Category Archives: The Body

Thoughts on Richard Sennett’s “Flesh and Stone”

The other day I read the introduction to Richard Sennett’s, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. What an incredible piece — perfect example of why I love introductory essays.

Sennett here is writing a history of the physical aspect of life in the cities I have been learning about all my life: Athens, Rome, Paris, London. He isn’t interested in an intellectual history: just a bunch of Western thoughts traveling along from one place to another. Instead, he writes, “I was prompted to write this history out of bafflement with a contemporary problem: the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building: the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.” With the context of history, Sennett introduces us to the ways citizens have lived differently in the past and the role of the city in protecting and facilitating human interactions.

Additionally, Sennett conjures a common conflict within this history that sets Western cultures in opposition to the body. He writes, “Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and diversity of human bodies …” from the Greek ideal of male athletes to the multicultural communities of modern Greenwich Village (15).

Consistently returning to the current experience, Sennett writes that rather than interacting with other people while accomplishing daily tasks, even literally bumping into them, many of us live from one contained space to another: the home, the car, the office.

Today, more sensory experiences are now consumed with little required input. Pleasure and pain are most often experienced through television, movies, and video games and even the greatest cities are most often viewed through the windshield of a car. Distances that once involved hours and innumerable human interactions now require only 10-15 minutes of driving. “Both the highway engineer and the television director create what could be called ‘freedom from resistance.'” Sennett is writing from the vantage of this society we’ve created for ourselves in order to prevent unplanned, unwarranted encounter. “Thus the new geography reinforces the mass media. The traveller, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms…” (18).

After looking through my books, multiple friends have commented that the large font of Flesh and Stone “stands out” on the shelf or that the title is “weird”. I think Sennett (or his publisher) chose the title partly in order to make people uncomfortable. The fact that it sounds sort of like an adult romance novel is definitely connected to Sennett’s thoughts on contemporary life and our discomfort with even the word “flesh.” Sennett is concerned for the experience of the body in the city in and most importantly the way that social behavior reinforces social connection far more than in merely romantic terms. He writes, “much as today in small southern Italian towns a person will reach out and grip you hand or forearm in order to talk seriously to you” (21).

When I read that particular example I was struck by the simple idea of it and how far it is from normal behavior among my friends and family. Sennett writes to teach us about ourselves and the lives that we live, sometimes prescribed by urban design and other times by cultural tradition we have forgot to even notice

Finally, Sennett concludes with a personal note about the origins of his research, particularly within the context of his friendship to the late Michel Foucault. When they began in the 1970s, he writes that Foucault envisioned human bodies as constrained by tradition, culture, and “choked by the knot of power.” But as he observed Foucault in his last days, Sennett noticed that the fixation on power and control began to relax. As a result, the book that he completed is not the research that Sennett began decades before.

Particularly, he pushed his research beyond simply the realm of human sexuality and, to honor his late friend, embrace the numerous aspects of life that provide meaning and value. He writes, “If liberating the body from Victorian sexual constraints was a great event in modern culture, this liberation also entailed the narrowing of physical sensibility to sexual desire” (26). This narrowing, to Sennett, is no longer necessary or helpful toward understanding human social interaction. As in the example from Italy (I think the Instagram account @notmynonni is a fitting connection here) there are a million meaningful moments in a life that deserve our attention.

Ever-committed also to his hope in the potential of the city, Sennett writes from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the body is connected to the spirit, valued and important. Although I don’t think Sennett is a Christian today (in more recent interviews it seems like he identifies as a secular humanist), at the time of writing this book he identified as a “believer” and acknowledged this perspective in his research. While conceding the Biblical idea of “the fall” and great separation between humans (loss of trust, for example) he also shares the way that his faith weaves into his research and his own stubborn optimism.

Somewhere between the chaos of the past and the isolation of modern life, Sennett ultimately writes, “to show how those who have been exiled from the Garden might find a home in the city.”

Lighter Skin

One of the more surprising aspects of my research into Richmond newspapers was the sort of stuff I found in the Afro-American (Now the Richmond Free Press). My primary research interest, the story of a highway being build through Black neighborhoods, was hardly covered. In addition, I didn’t find the “Black is beautiful” perspective of Marcus Garvey and his contemporaries. Instead, I was devastated to find ads such as this one to the right promising lighter, softer skin. I share it because, like me, you may not have known that this ad existed in 1950s Richmond. I share it so that we all can have a tiny connection to the past.

Haunted Houses

Yesterday, I published a post titled, “The Memories That Haunt the Mind,” and today all I can think about is “haunted houses.” I see now that in many ways we are vessels of the past, old houses carrying memories of ghosts into the future. We are haunted houses.

