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Essential Reading


Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1993.


In Unbearable Weight, published in the same year as Judith Butler’s famous Bodies That Matter, Susan Bordo, like Butler, takes cue from Michel Foucault – especially his theory of power – in her feminist analysis of the (female) body in Western culture. Bordo’s collection of previously published essays revolves around the cultural construction of the body, but, in contrast to Butler and many other post-modern theorists who seem to conceive of the body solely as a discursive text, she emphasizes the materiality of the body. For Bordo, an analysis of the body should therefore always be grounded in lived experiences of “real” women. In doing so, Bordo seeks to explain “diseases” such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia as cultural phenomena, and perceives the real, material bodies of anorexic and bulimic women as sites of resistance.

Bulkeley, Kelly. Soul, Psyche, Brain: New Directions in the Study of Religion and Brain-Mind Science. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Soul, Psyche, Brain is a collection of essays that address the relationships between neuroscience, religion and human nature. Kelly Bulkeley’s book highlights some startling new developments in neuroscience that have many people rethinking spirituality, the mind-body connection, and cognition in general. Soul, Psyche, Brain explores questions like: what can knowledge about the neurological activities of the brain tell us about consciousness? And what are the practical implications of brain-mind science for ethics and moral reasoning?

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge, 1993 and 2011.

In this text, Judith Butler undergoes an analysis of what she calls the “materiality” of the body, suggesting that our fleshy existence and the categories we use to understand this existence, particularly gender, cannot be separated from one another. Even the more “biological” category of “sex” has a historical emergence. Therefore, for Butler the materiality of the body does not have—and never has had—an existence prior to or distinct from the linguistic, social, and cultural meanings we use to understand our existence. Our social categories and our fleshy existence as bodies emerge and change together. Butler’s work is aimed at exploring and deconstructing the “stability” of the category of the material in an attempt to show how all of our experiences are premised upon some kind of discursive construction.

Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.


In this theological text, Copeland argues the body should be privileged in theological discourse. Also, she argues that the suffering, crucified body of Christ and the oppressed bodies of black women are meaningful to theological anthropology, which seeks to explore the relationship between material and divine realities and actions.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.


In Black Bodies and the Black Church, womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas repudiates the body-denying culture in the Black Church that dismisses certain black bodies (especially women and LGBTQ bodies). She argues for a new theology that will valorize all black bodies. Using “crossroads” as a conceptual paradigm, she asserts a theology that underscores black people’s layered identity as including gender, sexuality, race, and religion and dissolves the rigid dichotomy between body and soul. Douglas’ “crossroads theology” is informed by the blues; she specifically values the contributions of blues women, whose lyrics should, according to her, be perceived as a signifyin’ lament on different forms of oppression, especially colorism, sexism, and harmful ideas on (un)saved bodies. As such, blues music has the potential of calling attention to the ways in which black communities in general and the Black Church in particular has produced oppressive, harmful social narratives that dismiss certain black bodies.

Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth New York: Grove Press, 1963.


In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon examines the challenges and possibilities of decolonization. Showing how national consciousness in newly decolonized countries erodes into petty identity politics under bourgeois leadership, Fanon argues that decolonization must involve the creation of a genuinely new world. The creation of this world can only come through the “absolute violence” of total revolution that destroys the previous structure in its entirety. Disgusted with the upper class and bourgeois politicians, Fanon locates total revolution’s possibility within the rural peasantry and those that have been oppressed most by the colonial structure.

Foucualt, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 New York: Vintage, 1980.

Comprised of interviews and writings dealing with a range of subjects, Foucault’s Power/Knowledge offers a theory of power that places it at the very heart of existence itself. This book provides a helpful guide to Foucault’s entire corpus as it includes essays on many of his most famous topics such as madness, sexuality, prisons, hospitals, and processes of subjectification.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: an Introduction, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1990.


Foucault’s introduction to the History of Sexuality is the beginning of an exploration of how “sex” became an object of scientific and political inquiry. Moving through historical time periods, Foucault shows that, although we may think that we “repress” or “censor” sex and sexuality in our public discourse, over time we have actually come to speak about and attend to it much more now than we once did (the emergence of “sexual orientation” as an identity category is one example of this argument). This discursive “explosion,” as he calls it, also had a very profound impact in other ways—namely, in regulating “sex” or, in other words, dictating how, when, and where sex should and should not occur. By showing how sex became an object of discourse, Foucault shows how the relationship between knowledge and power came to regulate the movement and activities of bodies in social and private spaces.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1995.


