Body and Society

Roberto Cipriani

There is a peculiarity of the human body that makes it an entity in between something natural and which perpetuates itself following the basic rules of common life: human body can reproduce itself on and on (as it has been happening since some million years, as witnessed by the female hominid fossil, named Lucy, which was found in East Africa, and early hominids which date back to 6-8 million years), and for some more years it will keep on reproducing, thus giving way to the most meaningful among human activities.

            Given such premises, the subject of the following essays concerns the metaphoric value of some expedients which give importance to the body in its relation to new technologies, taking into consideration the fluid boundaries between bodies and ultra-modern technologies.

            A medium such as the camera can easily preserve dead bodies in life with the re-presentation or iconic representation of their human profiles, no more as social actors but as indirect protagonists, so to become a sort of social bound and referring examples for (in the name of) their ideas and main issues. In a sense, the passed away do not really ‘pass away’ thanks to the newborn vitality that comes out from printing the images of their life.

            As a matter of fact, as Francesco Faeta reminds us (2000: 163), ‘the pictures of the “passed away” state, in their objectivity, a mutation and a closing in time experience, because they are an operating activity and hold parts of the essence and constitution of the subject, therefore they are a good means for eidetic reconstruction’.

            The 20th Century was defined as the century of the body according to the major attention paid to all the aspects of corporeality, so to make of it a sort of religion of the body. Besides, the media and the new means of diffusion for the works of art have highly contributed to the increase of such a new phenomenon. 

            Also on a linguistic level there is something undefined and vague in the Italian language: the term ‘salma’ (corpse) is a highly undetermined one because it can be ‘soma’ (again an imprecise word which refers to the old Greek term for “body”) in the sense of the carried luggage but also to the corpse (object of cultural rites), to the dead body, without neglecting the possibility of remanding to the living body as an imperfect part because of its materiality. On another hand, speaking of ‘salmerie’ (baggage train) means referring to useful materials for survival both from a ‘grocery’ point of view (eating supplies) and from a military point of view (for munitions, both for defence and salvation).

An historical and sociological approach to the body

In France, more than in Italy, the issue of the body was widely explored, as witnesses the major work of Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine and Georges Vigarello (2006) on L’Histoire du corps (The History of the Body). Some symbolic and tragic reflections in the meantime are those of Primo Levi (1976) in Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), where he says, in 1947: ‘My body is not my body anymore’. And Varlam Salamov (1995) in I racconti della Kolyma (Stories from Kolyma) seems to continue the sentence by writing: ‘the bones are freezing, the brains and the soul start stiffing’. Both witness the experience of a dictatorship, respectively the German Nazism and Soviet Communism. Both ideologies consider the body as centre of their sense of reality, completely based on rhetoric, supremacy and triumph of power, which have martyrized with unbelievable cruelty helpless people guilty of disapproving dominant ideas or belonging to an ‘undesirable’ race.

            The contemporary trends are different. However, today as well there is an overestimation of the health and powerful body always followed by an humiliation of the body itself, (and even if it does not reach the violence and trials of German concentration camps and that of forced residence and hard labour camps in Russia imposed by GULAG) giving hard proofs to bodies piercing them through, or with perforations and any other kind of harming, thus denying them and considering them abstract instead of material, then passing through them as if without resistance or consistency. This kind of treatment has known no limits and has mummified before its time the body, labelling it as a mail package, branding it as an animal. It is the body exposed and humiliated.

            Apart from such examples of disrespect for human body and its vulnerable human nature, the true decision maker of the body is the DNA. With its helicoidally trend tending to left (nobody has still explained why), it is de facto capable of pre-determining diseases and eventual fatal exitus according to a pre-defined and not elidible schedule.

The denied body

            The body is often named, invoked, designated, desired, but it is as well blamed, annihilated, denied. The paradox is that the body is at the same time scrutinized, stenographed, enlarged, examined also in the inner part where it was never before possible to enter, in interiore hominis, which means in its inner parts. From radiography to endoscope, these are technologies which examine the body in all its elements inscrutable to the naked human eye. This way, scientific discoveries which render all this possible are highlighted and celebrated, as a profound analysis that was hardly believable even a few years ago.

            In the meantime, however, the human body is at times banned, or prayed, according to the different ideological trends of secular rationality and earthly immanence, but also on the basis of the religious  and confessional perspectives, that can be diverse and opposed to the secular perspectives.

            Anthropology has made the body a major subject. Painting, sculpture as well as photography and cinematography have loosened it from tinsels, clothes, costumes that were hiding it. It was made extremely visible, becoming a new object of attention and of ethic-religious discussions. The homosexual movement has led the discussion to the extreme consequences of exhibition that meant as a revenge and provocation with political implications especially in the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action.

            In another aspect, we have to notice as well that nowadays the body is more and more repairable, modifiable, and adaptable. Prosthesis substitutes what lacks or what does not work. ‘Soma’ (body) is therefore re-programmed. Even death can be postponed, at least partially, thanks to the intervention of intubations, breathing-help technologies, oxygen suppliers. Such ‘prolonged-deaths’ have important examples in the last days of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, of the Brazilian Politician Tancredi Neves, and of Suharto in Indonesia.

            Moreover, from a moral point of view, there are issues ranging from eugenics to euthanasia. This means from life to death, endlessly along the life course. But also less dramatic issues are concerned, such as cosmetics, dietetics, plastic surgery, and ultraviolet radiations for untimely tanning, tattoos, piercing, or any kind of mutilations.