I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I am, after all, a spatial thinker. It usually helps me to understand concepts if I can map them out in three dimensions. So when I encounter descriptions of places, I often read them as metaphors for life. Perhaps that is even the foundational process of this blog, but I digress. This morning as I read through Isaiah 64, I was struck by the language of lament for lost places. Babylon has invaded and destroyed all that was loved in Jerusalem and her people are mourning the loss. Verses 10 and 11 read,

“Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”

I feel in these verses such a nostalgia for places as they once were: the idealized past. This nostalgia also points to the attitude of the refuge struggling to find meaning in a foreign land. Of course, there is certainly the desperation of a prophet in exile: crying out to a God to which he has committed his life’s work. But most of all, as I moved through this passage, I sensed the sadness and defeat of desecration. At the time, the Jewish people believed that God actually dwelled in these places that were endowed with a holy purpose. The tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. This place was everything. Losing the city and the temple was likely more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I was most profoundly struck by one phrase:

Our holy and beautiful house.”

Just stop for a moment and think about the attitude of these words. “There was once a perfect place,” they seem to say, “and we have lost it.”

Then my mind began to wander through some old thoughts about Christianity. I began to think about how the death and resurrection of Christ was supposed to have replaced the need for physical places of worship. When Jesus died on the cross, it is said that the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The centralized era of this faith had come to an end.

Now, we believe that the human body itself is indwelled by the spirit of the Lord.  In I Corinthians 6:19-20 it states, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.” Additionally, Matthew 19:20 reads, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Thus, we collectively constitute the holy places of worship in this decentralized era of the Christian faith. Forget the buildings, we are the church.

And then it hit me: everything in this passage in Isaiah can be read as a description of people’s lives on earth. I am the temple. Human civilization is the city. We are the “holy and beautiful house.” And we have been defiled. Created with a purpose, we have been invaded and torn down.

We have lost our dignity, hope, joy, confidence, heritage, tradition. Foundations have cracked. Collectively, we are Zion: struggling, wandering people far from each other, far from home.

And I immediately began to embrace this idea of desecration in myself, my family, my friends, my students, my community, my country. Every day I see people engaging the weight of life. They fight, they embrace, they give up. Every day. We may not fully comprehend our personal shame. Perhaps we don’t think that we were created for any sort of higher purpose. Perhaps we don’t think we have been desecrated. But as I continue to engage the darker side of life I see that we have a deep need to be restored to each other.

We need to painfully return and embrace ourselves: chaos and all.

We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded. Haunted houses, after all, are just houses with a stigma. But as the stigma pervades, the house deteriorates. The structure fulfills the prophecy of the stigma … and the cycle continues.

So my thought for today is this: Seek restoration or you may begin to believe the lies that you have been told about yourself. Your life may then follow the lies and become their conclusion. Restoration is not a quick process — it may take a lifetime — but I feel that it is the only proper response. As Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “The very substance of our bodies is shaped by our actions, as well as by grace, into pathways of good and evil.” The spiritual disciplines, Willard would say, are the daily habits which continually align our lives to our purpose.

I don’t have answers (see the Rilke quote at the end of my previous post for my opinion on answers), but as I continue to engage my questions, I continue to find that we often have more need for healing than we desire to admit. I am a prime example of this.

At this point, I am thankful for where I am in the context of where I could be. Now, I continue to hope and pray for continual restoration in myself and in others.

The Body of the Enemy

Tomorrow is the day we have set aside to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one of the most famous leaders of the black struggle for dignity in the Western hemisphere. Whether King is remembered as the man who fought for equality or the pastor who taught the love of Jesus Christ, one thing is certain: King has been remembered.

This morning, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the greatest hallowed halls of American Christianity: The Washington National Cathedral. While it still feels a little odd that America has an official church, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience such a grand space in my nation’s capitol. In anticipation of the holiday, the memory of King was woven throughout nearly every message. My favorite example of this was the old testament reading:

“The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams'” (Genesis 37:17b-20).

As I heard the story of Joseph’s betrayal, I was struck by that line “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” To the brothers, killing Joseph seemed the most conclusive way to end his behavior (and perhaps prevent similar behavior in the future). “He’s different, he doesn’t act like us, and he has received unmerited favor from our father … so we must end his life.” That, they believed, was the only way that they could sustain their fragile identities of tradition and status quo.

On April 4, 1968, a sad man named James Earl Ray believed much the same lie. He believed, I can only imagine, that the life of Dr. King was a constant and perfectly reasonable assault on his racist ideology. Thus, he killed the man that galvanized a movement that awoke a nation. But did he kill the dream?

In the story of Dr. King and of Joseph, I am reminded that people will go to great lengths to secure and maintain their place in society. This process could entail shunning someone or beating someone into submission, but in moments of greatest desperation, it is the life of the body, not the ideas of the person, that must be destroyed. This is most true in the case of Dr. King, who’s black skin alone was a political statement of insurrection to his assassin. I can think of many dramatic examples (“American Beauty,” for one) that convey the fear and rage that is felt toward someone who’s very existence seems to undermine the identity of another.

Still today, there are people who feel compelled to murder. In my city, homicides regularly remind me of this most basic fight for recognition and security. Men and women are killed for many reasons, but believe it is primarily motivated by a basic desire for power. White it is dramatic, murder of another cannot successfully heal the insecurities in the self. These insecurities are only momentarily mitigated by the finality of death.

James Earl Ray’s name is all but forgotten because the murder of MLK did not secure white supremacy as Ray intended. One bullet couldn’t stop millions of people. But he did, perhaps unknowingly, prevent us from forming a complex, humanized memory of the person of King. Today, the story of the man seems to have been set into a field of static nostalgia.

