Agency and bodies

January 31, 2011

There is a sense in which we cannot think of agency as pre-structured in our biological make up. Our bodies are conditioned by the political economy within which we move.

Spinoza’s understanding of the human body and the human mind can help us here. For Spinoza, the mind is the idea of the body. It is not that either the mind or the body are in some sense primary, subordinating the other, but that the modifications of the body, the movements of different elements, their contact with other bodies, etc, are the same as the movements of the ideas of the mind. The relationship between the finger and the nose, when one scratches an itch, is the same as the relationship between the idea of the finger and the idea of the nose which are but two elements of the mind, which is the idea of the body. The mind, then, is made up of as many ideas as the body is objects (bones, blood cells, molecules, etc), each idea relating to each other in the same order as the bodies relate to each other within the body. The mind is, in some sense, a representation of the body, that is, the mind represents the body to itself.

Within this conceptualisation of the body and the mind, we can see the body as political, not simply biological. Political economy constitutes the modifications of the body precisely because political economy is the system which constitutes the material conditions of the concrete existence of the body. The human biological organism is itself constituted politically to the extent that political economy creates the conditions under which agents live.

We can also see personal agency as constituted by these factors, since the mind quite literally represents the body. We are our bodies, but our bodies are not simply reducible to their biological constitution.