Michela Marzano

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Hatje Cantz Verlag (www.hatjecantz.com).


Michela Marzano
The philosophy of the body

The body is one of the most evident and essential facts of human existence: it is in the body and through the body that each of us is born, lives and dies; and it is in the body and by means of it that one enters the world and meets with others. But can one really speak of physical existence without resorting to assertions of a simplistic nature or narrowing things down to a mere summary of “body techniques”? How can we construct a philosophy of the body that succeeds in adequately expressing the meaning and value of corporealness?
Philosophers have invariably preferred to ponder the nature of the soul and its passions, explore the workings of the mind and criticize pure reason, rather than turn their attention to the reality of the body and to the finiteness of the human condition. Consequently the body has often been conceived as a cage, as a machine, or as matter. Various thinkers in the past, nonetheless, have challenged this line of thought – it is enough to mention Spinoza, for whom, as we shall see, body and soul constituted a single and identical substance, or Nietzsche, who likened the body to a mighty lord and the spirit to a mere tool.
In the 20th century, however much phenomenology worked an authentic revolution in the sphere of reflection on the body, opposing the classical view that conceived the body as an “instrument” at the service of man, with an intentional model that instead saw the body as “the instrument that cannot be used through another instrument, the point of view about which I cannot have other points of view”, even today we find ourselves confronted by ideological positions which on the one hand reduce the body to a burden we would gladly be free of, and on the other identify the body as a complex organism governed by a system of nerve synapses capable of determining all man’s behaviour and decisions.

The ambiguous statute of the human body

One of the main problems which philosophers of the human body have had to deal with is that of its extremely ambiguous statute, which means that it cannot be reduced to a simple thing or to a thinking consciousness. “The word exist has two meanings, and two meanings only”, asserts Merleau-Ponty, “one exists as a thing, or one exists as consciousness. The experience of our own body reveals to us a state of ambiguous existence”.
In effect, the human body is first and foremost a “material object” and, as such, belongs to the regime of “becoming” and “appearing”, hence its apparently elusive character on the conceptual level and the refusal, on the part of some philosophers, to consider it a subject worthy of philosophical interest. And yet the body is also “the object that we are”, and therefore a sign of our humanity and subjectivity, hence the importance of reflecting philosophically upon it every time we seek to understand what man really is. Because of this, asserting that the body is an object does not necessarily imply that it is a thing like any other, unless one wants to take into consideration, at least at a mental level, the possibility of freeing oneself of it. But is it actually possible to keep the body at a distance?
According to many philosophers the awareness of the impossibility of a “keeping at a distance” should be sought in the importance that “the subjective body” assumes in post-Kantian philosophy. The idea that the body is not just an object thus takes on consistency: that object which we call “body”, far from being a mere thing, an object of acting and contemplating, is in effect something more complicated precisely in action and contemplation. It is from this starting-point that Merleau-Ponty made the body the focus of his philosophical reflection, the very heart of the “in itself” and “of itself” of each of us; a trace in the world; a “touching-touched”, a “seeing-seen”. It is for this reason that in the course of the 20th century the concept of body/flesh has been a crucial theme, where “flesh” denotes the very condition of human existence.
However much traditional dualisms are out of fashion these days, the body remains a reality which some believe they can be free of, whether with the means offered by technological advances, or through the omnipotence of a disembodied will. Hence the importance assumed by a philosophy of the body capable of interpreting contemporary reality and questioning oneself on the meaning of the physical existence of human beings. The question is pertinent, particularly when one considers the contradictory behaviour which individuals manifest today in relation to their corporealness. If on the one hand the body would seem to have been accepted from the point of view of its physical reality, its tribulations and its needs, but also its beauty, to the point of its becoming a veritable cult, on the other it appears instead to be “subjugated”, placed at the service of our social and cultural conventions.
Most discussions regarding the body seem to lead into dead ends: on the one hand the body is analyzed as if it were a material that we can model and shape according to our fickle and perpetually unfulfilled desires; on the other it is identified with destiny and fate. It is also true that the body is understood by many as a physical substratum of the person, the seat of individual experiences, though perhaps even more frequently it is conceived instead as an object of manipulation, cures and cultural and medical constructions. The ambivalence between body/subject and body/object has been replaced by the distinction between a body/totality, which would seem to coincide with the person, and a body/set of organs, which would be entitled to the same statute assigned to material things. But if in the former case the identification translates into a materialistic reduction of the person, in the latter case the difference leads to the certainty of possessing a body-as-object, in such a way that man can think of himself as something “other” than his own body. How should we interpret these paradoxes?

