Rhetorical Construction of Bodies
Abstract and Keywords
Communication studies identifies bodies as both objects of communication and producers (or sites) of communication. Communication about bodies—for example, gendered bodies, disabled bodies, obese bodies, and surgically modified bodies—influences bodies at the physical, material level by determining how they are treated in social interactions, in medical settings, and in public institutions. Communication about bodies also forges cultural consensus about what types of bodies fit in particular roles and settings. In addition to analyzing the stakes of communication about bodies, communication studies identifies bodies as communicating forces that cannot be accounted for by standards of reason, meaning, and decorum. Bodies are physical, material, affective beings that communicate because of, not in spite of, their messy, ineffable status. Moreover, communication is an embodied process that involves a range of material supports, including human bodies, technological bodies, and other nonhuman physical and biological bodies. Investigating bodies as communicating forces compels an understanding of communication that is not exclusively rational, meaning-oriented, and nonviolent.
Bodies and Communication Studies: Two Trajectories
All communication studies scholarship deals with bodies, even if only implicitly, because communication is an embodied practice. Scenes featuring the impassioned exhortations of a fiery orator rousing an audience to action or romantic partners sharing their most intimate thoughts clearly require bodies to act as producers and receivers of communication; in fact, bodies are essential in all communication practices, even when they are not immediately visible or are separated by time and space. Bodies of some sort (whether human or nonhuman) are integral to communication, as the term’s etymology suggests. When traced back to its Latin roots, communication means to share or to make common, an activity that implies at least two interacting bodies, even if their interaction is enabled by technologies that mediate spatial and temporal distances.
Despite the foundational role of bodies in all communication, since communication studies was founded as a discipline in 1915, the discipline has not consistently acknowledged bodies. One exception is the field of performance studies, which has consistently “been invested in the live body of performance” (Shaffer, Allison, & Pelias, 2015, p. 187). Given the richness of its scholarly tradition, its unwavering attention to communicating bodies, and its formative interdisciplinary engagements, performance studies deserves separate treatment that is beyond the scope of this entry.
Aside from performance studies, within communication studies, direct discussion of bodies has waxed and waned; however, disciplinary history shows that the discipline takes account of the foundational role of bodies at various intervals (Hawhee, 2015). At these critical moments, which often coincide with heightened interest in bodies across multiple academic fields, communication studies articulates how its disciplinary conversations, even when apparently neglecting bodies, persistently refer to, depend on, and constitute bodies. These intervals of recognition show that the centrality of bodies is a disciplinary constant, even if the scholarly record suggests that direct acknowledgement of bodies is inconsistent. This impression of discontinuity is in part due to the fact that definitions of bodies—whether explicitly articulated or implicitly assumed—are shifting and unstable. Thus, instead of attempting to define bodies in any direct or definitive manner, this entry traces some of the ways that communication studies deals with bodies.
Tracing selected examples where communication studies scholarship grapples with bodies produces a provisional analytic, or series of themes and questions, that can guide future investigation, if only by laying out some preliminary points of inquiry. For instance, are bodies better understood as objects of communication, or material substrates that enable communication? Are bodies constituted by communication, and if so, are there limits to communication’s ability to construct and shape bodies? Are bodies infinitely malleable, or do bodies imply a recalcitrant materiality beyond the reach of communication? What energies, forces, or intensities do bodies have, and to what extent are these communication? How do bodies influence how we communicate and how we understand communication? These questions and themes do not point to a systematic assessment of bodies in communication but rather a provisional starting place for further mapping. This article proceeds by identifying landmarks along two trajectories of inquiry: First, what do bodies mean? How does communication represent, frame, and constitute the body, and what are the stakes? Second, what do bodies do? How do bodies communicate, and how do communicating bodies affect definitions and understandings of communication? The distinction between meaningful bodies and doing bodies is a useful heuristic but not a satisfactory system for categorizing all of the ways bodies are treated in communication studies. Much scholarship engages both meaning and doing, and some work intentionally troubles the distinction between meaning and doing. These categories are used here to sketch in broad strokes illustrative landmarks that can be used, appropriated, contested, and resituated in future endeavors that contribute to mapping “bodies and communication.”
What Are “Bodies”?
Communication and bodies are co-constituted. In other words, communication is never simply an object that bodies produce but always a practice that constantly produces, transforms, and otherwise affects bodies. Thus, the very meaning of “bodies” is unstable; it is perpetually contested and negotiated. Most often, “bodies” refers to human bodies, although other types of bodies—including nonhuman bodies, technological bodies, posthuman bodies, and collective bodies—should not be neglected (Hawhee, 2011). Even human bodies are never simply human, without further specification: they are always real, physical bodies that can be differentiated in innumerable ways, including categories of race, ethnicity, class, location, nationality, gender, ability, and age. Setting aside the question of whether or not particular systems of differentiation are desirable, the point is that communication never deals with universal bodies and always deals with specific bodies in concrete historical and cultural contexts. Further, bodies are always changing and shifting categories (for instance, a body might move from “young” to “old,” “able-bodied” to “disabled”), and bodies always have the potential to be differentiated in new ways as categories themselves are negotiated, abandoned, transformed, and invented. This article primarily attends to human bodies, but it is important to constantly remind readers that “bodies” is a fluctuating signifier and always open to potential expansions, truncations, and appropriations.
What Is Communication?
According to the National Communication Association (NCA), “communication is a diverse discipline which includes inquiry by social scientists, humanists, and critical and cultural studies scholars” (2015). The NCA identifies 22 areas in their list of “most common areas of study,” suggesting the incredible breadth of the discipline. Given the wide range of methodologies, theoretical foundations, and content emphases represented in communication studies, a comprehensive assessment of bodies in communication studies is beyond the scope of this entry. This article focuses on scholarly traditions that are circumscribed by notions of speech and rhetoric that constitute the “humanities” half of the discipline. As Pat Gehrke and William Keith describe in their history of communication studies, the discipline is divided between “science and humanities … the discipline’s two dominant epistemologies” (2015, p. 10). Thomas Sloan describes this situation as a case of “two houses” inhabiting the same disciplinary space (quoted in Gehrke & Keith, 2015, p. 10). While this binary division is an imperfect tool for mapping the complex terrain of communication studies, it is useful for delineating the scope of this entry, which works within the “humanities house.”
Communication studies is an exceptionally interdisciplinary field, and its understandings of bodies both draw from and contribute to other disciplines. While this article focuses primarily on scholarship located within the communication studies tradition, a thorough consideration of bodies and communication would require extensive travels across numerous academic fields. In particular, feminist scholars must be acknowledged for their groundbreaking work on making explicit the ways in which bodies underlie all communication and, indeed, all forms of identity and social interaction. For instance, Jack Selzer, editor of Rhetorical Bodies, acknowledges communication studies’ debt to feminist scholars: “Leaders of the women’s movement during the 1970s instigated discussions of the body and its ideological deployment, and in the 1970s and 1980s their analyses broadened—often under Marxist imperatives—to account for material conditions” (1999, p. 7). As Selzer notes, these discussions continue today across feminist work and continue to inform other fields’ attempts to grapple with bodies. Additionally, Sharon Crowley documents, “The scholarly focus on bodies owes much to the second-wave American feminists who launched a thorough-going critique of received attitudes about sex, gender and the body during the 1970s” (1999, p. 358).
