Bodiliness and physicality
The Body as a Transitional Point between Culture and Nature

Boris Charmatz „Levée des conflits“; © Gianmarco Bresadola
Boris Charmatz „Levée des conflits“ | Photo (detail): © Gianmarco Bresadola

“Nature and culture, they seem to flee from one another,” one could say, in adaptation of an old saying by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But do they really “find each other in an instant”? And if so, where do they find one another? Nature stands for what happens by itself without any effort on our part and culture for everything that we human beings make out of ourselves and our environment. The body is the link between them, but only if we distinguish the vibrant physicality inherent in each of us from mere physical existence, which is also a feature of celestial bodies and amorphous physical substances.

Our own body and foreign bodies

Since the beginning of the modern period, we have seen how successfully reducing nature to mere causal processes and transforming “Mother Nature“ into a supplier of raw materials has caught up with us human beings and is threatening to turn our body into body machines. The duality of a culturally cultivated inner world and a technically processed outer world has been an issue since René Descartes. Yet there has been no lack of attempts to revise it, such as those recently stemming from the phenomenology of the body and medical anthropology. Blaise Pascal already saw man as a “thinking reed”. Thinking and reeds sound like fire and water. But in fact, human beings experience nature within their own bodies, and conversely traces of their actions appear in nature. In this process, the body, to use edmund Husserl’s term, functions as an Umschlagstelle, a transitional point where culture and nature, one’s own and foreign elements merge. Our body is both our own and foreign. It is more than a mere natural body, yet it may be regarded and treated as such. Culture and nature are intertwined; there is nothing human that is not both shaped by culture and predetermined by nature.

Physical intermediate phenomena

The most common bodily phenomena show how much we are constantly moving on the threshold between culture and nature.
  • It begins with simply walking. When the Epicurean Pierre Gassendi counters Descartes’ statement “I think” by saying “I walk”, it implies how much thinking has to do with walking upright. “We cannot say we think as we walk just as we cannot say we walk as we think,” declares Thomas Bernhard’s text about walking. Yet thinking and walking are inseparable, as can be seen in the everyday lapse of stumbling.
  • When swimming, we would sink like a heavy stone without the movements that keep us above water. In equipping living things with a spontaneous instinct to move, nature throws us a lifebuoy. Yet we have to learn to swim and practise swimming techniques.
  • The hand, according to Aristotle, is the “organ of the organs”, part of a multiple-unit bridge, moving from gentle caresses to violent punching, from grappling to symbolic display. A brain-damaged patient examined by Kurt Goldstein at his Frankfurt clinic displays a deficiency that cannot be explained purely in physiological terms. He effortlessly shoos away a fly from his nose but is unable to point to his nose.

    „Both Sitting Duet“ (2002), Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion (Youtube)

  • Our voice uses natural vocal organs such as the larynx and respiratory system, while the expressive content and message vary by culture. Yet nature’s roughness breaks through in the “wild sounds” of early childhood (Roman Jakobson), when boys’ voices are breaking during puberty, and when one is hoarse. The voice can become loud like “brass that awakes as a trumpet” (Arthur Rimbaud).

    „Shouting Dance“ (2011), Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, piece for young people performed by Nele Ghysen, Elisa Dumon, Myrthe Meylaerts, Gite Dexters, Wim Vandermaesen, Loes Daelemans, Teodora Dinicu, Kobe Vangronsveld & Karen Olaert. (Youtube)
  • The art of eating that ensures our physical wellbeing displays a varying proximity to and distance from nature that Claude Lévi-Strauss relates to the contrast between the raw and the cooked. If eating is reduced to supplying the body with food and is measured only in terms of calories, life threatens to degenerate to mere survival.
  • Thrown off course by palpitations and heart failure, the heartbeat is not only an indicator of extreme moods; it embodies surges of erupting happiness or oppressive fear. It is not for nothing that the heart is favoured as a symbol of the body.
  • The body includes orientation in space and time. The space I fill can be pinpointed on a map grid like the nearby church steeple; but my physical location is a zero point in which the here and now have their source and from where proximity and distance disperse. There is no lifeworld without a physical location, no globality without locality.

Body and life

Cracks and folds endanger physical existence, but they also keep it vibrant. If our body were to be all of a piece, bodiliness would congeal into fixed physicality.