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focus for critical study and transformation. Inner body experience
is explained away as the effect of discursive regimes and performances
that work with the body™s external surfaces.19 Being an effect, however,
does not mean being an illusion. From a different angle, Iris Marion
Young warns against re¬‚ective somatic “self-consciousness” as a hin-
drance to women™s using their bodies more actively and freely. “We
feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our body to
make sure it is doing what we wish it to do, rather than paying atten-
tion to what we want to do through our bodies.” Re¬‚ective attention to
bodily experience thus contributes to women™s somatic “timidity, uncer-
tainty, and hesitancy,” their “feeling of incapacity.” Moreover, by objec-
tifying the body as an object of consciousness, experiential self-scrutiny
keeps woman on guard to “keep . . . her[self] in her place” and explains
“why women frequently tend not to move openly, keeping their limbs
enclosed around themselves.”20 In short, the argument seems to be that
focused attention to one™s bodily experience invariably turns oneself into
a mere object of scrutiny, diverting the somatically self-examining woman

19 Butler, Gender Trouble, 134“141, quotation on 136.
20 Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 57, 66“67.
Body Consciousness

from engagement in the world and thus relegating her to the imma-
nence and passivity that Beauvoir condemned as undermining woman™s
Why should scrutiny of one™s somatic experience necessarily con¬ne
oneself to immanence and passivity? If it were some intrinsic logical
relationship between objectifying somatic consciousness and the prop-
erties of immanence and passivity, then men should similarly be affected.
But Beauvoir does not claim that they are, instead insisting that the
self-knowledge and “mastery over his body acquired by an Indian fakir
does not make him the slave of it” (SS, 673). In any case, the argument
that scrutiny of one™s somatic experience necessarily turns one into a
mere immanent and passive object is grounded in false dichotomies of
mind/body, subject/object, self/world, activity/passivity that Beauvoir™s
more subtle appreciation of the body™s ambiguity puts in question. Expe-
riential somaesthetics involves one™s active body-mind in perception and
active movement (even when this is merely the movement of one™s breath
in seated meditation or the contracting of facial muscles in concentrat-
ing one™s attention). Somatic self-awareness activates the whole person,
as subject and object.
Beauvoir™s argument also fails because attention to one™s somatic per-
ceptions is always more than mere immanence of the self; such percep-
tions always go beyond the self by including the environmental context
in which the soma is situated. Bodies, as Beauvoir realizes, are foci of
larger situations that shape and condition those bodies. Just as our world
cannot make sense without a body, our bodies make no sense without
a world. Strictly speaking, we can never feel our body purely in itself;
we always feel the world with it. As already noted, if I remain motion-
less and try to scan and sense my body in itself, I will still feel the chair
or the ¬‚oor on which my body™s weight rests; I will feel the air that ¬lls
its lungs, the effects of gravity, and other external forces on my nervous
system. For such reasons, we should acknowledge Merleau-Ponty™s claim
that consciousness (which includes body consciousness) always is “active
transcendence. The consciousness I have of seeing or feeling is no pas-
sive noting of some psychic event hermetically sealed upon itself, an event
leaving me in doubt about the reality of the thing seen or felt . . . It is the
deep-seated momentum of transcendence which is my very being, the
simultaneous contact with my own being and with the world™s being.”21
Beauvoir herself af¬rms this when she de¬nes the body as “the radiation

21 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 376“377.
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 99

of a subjectivity, the instrument that makes possible the comprehension
of the world” (SS, 267).
Though Beauvoir™s rejection of the empowering and emancipatory
potential of somaesthetics is unconvincing, there is value in her pointing
to the dangers and snares that women risk through heightened cultiva-
tion of the body and somatic self-consciousness. The idea of woman™s
somaesthetic care can be easily misconstrued and degraded as the mere
provision of a pretty face and ¬gure for a desiring man, and a fertile womb
and nourishing breasts for the propagation of the species. Such ever-
present risks were surely more threatening in 1949 when Beauvoir wrote
the book, before the sexual revolution of the sixties and the women™s
movement of the following decades, and before today™s proliferation of
interest in many different forms of body disciplines and sexualities.22
Beauvoir™s cautionary arguments against somaesthetic cultivation, there-
fore, seem more pragmatically justi¬ed for the women of her time than
for ours.23 Even today, she is right that group-directed political action
rather than isolated individual efforts of personal salvation will be more
productive of lasting progress for women and other underprivileged
Nonetheless, as personal feelings of strength and self-awareness feed
into more collective feelings of power and solidarity, so individual efforts
of consciousness-raising and empowerment through somaesthetics (espe-
cially when undertaken with an awareness of the wider social contexts that
structure one™s bodily life) can fruitfully contribute to the larger political
struggles whose results will shape the somatic experience of women in
the future. Indeed, improved somatic cultivation should be recognized
as essential to those struggles, once we appreciate the body™s irreplace-
able instrumentality for all our action and the irreplaceable role of the

