How to Become a Body
by Evan Steuber
Look in the mirror and see how your eyes will frame age and time.
Death is the most obvious beginning. We dress up a corpse to convince ourselves this is a person. Still, if the corpse can be forgotten, death is also the easiest way to avoid the fate of the material. Existent only in memory, the deceased is perfectly singular.
There are other easy ways to create heaps of flesh: Race. Gender. Sexuality. Religion. Categories we remind ourselves not to judge people by, and yet cannot help but impose. It’s a problem of language.
Consider this oft-used response by opponents of gay marriage: “What will happen next? Will people marry their dogs?” In this (argument?) “dogs” represent bodies. We eat animals. We put down dogs. Alternatively, when someone says “dogs are people too” they mean we should stop treating them as bodies. No one has a body for a best friend.
Nazis pressed the Star of David on Jews, and Trump has suggested in multiple ways that we mark Muslims and immigrants and transgender people and African Americans, etc., and some other group tomorrow. This reflects his concern that we understand, as Americans, who is body and who is individual. Who means and who is meaningless. Bodies are always marked and numbered things. Bodies threaten to make us like them with their towering numbers, complete indifference, the sheer weight of the things. We necessarily despise them.
“There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Here Mark Twain demonstrates how you become a body, when you are a number, something to be added or subtracted. Prisoners are easy to add here—when you are “processed” you are one more working its way through the machine. It is impossible to process a human being. Soylent green is what you could be, never what you are.
Twain’s use of dialect in stories is often a process of individualization. But dialect also has an inverse effect, when one is reduced to language, when all we hear is the twang. Embodied. This is the problem with reification.
I tend to avoid the term “bitch” for obvious reasons. However, I do use it when someone close to me is dealing with someone who has control over their career or personal life. In order to commiserate I utter the phrase: “What a bitch!” They smile and concur. We sympathize with others by making their enemies into bodies that are already in the process of decay. It should be no surprise then that these become gendered terms or otherwise attached to the body, the better to identify that physicality we wish to reduce them to. If it is a body, material, it is unimportant and disposable.
The “hist”* in the prostitution scene from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando warns of the approach of the male gaze, in whose eyes the personhood of the women is dissolved. Spectatorship is the act of using bodies from afar. They become props to our life activities. If we bump against them, it is ourselves we face, our remote perspective now blindingly close.
This problem of bodies is not just outside of oneself. Consider when sickness descends. “Once I had food poisoning and realized I was trapped inside my body,” says the narrator of Amy Hempel’s “Going.”*
We all realize this eventually, how we are hopelessly limited in our understanding of death.
In explaining the problems of a select body we face a dilemma. When a body is made by the culture surrounding it, it has no choice but to reconstitute itself as body in order to demonstrate the problems of being.
“Black Lives Matter”—the naïve and frightened crowd screams back “All Lives Matter!” because they have just experienced an epiphany: they fear black bodies and the threat seemingly posed to their own personhood. As long as black people remain bodies, they feel assured they can avoid the fate. But they are scared, ashamed, and not fully cognizant of this conclusion, and so they feel the need to tell you that they love all bodies, which they accomplish by claiming they don’t see bodies. This will always be a lie. There is no person that doesn’t see bodies. The mind won’t allow it. What the “All Lives” crowd (you see what a brute language is) truly fails to understand is that it is impossible to love a body, the abject form. When “All Lives” realized the impotence and generic quality of the phrase, they began to chant “Blue Lives Matter.”
When police face off against protestors on television, we are first presented with two groups of bodies. Associating ourselves with one, we then feel secure in identifying the Others, those trying to make our lives unlivable. They want to steal our status as persons and take it for their own. But haven’t we given them enough? We turn them into bodies before they do the same to us.
A policeman does a job I could never do. I know I am a coward in some ways. Policemen, however, represent more than the typical abstract, and so call for a different form of judgment. They are also Government and Law. They are the working pieces of a system. As such, when one of them abuses their station, they represent more than an individual. We see individuals, that is what we always say. But we see bodies, and until policemen individually point among their collective those that are abusive, we are fated to see only animated flesh. A system, we must remember, is different than a community. A system is imposed from without. A community is created from within.
Love is the extermination of the physical form. This seems strange since we are attracted to bodies. But by love I do not mean simply attraction. In love each feature of the physical form becomes beautiful, each imperfection adored for what it is: unique. We can no longer see the loved one as a body. Instead, we see all the parts, which forms the body’s inverse. Part of love is forgetfulness. The individuality of each part of the person breaks free of categories. Not a thigh, but the loved one’s thigh underneath the pressure of your palm, as an extension of self. The greatest love lends a portion of its own personhood.
Of course, it is impossible to know everyone, to love everyone. That is why we were granted the faculty of imagination. And when that is not enough, the only thing to do is embrace our weakness so that we might understand it. Our lives are a repetition of bodies and persons. We cannot escape this way of thinking. We can only remind ourselves of what we’re always already doing. It is after all our physicality, this decaying matter, that makes us so eager to claim all are bodies but our selves. As if such thinking might make us immortal.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando, (New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973), 219.
Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, (New York, Scribner, 2006), 54.