Ambivalent Concepts of the Border: Political Borders – Bodily Boundaries

Ambivalent Concepts of the Border: Political Borders – Bodily Boundaries

Veronika Magyar-Haas, University of Zurich


“How is it” asked Joseph Roth in 1927 (1976b, 724), in his Briefe aus Deutschland (Letters from Germany), “that with the invalidity of a visa, a pathetic line with a cheap pencil through a passport, the world suddenly looks very different, the melancholy of farewell slips into the heart, together with its rival, the melancholy of expectation? Unfathomable folly of the human soul, whose depths can be stirred by any event, however ludicrous”. This folly may stand for the internal acceptance, in part even the subjective incorporation, of political borders, and is “achieved when the individual begins to think and feel in the categories prescribed for him by territorial classification” (Lamping 2001, 24). According to Joseph Roth (1976a, 819) borders are effectively invisible; they are marked symbolically, emblematically, with “wooden barriers, watchtowers, customs officials […], as dots, dashes, lines and so on”, in order to make them recognizable. This symbolic character, which, according to Roth, denotes not “natural” but “unnatural”, “artificial” political borders, also points to the coercive and arbitrary nature of political borders: “Where borders are drawn, power is exercised” (Lamping 2001, 22). Roth depicts the forms of this exercise of state power and dominance in his literary accounts of bureaucratic processes at the border – processes that operate, subtly or quite explicitly, with demarcation, dissociation and exclusion. “Once a state defines itself nationally, an individual who is not part of the majority can be estranged from his homeland – whether by being kept from it, or by being declared an alien in his own country” (op. cit. 29).

Roth‘s critique of nationalism, his criticism of the borders of the 1920s, and his abiding commitment to a supra-national ideal, are not unique in a literary context, though Roth does seem unique as a master of “subtle, exact observation of reality and warm, gentle participation in humanity” (Magris 1988, 255). The criticism of the ‘new borders’ established after the First World War, and of the exercise of political power associated with them, was a key aspect of many works of literature. Tucholsky too interpreted, and described, borders not only as “unnatural” but also as inhuman (Lamping 2001, 31). His criticism of borders is accompanied by a universalist perspective, as he remarks ironically in his short text Die Grenze (The Border) of 1920: “We cut ourselves off. We need a border. Foe we are something special. But one earth curves beneath foolish men, one ground below them and one sky above” (Tucholsky 1920/1993, 370). Border controls before the fall of the Iron Curtain, but also still in the 1990s, provided sufficient opportunity for portraying bureaucracy, controls and existential threats as multifaceted forms of state power with enduring totalitarian characteristics, as in Imre Kertész’s short story Protokoll (Protocol) (1991/2002), in which he recounts the customs inspections during a train journey from Budapest to Vienna, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In Roth and Tucholsky’s conceptualization and interpretation of the border, it seems to impose a powerful separation within what already exists, is already known and shared (landscapes, social relationships). It is not the unknown that presents itself as something ‘new’ or ‘strange’ when the border of the known is crossed. As Dieter Lamping (2001, 31) put it, in allusion to the author Wolfgang Koeppen, “the ‘new borders’ do not separate what had always been separate”, for “the supposedly foreign across the border was really already known, indeed familiar, and had only been rendered foreign by the border itself”. Notable aspects here for an analysis of the border in a political context are that the process of drawing or even dissolution of borders is a demonstration of power, and that in or through it differences and foreignness are constructed. On the other hand, the question arises of the construction and politicization of something ‘common’ going beyond the border itself, by means of which the border may perhaps be dismantled, and re-erected elsewhere.

2        Conceptions of the ‘political border’ – references in various disciplines

This political understanding of the ‘border’ in its territorial relationships developed in literature, becomes in geography, political science and history, more focused, and linked with the state and state sovereignty (Wastl-Walter 2011; Haubrichs/Schneider 1994). The phenomenon of ‘the border’, its constitution, shifts and apparent dissolution, have now increasingly become the subject of other scientific discourses. Sociology, for instance, begins work on borders at the latest with Georg Simmel, who in 1908 held that the border “is not a spatial fact with sociological impact, but a sociological fact that takes shape spatially” (Simmel 1908, 623). It is no great surprise that, in the wake of the so-called ‘spatial turn’, greater attention was devoted to the significance of the border as a spatial and differential determinant. The social sciences (Eigmüller/Vobruba 2006; Silberman et al. 2012), and migration research in particular (Lenz et al. 2002), as well as literature and cultural studies (Faber/Naumann 1995; Frank 2006), have increasingly, and systematically, adopted the topic in recent years. The relevance of the border in the context of philosophy – at least in the German-speaking region – is shown in that the XIX. German Congress of Philosophy chose as its main topic Grenzen und Grenzüberschreitungen (Borders and Border-crossings). The articles published in the proceedings (Hogrebe 2002) provide an impressive perspective on the various facets of the negotiability of borders.

