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Bodies of Resistance: Eco-Paganism in the protest movement

Paper presented by Adrian Harris at the 'Society for European Philosophy'  Conference on theme of 'resistance', held at the University of Greenwich, August 26th - 28th 2004


As Ian Burkit says in Bodies of Thought’, the body is the "source of our collective experiences and a site for opposition to established power relations." [Burkitt. Page 6].

In this paper, I’m drawing on the ideas of Foucault, Bourdieu and Lakoff and Johnson to argue that the body is the basis of our being and that intervention at the level of embodiment through ritual can create a form of subjectivity that is resistant to Modern discourses of power. Both Foucault and Bourdieu provide an analysis of social control though embodiment. This control is never complete, and several thinkers have explored models of resistance.


Foucault has already been the subject of considerable discussion at this conference, so I won’t labour over repeating his ideas. I would, however, emphasise that Foucault foregrounds the body as the arena within which discourses of power operate. His later work reveals routes of resistance, several of have already been explored over the last two days.

But David Hoy offers an approach not yet explored during this event. He believes that the possibility of resistance lies in considering ways in which the body has been lived differently. Our current mode of embodiment is only one of several that have been viable in other times or other places. He suggests that "If the body can be shown to have been lived differently historically (through genealogy), or to be lived differently culturally (through ethnography),  then the body can be seen to be "more" than what it now has become".

("Critical Resistance: Foucault and Bourdieu" in Perspectives on Embodiment  by Weiss, G. and Haber, H., (eds.))

I’ll pursue his suggestion shortly, but first I want to look at how we might use the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1990) to provide a more detailed sociological theory of the process by which power relations construct subjectivity.


One of Bourdieu’s key concepts is the notion of the 'habitus', a set of learned dispositions which the body can express within an appropriate social context or 'field'.

Our behaviour is not determined by this system, but it rather provides a practical sense that inclines us towards one behaviour rather than another. It’s a way of being-in-the-world rather than a considered reflection, and so it operates at a level that is at least partly unconscious. The beliefs which order our behaviour are not states of mind but rather states of body, "instilled by the childhood learning that treats the body as a living memory pad". These states, Bourdieu claims, operate through "countless practical metaphors".

Because our social relationships create  habitus, this process is bound up with relations of power. Habitus is expressed in everyday social contexts or 'fields' producing our 'bodily hexis'. This is the way people carry themselves, stand and gesture.

As Bourdieu describes it in his Outline of a Theory of Practice:

"Bodily hexis is political mythology realised, embodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking and thereby of feeling and thinking."

Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. 93, 94.

Bourdieu wants to move away from the antinomies of free will and determinism, and as a result it’s sometimes unclear how much resistance his theory allows. He claims that the habitus can be transformed by changed circumstances, and as a result of 'awakening of consciousness and socioanalysis'. But elsewhere he emphasises that the habitus is inaccessible to conscious recognition and transformation.

The ‘embodied realism’ described by Lakoff and Johnson in ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’  adds another dimension to the work of Foucault and Bourdieu. Echoing the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Lakoff and Johnson claim that "What our bodies are like and how they function in the world - structure the very concepts we can use to think."

Lakoff and Johnson propose that reason arises from our bodily experiences, and that it is mostly unconscious and metaphorical. " Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." (Ibid. p. 3) We use what they call 'embodied Cognitive metaphors' to make sense of our experience. Because they structure how we reason and how we make sense of the world, these metaphorical concepts are much more powerful than conscious beliefs. (Ibid.  p. 57 and 61).

[An example of a Cognitive metaphor]

There are at least two common aspects to these theories. They all claim that

  1. Our behaviour is largely controlled through the body, and
  2. This control is below the level of conscious awareness

In addition metaphor is part of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and is central to Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied realism.

I believe there is sufficient common ground between these theorists to draw two conclusions: Our embodied way of being structures our consciousness and our subjectivity, and therefore changing our embodied way of being alters that subjectivity.


