The Biopolitics of Chest Hair

The centrefold of the 24 November 2011 edition of Sydney's mX tabloid featured an assortment of celebrities that insured their body parts. Some statistics included Mariah Carey insuring her legs for $1 billion as an accompaniment to an ad campaign by the shaving corporation Gillette. Another included Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera, who insured her teeth for $10 million as part of an ad campaign for a tooth whitening brand. One humorous example included Tom Jones, who insured his chest hair for $7 million.

mX readers might find this report amusing, but this piece is an apt demonstration of the culture of postmodernity at several levels. At one level, it bespeaks of what Foucauldians would call an "insurational imaginary", where the culture's obsession with security in a commercialised culture translates into the proliferation of objects that can be insured. This proliferation means that the body can now become the subject of insurance. What this allows however, is a cultural ceding of the body over to the whims and fancies of business to ascribe value to the body, rather than assume the 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.

However, according to Graham Ward in his Politics of Discipleship, the body celebrated in postmodernity is highly reductionistic. The more the body "as mere flesh" (to borrow Ward's words) becomes celebrated, as it is in consumer culture, the more the body becomes reduced to a blank slate. It becomes stripped of meaning and is rendered a mere commodity, whose value can only be discerned by its being adorned with other commodities, such as jewellery, clothes or on this case, insurance products. The body under such circumstances then becomes highly vulnerable to commercial manipulation. 

What adds to this tragedy is that these commodities that the body requires to attain value themselves have no inherent value. As recent financial crises have demonstrated, monetised products are highly unstable categories, subject only to the whims of the most powerful commercial interests. The body, therefore, in attaching value to itself only insofar as it attaches itself to these commodities, become mere extensions of international business. This 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 Christian must also be vigilant against 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. This neo-Gnosticism has no place in the Church. What is needed is for the flesh to be redeemed. 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 glorified 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).

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