In these briefly sketched studies, the border functions, beyond its spatial aspect, as a subject of analysis. Borders are principally understood as constructs that refer to political, social and cultural positioning and negotiating processes (Geisen/Karcher 2003) and are specifically not seen as ahistorical, universally valid or essentialist (Baltes-Löhr 2003, 96). Depending on the theoretical orientation, the ‘border’ is conceived quasi as a factor for order, a dividing line, in its significance as determining what is internal and external, in its dual function of inclusion und exclusion (Hahn/Schorch 2007). For the latter, recourse can be had to Alois Hahn (2003, 45), who reconstructs the extent to which “borders established through inclusion and exclusion represent processes of social differentiation”. The ‘border’ can also be interpreted as a permeable opportunity for selection (Geisen/Karcher 2003, 9), as a transition, or as an interspace, an independent place for meetings, separations and connections (Geisen 2003, 118) or as the outcome of discursive processes (Agnew 2008).

Current analyses point critically to the linear conceptualization of the border in the context of the “struggle for order in the modern era”, where the border becomes “a line at which the decision is taken; at which the logic of ‘either or’ demands a decision” (Geisen 2003, 116). This modern understanding of the border as a cut, a dividing line, where “transitions and indifferent zones have to give way to clear conditions” (Bauer/Rahn 1997, 7), is taken up critically primarily in post-colonial and post-modern debate (see Bauman 1992) – for it is here that praxes and dynamics of demarcation and exclusion are thematically connoted (Geisen 2003, 113-116), and, analogously, with borders the connotation is rather with interstices, indifference, ambivalence (Baltes-Löhr 2003, 85).

In the context of the previous interpretation of ‘political borders’, the question arises of the relationship, perhaps the interlinking of hegemonic borders generated materially and discursively. If we share Roth’s assessment that the material borders of sovereignty do not exist, but rather the concept of this sovereignty is objectified in the form of various signs, it can be assumed that the material and discursive formation of borders are mutually dependent. This perspective was shared by the geographer John Agnew (2008, 181) when he formulates that borders are “literally imposition on the world”, though are not to be understood entirely metaphorically, without their materiality. Borders are also characterized by instability that “lend them such symbolic power” (Lüthi/Rürup 2009). Borders must necessarily be unstable if they are to be understood – as by Roth and Tucholsky – as “socio-territorial constructs and the outcomes of social praxes and discourse” (op. cit.). Paradoxically, from a historical perspective, it is the very instability of borders that may necessitate efforts to reinforce them – but also to shift them (in the case of imperial territorial demands, for instance), make them flexible, or abolish them, depending on which ‘side’ of the border, or which interests on one or the other side of the border are focused on.

Systematically – and with reference to Lüthi and Rürup (2009) – it can be summarized that borders are, firstly, changeable, and are constructed politically, socially and culturally in specific historical contexts; secondly, that it is these constructed borders that produce differences, and thus assert inclusion/exclusion; thirdly, that they are products and producer of discourse and conflicts that bear witness to power dynamics and hierarchies in the drawing of the boundaries. This perspective, that borders are products and thus the “outcomes of political interest and decisions” and simultaneously “producers of a society formed by this political order” is advanced particularly by Eigmüller (2006, 59), who attempts to outline a current theory of the border on the basis of this dual character.

Below, the question of the applicability of such a definition of the border to pedagogical issues is pursued. The first step is to reconstruct how and at what levels the topic of borders has been handled in German-speaking discourse. The focus then shifts more specifically at the topic, hitherto rather neglected in pedagogy, of bodily borders or boundaries.