In communication studies, Elizabeth Grosz, Susan Bordo, and Judith Butler are just a few of the most prominent voices shaping the discipline’s discussions of bodies. These and many other feminist scholars have brought much-needed attention to the “micropractices of everyday life” with the mantra “the personal is political” (Crowley, 1999, p. 358). Feminist scholars have also pushed communication studies forward in understanding the co-constitution of communication and bodies. For instance, as Rebecca Coleman documents, feminist theory has a rich tradition of attending to images and representations of women’s bodies across diverse media (2008). In addition to focusing on how women’s bodies are represented in media, feminist theorists provide the resources for moving beyond “body/image, subject/object” dichotomies and recognizing “the ways in which bodies become through their relations with images” (Coleman, 2008, p. 163). Coleman’s attention to the ways in which feminist theory figures the “constitutive relationality” of bodies and images encapsulates a central theme in communication studies’ work to theorize bodies.
Communicating About Bodies
Communication about bodies often touches on themes that seem naturally and inevitably tied to the body—for instance, public and popular conversations about topics including body weight, body image, health, ability, medicine, science, and sexuality. This communication shapes how we understand, evaluate, and act on bodies. Communication about bodies centers on questions of meaning: What do bodies mean? How do we, and how should we, interpret bodies and body-related events such as modifications, displays, and activities? While this distinction can be muddied in all sorts of ways, questions of “What do bodies mean?” are distinguished here from questions of “What do bodies do?,” inquiry that more directly engages how bodies are forces that influence if not determine the scope and function of communication. This section traces inquiry into communication about the body by providing four landmarks, or places in communication studies where the question “What do bodies mean?” is addressed. The landmarks selected for this article focus on communication about sexuality, (dis)ability, obesity, and surgical modification. This selection is not systematic or comprehensive but rather illustrative of a trajectory of communication studies inquiry. Mapping these landmarks highlights four common themes: first, communication and bodies can be distinguished and treated separately; second, communication has power over bodies; third, communication affects bodies at the material, biological level; and finally, communication about bodies has cultural, political, and economic consequences. Each of the following four sections engages one of the four selected topics (sexuality, ability, obesity, and surgery) using the research of one scholar considered an expert in that area to exemplify how communication studies understands communication about bodies.
John Sloop examines communication about gender and sexuality to illustrate how communication shapes how we understand and act upon bodies. Sloop is a well-known scholar of communication about gender and sexuality, and his book (2004) serves as a prominent example of how communication studies assesses the stakes of public communication about bodies. While any bodies can be topics of communication, communication tends to proliferate around bodies that are perceived as different or deviant. Sloop identifies five specific bodies that disrupt conventional (binary and heteronormative) understandings of gender and sexuality. These bodies include Joan/John, a child born a male, assigned a female gender after a birth-related accident, who then later chose to reassign himself as a male; Brandon Teena, a female body living as a man who was brutally murdered after his friends discovered his “true” bodily identity; country singer k. d. lang, who sparked considerable conversation with her “masculine” and lesbian appearance; Janet Reno, who was widely mocked in popular discourse due to the apparent mismatch between her femaleness and her asexual, masculine appearance; and Barry Winchell, a man who was murdered after two fellow soldiers found that he was dating a “female impersonator” and presumed he was gay.
What connects these five very different bodies is that they all “trouble” expectations about gender, including expectations that sexuality and gender are binary and that the sexual characteristics of the body are both natural and integrally tied to specific patterns of behavior, identity, and desire. Additionally, each of these bodies has been understood by some as a case of “liberatory transgression” (Sloop, 2004, p. 6), an instance of bodies performing gender and sexuality ambiguously, thereby disrupting social norms and challenging powerful and oppressive ideologies. It is this assumption of the transgressive function of “troubling” bodies that motivates Sloop’s intervention. Instead of simply analyzing these bodies and how their performances of sexuality and gender conformed to or challenged gender norms, Sloop carefully analyzes communication about bodies, tracking images and representations of these bodies that circulated in media discourse.
Sloop’s analysis leads him to conclude that the liberatory potential of these bodies was, at least to some extent, recuperated by communication that re-inserted them into a binary, heteronormative framework. He writes, “One finds assumed (and not necessarily spoken) within these discourses a series of binary roles and behaviors which ultimately constitute the very notions of male and female, masculinity and femininity, hetero- and homosexual” (2004, p. 2). By using critical communication methods to meticulously identify implicit, unspoken assumptions, Sloop concludes that media protected binary gender norms through their patterns of attributing meaning to these “troubling” bodies. In all of these cases, communication “disciplined” bodies’ potentials to disrupt gender norms. Sloop concludes, “Gender trouble is always limited in its deconstructive potential because representations and public arguments involving cases of gender trouble are persistently ‘disciplined,’ contained within the realms of gender normativity” (2004, p. 12).
Sloop’s study is significant because it grapples with the relationship between bodies (their performances, their displays, their physicality) and communication about bodies and shows how communication about bodies can constrain the transgressive potentials of bodies. In each of these cases, bodies “troubled gender,” but media communication “disciplined” these bodies by inserting them into a conventional narrative about gender and sexuality, ultimately confirming, or in Sloop’s words “protecting,” a binary gender system. Aside from important insights into gender and sexuality, Sloop’s work provides an important caution for scholars of the body: bodies never just act and cannot be considered in isolation. Bodies and their actions are always framed, represented, and given meaning in and through communication. Communication apparatuses, particularly mass media, have considerable power in attributing meaning to bodies and recuperating liberatory potentials of bodies’ performances of transgressive practices and identities.
Davis W. Houck and Amos Kiewe investigate another dimension of communication about bodies in FDR’s Body Politics: The Rhetoric of Disability, an analysis of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s disabled body (2003). Although other communication studies scholars have investigated differently abled bodies, Houck and Kiewe have written the only book-length study to date, and their work is an excellent example of inquiry into the importance of communication about bodies. Houck and Kiewe’s book is an example of work that doesn’t neatly fit into the “meaning” and “doing” categories; they show how Roosevelt used his body to communicate an image of health and ability and how communication about Roosevelt’s body shaped his presidency and national politics. The book is included in this section because it emphasizes the power of communication to affect Roosevelt’s life, presidency, and legacy, as well as construct definitions of disability.
