounded body’ and its systems, but encompasses their place in and articulation with the world. Unlike the medical models in the West, Chinese Medicine recognises certain conditions and diseases as a state of disharmony within the complex interconnected system in which the individual is embedded, and thus, treats patients by restoring “balance into their health, and maybe even their life”6. This holistic approach, which Mol advocates for, has been rejected by western medicine for decades, first classed as ‘pseudoscience’ then labelled as ‘alternative’ or ‘complimentary’ practices under the argument that it cannot be proved efficient through tests and trials within the western scientific model. In assuming a clear position regarding what ‘the body’ is, western science, and consequently anthropology, alludes to the existence of universal and essential truths about what it means to be human, placing itself above other perspectives in a hierarchy of valid knowledge.

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Zhan’s work also illustrates significant moments in history where the traditional Chinese medical framework converges with processes of transformation in western thought. After a process of ‘scientization’ from the 1950’s, Chinese medicine was transposed onto the West’s carefully sculpted positivist biomedical frame, fragmenting holistic concepts, ridding texts of any “superstitious connotations” and reframing it into “a somewhat coherent system of knowledge”7. As Daoist principles reached as far as the fertile soil of the western counterculture movement, it provided those disillusioned with capitalist practices an alternative framework for making sense of the ‘Self’.

As depicted by Paul Heelas in Spiritualities of Life the growth of alternative well-being practices alongside the emergence of new spiritualities in the West has seeped into every realm of our modern life, attesting to yet another transition in the way we conceptualise the ‘body’ and the ‘self’. These ‘spiritualities of life’ seek “to draw one’s mind, body and spirit into a whole”8 that exists in direct relationship with all of life. Spiritual, psychological and physical practices are put forward as vehicles for the reverting of the ‘fragmentation of the self’ caused by modernity, and “concern is expressed for human wellbeing in all its aspects”9. This opportune intersection we find ourselves in, converge the anthropological debate of ‘the body’, the questions it raises about the usefulness of western emphasis on scientific truths, and the many examples of the lived practices of the embodiment of principles such as Mol’s ‘body multiple’ and the Daoist concept of ‘oneness’. And we circle back to my earlier question: what will anthropology do to integrate the discomforts raised through this debate?

By stating “‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism”, Zoe Todd calls our attention to the ramifications of anthropology’s habit of intellectualising solutions when it is called out for propagating ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, elitism, intellectual appropriation, etc. What the reflexive turn and, more recently, the ontological turn have offered to the discipline, is not merely the opportunity to acknowledge the consequences of one’s position of authority. What it has and does offer is the chance to act. Instead of developing a better and clearer analytical framework for ‘the body’, we may instead follow Mol’s suggestion and ask: “is this practice good for the subjects (human or otherwise) involved in it?”10. In an increasingly interconnected world, the solutions for issues of global scope, such as Climate Change and the current Coronavirus pandemic, will invariably require global collaboration. We have a chance and a fierce responsibility to stand side by side with anthropologists from around the world and actively demonstrate that their indigenous models, their philosophical models, and their spiritual models are valid, honoured and extremely necessary.

Renata Carvalho is an artist and Life Coach, currently a 3rd year Anthropology with Spanish BA student at Sussex. Her special interests are social justice, education and sustainable futures.


1 Lock, M. (1993) ‘Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistemologies of Bodily Practice and Knowledge’. Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 22, pp. 133-155. Available at: http://www.jstor.com/stable/2155843

2 Scheper-Hughes, N. and Lock, M. (1987) cited in Van Wolputte, S. (2004) ‘Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves’. Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 33, pp. 251-269. 3 Van Wolputte, S. (2004) ‘Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves’. Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 33, pp. 251-269. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143749.

3 Van Wolputte, S. (2004) ‘Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves’. Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 33, pp. 251-269. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143749.

4 Mol, A. and Law, J. (2004) ‘Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: The Example of Hypoglycaemia’. Body & Society, 10(2-3), pp. 43-62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042932

5, 6, 7 Zhan, M. (2012) ‘Worlding Oneness: Daoism, Heidegger, and Possibilities for Treating the Human’. Social Text 109, 29(4), pp. 107-128. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-1416109

8, 9 Heelas, P. (2008) Spiritualities of life : New Age romanticism and consumptive capitalism. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781444301106.

10 Mol, A. (2003) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press. Available at: https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-body-multiple.

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