Discipline and Punish further explores Foucault’s thesis that knowledge/power comes to bear on bodies by regulating them—except in this case, Foucault turns his attention to how we have come to punish people who have committed crimes. By closely examining how Western societies (specifically Europe) moved from public torture as a form of punishment to creating buildings (“prisons”) that housed prisoners through the ability to constantly monitor them, Foucault argues that legal and scientific (particularly psychological) discourses served to render imprisoned or criminal bodies docile, to subject them to the will of the state. Again, as with the History of Sexuality, Foucault highlights the connection between bodies and power, bodies and culture.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


Hartman’s argument in Scenes of Subjection is that, before and after chattel slavery in the United States, African American conceptions of selfhood has always had to wrestle with the reality of being subjected to physical, cultural, and social attacks against their well-being. Ultimately, what this means, then, is that “freedom” wasn’t really “free,” and access to the so-called rights and benefits of citizenship were actually different forms of terror and subjection. And, for Hartman, all of these forms of subjection were enacted against the bodies of African Americans. Examining how slaves were legally subjected to forced bodily movements (being forced to dance, for example) and how freed people were subjected to legal and extralegal forms of constraint, Hartman underscores how attacks against black bodies served as a vital part of the process of self-making for African Americans.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, Vol. 2, Norwell: Kluwer Academic publishers, 1989.


Husserl’s Ideas II can be understood as a philosophical exploration of how the world—particularly, the material world—comes to have any meaning at all. It is in this text that Husserl provides a philosophical understanding of the body as that entity which gives us a sense of orientation, localizes sensation within and through particular surfaces (like the localization of the pain of a paper cut in my finger, for example), and which provides us with an understanding of movement. Although his analyses would be somewhat rejected by his successors, Husserl’s philosophical method of turning to experience and underscoring the fact that we are always directed toward something in our experiences has had profound importance on the development of European philosophy, and has had a significant impact on philosophers concerned with how the body figures in experience (Maurice Merleau-Ponty is one of the more famous examples).

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. First edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1990.


In this book, Mark Smith argues that theories of rationality and imagination in philosophy do not adequately consider the body when they talk about how we reason and imagine. This gap in the theoretical framework has its roots in Cartesian and Kantian theory. Johnson develops a theory of how imagination binds both cognitive and bodily structures. He shows how basic concepts emerge from physical experiences and can be extended to reason.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. London: Basic Books, 1999.


Lakoff and Johnson show that a philosophy responsible to the science of mind offers radically new and detailed understandings of what a person is. After first describing the philosophical stance that must follow from taking cognitive science seriously, they re-examine the basic concepts of the mind, time, causation, morality, and the self. Then, they rethink a host of philosophical traditions, from the classical Greeks to Kantian morality to modern analytic philosophy. They reveal the metaphorical structure underlying each mode of thought and show how the metaphysics of each theory flows from its metaphors. Finally, they take on two major issues of twentieth-century philosophy: how we conceive rationality, and how we conceive language. Philosophy in the Flesh reveals a radically new understanding of what it means to be human and calls for a thorough rethinking of the Western philosophical tradition.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.


In Making Sex, historian Thomas Laqueur applies some of Foucault’s method to the historical study of gender. Examining a range of ancient and more recent historical sources (from philosophy to medicine), Laqueur suggests that the categories of “gender” and “sex” have not always been mapped on to a “two-sex” model. In other words, historically in the West, people did not always understand the “biological” differences between males and females as we do today. Earlier on, for example, scientists and philosophers understood the vagina as an inverted penis; and for this reason, ancient and medieval scientists and philosophers understood men and women as different versions of the same biological “sex.” It wasn’t until the explosion of scientific inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries that people began rethinking “sex” and gender; and, in a vein with Foucault, Laqueur suggests that this had a lot to do with political and cultural forms of domination. Laqueur’s work highlights how political, cultural, and scientific discourses have not only come to regulatebodies, but also how they have come to “make” bodies—that is, disclose what bodies are.

Morrison, Toni, Beloved, New York: Vintage International (1987; 2004).


This novel by Toni Morrison depicts the story of former slave, Sethe, who is haunted by the ghost of her the baby girl that she killed while she was still enslaved. Morrison deals with the effects of slavery on the various characters and the figurative ghosts of that time period of Reconstruction. Set in rural Ohio, Beloved shows not only relational dynamics that are deeply influenced by pain, both present and remembered, as well as the ways in which the body lives and moves in the midst of this pain and life’s other absurdities.

Pinn, Anthony B. Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought. New York: New York University Press, 2010.


