Public Corporeographies, Part II – by Josh Newman

Orchestrations of Public Capital

For now, let us return to the ways in which bodies are orchestrated in public space.  I would argue that the road (and other public mobility systems) now acts as a metonym for the social welfare logics that drove Western [auto-]modernity. This is the order of the neoliberal public. The street, the sidewalk, the railways are no longer viewed as great monuments of modern society—or lauded as egalitarian and transportive networks—but as inhibitors of neoliberal self-actualization(s) of speed, spatial conquest, motorway mastery, and gateways to suburban isolation and retreat. Public spaces such as park benches or bus stops are marked as aesthetic obstacles to the manifest market destiny; nodes of a dystopia created by losing social welfare policy-makers and [potentially] squatted by neoliberalism’s ‘failed’ worker-soldiers.

In this way, the street occupies both an imaginary and political corporeography.[i] Nowhere can the endless possibilities of consumer capitalism be performed and celebrated like in the street—it is a rich canvas of commuter and consumer identities. In the accelerated economies, the public is the space where we make the self and at the same time are besieged by technologies of governance, surveillance, and normalization. Increasingly, these disciplinary technologies are arranged in the image of market capital; orchestrating public life and the performances (local and global) along the impetuses of accumulation. Our freedom is framed, to again borrow from Butler, through the public exhibition of market mastery.

Public space is thus paradoxical. On the road, our German-made metabolic cells and Italian handcrafted leather conspicuously project our politics of consumerism and accumulation. In our plazas, we gather as Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street vigilantes. Our sidewalks are arteries and our bodies the lifeblood of the lonely crowd. We embody an imaginary autarky by imbedding our bodies in the symbolic and physical spaces of capital.

Virilio (1977/2006) once asked: “can asphalt be a political territory?” (p. 30). In Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, on the grenade-cobbled streets of Baghdad, on the basketball hardtops of West Baltimore, and in bitumen corridors spilling onto East Brevard Street, it most certainly is. Asphalt is always ready to be political: to be chalked by Newt-serving college Republicans, Dora-drawing and Mouse-fetishizing toddlers, or forensic investigators; to be cordoned by event promoters, police battalions, or parade organizers; to be used as a bed, a bum bashing arena, or a pathway to a ‘better’ physcial self.

On asphalt, physical life is medium and modality. We perform and bleed on the streets. We move and stop and move again. We encounter bodies and negotiate those encounters. On these public streets, we embody and identify; but more importantly, we touch and feel and smell and ache.

On the street,

we smell the pain of a harsh winter’s sleeplessness

On the street,

we feel those bodies around us as they are thrust into our senses

For no hand is more important than that of the war- and time-ravaged veteran

For whom the street is a prison

The gaze, a shackle on her hand

Trembling as it extends

To the passengers of privilege

As they stagger out of the tavern

Within arms reach of a warm meal

And a sense of belonging

Here, surrounded by the flesh and bowels of the “kinetic crowd” (Virilio, 2006, p. 55), is where Laclau and Mouffe will find strategic answers to their questions of hegemony. It is here where signification matters. It is here where politics, power, and bodies are arranged in the most consequential and potent ways.

Dramaturgs in/of the Flesh and Geographies of the Public

Why should those of us doing work in critical sport and physical cultural studies care about the relationships between the body, public space, and speed? I believe if we are committed to bring about change through our work then we have no choice but to insert our physical bodies into the spaces and paces of everyday life. I have made this case before (with my colleague Michael Giardina). Our argument has been a simple one: to understand physical cultural and its myriad problematics, we need to understand articulation at the level of embodied experience; we can only do that by maintaining a deep corporeal co-presence within the physical world.

But let me take this argument a bit further. Not only do I think we need to “put ourselves” out there, so to speak, as to justly represent living bodies, but I also believe it is imperative that we bare ourselves through acts of research, advocacy, and activism. My use of the term “bare” here is meant to elicit a double interrelated meaning: referring at once to the most common usage, “to uncover or open to view” and to the idea of something that is “plain, without covering, or unadorned.”

To practice this ‘bare’ form of cultural inquiry, as I see it, means to turn our minds over to our bodies. The construct interpretation out of encounter and passage (in the Debordian sense)—deep, sensual encounters and passages. Perhaps it is time to replace the “circuit of culture” model with a circuit of bare life (what Georgio Agamben calls “la vita nuda”). It is time to take physical cultural studies, and the bodies of its (two dozen or so) practicing scholars, to the streets. I believe this is happening at Maryland in the work of Amber Wiest, Bryan Clift, Ron Mower, Jacob Bustad. I believe it is happening elsewhere such as in the bodily productions of Lyndsay Hayhurst and Michael Atkinson. In these examples and many others, the researcher’s body is being positioned in ways that not only help us better understand physical culture, but that also might interrupt the dromological physics of late capitalism. In this way the physical is troubling and inconvenient, the perlocutionary act (in Butler’s sense of the term) will be complicated if not painful. Muscles might ache. Skin my get burned by the cold wind. Flesh might get bruised by the policeman’s truncheon. The body, by way of its spatialization and suffering, will once again matter. The researcher will be reminded of why it matters. The researcher’s body in and amongst bodies will remind us why bodies matter. Those who read our bodily encounters will know the gravity of our work. Those with whom we sleep, eat, breath, and bleed will no longer look skeptically at their interloping charlatan.

This is the starting point of truly evocative, transformative, physical cultural studies.

[i] Here I am drawing upon Vicky Kirby’s notion of ‘corporeography.’ In a chapter of what became here doctoral dissertation, Kirby (1989, page 118) argues: “the body is that ‘preposterous space,’ the site of a corporeography that conjoins the dynamic political economy of signification—its written surface and writing surface.” In other works, she elaborates and explains that the body is at once signifier and signified as it articulates within and across geometric and imagined spaces.


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