3        Conceptions of borders and boundaries in educational-science and popular-pedagogy discourse

The German word Grenze is used for a phenomenon that divides, or links, two different areas, sectors, conditions, materialities, relationships, etc. Thus, Grenze can be used to translate the English terms ‘border’, ‘boundary’, ‘limit’ or ‘frontier’. Because the term can be applied in such a variety of contexts, there is a danger that it will be used imprecisely, even in scientific analyses. In the following reconstruction of the treatment of the topic of borders in German-speaking academic and popular pedagogical debate, an effort is made to apply the exact English equivalent for the concept of Grenze. This should make it possible to take a more differentiated approach to the varied aspects contained within the concept of Grenze, and also enable a sharper perception and a more systematic approach to the concept.

The question of the ‘limits of education’ has more or less explicitly accompanied the entire history of the discipline of pedagogy and of ideas and reflections on educational activity, and was thus not first raised in a German-speaking context by Siegfried Bernfeld (1925, 11) in his treatise Sisyphos oder die Grenzen der Erziehung (Sisyphus, or the Limits of Education). But Bernfeld did insist, at an early stage and in a context of an acknowledgement of the limits of education, on the need to clarify these limits scientifically; to pursue the question of what contributions are made by politics and social conditions to setting the limits of education, or to hindering its ‘success’ (Andresen 2007, 123). The discussions are linked, via the ‘limits of education’, with both the ‘efficacy of education’ – as determined by Peter Dudek (1999, 11) for the discussions in the 1990s – and also with the ‘limits of the educator’: with his or her power and, in particular, powerlessness (Bilstein 2007).

Secondly, the topic of ‘limits’ also receives prominent treatment in pedagogic advisory literature, from the aspect of why, how and that children need limits (see Rogge 1993, 2010; Prekop 2006). This postulate of setting limits or defining boundaries appears so attractive that it has generated a whole ‘consultancy industry’ over recent decades. But articles addressing the setting of boundaries are also to be found in an academic context (see Thiersch/Thiersch 2003).

Such approaches to boundary-setting were accompanied by two discussion threads. On the one hand, they were accompanied by calls, and proposals, for more discipline[1] (see e.g. Bueb 2006 and, critical thereof[2], Brumlik 2007). These were enthusiastically propagated as “solutions” for the “emergencies”[3] identified in the context of education in various crisis diagnoses, at the latest from 2000 onwards (Gaschke 2001; Gerster/Nürnberger 2003; Ludwig/Mannes 2003) and proclaimed in the wake of PISA. On the other hand, the discourse on boundary-setting runs in parallel with debates on “unlimited” encouragement, or overencouragement, of children[4], in which ambition is understood as early investment in human capital (Chua 2011; Bergmann 2011; Thimm 2011).

Another, third, dimension of the consideration of boundaries is to be found in the phenomenon of border or boundary violations. This topic has increasingly become a focus of educational research since the media coverage of child abuse scandals in recent years. This is manifested, for example, in the anthology Zerstörerische Vorgänge – Missachtung und sexuelle Gewalt gegen Kinder und Jugendliche in Institutionen (Destructive Processes – Neglect and Sexual Violence to Children and Young People in Institutions) by Sabine Andresen and Wilhelm Heitmeyer (2012), in which the topic of the violation of body, personal and sexual boundaries is treated systematically and from interdisciplinary perspectives.

Fabian Kessl and Susanne Maurer (2010) adopt the systematic proposal of defining social work as boundary-work, thus signalling a fourth dimension in the treatment of boundaries in pedagogy. On the understanding that boundaries are “spatial formats of the expression of political power and dominance relationships“, Kessl (2009, 47f) sees the task of social work as “permanently deciphering and problematizing power structures in order to expand, multiply or undermine existing boundaries – with the aim of either expanding users’ or addressees’ options for action, or even of opening up other options than the given ones”. From this perspective, social work can be defined as a ‘boundary-work science’ or as ‘(socio-)pedagogical boundary-work’. The range of tasks can, though, be expanded to include a further aspect: the reconstruction of the conditions for the production of boundary settings and boundary negotiations (see op. cit. 50). For the setting or drawing of boundaries also creates powerful differences, which can be more strongly reflected and deconstructed by focusing on the conditions for the production of boundaries. In defining social work as boundary-work, it appears to be problematic that the concept of the co-production of boundaries by social work – that is, its own share in the setting of various boundaries – is not really taken into consideration, or is masked. This may create the impression that social work stands ‘outside’ and deals with the boundaries set by others, without being itself involved in the production of boundaries.

