Back to top

Reconstruction 7.4 (2007)


Return to Contents

Unproductive Bodies: A Materialist Critique of the "Corporeal Turn" / Paula Cerni

Unproductive Bodies

<1> Contemporary theory tends to neglect the human body's role in the production of material objects. This neglect is most glaring in constructionist approaches, whose post-structuralist view of the social as discursive practice necessarily downgrades the practical relations between humans and their physical environment. Arthur Frank, for example, formulates a typology - partly derived from Bryan Turner's theory of 'bodily order' - according to which the body acts in four ways: as a disciplined, dominating, mirroring and communicative body (Frank, 1991; Turner, 1984). None of these four modes of action involve the body acting practically on the wider material world, but producing only "its own desires" (Frank, 1991: 51). Other examples of this constructionist perspective include Mary Douglas's view of the body as a natural symbol (Douglas, 1996), and Judith Butler's concept of bodily materiality as an effect of power ( Butler, 1993). What is common to all these examples is that the ground of materiality, including the physical body itself, virtually disappears. As Chris Shilling observes, "[i]t is as if the body itself either does not exist, or is constantly pushed to one side" (Shilling, 2003: 63). And if the body itself disappears, so do the material objects it produces.

<2> This is not to say that constructionism denies the existence of material reality; rather, it takes it for granted, considering only how we "constitute" its meaning through discourse and performance. Meaning is then deemed to act as a virtual map guiding each of our material interactions. As a further illustration, we can take Anthony Giddens's analysis of the relevance of bodily regimes, appearance, demeanour and sensuality to contemporary self-identity (Giddens, 1991: 99). For Giddens, these are practical activities, carried out by and through material bodies in real space and time; yet, their purpose and effect is purely self-reflexive - they are wholly oriented towards the internally referential requirements of creating a meaningful life narrative.

<3> While Giddens's approach focuses on what Elizabeth Grosz terms "inside-out" inscriptions on the constructed body (Grosz, 1994), other constructionists emphasise the "outside-in" or collective cultural norms this body executes. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, offers the notion of habitus, an accumulation of patterned corporeal practices derived from external historical sources. For Bourdieu, the body makes history only to the extent that it "enacts the past, bringing it back to life" (Bourdieu, 1990: 73). The past, as he sees it, is incorporated into unconscious bodily dispositions that by-pass the scrutiny of critical reason. These dispositions constitute habitus, "a system of internalized, embodied schemes which, having been constituted in the course of collective history, are acquired in the course of individual history and function in their practical state, for practice (and not for the sake of pure knowledge)" (Bourdieu, 1986: 467). But habitus, which Bourdieu posits as explanation, is itself in need of being explained as a historical entity. Where do specific body schemes originate? How do they reproduce themselves? What brings them to an end? Are the social and the historical not better understood as processes of change, instead of processes of sedimentation and unconscious embodiment? Bourdieu's difficulties in answering such questions stem from his rejection of "objectivist" epistemology, which leads him to regard corporeal practices as self-sustaining.

<4> A comparable interest in bodily practices as opposed to object/subject epistemology can be found in the influential work of Michel Foucault. Like Bourdieu, Foucault does not deny the body's materiality. On the contrary, he brings it to the fore, in a direct challenge to the idealism of bourgeois romantic notions of contractual sociality (Rousseau), and, in his own time, to Sartrean existentialism.

<5> Foucault believes that "the great fantasy is the idea of a social body constituted by the universality of wills. Now the phenomenon of the social body is the effect not of a consensus but of the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals" (Foucault, 1980: 55). But, however much Foucault defines power as material, this is always a power over the body, a power invested in or performed through the body; it is never the power of real historical bodies to produce, order and shape their environment in particular ways. Indeed, Foucault explicitly distinguishes the "capacity" to control and modify things from "power", which "brings into play relations between individuals (or between groups)" (Foucault, 1982: 217). Hence, for him, social power is external to productive practices; it is a mysterious negative force which subjects the human body and turns it into a docile creature (Foucault, 1977).

<6> Foucault's aim "to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects" (Foucault, 1982: 208) challenges the notion of a human subject whose object is the wider social and material world. In its place, he proposes an even more intense kind of subjectivism. For, in abstracting political power from practical economic life, he redefines practice as purely political, and therefore as purely subjective. Correspondingly, in so far as it is material, the human body for Foucault is merely the passive object of ideological forces, both inside-out self-knowledge and outside-in discourses.

<7> As we can see from the above illustrations, the constructionist emphasis on practice has succeeded in giving the physical body a greater theoretical role. The problem is that, by insisting that such practice is "always already" constituted by discourse, it reduces the very concept of practice to the discursive. Hence, while it does not deny matter, constructionism relegates it to an effect, construction or product of something else which is, by implication, not material. It is not materiality as such that disappears in this approach, but the notion of human agents as material producers, as makers of their own physical world.

<8> The same absence of productive practices can be detected in challenges to constructionism which have focused on the "lived" body. This kind of phenomenological physicalism, as elaborated, amongst others, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and further still by his followers and critics (Gendlin, 1992; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999; Leder, 1990) has recently become the main alternative to constructionism in the field now known as body studies.

