The Body and Being Human   /   Summer 2001   /    Articles

Containing the Elusive Body

Margaret Lock

Some birds dressed as surgeons and cooks dissect a body. Pen drawing attributed to J. Grandville, 1829. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The body is at once elusive and substantial, ensuring that it can never be pinned down to everyone’s satisfaction. This irresolvable dilemma is usually attributed to the human condition itself and is commonly expressed by saying that individuals both have and are bodies. The struggle to resolve this dilemma has preoccupied philosophers and religious scholars from classical times, but in recent years interest in the body has taken on renewed vigor. The dualisms that have characterized thinking about the body for centuries are under attack, but they linger on in our thinking and continue to reveal the limitations in our understanding of human embodiment. In this paper I will look at the split between the contingent, postmodern body and the universal, biological body; the biological determinist vs. social constructionist understandings of embodiment; and the ways that new biotechnologies trouble but do not resolve these persistent dualisms.

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