Gender and the Body – How did we get here?

One of my old professors was fond of saying that in his class we take the first several weeks to chuck a whole bunch of balls in the air and we then spend the rest of the semester learning to juggle them. This is an attempt at juggling. I’m throwing 20 different ideas in the air and am desperately hoping to catch two or three. So you’re warned in advance if this feels a bit ambitious/excessive. Also, cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.

Last week I referenced Foucault’s argument in the opening chapter of Discipline and Punish in which he says that the western mind has shifted in recent centuries away from an emphasis on the physical body and toward the question of ideals, privileging what Foucault terms “the abstract conscious” over the much more physical human body.

One point that especially interests me in all of this is how this privileging of the abstract conscious over the body manifests itself in the way we view gender and body image. Here’s my intuition: In the pre-modern mind the body and the senses played a radically different role than they do the modern. But it’s not simply an issue of body and soul, but of physical and abstract.

There’s a larger cultural trend that is worth discussing and it manifests itself in many ways. The underlying premise of both industrialization and modernity is that something other than nature ought to govern and limit the capabilities of human beings. Indeed, these twin projects would argue that the only legitimate limitations that can be imposed onto humanity are those of our imagination and our technology. I am becoming more convinced that when moderns speak of people being “free” this is the sense in which they mean it – free from the natural limitations of place and time. The net result of this shift then is a movement away from physical, tangible realities and toward abstraction. Things like the physical land and physical body are uninteresting to moderns – except to the extent that they must be considered in the exercising of the human imagination or the implementation of technology. So we care about the slope of the land for how it determines the kind of road we can build, but that’s it.

The shift is manifested in our justice system as Foucault documents above. But it’s also manifested in our relationship to the land. We now see the physical land as merely incidental, one more thing to conquer and control. Rather than living with the land, we now live on it. Consider this excerpt from Christopher Benson writing at Mere Orthodoxy:

“Herein lies a contrast between the modern project to mark on the land, where man tries to humble the wild, and what we might envision as a postmodern project to be marked by the land, where the wild humbles man. Is it even possible, I wonder, for the wild to humble us when we’re no longer residents of the wild, when the magic of our technologies and the potency of our knowledge make us feel closer to God than the beasts? Is the fact of the land a fact anymore? If there’s any hope to care for the land rather than merely conquer it, then we must undergo “its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” In short, we must undergo a reverse homesteading, in which the land does not leave us alone.”

I’m even inclined to say that you can see this reflected in our economic model, though my ignorance of economics gives me some pause before doing so, but consider the way we value money: In the past, we based our money’s value on an inescapably physical, tangible standard: gold. Now we base it on the abstract authority of the nation backing it up. (I’m not arguing that all of these shifts are innately bad, I’m just pointing out the many ways the shift is manifested.)

In any event, I think the larger point holds: In the last 200 years with a rise in technology and shift in cultural values we’ve seen a movement away from the brass tacks of matter and toward the more conceptual realm of ideals. So what does it have to do with our physical bodies? I’m still sorting through how to answer it, but here are some intuitions:

Firstly, though we have tried to make physical things peripheral in our thinking about the world, we can’t avoid thinking about them at some level simply because we live in a physical world and our ability to live well in it depends so much upon physical, tangible conditions. In other words, the ideal can be divorced from on-the-ground realities, but human beings cannot. Because abstraction is privileged over the body, our first thoughts about our own bodies are grounded in abstractions rather than simple observation of our own bodies. So for a young woman thinking about her body, the place her thought process is likely to begin is with whatever ideal of feminine beauty she’s been given in her formative years. She will then move from that abstraction to judging her own body and that of her peers by the standard already given. And in our culture’s case, it doesn’t matter that her body might be perfectly healthy because the ideal is not concerned with something as tangible as bodily health. The ideal is only concerned with abstraction. And the makers of the ideal are, more often than not, advertisers who are only concerned with making a buck.

Second, because our primary concerns are no longer with practical realities but abstract ideals, the standards we create may be of little practical use or may even be physically dangerous. Consider Barbies, for example. The primary concern with a Barbie doll is not that her body would be such that she’s able to do useful work (whatever that work may be) or even that her body would be physically healthy. The only concern is that the doll would reflect and encourage a carefully-defined and completely-unattainable standard of beauty created by advertisers who need to peddle a product. (Sidenote: This is where I insert a plug for Mad Men and tell you to start watching it because it’s one of the best shows on television and has a lot to say about the issues we’re discussing here.)