<9> Feminist theory has reproduced the intellectual dispute between these perspectives in a concentrated form. To begin with, feminist constructionism advanced the concept of "gender" as a critique of the naturalistic concept of "sex". More recently, however, "gender" has been found wanting by an increasing number of feminist writers, many of whom have argued for a phenomenological treatment of the material body.

<10> A pivotal figure in this debate is Judith Butler, still writing within the framework of gender, but wanting to destabilise or "trouble" it ( Butler, 1993). Butler's notion of performativity has helped shift feminist constructionism from a concern with images and representations to a more overt interest in embodied practices. Hence her definition of gender as "an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" (Butler, 1997: 402), and of the body as "a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities" (Butler, 1997: 404). As we found with Bourdieu's concept of habitus, however, these definitions beg the question of why certain acts are repeated, or certain possibilities materialized, at particular moments in history - a question which remains impossible to answer so long as performance is made the explanatory point of departure. Like Bourdieu and Foucault, Butler views outside-in rules and cultural conventions as parameters delimiting what the body can perform; but, since she deems rules and conventions to be themselves constituted by acts of bodily performance, this is a circular argument.

<11> Lately, this ungrounded character of the constructed body has come under criticism from within feminist circles. For example, Carol Bigwood contends that Butler's "Foucauldian attempt to avoid metaphysical foundationalism leaves us with a disembodied body and a free-floating gender artifice in a sea of cultural meaning production" (Bigwood, 1991: 59). A growing number of feminist authors are now arguing for the primacy of the corporeal, in terms close to those of phenomenological physicalism. Thus, Nancy Goldberger notes that in some cultures women claim to possess a "visceral" or "gut" way of knowing, and wonders whether this "bodily knowledge" is distinct from subjective knowledge (Goldberger, 1996). She holds that "bringing the body back into the mind becomes an important item for psychology's agenda if it is to be responsive to culturally diverse populations" (Goldberger, 1996: 355-6). Similarly, Toril Moi makes a case for replacing the duality of "sex" and "gender" with the concept of the lived body, based on her reading of Simone de Beauvoir's work as phenomenology (Moi, 1999) - an interpretation shared by other recent contributions (Bergoffen, 2000; Kruks, 2001).

<12> Such phenomenological interventions still coincide with constructionism in championing practice and questioning the possibility of objective knowledge. The difference is that, for them, practices are not constructed by structuring narratives, norms or discourses. Instead, the cultural world is a projection that the body casts around itself, so that, turning the constructionist position around, power becomes an effect of the body.

<13> Joseph Fracchia has recently argued that, because corporeal organisation enables and constrains human history-making capabilities, historical materialism should take the body as the "first fact" for social theory (Fracchia, 2005). Clearly, Marxism shares with the dominant theories of the body described above an emphasis on the centrality of embodied agency. As illustrated by Fracchia's own view of corporeality, Marxism can appear particularly close to the phenomenological perspective, since it too acknowledges the physical existence of humans, not just as makers of narratives, but as flesh and blood beings whose materiality has social primacy.

<14> The question, however, is exactly what each of those perspectives means by human materiality. A comparison of founding texts suggests that Merleau-Ponty assigns the human body a far more reduced role than Karl Marx does. For Merleau-Ponty, corporeality is flesh, "the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body" (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 146). This flesh is subject and object at the same time, although no longer the subject and object of rational thought. Hence, Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is "a philosophy for which the world is always 'already there' before reflection begins" (Merleau-Ponty, 2002: vii) - a formulation that inverts the constructionist view of the world as "always already" constituted by discourse.

<15> Merleau-Ponty's vision of the world as "not what I think, but what I live through" (Merleau-Ponty, 2002: xviii) inserts the human body firmly within a group of "opaque" objects. This body neither knows nor consciously shapes the other, but forms a material continuum with it. It is an object in itself, but not to itself, and therefore not an intellectual, but a purely material object. It relates to other objects chiefly through basic, pre-cognitive physical actions such as touching, grasping and perceiving.

<16> For Marx, by contrast, the human body is not simply an element of the phenomenological object world. Bodily actions such as touching and perceiving presuppose a different kind of practice - material production. It is the appropriation of nature through labour that allows people access to a humanized world, a world we can grasp (physically and mentally) in so far as we make our own. From this perspective, humans act not only within the world, but on it; and, in transforming matter, we modify our own social conditions of existence, including our cultural norms, discourses and theories. Thus, as we produce our physical environment, we produce ourselves as real historical beings.

<17> Marxism, then, would extend the study of the body in society from the abstract and particular level of "the body" to the concrete and general level of specific practices of production. It is not the body as an abstraction which acts, but historical men and women. The key issue, therefore, is one which both constructionism and physicalism leave aside - how exactly humans produce at each point in history, under what specific division of labour, and at what level of development. It is these concrete social arrangements, Marx would argue, that provide the material foundations for historical ways of life.

