Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

Art of Gesture
[Image via: “The Art of Gesture”]
Granted, the “natural” in the case of Corbeill’s usage–meaning what is “normal,” even if it’s socially constructed–clashes somewhat with Quintillian’s more deterministic and absolute sense, but normality as a concept links both. In Corbeill’s case, the normal is dissected, and with Quintillian and Cicero, normal is assumed. But both understandings recongize a more recognized, usual, or “right” version of things. Quintillian and Cicero both see “natural” as determined by nature and natural law, something embodied and objective, not necessarily constructed. One is born with a “good” memory or one is born with “nice” features and a “strong” voice. In this way, such qualities are from “nature” and not society. But in each case, the quality of this born attribute remains constructed, and the eyes cannot see what the mind does not know–or name. Nature, then, remains deeply entwined with society, as Timothy Morten argues. And in this case, the body bridges both.

All of this leads me to a more general reflection that threads throughout these writers and Margaret Winzer’s historical tracing of disability before the 18th Century: a rhetorical construction of normality. In a textual sense, Bakhtin, Kristeva, and others critique the monolingual force of some discourse, how it may limit or exclude more polyphonic, alternative, or destabilized voices. One could argue similarly regarding the textuality of the body: depending on how one reads bodily signifiers, one reads the body in different ways. Here, disability.

In the Civic-focused sign system of Athens, infants who showed weakness were rejected as a drain on society and killed or abandoned. Under Christian sign systems, psychiatric disabilities were demons and witchcraft.  Some discourses submitted these bodies under the “medical gaze” of clinicians, to use Foucault’s term, to “cure” them. For some, like Hippocrates, deafness and being mute were physically linked, while this was erroneous to other.

As these examples show, the monologic narratives of normal bodies constructed the otherness of disability. Phrased in the language of Quintilian and Cicero, such discourses characterized the “nature” that composed these bodies, whether such a nature was environmental, hereditary, social, familial, etc. In doing so, discourse and its associated social practice helped dictate how to treat these bodies.

Though this is likely a somewhat messy, over-simplifying, and unoriginal set of thinking, I think it most importantly highlights the complex intersection that occurs over language, culture, “nature,” and the body. However one maps this intersection or names its qualities has a profound impact on the embodied being of people. The borderlines on a mapped landscape, leading to friction and fighting, are no less contentions and destructive as the borderlines drawn on the body–especially when the cartographers have little compassion for their fellow people.

[Image: Durer’s “Study of Proportions of the Female Body”]


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