With the first two heterogeneous dimensions of the debates in the educational science and social/pedagogical sector outlined above, a common characteristic can be seen, in that the concept of the boundary itself is seldom thematized. It remains fairly undifferentiated, and there is little systematic analysis. The propagation of boundary-setting in advisory literature must be implicitly accompanied by a concept of boundaries as simply ‘settable’, fixable, without reflecting the contextual specificity, diffuseness, negotiability and acceptability of boundaries. The first two levels of discussion here outlined no more offer a theory of the boundary than they take account of or address the relevance for social/pedagogical issues of theoretical reflections on the ‘boundary’.

After consideration of the concept of the political border set out above – with its characteristics of being constructed and changeable, producing difference and bearing witness to power dynamics and hierarchies – and an outline of the levels at which borders are approached in popular pedagogical and educational-science contexts, the focus then shifts to the boundaries of the body. This topic is highly relevant to educational science and (social-)pedagogy research and theory[5]. Further, though, it should also enable an expansion of the concept of the border or boundary, with additional aspects and ambivalences, and further investigation into the significance of a border-theory prospective of the body for pedagogical analysis.

4        Borders of the body – the body as border

A historical perspective reveals how strongly the practical approach described as pedagogical has been oriented on the body – usually punitively, disciplining, norming and setting boundaries. With reference to Elias (1939) and to Foucault, who demonstrated how, by means of observation, monitoring or punishment, disciplining in schools made “the bodies of children the object of highly complex manipulation and conditioning” (Foucault 1978, 43), the history of education can well be regarded as a history of bodily disciplining (Zirfas 2004). From a historical perspective, however, there was for a long time no reflection on ways of dealing with the body. It can thus be said that the body, always present in the practical approach of (social) pedagogy, has been remarkably absent at the levels of analytical reflection, theoretical discussion and pedagogical research.

Only since the 1990s, when the relationship between body and society was systematically analyzed, primarily in English-language studies, and a sociology of the body began to become established (Featherstone/Turner 1995; Turner 1997, 2008; Evans/Lee 2002), has there been a vast proliferation of sociological publications that coined the expressions ‘body turn’, ‘corporeal turn’ and ‘somatic turn’ for this phenomenon. The question does arise, though, of how far it is possible, in the various disciplines, to speak of a body-turn in systematic terms, in the sense of a paradigm shift. For sociology, Gugutzer (2006) shows that while at the level of sociological research a clearly defined, empirical and theoretical focus on the body as a research subject can be seen, at the level of sociological theory and epistemology the body-turn is “work still to be done” (Gugutzer 2006, 10). This analysis would also apply to pedagogy.

Any systematic consideration of the ‘boundaries of the body’ requires, to begin with, a reasoned definition of the concept of the body in this paper. German offers two expressions: Körper and Leib. These expressions represent analytical differentiation, and are also used differentially in the history of philosophy. A similar differentiation between Körper and Leib also occurs in the Anglophone context with the distinction between “having a body” and “being a body” (Mellor/Shilling 1997, 49; Crossley 2001, 6). Bryan S. Turner (2008, 245) takes account of a further, third, dimension of embodiment, which he describes as “doing a body in the sense of producing a body through time”. In French, Merleau-Ponty, in his Phénoménologie de la perception (The Phenomenology of Perception) for instance, uses different adjectives for analytical differentiation: “le corps vivant” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 67), “corps phénoménal” (op. cit. 123) and “corps propre” (op. cit. 173), and emphasizes that “le corps objectif n’est pas la vérité du corps phénoménal, c’est-à-dire la vérité du corps tel que nous le vivons” (op. cit. 493).

The differentiation between Körper and Leib is developed most prominently and systematically by the philosopher Helmuth Plessner, on the basis of his thoughts on the theory of the boundary. The concept of the boundary is an anchor-point for Plessner’s phenomenologically oriented biophilosophy of 1928. He states that the “phenomenon of aliveness (Lebendigkeit) rests solely on the special relationship of a body with its boundary” (Plessner 1928/2003, 175), and develops, on this phenomenological basis, the different ‘levels of the organic’ as various forms of boundary relationships. What is significant here is that Plessner – contrary, for example, to current biomedical discourse – expressly does not assume that the body “ends at the skin” (Goslinga-Roy 2000, 121) so that the skin or membrane can be defined as the boundary of the body. For Plessner, the boundary is not an edge of delimitation (Plessner 1928/2003, 182), nor is it a ‘line’ or an ‘end’, however defined. The boundary is a relationship. It is realized in the “habitual bodily interplay between spatial and temporal possibilities” (Krüger 2001, 269). The boundary thus created divides and unites ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; it both shuts off the inside from the outside and also opens them up to one another, from whence comes its relationship-like character. The ‘boundary’ is thus conceived not only in its character of something that shuts off, but also in its potential to open up contiguous areas (the bodily self and the environment, self and other) to one another. Thus regarded, the body can be defined as the boundary both of expression and of perception. So, the boundary is not something static, but rather something plastic, malleable, always appearing differently in the many and varied different situations.