<18> As compared with historical materialism, therefore, phenomenological accounts such as Merleau-Ponty's reduce the materiality of human agency to narrow organic dimensions. Theirs is a body which has retreated from producing the world to being (in) its own world; a body-in-itself, a passive material lump trapped within its own sensations, perceptions, feelings, motions, parts, surfaces, chromosomes and fluids. A body caught in claustrophobic, immanent relations with other bodies. A body, in other words, which does not easily fit the picture of a social and historical agent.

<19> Perhaps the best-known model for this body-in-itself is the cyborg, a hybrid of machine and organism (Haraway, 1991). The cyborg is just there, physically present; it does not have to do or produce anything in order to be what it is. Its existence has been reduced to a dehumanised minimum, to keeping (barely) alive. In this respect, the cyborg, which has received much attention and critical comment, is not an unusual creature in contemporary culture. We seem to be surrounded by such bodies-in-themselves, post-human entities with or without prosthetic extensions. Among them are the philosophical (Chalmers, 1996) and Hollywood zombies; the alien; Deleuze's and Guattari's desiring machine (see Buchanan, 1997); the ageing, diseased or disabled body; the sporting body; the hedonistic body; and most varieties of the female body. In common with the constructionist body, these bodies are, for the most part, materially unproductive; they interact with a physical world they themselves do not produce.

<20> In addition to being absent from constructionist and physicalist theories, productive practices are also absent from many recent attempts to locate the body within a more explicitly economic framework. Peter Freund, for example, pays attention to machine-paced work, but only to condemn its noxious effects on the body, together with those of other "civilized" working practices such as discipline and politeness (Freund, 1982). Freund's argument is that if such practices were softened or terminated, the body would find its own inner mode of regulation. He proposes, therefore, that we "listen to our bodies" - a naturalistic approach which de-historicises the body and, once again, asks us to attend to its inner states.

<21> In his discussion of the body's economic role, Bourdieu considers embodied capital a form of cultural capital, separate from (but convertible into) economic capital (Bourdieu, 1997). Although Bourdieu would agree that material goods are produced by working bodies, his argument against a narrow focus on economic interest and in favour of a general "economy of practices" allows him to emphasise the economic body's cultural role at the expense of its productive functions. Thus, he holds that cultural capital accumulates through the cultivation of the self - a far more passive and inward-looking notion than Marx's original view of the worker as physical producer of capital.

<22> Even where authors have explored the economic body from a Marxist-influenced perspective, materially productive practices have been far from prominent. David Harvey, for instance, carries out a detailed reading of Marx's writings on the labouring body, but his own analysis sees the body as "inserted into the circulation of variable capital" (Harvey, 2000: 105; emphasis added), and does not consider the distinctive effects of contemporary forms of production. John O'Neill writes about the productive body politic, "a complex organization of labor and intellect expended in the material and social reproduction of life" (O'Neill, 2004: 45). Yet, like Harvey, O'Neill does not explore the historically specific practices of production such a body engages in - what kind of things it produces, in what quantities, where, for whose consumption, under what conditions, and with what consequences. In fact, O'Neill dilutes the concept of production by including within it "the work of consumption" (O'Neill, 2004: 61), and by highlighting activities, such as medicine, fashion and cosmetics, which are applied to the body rather than produced by it. The economic body that O'Neill has in mind is not that of the producer, but that of the consumer - like the phenomenological body, a body for whom the world has already been created. Not surprisingly, then, he asserts that "[t]he most massive exploitation of the body occurs whenever the economy teaches us to devalue our body unless it has been sold grace, spontaneity, vivaciousness, bounce, confidence, smoothness, and freshness" (O'Neill, 2004: 60). This exploitation-through-marketing of the (predominantly Western) consumer has little in common with Marx's concept of exploitation - the expropriation, before consumption, of material wealth from its producers (now increasingly non-Western). In spite of their references to Marx, then, both Harvey and O'Neill minimise the economic body's productive functions by locating it within practices of circulation or consumption.

<23> To sum up, whether we follow the constructionist or the physicalist path, and even in the more explicitly economic and Marxissant interpretations, the "corporeal turn" seems to lead to an unproductive body. My argument is that, paradoxically, it is the specific organisation of productive relations in today's society that generates this particular notion of human embodiment. This is not to debase the ideological and political dimensions of the "corporeal turn", but, on the contrary, to acknowledge them as more than mental constructs, as ontologically connected to particular modes of human material practice. From this perspective, ideology (including theory) is not a set of false or constructed illusions, but the necessary expression of a historical experience. The "corporeal turn", then, is real, and the task of a Marxist critique is to explain its precise practical conditions. As we will see, in consistently leaving out material production, current theories of the body do not so much misrepresent such conditions, as actually reflect them.


