Coming closely to the history of western culture presupposes the approximation or the encounter with an intentionally and laboriously built archive which, through the preservation and treatment of sources, enables us to look into the past again, but also with an immense common grave where “those who were left out of history”, whose traces of their bodily existence are thin and scattered, lie. Of the body, history leaves us mostly words and the dead: hence, the task of approaching it from the viewpoint of the history of western culture is at the same time difficult, touching and fundamental, as it corresponds to a process of reconstitution of a main meaning on which a material civilisation was formed, with its ways of making and feeling, of believing and representing, its acquisitions and basic tensions that rise from the fact that the most natural gestures – walking, playing, copulating, eating, sleeping, defecating, breeding, curing, killing – are cultural gestures agencied by a moral, economical and technical order that goes beyond both the natural and the individual body and integrates them in the more complex and abstract field of the immense social body.
Whether you think of the body from the disciplinary perspective of Philosophy (in which it has always been an object since the days of the Stoics), of history, of anthropology or semiotics (in relation to which the body did not become the object of a systematic study until as late as the 20th century) or from the “natural” perspective as a medium of (identitarian and alteritarian) relations, of doing, knowing or being able, we always find a plurality of bodies, proof that the history of the body is the history of its several visions, demonstrations, disfigurations, refigurações. What we have then are disciplinarily constituted “models of the body” – provisional paradigms that build and convey an idea of body they have agencied.
This “agenciality” of the body is translated into the language that announces it itself. Etymologically, the word “body” comes from “Krp”, meaning “shape”. Due to its “polymorphy”, the body may be “formatted” through the most diverse agencing processes. The Latin etymology of the word “body” shows this equivocal feature: corpus designates both the living organism and the corpse, present and absent, the living body and the dead body. In German and in English, two concepts set the difference between the living body (Leib in German, and body in English) and the dead body (Körper in German, and corpse in English). Yet ultimately this semantic demarcation does not solve the ambivalence of the word “body”.
For the ancient thinkers, “the universe is made of bodies and of life”, as Epicurus said. The whole existence is a hexis, a way of being corporal, either by juxtaposing elements (parathèsis), by recomposition (sunkhusis) or complete union (krasis), which will be vivified as if life was breathed into it (pneuma). Whatever the pairs of concepts - hexis/pneuma, corpore/mente, corpore/anima, soma/sêma – may be, the body has always been thought of as a place of scission, of conflict, a prison that incarcerates the soul, as in Plato’s and Plotinus’s pre-Christian view, which remained under several perspectives both in the medieval thought of priests and Descartes’ modern thought.
The vast heading “body” of Antoine Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel gives us a clear picture of the modern notion of the body, full of encyclopaedic spirit yet still inhabited by Renaissance ghosts. It begins by evoking Aristotle, Epicure and “modern philosophers” to attempt an early definition of the body as a “solid and palpable substance” that may be integrated within different ordering structures. Only on paragraph three is there a reference to the body, the third, associating it to the notion of animality and to the duality between soul and body, deemed constitutively human. The anatomical description is scarce: it is merely a description of the torso and the clothing that covers it, both of which are named “bodies”. There is a profusion of semantic definitions: the body is everything that has material or intellectual consistency; things put together; construction.
Actually, in the history of western culture, there is no “body” without construction. From the early days in history, the body has built its own slow history, transforming itself, in its physical reality, in its functions, in its imagination. The body has changed; however, it has gone through few revolutions, like the one that gave it medicine in the 19th century or biotechnology in the late 20th century. The establishment of a monastic dietetics and the fulminating rise of the black plague in the 14th century were certainly events in a quick history of the body. Conversely, the consequences of fundamental events such as the slow agricultural revolution that began in the 10th century, the disappearance of sport and theatre, the proscription of the nude or the development of fashion in the middle Ages were very slow. As a cultural construction, the semic dimension tends to prevail over the somatic dimension. Even if the mechanisms of this construction process are thematised, this putting into evidence the processes of construction of the body that exist under different expressions in both primitive and contemporary civilisations did not annul the activity of these processes which, with more or less radicalism, continue to take the body out of a natural sphere and put it in an artificial domain – after all, the only domain where the body may be experienced, thought of and culturally manipulated.
Jean Baudrillard, A troca simbólica e a morte, I, Edições 70, Lisboa, 1996, pp. 193-194.