Here I want to develop some ideas about the role of the body in the first three stages of the evolution of consciousness.
In the first, the tribal stage, relationship of man with the body is quite simple. This is the most physical of all stages. The relationship with one’s own body and other people’s bodies is so close and direct as in none of the subsequent stages. Here, the body is still hardly culturally connotated. As this stage is characterized by almost intimate proximity of man and nature, bodies, too, are interpreted as part of nature and are honoured in rituals. This proximity, however, is not exactly unity: there is a difference, which is another subject in rituals.
In the second stage, the clothing – or in other words, covering – of the body, becomes more important. This is an expression of man’s increased distance to nature. Just as people build houses to provide protection from the hostile aspects of nature, so, too, bodies are shrouded for protection and to suggest that the body is no longer the property of nature. The idea of ownership, which is introduced in this stage, also leaves its marks on flesh and blood. In slavery, people, in particular their bodies, are taken possession of. For a free person, the body is property, which he, however, could lose.
With the concentration and numeric reduction of the family happening on this stage, the claims of property in gender relationships are enhanced. The Trojan War is caused by Helen’s “rape” by Paris. As historians like to report: “Helena was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. Her beauty was so great that every man who saw her wanted to own her.” Male desire of a woman is described as a desire for ownership. Women’s bodies are thus interpreted as property of men. If the claim to property is violated, there will be war (even if “the property” has acquiesced to the transition of ownership).
The only reason for masculine dominance, already deeply ingrained in Homer’s epics, is superior physical strength, which was necessary for the great deeds of emancipation. This meant an increase in the differences between the two genders. These re-evaluations and categorisations wrap around the body like the clothes that shroud them, stealing into the body and wielding a lasting influence on its expression of life.
A man’s body, which has to be fit for adventures, is realized in games and sports, while a woman’s body is subjected to claims to ownership. Therefore, the latter is shrouded to a greater extent, which may lead to complete concealment. When Greek men were participating in the Olympic Games, they were naked, while women were not even present as spectators. This revelation of the male body and its celebration in Greek art go hand in glove with the unleashing of the male emotional body, especially of anger. At the same time, a restriction is imposed, as the male body is useful only in its aggressive form, while its vulnerability is rejected. The male body has to integrate two opposing aspects, namely that of the opening up to the energy of anger and that of isolation against pain. This, in a nutshell, is the program of physical education and training of the ages to follow, as well as the origin of the macho body.
The female body, meanwhile, experiences the opposite indoctrination – to display vulnerability and suppress aggressions. Hormonal and other dispositions of the organism may perhaps be said to speak in favour of this distinction, but in the stage of emancipatory consciousness these dispositions are polarized and fixed, so that those belonging to the areas of the middle of the spreading – less aggressive men and less vulnerable women – are forced to conform to the poles.
This process of discrimination by sex is then adapted to the different aspects of society and culture. One of the consequences is that the female body is to a great extent removed from the public sphere.
Whether the bodies themselves have changed as a consequence of these cultural classifications is a matter of speculation; findings in epigenetics suggest that this might be possible: that due to social pressure into polarization women’s bodies have become more “female” and men’s bodies more “manly”. The areas in between, which are reflected by e.g. homosexuality, became subject to massive sanctions, while the embodied poles, i.e. strong men and weak women, could make it to the top, becoming defining stereotypical images.
The development of the drifting apart of bodies differentiated by sex as outlined above in the second stage of the evolution of consciousness is continued and institutionalised in the third, hierarchical stage, by for example the church prohibiting women to carry weapons.
In this stage, it is all about subjugating the body to the powers of bureaucracy and to fit it into the system of super- and subordination. Since the body itself cannot easily be reshaped, clothing must become important for social differentiation.
For this reason, there are many cultures that have dress codes, which regulate the public representation of the social status of an individual. “Fine feathers make fine birds”, as the phrase has it; and the body itself is influenced by its clothes: wearing certain articles of clothing reshapes the body and changes the body language. A king is not to dress or move at random but is to conform to certain envisaged standards. He is supposed to move in an impressive and majestic way, otherwise he will be exposed to ridicule and his power will be endangered.
The same holds true for the noble class, in a less regulated way. The shaping of body language also influences verbal language, which accords to such norms as well. A good example would be England after the invasion of the Normans, who introduced their variant of French as language of the ruling class. An Englishman told me that the linguistic markers for social differentiation still exist and have not gone out of usage, so that every Englishman can “hear” what class a person is from. In other cultures, the situation is similar, even though in the course of democratisation there may be a tendency towards the levelling of such differences.
Subjects are to adopt a subject posture that signalises permanent subjugation. This had such an indelible influence that still in this day and age, our neck muscles will tighten so that we may lower our heads whenever we encounter our superiors. The cobbler is to stick to his last, and only in a fairytale will a miller’s son become king.
It’s also about shackling the emotional body, which must not interfere with the hierarchy and therefore must be controlled. The liberation of aggressive energies of stage two is followed by the inhibition of aggression in stage three. This is to make people “suitable” for and capable of functioning within larger communities. For this it is important to know one’s own rank and that of others within a hierarchy, like in India, where in spite of the official abolition of the chaste system people very quickly work out what chaste their interlocutor belongs to.
The disposal of the human body is publicly visualized by cruel punishments of delinquents and opponents which should demonstrate for everyone that the state, the ruler can not only take life from everyone but also that he is in disposition of their bodies with which he can do whatever he wants. The spreading of torture for finding the truth in justice is another sign of the absolute grasp the state has on the body of its members. When the suspected person does not share his truth voluntarily, it gets tormented out of his own body.
The influence of Christianity on the manipulation of the body in hierarchic consciousness is equally noteworthy. Influenced by manicheism, a religious persuasion from the Near East, the hostility against the body entered early Christianity. This had consequences topical to this day, especially in the Catholic Church. The body was held to be sinful and impure.
In this stage, the woman’s body is subject to deformation to the extent of absurdity. Spanish fashion of the 16th century, for instance, undertook to tie the female body up to such an extent that it would take on a strictly geometric form: two triangles pointing downwards and a circle on top. Another example would be the disfigured feet of Chinese women, who had to pay for this “feature of beauty” with nothing less than the loss of the capability of locomotion.
Every opportunity of individual expression must be stopped, even more so in women than in men. There is no place for desires of the flesh in public, and religious moralisation in addition encourages passion in the private sphere to be checked by feelings of guilt. No wonder that up to now many people have been experiencing the body as prison of the soul and may even go as far as to glorify this degradation of vitality as a spiritual revelation.
The liberation of the body must wait. The fourth level of consciousness, where the body serves in the process of production, too, does not benefit the body and its freedom: on the contrary, the exploitation of work capacity in capitalism is primarily an exploitation of the body, to the verge of collapse. It is not before stage five of personalistic consciousness that, little by little, the body is rediscovered and regains its vitality.
(Translation: Michael Ehrmann)
(Translation: Michael Ehrmann)