The “bodies” trope

Where did this “bodies” thing start? Anyone know?

One, I don’t see what it adds, and worse, two, I think it obfuscates.

I’ll explain what I mean, using Anthony Pinn’s essay for examples.

A society in which Trayvon Martin could be perceived as out of place within his community takes its ideology and ethics from an old system of property, in which black bodies were to be monitored, rendered docile, and controlled.

Why is that an improvement on saying “an old system of property, in which black people were to be monitored, rendered docile, and controlled”?

It doesn’t seem to me to be an improvement at all. It doesn’t seem to add anything, because it’s not even true, except in the trivial sense in which you could also say “…black feet/teeth/elbows were to be monitored etc along with the rest of them.” It wasn’t just black bodies that were to be bullied and controlled, it was all of them.

There’s the old Stoic idea that the mind can remain free even while the body is imprisoned, but I don’t think that’s what Pinn is saying, or what other Theory types who use the word this way are saying. The idea is clearly to be anti-sentimental, and the “free mind in an enslaved body” trope is pretty sentimental, even if there is something to it. I really don’t think Pinn is saying that the system of slavery left the minds of slaves free.

But then why use the word that way? To remind everyone that the bodies were exploited? But surely that’s not a secret, and anyway it matters – it matters enormously – that it was the whole person who suffered, not just the body.

Why is this “bodies” trope not just dualism? Surely Theory types don’t want to come across as dualists, do they? So what’s their point?

This old system worked based on the logic that black bodies were dangerous bodies and how they occupied space had to be watched closely.  In a word, the system of slavery – the Atlantic slave trade – required a particular understanding of black bodies that continues to inform social interactions in the twenty-first century.

Same again. Why bodies? What does that add? It’s not even true, and it doesn’t add anything. It wasn’t black bodies that were seen as dangerous, it was black people, minds and all. The system of slavery required a particular understanding of black people, not just their bodies. The more I say it the more ridiculous it sounds, as if we were talking about department store dummies, or zombies.

I don’t get it. I do not get it. It looks more insulting than anything else (which is obviously not Pinn’s intention, or that of anyone who deploys this word this way). I need assistance. (It’s not as if you can Google it. Google “bodies”? Yeah right.)



  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I can’t help you with where it started, but I know the point for a lot people like Dorothy Roberts who wrote “Killing the Black Body” and the poet Pat Parker is to place emphasis on the fact that the white gaze reacts to the bodily signifiers of race. The evidence of a mind, say writing, doesn’t trigger the same reaction. We are required to notice certain signifiers of the body before we can assign race (although we can read about the assignments of others).

    Racism relies on taking cues from a body – and the minds of oppressed people are largely irrelevant, the reaction takes place regardless of what thoughts exist in the black mind.

    Anyway, people places the emphasis on people – and if who we are is essentially about our minds, then racism isn’t based on our personhood – in fact, racism denies personhood. Racism is instead reacting to bodies.

    I think you’re write is has serious disadvantages, but seen and employed and read correctly, it has uses as well.

  2. says

    Thanks, that helps. It also makes sense.

    It’s a funny thing about Theory jargon that it seems to be a badge of honor to refuse to explain it. If Pinn were a physicist he surely would have explained any jargon he used in an essay written for the readers of RDF; it seems very odd (and in a way quite rude) to use terms of art without explaining them.

  3. Egbert says

    Replace “black” with “female” and it completely objectifies. I think the term is a step backwards not a step forwards, in my opinion.

  4. says

    I think it objectifies at least if you don’t explain it. And I think it’s a bad idea to use it repeatedly. But with some struggle and some help I’m at least getting a better sense of what Pinn meant by it.

    Isn’t it kind of me to do my thinking in public this way?

  5. Lyanna says

    Yes, I think Crip is correct in her interpretation. I don’t think it’s inherently objectifying, though I suppose it can be in some contexts. I think the purpose is to point out the existence of objectification.

  6. Egbert says

    I agree it’s a bad idea.

    It renders the end of the essay somewhat nonsensically:

    “dismantling the structures and ideologies that nurture dehumanization – would be a fitting response by atheists to the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the many other tragic acts of violence against black bodies.”

    Well, using the term “bodies” is dehumanizing. We could use bodies for atheists too, and equally fail to fully understand the problems of inequality.

  7. says

    I think if that’s clear, then it isn’t objectifying. But it has to be clear!

    I really don’t get the not explaining thing. It seems so ungenerous, along with the ingroupishness of it.

    I was trained in a different school. That’s one thing I give Julian Baggini full marks for: he was adamant that we could not have terms of art in TPM unless they were explained (and as little as possible even then). That meant there was just never that “nyah nyah, I know something you don’t know” that wafts off every page of Theoryspeak.