Given that all these aspects of social control are embodied, metaphorical and beneath conscious awareness, then we might expect any technique that engages with them would also be embodied, operate below the level of conscious awareness and use metaphor.

Ritual fits this description perfectly. Foucault often talks in terms of ritual and rites, though he doesn’t discuss them in depth. Bourdieu makes few comments on the subject either, but what he does say is cogent.

He describes religion as having "the power to modify, in a deep and lasting fashion, the practice and world-view of lay people, by imposing on and inculcating in them a particular habitus [1987a: 126]." [(1991) ‘Genesis and structure of the religious field’. Trans. Jenny B. Burnside, Craig Calhoun and Leah Florence. Comparative Social Research, 13: 1- 44.]

Others recognise that this power is more fluid.

Catherine Bell believes that ritual often has a role as a "process for social transformation, for cartharsis, for embodying symbolic values, for defining the nature of the real, or for struggling over control of the sign." (Bell, 1997 p. 89)

Perhaps most significantly for my purposes, Ronald Grimes claims that ritual has "subversive, creative and culturally critical capacities". (Grimes 1990:21). Grimes, Ronald L. (1990) Ritual Criticism. Case Studies in its Practice, Essays on its Theory.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Ritual embodied

The fundamental feature of ritualization is that its strategies are rooted in the body. Because ritual operates in a privileged space a gesture or physical movement becomes more than simply the expression of an inner state. It structures bodies by its very performance. Kneeling in ritual doesn’t just communicate  subordination but produces it in the body. [Bell, Catherine (1992) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University. P.100].

Such bodily strategies produce a somatic knowing that can have a profound impact on our mode of embodiment. Not only does ritual operate on the body. It is also fundamentally metaphorical. James W. Fernandez has formulated a model of the "performative metaphors" that organize ritual. He describes ritual as a strategy for applying metaphors to people's sense of their situation in such a way as to provoke religious experiences of empowerment and euphoria. [James W. Fernandez, "Persuasion and Performances: On the Beast in Every Body . . . And the Metaphors of Everyman," Daedalus 101, no. 1 (Winter 1972): 39-60, especially 54-56.]

Reflective Ritualization

Clearly there is a strong consensus that ritual can have a profound impact on ordering behaviour, so can we construct ‘rituals of resistance’?

Normally, when we think of a ‘ritual’ it is in terms of the classical religious form. Such rituals are fixed and rooted in tradition, so not particularly useful for the purposes of resistance. However not all rituals follow this pattern and a number of groups create intentional rituals for specific purposes.

Feminist rituals are a good example. These may lay claim to a pre-patriarchal heritage of Goddess worship or emphasise ethical experimentation. Whichever, it is clear that these rituals are constructed to create a space of resistance. According to Kay Turner, the feminists using these rituals believe them to be the most "radical affirmation of the revolutionary potential of the feminist movement." [Turner, Contemporary Feminist Rituals, pp. 222.]

I’ll now focus on one group that explicitly uses invented ritual as a technology of political resistance - ‘Eco-Pagans’.

Eco-Paganism is a strand of Neo-Paganism, the fastest growing of the New Religious Movements. Eco-Pagans partly express their spirituality through environmental activism and rituals of resistance. For Neo-Pagans in general the sacred is immanent in the physical world and both the earth and the body, often understood as profane in other religions, are considered as sacred.

In Eco-Pagan practice this belief becomes an embodiment of political commitment. As a result the sacred body is integrated in political strategies of resistance. Many Eco-Pagan beliefs are rooted in eco-philosophy. Elements of Deep Ecology and Eco-Feminism are especially evident. But Eco-Paganism is more than is an expression of a holistic belief system - it is a way of being in the world. Eco-Pagan practice engenders subjective feelings of interconnectedness as well as inspiration to political activism.
(Chapter 4, Alex Plows The what, how and why of the UK environmental direct action movement in the 1990's)

Eco-Pagan rituals are self-consciously constructed as a mechanism to shift consciousness and to archive an explicit purpose. Of course there will always be unplanned effects of a ritual, but the fact that such rituals continue to be practised is some evidence of their efficacy. As we might expect from a belief system that celebrates sensuality and physicality, the body is fundamental to Eco-Pagan ritual.

