Matthew Tan: Being somebody means being some body – nobody at all

Tom Jones preforming at the House Of Blues, Anaheim, California on March 10, 2009. PHOTO: Mykal Burns, Wikimedia Commons

The centrefold of a 2011 edition of Sydney’s short-lived tabloid, mX, featured a report concerning the vast sums with which an assortment of celebrities insured their various body parts.

Some statistics included Mariah Carey insuring her legs for US $1billion as an accompaniment to an ad campaign by the razor manufacturing corporation, Gillette. Another included Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera, who insured her teeth for US$10 million as part of an ad campaign for a tooth whitening brand.

Another, more humorous, example of the insurance trend among the glitterati included Tom Jones, who insured his chest hair for US $7 million.

Readers of such a report might find this obsession with committing eye-watering sums of money to protect body-parts amusing. Be that as it may, this story is an apt demonstration of the culture of postmodernity.

At one level, it bespeaks of what social historians, in the tradition of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, would call an “insurational imaginary”.

Put simply, this term refers to the further mutation of a culture’s obsession with security. Stoked further by news reports and infomercials depicting great and small threats to one’s bodily safety, the world becomes perceived less as a gift from God, and more as an all encompassing series of threats.

Everything from stepping onto a train or standing to look at a bird becomes tantamount to standing at the threshold between life and death.

When this obsession with security becomes monetised, as everything tends to be in the age of postmodernity, this growing web of worry of threats to one’s body morphs those threats into contingencies against which a person can be insured, for the right price.

What the mX article demonstrates is that the body has become the latest subject of insurance. What this allows however, is a ceding of one’s body over to business to analyse, monetise, and ultimately determine the value to the body by a financial metric, rather than assume the body as a body to have its own inherent worth.

This is ironic, seeing that the culture of postmodernity that produced this “insurational imaginary” started out by celebrating the body as having its own inherent worth, and its limitless potential for self-actualisation.

The reason for this inversion of the celebration of the body’s worth can be found in a book entitled The Politics of Discipleship by Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity, Graham Ward.

The body celebrated in postmodernity, Ward says, is a hollowed out body, celebrated “as mere flesh”. When a body is treated “as mere flesh”, as it is in consumer culture, the body becomes reduced to a blank slate.

It becomes stripped of its own meaning and gets turned into a commodity. When this happens, its value can only be discerned when it is augmented with commodities, such as jewellery, clothes or in this case, insurance products.

What compounds the tragedy is that all these commodities also do not designate their own value and only have their value ascribed to them by the corporations that make them.

As the body’s value becomes monetised, the body becomes vulnerable to monetary manipulation, subject to the scores of technological augmentation, graphs and blips on a screen.

However, as recent financial crises have demonstrated, even money itself is a commodity. Money has no stable value and it too is subject to the whims of the most powerful commercial interests. The body, therefore, in attaching value to itself only insofar as it attaches itself to commodified baubles, becomes a mere abstraction of international business, and the body itself becomes a bauble to be bought, sold and traded.

A grim but vivid example of this process can be found in a recent triumphant announcement of a company that, with the aid of advancements in manufacturing technologies, have patented a process of turning so called “excess” IVF embryos into jewellery.

The subtle – and not so subtle – transformations of the body “as mere flesh” into a commodity to be consumed calls to mind a reading from the Epistle of James, a sentence of which reads: “Your gold and silver are corroding, and that same corrosion will testify against you, and it will devour your flesh like fire. (5:3)”

The unceasing proliferation of new ways to turn the body into a consumable might tempt a Christian simply to let it happen, allowing the flesh to be devoured, as if the body were so tainted by sin as to be worthy only to be jettisoned to save the soul.

It is an understandable temptation, but it is also a form of neo-Gnosticism that has no place in the Church.

What is needed is not a more spiritual spirituality that vacates the body, but a redeemed re-occupation of the flesh. For Ward, the starting point is not to endow more value on the body itself, but find the body’s value from its coabiding in the Body of Christ, who rose from physical death and ascended into glory both spiritually and corporeally, and who asks us constantly to remain in him as He in us (John 15:4).