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THE BODY AS A PRISON – November 2018

Jonas Guigonnat THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Don’t Judge a Woman by Her Body

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

Individually, we tend to think of our body as a kind of private property, a part of our chosen identity. We constantly try to control and shape it on what seems to be our own terms, but ultimately the relationship between human beings and their bodies is not only based on individual preference. What others think of our bodies, and how they relate it to “cultural clichés”, is what motivates us to shape our appearances to fit in.

Yet, it is also what dictates our social and cultural identities as part of social groups. The interaction of those groups with each other defines what one’s body means. On a global scale, and throughout time, there are numerous cultural clichés that have been so deeply rooted in humanity that we still hang on to them today. Firstly, because they are easy to understand. Also, because they represent a hierarchy, an order, that seems to be “natural”. As diverse as cultures can be in different parts of the world, some cultural structures often seem to be recurrent, especially when it comes to the place of women in society.

The fact that the word the words “women” and “men” not only define physical characteristics but also a network of social and cultural symbols hits the nail right on the head.

The body as a social and cultural prison

Stereotypes about women are legions and, even can jokes tell us a lot about general assumptions. Jokes about women behind the wheel, or about blondes, are based on generalities that make sense only in our social environment. This environment seems to us natural and based on truths. As the transsexual woman, sociologist, and feminist Raewyn Connell explains in her book Gender in World Perspective, a social order is nothing more than an intellectual construction. This construction is implemented into the structure of society to such an extent, that it seems absurd to doubt it.

Nonetheless, it is anything but a natural state.

What it means to be a woman – or a man for that matter – is defined by criteria of reproductive functioning, what Connell calls the “reproduction arena”. But it doesn’t mean that those criteria are all there is to one’s identity. Newborns are conditioned into their gender role and young children learn what it means to be a girl or a boy through their social experiences. As the godmother of modern feminism, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Nicolas Poussin, “L’enlèvement des Sabines,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1634-1635). Painting of one of the Romans founding myth, The Rape of the Sabine Women, where violence against women is mostly a justified expression of power

Imprisoned by history  

Recounting the entire historical process through which the present position of women was formed is beyond the scope of this article, but some contextualization is still necessary. As far as historical records show us, for the last 5000 years, there was almost no society in which women weren’t considered “inferior” or at least “dangerous”. There are some exceptional women from otherwise repressive societies, such as queens Cleopatra and Sabha, or some legend like the Amazons, but none of those examples really defied the established order. Their bodies still made them weak and corrupt in the eyes of the men around them.

One of the Roman founding myths, the story of the Sabines, is quite symbolic of such mentalities in antiquity. It tells how the Romans, who were desperately looking for women, raped and kidnapped all the wives and daughters of neighboring cities.

Historians point out that this event probably never happened. The first written account about what should have happened around the sixth century BCE comes from the Roman writer Pliny who lived in the first century BCE. “The Rape of the Sabine Women” was part of a propaganda that legitimated the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire under the first emperor Augustus.

There was thus, to say the least, some pride in disrespecting a woman’s body.

Fear, lies, and distrust

The rise to power of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions in the early Middle Ages didn’t help the case for women, as the three great monotheistic cults put women in a separate corner from men. They were to be controlled, otherwise, hell would break loose.

Just take the example of Pope Gregory I, who in the sixth century decided that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman that is referred to in the gospels. This was not the case before he made her officially a woman of little virtue, a prostitute. This ancient “fake news” had been considered the truth until just a few years ago.

Fear seems to play a great role here. Considering that most of those religious men tended to truly believe in the “Kingdom of God”, it is easy to deduce that they were plagued by their own desire for the woman’s body. It imbued them with fear, thus they imprisoned it in every way possible, taking total control over women’s lives by deciding for them what it meant to be a woman.

The women’s march to Versailles in October 1789. As a result, the king and his family came back to Paris, which was a turning point in the French Revolution

Slowly but surely

Things have changed, but it took a while. There were some signs of emancipation in the 17th century Netherlands. In Dutch cities every “citizen” had city rights, and this was also true for women, even though there were some nuances. But it didn’t last long and nowhere else in Europe did any society take this model as an example.

