Body Language

This article attempts to defuse divisive accounts of belonging, ‘us and them’, by grounding an ethics of physical bodies.

Xenophobia, racism, nationalism are facets of a general intellectual catastrophe. An overlooked side to this is the ignorance of the physical. It is physical embodiment that grounds taking an interest in public ‘place-making’. It is place-making that grounds citizenship, as collective taking an interest structures the cultural, legal, and political responses to physical being.

The Conservative Party Conference was an alarming source of xenophobic, racist, and inhumane policy declarations. The political validity of these pronouncements is of course deeply questionable; no manifesto underwrites them, and no vote has mandated them. Nevertheless, their very explication is sufficient to produce disturbing social turbulence, as witnessed in the rise of xenophobic crime following Brexit rhetorical carelessness. Unexamined in all of this is the nature of national, or civic, identity that is being deployed.

British politics and society more widely has an enduring identity problem. ‘Britishness’ is a deeply contestable notion, not least owing to the heterogeneous makeup of the British people.  Studies into Y DNA origins have demonstrated that most British people have genetic inheritances from bronze-age northern and central European migrations for instance, with a touch of Scandinavian. This being so, there is hardly a case for an ‘indigenous’ Brit. Someone tell David Davis, who seems to have the feeling that British workers can outshine ‘foreign’ workers. At any rate, linking identity to genetics is a seriously useless prospect. Genes and borders just don’t matter to one another.

Other accounts of why an interest ought to be taken in place-making centre on ideas of shared characteristics. The preservation of a shared narrative history, perhaps, or the sense that ‘we’ are somehow the same, might do it. On these sorts of accounts, members of the group have the right or the duty to take an interest in place-making as it is their place. Such accounts point to the notions of mutual interest, or commonality in esteem. But these are too tied to abstractions to motivate much in the way of practical dealing with social realities. Explicating Robert Esposito, Dr João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at Exeter, critiques this notion as follows

“We need to stop having an ethics that is dependent on commonality and rights… communitas is more about a debt to an other rather than about something one shares (or has in common) with that other.”

What is it that underpins taking an interest in the functioning of a community? The fact of embodiment, of being physically in a shared space, not only permits it, but necessitates it. At a basic level, it makes it matter whether we walk here or there and in so doing bump into one another or pass freely. But it doesn’t end there. It matters, physically, how space is structured: the diurnal facts of being outside, such as kerb heights, hallway widths, sightlines, all structure the reality of physically being around. These sorts of concerns we might term the geometric aspects of embodiment. It is clear, however, that these require more complex negotiation.

Public spaces come to be structured as they are, physically, owing to policy decisions concerning seemingly mundane interests such as health and safety and national statistics. The simple accessibility of areas requires a sustained effort if it is to be gotten right. But this ‘gotten right’ contains more than a simple geometric notion. There is a sense beyond simple accessibility that we can call place-making, beyond simple space-shaping. In this sense, the body provides a suite of interests that cannot be ignored, and that are as diverse as the bodies themselves. And that the bodies are present is of more importance than where they may have come from.

Much of place-making is concerned with the contingencies of taking an interest in a shared environment and embodiment is central here. Were citizens to be each of radically differing physical forms, the emergence of an institutional reality would not be clearly of interest to any particular individual. Where height, say, ranged randomly from millimetres to hundreds of meters, little sense could be made for, say, urban planning.

Space sharing, through place-making, involves cultural artefacts as much as it does physical. Why Londoners stand on the right and walk on the left of an escalator is a manifestation through civic nous of a recognition that bodies cannot pass through one another. When it breaks down, cold stares mark the occasion. This kind of civic nous is a ‘bottom up’ way of seeing embodiment as anchoring civic action. From the top down it is also the case.

Law and policy frame at a national level the context of action for every body in a jurisdiction. A national living wage presumes to be a basic satisfaction for the possibility of sustaining a physical body by way of labour. Laws provide prescriptions and proscriptions such that physical integrity of bodies in public and private spaces is protected. National media sustain a public discussion on physical place-making, like a generalised state of the nation address.

When a political party forgets the weighty reality of physical being and launches into ill-grounded pronouncements on who ‘we’ are or ought to be, this amnesia affects the bodies of those on the end of it nonetheless. ‘Foreigners’ may walk to the office a little more ponderously now their work is devalued. Their voice in public discussion may seem silenced once truth is no longer deemed important. Their labour overlooked, their voice silenced, they may feel like an obstacle for others and question their location entirely. They may appear to non-foreigners as a target.

The British political landscape is becoming lost in itself. Abstractions in identities are tying politicians in dangerous knots. The lives of real people are being risked. An embodied view of the citizen has scarcely been more necessary. In such a view, the ‘foreigner’ itself becomes an abstraction: whoever is present is due consideration. The interests of the embodied citizens are always, ever-present. Their abstract origins in terms of nationality, or other such ephemera, recede as their physicality is recognised.

The dark irony of getting lost in abstractions is that such losing oneself manifests as physically as a slap in the face to those who are abstracted away. In a Tory world of post-truth, and expert-weary politics, facts don’t matter as much as do the explanations made for positions taken. Like free-form jazz, no particular structure need to hold where the anchoring of fact and steering by expert views is eschewed. The result could be called storytelling, or it could be called lying. In the resulting interplay of heterodox ideology, presumption, and desperation, physical bodies are jeopardised. It is violence against the bodies of those whose worth evaporates in the storytelling.


Dr João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, Exeter University; Dr YJ Erden, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, both of whom read and improved earlier drafts. Obrigado, and grazie.


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