Seminararbeit, 2010, 16 Seiten
1. Basic developments of the civilized body
1.1 The development of eating habits
1.2 The development of personal hygiene
2. The social construction of shame
3. Civilized Bodies in the 21st Century
When talking about “civilized behavior”, a whole set of associations opens up immediately. We can talk, eat, walk, act and even dress ourselves in a “civilized” manner. But what does civilization actually mean? Are human beings (who, according to a natural- scientific worldview, are actually nothing but mammals) really capable of civilized behavior? An average citizen from a western “civilization” would probably approve of a general distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized”. The concept of civilization has undergone a massive change. It is now more than just an artificial concept, constructed by sociologists and philosophers. In the modern world of today, being or acting “civilized” does not only entail social norms inside a certain group of people. The concept of civilization has also become a powerful weapon on the political and cultural battlefields of the 21st century.
Most of the time, the self-control of bodily behavior and spontaneous bodily expressions is one of the most important challenges of a human being living in the modern age. It is so important that it has become a central characteristic of humanity – in contrast to other animals, that usually do not control their behavior for constructed social reasons. On the other hand, the processes that are involved in controlling and interpreting the actions of the body are barely noticed – they have become so internalized that we don’t even recognize them anymore. Especially in the western world, meaning is often transported through separation: “I am civilized, because you are not civilized” and so forth. Interestingly, the control of certain modes of behavior (like in the case of eating, personal hygiene or social manners in general) has not always been a natural course of action.
In fact, as I will try to show, being or acting “civilized” has been an almost endless field of debate since medieval times, when spitting at the table was still natural and the use of cutlery for the purpose of “civilized” eating developed out of various reasons. On the following pages, I aim to discuss the concept of the civilized body, especially under the aspect of the historical development of bodily behavior in western societies. To offer a wide range of perspectives, I have divided this work into three major chapters. The first part will deal with the development of eating habits and ideas of personal hygiene. The second area will focus on the concept of shame and its connections to the theory of the civilizing process. Finally, I will try to give an outlook on how concepts of bodily civilization are developing today, in times of social media and cyber culture, while coming back to the central question of this paper – can the human body actually be civilized at all?
When talking about civilized behavior in everyday life, eating habits come to mind very quickly. The way a person acts at a dinner table enables other people to draw conclusions about their social or even educational background. A whole industrial branch has developed around the “art of good behavior”, with seminars and books that teach people how to do it right. But how does for example the Knigge guidebook know what a “right way to behave” really is? Certainly, not every rule is totally comprehensible, but generally one has to admit that most of the behaviouristic codes, especially those that are “unwritten”, serve a distinct purpose. As Norbert Elias says about the use of the knife as eating-utensil, an important addition to the general functionality of an object is its emotional value in society – or more general, its symbolic meaning. A knife is of course not always been used for eating. The first thought it is usually associated with is its use as a dangerous weapon – especially when pointed towards a human face. In medieval times, this connection was far stronger in people’s minds as it is today. As western societies were not yet fully pacified, the immediate reaction to a knife pointed at one’s own face would be to think of an attack. There was not yet a clear borderline between the use of a knife as a weapon and as a device only for eating, thus
“the multi-purpose nature of the knife always posed the conceivable threat of danger at the dinner table.”
So, the more such a dangerous object was used in surroundings that are clearly marked as separate from the dangerous world outside, the more restrictions had to be imposed on the use of this object in everyday situations. One could take the example of the knife as a clear evidence for the claim that the people in western societies developed a strong urge to control their habits and ritualize certain forms of behavior. As a respected member of society, you would not want to take the risk of misinterpretation, so of course it would always be the best idea to offer the handle of the knife to somebody whom the device should be given to – not the tip.
Of course, one could ask the question why food actually should be delivered to the mouth with the help of special utensils at all. In fact, there are many societies, like for example in India, Eastern Europe or African countries, where eating food with bare hands is not only considered to be normal, but also has clear rules and rituals. In many Arabic countries, the left hand is considered to be impure – so again, restrictions are imposed on social behavior. In those cultural spheres, it is simply not very suitable to eat with your left hand. In the courtly societies of the western middle-ages, shaking hands or wearing gloves were common customs. It was therefore of great importance to have hands that were more or less clean at any time of the day. As a result, the knife was not only used to cut meat and other food. The knife was the most central device for eating. Since utensils for eating were still very expensive, it was common to carry an eating knife with you at all times. In the higher ranks of the courtly society, where situations connected with real bodily violence slowly became more infrequent, the symbolic meaning of the knife and the frightening social memory of war soon led to bad feelings about the thing being pointed towards the own face. As a result, the use of forks began to spread more widely among members of the higher social classes. About the same time, the tips of eating-knives started to disappear. On the one hand, they were not needed any more because of the growing popularity of the fork. On the other hand, civilized eating manners were increasingly finding their way into the dining rooms of the ruling class – and bringing weapons to the table was just not civilized enough anymore. The rounding of knife-tips even became a political issue when the French king Louis XIV. made all pointed knives illegal by a decree in 1669. So again, the separation of the dangerous, outside realm and the civilized interior space continued to have a direct effect on bodily behavior.
While European eating habits developed along with the modification of knives and forks, other culture had chosen a very different path in civilizing their culinary customs. When the fork was only beginning to replace the knife as the central eating device in Europe, the people in China had already been using chopsticks for centuries. The structural difference here was not only the different cultural history, but simply the fact that the Chinese elite had been pacified much earlier. Thus, cutting the food had been shifted from the table to the kitchen completely at a very early stage. Despite the undeniable progress in the development of western eating utensils, the European habits still seemed barbaric to Chinese observers, who would sarcastically accuse Europeans of “eating with swords”.
The process of eating and the surrounding social issues are largely connected to a particular behavior. Manners at a dining table may be relatively easy to control. Other natural needs and functions, like the fact that bodies secrete certain fluids, can simply not be avoided. Bodily hygiene or simply “cleanliness“ thus is a major characteristic of the social human being that was tabooed at a very early stage – everybody had to “do it”, but nobody wanted to talk about it. Pretty soon, however, it was clear that being dirty or smelling badly was to put on the same level as chaos and sin, while smelling good and having a clean appearance was a guarantor for stability and harmlessness. Interestingly, the church – which was a powerful political force up until the age of enlightenment – also tried to invert this notion at one point, stating that a body that was too much taken care of revealed a soul that was rotten, unclean and impure.
 Woodward, p. 116
 Hartman, 2009.
 Woodward, p. 116
 Hartman, 2009.
 Woodward, p. 116
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