  8. Cipher, OM says

    I’m with Lyanna – I think it’s talking about and reacting to objectification.

  9. A. Noyd says

    Egbert (#3)

    Replace “black” with “female” and it completely objectifies.

    I think you’ve unwittingly stumbled across why it’s used as a term. It’s supposed to make the objectification of black people glaringly obvious–not in an approving way, but in order to analyze that objectification and how it plays into society and culture. If you’re so unfamiliar with the idea and history of the objectification of black people (or if you feel that readers here would be so unfamiliar) such that you can only see it (or express it) via analogy to the objectification of women, then you have, in a sense, proved its necessity.

    (Of course, like all jargon, its utility is somewhat diminished when used, without explanation, in an article meant for a general audience.)

  10. Ken Pidcock says

    I think you’re write is has serious disadvantages, but seen and employed and read correctly, it has uses as well.

    Am I just unfamiliar with that as well? Heh.

  11. Egbert says

    Notice it doesn’t work with “atheist bodies”, because there is no physical identifier for atheists. So I don’t know what that does to the ‘theory’ of oppression.

    I don’t like the term, it’s unhelpful and incoherent in my opinion.

  12. Josh Slocum says

    Cripdyke’s explanation is the first thing that’s thrown any light on this for me.

    All else aside, Pinn’s writing is awful. It’s stilted, affectedly formal, needlessly mechanically complicated in a way that requires repeated reading and parsing of sentences (no, it’s not that complicated thoughts require complicated language, or that the reader doesn’t want to make the effort. Complicated thoughts require clear language, and all humans, not just anti-intellectuals, stumble over too many nested clauses and far-flung objects and subjects. Anyway he’s not saying anything complicated.).

    There is no context in which such writing is ever justified, useful, or aesthetically pleasing. It’s not that he’s using it in the wrong context (though he is tone deaf to his audience), it’s that there is no right context. Bad writing is bad writing, and academia wallows in it, particularly the humanities.

  13. says

    Using “bodies” rather than “people” is dehumanizing. It has probably always been a part of racism, to consider those repressed as being sub-human, and therefore somehow deserving of the treatment.

    It is similar in wars, where we tend to dehumanize the opposing side.

  14. Komal says

    This is *exactly* what I thought when I first encountered the use of ‘bodies’ in this way. It’s become fashionable, but it seems like nonsense. Hence right up butterfliesandwheels’ alley :D.

  15. Erp says

    I don’t think it is nonsense. ‘Bodies’ is meant to emphasize that objectification is taking place not to agree that it is good. The color of skin is being used to judge a person just as a woman is often first seen as female and then only sometimes as a person[1]. A white man in contrast is provisionally accepted and judged only after further inquiry (perhaps into the content of his character?). Reverse situations may happen but only for men in women only or whites in black only groups (I wonder about the experience of men becoming Girl Scout leaders or whites attending traditionally Black colleges).

    Pinn did aim his essay a bit high (liberal arts university education or equivalent with some exposure to the terminology); however, his final point of atheists/humanists branching out to:

    “Encourage the development of critical thinkers who can interrogate and unpack superstitions of all sorts – whether they are religious, political, economic, or social? This approach may not receive the same media attention as attacks on the religious, but its impact is long term because it nurtures citizens who have the skills necessary to cut through the crap of our cultural worlds. I suggest this approach of working backward and advancing critical thinking skills over mere deconstruction of traditional religion because religion and its theological underpinning mutates, morphs and transforms. This is certainly one way to think about the growth in the Prosperity Gospel and the mega-churches associated with it. Do these really indicate the vulnerability (let alone death) of “religion”?”

    is important. I would add pseudo-science and pseudo-scholarship in general (think of the ‘history’ of David Barton) to his list of superstitions.

    [1] Think of the situation room photo a year ago where Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason were edited out in a Hasidic newspaper; the fact they were women trumped the fact that both were important figures and that Hillary was the second (or third if the potential power of the VP trumps the actual power of a secretary of state) most important person in the picture after the president himself.

  16. Patrick says

    Its not supposed to be objectifying, but sometimes it is.

    If you note that racism triggers off of the body, ie, someone looks black so they get treated badly by racists, that’s not objectifying.

    But… bemoaning the high rate of violence against black “bodies?” Really? Its like a racial debate about zombie movies. How terrible it is that people keep smashing up these black bodies! A black person might notice, and become upset! No, the problem is that the black bodies and the black people are the same things. This isn’t violence being performed on mannequins or cadavers.

    I know its not intended to read like that. Its just intended to partake in a jargon that, to a certain degree, exists to act as a gatekeeper and to justify an academic subculture’s sense of self worth. But still.