For Houck and Kiewe, bodies do not carry intrinsic meaning; rather, their meaning is constructed through communicative activity. They write, “Cultures invest bodily conditions with meaning and in so doing can valorize or admonish appropriately. Disability is not written in the stars—or on the body; rather, disability is a construction, defined and negotiated by culture at a given point in time. It means different things to different people at different historical moments” (2003, p. 5). While they are careful not to deny “the material fact of physical impairment” (p. 5), they insist, “Physical impairment’s meaning is never fixed or given. Like most meanings, it is fluid, and this condition invites the researcher to interpret the manifold meanings of disability within a given time and culture” (pp. 5–6). While a physical condition might be a material fact, that condition only becomes a “disability” through communication that assigns meanings to bodies.
To illustrate the contingent meanings of bodies, Houck and Kiewe investigate communication about Roosevelt’s polio-induced disability and his resulting physical limitations in the context of his political career. Surveying a wide range of material, including both private letters and public speeches, they ask, “How does a crippled man become president in the context of a culture that elects only healthy bodies?” Their answer is communication about bodies (2003, p. 4). For instance, Roosevelt “concealed” his disability from the media, intentionally deterring public communication about his disabled body. Moreover, in his own communication to public audiences, he deliberately used metaphors of health and sickness to attribute health to his own presidency and sickness to his opponents (p. 10). Roosevelt also engaged in visual communication, staging events where he could be seen as healthy and able-bodied, displaying his body in such a way as to strategically shape public communication about his fitness. In parts of their research, Houck and Kiewe place less emphasis on media’s power to constitute bodies and more on Roosevelt as a master of public persuasion. Many of their examples highlight Roosevelt’s ability to use his words and actions to produce and influence communication about his body, although media and cultural context are always recognized as important factors. For instance, their analysis identifies as “pivotal issues” media’s role in “protecting Roosevelt” and the “complex relationship binding disability, masculinity, and politics” (p. 9).
In addition to analyzing the ways in which communication about Roosevelt’s body shaped his political career, Houck and Kiewe also investigate how this communication continues to shape our memories of Roosevelt’s body, our sense of history, and contemporary politics. For instance, they trace the contemporary controversy over whether the nation’s memorial to Roosevelt, initially unveiled in 1997, should remember him as healthy or wheelchair-bound. This story sheds light on “how disabilities disable, how a culture transforms a bodily wound into a public stigma” (2003, p. 4). The debate over the memorial highlights “the cultural construction of disability” (p. 112). Disabilities do not, Houck and Kiewe argue, inherently exist—“a condition must become dis-abling; it must be adjudicated in a culture for any condition to be deemed such” (pp. 112–113). The debate over the memorial shows how cultural constructions of disability continue to influence public communication and national politics. Houck and Kiewe illuminate this power of communication to construct disability through a compelling contrast: while public communication constructs Roosevelt’s paralyzed body as disabled, Bob Dole’s body, marked by a badly damaged arm and shoulder, is viewed as “a point of pride, a most en-abling bodily mark, a ‘condition’ to be celebrated—and publicized” (p. 113). Why are these two bodies, both with visible impairments, understood so differently? The authors speculate that Roosevelt’s condition is framed negatively, as disability, in part because polio-induced infantile paralysis is viewed as emasculating. By contrast, Dole’s condition is framed as heroic because it was acquired as an injury in war. This comparison powerfully illustrates that bodies are not healthy or disabled by virtue of their sheer physical status; a range of cultural factors, in this case including gender norms, collaborate to shape meanings of bodies. Thus, the facts of bodies matter less than how they are assigned meaning through communication in particular cultural and political contexts.
Ultimately, Houck and Kiewe’s research substantiates the role of communication to shape what bodies mean in public life and politics. They also provide a somewhat different angle on communication about bodies than Sloop’s research. While Sloop focuses on media’s power to discipline individual bodies (and hence individuals), Houck and Kiewe present a case where an individual is able to exert considerable control over communication about his body by making strategic choices. Of course, the choices that allowed Roosevelt to influence meanings attributed to his body are not available to everyone, and his relative authority over the meaning-making process was enabled by privilege and circumstance. Importantly, even though Roosevelt did have some level of control over what his body was made to mean, Houck and Kiewe’s data show that others’ communication ultimately succeeded in assigning Roosevelt’s body meanings of disability that persist in public memory. They conclude, “There was no bigger issue in Rooselvelt’s political life” than questions of his health and fitness, and even decades after his death, “a great many Americans still clearly viewed (and view) Roosevelt’s disability as dis-abling” (pp. 112–113).
Overall, Houck and Kiewe’s study is consistent with Sloop’s research as it shows how communication about bodies can be just as, if not more, significant in constraining and enabling bodies than physical, biological realities. Roosevelt’s political career and, indeed, his life were affected less by the physical “fact” of his disability and more by cultural constructions of disability and the meanings assigned to his body. In examining Roosevelt as a communicator, Houck and Kiewe emphasize the extent to which his communication, even his language that did not seem to directly address his body, was motivated by a need to communicate an image of health and ability. The incredible power of communication substantially shaped Roosevelt’s life: his political ambitions compelled him to constantly devote his rhetorical energies to influencing communication about his body. Houck and Kiewe show us that the extent that bodies matter is never just a matter of bodies but always involves norms forged in communication, including evaluations, negotiations, constructions, and concealments.
Obese bodies are everywhere, and visual and verbal communication about obese bodies is just as prolific. The idea that meanings attributed to differently sized bodies change based on historical and cultural factors is not new. The idea that communication (especially mass media communication) is integral in crafting, disseminating, and enforcing culturally variable standards of female body size is familiar not only in scholarly circles but as established common knowledge. Communication studies complements and complicates this common knowledge by showing how communication about bodies establishes, contests, and negotiates cultural values as well as political and economic structures. Helene Shugart examines how news and entertainment media frame obese bodies to show how communication about particular bodies has broader social and political. As Shugart establishes, “Talk about obesity has never been just about obesity” (2014, p. 55). This section discusses Shugart’s extensive work on communication about obese bodies, drawing from four of her articles published between 2010 and 2014 in Health Communication and Communication Culture Critique (2010, 2011a,b, 2014).
Shugart analyzes communication about obese bodies across a range of news and entertainment media, arguing that visual and verbal representations of obese bodies “stand to reveal a great deal about contemporary US cultural tensions and anxieties” (2010, p. 106). Specifically, communication about obese bodies is communication about consumption; as Shugart explains, “the obese body serves as a field on which broader anxieties, tensions, and trends relevant to consumption, which prominently characterize this historical moment in the United States, are reflected negotiated and rationalized” (2010, p. 106).