Historical Bodies

<24> The current wave of interest in the unproductive body contrasts with the spirit of self-control and revulsion from sensuality which characterised the birth of industrial capitalism, especially under Puritanism (Weber, 1930). Later, as capitalism developed, the Puritan disgust with the body gave way to a dual concern over the labourer's physical and mental degradation, a sentiment more overtly linked to productive practices. This change in attitudes arose out of a more specialised technical and social organisation of production, and, in particular, out of the emergence of a distinct working class. Thus, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned that "the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations ... generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become" (Smith, 1993: 429). The danger, as Smith saw it, was that this creature - the industrial worker - would be unable to participate in the nation's public life. For example, the narrow range of activities involved in industrial labour would make both his mind and body unfit for military service:

The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred (Smith, 1993: 430).

<25> This worry about the stultifying effects of industrial labour went beyond the military arena; it was the worker's very capacity to produce that was deemed at risk. Smith recommended, therefore, that workers should not be made to work too hard, since "the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work" (Smith, 1993: 83).

<26> Current attitudes towards the body have little in common with either the Puritans' or Adam Smith's anxieties. Today we are far more accepting of the corporeal than the Puritans were; yet we are far less interested in the body's civic and productive functions than were the thinkers of the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, this change in attitudes has not been caused by physiological or genetic changes within the human body itself; but neither has it been culturally "constructed". A more historically-grounded explanation of this change can be provided by political economy instead of biology or culture.

<27> In the last few decades, however, the influence of political economy has waned, with even many Marxists favouring culturalist and institutional interpretations of social trends. In their de-centring of material production, such interpretations have shadowed the broader anti-economistic and anti-foundationalist trajectory of recent Western thought. Althusser, for example, famously relegated the economic to the last instance; whilst Gramsci ascribed to ideology itself a material character, thus negating the need for political economy. More recent examples of this strongly idealist tendency within Marxism include regulation theory and, at the extreme, the undiluted constructionism of Laclau and Mouffe, for whom "every object is constituted as an object of discourse" (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 107).

<28> An aim of this article is to challenge such culturalist interpretations by exploring the material foundations of contemporary thought. Hence I locate the origins of the "corporeal turn" in its broader historical and economic context - the decline of industrial capitalism and the corresponding rise of a new immaterial economy in Western societies. This immaterial economy has been labelled in various ways - as a "post-industrial" society (Bell, 1974); as a society driven by "information" (Castells, 1996; Lash, 2002; Schiller, 1986) or "knowledge" (Drucker, 1969); as the order of the "hyperreal" (Baudrillard, 2001); as an economy defined by the prevalence of "immaterial labour" (Hardt and Negri, 2000) or by its "cultural logic" (Jameson, 1991). Expressed in the simplest terms, it is an economy whose main concern is no longer the production of material goods.

<29> It might seem contradictory to claim as materialist the notion that an immaterial economy provides the basis of the "corporeal turn". But this contradiction arises from real historical conditions, from the fact that today's immaterial economy originates in a particular mode of material production. Noticing these material origins of immateriality, Abraham Moles writes that an immaterial culture "exists only because a heavily material base supports it and makes it possible ... Thus, a postindustrial society is a superindustrialized society, or one which has pushed to extremes the consequences of its industrialization" (Moles, 1992: 27).

<30> What Moles and others usually mean by this "materiality of immateriality" is the "hardware" of the information and communication industries - the production of high-tech goods such as personal computers, microchips, fibre-optic cables, or CD players. But the immaterial economy is also material in a more fundamental sense, because the millions of workers it employs are themselves living material beings. Their physical existence, their daily life, is ensured, above all, by the labour that produces their food, clothing, housing, furniture, etc.

<31> For example, it has been noted that "[t]oday, there are four and a half as many Americans selling clothes in specialty and department stores as there are workers stitching and weaving them" (Klein, 2001: 232). Clothing retail workers belong to the immaterial economy in the sense that they themselves do not produce any clothes; yet they could not exist without the weaving and stitching workers, who produce not only the garments sold to customers, but also those worn by the shop workers, security guards, personnel managers, accountants, insurers, consultants, advertisers etc. And they could not exist without the farm workers, furniture makers, car makers, etc, whose products they all consume on a daily basis.

<32> Today's thriving immaterial economy, then, requires a certain level of productive development and a certain division of labour. In particular, it requires a corresponding material economy that is highly productive and, at the same time, socio-politically marginal. Thus, to return to the earlier example, weaving and stitching for the US market are increasingly carried out by immigrant labourers, or in developing countries, so that the counterpart to the glamorous world of American clothing design and retailing is hidden away in the intensified production conditions of the ultra-modern factory, the sweatshop, and the Export Processing Zone. Once such a mode of production is established, it becomes possible for a large and very visible portion of capitalist activity, the so-called service or immaterial economy, to accumulate wealth without actually producing anything.

<33> Contemporary economic relations, therefore, are immaterial in the sense that, at least in the advanced economies, we now have a real predominance of business activities which do not engage productively with the material world. In the course of carrying out those activities, relations between employers and workers, and between staff and customers, appear as what they really are - immaterial relations between people.