22 In France, as late as 1943, a female abortionist was guillotined. “Married women had to
wait until 1965 before gaining the right to open a personal bank account, or to exercise a
profession without the permission of their husbands. Before 1965, moreover, the husband
alone had the right to decide where the couple should live . . . : contraception was only
legalized in France in 1967, and abortion remained outlawed until 1974.” See Moi, Simone
de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, 187.
23 Beauvoir also offers (albeit in what Bergoffen calls her muted rather than dominant

voice) a very positive glimpse of how women (and men) might revel in their bodies once
they are freed of the repressive ideology of patriarchy that infects our loving experience
with con¬‚icts of domination rather than erotics of generosity. “Eroticism and love would
take on the nature of free transcendence,” in which each of the lovers, man and woman,
“in the midst of the carnal fever, is a consenting, a voluntary gift, an activity” living out
“the strange ambiguity of existence made body”; “the humanity of tomorrow will be living
in its ¬‚esh and in its conscious liberty” (SS, 727, 728, 730).
Body Consciousness

individual in the larger domains of social praxis.24 Moreover, granting
greater importance to broad political progress in the public sphere in no
way negates the value of somaesthetic disciplines for achieving personal
ful¬llment and aesthetic richness as an embodied self, whether we pursue
these goals through a male or female body.

What value has somaesthetics for empowering, enriching, and emanci-
pating a subjugated somatic subjectivity shared by hundreds of millions of
men and women “ the embodied consciousness of old age? Once again,
despite Beauvoir™s skepticism toward pragmatic remedies of somatic culti-
vation, her detailed analyses of the problems besetting the elderly strongly
suggest that such remedies should indeed be useful. Though not as in¬‚u-
ential or rigorously argued as The Second Sex, her 1970 book La Vieillesse
(more mildly titled in English as The Coming of Age) is remarkably rich in
information and insight, while passionately exposing a problem of sub-
jugated otherness that philosophy had largely ignored and still neglects
today. Parallel to her views on woman™s domination, Beauvoir effectively
argues that while bodily differences and weaknesses play an important
role in the subordinate status and dominated consciousness of the aged,
this is not simply a case of natural necessity where physiology is destiny.
Though our society “looks upon old age as a kind of shameful secret that
it is unseemly to mention” (CA, 1), Beauvoir shows that in certain other
cultures and historical periods the elderly were held in high esteem. This
elevated status, however, like that of admired women is “never won but
always granted ” by what she regards as the real powers of society “ the
adult males, who may have reasons to af¬rm the value of old age, for
example, as a means to insure tradition and cultural conservatism and to
preserve their own power as they age (CA, 85). But even such granted
authority (which itself needs somehow to be earned or vindicated) clearly
implies that the subjugation of old age is not a mere matter of natural
necessity but the product of an entire social, institutional, and ideological

24 Asone ancient Chinese classic puts it, “The ancients who wished to manifest their clear
character to the world would ¬rst bring order to their states. Those who wished to bring
order to their states would ¬rst regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate
their families would ¬rst cultivate their personal lives.” The Great Learning (Ta-Hsueh) in A
Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1963), 86.
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 101

When a culture evolves very slowly and gives great respect to the expe-
rience of tradition and the ancestral dead, then the elderly who embody
that traditional experience and are closest to the dead are consequently
invested with greater authority. But in societies that privilege transfor-
mation and this-worldly values, it is youth and the prime of life that are
idolized (since they represent the promise and agency of change), while
the elderly are dismissed as useless hangers-on, overrun by progress. Not
surprisingly in our culture, “the standing of old age has been markedly
lowered since the notion of experience has been discredited” (CA, 210).
Modern technological society, with its ever- accelerated pace of invention,
means that one™s past experience and old skills cannot be usefully accu-
mulated and applied but instead becomes an outdated burden that slows
one™s speed in keeping up with the new. Despite the growing old-age mar-
ket, capitalism™s hungry search for new generations of young consumers
(eager to try new commodities and promising many more years of con-
sumption) reinforces our culture™s devaluation of the aged. As Beauvoir
recognizes, it is the meaning that the people of a culture “attribute to
their life, it is their entire system of values that de¬ne the meaning and
the value of old age.” Conversely, a society™s “real principles and aims”
are revealed in how they treat the old (CA, 87).
If the unhappily dominated condition of the aged is essentially the
product of social power, not of bodily limitations (which are simply the
occasions or tools for marking and naturalizing this power), then, Beau-
voir argues, the only way to empower the elderly is through a global trans-
formation of society and its values. Our “scandalous” treatment of old age
she sees as emerging inevitably from the scandalous treatment that soci-
ety in¬‚icts on people already in their youth and maturity. “It prefabricates
the maimed and wretched state that is theirs when they are old. It is the
fault of society that the decline of old age begins too early, that it is rapid,
physically painful and, because they enter in upon it with empty hands,
morally atrocious.” Exploited by a rapaciously pro¬t-hungry society while
they have strength to labor, the working classes “inevitably become ˜throw-
outs,™ ˜rejects,™ once their strength has failed them.” The pervasiveness
of this social oppression, contends Beauvoir, vitiates all piecemeal meth-
ods to improve old age; such “remedies” are a “mockery,” since these
people™s lives and health “cannot be given back.” “We cannot satisfy our-
selves with calling for a more generous ˜old-age policy™, higher pensions,
decent housing and organized leisure. It is the whole system that is at
issue and our claim cannot be otherwise than radical “ change life itself ”
(CA, 542“543).
Body Consciousness

