Disciplining the Body: The Deepening Ecological Crisis

Photo by Rick McCharles | CC BY 2.0

Walt Whitman opens his now-classic poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” chanting:

The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.

Can we say the same things about our bodies a century-and-a-half later?

The U.S. is a land of contradictions, none more so than that pertaining to the human body, living nature.  Americans have never known how to relate to living nature, whether it be the natural world (e.g., land and animals) or their own physical bodies (e.g., sexuality).  Early European colonizers of the new nation conceived nature as, at best, a challenge that enveloped them, or, at worse, a threat that frightened them.  With equal fear, they felt challenged by the continent’s original inhabitants who they exterminated and seized their lands.

For the last four centuries, many Americans believed nature was to be conquered and the original inhabitants decimated.  And so too the human body, the physical self.  Many bodily functions were seen as shameful, private, something to be denied, hidden; they were denounced as sins of the flesh, whether involving pleasure, procreation or excretion.  Those who celebrated the body, especially those identified as witches or libertines, were shamed and often punished.

Americans today embrace a great contradiction with regard to their living body.  Popular culture is saturated within a highly sexualized culture, whether promoted in popular media (movies, TV-web show, advertising, etc.) or the growing sex-commerce marketplace (e.g., sex toys, porn, commercial engagements and public/private venues as well sex-enhancement medical procedures or drugs) valued at $70 billion in annual revenue.

Set amidst this new climate of acceptance of anything sexual goes as long as its among consenting adults (and as long as one’s got a credit card and access to the web), the nation has a president who flaunts his sexual exploits, whether voluntary, commercial or forced.  Hard-core religious moralists surround him, in his cabinet (e.g., VP Pence, Sec of Justice Sessions, Sec of Ed DeVos and Sec of HHS Azar) and Republicans control both Houses of Congress.  For all their rage against a woman’s right to an abortion, gay/trans rights and teen sex ed, conservative forces have not as yet gone after the adult, consensual sexual commerce sector; they are rightfully targeting sex traffickers and porn producers involving underage children.

Within this overall context of American sexual culture, a series of recent developments reveal that, as Hamlet warned centuries ago, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Two recent publications in the Archives of Sexual Behavior paint a grim picture of sex in the U.S. during the first decades of the 21st century. First, in “Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989–2014,” it reports: “Americans are having less sex than they did a quarter-century ago.”  It adds, “In the ‘90s, Americans on average had sex 60 to 62 times per year, but in 2014 it had declined to less than 53 times a year.”  A 2016 study, “Sexist Attitudes Among Emerging Adult Women Readers of Fifty Shades Fiction,” found that young female readers of the erotic novel are more likely to display sexist attitudes.

Procreation is the most fundamental act in the human specie’s effort to reproduce itself and survive. It is among the most intimate acts two humans engage in.  It is, as Whitman foretold, “the Body Electric.”

Sadly, in 2013, one-third of American men (32%) and women (34%) were estimated to be obese.  However, two estimates speculate that Americans spend either $25.8 or $31 billion annually for health and fitness clubs.  These twin phenomena, truly in dialectical conflict, suggest how the body of 21st century Americans is a terrain of struggle, socially, physically, politically and personally.

How do you live in your body?  Are you one with it, your true self?  Is it merely a material manifestation of a “soul”?  Is it a physical instrument, an embodied representation executing mental directives?  Is your body the balancing act between living nature and evolving consciousness and history?  Is it a juggle between health and illness?  Is your body a battleground of ever-more intense commercialization?  Is your body sacred?


Whitman wrote his poem in 1855, one of the 12 poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass.  During the half-century before the traumatic Civil War, the U.S. underwent the first phase of modernization, early industrialization and the disciplining of the body.

In 1790, the first water-powered cotton mill began operating in Pawtucket, RI.  Four years later, Eli Whitney patented the first cotton gin, mechanizing the production of cotton.  By the mid-19th century, cotton was the nation’s leading export.  In 1827, the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, began operating.  A decade later, in 1838, the first U.S. telegram was transmitted across two miles in Morristown, NJ; six-years later, in 1844, Samuel Morse, the inventor, famously communicated the message, “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”  A new American was taking shape.

The mighty iron horse — the steam-powered railroad — proclaimed the future of transportation; the factory announced the future of production; and the new analog communications medium of the telegraphy, followed by records and radio, foreshadowed the linked networks of instantaneous connectivity that defines 21st century postmodernity.  The world was changing, the nation modernizing. Technological innovation marked humanity’s triumph over nature, a foretaste of what was to come.  It was a period when Americans where captivated by mechanical innovation, still a magical marvel.  America was younger then, it’s so much older now.