<34> As a total system of production, however, today's economy is fully material, since immaterial activities depend on the capacity of other sectors to produce a vast surplus of material goods. The notion of an immaterial economy, then, although partial and insufficient, does reflect the actual, lopsided nature of contemporary capitalism, where unproductive (or "immaterial") sectors predominate over the productive (or "material") industries which sustain them. A dialectical account of contemporary economic relations should explain how the particular interplay between these components of the world economy constitutes a historically specific mode of production.

<35> Already by the late 1960s, the US had become "the first nation in which more than half of the employed population is not involved in the production of food, clothing, houses, automobiles, or other tangible goods" (Fuchs, 1968: 1). This prevalence of unproductive labour now applies on a global scale, albeit with significant geographical variations (ILO, 2003: fig. 4a). Behind it, as we have seen, is the high degree of development of the productive forces. Our society produces more abundant and varied commodities, much faster, than ever before. Contemporary capitalism, then, is "super-industrial" at the same time as "post-industrial" (Moles, 1992; Toffler, 1971).

<36> But quantitative growth has led to qualitative change. Productivity levels are now so high, that it takes a relatively small proportion of workers to produce those vast amounts of commodities. Today's massive industrial production is production for the masses, but it is not production by the masses. The masses, especially in the older capitalist nations, are increasingly employed unproductively, in the provision of services - understood here in a broad sense, covering information services, cultural services, leisure services, retail services, financial services, and so on. [1 ] Thus, the immaterial or super-industrial age is simultaneously the age of service capitalism.

<37> One advantage of this interpretation of contemporary economic relations is that it can incorporate some of the valuable empirical insights gained by the "new economy" analyses of the demise of industrial capitalism (see Kumar, 2000). The "post-industrial" rise of a professional class; the enhanced economic role of communication networks, knowledge, information and culture; the shift from production to consumption - all of these developments can be taken as real, significant, and compatible with each other, within a materialist explanatory framework centred around the rise of unproductive or service capitalism.

<38> Additionally, such a framework can also address a weakness of those analyses, namely their emphasis on the newness of the "new" economy at the expense of fundamental and undeniable continuities with the past. This weakness has invited the charge that what they describe is a change in the form, but not the content, of capitalist relations (Wood, 1998). By contrast, the concept of service capitalism employed here can accommodate the old and the new, the modern and the post-modern, within one integrated account of historical change. This account treats contiguous historical periods as connected, evolving formations, and not as statically linked systems, or as discontinuous paradigms. The new society grew out of the old one; it was the development and intensification of the industrial mode of production which gave rise to its antithesis - super-industrial capitalism. Industrialism, therefore, neither carried on undisturbed, nor was left behind; it developed into a new social arrangement, a new division of labour, where services predominate.

<39> We can now take the specific conditions of service capitalism as the basis for a realist interpretation of the corporeal turn. The practical, historical individuals of today - significantly, women as well as men - work typically within the service economy. They find employment in the insurance and travel industries, the management consultancies, the PR bureaus, the chains of salons, the call centres, the media industries and the many other types of firm whose core business consists in dealing with people in one way or another. Their work is no longer organised around the workbench or the conveyor belt, but around the office desk, the phone and internet networks, the service counter and the meeting room - spaces where fragmented and casual personal contact takes place with no larger material aim or consequence. When those men and women do come into contact with the abundant world of commodities, they - we - do it as consumers, rarely as producers.

<40> In the shift from industrial to service capitalism, therefore, the way we actually relate to the material world and to other people has changed radically, with profound implications for the body. In an earlier period, under industrial capitalism, the body had been an instrument of production, a means to something greater than itself. The productive worker employed his bodily strength and skill, together with his mental faculties, for a social purpose - production for the market. But the market is an alienating social system. In it, as Marx observes, material relations between people appear as social relations between things. Therefore, industrial-era alienation was manifested in the impersonal commodity, fetishistically endowed with value.

<41> By contrast, in the current period, under service capitalism, alienation more often takes a personal form. In a capitalist economy where services and not manufacturing predominate, there is no longer a general material object or a shared social experience of external aims. Economic activity is not directed to the universal market, but fragmented into a myriad of personal and contingent encounters. Service providers' connection to each other is immaterial and temporary; it is spent in each particular performance. Unable to produce their own conditions of life, they only experience the material world through incorporation into the body, through consumption. The consuming or consumed body, then, is to service capitalism what the commodity's embodied value had been to industrial capitalism - the site where alienating social relations of production are condensed and solidified into an objective form.

<42> We may identify both continuities and differences between modern "value alienation" and post-modern "body alienation". Just as the commodity's abstract value once did, now the concrete materiality of our bodies, and of the commodities we consume, expresses our alienation by acquiring a practical life of its own. And just as the commodity's value seemed to rule over us then, so now does our body, and the bodies of objects around us, overpower us.

<43> But where value was impersonal and universal, manifested in commodities which were exchangeable with each other and in principle available to all, the unproductive body and the objects it consumes are individual and immanent. Their power, although reduced to that of banal, familiar and immediate objects, is much more close and suffocating; it is not social and abstract, but tangibly personal. Hence, even as it feels liberated from formal social sanctions, the unproductive self is continually assailed by feelings of personal anxiety, by insecurities about its own, most intimate personal existence - as testified by the contemporary prevalence of depression, catastrophist and apocalyptic imagery, obsession with accidents, etc. The body, the object, has become prison and limit to our experience.


