What is Bodily Rhetoric?


Of physiology from top to toe I sing, Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far; Walt Whitman

According to Michael Davidson, “Disability—like the aesthetic—challenges ideas of bodily and cognitive normalcy” (see The Disability Studies Reader, p. 125). Bodily and cognitive norm/normalcy! These are the concepts that need to be challenged and questioned constantly, either in relation to a community we inhabit, or a society and its vastly influential ideologies, such as state or cultural nationalism, socialist-feminism, liberalism, etc. In order to define “bodily rhetoric” one needs to define “bodily normalcy”. If we perceive a body as a tangible matter that is subjected to constant change and transformation, and as something that is nurtured or neglected, movable or immovable, modified or non-modified, exotic or non-exotic, normal or abnormal, and rhetoric as the ability to construct and reconstruct our ideas and thoughts, emotions, experiences through a medium of speech, voice and language, then how do bodies and rhetoric operate within a system based on well rooted norms and principles? If we consider the following: Today, “one in ten persons lives with a cognitive or physical disability, and according to UN estimates, 80 percent live in developing countries. More than 50 percent of the people in the world’s forty-six poorest countries are without access to modern health care. Approximately three billion people in developing countries do not have access to sanitation facilities, and one billion in those countries lack safe drinking water” (Davidson 117), then where does “bodily normalcy” fit here? If you do not have access to basic nutrition and safe drinking water, are you disabled? The answer is yes, because the person’s body cannot advance without basic forms of sustenance. How do you voice your experiences and desires through a body if the body is deprived of basic nourishment, and if it is in gradual deterioration. In a world where bodily norms are perceived differently (for example, whereas having a nose surgery is a norm in one country, it can be viewed as a complete abomination in another country), the rhetoric of the body is very important. Bodily rhetoric or the rhetoric of the body is an ability to voice our identity, the sense of belonging, our desires and fears; it is an ability to construct our inner values to the outside world, but most importantly, bodily rhetoric is used as a tool to transform minds, whole generations and societies, either in positive or negative ways. In today’s societies, bodily rhetoric is oftentimes used to deceive and manipulate the masses, and to hide or mask the true intentions of the speaker. Bodily rhetoric matters a great deal because not only does it define our gender, our national or cultural background, but it also reconstructs and re-defines who we really are; it shapes and structures our identities more than we are aware of.