American Bodies – A Soma-Semiotics of the USA

A preliminary report of ethnological research on “soma-semiotics,” that is body semiotics in the USA is both interesting and provocative. “Body semiotics” refers to the way in which a society inscribes its values on the bodies of its members, quite apart from the usual group identifiers such as age, gender, education, income, profession, or subcultural affinity. In a society as diverse and heterogeneous as the USA, community and collective identity across ethnic, political, gender, subcultural, etc. boundaries is a major issue.  In addition to this, the postmodern celebration of diversity has created an enormous deficit of unity that society must in some way compensate. Although the fieldwork is not completed, and the theoretical assumptions untested, some of the findings are highly suggestive. The author identifies four types of bodies, that is, four typical ways in which society becomes inscribed in bodies. These are termed “grotes,” “scribbs,” “caps,” and “styles” and there is a separate category for the uninscribed body that is termed “normalo.“

The first type is called, somewhat provocatively, “grotes.” “Grote” is short for “grotesque.” The term should be understood in the sense in which Bakhtin uses the word when describing the grotesque body in his work on Rabelais. The grotesque should not be understood as pejorative. Instead, the term describes how the abstract and symbolic dimension expresses itself in the material and the bodily. Human anatomy becomes a mirror of abstract values and conflicts. What is suppressed on the symbolic level appears in a distorted way on the physical and anatomical level. In this way, the body illustrates those cultural and social meanings that do not appear within the officially sanctioned and supported symbolic realm. Against the background of postmodern rejection of universal values, the body comes to be the place, where unifying cultural identity can be publically displayed.

The “grotes” are those bodies that are not merely deformed, but reject all form, borders, boundaries, and limitations, both in height and width. To speak of these bodies as “fat,” “obese,” “overweight,” etc. attempts to medicalize and physiologically define, for example, by means of a certain Body Mass Index (BMI), what is an essentially symbolic event. Overlooking this fact leads to talk of disease and even, when one considers how many such bodies have appeared in the USA in the last years – some estimate up to 20% of the population -, to the assumption of an “epidemic” of obesity.  Such people are often seen as victims of fast food hype, poor and ineffective health education, and even genetic deficiencies. Whether patients or victims, the medicalization of the “grotes” attempts to suppress the meaning society has inscribed onto their bodies. One of the central unifying values of American culture has always been the rejection of limitations, boundaries, given forms, and enclosures. The colonization of a new world, the push westward, always moving farther beyond established boundaries, the overcoming of all limitations, these values characterize what it means to be American. When the conquest of land was brought to a halt at the Pacific Ocean and the cultural thrust westward stopped by self-assertive Asian nations, the dynamic of overcoming boundaries and physical limits was transferred to the body. The body became the subject of physical expansion. No limits, boundaries, or form can (and should) be imposed upon the body. The land of unlimited possibilities became the body of unlimited form. Obesity is not an illness or the symptom of weak personalities oppressed and manipulated by the fast food industry. On the contrary, “grotes” inscribe in their bodies the value of limitless expansion and the overcoming of all form. The grotesque body is not obese, it is formless, and the rejection of all form, all limitation, enclosure, or boundary is a unifying value of American society.  This value becomes publically disclosed on the bodies of the “grotes.”  This explains why obesity in America is no longer morally reprehensible. Why there is no shame in publically displaying and even celebrating a body that has lost any relation to “normal” human proportions.  The “grotes” quite literally embody the American dream of endless expansion.  Again, it is not a matter of a subcultural of obesity, since “grotes” can be found in all professions, with every level of education and income, and display, other than their bodily formlessness, no other common behavior patterns.

The second type of body described by our researcher is the “scribbs.” “Scribb” is short for scribble, that is, a basic form of writing whereby not specific signs, words, or a language is intended, but the fact of inscribing, of signifying in general. “Scribbs” are those bodies that have in some way been written upon. This usually takes the form of tattoos. Just as “grote” bodies have entered into mainstream public presence in America, so too are tattooed bodies now everywhere visible. What was once a sign of somehow being an outsider, of belonging to a specific subgroup, such as sailors, military, truck drivers, or bikers, has lost its differentiating and separating effect to become a symbol of community and cultural unity. How can this be explained? Following the hypothesis of body semiotics, that society inscribes its constitutive values onto the bodies of its members, the “scribbs” can be seen as illustrating the act of signifying, that is, the act of the construction of meaning. They do this by means of “scribbling” on the skin.  It does not matter what is tattooed onto the body. The signified is irrelevant. The signifier is what counts, since it shows that the body has been given some kind of meaning. One of the major unifying values of American culture is the conviction that meaning can be imposed upon a wild, uncharted, untamed, unknown world. The “new world” was “new” precisely because the meanings inherited from the old world were no longer authoritative. The idea of revolution itself implies that meaning must be constructed anew. Indeed, anything is possible. America defines itself as a culture that must create culture, create meaning, and set signs. This is what postmodern diversity has accomplished. Differences are everywhere. What is common, however, is the power and obligation to make distinctions. This is what the “scribb” body illustrates. “Scribbs” inscribe the power of inscription and nothing more. It is the power, the right, and the duty of inscription that makes America America. Again, “scribbs” do not form a subculture, as for example, sailors, bikers, etc. once did. “Scribbs” are to be found in all professions, with all levels of education and income, and without any specific common characteristics other than in some way showing on their bodies the power of inscription. Our researcher notes that observation shows that although mixed forms are possible, they rarely occur. It is seldom that a “grote” also is a “scribb” or that “scribb” bodies also are “grote” bodies. If there is an exception to this rule, then it is in the next type of body that has been identified.