Body as a site of symbolic resistance

The term ‘ritual’ can be usefully expanded beyond its traditional bounds, and we can describe some Eco-Pagan activism as ritualization.

Such contemporary direct action emphasises what Bronislaw Szerszynski calls the 'politics of vulnerability'. The body becomes the primary 'tool of resistance' (Jordan) in such non-violent direct action. The methods used to delay the authorities operate by emphasising the vulnerability of the protesters. These techniques involve protestors being chained by the neck to bulldozers, hung in nets high above the ground or buried in bunkers or tunnels.

For protestors these actions involve, as one activist describes it, "literally embodying your feelings, performing your politics" (Jordan). This is more than just a means to an end. By placing their bodies at risk activists dramatically highlight the contrast between a 'technocratic culture' disconnected from the body and their own interconnected, fluid 'Festival of Resistance'.

Protestors explicitly identify their own vulnerable bodies with that of the environment. The confrontation of machine and flesh becomes more than a metaphor - The human body is the body of nature. (Jordan.) This identification challenges the dominant ideology at both a physical and a symbolic level. The dominant culture separates human and nature, valuing the former over the latter. But a protestor expresses their belief in the essential unity of bodies through placing themselves at "a point of resistance in the flow of power" (Jordan).

What do these ritual achieve?

On a surface level, these rituals

More significantly perhaps they

These rituals are a physical expression of metaphorical understanding. As such they appear to function in a similar way to Lakoff and Johnson’s cognitive metaphors. Although they may be self-consciously created, rituals always operate primarily below the level of awareness. Rituals may create a metaphorical understanding, far deeper than conscious literal awareness.

I’m proposing that Eco-Pagan ritual can change the embodied mode of being thereby helping to construct a resistant subjectivity. In Foucauldian terms, we might describe these rituals as technologies of the self, which enable Eco-Pagans to resist the discourses of modernity. [Discipline and Punish  p. 138]

What form does this resistant subjectivity take? To address that question I take a genealogical approach. The body is not a given - it has a distinct history. We can map a shift from what Bakhtin calls the open or Grotesque body to the Modern closed body.

The Open and Closed Body

Although the notion of the open and closed body comes primarily from Bakhtin, it has also been theorised by Ian Burkitt and environmental philosopher Glen Mazis.

The notion of the open body emerges in Bakhtin’s description of the Carnival, which played a dominant role in people's lives in medieval Europe. In large cities as much as three months a year was devoted to carnival activities. [Mikhial Bakhtin (1895-1975)]. These were festive public occasions, in which the populace filled the streets, drinking, and masquerading. Bakhtin characterises carnival as a celebration of the body and an openness to life. Carnival was egalitarian and, at least for its limited duration, an open challenge to the establishment. Carnival broke all distinctions between 'the profane and the sacred, the lower and the higher, the spiritual and the material'. (Rabeliais and his World, 285-6)

The Grotesque body

An central aspect of carnival is its attitude to the body, which Bakhtin called the "grotesque". Grotesque bodies are not closed, but are open to the world. Emphasis is placed on body parts that can reach out, such as the nose, the belly, phallus and breasts, and on those open to the world, such as the mouth, genitals and anus. The intent is to reveal the body as part of the world not separate from it. "This is a unfinished and open body without clearly defined boundaries." (Bakhtin, Rabeliais and his World, 1984, pp. 26-7).

It’s important not to overstate the case: Although Bakhtin saw carnival as profoundly subversive, critics suggest that such events act a 'safety-valve' for the release of tension, and thus serve to maintain  the status quo.

My point, however, is that the carnivalesque temporarily creates a different habitus - a ‘open body’ that is more connected to other bodies and the environment around it.