Then there was the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and the Revolutionary Wars in Europe that followed. Women are known to have played an important role there. A few months after what is now considered to be the start of the revolution – the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789 – in a time of economic depression and famine, the women of Paris decided to go see their king on their own. They formed a cortège that marched the twenty kilometers separating Paris from Versailles and, though they initially set out to merely ensure bread got to their tables, they accomplished what revolutionaries in Paris couldn’t achieve: getting the king and his family to move to Paris so he could take responsibility in front of the parliament.

From that point on, women became some of the most fervent supporters of the revolution. They even hoped to improve their social position, but once again, their claims were ignored when new power structures were put into place.

A few years after the event at Versailles they were back to square one. It would take a century to see real changes occur, at least in Europe. Women everywhere on the continent used socialist ideologies to plea for their causes. The only way to change the course of action was to take things into their own hands and be the authors of their own story.

Finally existing, but how?

It was possible for women to influence the way they were seen and the way society expected them to behave. But first, they had to be recognized as an acting part of society. The right to vote for women everywhere in Europe in the 1920’s was a sign that things could not stay the way they were. After World War II and the rise of the “society of prosperity”, it took just 20 years for the emancipation of women to really become significant, even for men.

But the body was still in the way, and quite rapidly new kinds of behaviors became “normal”. Women who were not respectable “housewives” didn’t deserve respect, so men knew full well that they were free to give in to their animal instincts. Sexual objectification, or seeing the woman as a sexual object, was a new prison for women, for men were still “dominant”.

Good Housekeeping (an American magazine), 1908. To be perfect, a woman had to be a virtuous housewife.

Paradoxical changes

Finally, this brings us to the present day and its challenges. The sexualization of women has continued as the norm. But for a few years, there has been a direct answer to this neoliberal gender arrangement. Regardless of the impact, the #MeToo movement has had since its commencement, it shows that things still need to change and that women are ready to express themselves in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago. The scale of sexual harassment is quite striking, but not surprising. Someone as high-ranking as the President of the USA, Donald J. Trump, even talks about being able to “grab them by the pussy” and the reaction of the establishment is almost nonexistent.

That says enough, women seem to really be fed up. In France, women are even more defiant than in other western countries. This is easy to understand if we look at recent affairs with politicians such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Nicolas Sarkozy, or François Hollande. One day in Paris is also enough to understand what it really means to be a woman in the capitale de l’amour.

Is it then possible to conclude that women did emancipate from the prison of their body? At least the recent history proves that the possibility exists, but the cost in terms of the social struggle and the manual effort it takes is quite huge.

Freeing the body from the mind is already a challenge when it comes to individuals, but it is far more complex when a whole group is concerned. All of society, our co-citizens, are seeing us by what our appearances mean. However, human beings are potentially capable of emancipating from the present and acting towards an unknown future. The body is surely often a prison, but jailbreaking, with all its consequences, is always an option.

Max Muller THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Bodily Switches In Film

Written by Max Muller

From the profusion of books, films, and television episodes about body swaps it seems that we often perceive our own body as a constraint. By conducting an analysis of such transfers in various media, we might gain a deeper understanding of the way we feel corporeally entrapped. In this piece, I will examine exactly in what ways people long to escape their corporeal prisons, and reflect on why different types of bodily transfers are so captivating to people.

Mary Shelley’s book “Transformation,” published in 1830, can be considered the first story written about a person experiencing the world through the eyes of another person. Since then, many other artists have put themselves to the task of conveying the idea of a body switch in various forms. Just in film, starting with Turnabout in 1940, at least 50 movies on body switches have been made.

This high number of films (approximately 1.35 per year) indicates that this is a popular theme that captivates people’s imaginations. As these movies were made relatively recently, an examination of body switches in this medium is perhaps the most suitable way to find out why and in what sense people in the modern age are particularly enchanted with this idea. Therefore, I’ve focused exclusively on cinematic versions of this age-old story to gain a deeper understanding of the fascination with the “body switch”.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Some of these films involved bodily exchanges with multiple people. Others included animals and other entities. Ignoring these instances and focusing exclusively on switches with two people, we are left with 42 films.

First, it is worthwhile to investigate the gender of those involved in the switch. For instance, 18 Again! (1988) tells the story of David and his millionaire playboy grandfather Jack Watson trading places. This is an example of a male-male switch. Others depict the exchange of perspectives between two women, or between a man and a woman.

