Drawing the human body and representation of the Other

The concept and representation of the shape of humanity has changed in time and so has its quest for figuration, in its cultural, socio-political, gender, symbolic, and fantastical imaging. The human figure in art is one of the most direct means by which art has addressed the representation of what is human.

The body in theory: anatomo-politics

Following Marx, the human body lies in the intersection of nature and culture, for the body is both a living organism and a cultural product. The body is as mutable and articulate as culture. The worker is alienated from his body since all his physical assets —strength, agility, etc.— are controlled for the capitalist’s benefit. The worker’s own body thus contributes directly to the very existence of the system that exploits the worker. A further reflection over the role of body managing can be found in Michel Foucault's theory of biopolitics and his idea of governmentality. Inscribed in his anatomo-politics, Biopower is the disciplinary power that is behind the notion that the very biological aspect of life can be subject to all kinds of management and inspection. The concept of governmentality has to do with the micro-processes of administration and control where self-discipline and social regulation are articulated. It refers to the ways in which bodies are produced, cultivated and disciplined. The result is what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called “the bare life” of the subject stripped down to its biological essentials. Something is defined as bare when it is without covering or clothing; naked, nude, without the usual furnishings or contents; open to view. How we live and how we die, and even how we think of life itself, are constrained under complex forms of power.

Parting from Foucaultian concepts and searching to provide a social theory about the body, Bryan S. Turner makes a deep study on the topic. Accordingly he proposes that the human body far from being a given natural phenomenon is a product of social processes of interpretation and fabrication. “The human body needs to be trained to undertake basic activities —walking, running, dancing or sitting. Different cultures have different body techniques that must be mastered if the child is to be accepted into society—for example eating with chopsticks in Japan or not spitting in public in Victorian England.” The human body is trained to occupy a Bourdiean habitus within which the individual acquires an appropriate behaviour that is shaped by social class. The shape and dispositions of the body are the products of a cultural habitus within the location of a certain social class.

Yet the body does not only responds to a class approach. Turner writes: “There have been fundamental changes in the relationship between body, economy, technology and society. Scientific advances, particularly new reproductive technologies and therapeutic cloning techniques, have opened the way to rethink the ontological status of the human body. Ageing, disease and even death no longer appear to be immutable facts about the human condition. The emergence of the body as a topic of research in the humanities and social sciences is also a response to the women's and gay liberation movements, and environmentalism, animal rights, anti-globalism, religious fundamentalism and conservative politics. Further, the human body is now central to economic growth in various biotechnology industries, in which disease itself has become a productive factor in the global economy and the body a code or system of information from which profits can be extracted through patents. In modern social theory, the body has been studied in the contexts of advertising and consumerism, in ethical debates about cloning, in research on HIV/AIDS, in postmodern reflections on cybernetics, cyberbodies and cyberpunk, and in the analysis of the global trade in human organs. The body is a central feature of contemporary politics, because its ambiguities, vulnerability and plasticity have been amplified by new genetic technologies.”

Identity, Race and Otherness

The human body is at the same time a referent of “individual continuity, an index of collective similarity and differentiation, and a canvas upon which identification can play.” Robert Miles and Malcom Brown offer a pertinent description of the problematic of race: “Where the discourse of ‘race’ is employed, there are two levels of selection involved. The first is the selection of biological or somatic characteristics in general as a means of human classification. The second is the selection from the available range of somatic characteristics, those that are designated as signifying a supposed difference between human beings. Human beings exhibit a very wide range of phenotypical difference: height, weight, length of arms and legs, ear shape, width of feet, breadth of palm, hair colour, extent of body hair, facial structure, eye colour and so on can all be used to differentiate and categorise. Thus, when the idea of ‘race’ is employed, it is the result of a process of signification whereby certain somatic characteristics are attributed with meaning and are used to organise populations into distinct groups that are defined as ‘races’. People differentiated on the basis of the signification of phenotypical features are usually also represented as possessing certain cultural characteristics (such as diet, religious belief, mode of dress, language, etc.). As a consequence, the population is represented as distinctive by virtue of a specific profile of (sometimes real and sometimes imagined) biological and cultural attributes. The deterministic manner of this representation means that all who possess the signified phenotypical characteristics are assumed to possess the concomitant cultural characteristics. Further, it follows that the human species is conceived as consisting of a number of distinct collectivities, and that every individual is attributed with membership of one of those collectivities.”

The authors conclude that the distinction by race is the result of the application of historically and culturally specific meanings to the totality of human physiological variation. In a world with populations so differentiated, this gives the way to patterns and structures of sound inequality. The discourse of ‘race’ however, has not remained exclusively a discourse of subordination and throughout the twentieth century it has been transformed into a discourse of resistance, that paradoxically has in many cases validated the idea of race.

Cultural signifiers

Along with the socio-historic discourse of race, and the physical managing and capitalist control of the body, there is a symbolic managing of the body. Jean Baudrillard explores this idea in his book Consumer Society, where his theorising of the body understands the body as cultural fact. “In a capitalist society the body is thought as being the private property of the individual. A form of capital owned by the individual. Yet it is also a fetish. According to Baudrillard, the body, in capitalist media-saturated societies, is our private fetish. It is constructed or fashioned to the requirements of the capitalist system. The body becomes central to the system’s project of the integration of subjects through their managed self-investment, both economic and psychical, in their body. We produce, maintain, modify and enhance our bodies as signs. Bodies are sculpted and tuned to signify ‘health’, ‘fitness’, ‘sexiness’, ‘youthfulness’. These things are qualities or attributes of signs, not of a supposed ‘reality’ of the body. A body may signify fitness without being medically healthy—like for some bulimic bodies. More generally, members of the consumer society are required to ‘signify’ fashionability, to look fashionable and constantly to update ‘their look’. Our ‘voluntary’ labour directed at self- management and maximization of our bodies is ‘a more profoundly alienated labour than the exploitation of the body as labour power’.”

When focusing on differing modes of cross-cultural representation, it is not enough for the body to simply appear extravagantly before us in its diversity of faces, attires, and body decorations. One must acknowledge not only the body but also the experience of existing in it. The possibility that drawing, as a technique, offer for this endeavour lies on the freedom to construct and deconstruct; to inform and decontextualise; and if so wished, to make and take a standpoint.


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