Tyler Anderson is a doctoral researcher and critical theorist at Queen’s University. Their research areas include feminist science studies and body and affect studies. Their current project, ‘Sanguine Figures in an Age of Extinction,’ develops insight toward a radical humanism that is relational, embodied, and always historically saturated. The work invites readers to reconceptualize how we understand our bodies and selves, our worlds, and our powerful capacities to change them.
A Selfie for the Anthropocene: Figuring the body in an age of extinction
In one sense, the body is an object and something we are: It can be described through a variety of ‘languages’ such as biology, anthropology, medicine, and art. What we know of its components, functions, techniques, and capacities have developed and changed over time. In another sense, to be a body is subjective: It is the fleshy form through which we mediate, experience, and enact our lives. In this way, our bodies connect us to the world. However, while we all exist as bodies, our experiences of embodiment are not all the same. A selfie is one way to illustrate this.
The below photo is of me and speaks to the co-play of both having and being a body. Fundamentally, my body does not exist on its own—it is always connected to the world and its environments. It breathes air, it converts plant and animal matter into energy, and it is sustained (and challenged) by billions of microbes I will never see. At any given moment, my body is working hard in imperceptible ways to keep me alive, and throughout the COVID pandemic, my corporeality reminds me that staying alive cannot be taken for granted.
In the photo I am wearing a mask to protect myself and others from the virus. I am wearing a heavy jacket and windbreaker because my body requires cover from the increasingly powerful winds and storms where I live. At the same time, these fabrics—and the phone I used to take the picture—are made from the same exploitative supply chains of globalized capitalism that have created the consequences, effects, and horrors from which my body requires protection. (This is not to mention the human and non-human bodies harmed in allowing me to have these technologies in the first place.) As much as this body is my own, it is deeply implicated in the history of the world and where it lives, which has a significant effect on the actions it carries out.
In this light, the body is not so much a singular thing as it is a series of complex relationships. What would we include if tasked to create an ‘accurate’ illustration of the body? Would we draw the torso, flesh, head, legs, nervous system, and skeleton? What about the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses on our eyebrows and skin—and in our guts—that all play some part in keeping us alive? By extension, what about the many other things that assist our bodies in their ongoing existence, such as insulin pumps, contact lenses, plates and screws keeping bones in place, mobility devices, prosthetics, and more? What about medications, drugs, and alcohol? The microplastics in our blood that place us precisely in the current historical moment might also be included. All these related elements show us that the body is not an isolable organism that hangs together all by itself and that its boundaries are permeable.
At the same time, we express ourselves through and with our body: It is the place where our lives happen. Our unique physical and emotional experiences play a large part in how we understand our own body, as well as how we think about other bodies more generally. However, what happens to you or me might not happen to others, so we must never rely on our own subjective experiences to describe all experiences of embodiment. This is especially important to keep in mind because the body is a site of structural power, in which people become racialized, gendered, rendered dis/abled, and more.
In other words, bodies and their experiences also become uniquely enacted through intersections of race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, and nationality. For example, blood donation policies that stem from past moral panics have historically been used to certify some bodies as ‘life giving’ and others as deadly, with severe consequences for those in the second camp (see Dryden, 2020). Similarly, colonial projects of dispossession are realized in the body through racist policies such as blood quantum. The fact that some bodies are thought to be more threatening than others is never a ‘natural’ fact, but is instead a biopolitical phenomenon of power and control.
What the body ‘is,’ where it begins and ends, and how it carries out actions is not as obvious as we have once thought. The complexity of fleshy existence and how the body becomes enacted is precisely what the term corporeality seeks to capture.
- How can it be harmful to describe a ‘universal’ or ‘normal’ body?
- Imagine an anatomical representation of the body. How did microscope technology change what we know about bodies and how we represent them? What are some other technologies that influenced how bodies come into view? What are some of the ways social media and other aspects of the digital age have affected embodied existence?
- How have the COVID pandemic and the increasingly felt effects of climate change influenced how we view and experience our bodies? What are we now less capable of being and doing?
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