The human being: a person incarnate

The human body is certainly an object. It can be contemplated from the outside and in this way can be kept “at a distance”. It is the body of others: a body in the midst of others, but which nonetheless does not stop referring to a presence that is different from that of other material objects: a body that allows access to an image, to a likeness, but which at the same time refers to the very being of the person that is in front of you. But it is also our own body: a body/image that we can contemplate in a mirror; a divided body, as when we look at our hands or feet; a body that walks when we walk and which suffers or rejoices when we suffer of rejoice. “The back of the head is a mystery for the eye”, wrote Paul Valéry, “How can we represent our face without a mirror? And how can we represent the inside of our body if we know nothing of anatomy? And even if we knew it, the intimacy with which the organs work would defy us since we lack what is needed to see it and represent it. It is not the anatomy that escapes or shies away from us, it is we who are unable to get close to it”.
In reality, the everyday experience of our body somewhat upsets the distinction between subject and object because the human body is simultaneously as much a “body/subject” as it is a “body/object”, the body that one “has” and the body that one “is”. As Simone de Beauvoir once put it, “A woman, like a man, is her own body, but her body is something different from her”. Just as we cannot simply “be” our body, since each individual cannot be reduced to matter or to the functioning of his organs, similarly we cannot simply “have” a body, unless it is presumed that the subject of such possession is a disembodied soul that animates its own body as the helmsman does his ship. Each one of us is both a physical body projected into the world “outside” and a psychic body that refers to the “interior” of the being.
The human being is a person incarnate: without a body he would not exist; through the body he is linked to the materialness of the world. Consequently our experience of the body is always twofold: with the body we have a relationship that is at once instrumental and built-in. The skin knows and procures the pleasure of a caress, just as it suffers the pain of a burn or the biting cold. The body celebrates life and all its potential yet it also proclaims death and finiteness. Every part of the body is at once a part of us and an exterior object subject to contemplation. “Consider your hand on the table and a philosophical amazement comes over you”, writes Valéry, “I am in this hand and I am not in it. It is me and it is not me. And in effect, this presence generates a contradiction; my body is a contradiction, it inspires, it imposes a contradiction: it implies this quality, which would be fundamental for a theory of the living being, were we able to express it in precise terms”.
Each of us has a body and at the same time depends on it: only when we have the sensation of inhabiting every last part of it are we not limited to a mere body, that is, unless we want to follow a “mad way” that involves “detaching ourselves from our body” or a “perverse way” in which “we are no longer able to distinguish ourselves from it”.

Our body is our destiny. Not because the human being is not free to choose the life that best suits him, or is genetically determined to carry out some tasks rather than others by reason of his own bodily nature, but because, independently of every choice and decision, our body is always there in front of us, insurmountable, both for the best and for the worst of us. “I ask myself who I am”, wrote Antonin Artaud, “not the self that is in my body, because I know that I am myself in this body and not another, and that there is not another self outside of the body, and of my body, but that self that feels what is called being, being a being because I possess a body”. Each of us is his own body by being it. Each of us has his own body by possessing it. Our body constantly reminds us of our finiteness and our fragility, and like it binds us to reality, subjugating us to the limits imposed by the space-time and existential dimensions within which we evolve. And it is the body again that enables us to “savour” the world and to inhabit it, feel emotions and passions, meet and become acquainted with others….
In the final analysis, the philosophy of the body is nothing other than a philosophy that takes as its starting point the body itself, that reflects on finiteness and questions the corporeal being-in-the-world of each individual, a philosophy that seeks to understand human action without ever forgetting the dimension of the body. Independently of the fact that the body has often been conceived as a burden that hinders the attainment of knowledge and virtue, there is no philosophy that has ever been able to do without its presence.
What we have today, if anything, are the various possibilities offered by science and technology which allow us to intervene directly on our physical body, control it, keep it at a distance, act as if it were really possible to make it disappear. Yet despite every attempt to annul it, the body is always present, always ready to remind us of its existence and translate into symptoms the uneasiness of those who would have it disappear.

Michela Marzano is an Italian philosopher. She graduated from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa in 1993, where she also holds a doctorate in philosophy entitled For a Statute of the Human Body: a Naturalistic Proposal. She has accomplished manifold qualifications and titles in France and Italy before being appointed, in 2009, as associate professor at the Laval University in Quebec. Since 2011 she has been director of the department of Social Sciences at the Paris Descartes University. She is the author of numerous essays and articles, and she edited the Dictionnaire du corps (PUF, Paris 2007). Her analysis on the fragility of the human condition and on the idea of the human being as a carnal persona is the starting point of her philosophical research and reflections. In 2008, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur listed her among the fifty most influential thinkers in France and among the eight young intellectuals who offer new perspectives on society. Her publications in France include: Penser le corps (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 2002), The fidélité ou l’amour à vif (Hachette, Paris 2005), Je consens, donc je suis… Éthique de l’autonomy (PUF, Paris 2006), La mort spectacle (Gallimard, Paris 2007), Visage de la peur (PUF, Paris 2009). Among the publications in Italian: Straniero nel corpo. La passione e gli intrighi della ragione (Giuffrè Editore, Milan 2004), Sii bella e stai zitta. Perché l’Italia di oggi offende le donne (Mondadori, Milan 2010), La filosofia del corpo (Il Melangolo, Genua 2010; first edition in French PUF, Paris 2007), Cosa fare delle nostre ferite (Edizioni Erickson, Trento 2011).

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