As Shugart documents, obesity has traditionally been framed as a problem of personal irresponsibility that consequently requires individual responsibility as its solution. This narrative is losing its traction in public communication because it no longer fits cultural sensibilities regarding consumption. She describes a double-bind: on the one hand, “cultural imperatives that promote (self-)discipline and abstention and, in an increasingly consumer-driven world, unrestrained excess and consumption on the other” (2010, p. 111). This double-bind is evident in popular media: advertisements enticing individuals to consume without restraint circulate alongside exhortations to adopt diet and exercise regimens to maintain a desirable body. Consumption is articulated as economic necessity, the engine of economic growth as well as a pathway to personal fulfillment, while at the same time it is decried as excess, waste, and sickness. As Shugart’s inquiries show, cultural recognition of these powerful yet contradictory attitudes toward consumption results in awareness that the source of consumption-related problems, including obesity, cannot just be the personal failures of individuals. Assigning the cause and cure for obesity to individual responsibility no longer makes sense, so new cultural narratives are forged to account for the problem of obesity. Shugart turns to emergent narratives that work, in different ways, to reconcile awareness of cultural causes for obesity with imperatives of consumption and individuality.
Throughout her work, Shugart identifies a range of new narratives that are coming alongside the traditional narrative of individual responsibility, framing obesity as “a materialization of spiritual or emotional damage, pain, repression or neglect” (2014, p. 55). These emergent narratives are increasingly populating public discourse, characterizing obesity as “a symptom of emotional dysfunction prompted by abstract others” and the solution as “the reclamation of agency,” a matter of self-discovery and personal empowerment (2011a, pp. 44–45). While there are several different narrative trends, they all function to carve out “good” and “bad” patterns of consumption and shift from a politics of blame to a politics of agency. Failing to consume properly is not irresponsibility, a moral failing on the part of the individual, but a lack of agency and fulfillment caused by stressors that come from outside the individual.
Whatever their particular form, these new narratives address the tensions revealed by traditional narratives of personal responsibility that blame individuals for failing to achieve and maintain appropriate bodies, because the language of blame is not congruent with changing attitudes toward consumption. As Shugart’s analysis of news and entertainment communication shows, consumption is recognized as a cultural imperative that goes beyond individual responsibility, driven by a range of biological, cultural, economic, and political factors including the prescribed Western “way of life” (2011a, 2011b). By shifting from responsibility to agency, new narratives situate consumption as a desirable and indeed necessary dimension of self-actualization and freedom. Individuals are encouraged to establish agency by practicing “good” consumption and avoiding the types of “bad” consumption that might lead to obesity. Thus, by shifting from a politics of blame to a politics of agency and fulfillment, these new narratives retain an emphasis on individuality and deter systemic critiques of consumer-driven capitalism.
Shugart’s scholarship on communication about obese bodies solidifies Sloop’s and Houck’s and Kiewe’s findings that bodies cannot be understood without attention to communication that assigns them meanings. While Sloop and Houck and Kiewe focus on bodies of specific individuals, Shugart attends to a class of bodies grouped together on the basis of their size. This grouping is contingent because the thresholds for obesity can (and do) change, and bodies themselves change, moving in and out of the obesity classification. Shugart’s analysis is less interested in how obese bodies are affected by communication processes (for instance, she does not devote considerable attention to assessing whether or not obese bodies are stigmatized or devalued) and more interested in how communication about bodies does political and economic work. In this case, media communication deters or at least dilutes challenges that obese bodies might pose to a political economy dependent on excessive consumption. Patterns of media communication insert these bodies into particular narratives that circumscribe their political effects and provide scripts for addressing obesity that more securely align individuals with consumer-driven capitalism. Shugart’s work shows us not only that communication can channel the political functions of bodies but also that the power of media communication is incredibly flexible—it can channel and rechannel functions of bodies, constantly adapting and transforming their meanings to better facilitate the rapidly changing demands of capitalism.
All of the instances of communication about bodies discussed thus far show how communication shapes meanings of bodies and how these meanings then influence how bodies are treated. Thus, a considerable stake in communication about bodies is bodies themselves, including how we treat them, what we do with them, and what we do to them. Communication about gender and sexuality, disability, and obesity have real, material effects—bodies are killed, concealed, and deprived because of communication. John Jordan’s work on “plastic bodies” provides an especially compelling case of how communication can mold the physical substance of bodies. Jordan’s research published in the NCA’s flagship journal, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, shows how communication shapes “plastic bodies.” Jordan investigates communication about surgical interventions motivated by cosmetic ideals (2004) and medical goals (2009), in both cases providing evidence that while “surgeons shape bodies with their scalpels, the public shapes the body’s meaning with their words” (2009, p. 36).
The body, Jordan notes, is “arguably the most fluctuating signifier in the history of cultural expression,” and its ability to take on diverse meanings is amplified by recent medical and technological developments, including surgical knowledge and practice (2004, p. 327). Bodies are “plastic,” surgically malleable entities “whose corporeal identity is always in a state of potential transformation” (2004, p. 327). Plastic bodies are the focus of considerable communication activity as “a variety of social agents engage in efforts to shape its public meaning and, by extension, its corporeal form” (2004, p. 328). In his research on plastic surgery, Jordan identifies three dimensions of communication about bodies that shape their meanings and their forms. Surgery advocates work to “redefine the human body as a plastic, malleable substance”; applicants must persuade surgeons of the validity of their particular desires for cosmetic alteration; and “wannabes,” persons who desire surgery that defies medical norms (for instance, the amputation of an apparently healthy limb), communicate to challenge dominant definitions of healthy bodies and appropriate surgeries (pp. 328–329). This considerable range of communication ultimately determines, albeit in complex and shifting ways, what bodily modifications are acceptable and limits are enforced on bodies’ malleability. While bodies themselves play a role in this communication activity, they do not actively exert rhetorical force; rather, bodies function as mobile yet for the most part passive boundaries that help demarcate the range of acceptable plasticity. As Jordan writes, “The way that plastic surgery is discussed shapes the body, and the limitations of the physical body in turn shape the way that plastic surgery is discussed” (p. 332). In itself, the body is “incoherent” and “requires interpretation to be meaningful” (pp. 333–334). Thus, communication about bodies plays a more significant role in enabling and regulating plasticity than available technologies and actual surgical interventions.
Jordan develops his inquiry into communication about plastic bodies by moving from cosmetic motives to medical motives for surgery. He analyzes the case of “Ashley X,” a young woman diagnosed with severe disabilities who underwent an “unprecedented” growth attenuation therapy, including significant surgical interventions, to essentially freeze her physical development. The treatment was intended to ensure that Ashley’s parents could continue to care for her at home and to permanently eliminate the risk that physical and sexual developments could cause Ashley physical or emotional discomfort. The treatment, as Jordan documents, was widely controversial. Jordan does not attempt to judge whether or not the “Ashley Treatment” was right or wrong (just as he refrains from judging plastic surgery); instead, he uses public communication about Ashley’s body and her medical treatment to further theorize “plastic bodies.” He echoes his earlier work, arguing that the case “calls us to recognize that bodies are shaped first by definition, and then by scalpels” (2009, p. 21). He continues, “How we talk about bodies relates directly to the medical actions performed on bodies” (p. 24).