Body Switches By Gender

We can see that the male / female switch is clearly the most popular one. This is probably an instance of the ancient fascination with the (perceived) dichotomy between men and women. In this case, it is human gender and the limited worldview that it inevitably creates that constitutes the desire to switch. The switch movies provide men with a sneak peek of Venus, and women with a day-tour around Mars. People are often excited about the idea of looking at the world through the eyes of someone with “the other” gender. In movies, the switch usually leads to hilarious situations.

It’s not just excitement and humor that propels people to watch this type of movie. These films by and large have great educational value. By following along with the main characters, the audience learns how those with a different gender think and what their struggles are.

Exchange of Status

An enlargement of understanding “the other” seems to be the overarching theme of not just the gender switch, but of the body-switching concept as a whole. The switch allows for a quick and direct exploration of other people’s daily lives, their responsibilities, and their interests.

Therefore, the switch can serve to enlarge people’s understanding of not just other genders, but also other types of differences. Differences that are also of societal importance are parent/child relationships (8 movies), occupational distinctions (7 movies), and the discrepancy between husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend (5 movies).

In each of these types of switches, it is important that the dichotomy between the exchangers is large. Otherwise, the perspective change is not extreme enough for a person to actually learn something from the experience. With regards to the occupational differences, for instance, it is not interesting enough to depict the switch between a highly paid lawyer and a senior banker. Both of these occupations are demanding, corporate, traditional jobs.

In David Dobkin’s The Change-Up (2011), on the other hand, a lawyer with a family (Dave) and a single adult movie actor (Mitch) make the switch. In this case, the trade is clearly large enough to merit attention. While Dave learns to loosen up by spending less time on his job and more time with his family, Mitch is taught the value of commitment and taking responsibility for his actions.    

Conclusion

Thus we have dissected the body switch. Our investigation has revealed it’s an effective instrument to explore differences between individuals that are not like-minded. During the switch, those involved will perceive matters literally from the other’s point of view. At the same time, the swap allows them to discover and improve themselves.

No wonder this is such a popular genre.

Sybrand Veeger THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018 Tjan Ho Lai

Parallel Spinozas, the Craftsman and the Philosopher

Written by Sybrand Veeger

Baruch Spinoza: the name of the 17th-century, Dutch, daytime lens-grinder, and nighttime philosopher, of the excommunicated Amsterdam Jew, of a solitary yet dextrous lens-grinding body, of a joyful and infinitely thought-provoking mind. Baruch means the blessed, Spinoza, he who comes from a spiny place.

Baruch Spinoza: the blessed spirit from the spines.

Spinoza had one method for the making of telescopes and metaphysics – Euclidean geometry. One begins with a number of axioms, these are irreducible and self-evident truths about the world, to then deduce certain optical theorems, or philosophical propositions, that follow strictly from these truths, to determine the concavity, convexity, transparency, and opacity of what we can see, of what we can know.

What did he see? What did he know?

As preliminary work, he had to wipe off the foggy dualism left by the Cartesians, who thought that mind and matter were divinely connected through the work of an intervening God. The axioms then led the blessed telescope-maker to a different idea, to develop a clear and pristine metaphysical image.

Excommunication curse of Spinoza by the Amsterdam Jewish Community. Photo: Tjan Ho Lai

Axiom 1: God is Nature

First, he observed that God must be equal to nature. God, or nature, is the one and only substance constituting the world, it is everything that is – there is by definition nothing outside of it because what would be outside of it wouldn’t be. The oneness of the world, the identity of God and nature, constitutes Spinoza’s first theorem: monism.

For Spinoza, the craftsman, this meant that Jupiter and the telescope with which he observed it worked according to the same fundamental laws. For Spinoza, the metaphysician, it meant that the truth about the world and the mind with which he conceived it were fundamentally identical.

Axiom 2: God-Nature has Infinite Forms

Second, he saw that because God-Nature is absolutely infinite, it follows that it has infinite forms of expression. Merely two of these forms, which Spinoza calls attributes of God-Nature, are conceivable to us – thought and matter. Attributes are how God-Nature expresses itself and they are infinite in their quality as attributes. It follows that there is an infinite amount of infinite attributes: the limitless expressionism of God.