At this point we need to revisit Bonhoeffer’s idea of a wish-dream: Ideals, like the Barbie figure, are wish-dreams. And if we don’t learn to accept that blessed disillusionment we spoke of earlier, we continue to pursue our wish-dream no matter the consequences. The advertisers are happy to keep up this arrangement – there’s plenty of other ways they can make the feminine ideal unattainable. And, of course, the more unattainable the ideal, the more enticing that ideal is as a wish-dream.

Those are just two thoughts of how Foucault’s idea of the abstract conscious/soul being privileged over the body might influence our understanding of gender and sexuality. What are your thoughts? Do you see this shift to valuing the abstract over the physical? If you do, how does that influence our thinking about gender and the body?

  • Pingback: The Body – How did we get here? « Notes from a Small Place

  • Jane Elmore

    I think another consequence of valuing the abstract and ideal over the physical and the real is that we lose our ability to see. It is not only that the young woman thinking about her body is always comparing herself to the ideal, it is that the ideal is so present in her mind that she cannot see the real in front of her. I think an understanding and appropriate knowledge of one’s body is a jumping board for pursuing health, as “healthiness” accommodates itself to each person’s particular deficiencies and strengths.

    Just a thought…

  • James

    I think you’re onto something very here. I’d also add that the shift you’re describing is responsible for the contemporary notion that sexual orientation is a fixed and immutable characteristic of human identity, but sex itself is something that can be molded or changed to conform with identity. The opposite used to be considered true.

    Perhaps the fact that ideals and desires are valued by society more than “mere” matter could help explain the growing trend in our generation to describe oneself as “spiritual.”

  • Mark

    >> he says that the western mind has shifted in recent centuries away from an emphasis on the physical body and toward the question of ideals, privileging what Foucault terms “the abstract conscious” over the much more physical human body.

    This is where Descartes comes in … and other early moderns such as Kepler, Galileo, Newton.

    >> we’ve seen a movement away from the brass tacks of matter and toward the more conceptual realm of ideals.

    The view of matter itself changed radically. It is all about metaphysics, the most fundamental of reasons for many things that are hidden to the average person.

    We can agonize over control, sex, money, and body image all we want, but these things were all present before the shift you are describing, some influences much stronger probably than today. In fact it is a bit too fashionable to agonize over these things to think we’ll come up with any solutions by rehashing them over and over. Besides which, these things are symptoms, not causes.

    Until we want to study how the view of matter changed so radically at about the same time Foucault observes a shift we won’t know much about bodies at all, human or otherwise.

    JM Keynes famous quote is apropos – “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

  • Micah


    An interesting comment. I believe it is this change in metaphysics that is of interest to Foucault when he speaks of an abstract conscious(ness). However, I would dissent: it is not an understanding of matter that essentially changed, but that matter, particularly from the middle eighteenth century on, became everything. Conceptions of materiality altered drastically because conceptions of reality became materialistic.

    Kant wanted to defend both science and faith (grant me this simplification), but the result of his defense was that metaphysics became a less legitimate inquiry. Empirical inquiry proved itself time and time again (or so goes the story), and thus non-empirical inquiry diminished.

    Granted that we start from the assumption that there is a soul (whatever that means) and there is a body (whatever that means), the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment fixed its eyes on the body and forgot about the soul.

    Here we can fix Foucault’s story with our own (Christian) assumptions: the soul and body do exist, but in the professed absence of the soul, something was needed to take its place, and that is the abstract conscious(ness). Having no recourse to the definition of personhood via faith, personhood must be constantly redefined, presumably upon a material base. Yet the material base is insufficient. Thus, redefinition, for materialism cannot define personhood.

    And I believe it is the redefinition, Jake, that haunts minds in matters of body image and gender. Advertising may always shift details and fashions, altering perceptions and conceptions of valid personhood in superficial, and therefore unattainable ways.

    The void left by the conceptual absence of the soul must be filled, and it is, though badly and arbitrarily filled by our senses, which, we are told, are those few things we can trust.

    What is necessary, then, for matters of gender and body image, is to understand body, of course, but more importantly soul in a manner as robust and comprehensive as our current understanding of personhood as consciousness in the abstract.

    Of course, metaphysics is a nasty business, and I’m not interested in defining the soul as a metaphysical entity. Rather, we start from the belief that to have a soul is to be made in the image of God, and gather our conclusions from that truth.

  • Micah

    Likely, it needn’t be said, but I believe this lands me on a contrary conclusion to your thoughts, Jake. I am unsure that we are favoring the abstract over the physical so much as trying to find the abstract in the physical, and that is an impossible task.