Constructed and Embodied Selves

<44> The unproductive body is a real historical phenomenon; as such, it has a specific theoretical expression. We saw in the first section of this essay that current approaches tend to exclude productive activity from their interpretations of the body. We can now see that this is not a case of accidental neglect, but a reflection of historical reality. Under service capitalism, the body really is unproductive; theory therefore starts off by assuming this real unproductive body. It assumes it without fully recognising it, because it never relates it dialectically to its origins in a particular mode of production, super-industrialism. And because it abstracts the body from these practical origins, its treatment of it is ahistorical, whether from a constructionist or a physicalist perspective.

<45> Accordingly, the constructed body is infinitely light and malleable; history cannot weigh it down. Constructionists, while acknowledging the historical character of the body, see history itself as an arbitrary succession of discursive moments. By "historicity" they mean its opposite - indeterminacy. Physicalists, on the other hand, offer an immanent, heavy body, immobilised by its own material weight. History for them has ground to a halt. A Marxist interpretation should account for this division of theory between constructionist and physicalist approaches. It should explain not just the historical conditions under which the "corporeal turn" has taken place, but its specific intellectual form, which also follows from those conditions.

<46> We might begin this task by observing that physicalism and constructionism are not unique to body studies, but frame contemporary ideology more generally. In one direction, for example, today's art emphasises the materiality of the object by erasing any trace of the artist's creative intervention (as in minimalism); in the other, it espouses an extreme formalism which denies transcendent substance and turns the work of art into a sign (as in conceptualism). We also find the two trends frequently reflected in popular politics and culture. On the physicalist side we could reckon the deep ecologist worship of virgin nature; while constructionism often translates into a pervasive feeling that reality is a holographic or virtual illusion (as in the film The Matrix).

<47> In this division of contemporary thought into constructionist and physicalist paradigms, we hear echoes of the mind versus matter controversies which have long afflicted Western thought - nurture versus nature, the "two cultures", Apollo versus Dionysus, word versus world, and so on. What they all share is the illusion of an autonomous mental sphere of activity separate from the material world. This illusion has been explained by Marx and Engels as a real illusion, the necessary ideological expression of the historical separation between mental and material labour:

Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of "pure" theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc (Marx and Engels, 1965: 43).

<48> But each historical period divides the mental from the material in a specific manner, according to its particular mode of production. As we have seen, under industrial capitalism, the products of material labour appeared as values, at once alien and powerfully social. Therefore the object world (and, by extension, the whole of nature), although seen as external to the subject, was deemed to contain an abstract, rational human essence, and hence to be graspable by the mind. Hegel, for instance, saw nature as "an embodiment of Reason" (Hegel, 1956: 439). Thus, industrialism translated into modernity's epistemological paradigm, under which mind and matter confronted each other as subject and object, the inner eye and the outside world, the knower and the known. As Marx argues in his Theses on Feuerbach, what was missing from this formulation of human agency was sensuous human practice, which does not merely "understand" the material world, but actually transforms it. Modernity's epistemological paradigm, however, was not a false ideology; it corresponded exactly to the historical conditions of generalised commodity production.

<49> Just as service capitalism has stretched and twisted industrialism into a new economic arrangement, an extreme separation between producers and consumers, or between people and things, so has contemporary theory stretched and twisted the epistemological paradigm apart. It has dispensed with the dualistic identification of mind with subject and matter with object, merging subject and object into either one purely mental, or one purely material, entity. In this way, it has broken down the epistemological paradigm into its two components - the paradigm of the self-reflexive mind, and the paradigm of self-acting matter.

<50> The first component, the constructionist paradigm, posits as object not the real, material world, but a mental one - a discursive, symbolic, constructed or imagined materiality. Discourse from this perspective is both subject and object, the constructor and the constructed, the imaginative agent and the image it produces. The second paradigm, the physicalist one, posits as subject not the knowing mind, but the physical world itself - so that environment and physiology are understood as being endowed with agency. If both paradigms have eradicated the distinction between mind and matter, they have only done so by disconnecting, in turn, one from the other.

<51> To clarify why this has happened, historical materialism needs to turn to the specifics of human experience under service capitalism. The new bifurcated thought paradigms are reproduced on an everyday level by the practices of service providers, as follows.

<52> Firstly, since service providers do not transform and appropriate the objective world through labour, that objective world, the plentiful world of commodities which surrounds and nurtures them, appears to them as what it really is - an overwhelming physical power into which they have no subjective input. They meet the commodity only at the point of consumption; the commodity therefore meets them not as abstract value, but as material use-value, as a purely physical presence. This is the source of the physicalist paradigm.

<53> Secondly, the social power of service capital appears to derive solely from its capacity to command mental and immaterial labour. From their particular point of view, service providers do not see that their very existence depends on material production on a super-industrial scale. It appears to them, on the contrary, that their own or their employees' talents can magically produce value without producing anything material, that they can all live "on thin air" (Leadbeater, 2000). This is the source of the constructionist paradigm.

