Bodies exposed. Dramas, practices and mimetic desire
n. 2/2016 - Edited by David Le Breton, Giuseppe Fornari and Claudio Bernardi
In the past, in Italy, the “exposed”, also called foundlings, were the infants or young children abandoned by unknown parents to the care of the Church or of public services.
Those exposed children are a powerful reminder of the wider condition of the human beings who for many years from birth are incapable of looking after themselves and are so “exposed”, vulnerable, totally open to all perils and even to death unless someone takes constant care of them.
The condition of being endangered is not unique to childhood, but it is shared by all those who find themselves exposed, defenceless, at the mercy of natural catastrophes and helplessly subject to aggression, offence and recklessness from others.
At its worst, it is the condition of the sacrificial offering, unwillingly exposed, fed to the public for mockery, scorn, humiliation, admonishment, revenge, voyeurism, or capital punishment.
Invisible, not spectacular, but nonetheless extremely painful, is the insecurity typical of the elderly or the disabled, whose psycho-physical limitations expose them to dangers and distress due to the constraints of a world thought and built for the so-called able-bodied.
The able-bodied represent, at the opposite end of the spectrum, exposition in its most exciting and positive form: the free offer of oneself to the action and the eye of bystanders with the ultimate goal, beyond that of showing oneself off, to attract admiration, acknowledgment and attention. The highest form of voluntary display is the body of performing artists. Exhibitionism through images has recently become, thanks to the social media, a rampant phenomenon and a universal “must-be”.
The media related celebration of the human body seems to have created two opposite models, the “technological body”, or “body machine”, subjected to experimentation and virtualisation; and the “body of desire”, toned, beautiful, fit, advertised as the celebration of individual satisfaction and erotic and aesthetic glorification.
In the first instance, as David Le Breton explains, the body is “seen with lingering suspect and remains at risk of elimination because of its poor information potential, its frailty, its heaviness”: science and technology strive to overcome the perishable nature of the damned part of the human being, by remodelling, empowering, or perfecting it.
In the second instance, the deliverance of the body lies in its magnified appearance, in “the obsession with fitness and with wellness, and in the anxiety about remaining forever young.” (Anthropologie du corps et modernité, by David Le Breton, Presses universitaires de France, 1990, page 229).
In both cases, the body doubles as an alter-ego. The individual perceives his/her own body as different from himself/herself. The dualism body/soul is so transformed into a new dualism between body and the disembodied individual. This is proven by the widespread dissatisfaction with the body, as documented by research showing that 90% of women and between 40 and 60% of men are afflicted by image body insatisfaction or dissatisfaction.
The body however, taking over the role previously held by the soul - invisible, spiritual, perfect, immaterial, and immortal - inherits its claim to perfection; but precisely because it cannot be invisible, to achieve perfection it must incarnate itself into deified models, thanks to idealistic images and representations, or into glamorised movie stars. In both cases, the alienated body follows the law of mimetic desire described by René Girard. Into which body do I want to mould my body? Who do I want to look like? Who would I like to be? Who would I like to be with? Who would I like to possess? Who are my role models? Each individual “builds” his/her own body by looking at what the significant others do and imitating them: not all others, but only those who are the object of his/her love, admiration and fancy. What he/she wants to be and how he/she wants to be relies on the recognition and appreciation from the others, even more it is consistent with what the others are and what they have chosen as their own models and mediators of their own desires. Only to discover that, given that their models are images of spectacular and idealised bodies, ceaselessly improved and touched up, they are unattainable, and as a consequence his/her frustration is deemed to be permanent and inexhaustible.
In the contemporary anthropological scenario of dualism between body and mind, exacerbated by the general exposure to the mimetic desire of the divine body, the theatre and the performing arts have the double function of criticism and of cure. Ever since its beginnings, in fact, the theatre has developed a critical knowledge of the manifestations and of the tragic effects of mimetic desire. As it is quintessentially an "art of the bodies", the theatre promotes more and more, alongside the cognitive catharsis derived from purging the spirit of the community of its morbid emotions, the “physical” and relational care and cure of the individual, of the different groups, of the community, and of the social body: it transforms the spectators into actors of their own experiences, working with bodies, on bodies and for the real bodies of the people.
We are so led to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.
When we talk about the body augmented by the unlimited extension of oneself provided by the media, are we only talking about the positive conjunction of the real and virtual bodies of the individual, or are we celebrating the supremacy of the virtual body over the real one, and the concealment or marginalisation of anything that might appear aesthetically and socially obscene?
If we take into account the deifying effects of the virtual body, of the self display through images, and the spectacularisation of life itself, would it not be more appropriate and correct to talk of a diminished body, of a maimed body, or even of a pseudo-body, reduced to the dimensions of only two of its senses, eyesight and hearing?
Or is it not quite the opposite case: thanks to the compulsive self-exposition on the social media, the augmented body can be interpreted as the explosion and the popularisation of the performing arts and consequently as a confirmation of the central role of performance as a cultural and social rite?
Or still, when talking about the augmented body, does one refer to the excessive increase of the sacrificial exposition of the real bodies, ranging from the universal unsatisfaction for one’s own body to the extreme of the barbaric beheadings of innocent and defenceless victims in the Middle East conflicts?
And if this is the case, is there a cultural, social ad political cure against this?
Could it be the censorship and the conspiracy of silence on the slaughters of innocents caused by air bombardments? And could the only difference between the Western and Eastern civilisations be reduced to the difference between hiding the violence hypocritically and parading it ritually?
Is there any possible retribution or defence against cyber-bullying, when the images of the victims, once posted, last forever and become viral, causing endless perverted imitation?
Are prevention and education possible at all? Which interventions would be the most effective? Is talking about it enough?
Or would it not be necessary instead to build, actually to rebuild, indeed to generate real relationships between people, real life relationships, the relationships with one’s own body, with one’s own community, with one’s own environment, which had temporarily become superfluous and ineffective, when “here” had become “there” and “neighbour” was the “whole world”?
What happens anyway off-stage? And off-line? And particularly in the new peculiar “no man’s land” which is on-line but off-stage, where people have lost the ability to develop human interaction? Are these disembodied human beings the new “exposed”?
What has become of their real life experiences, their illnesses, their frailties, their deaths, and, on the other side, of the enhancement and beauty of their sensations, of their senses, of their live relationships?
All these and other issues are of great interest to anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and scholars of the theatre and the performing arts, in the declinations of their respective disciplines.
Topics could include but are not limited to:
- Body representation in performing arts
- Research on bullying, especially in teenage years, and on the election of scapegoats in social media and society
- Reflections and debate on mimetic desire, today and in the past
- Reflections and research on body/individual dualism
- Aesthetic capitalism (beauty, care of the body, show-business, seduction)
- Real and virtual body
- The new obscenities: loneliness, illness, pain and death
- Show business vs. theatre
- Eating disorders and their possible cure: hand-to-hand combat with perfection
- Experiences of social theatre with “real bodies” in critical situations such as hospitals, prisons, mental institutions, retirement homes, refugee camps, homeless shelters etc.
- Community dramaturgies where real life relationships are experienced (street events, primary school parties, Alzheimer Cafés etc.)
- Para-theatrical forms and experiences, journeys and pilgrimages
- Analysis of performing arts penetration induced by social media.
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