  17. says

    Yeah, I’ve just always seen it as meant to talk about prejudging, and that it’s only about exterior appearances, and other superificialities, yada yada. And I think it is quite powerful when it comes to poetry, or when used sparsely. I think when you drag out a word that’s so cramped with meaning every other sentence, it just gets exhausting.

    And it’s definitely a subtle attempt to ward off people who are unfamiliar with the jargon, which is why I’ve never bought into spelling ‘women’ incorrectly, or using it as a singular noun.

  18. Lyanna says

    Yeah, I think in-group language ought to be explained–it’s just, you know, ‘bodies’ isn’t really jargon. It’s an everyday word, used in a slightly odd context. It’s not like “performativity” or some such. It’s not like anyone doesn’t know what ‘bodies’ means; it’s more that they might be confused about the purpose of using the word like this.

    Egbert: atheists aren’t really oppressed in a physical sense the way black people are, so “atheist bodies” would be pointless as a term. It’s not like atheists are forced to pick cotton or work in mines or something. Any oppression is more social, more mental.

    Feminists do talk about male oppression of women’s bodies, though–that’s a huge part of the feminist activism on abortion and contraception and sexual liberation.

  19. Egbert says

    Atheists have been and are oppressed physically. Being stuffed in prison like Alex Aan, for example. Those of us in the western world may or may not face state persecution, but coercion and social forces still persist, even in places like America.

    It is true that atheists have no physical identifiers, but apparently that doesn’t matter. We must still be physically forced out of physical and mental life if non-theists are allowed power.

    Is that true also about gays and lesbians? Again, I don’t think there are physical identifiers either (although some may disagree). Is oppression against gays and lesbians about their bodies? No. Again, it’s about their minds, and their attitudes.

  20. Ganner says

    I’ll admit I was just as confused when suddenly I started seeing this “black bodies” phrase start appearing.

  21. Lyanna says

    Egbert, atheists are punished physically because of what is in our minds and how we express it.

    But we’re not used as labor, or fodder, the way minorities and women have been. It’s a poor comparison.

  22. says

    Komal – you’re right! And in fact we messed around with the word a lot in the Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense. “The gaze” is in there a lot too.

    Lyanna, yes, but that’s just it – this special way of using it is a kind of jargon, even though the word is very ordinary. That’s one reason I still dislike it, even though I see what it means in this context.

  23. Egbert says


    Actually, historically, we were just slaughtered for being atheists, and I suspect the same for gays and lesbians. That still happens in many Muslim countries today.

    But having no physical attributes for atheism or gay/lesbian means we can be invisible, unless we wanted to be authentic of course, or we were accused of it, or caught in the act.

    I certainly don’t think it’s a poor comparison. Inequality is inequality. But whereas atheists/gays/lesbians can essentially hide their identity, women, minorities and others with physical identities can’t. That certainly gives them a greater vulnerability to oppressive societies.

  24. John Horstman says

    #1 nailed it. Using ‘bodies’ DOES objectify – that’s rather the point, it’s describing a process of objectification (as #9 and #16 point out, describing something doesn’t mean one is ENDORSING it). In fact, the ‘person’ doesn’t really matter to people legislating bodies (think about the mandatory ultrasound/rape laws – they don’t conceive of WOMEN or PEOPLE, they legislate female bodies and DENY personhood). The origin is in writings on biopolitics (I’m not sure who first recognized that legislating bodies is a tactic of dehumanization used to rationalize or support dehumanization of marginalized groups).

    It is and it isn’t jargon – the denotative meaning is identical to the one in common usage, but I can see how it might appear racist (or sexist) in certain usages if one doesn’t understand the discursive context of use. Again, the point is to highlight and describe objectification when people are very much not what’s being considered.

  25. says

    Right – but then that needs to be made clear, wouldn’t you say? What was the discursive context of use for Pinn’s essay? Is it reasonable to assume that people who read essays at RDF (this was an original for RDF, not an article linked from elsewhere) will all be familiar with the discursive context of use in question?

    I think the answer is clearly not. I also think it’s a habit peculiar to Theory types to pretend to assume otherwise – to talk their peculiar idiolect as if it were universally understood. That’s stupid – it’s bad Theory of Mind. It’s like expecting strangers to get jokes that depend on family history or the like – well, to get in-jokes, which is why they’re called that. It’s the very opposite of sophisticated.

  26. Lyanna says

    Egbert: not to derail this thread entirely, but inequality isn’t all the same. Being physically punished for holding or expressing an opinion isn’t the same as having one’s body used, against one’s will, for another’s profit. The latter happens to women and slaves, but is not a common part of religious persecution of atheists.

    Ophelia, I agree generally, but here I think it’s clear enough what he means by it that it doesn’t bother me. If I were his editor I’d ask him to drop a line of explanation. But did you really have such a hard time figuring out what he meant, once you thought about it for a few minutes? It doesn’t seem like you did.

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