Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Articles

The Body as Referent

David Harvey

Image from the journal Die Gartenlaube (1873).

The extraordinary efflorescence of interest in “the body” as a grounding for all sorts of theoretical inquiries over the last two decades has a dual origin. In the first place, the questions raised particularly through what is known as “second-wave feminism” could not be answered without close attention to the “nature-nurture” problem, making it inevitable that the status and understanding of “the body” would become central to theoretical debate. Questions of gender, sexuality, the power of symbolic orders, and the significance of psychoanalysis also repositioned the body as both subject and object of discussion and debate. And to the degree that all of this opened up a terrain of inquiry that was well beyond traditional conceptual apparatuses (such as that contained in Marx), so an extensive and original theorizing of the body became essential to progressive and emancipatory politics (this was particularly the case with respect to feminist and queer theory). And there is indeed much that has been both innovative and profoundly progressive within this movement.

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