Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Philosophy and Anthropology on the Body

I happened to read a great paper by Vanessa Grotti (in this volume) about the way Christianity and one's feeling of oneself as a body interact among sedentarised tribes of the Amazonia. After the first pages, the paper is really a page-turner and raises many interesting issues. Beside the political ones (such as the legitimacy of the missionaries' intervention in pre-existing societies), I have been captured by the thematic core of the article, i.e., that one's body is not a stable entity.
"Wild people" and young children seem to be (yet) able to shift into another body. For instance, a "wild man" cannot be seen in the forest, because it becomes something else, perhaps an animal; and a young children is assumed to be able to become a monkey. Becoming sedentary (which is tantamount to become Christians, in that context) implies, on the other hand, becoming "educated" and, hence, loosing the possibilities an instable body can grant. The idea is really fascinating and it made me re-think our culturally loaden concept of "body". Nowadays, we might be inclined to think that a body is just an external object, clearly distinguished from others. The fact that living beings have bodies and that inert matter can be said to have a body only in a metaphorical sense, might add the idea that a body is an external object wherein organic processes take place. But this is not the only possible understanding of body. "Mainstream" Indian authors (Mīmāṃsakas, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas, Vedāntins…) tend to speak, instead, of the body as the receptacle of fruition, i.e., the place where experience (bhoga) can take place.
What is a "body" for an Amerindian? If I understood correctly V.G.'s article, it is a vehicle for experience. The inner "soul" can move from one body to another. But this "soul" seems to be just "animation". The characteristics of one's personality depend, by contrast, on the body one is using. A "wild man" becomes "educated", if we accepts the bodily habits of "educated" people. But he will turn back into a "wild being" if he goes back into the forest and, consequently, turn into an animal. In this sense, one's "soul" seems to be capable of descending in different bodies as a medium would do it, i.e., assuming all the features of the body s/he is entering.
To put it short, "body" is an ambiguous word and its understanding is culturally loaden. Do anthropologists engage with this sort of objections or is "body" a well-established anthropological term?

Photo found in
On plants' "bodies", see here. On the conclusion that plants do not have bodies, since they cannot experience, see here. On bodies as conceived by Materialists in Indian philosophy, see here.


Anonymous said...

The article concludes that "one's body is not a stable entity." What does stable entity mean anyway? My body is stable enough for its purpose. I get up and usually have enough energy to do what I expect to do.

To play devil's advocate here, if these Amazonians have such fluid bodies, they should be able to show us that they can shape-shift before our eyes. Bring a camera. I think what the author is talking about rather *perception* of body as stable or fluid.

Alternative modes of perception are interesting for sure, but you're not going to get to the heart of it by philosophizing. You need to experience it. There is an old tradition of going *beyond* the normal boundaries. Its often called shamanism. Some do it by drugs, some by fasting, some by sweating, some by isolation, and so on.

Whether your new found perceptions of your body and nature are real or imagined is political, as I think you understand. Be prepared to be labeled a kook and locked away when you stray too far from the flock, and good luck shape-shifting into a bird to fly out of the prison they will lock you up in.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Anonymous,
that one's body is not a stable entity was my summary of the article and I am quite sure the author would have done much better than that.
But, to the point of your comment, may I ask you from which background do you come from? You surely identify an interesting point when you refer to shamanism. Grotti also refers to shamans' leaving their bodies as a further instance of the bodies' "instability". When I asked her what happens of the "gross" body while the shaman is assuming that of a cat, etc., she answered that this usually happens while the shaman is sleeping. Therefore, the key-issue seems to be that only the active body counts (corpses are not bodies, so that one can react to the death of a child by saying that "it has taken another body"; a sleeping one is almost a corpse and probably does not count as a body). Since it is all about an active body, I doubt a camera would be enough of an evidence, since it can only grasp motionless images. Seeing a picture of a "wild man" in the forest looking like an ordinary human being and not as a jaguar, an Amazonian might suggest that the camera cannot seize the essence of the transformation he underwent.

Last: is your body really that stable? Don't we look quite different over time? Don't we notice that even unknown people react to us in a very different way, if we are angry or calm, as if our body were different? And is the notion of body that univocal? I would be glad to read your answers.

Anonymous said...

If they distinguish between a gross and subtle body, then it sounds like they have a similar conception of it as us (if I may assume to share your outlook on the body) and we shouldn't frame it as an instability of the body (gross), but rather a less firm connection between the soul/identity and the body.

My background is complex ;) but I am sympathetic to shamanism. I don't think it meshes well with rationality, that it why I think it need to be experienced to be understood. It is "a separate reality" to use Carlos Castaneda's words.

If you want to say my body is unstable because it changes and ages, then what is stable? It is all a matter of perspective. Does an insect that lives less than a day experience life as brief? By saying my body is stable I shouldn't be stirring up any controversy. If we make an appointment to meet tomorrow, you've 99.9% chance that I'll be there. Stability to me means reasonable reliability. The stability of lecturer positions in today's economy is another matter!

elisa freschi said...

Dear Anonymous,
again, "gross" and "subtle" are just my labels and not Grotti's. Hence, I might be superimposing my view on hers and on the Trio's ones.

What I wanted to say is just that our understanding of what is a "body" is controversial. It is, hence, difficult to use this word unless one carefully defines it.

Judging out of Grotti's examples, I would say that the Trio seem to distinguish between a gross (inert) body, which they not even label "body"; a subtle one, which is the actual "body" and which seems to correspond to the "life" of the Ancient Testament, including both the active body and the person. This can change gross body.
(On the other hand, they must admit that "something" continues to inhabit a shaman's gross body while he assumes a different subtle one, since he is not as dead as a corpse (e.g., he breaths).)
Does not this all mean that the subtle body is the intersubjectively available one? So that I can be quite sure I will recognise a friend tomorrow (if we were to arrange a date) not because of her gross body (which has nothing to do with my experience of her=, but rather because of her subtle one, which I can interact with?

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