<54> From the modern world of mind and matter we have moved to the post-modern world of discourses and bodies. The constructionist and physicalist paradigms, which at first sight oppose each other, express one historical reality and follow logically from each other. Thus, if we start with the view that the physical world is immanent, it follows that our ideas of it are contingently constructed. If, on the other hand, we start from the view that ideas have no material referent, it follows that the material world is beyond our intellectual reach. Either way, the emphasis on the immediate, concrete experience of the body suspends not only traditional questions of transcendental truth and morality, but also the possibility of transformative, purposive practical action.

<55> Both paradigms, then, coincide in denying our capacity to act as historical agents, as makers of the real world. But an effective critique does not simply expose and lament this anti-humanist ideology; it needs to also explain how it has grown out of a particular set of historico-material circumstances. The contemporary or post-modern self is physically immanent and mentally self-reflexive because it has become truly unable to affect its material environment. It has become its own and only possible subject/object, encased within itself, limiting its own activity to the pre-social and infantile - to constantly making up its own little narratives, or playing with its own toys and body.

<56> The Freudian Christopher Lasch perceptively describes the contemporary minimal or narcissistic self as, "above all, a self uncertain of its own outlines, longing either to remake the world in its own image [constructionist] or to merge into its environment in blissful union [physicalist]" (Lasch, 1985: 19). It appears, then, that the contemporary bifurcation of thought into constructionist and physicalist paradigms closely reflects the predicament of the narcissistic self in an unproductive age.


Politics Beyond the Body

<57> In this article, I have used some of the conceptual tools of historical materialism to explore the connection between socioeconomic change and current theories of the body, suggesting that, whether from a constructionist or a physicalist perspective, the corporeal turn expresses a specific historical process. That process is the growth of service capitalism.

<58> Consequently, it is misplaced for Marxists and other radical commentators to welcome the enhanced role of the body in the construction of contemporary identities, hoping to find in it the basis for a new politics of solidarity (Sennett, 2002) or emancipation ( Harvey, 2000). The recent interest in the constructed body results precisely from trends such authors would otherwise surely deplore - the dehumanisation of individuals in a society which severely limits our capacity to act.

<59> Neither does the current interest in the physicalist body herald the resurgence of historical materialism, as Fracchia might hope (Fracchia, 2005). The physicalist body is, as we have seen, a stand-alone entity, the limit to, as much as the "vehicle" of, its own activity. If service capitalism appears to have given us our materiality back, it has only given it back as a powerless and lonely object, deprived of all transcendence. [2 ] Thus the scope for human agency has been reduced away from Marx's notion of full human individuals - minds and bodies - as producers of their own historical conditions of existence. Moreover, in an important sense, contemporary physicalism represents a step back even from the dualism of traditional modern thought. For at least dualism conceived of a connection between mind and matter, even if that connection was not practical but only contemplative. By contrast, the physicalist body, in losing its capacity to transform the world, has ended up losing its mind. It has reduced men and women to "empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world" (Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 413).

<60> In the arts, the physicalist body has perhaps been most perfectly captured by the "an-interpretative" tendency in contemporary dance, which highlights the extreme corporeality of performers' bodies at the expense of dramatic tension, plot, character, and, of course, politics (Connor, 1997: 157-63). In this type of dance, even the basic sense of bodily movement being guided by externally oriented intentions or feelings fades away. A recent review of an award-winning production describes a performance as follows:

For most of the piece, the three men and four women are naked. After our initial acquaintance with their differing attributes, it becomes curiously possible to ignore them and focus on the body, or flesh, as an idea.

Two men interlock in such a way as to become a strange beast with four legs, but no head. Another so contorts himself that he resembles a plucked, trussed chicken. There are groupings that suggest classical sculpture - but then all hell breaks loose, as the dancers convulse and flail on their back around our feet, to end up as a pile of cadavers. The final section, with the cast dressed for some stamping choreography and shouting about peace and human rights, obviously spells out Rodrigues's message, but in my view detracted from the work's impact (Dougill, 2003).

<61> The physicalist body, as the contemporary dancer and the cyborg in their own ways illustrate, cannot be the basis for a radical political program of liberation. Its apparent freedom from external domination reflects its marginalisation from the history-making process of material production. Attempts to mobilise it politically risk becoming meaningless, farcical, or downright pathetic. Often - as in recreational sex, body-building or plastic surgery - the self-embodied activities we still have room to engage in can be pretty harmless. Likewise, constructed meanings and identities can sometimes act as compensatory fantasies. But neither of these two approaches can ultimately resolve the confusions of post-modern selfhood.

<62> If it is to challenge these reduced treatments of the human condition, historical materialism needs to reclaim production as a key area of conscious social activity, both in theory and in practice. It needs to confront the sense of passivity that consumer or service capitalism fosters in society - a passivity and impotence more alarming in a fast-changing world - with the argument for a rational system of production. The historical materialist alternative to the unproductive body, therefore, is not the productive body - the body of the alienated industrial labourer under capitalism, - but the freeing of human productive capacities. Liberating ourselves as producers will allow us to act as more than a collection of bodies - to act as a human society in a world made by and for humans.