Jordan’s research on communication about Ashley’s body shows that body norms, including those defined in terms of health and illness, are crafted in public communication. Much of the controversy over the Ashley Treatment centered on whether or not it would increase or decrease her health. Jordan’s analysis shows that while arguments about medical intervention are expected to appeal to health, “the specific meaning of health is fluid” (2009, p. 21). In fact, conversations about Ashley’s body worked to define the very notion of health: “Definitions of health and illness, of normality and deformity, are ideas we create rather than facts we reference, and are continually redefined to accommodate our understanding of the world and the actions we perform in it” (2009, p. 23). Jordan’s conclusions resonate with Houck and Kiewe’s findings about public understandings of Roosevelt’s body: bodies are not disabled or sick in and of themselves, but only when they are assigned meanings of disability or sickness through communication. Jordan’s research also illustrates that bodies, cultural values, medical practice, and public policy are all at stake in communication about bodies. Communication about cosmetic and medical surgery has substantial effects that impact far more people than the specific bodies at stake in these controversial cases.
In each of the previous selections—communication about gendered bodies, disabled bodies, obese bodies, and plastic bodies—communication is treated as a practice separate from bodies. While bodies do play a role in influencing communication, their unmediated actions do not establish or control their meanings. This scholarship shares an insistence that bodies do not establish their own significance but instead function as sites where meanings are assigned, contested, and constituted. Bodies do matter, and they are necessary for communication, but for the most part their role is overshadowed by communication. Communication has more power than bodies themselves in establishing and sustaining cultural values and even in determining what individuals’ lives will actually be like, as Houck and Kiewe highlight in their study of Roosevelt and Jordan with the case of “Ashley X.” Communication affects bodies at the level of their individual materiality, determining whether or not they undergo surgery, what types of accommodations they will encounter, and to what forms of regulation they will be subjected. Thus, across the levels of individual bodies, cultural values, and social structures, communication about bodies matters. In the next section, this article turns to an examination of communicating bodies, tracing perspectives that prioritize the role of bodies and tend to view communication as a force of the body that in some cases precedes assignments of meaning and value.
This section identifies three landmarks to illuminate the contours of communicating bodies, or “doing” bodies as opposed to “meaning” bodies. Paul Achter points to this distinction, identifying “communication about bodies” as different from “communication from bodies.” He points to a “dual rhetorical force,” discourse about the body and discourse of the body (2010, p. 49). As Achter explains in his analysis of communication and bodies of war veterans, “The body is a rhetorically useful and flexibly argumentative locus that reflects the attitudes, values, and biases of a culture. In addition to their flexibility as sites of argument, public controversies involving bodies prove that the body is a forceful rhetorical form that captures and expresses ideas in ways words cannot” (p. 49). Although Achter’s distinction is helpful and his analysis exemplifies the ways in which communication scholarship can benefit from considering both trajectories of inquiry (communication about bodies and communicating bodies), he perhaps does not go far enough in articulating the rhetorical force of the body. The body’s communicative force, for Achter, is still explained as “discursive,” one of “expressing ideas,” whereas the scholarship considered in this section demands that we rethink communication itself. Bodies force us to question definitions of communication as a predominantly rational enterprise rooted in reason, ideas, expression, and meaning. To further elaborate the force of communicating bodies, this section examines in turn speaking bodies, protesting bodies, and material bodies, following the pattern of attending, in each of these three areas, to the research of one expert scholar.
One of the most eloquent and provocative voices in contemporary communication studies that takes seriously the forces of bodies emerges from the body of Joshua Gunn, who makes a compelling and impassioned case for re-establishing the primacy of speech as the privileged object of disciplinary inquiry. Gunn writes, “We should lament the abandonment of speech from our department nameplates, if only because our founders better understood the primacy of speech and the centrality of the human voice to public culture and daily life” (2007, p. 363). The field was originally established to study voice, conceived as “the meeting place of affect and signifier,” a bodily emanation that carries with it both meaning and nonsignifying forces (affect, emotion, and other nonrational modes of movement) (Gunn and Rice, 2009, p. 215). In the early days of the discipline, widely called speech communication, both humanities scholars and social scientists agreed, “Speech is a meeting place of the human body and language, of both affect and the word, of both feeling and meaning” (p. 216). Thus, communication studies originated as a study of human speech, that is, bodies speaking. By pairing “body and language,” “affect and word,” “feeling and meaning,” Gunn and Rice emphasize that although we have come to think of communication in terms of language, words, and meaning, in fact bodies, affects, and feelings are omnipresent. Even when human speech is mediated, it is still, Gunn writes, “the most direct route to feelings and intimacy in publics” (2010, p. 9).
Although Gunn and Rice’s apparent distinction between language, words, and meaning on the one hand and bodies, affect, and feeling on the other might at first glance seem to suggest that communication is separable from bodies, Gunn argues that speech—the fundamental activity of communicating bodies—“haunts” all communication (2008, p. 344). All communication is to some extent derivative of speech, and only by turning attention back to speech can we begin to unpack its functions and ethics and find a way forward. Moreover, speech’s essential proximity to bodies makes it the necessary starting place for thinking about how bodies function to enable communication. It is not as simple as recognizing the obvious fact that speech emerges from bodies; bodies enable speech at a more fundamental level. For Gunn, effective speech requires more than rational meanings and always functions through the interplay of tensions between control and uncontrollable forces. For instance, Gunn describes tone in terms of these tensions; tone is “both the threat of uncontrolled speech, driven by the animal passions, as well as the attempt to control such speech” (2010, p. 20).
Effective speech, or eloquence, is partially dependent on successful tone, which requires communicators to draw from the affective, bodily dimensions of speech without totally submitting to them. Gunn explains, “Adopting a good and pleasing tone, for example, allows one to tip-toe through the passions; it allows audiences to walk right up to abject rage or desirous ecstasy alongside the speaker, but without toppling completely into jouissance, or uncontrolled affect” (2010, p. 20). In other words, the tone of the voice allows for “affective identification, a congress of bodies in feeling.” He continues, “Eloquence is an ability to bring audiences to the precipice of bliss or vengeance but without abandoning the limits of language” (p. 20). Speech is always threatened by breaching these limits, as persons never have certain control over their voices—all speech is threatened by the bodies’ grunts, screams, and other emanations with “represent falling off the cliff of control” (p. 20).
