I have never gone to see the Bodies exhibit. Although the spectacle is tempting—to see the human form revealed in its purest muscularity, in a wild variety of poses—I could never quite reconcile myself to the idea of seeing the remains of people executed by the Chinese Communist Party stripped down and put on parade for American onlookers. If I had to meet the misfortune of a death sentence from the local Politburo (or the grinning executioner here in Georgia), I would hate to think that I suffered insult as well as injury by having my body made to do tricks for a bunch of gawking tourists.
Some might say it doesn’t matter because the postured objects down at Atlantic Station are just lumps of flesh, hunks of dead matter void of consciousness—those bodies’ former owners have little to say in the matter and suffer no harm.
But people are not just bodies. People are not just objects. And unfortunately many academics, particularly historians, seem to have adopted a language that accepts the Chinese Communists’ treatment of human beings as par for the course. We talk about people as bodies—bodies in space, laws regulate the movement of bodies—as if we’re talking about a cadaver or a shipment of peanuts, or an armoire that’s particularly difficult to get through a narrow doorway.
This language is fashionable, and has been since Foucault came on to the scene lo these many years ago—historians may be susceptible to fads, but only to pretty old ones. It allows us to talk about ordinary, readily understandable things in a way that sounds more complicated or sophisticated than it actually is, and the only harm is that it dehumanizes human beings in the process.
The typical argument for this kind of analysis is that people were treated merely as bodies in various historical contexts. People’s bodies were regulated. People were treated as if they were just bodies, in the same way that slaves might be crudely described as “farm equipment.” Slaves were bodies on an auction block, inspected to see if their physical features (quite literally, their bodies) were amenable to the purposes to which they would be put. Women’s bodies have been extensively regulated over time, affecting everything from the wearing of corsets and head scarves to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s furtive love of the transvaginal ultrasound—a recent case where the state quite literally intervenes in a person’s body in the most invasive way.
Certainly, it makes sense to talk about “the body” as a subject of historical analysis and a site of contestation when we are discussing the way people’s physical, corporeal experiences were affected by laws, social customs, and individual actions. This could be anything from a community’s tattoo culture to branding an escaped slave or boring a hole in a criminal’s ear in early modern Germany. We are literally talking about the body and the way people physically experienced history, politics, culture, “justice,” and so forth.
But talking about the body is one thing. Talking about “bodies” is another. Who are these bodies we are speaking of? To talk about day laborers standing outside Home Depot at 7AM as a bunch of bodies ready to be transferred to the back of a pickup truck is, perhaps, to make a comment about how they were treated literally as interchangeable arms and legs that could do work by whoever drove by and hired them. But to do so is not just commenting on their dehumanization—it is adopting the dehumanizing and alienating framework in which they are treated by the economic system and treating it as normal, treating unique historical actors as if they are just what an unfair and abusive system understood them to be: interchangeable lumps. There were some bodies on the auction block. There were some bodies out in front of the punk rock bar. There were some bodies going door to door (sorry, moving through space) to hand out Jehovah’s Witness literature. What is the point of this, except to talk about people like they were things?
I love it when bodies move through space. Some of us call it walking.
In some cases scholars discuss people as bodies when it really would make no difference if you just said “people.” If we talk about immigration law and enforcement as regulating how bodies move across borders, does it really help to describe the subjects of this regulation as bodies? Couldn’t we just say the law affects how people move across borders? Was there some possibility that I wouldn’t have understood that you were talking about people with bodies if you just said “people,” as if there were some people who don’t have bodies and you wanted to make sure that I understood that they were bodies as well? There are bodies who aren’t people—corpses or cadavers—but there are no people I know of who don’t have bodies, except for Jacob Marley and the Paraclete.
Remember the dead guy in the game of Clue? He was named Mr. Boddy. He was a body because he was the victim of murder, and his consciousness as a living human being (or soul, if you are religiously inclined) had been vacated. When we as historians talk about people as bodies, and we are not specifically discussing how people were acting on others’ physical constitution, then we are treating them like things—inert objects without humanity. The singular contribution of History as a discipline, to the extent that it has one, has been to emphasize the unique, the contingent, and the personal within a narrative about people—the profound insight that people are people, not just the sum total of a brain scan or a statistic about an ethnic group or voting bloc. We risk losing sight of this if we talk about people as if they were just stuff.
I am reminded of two things. One is Barbara Fields’s great dictum for writers of history, at least as I remember it: say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say what you don’t mean. And I think of the tagline for the glorious 1980s B horror movie The Stuff: are you eating it? Or is it eating you?
I think our language may be eating us—or at least the people whose stories we are supposed to be telling.