The third type of body that has been identified is called “cap.” “Cap” stands for “handicapped” and does not refer, as expected, to bodies that are in some way crippled or disabled.  Although the usual definition of “handicapped” is “disabled,” and the “caps” are indeed in some way disabled, the “cap” body is not a crippled body.  The “caps” are those bodies that move about by means of electronic wheelchairs. They are highly mobile, equipped with communication devices, cosmetic necessities, things to eat and drink, indeed all they need to be independently dependent. The “cap” body demonstrates independence, freedom, self-determination, and autonomy in the form of dependence. “Caps” are on the move everywhere, they demonstrate the inclusion of the excluded. There is no activity, no place, no time, no form of involvement in which they are not present and included. In this way, the “cap” body inscribes the American value of universal inclusion. The metaphor of the “melting pot” long symbolized democratic inclusion in the USA. Postmodern diversity prevents the melting down and mixing of differences. Differences must be preserved and not melted into an undistinguished brew. Traditionally, the disabled were also the excluded, since they could not participate in many social activities. Physical differences meant exclusion. The “caps” inscribe the opposite, namely, differences means inclusion.  Society accommodates – and perhaps even encourages – “caps” by demonstrably including such bodies in all places and activities. Conversely, “caps” demand and expect inclusion, indeed, it is their purpose. The number of “caps” is so great, that it is implausible to suppose that real disabilities cause their appearance. The public space is a space of inclusion of the excluded, which requires the construction of “caps.” They serve the self-representation of an egalitarian society. They are needed by society as much as they need a society that legitimates and supports their dependency. It is therefore no accident, assumes our researcher, when many “grotes” are also “caps.” “Too fat to walk” is not morally reprehensible, but a logical extension of “grote” bodies into “cap” bodies.  When the imperative to reject all form and limitation turns into its opposite, the acceptance of dependency, this is used to inscribe fundamental American values of equality and inclusion.

Finally, there is the forth type of inscribed body that our researcher calls “styles.” Style is derived from “life-style,” or “style” in fashion. It refers to a body that attempts to achieve perfect form. Instead of rejecting all form, as do “grotes,” the “styles” attempt to settle the open issue of form by casting the body into a “perfect” form, that is, a form that cannot be surpassed or made better. Associated with the intention of the “scribbs” to give meaning by means of scribbling signifiers on the body, the “styles” attempt to give the body an encompassing and absolute shape. This is manifest in the many different programs and regimes of fitness, wellness, training, dieting, exercising, bodybuilding, etc. that are intended to produce a perfect body. Perfection, however, is impossible without standards, models, traditions, and authorities, without a sense of proportion and relation.  American culture, however, lacks a history of proportion, balance, and relation. Revolution, conquest of a new world, the construction of meaning against an uncharted and unknown wilderness, all of these values presuppose the absence of standards, rules, forms, and models. As a result, every attempt to attain perfection of form in America goes somehow wrong, becomes in some way exaggerated, overdone, imbalanced. How big to female breasts and male biceps have to be in order to be unsupassable? In America, form becomes kitsch. “Styles” are bodies that have become kitsch, that is, clichéd, tasteless, exagerated forms. America has long been known as the land without artistic and cultural taste. The “styles” inscribe the form of kitsch into the body, as form of misguided perfection. Our researcher cites the Kardashian phenomenon. A personality that has no other notoriety than to appear as a perfect form, whereby the imperfection and artistic failure of the form are obvious. When the “grote” body attempts to overcome all form and ends up at worst as a “cap” in a wheelchair, the “style” body displays the American dream as kitsch.

Of course there are people in the USA who fit into none of these categories. These are the “normalos.” They are not “normal” in the usual sense of the word, for they neither constitute a majority nor set a standard for all. On the contrary, the “normalos” serve the purpose of presenting bodies to be inscribed upon. They make up what Spencer Brown refers to as the “unmarked state,” or Gestalt psychology thinks of as a neutral background upon or against which differences are made and figures drawn. The “normalos” are the anatomical stuff upon which society inscribes itself. They are for the most part invisible in the public space. They are the blank paper upon which social values may be written and the community come to represent itself.

The still  to be completed field work may modify these preliminary results, the soma-semiotic theory behind these observations and the heuristic value of the classification of bodies offered in this work are still of considerable value and in any case worthy of discussion when it comes to understanding postmodern America.