Not only is speech constantly threatened by uncontrollable emanations of bodies, but this threat cannot be eliminated through careful practice or even the strictest vigilance. This threat of “falling off the cliff of control” is “the regulatory organ” of eloquence (2010, p. 5). In other words, without this risk, this danger that meaningful speech could at any point be interrupted by “involuntary or uncontrolled speech,” eloquence is impossible (2010, p. 5). Gunn defines this involuntary or uncontrolled as a “sexual register,” with sexual used broadly to suggest “a wide range of bodily stimulations and excretions that result in pleasure, pain, or both—from the visual enchantments of cinema to the uncomfortable bliss of endorphins on mile ten of that marathon” (2010, p. 4). This register is “the body in feeling,” which implies “an absence of self-knowledge, a loss of control, even a tacit mindlessness associated with extreme affective states” (p. 4). Speech functions not in spite of but because of this “deliberately muted erotics” (p. 14). Thus, speech is effective not because it is rational and persuasive in the conventional sense of expressing good arguments; it is effective because it brings speakers and audiences together, to the brink of the very limits of expression, in the face of danger and risk. Speech “forever denies that we are always in control and all grown up” (2007, p. 363), and it does this because it is a bodily activity and bodies are messy, unpredictable, and always exceed our attempts at control.
Gunn’s approach is very different from the case studies of the previous sections. Here, the focus is turned from what taken-for-granted modes of communication (news media, entertainment media, public address) do to bodies by assigning them meanings to how bodies work, or rather how bodies make speech work. In Gunn’s inquiry, bodies come first because their unique blend of rationality and “animal passions” is what makes communication possible. Communication is effective when it maximizes the affective, emotional dimensions of speaking bodies while remaining just on this side of control. The line that separates control from its other side is not static but contested and changing, dependent on the contingencies of bodily performances in already value-laden contexts. Across his work, Gunn tends to look at cases where speech seems to go too far, flirting with or simply leaping over the precipice of control: for example, his studies examine Howard Dean’s 2004 “Dean Scream,” Monica Seles’s screams or grunts during Wimbledon in 1992, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s navigations of emotion in speech. By focusing on instances where communicating bodies speak right at the line between control and unrestrained affect, Gunn is able to effectively illustrate how this line functions to enable and constrain speech and how it is mobilized differently depending on cultural contexts and values.
Gunn’s analysis shows how communication cannot contain or control bodies, because even attempts to assign meaning to bodies betray a more fundamental dependence on bodies, and more specifically on a dimension of bodes that eludes rationality and signification. One of the reasons Gunn’s scholarship is significant, then, is that it shows how bodies come first—communicating bodies always pre-exist communication about bodies, and the affecting, feeling-based elements of bodies always risk making a mess of communication, even though communication wouldn’t be possible without these uncontrollable elements. Moreover, Gunn’s study is significant because he articulates the question of communicating bodies to ethics. Turning back to speech and thus back to bodies is not just a good idea but also an ethical imperative. When communication studies focuses exclusively on meaning and neglects bodies, “the object is no longer a person, but an idea” (2015, pp. 27–28, emphasis in original). When the discipline loses sight of bodies, it loses sight of persons. Without bodies, we are left with theoretical abstractions and we are doomed to neglect “an affective and ethical working-through among our communities as people answerable to each other as people” (2008, p. 361). Gunn asks us to turn back to speech just as he insists that speech is ever-present; part of the task, then, is to recognize the ways in which the body has always been at the center of communication studies. Gunn’s work in this area resonates with Debra Hawhee’s historical-rhetorical scholarship that documents the role of bodies as foundational to speech and rhetoric, going back to ancient Greek practices (2005, 2009).
Communication studies was prodded to consciously consider the question of bodies in 1952 with the birth of “social movement rhetoric,” inquiry into social change that assesses “how rhetorics of protest and discourses of dissension foster and facilitate social change” (Ott, 2011, p. 334). Because bodies are highly visible in social protest, acting in roles including orators, protestors, and marchers, social movement rhetoric necessarily grapples with the relationship between bodies and communication. Many studies emphasize the ways that bodies can function symbolically by amplifying and creating messages. In one of the earliest studies establishing social movement rhetoric, Franklyn S. Haiman addressed the question of whether or not bodily forms of resistance should be included in the study of rhetoric. Resisting bodies might not be properly rhetorical because their actions “exceed the bounds of rational discourse,” often resorting to coercion or violence rather than respecting the boundaries of “reason and democratic decision-making” (2006, p. 16, originally published in 1967). Scott and Smith investigate along these lines, concluding that resisting bodies are rhetorical. They enact a “rhetoric of confrontation,” and not merely confrontation, because bodies’ actions in these contexts are “inherently symbolic” and carry “a message” (2006, p. 33, originally published in 1969).
These studies of resisting bodies are helpful in illustrating the extent to which definitions of communication are tied to expectations about bodies. If communication is defined by reason and nonviolence, then bodies communicate only when they are symbolic, or when their actions can be interpreted in the form of ideas that make sense to rational minds. To some extent, symbolizing bodies continue to act as verbal texts, governed by the production of meaning and sense. Analyses of the symbolic potentials of bodies are better considered as studies of “communication about bodies” because their actions require interpretation and translation to be legible for audiences. Deborah Hawhee warns of the dangers of this tendency “to freeze bodies, to analyze them for their symbolic properties, thereby evacuating and ignoring their capacity to sense and move through time” (2009, p. 7). To paraphrase Gunn, if we are dealing with bodies as producers of symbolic messages, we are not dealing with them fully in all of their affective, ineffable messiness.
Conversations focusing on the symbolic functions of resisting bodies are often motivated by a concern with violence. If resisting bodies are part of communication, then is communication violent? An affirmative answer would challenge many foundational assumptions that communication is distinguished from, and superior to, violence. When bodies protest, engage in civic disobedience, or act violently, how should we understand them; what do they mean? Questions of value usually closely follow questions of meaning: if bodies are engaging in violence, their actions are usually judged negatively; if bodies are engaging in a unique type of rhetoric that makes meanings through bodily actions, then they are more likely to be judged leniently and perhaps even applauded.
Kevin DeLuca is one scholar who has devoted considerable portions of his career to establishing that bodies communicate and even argue, yet they do so independent of (or in addition to) meaning systems circumscribed by language, reason, and nonviolence. Instead of continuing to ask what bodies mean, DeLuca insists that we ask what bodies do. He quotes Guattari, “The only question is how anything works, with its intensities, flows, processes, partial objects—none of which mean anything” (2006, p. 86). DeLuca is interested in communicative or rhetorical “forces,” affective capacities of bodies that “exceed linguistic representation” (p. 86). DeLuca’s studies of communicating bodies span his career, becoming progressively more radical (or at least more overt in stating state the full force of their implications). As he develops his studies of communicating bodies, DeLuca insists more and more that the body’s forces cannot be captured by categories of symbolism or meaning and that communication itself is violent and we face an ethical imperative to recognize and deal with violence.
In one of his earliest pieces on resisting bodies, DeLuca examines the radical environmental group EarthFirst! and the AIDS activism groups ACT UP and Queer Nation to show how bodies argue without the mediation of symbols or words. These resisting bodies are “not merely flags to attract attention for the argument but the site and substance of argument itself” (1999a, p. 10). These bodies challenge worldviews about nature, humanity, and sexuality “not through good reasons but through vulnerable bodies, not through rational arguments but through bodies at risk” (p. 11). This argument is affective (or emotional), nonrational, and cannot be captured in translation to words. One consequence of this study is that argument itself is redefined to encompass “forms … that exceed the protocols of deliberative reasoning” (p. 12). Although DeLuca does not here use the language of force or affect, he suggests that argument itself must be considered in terms of forces that have the capacity to affect, a definition that is far more expansive (as well as amorphous) than traditional definitions of argument.