Baudrillard, Jean (2001) "Symbolic Exchange and Death", in Mark Poster (ed) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bell , Daniel (1974) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, London: Heinemann.

Bergoffen, Debra (2000) "Simone de Beauvoir: Disrupting the Metonymy of Gender", in Dorothea Olkowski (ed) Resistance, Flight, Creation: Feminist Enactments of French Philosophy, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Bigwood, Carol (1991) "Renaturalizing the Body (With the Help of Merleau-Ponty)", Hypatia, 6(3): 54-73.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1997) "The Forms of Capital", in Albert Henry Halsey et al (eds) Education: Culture, Economy, Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buchanan, Ian (1997) "The Problem of the Body in Deleuze and Guattari, Or, What Can a Body Do?", Body and Society, 3(3): 73-92.

Butler , Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', New York: Routledge.

Butler , Judith (1997) "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory", in Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury (eds) Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell.

Chalmers, David John (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Connor, Steven (1997) Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dougill, David (2003) "Spinning Around", The Sunday Times: Culture: 30 ( London, 25 May).

Douglas, Mary (1996) Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, London: Routledge.

Drucker, Peter Ferdinand (1969) The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society, London: Heinemann.

Foucault, Michel (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, Michel (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, Brighton: Harvester Press.

Foucault, Michel (1982) "The Subject and Power", in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Brighton: Harvester Press.

Fracchia, Joseph (2005) "Beyond the Human-Nature Debate: Human Corporeal Organisation as the 'First Fact' of Historical Materialism", Historical Materialism 13(1): 33-61.

Frank, Arthur (1991) "For a Sociology of the Body: An Analytical Review", in Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth and Bryan Turner (eds) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, London: Sage.

Freund, Peter (1982) The Civilized Body: Social Domination, Control and Health, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fuchs, Victor R. (1968) The Service Economy. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Gendlin, Eugene (1992) "The Primacy of the Body, Not the Primacy of Perception", Man and World, 25(3-4): 341-53.

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goldberger, Nancy Rule (1996) "Cultural Imperatives and Diversity in Ways of Knowing", in Nancy Rule Goldberger, Jill Mattuck Tarule, Blythe McVicker Clinchy and Mary Field Belenky (eds) Knowledge, Difference, and Power: Essays Inspired by Women's Way of Knowing, New York: Basic Books.

Grosz, Elizabeth (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Haraway, Donna (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000) Empire, Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Harvey , David (2000) Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1956) The Philosophy of History, New York: Dover Publications.

ILO [International Labour Organization] (2003) Key Indicators of the Labour Market,

Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.

Klein, Naomi (2001) No Logo, London: Flamingo.

Kruks, Sonia (2001) Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Kumar, Krishan (2000 [1995]) From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

Lasch, Christopher (1985) The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, London: Pan Books.

Lash, Scott (2002) Critique of Information, London: Sage.

Leadbeater, Charles (2000) Living on Thin Air: The New Economy, London: Penguin Books.

Leder, Drew (1990) "Flesh and Blood: A Proposed Supplement to Merleau-Ponty", Human Studies, 13: 209-19.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1965) The German Ideology, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2002) Phenomenology of Perception, London and New York: Routledge.

Mohun, Simon (2002) "Productive and Unproductive Labor: A Reply to Houston and Laibman", Review of Radical Political Economics 34(2): 203-220.

Moi, Toril (1999) "What is a Woman? Sex, Gender, and the Body in Feminist Theory", in What Is a Woman? And Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moles, Abraham (1992) "Design and Immateriality: What of It in a Postindustrial Society?", in Marco Diani (ed) The Immaterial Society: Design, Culture, and Technology in the Postmodern World, Englewood Cliffs and London: Prentice Hall.

O'Neill, John (2004) Five Bodies: Re-Figuring Relationships, London: Sage.

Schiller, Herbert (1986) Information and the Crisis Economy, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sennett, Richard (2002) Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, London: Penguin Books.

Shilling, Chris (2003) The Body and Social Theory, London: Sage.

Smith, Adam (1993) An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steinberg, Michael (2005) The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Toffler, Alvin (1971) Future Shock, London: Pan Books.

Turner, Bryan (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Weber, Max (1930) The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1998) "Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?", in Robert McChesney, John Bellamy Foster and Ellen Meiksins Wood (eds) Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution, New York and London: Monthly Review Press.



[1 ] A small proportion of activities commonly labelled as services are in fact productive. The dividing line between productive and unproductive activities, and even the validity of this division, is a contested topic among Marxists (Mohun, 2002). [^]

[2 ] "[N]ot the mind or the soul but the flesh is perfect and divine", according to Steinberg (2005: 34). [^]


Return to Top

ISSN: 1547-4348. All material contained within this site is copyrighted by the identified author. If no author is identified in relation to content, that content is � Reconstruction, 2002-2007.