A generation before Whitman’s time, voices were being raised concerning the technological future that then could only be faintly glimpsed.  In 1812, the Luddites, English textile workers, smashed production looms with hammers.  Few words in the English language invoke such pejorative connotation as Luddite.  It signifies the machine breaker, someone who opposed progress and, thus, the capitalist project.  However, none was more prophetic than Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who, in her 1818 classic, Frankenstein — or The Modern Prometheus, warned: “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.”

Some who resisted this development were referred to as “naturalists,” many of whom fostered modern American creative culture.  They include, in literature, Whitman, Emily Dickens, Stephen Crane; the arts, the Hudson River School; and in social thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  Still other cautionary voices came from radical utopians in alternative communities like the Shakers, Brook Farm, Oneida and Francis Wright’s rural commune, Nashoba (Whitman attended her NYC lectures).

Their efforts were warnings as to what might happen — and what would be lost – with the ceaseless development of capitalist-driven commerce, mediated by profit-driven science, technology and industry. They were voices acknowledging a nature that gives humanity it’s being.  Americans did not head their warnings.


Over the last four centuries, the nature of the body has undergone fundamental change.  Today, the natural body is conceived as a living commodity, idealizing and valued in terms of its exchange value, how much it’s worth.  Like the natural world, it has long been seen as something to be plundered.

The marketplace is the domain in which the living body is turned into — and experienced as — a self-consciously realized object, a commodity.  It’s a social institution in which a person becomes a postmodern thing.  An inexhaustible catalog of products and services exist to meet all bodily needs, but five sectors have played especially critical roles – sex, medicine, fitness, fashion and the media as the cultural glue.  Collectively, they serve to, in Michel Foucault’s notion, discipline the body.

In his 1975 study, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the PrisonFoucault traces the origins of the modern French penal system.  Most insightful, he convincingly argues that parallel to the rise of the state prison, a second form of the social prison took form.  People of France – and thus, the West in general – inculcated an ability to voluntarily control — discipline, suppress, repress — themselves by self-imposing conformity to cultural norms.

In his 1984 study, The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that in addition to prisons, other popular social institutions – e.g., schools, hospitals, churches, family – inculcate social control by fostering self-discipline.  He proposes that they do so “to discipline the body, optimize its capabilities, extort its forces, increase its usefulness and docility, integrate it into systems of efficient and economic controls.”  They do this in parallel to – but often separate from — the workplace, the domain of personal and social experience that Marx, the Frankfurt School and others have carefully analyzed as a zone of exploitation, of class and social conflict.

Foucault’s insights into the role of discipline are telling.  While paying little attention to the women’s sexual history, he recognized social control as both a political and a personal practice.  He acknowledged that the hierarchy of power functioned, simultaneously, as both an “objective” and a “subjective” force of social control and exploitation.


Modern capitalism conceives all human beings as things, simultaneously producers and consumers, something to be bought and/or sold.  Differences in class, race, gender, age or sexual inclination are merely marketing attributes, demographics to be “targeted,” manipulated, ripped-off for maximum profit.  Postmodern work life is being subject to endless automation, highly competitive on-demand employment and flat wages.  Nevertheless, consumer life is ceaselessly presented as eroticized, with ever-more marvelous ways to spend ever-harder-earned income.  An America’s #1 freedom is the freedom to consume.

Americans are educated to be not only accommodating workers and citizens, but “smart” shoppers.  From infancy, they (we!) are inculcated with knowledge as to how to buy and sell, to give and to get what they/we want in a highly chaotic, market-mediated society.  All Americans learn, like the most well-informed farmers, how to turn a living natural terrain – their bodies! — into a profitable object of exchange.

Those in power, whether exercising economic, political or moral authority, long saw the natural world as a terrain of plunder.  While sometimes serving a valued social end, like agriculture, energy or construction, nature was – and remains — a vast cash machine there for the taking.  Those in power also saw the human body as a living vessel of an imperfect being, of sin, suffering and, thus, ripe for plunder.  Medicine, fast foods, the fashion and cosmetics industries, and the gym, health and wellness enterprise are but a few of the socio-economic sectors exploiting the body for profit.

The natural world is a whole.  The destruction of the environment takes place simultaneously with the plunder the natural world and the human body.  The plunder of the body occurs on many levels, some driven by the best intentions (e.g., medical advances) and the worst opportunism (e.g., non-medically-necessary cosmetic procedures).  Postmodern, 21st century capitalism conceives the living body as a marketable commodity, a zone to be disciplined for profit and social control.  We all suffer as a consequence.


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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