The Body and Being Human   /   Summer 2001   /    Articles

The End(s) of Humanity

Bryan S. Turner

Antonia Scarpa, "Sull' aneurisma," 1804. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My argument develops a general sociological theory that connects our embodiment to the building of social institutions and social interdependency. There are three components to this argument: we are ontologically frail and vulnerable; the institutions that we create to compensate for frailty are also precarious; but frailty and precariousness produce an interconnected and interdependent social world. This perspective is neo-Hobbesian because it provides a way of rethinking social contract theory. Social life is always a contingent balance between scarcity and solidarity. The Hobbesian struggle over scarce resources constantly threatens the institutional framework, but the precariousness of institutions is constantly repaired by the solidarity that arises from the shared experiences of embodiment. These notions about embodiment provide a powerful theory and defense of human rights as a universalized system of protection against our ontological frailty and sociological precariousness. Finally, I attempt to reflect on the erosion of bodily metaphors in contemporary society as an index of the alienation of our embodiment in technological society, where social life is disrupted by risk and regulation. In the archaic world, embodiment is a source of binding metaphors of sociality, but these have been progressively undermined by technological change. The exhaustion of metaphors provides no opportunity for adequately grasping the dialectic of risk and regulation within a common language of responsibility.

My proposal is that the concept of embodiment must be placed at the core of any adequate picture of social life. A renewal of critical sociology depends on a theoretical integration of the connections between the vulnerability of human embodiment and the precarious nature of social institutions. The richness of metaphors of embodiment is never very far from an effective conceptualization of institutions. The fact that the body is important to the metaphors we use to think with has been commonly recognized in social anthropology.

Consider religious mythology. Because the body is traditionally always the nearest-to-hand source of metaphors for understanding society, it is hardly surprising that the Abrahamic faiths are constructed around body metaphors. In the Christian faith, for example, these metaphors include: virgin births, charisma as blood, Adam’s Rib, Mary’s milk of sustenance, the Sacred Heart, and the Eucharistic Feast. It is also the case that basic social theories have also been corporeal. Feasts provided an elementary model of society, and the Church was conceptualized as a body. From the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ came early models of trading groups as corporations. The body is, however, more than a rich source of metaphor. It is constitutive of our being-in-the-world, but in contemporary societies the dominance of biotechnology has brought about an erosion of a sense of common ontology.

My attempt to renew sociological theory is based on three assumptions: the vulnerability of embodiment, the precariousness of institutions, and the interconnectedness of social life. There is a dialectical relationship between these three components that becomes obvious when one thinks about the process of modernization. It is within this dialectical balance between frailty, precariousness, and interconnectedness that modern medical technologies are powerful and far-reaching. If our embodiment is the real source of common sociability, then changes to our embodiment must have implications for vulnerability and interconnectedness.

The new micro-biological revolution is Cartesian (in reinforcing the separation of mind and body); it is driven by a powerful commercial logic, and has (largely unrecognized) military and policing uses and implications that are problematic for human rights and political democracy. Contemporary medicine has promoted a “mirage of health,”11xRené Dubois, The Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change (London: Allen & Unwin, 1960). but cloning, reproductive technology, and organ transplants both express and enhance social inequalities, especially between societies, and they have the potential to transform our human identity in ways that are negative and destructive. The point of this paper is to raise once more the ambiguity of the questions: what are the proper goals (ends) of a political community, and do our current problems anticipate the termination (end) of the human? Is this crisis the end of humanity (as an empirical community of beings) or the end of the human (as the possibility of a conceptual category)?22xThis paper grows, in part, out of reflections on the erasure of man at “the edge of the sea” in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (London: Tavistock, 1970) 387.

Let us reconsider religious mythology. Religio is that which binds and disciplines a community whose humanity is a function of a shared set of experiences of birth, maturation, procreation, and death. It is difficult to see how this communitas could survive the medical rationalization of our world or how anything could replace or stand in for this religio. This loss is one sense in which we can speak of “the end of the human.” The twentieth-century philosopher who perhaps saw this crisis of being most clearly was Martin Heidegger, who believed that modern technology, as an exploitative framework of natural resources, would interpose itself between being and the world.33xMartin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)

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