            From an iconic point of view, the exhibited body has passed from the old barber’s calendars (now pieces for exhibitions in museums) given for free to clients, to the present calendars for men, women or homosexuals, also sold for charity.

            We have to remember that the opposite of beautiful, graceful and well-done is highly successful in the arts. Some part of literature, cinema, artistic works, television shows deal with or show what is around of monstrous, hideous, anomalous, corrupt, ugly, beastly and fierce having a great success among people of all ages. This way, the difference and the multiform as the possible impossibility become focus of interest, the booster for commercial actions, and medium for new trends and fashions with traces of ideology and intellectual tendencies.

            We have quickly passed from the numbers tattooed on the arms of prisoners in the concentration camps, to the personal use of the skin as a manifesto for exhibiting one’s feelings or ideas.

            The visibility of the body turns into athletic performance, exhibition, show, that has its apex in the dynamic of torture as a proof that challenges the capacity of resistance of the actor and the subject, but also of the watchers, who can be just occasional watchers or the main instigators. Fakirs act in such a way that strongly provoke the actors implying them at all levels; holding on to the insensitivity acquired in troubled and painful situations, fakirs can cause sceptical attitudes or, on the contrary, feelings of deep respect as well as a sort of veneration, as known by Hindu practising the extreme forms of pain annulment.

New dynamics of the body  

            A recent text by Hervé Juvin (2006) seems to celebrate the utmost glorification of the human body. New aesthetic plastic surgery, new genetics, new dietetic regimes and new aesthetics have given an important tribute to the ideology of wellness.

In the meantime alternative solutions are being studied, so to give new energy and development to the body industry: issues such as abortion and contraceptives are problems of the past. The new issues are cloning, homosexual marriages, gene banks, artificial insemination, embryo modifications.

            Medical assistance is extremely diffused. The body is considered an economic property sui generis, sold in parts for transplants, lent for bone marrow transfer (at times, for the same reason,   procreation for medical purposes, e.g. stem-cell research, can be performed). In other words, the body is slowly becoming one among the large number of commercialized products. The body is, however, our own product, a private resource, that is giving way to a new form of capitalism: the use of private property in relation to our body (with evaluations in terms of prizes for each single organ, like kind of a new butcher’s window for human pieces, where prizes and items are catalogued as in an insurance contract for compensation for damages).

            The present tendency seems to preserve people that are not capable of reproducing itself for age reasons. The search of wellness at all costs keeps relentlessly going on.

The conscience of having a body

In the history of human life, many different attitudes towards the body were alternatively shown; a special attention has been paid to its more vital expression: the blood. In this regard, the writing of Piero Camporesi (1984) on the ‘juice of life’ is a good example. The blood is only a component of a more complex whole, it is the object of strong and long-lasting feelings expressed at best in the work of arts, which leave deep impacts between generations: the famous David by Michelangelo to the one by Donatello, who inspired it; from Adam at the Sistine Chapel to the beautiful Riace’s bronzes, where the movement of the bodies is translated into elegance, allusions, references, symbols, that propose  wide possibilities for reflection on the meaning of life.

            Only later, with Rosmini (1926) was the doctrine of the corporal feeling affirmed, according to which any knowledge starts from the body perception. According to Rosmini, founder of a religious congregation, the starting point is the consciousness of one’s own corporeity that allows feeling life in all its expressions, therefore, to become aware of the external events. Thanks to the body we can perceive what is external and foreign. The feeling of belonging derives from the body as well as the conception of oneself and of the other. Therefore, experience as Erlebnis is linked to the consciousness of the body as Leib, and totally different from the nature of the body as Körper. The first (consciousness of the body) differs from the second (the nature of the body) in its relation to the degree of consciousness and reflexivity.

            Again, corporeality offers an extraordinary supply of meaning. Corporeality is language, meaning, message, in one word it is culture and one can experience it through gesture, communication, intelligence, awareness and consciousness.

            Therefore, this question is not useless: ‘Do we have a body or rather are we a body?’ As a matter of fact, the body is the only real property of human beings for a quite long time. The body is the centre and the meaning of all and it gives sense to the world around.

            Finally, from a sociological point of view the most important issue is the social aspect of the body, that is expressed both by sexuality and fasting or diets, as well as by physical exercises, and as a carrier of social interactions and feelings.


Camporesi P. (1984), Il sugo della vita. Simbolismo e magia del sangue [The Juice of Life. Symbolism and Magic of Blood], Comunità, Milano.

Corbin A., Courtine J.- J., Vigarello G. (2006), Histoire du corps [The History of the Body], 3 voll., Seuil, Paris.

Faeta F. (2000), Il santo e l’aquilone. Per un’antropologia dell’immaginario popolare nel secolo                XX [The Saint and the Kite. For an Anthropology of the Popular Imagination], Sellerio, Palermo.

Juvin H. (2006), L’avènement du corps [The Coming of the Body], Gallimard, Paris.

Levi P. (1976), Se questo è un uomo, Einaudi, Torino (English translation, “If This Is a Man”, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1979).

Rosmini S. A. (1926), Nuovo saggio sull’ordine delle idee [A New Essay on the Order of Ideas], Sodalitas, Milano.

Salamov V. (1995), I racconti della Kolyma [Stories from Kolyma], Adelphi, Milano.