Some of you might have noticed that, sometime in the past few years, it has become in-vogue to use the expression “black [or queer] bodies” instead of something perhaps more expected, like “black people”. Maybe you have wondered to yourself why this is, and what “bodies” actually mean in this context… Well, I did some research.

I first wanted to get a broad sense of the use of the term, so I looked at the Google n-gram trend charts:

from 1800:

from 1950:

(View the charts on Google if they’re not displaying correctly for you: first, second.)

In these charts we can clearly see an uptick starting around 1990. What happened then? (Spoiler: queer studies, partly, I think.)

I looked on JSTOR (institutional access, yay), and I found that the earliest mention of “black bodies” (that doesn’t refer to the scientific concept of black body radiation) came from old (racist) anthropology describing the literal black skin of people of colour. One example is An Essay upon the Causes of the Different Colours of People in Different Climates; By John Mitchell, M. D. from 1744.

The earliest example that I could find (in a cursory search) that actually used the term “bodies” like we seem to be doing now, was in Queer Nationality by Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, from 1992. On page 160, they write:

The queer body—as an agent of publicity, as a unit of self-defense, and finally as a spectacle of ecstasy—becomes the locus where mainstream culture’s discipline of gay citizens is written and where the pain caused by this discipline is transformed into rage and pleasure.

Berlant and Freeman (1992) p. 160

and on page 161:

The [Pink] Panthers, a foot patrol that straddles the “safe spaces” described in the first section and the “unsafe spaces” of public life in America, not only defend other queer bodies but aim to be a continual reminder of them. Dressed in black tee shirts with pink triangles enclosing a black paw print, they move unarmed in groups, linked by walkie-talkies and whistles. In choosing a uniform that explicitly marks them as targets, as successors of the Black Power movement, and as seriocomic detectives, the Panthers bring together the abstract threat implicit in the map graphic described above, the embodied threat implicit in individual queers crossing their subcultural boundaries, and the absurdity that founds this condition of sexual violence.

Berlant and Freeman (1992) p. 161

This doesn’t make a lot of sense out of context; the whole article is about, well, queer nationality (and the interplay between national and queer identities). But what is clear is that they are using the word “bodies” to talk about physical bodies as they materially exist in and interact with the world.

In the second quote, they use the word “bodies” to refer to the fact that the Pink Panthers physically protected the bodies of other queer people, while putting their own bodies at risk. In the first quote, they point out that the bodies of queer people are the “location” of societal events or processes, which is a different way of thinking of abstract processes like “discipline of gay citizens” by linking it to bodily experiences like pain.

This last reference to “discipline” also links to the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault. He is well-known for describing the workings of “disciplinary societies”, which is where people are controlled by exerting control over their physical bodies directly through things like imprisonment or indirectly by discouraging human movement in certain locations (think heavily patrolled areas, or scary-looking locations). His work is recognised as important for many reasons but in this regard at least partly because it demystifies the abstract concept of “power” by showing its manifestation in the physical world. Berlant and Freeman were probably strongly influenced by Foucault.

So, in summary, “bodies” specifically refers to the physical ways people are disciplined and controlled by power, and is not just a synonym for “people”.

This brings us to an interesting question: what does it matter, why do you care about — or worse, want to control — the way people speak? The simple answer is that well, I don’t; I don’t actually think that using “bodies” as a synonym for “people” in your pastel-coloured Instagram post will have any substantial “dehumanising” effect on anyone. But I do think that it has been taken up as a sign to indicate that one is part of an in-group. It was first used in an academic context and thus indicated some sort of elite or sophisticated status via the class implication of having access to education. And it has slipped out into the mainstream progressive discourse because people want to sound like they are in the “in-group”. Another reason is that it became a trend and no-one taking part in “up-to-date” discourse wants to use last year’s terms.

Am I accusing people who use the term of “virtue signalling”? Yes, but not in the way conservatives mean it: I don’t think that they are insincere, and I certainly am not accusing them of “illegitimately trying to gain academic credibility”. I am pointing out the fact that the progressive movement has been reduced to a trend, an aesthetic movement, a set of signs and symbols that indicate one’s virtue. And this neutralises any impetus to effect actual material change. In other words, we have become more concerned with saying the correct things than doing things that actually change the conditions of marginalised people. Of course, symbolic change can have material benefits, and I don’t want to discredit the importance of symbols / discourse / abstractions. It has, however, unfortunately been overemphasised to the detriment of material circumstances.

Here is my message: be careful of how you are influenced to act in “progressive” spaces, because maybe the “right things to say and do”, especially if you don’t understand why they are the “right” things, might actually benefit the status quo, and undermine your sincere intentions.

This was the first entry in a new series by Paul Joubert called Activisting, in which he looks at contemporary progressive discourse through a critical lens, with the goal of getting people to think more deeply about the good that they are trying to do in the world. Stay tuned for the next one!

Categories: Columns Opinion