The Universe in a Body
Growing up in the 80s, I remember a time when Mr Universe and Ms Universe competitions were major television events. In those competitions, muscles vied for attention in one channel, while sequins and evening gowns beckoned for your notice on another.
The “universe” could be said to mean the smorgasbord of humanity from various parts of the world that participated in either competition (even though it is really only a small selection of that smorgasbord). However, in the end, it really referred to the final champion. In each competition for showcasing the world’s bodies, only one body can be the stand-in for the universe.
Much later on in life, I began to notice this association between the body and the universe popping up in pop-culture. In movies, chance encounters between one person and another become gateways to worlds that one or all the parties involved have never seen. More blatantly, advertising takes advantage of this association, plastering the body with every kind of fashion, accessory, device or adventure, which transports that body to another experience of the world yet unknown, or even another world yet unknown. The ad invites the body of a would be buyer to become like the body blasting from the screen, in order to ensure a similar entry into these universes that far outclass his own.
At one level, this association between the body and the universe can be dismissed as mere hyperbole. However, as I wrote in a previous post, scripture attests to a world that lies beneath the surfaces of the materials that we see.
The same can be said of bodies. Contrary to neoliberal claims, our bodies are more than isolated clumps of cells. In his Discipline and Punishment, Michel Foucault spoke of bodies as being transistors of ways of thinking and being in the world, what he called “regimes of knowledge”. The sociologist Cornelius Castoriadis said that we were “walking and talking fragments of a given society”.
More than a fragment, the body comes as an event, something that stops us in our tracks, to rethink the world we live in because this body has presented another world to us. Abigail Favale makes clear in her essay in Notre Dame University’s Church Life Journal that her yet unborn child presented her with a “world within me”.
The philosophical subdiscipline of phenomenology can helps us make sense of what Favale hinted at in her essay. An example can be found in the compiled works (Gesammelte Werke) of Max Scheler, the German philosopher who inspired the thought of one Karol Wojtyla (later Pope St John Paul II).
Scheler wrote that the universe is an inexhaustable source of meaning, significance and secrets (GW III, 26). The bodies of persons that live in it, meanwhile, seek to participate in that infinite essence in things (GW V, 68), to expand and express themselves within its architecture.
For Scheler, living persons have an intimate connection to the universe, and in so doing share in the universe’s infinite depth of meaning.
This connection is not merely a “spiritual” one, but an erotic one expressed in the embodied lives of persons. The finitude of the person’s body, therefore, shares in the inexhaustability of meaning in the cosmos. The body, therefore, becomes in itself a universe of meaning.
To bring this back into our present context, it would seem that pop culture is taking a phenomenological turn. It is doubtful that many of its merchants would have been reading the Gesammelte Werke in design and marketing meetings, but what these merchants are opening up is a space to consider the body as something more than mere flesh.
Bodies in postmodernity have become portals to worlds that lie beyond the confines of flesh. They may even be worlds that lie beyond the confines of the earthly. To behold that body or touch that body then, is to pierce the veil of finitude and enter the realm that the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard.
Support Awkward Asian Theologian on Patreon, and help make a change to the theological web.