With the Renaissance came what Bakhtin calls the 'Classical Canon' at the core of which was rationalism "created and expressed in Descartes' philosophy and in the aesthetics of classicism". (Ibid.)

The emphasis shifted away from the body's openings and protuberances, to its surface - the skin, musculature and, in particular, to the eyes. [Bukitt, op. cit. page 48]

Bodies began to acquire a private, nature, closed off to the world. At the same time there emerged notions of good manners that required careful control of the body.

The Classical Cannon also brought a different emphasis in sense perception. Vision, linked directly to intellectual understanding, becomes increasingly important, while the other senses became secondary. Lakoff and Johnson’s notion of metaphorical reason offers insights - if you see what I mean. We typically speak of clarity of thought - a visual metaphor, whereas instinctive understanding is expressed in other sensory terms - We ‘smell a rat’ when we get a ‘gut feeling’ that something is a bit ‘fishy’.

This sensory evidence of a political condition is borne out by Foucault and Bourdieu, who both maintain that the perceptual is itself conditioned by the social.

The Classical Cannon established a close link between seeing and knowing that remains with us today. Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature ,1980) has emphasized how modern thought conceptualizes the mind using the metaphor of sight. We talk about the 'the mind's eye' which enables us to have a privileged view of reality. The implication is that this is potentially a God like perspective, but this is a fictional view from nowhere. It is the regime of the Cartesian cogito, which represents the habitus of the modern mind. It is at once disembodied, monologic, and ocularcentric.

Feminist epistemology has explored these relationships. Genivive Lloyd, for example, claims that the legacy of Descartes philosophy is an association of women with the sensuous, irrational body and men with the non-sensuous rational mind. [The Man of Reason, 1994]. Western civilisation, then, has created a disembodied alienated and ‘closed body’. Sensuality is bracketed - It's not an integrated part of our everyday existence, but some kind of 'naughty treat'.

The ‘open’ body, however, resists the controlling discourses of Modernity. It celebrates embodiment and sensuality and tends towards a subjectivity that is less individualistic. In fact a fully embodied sensuality could break down the apparent division between body/self and the 'other'. In conclusion then, I suggest that Eco-Pagan ritual practice is a key technique in changing the embodied awareness of participants, so changing their subjectivity. This more ‘open’ subjectivity can help construct 'bodies' which resist the dominate discourses of Modernity. These bodies of resistance are not docile, consuming or productive in the way required by capitalism. They are instead, confrontational and culturally subversive.

Select Bibliography:

Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World

Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Oxford university Press, New York, 1992

Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. (Trans. Nice). Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990 

Braidotti. Patterns of Dissonance. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991

Burkitt, Ian, Bodies of Thought, Sage Publications, London, 1999

Drefus and Rabinow, Michel Foucault. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. University of Chicago Press, 1983

Falk, Pasi,The Consuming Body. London: Sage. 1994

Foucault, M.,The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon, New York, 1978

- (1977). Discipline and Punish: The birth of prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Allen Lane.1977

- The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality. (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage. 1980

-Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977  Pantheon Books (New York), 1980

Jordan, John . ‘The art of necessity: the subversive imagination of anti-road protest and Reclaim the Streets’. in DiY Culture. Party & Protest in Nineties Britain. Edited by George McKay. 310 pp. London and New York: Verso, 1998.

Plows, Alex. The what, how and why of the UK environmental direct action movement in the 1990's. Unpublished PhD. thesis.

Weiss, G. and Haber, H., (eds.) . Perspectives on Embodiment : The Intersections of Nature and Culture. Routledge, New York, 1999.

Jenkins, Richard, Pierre Bourdieu. Routledge,London and New York. 1992.

Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999

Martin, Randy, Performance as Political Act: The Embodied Self, Bergin and Garvey, New York 1990.

Starhawk, Dreaming The Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, Beacon Press, Boston, 1982.

- Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2002

Turner, Victor., (1982), From Ritual to Theatre, PAJ Publications, New York,

Lechte, John , Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, Routledge, 1994.

Weedon, Chris. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory.  Blackwell 1987.

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