And now James Earl Ray is dead as well and I have to wonder why he even bothered to kill King in the first place. Murder is sad to me because it seems so foolish and all too common. Still, as long as murder exists there will be the temptation to end the life of the other. The body of the enemy, not the ideology of the self, seems like an easier place to affect change.

This is one of those sad realities, but I can’t let murder overshadow life. Instead, we must go on living with the discipline of faith and the hope that one day we will all be made whole. As King himself proclaimed the night before he was killed,

“I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Let it come.

P.S. My two most frequently visited MLK speaches:
King’s Mountaintop Speech
The Drum Major Instinct

Supplice (sou-pleas) and the Body of Christ

One of my friends once visited a Christian mega-church where they were hosting a huge college A cappella conference. In describing the conference, she explained to me that the church was, “…one of those churches that had paintings with hands and nails in them and blood gushing out” … or something like that. As a product of the Christian subculture, I laughed at her candor and perspective on the representation of Christ’s body. To me, this sort of painting had become commonplace, but I gradually began to realize that there is nothing “normal” about the bleeding body of Christ.

Can you imagine what it would be like for one of the apostles to see one of these paintings so common in Christian spaces today? Then it would have been a powerful image, but Christians have referenced the body of Christ so many times over the past two thousand years that it seems it may have lost much of its significance. A simple Google images search for “Jesus hands nails blood” reveals an amazing set of images such as the one below. Of course, we know that this isn’t exactly what Jesus’s hands 

looked like, but it’s close enough that it serves it’s purpose. What is the purpose? I believe that the purpose of all of these images is to further a successful reappropriation of what was once considered a public and humiliating death.

To describe a death such as the Jesus’ death on the cross, Foucault uses the French word “supplice” which refers specifically to public torture and the spectacle of punishing the accused. This torture inflicted on the body of the accused was used by leaders to make a statement of their power and to reinstate order in the realm (Discipline and Punish, editor’s note, 16-18). This statement of power was more likely the original purpose of the cross. The body itself was seen as rebellious and was thus used by earthly kings to maintain control. Foucault writes that all sorts of rituals were used to make these statements of power, but most often these referenced the king directly such as public coronations and parades. In contrast, the public death of the condemned is a statement of the opposite end of the king’s power being used to destroy rather than to ennoble. He writes, “In the darkest region of the political field the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king” (D & P, 29). The accused seems completely helpless as the power of the king binds the body and destroys the life within.

This death was designed to be dramatic: The public setting, the long walk to Golgotha, the location of a hill for all to see, the pain, the blood. It was a physical punishment very unlike the more common “mental” punishments we see in our incarcerated population today. Christ’s execution on the cross would have been humiliating to his honor and devastating to his followers. The power of the Caesar was proven more powerful than the magic tricks of a man from Nazareth. Order had been restored and the earth was once again Caesar’s realm. It seems that the image of Christ’s hand with a nail in it should be a symbol of triumph over religion or a statement of the former power of the Roman empire to suppress all who undermined the reach of Caesar’s influence.

But somehow this powerful statement was reappropriated by Christians over the past two thousand years … somehow it has become a statement that we seem proud to interpret and display in churches and make in to necklaces. Somehow the effect of the memory has also diminished over time. I believe that is because the death of Jesus was not the conclusion of the story. The Christian story continues to say that Jesus did not remain dead, but was resurrected. This proves to many that his death was not the will of a king, but the will of God.

This perspective completely inverts Foucault’s “king-accused” dichotomy as the king on the cross looks to the accused on the throne. The purpose of the supplice then becomes an invitation of self-sacrifice to all who watch. Rather than reinstate the power, tradition and civilization of man, the cross invites humans to relinquish their ties to the earth for a higher calling. The accused is invited to confess, but not under the weight of torture as in the earthly supplice. Rather, the sight of the king on a cross moves one to reconsider their own lives and their own ambition.

From the earthly, political perspective, leaders have to continually kill and suppress others in order to maintain power. The more public the death, the more widespread the influence (think of Osama Bin Laden and JFK) . Each death lends legitimacy to the source of power be it a president or rebel. From the Jewish perspective, the sacrifice for atonement had to be repeated regularly in order to continually state one’s repentance and submission to God. In both of these readings, Christ’s death is not enough to have any sort of lasting effect. It would still need to be repeated later with another man who had another claim on the throne or another animal to be a ransom for one’s transgressions. The Christian interpretation goes against both of these perspectives to say that the death was a conclusive sacrifice for the sins of humanity and also that the death was not an inconclusive statement of earthly power, but the definitive statement of selfless sacrifice.

I hope that as Christians we will begin to think more deeply about the meaning of the cross because from outside our faith it seems a little strange to wear an image of suffering and torture as a necklace. Perhaps as we seek a deeper understanding of the image of the body of Christ we will have a deeper understanding of the power of this moment in history. Perhaps the sacrifice won’t seem as trivial as any painting on the wall.

“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year … for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:25-26, ESV).
Here’s a link to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: