Embodiment In Relation to Culture
by Sukanya Deb
Culture as a concept can be understood through its definition, and our processes of engagement with the same. ‘Culture’ is quite a vague term that has been stretched to its limits – we hear phrases such as ‘selfie culture’ and ‘rape culture’, it defines several aspects of human behaviour, and doesn’t imply a positive connotation necessarily. However, broadly it can be seen as patterns of collective behaviours that are categorised in the terms of geographical proximity, shared tradition, religion and language, which translate into art form, speech patterns, anachronisms, etc. Culture remains more than the sum of its parts and more than definitions can neatly sketch out, for culture lies in the buts and the in-between spaces. We understand culture through its embodiment – whether it is objects or translations, it is always through a mediation as embodiment can be understood through the analogy of a simulation.
Embodiment can be understood as the transference of a tangible form, idea, feeling or quality into another so-called body, which can be multi-dimensional in form. This process of transference is important to note, as while cultures tend to be consolidated, they also remain in flux, being revived, propagated, exchanged, nourished, developed. While embodiment can be used to describe our post-conceptual understanding of products of culture, it can also be seen in its literal embodiment through human beings.
Understanding our conception of the human body and mind through our classifications of culture can be reductive – but it can also be useful, especially for anthropologists and historians. Much of Enlightenment period scientific research wielded cultural information to show difference rather than distinction, functioning through a hierarchy.
It is important to consider the human being as a social body, relational in form; and as a ‘body politic’, an expression and product of social and political control. It should be emphasised that it can be used to further analyse our meta-engagement with culture as a whole and systems of power that define ‘the Other’.
‘Culture’ is defined through repetition and commonalities that are considered to require classification – it is a convenience and a tool for understanding and categorising human behaviour. It is an imposition; it’s a linearity or trajectory, something to be broken down and put back together to re-create, to understand. What we often forget is that culture is lived through. It takes form in the everyday, in expressions, communication patterns and societal structures that are lived through. This is the idea of process and multiplicity as opposed to singularity.
Judith Butler frames the concept and state of gender being of a performative notion rather than something that is perfectly innate, especially in relation to ‘womanhood’, adding to the second-wave conception of it, following in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir. Her famous quote states: ‘One is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman.’ Our conception of gender on a societal stage can be understood as taking shape within a society of formulations and expectations, rejecting a certain natural contingency that we now further understand through the spectrum of gender and sexuality, and intersectional politics. Culture becomes a social construct as well when similarly imposed.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological philosopher, suggests that the body is a historical idea as well as a set of possibilities to be continually realised, and in claiming so he says that the body gains meaning through externally created meaning and conception of historicity. Rather than basing one’s idea of potential on individual materialistic ideas, it has been emphasised that the body is a social one. Linking back to Simone de Beauvoir, it is suggested that the body is always produced through historical structuring, and is an embodiment of a historical situation, which in itself is a performance.
Without seeming too self-reflexive and ultimately redundant, cultures are specific constructions, embodying historical situations that are determined by proximity, commonalities, shared beliefs, functions and values. With culture being considered through the significations posed by databases and user-oriented data collections (for example, from Lev Manovich), there are several questions that we must ask in relation which ultimately lead us to question our understanding of culture and human nature itself. This theorisation suggests that culture and human nature can be pinpointed into data-points (upon analysing social media content) on a map, but the question remains – how thorough can a computer be in embodying such? And if successful, can it reproduce culture itself and develop its own?
- Butler, J. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’ in Theatre Journal 40:4, 1988, pp. 514-531
- de Beauvoir, S. The Second Sex, New York: Vintage, 1974, p. 38
- Manovich, L. < http://inequaligram.net>, Accessed on: 08-04-2017.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. ‘The Body in its Sexual Being’ in The Phenomenology of Perception, 1962
The above is an article previously published in THECUBE’s magazine covering the thematic of ’embodiment’ via the lens of science, technology and design. This magazine contains contributions from THECUBE’s Shoreditch workspace members and our residency collective, amongst others. Click here for ‘Embodiment – An Introduction’ by fellow member Araceli Camargo.