Social factors are undeniably dominant in the subjugation of old age,
and Beauvoir™s call for a global remaking of society to ensure greater
justice for young and old is undeniably inspirational. Less compelling is
her scornful disregard of piecemeal remedies, particularly because such
partial or limited solutions provide necessary building blocks and encour-
aging models for achieving more global social change. I con¬ne myself
here to Beauvoir™s disregard for somaesthetic methods that could help
delay, overcome, or even turn back the bodily incapacities that come with
increasing age and that determine in large part the sense of negativity
and decline that de¬nes old age in our culture.25 Her own analysis of the
problems of old age, I shall argue, clearly implies the value of somatic
First, what exactly is old age for Beauvoir? She never gives this concept a
rigorous logical analysis. Claiming that old age “is not solely a biological,
but also a cultural fact,” she nevertheless, for purposes of clarity (and
given the common retirement age of her time) de¬nes the terms “old,
elderly, and aged” in objective chronological terms as “people of sixty-
¬ve and over” (CA, 13). On the one hand, Beauvoir seems sensitive to
the ambiguity of the concept of age, recognizing that “chronological and
biological ages do not always coincide” so that a person of sixty-¬ve may
be more physically ¬t and in this sense physiologically younger than a
¬fty-¬ve year old. On the other hand, she insists “the words ˜a sixty-year
old™ interpret the same fact for everybody. They correspond to biological
phenomena that may be detected by examination” (CA, 30, 284). There
is also the age one looks, which can be distinguished from one™s biological
age; and Beauvoir seems to give this sense of representational or manifest
age considerable signi¬cance: “physical appearance tells more about the
number of years we have lived than physiological examination” (CA, 30).
Besides these chronological, physiological, and representational senses
of age, a proper analysis of this concept should further include an expe-
riential sense of age (the feelings of being old or middle-aged or in one™s
prime) and also a performative sense relating to one™s abilities to function
in ways that distinguish a person in the prime of life from one with the
functional limits associated with old age. Beauvoir™s discussion of old age

25 In contrast, Beauvoir claims that intellectual powers can be maintained by systematic exer-

cise so as to delay or defy their decline in old age: “the higher the subject™s intellectual
level, the slower and less marked is the decline of his powers”; “there is a great deal of intel-
lectual work performed without any relation to age” and “some very old people . . . prove
more effectual than the young” in such work. Generally, for example, “the philosopher™s
thought grows richer with age” (CA, 34“35, 396).
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 103

ranges over these different senses without distinguishing them clearly and
consistently. Though chronological age is an objective baseline that can-
not be affected (apart from the still barely imaginable exceptions of time
travel and cryonics), other dimensions of aging are far more amenable
to somatic cultivation than Beauvoir recognizes.

One of her more striking claims about old age is its being only knowable
and de¬ned from the outside. It cannot be directly experienced in the
“for-itself” mode of pure subjectivity but can only be grasped indirectly as
an objecti¬ed condition of the self from the perspective of the de¬ning
gaze of other subjects outside oneself who regard that self as old. For Beau-
voir, old age “is a dialectic relationship between my being as [the outside
other] de¬nes it objectively and the awareness of myself that I acquire by
means of him. Within me it is the Other “ that is to say the person I am for
the outsider “ who is old: and that Other is myself ” (CA, 284). Old age
is thus always experienced as something alien that is imposed on oneself
by the gaze of others, similar to the way women have their identity as
inessential Other imposed on them by the socially privileged and de¬n-
ing male gaze. “The aged person comes to feel that he is old by means
of others, and without having experienced important changes.” Lacking
a proper “inward experience” of aging, “his inner being” has trouble
accepting and inhabiting the outer-generated label, so “he no longer
knows who he is”; hence, the discomforting confusion and embarrassed
alienation of old age (CA, 291“292). This troubling disharmony and
alienating disconnect between outer and inner, this inability to experi-
ence from the inside the somatic feelings of aging, clearly demands the


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