Pinn’s work in this text consequential for scholarship on embodiment and religion because he brings together two strands of thought on bodies/embodiment that he then applies explicitly to analyses on religion in general and black religion in particular. Pinn introduces the body to readers by highlighting interdisciplinary approaches to studying the body—i.e., philosophical and social scientific approaches—and he elucidates how analysts using these approaches have interpreted the body as both a socially-constructed and material reality. Most importantly, he argues that both conceptions of the body are needed. Theologians have focused on the metaphorical body (the socially constructed body); but by adding focus on the latter—the physical, biochemical reality of bodies—more expansive theological analyses can emerge. In short, fuller black theological frameworks will emerge that privilege the lived experiences of persons in concrete social and historical circumstances rather than traditional and outdated sources, such as the spirituals and the blues. This work demonstrates how analysts can connect notions of religion/the religious with the embodied experiences and cultural productions of persons in variegated spaces/locations and times.

Pinn, Anthony, Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

In Terror and Triumph Anthony Pinn begs the question of what constitutes black religion. He shows the ways in which blackness as construed in the context, and as a byproduct, of the transatlantic slave trade is based on the dehumanization and objectification of these bodies. The religiosity derived from the black experience of slavery, in particular, is a response to dealing with the absurdities that enslaved Africans were confronted with and making meaning out of it. The black religious experience, then, is the continued search for, what Pinn calls, “complex subjectivity.”

Shilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. 2nd edition. London: SAGE Publications, 2003.

Shilling offers a survey of the relevant commentary on embodiment in sociological theory. This work addresses the role of the body in various social and cultural contexts, constructing a case for a sociology of the body that takes the embodied subject into account in its formulation of theory. The first edition of this work was published in 1993, and sought to address what Shilling perceived as a problematic disembodied understanding of social structures and lived experience. Shilling also

attempts to find a balance between individual agency and the influence of social structures. The 2003 edition offers insight into the advances made in thinking around embodiment in the decade since the book was written.

Smith, Mark M. How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Based on his reading of many historical letters and journals concerning race, Smith argues that non-visual sense often invoked visceral emotions more than thought and reason. Race is mediated through what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. By focusing on senses other than sight, one can uncover the hidden dimensions of racial thought and race and help us understand more about antebellum slavery, the rise of segregation in the late 1800s, the segregationalist’s reaction to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the nature and significance of African American behavior in the face of racism.Smith, Mark M. How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”. Diacritics 17:2 (1987), 64-81.


Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe deals with what Spiller’s calls the “symbolic integrity” of gendered identity. Ethnicity, in her estimation, is divorces gender from a normative sphere of gender identity. She argues that gender distinctions such a these lose their validity in circumstances of captivity and domination. She offers a comparative study of the construction of ethnicity and gender and the ways in which they are understood in oppressive social structures.

Thompson, Evan. Mind In Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

This book addresses the question, how life is related to the mind. This question has long confounded philosophers and scientists, and it is this so-called explanatory gap between biological life and consciousness that Evan Thompson explores in Mind in Life. Thompson draws upon sources as diverse as molecular biology, evolutionary theory, artificial life, complex systems theory, neuroscience, psychology, continental phenomenology, and analytic philosophy to argue that mind and life are more continuous than has previously been accepted, and that current explanations do not adequately address the myriad facets of the biology and phenomenology of mind. Where there is life, Thompson argues, there is mind: life and mind share common principles of self-organization, and the self-organizing features of mind are an enriched version of the self-organizing features of life.

Donna Welton (ed). “Bringing Body to Theory”, Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1998: 84-97.

In this essay, feminist and philosopher Susan Bordo seeks to elucidate and elaborate upon her ideas on the importance of the “materiality” of the body in and for feminist theory. Bordo argues that “materiality”, for her, signifies “finitude”: it refers to the fact that human beings are always located (and often locked) in time and space, in history and culture (90). In accordance, “materiality” does not (only, or necessarily) refer to the “stuff” or “substance” of bodies: it includes biology, but also history, race, gender, and our dependence of the natural environment. Bordo’s theory of the body argues for a conception of the socially constructed body that is more materially inclined: a perception of the discursive body that acknowledges and highlights that these are also actual bodies that experience the real effects of (the) power of/and discourse.

Donna Welton (ed.), Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1998: 84-97.

The concept of the body is one of the most recent, and hotly contested areas of inquiry among philosophers today. This volume captures the different theoretical approaches at the core of the current discussion and offers studies that deal with various aspects of the constitution of the body. It is designed primarily to be used on upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses, such as philosophy of the Body, Philosophical Psychology, Gender Studies, and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, and will also be useful as a primary source for philosophers seeking a deeper understanding of the topic.

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