In his book Image Politics, DeLuca expands his discussion of bodies’ force, showing how bodies can be used to create “image events,” visual scenes that function as weapons when mass media “provide a delivery system for strafing the population with mind bombs” (1999b, p. 4). These “mind bombs” are not simply texts to be interpreted but explosive fragments that “work to expand” and rupture worldviews and attitudes (p. 6). DeLuca spends considerable space theorizing rhetoric to encompass nonrational, visual modes of communication that exceed symbolic or interpretive capture. Image events change public consciousness by shattering existing perspectives and bringing new elements together or articulating (linking) them in ways that redefine reality. This activity is not necessarily mediated through verbal interpretations but can have an immediate effect, as the image of a “mind bomb” suggests.
In his later works, DeLuca continues to be occupied by resisting bodies, but his theories develop into a more provocative perspective on bodies and communication. DeLuca most commonly addresses images of bodies circulated and disseminated via mass media as his research objects. In a recent piece (2013), he boldly writes, “In rejecting a rational rhetoric, I insist on moving beyond a moralizing stance that refuses to engage the violence of rhetoric and the rhetoric of violence. In recognizing that violence imbues rhetoric, I conclude that rhetoric is not about good reasons but about acts of force” (p. 230). Rationality is never pure, but always “inextricably entwined with emotions, forces, violences, and any number of ‘alien’ components” (pp. 230–231).
Insisting both that “rhetoric is force” and “violence is the heart of rhetoric,” DeLuca breaks down any distinctions between rhetoric and coercion, or violence. Rhetoric, communication, rationality, violence—all are matters of force, all are matters of bodies, and all can be distinguished only contingently and contextually on the basis of their different capacities to affect bodies. Even distinctions between human bodies and nonhuman bodies, technological bodies and natural bodies, are in flux because all bodies are sites of interacting forces. Heavily influenced by Gilles Deleuze, DeLuca repositions communication and bodies as matters of force that must be traced as well as deployed to “transform worlds amidst the cataclysms of our times” (2013, p. 231).
In many ways Gunn and DeLuca offer very different ways for thinking about (and acting as) communicating bodies, at least in part because of their different trajectories of influence (psychoanalytic theory for Gunn, and Gilles Deleuze for DeLuca). Yet they also share perspectives that illuminate the potentials and challenges of “communicating bodies.” Both emphasize the importance of bodies as concrete physical, emotional beings and not simply producers of reason and meaning. Both suggest that some aspects of communication will always exceed meaning, reason, and representation precisely because bodies are messy, unpredictable, and forceful. Both scholars use provocative identifications to push forward thinking through communicating bodies: Gunn by identifying communication with sex, and DeLuca by identifying communication with violence. For both, considering communicating bodies (and not simply communication about bodies) is a vital, ethical task that requires us to reconsider basic assumptions about what communication is and how communication works.
Gunn’s emphasis on speech and DeLuca’s emphasis on resistance suggest that bodies that are still the source of communication, even if they lack full control over their communication. Another important dimension of inquiry considers both communication and bodies as diverse, interacting material forces. In this perspective, the question, “What do bodies do?” is expanded to include different types of bodies, including the material bodies that constitute discourse, such as media technologies, the physical, biological elements of speech, and even things like paper, which preserve and carry discourse. This expanded defines human bodies as just one category of bodies. Human bodies are always-fluctuating sites where physical, biological, and discursive materials interact, media through which signifying and asignifying, material and symbolic forces, flow. This perspective looks at how human bodies interact with other bodies, including bodies of communication—literally, the physical and biological materials that constitute, circulate, and preserve discourse. Celeste Condit is known for her commitment to reconciling understandings of communication with physical and biological realities, and this section attends to her work.
Condit defines herself as a “biosymbolic critic,” a scholar who takes seriously the fact that bodies are not only objects of scholarly inquiry but forces that influence trajectories of investigation. She writes, “The questions that rhetorical critics choose are always a product of their embodied positions” (2006, p. 370). Condit calls communication scholars to recognize that discourses (scholarship, conference conversations, and other forms of communication) are never disembodied. Moreover, biosymbolic critics seek to acknowledge a diversity of codes, including codes other than human language.
She writes, “The other codes that are mostly pertinent for humans are those of the human body—its DNA, proteins, hormones, and their patterned accretion through time—and those of our ecoscape—the codes that generate and are generated by the birds and insects and microbes that create the living flow that allows us to be” (2006, p. 371).
By defining both human communication and other physical, material interactions as “codes,” Condit suggests both that human communication is material and that other physical and biological processes can be considered as communication.
In “The Materiality of Coding,” Condit more explicitly highlights coding as a process that can encompass both human and nonhuman communication processes, bringing attention to the fact that communication, or discourse, is fundamentally physical or material. Even though we are accustomed to thinking of communication as something other than physical process—something more abstract, more ideal, more disembodied—in fact, it is just as physical as the coding mechanisms of DNA. She illustrates,
“Speaking is an act of breathing, of the physical vibration of air molecules, of hearts supplying blood for hand motions and body-lean … Even in writing, though the body is less immediately present and through our communication seems more channeled through pure words, the process is physical nonetheless” (1999, pp. 327–328).
She continues, “All known communication is a matter of physical contact among material particles” (pp. 327–328). All of the universe can be seen as “matter/energy in constant motion, taking on shifting forms through shifting relationships,” and human coding processes (discourse or language) work by contingently “entitling” these flows, or creating categories that we then take (mistakenly) for “essences” (1999, p. 332).
Thus, for Condit, bodies matter because communication is literally constituted by bodies (human bodies, molecules, organs, etc.). Communication is a physical, biological process, and it is only one coding process among many that interact to produce our selves and our worlds. Condit articulates an even stronger version of her thesis that communication is material with her theory of modal materialism (2008). She takes up the question of why, in an age where both cultural values and scientific knowledge refute ideas that race determines intelligence, discourses linking race to intelligence still circulate in prominent scientific and popular venues. She shows that the only way to answer this question is to account for three “modes” of material: physical, biological, and discursive. Each mode has different properties and different functions. Only by accounting for all three modes can we understand how communication works, and one challenge is recognizing discourse as a type or “mode” of matter. Condit writes, “Contemporary theories of knowledge fail to articulate the impacts of the distinctive arrangements of discursive matter as it flows through both biological bodies and other media” (2008, p. 384).
