Sep 8, 2019

What can a body do?

My book has a title! WHAT CAN A BODY DO? How We Meet the Built World. The chapters are organized by objects and environments—Limb, Chair, Room, Street, and more—and it comes out next summer from Riverhead Books. I’m thrilled.

Philosophy nerds will recognize that the question is originally Spinoza’s, taken up later by Gilles Deleuze. What can a body do? That is to say, not what IS a body, but what are its possibilities? (For your sake and mine, I am not writing a philosophy book.)

The people and organizations I report on are doing design, building material possibilities with this question in mind, the work of “social imagination” that Maxine Greene called “thinking as if things could be otherwise.” With material stuff—a prosthesis for changing a diaper one-handed, and thousands of bespoke chairs made out of cardboard, and an automated home for living with ALS long past one’s expected lifespan, and more.

What can a body do? It depends, in the most interesting and politically charged ways: It depends not just on the body but on the extended shapes of the world around it in every way. Who gets down the street, into the bus, to the classroom or the voting booth, a shot at the interview?

I learned to connect this question to disability studies from a line of Judith Butler’s dialogue in this brilliant film from Astra Taylor, Examined Life, starring Butler in conversation with Sunaura Taylor. This is the most important piece of media I show to students, and you should see it.

And the amazing Amanda Cachia, who opens my book’s introduction with the idea for a design project she brought to my lab, curated an exhibition some years ago invoking Deleuze’s same question.

For me, this long-held query remains open and unsolved, and therefore a perfect invitation to the reader—not as philosophy, but as stunningly creative and deeply urgent adaptive experience. What can a body do? Yours and those of others? It depends on bodies in a riotous, multidirectional exchange with the built world—products, environments, systems, and more.