Spinoza observed that due to the existence of one substance only, “[t]he order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (7, 2, Ethics). Geometrically, and optically, attributes form a parallelogram of lines that never touch each other but express in different forms the one substance, God-Nature. There is a correspondence between attributes, in the sense that attributes always express the same thing, but there is no real causal interaction connecting them. Mind and matter never really touch, they run parallel, never perpendicular.

Axiom 3: God-Nature has Infinite Production

Third, Spinoza observed the work of God-Nature, it’s infinite production. If attributes are the forms of expression, then modes are the content of expression, what is expressed. Modes can be infinite, like, say, energy; and modes can be finite. Modes can be simple, like the asteroid, or can be complex enough to be self-conscious, like the human.

Spinoza noticed that he was one mode of God-Nature, operating through two parallel attributes, Spinoza as the craftsman, and Spinoza as the philosopher. Spinoza’s lens-grinding body, expressed through the attribute of extension; Spinoza’s metaphysical mind expressed through the attribute of thought. One mode of God-Nature, one individual, constituted by a body and a mind: two parallel expressions of the same thing.

Photo by Adrien Olichon

What We Can Know

Body and mind, therefore, are modes forming a complex, self-conscious union, an emergent mode – the human individual. My body is the expression of my individuality in God-Nature’s attribute of matter, whereas my mind is the expression in God-Nature’s attribute of thought. My mind is the idea of my body, and my body is the object or ideatum of my mind. Mind and body are lines that never touch, yet the order and connection of the idea, my spirit, is always parallel to the order and connection of the ideatum, my body. There is a perfect correspondence between the mental and the physical, neither comes a priori, like two mirrors facing each other in parallel, reflecting themselves to infinity.

Spinoza, daytime lens-grinder and nocturnal philosopher, did not only deduce the parallel relation between mind and body, but also lived according to it, personified it. He made parallelism an expressionist ethic.

Browsing through Spinoza’s biography at the Jewish Historical Museum. Photo: Tjan Ho Lai

Contributor THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

To Only Exist As A Mind

Written by Marten Bart Stork

Some say that the body is the temple of the holy spirit.

Others say it is a prison for the soul.

 

But however we may see it, we seem to be stuck with it. (At least for now)

 

Or is there somewhere else we can go?

 

What if we could leave our body before we die?

 

In the future we probably will be able to have a fully functional isolated brain.

Separate from our body.

(Free from physical pain?)

 

Or will consciousness be digitized?

 

Either way, it seems likely that we will at some point be able to leave our bodies behind.

(While we are still alive)

And exist only as a mind.

 

Try to imagine what that would be like.

 

To exist only as a mind.

 

Will it be like a dream?

An everlasting dream?

 

For time would no longer matter when we could (potentially) live forever.

 

Will technology enable us to transcend to beings of pure consciousness?

 

Could we create a complete universe inside our mind?

A perfect non-physical (virtual) reality for every one of us.

 

A place where we can do and create anything we can imagine?

 

Maybe god did not create the universe, but the universe is creating gods.

 

Gods that in their turn create new universes.

 

That in their turn create new gods.

 

Infinite realities.

Infinite possibilities.

THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Introduction: The Body As A Prison

Dear Infected,

The body is a delicately balanced composition of limbs, organs, fluids, textures. It is a collectively working series of systems, forming an organism with reflexes, motor skills, gut feelings, and muscle memories. The body, both the lens through which we experience the world and the physical material that makes us part of it, continually adapts and evolves within our lifespans – and the larger span of time.

And yet, despite only knowing life through our bodies, at times we begin to feel trapped, dissatisfied, or uncomfortable. With the chemical balances of our bodies. With the limited timeframe of being singular entities. With the dissonance between the way we feel and the way we are seen.

The body can begin to feel like something from which we wish to escape.

This month we hope to explore these dissonances: What lies behind the feeling that our bodies are miss-fit? How have people around the world, and throughout history, dealt with this notion? Where do we search for symbiosis? Who has inspired us out of this clash? Why does the clash even exist?

This month, our staff writers are channeling their own experiences, memories, and knowledge towards the topic, The Body As A Prison, hoping to unpack it, one creation at a time.

If you have any perspectives to share, hunches to work out, or images to show, we welcome you to make a contribution.

All our best,

The Pandemic Team