Science fictions throughout this century have predicted that the human species is headed toward bodylessness. Should we escape the cataclysms of alien invasion, meteoric collision, ecological turmoil, and nuclear holocaust-or perhaps precisely because we do escape such accidents-we are destined to shed our bodies and evolve toward a higher state of being.
The evolution proceeds in stages. First, we grow thinner, taller, lighter, and smarter, along the way we shed unnecessary toes, inefficient body hair, and egregious teeth (first the wisdom, then some others). Next, we learn how to keep the brain alive independently of the rest of the body. Next, we learn how to link our minds telepathically and globally, so that we no longer need to rely upon human muscle power to get anything done: we will be able to teleport obdurate matter from one place to another, refine ores with our left brains, recast the energy of the universe. Finally, we become spirit-entities and join up with spirit-entities from other galaxies in a true paradise of invisible and practically immaterial forms.
Of course, few science fictions allow us to disappear utterly, for that would put an end to human science fiction. And many fictions, dystopic, detail our perpetually grotesque failures to achieve disembodiment. But the ideology is clear and ubiquitous: Evolution means for us to become ever more lightly embodied and ever more mentally endowed.
The image of humanity as, ideally and eventually, nothing more than a set of minds is an image that denies corporeality. In the process of evolving toward a higher state, we lose our physical appetites and no longer need be interrupted by the belligerence of our hormones. We will be free of sexual urges and sensual illusions. We will be chiefly intellect.
Such an image is not exclusively radical or reactionary. It bespeaks the radical desire for universal harmony and a final escape from the ancient tyranny of large, weighty bodies over small, feathery bodies. It bespeaks simultaneously a highly conservative distrust of the body and a fear that we may not survive our own sinfulness unless we divest ourselves of this "filthy matter" known as body. Images of bodilessness are inclined toward fantasies of flight, but these may be fantasies of flight from disasters of the body (infection/desertion, starvation/gluttony, torture/abandonment, senility/premature death) or flight toward detached bodies (floating, fearless -and no longer bound to the ordinary complexities and minutiae of daily life, with all their messy issues of power and pursuit).
We may credit either the Christian or Buddhist world-view, the Cartesian or Spiritualist world-view, the biological or the cybernetic world-view with having spawned this evolutionary ideal of bodilessness. That's the strange and potent thing about it. Evolution toward bodilessness is so much a pert of so many otherwise contrary parts of our civilization that one cannot shake the ideology no matter which way one turns. Salvation seems always to lie with less of a body and more of a mind, whether dedicated to Christ or the Eightfold Path, to reason or to soul, to the replication of the information in strands of DNA or the replication of information imbedded in electronic bits and bytes.
If one should look, therefore, for some deeply fundamental source for the antagonisms toward fat and toward fat people, one will discover this evolutionary ideal of bodilessness. It is not the heavy mammal that will be representative of life on earth in future ages, say science fictions and science predictions, but beings almost incorporeal-a few insects, some translucent creatures in the deepest canyons of the sea, and maybe us, if we only use our brains.
The myth (and it is a myth) that most of us only use about 10% of our brains is an important myth in this respect. The firm implication of the myth is that our bodies, not our minds, do us in. We overuse our bodies or abuse them or are surprised by their immediate fragility, our strong minds, however, are just waiting to be exploited, and unless impeded by convention or by devious molecules infiltrating from down-under (below the chin and the nape of the neck), brains are truly what make us not merely human but nearly immortal.
So the drive toward bodilessness is a drive toward immortality. First, our slow shedding of that which is corruptible, i.e., flesh and bone, next, our survival into a new age that is cybernetic, virtual, and virtuous; next, evolutionary success in other states of mind and other parts of the galaxy, at last, maybe, immortality.
It is ironic that our society should have such an investment in becoming immaterial and invisible, for every great work of literature, tragic or comic, revolves upon the passions and motions which come of our being embodied. Indeed, the trick of being invisible always turns sour once our novelists and playwrights get their hands on it, the Invisible Man is stalked, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes goes mad. In our dramas and musical comedies, the living may do battle with blithe spirits, but no matter how great the horror of a haunting or the terror of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the horror and the terror are not of remaining embodied but of losing one's body to the control of another.
We have, thus, some means by which to defend ourselves, poetically and politically, from the evolutionary ideal of bodilessness. We can point out that, all fictions aside, the daily fact is that being weightless leads often to being inconsequential. We can point out that the evolutionary ideal of bodilessness leads, like anorexia, to suicide, not to salvation. We can point out that being animated, on this earth, in this life, requires a body. The more we pursue the evolutionary ideal of bodilessness, the more we become NoBodies. One could argue, with conviction, that the evolutionary ideal of bodilessness is in the long run an oppressive ideal, deriding and denying the corporeal experiences of poverty, hunger, disease, torture.
One could argue with even more conviction that the evolutionary ideal of bodilessness is patriarchal, in that men Eastern and Western have tended to associate women with body and men with mind, women with the chaos of creation and men with the ordering of that creation, women with the mortality of childbirth and men with the immortality of a calling. Women, then, have more work to do to achieve the evolutionary ideal, wherefore the dieting persuasion.
We have all seen the cinematic brain, thrumming and pulsing with deep thoughts in the middle of its glass cage, fed by tubes of different colors and a few electric wires. That brain, and the mind within it (or beyond it, or ...?) usually dies of cold and disconnection. Why should we continue to harbor and nourish an evolutionary ideal which takes us all toward a cold and disconnected world. Better that we stick with our bodies and learn to treat them neither as temptresses nor as traitors.
They help us tell the time, and we need their lines to help us appreciate our own paths. Those who look for bodies to vanish are, when all is said and done, NoBody's Fool. ß
HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.