Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bodies and non-consumable justice

I had started out writing a blog entry on street violence and social justice, and I think that is an important topic that I hope to cover soon. Certainly it has been in the headlines a lot lately, given all the recent gun violence in particular, both right here in Toronto and also with the recent tragic theatre shooting in Colorado.

But it struck me that there was more to be said about the last entry's discussion, which has already ranged widely. Quoting Wedell Berry, Jennifer raised the question a few days ago, "are bodies understood as 'product[s], made delectably consumable'? And if so what are the devastating consequences of such an understanding?" Delectably consumable is quite a phrase, but I think it points to a deep problem we do face when it comes to conceptions of our bodies and other people's bodies. We spent some of the discussion in the last entry speaking indirectly about what happens when the environment is understand as something like delectably consumable. What about bodies, though?

Berry's quote rings true to a certain and current construction of culture, at least from what I have seen, and when we view our bodies as products instead of living, relational creatures, we put them in different categories that have as their goal not flourishing or living, but rather marketability. One can put a product on the market, get a fair price for it (or not) and turn a profit, or sustain a loss. While it is often used metaphorically, this language can also become a very real and painful reality in cases of human trafficking, where humans are quite literally the product being sold. (though in those cases, I would refuse to go near words like "fair price", since there is no price that can or should be put on humans) But there is an different and more subtle (though no less real, I deem) danger than openly or metaphorically putting prices on our bodies. If we think of our bodies as products, we put ourselves in the position of competing for a share of what the market can hold. Perhaps I put my product out only to find someone else has already put a newer, shinier product out. When bodies are that product, instead of recognizing the worth that we all have inherent to us, now my body appears to have little to no worth, and any worth it has it only has in a kind of competitive relationship to all the other bodies. When this happens, notions of justice get very unfortunately tied to these market relationships. The question becomes not "are human rights and dignity being respected" (or animal rights, or the question we faced last entry regarding environmental rights) but instead "are we getting a fair trade?" The mechanics and consequences around trading, marketing and economizing bodies, and whether it can allow for justice for humans is not itself examined. 

I wonder, hearing about the various recent violent episodes both here and elsewhere, whether there is an underlying connection. I know that with much street violence, problems such as poverty, hopelessness, and even other forms of economic disability are some of the root issues (so I am not poo-pooing economics itself as such; rather viewing our bodies as yet another commodity). But I wonder whether thinking of our bodies as a commodity also contributes to the problem of violence? It is much easier to dispose of or 'consume' a product than a person with a name and a life story. Additionally, justice surrounding a consumable product has to do not with the thing itself--I don't think it makes sense to talk about justice for my toothbrush--but with the people or creatures for whom the product is intended. It becomes consumable justice then; when the product is gone, or the trade is finished, isn't it true that other concerns take over? We, as living bodies however, need justice that is not consumable, that constitutes a real norm that doesn't go away. Even if we misconceive of our bodies as products, we are still living creatures, and the claim for justice remains. So my question for this week is whether my link between thinking of bodies as products in some way does contribute to a greater possibility for violence, given the catalysts of other root causes like poverty and hopelessness that I mentioned above?

(Note: as of Friday the 27th, I will be away from any computers for a few days (camping in a field), but I will be checking back in on the conversation shortly. Please feel free to continue leaving comments and discussing, and I will join back in as soon as I can find an internet connection, which should only be a few days. Talk with you all soon!)


  1. The link between a philosophical anthropology and an orientation to violent or peaceful action is, I think, the crucial link indeed, Allyson. And to investigate one's understanding of the meaning of bodiliness is to investigate one's philosophical anthropology. The question, 'Who is the person?' includes the question 'What is the body?' Moreover, the question 'What is the body?' cannot help but attend--whether implicitly or explicitly--to questions concerning the relation between bodies.

    The philosophical tradition of reflection best attending to such questions of the relation between bodies is the reflection on friendship, including some of its key terms (the Greek philia and koinonia, the Latin amicitia and communicatio). To attend to this tradition is to remember that Aristotle himself was concerned with the relation between understandings of bodies and orientations to violence or peace. His concern was expressed in the form of three distinctions in the ethical life: friendships may serve either utility, pleasure or the life of virtue. The first two types of friendship, he insisted, were not ultimately disposed to the fullness of human flourishing because they involved an understanding of persons as disposable to some extent; persons being in the service of another's wants or needs. Thomas Aquinas later sought to further refine these distinctions, offering that friendships of utility and pleasure are better categorized together precisely because in both cases, persons are conceived as serving the passing desires of other persons. All of this is simply to say that your focus question seems to me to be attending to one of the central questions of ethical philosophy and theological reflection. As one whose work is primarily based in medieval thought, your question now has me examining further what types of contemporary categories of friendship are being appropriated in scholarly and popular circles, and how they are being appropriated, in order to attend more readily to issues of violence at many different levels of human experience.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer!

    I think that friendship is an important topic in both ethics and in philosophy more generally. It is probably no shock, then, that I think we need philosophical anthropologies that take a deeper look at bodiliness, the relationship between bodies, and the concept of friendship. Friendship is one important concept to be examined when dealing with concepts of violence and justice, but I wonder what other concepts we need when talking about relating, because friendship doesn't cover all the human relationships there are out there, (though it is a vital one!) I wonder what to do in terms of orienting towards a "non-consumable" justice in situations where there is currently no friendship, even in the classical or medieval sense you have outlined? And what do we do when humans are at odds with each other?

  3. Persons who don't see themselves as oriented toward friendship with others are persons who don't know or don't care to know themselves. More specifically, they haven't engaged their own narratives in any meaningful way. As such, they don't truly know themselves as authentic related beings and so are easily drawn into the "consumption" mode to which we have been referring. So perhaps the beginning of a move toward "non-consumable" justice is a move toward engaging persons in their own and others' narratives. If I may repeat your own initial insight: "It is much easier to dispose of or 'consume' a product than a person with a name and a life story." One way of implementing such work in academia is pay critical attention to ways in which different professions (medicine, law, business, etc.) are employing or not employing dialectical pedagogies. For when such pedagogies are employed in the absence of rhetorical ones (and their formative narratives), such professions are likely to be more extremely prone to the cultivation of unethical practices. Concerning humans being at odds with each other, I think that true facilitators need to have a deep awareness of the distinct forms that opposition can take. Here Aristotle's reflection is not a bad starting point: opposites can be contradictories, but they can also be correlatives, contraries, privatives and positives. With such an awareness as a starting point, the facilitation of common ground is a more hopeful possibility.

  4. Maybe there is another tension that illuminates. We engage in all kinds of different activities in our lives. Each one has a certain quality, accesses certain dimensions of our person and body you might say. Our participation in the market is just one example. But here is the thing, we may sell our strong back's to the manufacturer for wages that help to feed and house a family but it is we ourselves who are present and engaged in the resulting work. Commodification is just a market economy inflected form of objectification. I am wondering whether objectification of human persons isn't tied up with whole and part, with taking the part for the whole. Isn't that what is going on when we reduce persons to their labour value or to what the market will bear if some part of a person's being is put up for sale as a commodity? We ignore perhaps only methodologically that some dimension of a person involves the presence of the whole person, and to reduce that whole methodologically or functionally to but one of her dimensions is to do her an injustice. I personally think that objectification is a natural part of our interactions with the world including the human and spiritual worlds. What may never be forgotten however is that objectification can only do its job if its "partiality" is kept ever in mind, and subordinated when push comes to shove to encounter with a person as she is (with all the excess and mystery that entails). I wonder if that takes us anywhere useful.