Embodied Values

I began my “deathbed” conversations with someone who I have only recently met, but have developed a deep friendship with over that short period of time. When trying to shed the layers of socio-cultural baggage that prevents us from being totally open and honest with one another, I found that I was unable to do so (not that strange) in a very interesting way. I was physically unable to say certain things, my body would literally begin to shake and my faculty for speech deserted me until I rephrased the statement. The most unusual thing was that this occurred only on a semi-conscious level, almost instantaneous to the activity. It wasn’t until later, when a feeling of incompleteness came over me as I was reflecting on the interaction, did I realize what had happened and what I was trying to actual express. This has really got me thinking on a line of inquiry I haven’t tackled in a while, at least not systematically – the embodiment of cultural values.

A person’s internal motivations and understanding are reflection of both external values and socio-cultural ideas of what can and cannot be experienced. What we know is a process of reconciliation of our sensory experience of our environment – the initial input- and the process of interpretation by our conscious and unconscious mind. American culture is rooted in a dualistic philosophy of separation between the rational mind and the feeling body, the validity of a person’s unique experience is a socio-cultural construction of the physical body and the feelings associated with it supposedly expressed by the rational mind.

Our biological and experiential participation in social and cultural environments plays an active and intentional role of promoting the particular views of society and social relationships. Our American bodies reinforce the dichotomies that have historically defined existence – mind and body, individual and society, culture and biology. Within this definition of the body senses are taken as unique and individual experience of concrete external objects.
Through both passive and active engagement of the world, our senses are modified by experience, and a history of what is “really real” is internalized to align with our defined bodily relationship to conceptual reality. Since the senses interpret how these external realities are understood, the power structure of society are tied to morally permissible sensory experiences –perceptions both shape and define our reality.

The way in which knowledge about objects is obtained and processed is an internal understanding of what is and is not a culturally defined form of truth. Our visceral experience of recognition and interpretation is based on culturally defined assumptions of what is and is not significant. Our culture prioritizes certain bodily senses (visual and hearing) in the normal activity of everyday life and our bodies are thus conceived as regulated with respect to the external. Our bodies become agents of communication that perpetuate acceptable behaviors, are transformed by external influence and are also transforming authorities.

During the European Enlightenment, there was a prevailing pre-occupation with defining the rational, higher mind and the body’s animal nature (thanks Descartes). This dualistic divison was a direct expression of the social value placed upon rationality versus the body’s senses and emotive responses to them. Expressions of personal power and control revolved around a person’s ability to project a cultured persona in opposition to a savage persona. It was predominantly the moral values of religion, the more conservative Protestant ones in North America, that defined the first interactions with the non-Judeo-Christian body, and thus helped define a concept of the non-cultured “other”.

These Judeo-Christian, and particularly Protestant, interpretations of the body include notions of blackness and underprivileged as signs of divine disfavor. Their perceived inferiority coupled with a physical - and correspondingly, cultural – differences to the socio- cultural elite justified their position of slavery and indentured servitude. This manner of thought generated a political philosophy of moralizing and fetishizing those that were non-European. The same basic structuring mechanisms also applied to the divisions between man and woman, although this has a longer historical footprint (thank you Eve, or at least the male promulgators of Eve’s supposed role). We still deal with this baggage, and all the underlying ramifications of danger and attraction, in all our “interracial” and “gender” interactions.

I guess my main point in this long diatribe is that how we understand each other is a reflection our cultural interpretative tools set and sensory inputs. In America, we find the language and the categories of expression contained in religion, medicine, science, law, media, as well as other political and social groups who exert intense control over our minds and bodies in order to produce and maintain a cohesive social order. To recognize and then self select from these influences in a conscious manner is highly difficult and often impossible task. But then again, you never know what you’ll find unless you look.
Eric in a Word: Oxter

Song of the Day: Moanin' - Charles Mingus

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