  • Mark


    First, I haven’t read Foucault, so all I know is what the blog post said. As far as the view on matter so you know where I’m coming from, my view is the classic Aristotelian-Thomistic one. I think it is accurate to say that everything I said I could have said by announcing it as “The Thomistic view is …”. Right or wrong, that is the view, and I think it is very fair to say the Thomistic view is not well known in Evangelical circles. In many of these (even philosophical) Evangelical communities it is practically unknown. This is just by way of background -an interesting, detail rather than any sort of appeal to authority. It is fascinating how human knowledge transmission works. Knowledge silos like that complicate communications and learning severely, since it is hard to believe our wise and educated teachers or peers wouldn’t have taught us all major views out there whether they believed it or not -but in fact they often in the same silos we are.

    At the end of the day I’d argue it is a matter of historical fact that the view of matter did in fact change. See Burtt’s “The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science”. When you say “matter became everything … in the 18th century” you are referring to materialism. But this was a later phenomenon. The mechanistic view of matter preceded in a couple of centuries, and the pernicious effects that Thomists believe this wrought is why they always frown on Descartes. He didn’t invent it, but he absorbed and represented it most fully and completely.

    I think Metaphysics is what grounds ethics. That is not any uniquely Thomistic view. But if it is true then the Thomists have a point that the mechanical view of matter that was postulated in the 16th century (and eventually took over as the mainstream view to the point that few today even know there ever was anything else) had an effect on ethics.

    Evangelicals tend to be reject pre-modern philosophical understandings, so it isn’t unusual to have Evangelicals agree with that MP matters to ethics, but only in case of any view of dualism vs. naturalist/materialist views. In other words, MP matters to ethics so far as their MP goes, but Thomistic sometimes called hylemorphic dualism not so much. I say you can’t have it both ways. Either MP matters or it doesn’t. And I don’t see how what our bodies are made of doesn’t matter in any significant way. In other words, a Thomist can never accept the statement like “… body whatever that means”. They’ll stop right there and argue and say but we see, touch, and feel matter all the time, surely something has gone wrong to give up and say “whatever that means”. And God made it and called it good. Surely we can say something about what our souls inform and what we interact with materially (as well as spiritually of course too).

    So anyway, I’m coming from a different perspective than the keen social observer, but my view is that this view is about the effects and not the causes, though very important the effects are and very, very useful to know about. But I still think we need to find the source, what these poor social effects ride upon. Not that knowing the cause eliminates it, but lack of understanding of root causes of them will make nearly impossible attempts to reverse the effects.

    I can’t let this one go …

    >> “..metaphysics is a nasty business, and I’m not interested in defining the soul as a metaphysical entity. Rather, we start from the belief that to have a soul is to be made in the image of God …”

    Where you start and where you stop are two different things. We don’t start with MP, no one should be saying that, and I’m certainly not. Faith seeks reasons. Surely you don’t want to say we should end where we start. If not, then you’ll implicitly endorse MP. If all we can say about the body and the soul are “whatever it is” then we’d essentially be saying “… human persons, whatever that is”. No good will come from spurning MP. We all use it implicitly, the only question is whether we have a good view of it or not.

  • Micah


    I think we’ve wandered afield of the topic at hand. That is what I was trying to avoid. What seemed to you summary dismissals of important and valuable lines of inquiry were not so intended. I don’t despise metaphysics so much as harbor a suspicion of it. I call it a nasty business because it is murky and highly contended. That is to say, for the topic at hand, I wanted to avoid definitions that would be disagreeable, and rather propose an agreeable start.

    As to your other concerns: materialism was inaugurated in its modern form by thinkers of the 18th century, though it was not necessarily the dominant metaphysical schema of those thinkers; I mistook your earlier comment regarding views of matter as meaning views on the nature of matter rather than views on the nature of causality.

    I hope that disbands any confusion.

  • Mark


    I think I understand your position, and I don’t think it is much different than than the divide between theology and philosophy students at a university, but all I can say is that the discussions revolving the body here are no less speulative than the philosophical ones. In your phrasing I think it is at least as murky and higy contended. I could just as easily argued at the level of social speculation I think. Since my interest is applied ethics my main interest is in trying to account for the divisions between Christians on certain ethical matters. I didn’t turn to phlosophy because I thouhgt it was cool or to my liking but finally because people like Meilaender, Ramsey, Kass, Jonas, Mortimer Adler, and RP George and other top ethicists.seemed to think a key to ethics was in the beginning of the modern period with. The people I most respect don’t avoid metaphysics so I don’t feel I can.


  • Mark

    Just one more note on this. Metaphysics was a primary concern of anyone that was anyone that mattered in western history.  If you want to know much about any of these men you have to understand what they thought was important and mp was always at the top of the list.  It is simply a matter of understanding history.  Knowing more facts means less speculation rather than more, and conversely knowing less facts means more speculation. What great men thought are facts, and not too great a price to pay to understand history.  It’s the only way.