Human bodies, in this view, are “media” through which physical, biological, and discursive flows course and interact. Discourse, Condit reminds, is not “immaterial ideas,” but “the material flows of symbols and images circulating through social spaces (televisions, books, posters, radios, computers, families, churches, telephones, etc.) and human bodies (including their neural networks)” (2008, p. 385). One property of discourse is the ability to produce “the phenomena we experience as ‘ideas’” (p. 385). Thus, bodies are more fundamental than “meaning” in the sense that bodily processes produce what we experience as meaning, or ideas, and that meanings and ideas cannot affect bodies without working through material, discursive processes.
In Condit’s analysis of scientific racism, she understands the notions of race at play in the scientific articles as “a discourse of race that has flowed among the people born in Europe, who began increasingly to move around the globe from the fifteenth century onward” (2008, p. 388). Condit emphasizes the historical nature of discursive flows but also shows that they produce different effects when they course through particular bodies. Human bodies “are the kinds of things moved by interests,” and these embodied interests combine with discursive flows to produce different arrangements of matter/energy (p. 388). Because discourse is social and interactive, Condit argues for the possibility that interests can be transformed to become more (or less) inclusive (p. 390). Ultimately, she argues that modal materialism can account for why empirically disproven, culturally disdained ideas continue to circulate in predominant media. She explains that the idea linking race to intelligence “is not just an idea; it’s a discourse. And as such, it is not driven by a disembodied search for truth, but also by activating and embodied interests, socially deployed, riding and redirecting well-established flows of discursive matter” (2008, p. 397). We can never separate bodies from rhetoric, communication or discourse, because discourse is “motivated and shaped by the differently situated bodily articulations” that it encounters (p. 400). Ultimately, Condit concludes, “Each of us can only be interested animals shot through with social discourses” (p. 401).
This scholarship shows that Condit is deeply committed to understanding communication as an embodied practice, not just in some abstract sense, in that communication is attached to particular subjects who happen to have bodies, but in a very concrete, physical sense. Communication is a material, physical process that works through “discursive matter,” a type of material that exists in and can circulate through machines, books, and brains. It is not the same as biological matter or physical matter, but it is still matter, and it is the interactions of discursive, biological, and physical matter that are truly important to understanding how and why communication works the way it does.
Sex, violence, DNA—Gunn, DeLuca, and Condit offer diverse apparatuses for thinking though communicating bodies. While each offers very different approaches, methodologies, and vocabularies for communicating bodies, there are three common themes that are important for continued work to map bodies and communication studies. First, communication cannot be separated from the body. For Gunn, communication is derivative from speech, and speech is of the body. The human body “haunts” even apparently disembodied communication and cannot be exorcised. DeLuca thinks of communication as a force of the body, a force tied to the visual presence and physical activities of bodies, human and nonhuman. For Condit, communication is bodily at a micro level: physical, biological processes enable all of what we might call communication. There is no such thing as communication without a body, whether that body is primarily physical, biological, or discursive.
Second, if it is possible to temporarily speak of the body and communication as different, then the body has priority or power over communication. We cannot even define communication without considering the body, and our failures to take bodies seriously have produced definitions of communication that privilege control, intention, reason, and rationality, pushing us to lose sight of affect, emotion, interest, and encounter. Communication about bodies can and does affect bodies, but that is because communication is a bodily function. To give communication priority because it can affect bodies by influencing how we treat bodies is, at least for these scholars, a secondary question. As Condit writes, “It is not enough to say that signs enter the human mind and then humans make impact on the world, because we are trying to account for the impact on humans in the first place” (1999, p. 330).
Finally, each of these authors articulates attention to bodies as an ethical imperative at a “meta” level. While the scholarship discussed in the previous section (communication about bodies) clearly has ethical implications, for the most part these implications are partitioned to specific sectors of human experience. For instance, we are called to consider the ethics of disciplining gendered bodies, constructing norms of health and ability, practices and understandings of consumption and obesity, and motivations for surgical interventions. For Gunn, DeLuca, and Condit, the call to ethics cannot be partitioned because they ask us to reconsider our entire orientation to communication—and indeed, the world—by recognizing the priority of bodies. If we take seriously the priority of bodies, whether by turning to speech as a way to replace “objects” with persons or recognizing that bodies and violence inhabit all rhetoric to better intervene in contemporary “cataclysms,” or take into account different modes of material reality to gain traction against racism, sexism, and other discursive flows that wield harmful effects, then we are inevitably engaging in an ethical task that can potentially affect every body.
Historiography and Further Reading
Bodies are increasingly coming into focus as central to communication studies inquiries. Edited anthologies such as Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley’s Rhetorical Bodies (1999), Charles E. Morris III and Stephen Howard Browne’s Readings on the Rhetoric of Social Protest (2006), and Lawrence J. Prelli’s Rhetorics of Display (2006) all highlight the increasing attention to bodies in communication studies scholarship. Even though some of these collections bring together scholarship that was published decades ago, the demand for an edited volume or anthology speaks to the growing desire within communication studies to analyze and theorize bodies.
While the relatively recent publication dates of these anthologies might suggest that investigations of bodies are new to communication studies, there is also a growing body of scholarship that documents that bodies have been central to communication studies since the foundation of the discipline and, indeed, since the development of rhetorical theory in ancient Greece. The recently issued “centennial volume” commemorating the discipline’s 100th anniversary includes several helpful pieces for understanding the significance of bodies (Gehrke & Keith, 2015). In addition, the works of Debra Hawhee are essential to any consideration of bodies throughout the history of communication studies and rhetoric. Hawhee traces the centrality of the body in ancient Greek practices of rhetoric (2005) and also shows how the foundational works of Kenneth Burke in the 1930s–1950s provide powerful resources for thinking about the bodily origins of communication (2009). Joshua Gunn’s extensive body of work is equally significant in documenting the vital role of bodies as both historical fact and theoretical necessity. Each of the scholars discussed in this article has worked more extensively on bodies, producing research that is not included here. Scholars interested in bodies and communication should particularly consult the robust works of John Sloop, John Jordan, Kevin DeLuca, and Celeste Condit, most of which are directly relevant to a consideration of bodies in communication studies.
In recent years, communication scholarship on bodies has drawn from and contributed to what has become known as the “affective turn” in contemporary humanities research. Celeste Condit (2013), Jenny Edbauer Rice (2008), Erin J. Rand (2015), and Eric Jenkins (2014) have published helpful works in thinking about the potential relationships between affect and communication studies.
Fortunately for scholars of bodies, primary sources are, literally, everywhere. Investigations of bodies might attend to media representations of particular types of bodies (racialized, gendered, etc.), the functions of bodies in protest movements (which might proceed through direct observation, as Phaedra Pezzullo (2013) does in her analysis of “counterpublics” protesting breast cancer awareness events, or media framing of bodies, as DeLuca does in many of his works), or the role of images of bodies, including photographs. Practically any archive, text, object, or event in some way engages both bodies and communication, making primary sources limitless. What orients scholars of bodies is not a particular object of inquiry but a commitment to explicitly identifying, acknowledging, and theorizing bodies.
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