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The American Body in Context: An Anthology. (Reviews).

The American Body in Context: An Anthology. Edited by Jessica R. Johnston (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2001 xix plus 335 pp. $60/cloth $ 19.95/paper).

The American Body is the third volume in the American Visions Series from Scholarly Resources Inc. The series provides scholarly, student, and general audiences with a collection of seminal articles that introduce the reader to a central, but previously overlooked, aspect of American Culture. This particular volume gathers a variety of items focused on a fundamental aspect of human identity--the body. Johnston in her introduction stresses the importance of examining the culture of the body because of its centrality to human perception and expression. Yet, the volume is not simply a descriptive account of our historical and contemporary understanding of the human body. Johnston asserts that more fully grasping the meaning of the body in American Culture ought to make us more aware of the ways the dominant discourse concerning the body produced by powerful social institutions such as popular media, advertising, medicine, and schooling affect us. She believes that increased awareness of the forces that control o ur perceptions of the body will allow us to escape from this dominance. She declares, "This book is constructed with this type of resistance in mind." (xix)

Johnston selected fourteen articles and one print advertisement divided into four sections with introductory essays by the editor weaving connections among them. The four topics addressed include: basic understanding of the inadequacy of the predominant Cartesian dualistic perception of the body and mind; interaction between social perceptions/depictions of bodies and the maintenance of the social order; the role of evolving rules of etiquette, medicine, and schooling in disciplining "unruly bodies"; and individual agency in resisting and redefining the dominant discourse on the body. A head note, with specific questions to direct the reader's attention, accompanies each selection. Each section also includes a final item from the popular press. The head notes for these final items provide more elaborate questions that incorporate the scholarly concepts developed in the preceding articles. The text also contains a well-developed glossary and bibliography. These additions, the reading level of the articles, and the structure of the head notes signal that, despite the publishers' assertion that they aim toward a broad audience, the primary target for this work is upper-division undergraduates.

The articles represent a range of scholarly approaches including traditional qualitative analysis of documents, quantitative psycho/sociological investigation of perception, ethnographic observation of human activity, and theoretical explorations of contemporary society using the notion of the panoptic vision as developed by Michel Foucault. The editor consciously selected articles to provide balance in interpretation. Articles deal with male and female bodies, young and aging bodies, well and disabled bodies, thick and thin bodies. Her bridging essays cover alternative explanations and introduce conflicting interpretations of our understanding and use of the body. One notable effort at weighing alternative views is Johnston's use of materials that address the academic argument over cultural determinism and human agency. In an article on pop star Madonna, Susan Bordo specifically outlines this scholarly debate and concludes that current discussion of agency needs to take into account the differential power of the individual resistant viewer and the social institutions producing narrow depictions of the ideal body. The final section of the work is devoted to pieces that examine the ways in which individuals adopt, adapt and resist the dominant discourse on the body.

Nonetheless, the overall impression of the work reveals some unsettling predispositions. Like all cultural studies this collection covers a fairly broad sweep of time and place. A few articles touch on historical understanding of the body before the twentieth century, but do not present very detailed interpretations of the changes in the societies that produced these differing ideas. Additionally, the title of the book is somewhat misleading; the articles incorporate materials from "America," and Western Europe (particularly England) and Australia. While it may be true that the Australian early childhood teacher's instruction to "put your hands in your own lap" is parallel to my son's preschool teacher admonishing everyone to "criss-cross applesauce" (meaning sit on the rug with legs crossed), I am uneasy with the blithe movement from place to place and time to time.

More troubling is an overemphasis on the dominant discourse as monolithically coercive, deterministic, and bad. In her introductory essay in the fourth section Johnston notes the inconsistency and dynamism of the dominant discourse that allow for complex forms of resistance. Still the bulk of the text emphasizes the nature of this discourse as a compelling and negative force that leads us to either feel badly about ourselves or to enslave ourselves trying to achieve an unattainable body that is thin, fit, and young. The articles in the work only briefly touch on disciplining the body for purposes at odds with the aims of the dominant discourse. For example, in the section on resistance we get a piece on aerobicizing women, who do adopt the dominant attitude, rather than in-depth exploration of bodybuilding women who more frilly resist it.

This emphasis on the power of the dominant discourse may be an important corrective for the majority of readers (particularly undergraduates) who accept these images as natural and real, but the average reader also could be left with feeling that only bad things result from regulating the body. This may indeed be true for dieting. Yet current research on hygiene demonstrates that basic routine handwashing does decrease the spread of infectious disease, as does the use of handkerchiefs. My personal weekly exercise routine has strengthened my muscles, increased my bone density, and decreased the pain in my rapidly aging joints, freeing me from the tender mercies of the physician and physical therapist (though to be fair what my colleagues most frequently commented on was my changed appearance). Nor do the pieces in this collection raise questions about the social costs resulting from the majority's freely choosing to defy the ideal and embracing excessive consumption and a sedentary lifestyle. I applaud Johnsto n's attempt to get at the complexity of issues involving the body, but the current state of scholarship and the stated purpose of the editor to encourage resistance mean that she does so with a decided slant. In the end, this work only starts us on the road toward a more nuanced understanding of the body, an understanding that distinguishes between unhealthy obsession with an unattainable ideal and healthy self-control.
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Author:Wilkie, Jacqueline S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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