Plessner thus defines humans as living beings that are “set within the boundaries of the body and a corresponding environment – ‘positioned’ – and at the same time beyond it and open to the world – ‘ex-centric’ – and, from the ‘ex-centric’ point of its position, draw ‘artificial’ boundaries, and must then ‘embody’ them”[6]. Because humans are ‘ex-centrically positioned’ they are aware of the character of their own boundaries, of their position within boundaries to which they have to maintain varying relationships, in that broken state between the potential and the actual, between the expected and the realizable. ‘Ex-centricity’ indicates both that humans are ambivalent, in and beyond themselves, and in a relationship of indefiniteness to themselves, and also the existential relevance of society, culture and artificiality.

The “human disequilibrium” thus understood – the specific boundary situation that is characterized by the particular internal/external relationship – is always endangered. “Visible rage, visible mourning, visible antipathy, the utterly blatant revelation of the state of the soul […] always betrays too much, and thus betrays the whole soul” (Plessner 1924/2003, 71). Plessner focuses on the intersubjective sphere, and the approaches he propagates in the interim – such as the relevance of masks and disguise – are relevant and deserving of recognition not only with regard to individual self-respect but also for the sake of the other soul. From this perspective, situations in which the risk of loss of face or ridicule threatens can be regarded as situations of potential vulnerability, affecting human dignity. This aspect, the potential for loss of face in social situations, which could be embarrassing for the self and for other, and thus require – according to Plessner’s logic – masks and tact in order to be less exposed to the potential loss of face, is of key importance. The ‘boundary situation’ outlined thus harbours a potential ‘risk of ridicule’ that requires compensation: “clothing with form” (op. cit. 71f.). This seems – in Plessner’s analysis – to be the reason that people allow one another the ‘wearing of masks’, and make use of the two social “arts” of diplomacy and tact in the public sphere (op. cit. 99, 109). The existential relevance of the drawing of ‘artificial’ boundaries also seems to be significant for the fact that Plessner systematically develops the concept of the ‘persona’ in the sense of a mask, and that it functions virtually as the foundation of his writing in the context of the philosophy of expression.

In these texts, such as Lachen und Weinen (Laughing and Crying), from 1941, Plessner deals systematically with the difference between Körper as ‘the body that I have’, the rather “objectual-instrumental body” (Honneth/Joas 1988, 76) and Leib as ‘the body that I am’, the “lived body” (Krüger 2010, 256): “Bodily being (körperleibliches Dasein) is for humans a relationship, not unequivocal but ambiguous, a relationship between self and self” (Plessner 1941/2003, 238f.). It is in this ambiguous relationship, this ‘state’ (‘Zuständlichkeit’) and ‘objectivity’ (‘Gegenständlichkeit’) of the bodily situation (op. cit. 242), in the possibility of distancing from ‘being’ to ‘having’ that human lifestyle can be recognized as ‘ex-centric’. It is this ‘ex-centric positionality’ that makes it possible to perceive the ‘body that I am’ as a ‘body that I have’, as something objective, manipulable, tattooable, alienable, ownable, possessable. But this understanding of the disposability of the body – on which biomedical discourse focuses almost exclusively – has its limits: the body as a thing is absolutely different from other things, because it is the person him or herself (op. cit. 246). The notion of the commodification of the ‘objectual body’ (Körper) ends with the ‘lived body that I am’ (Leib), both embedded in, and exposed to, biographical, social, and historical contexts. The ‘body that I am’ can be used as a means or instrument, in that one has it. In addition to the body’s instrumentality, Plessner also emphasizes its expressivity in gesture, facial expression, posture, language, in ‘laughing and crying’ (op. cit. 248). Thus, the body can be defined as an expressive surface, as “a lived boundary surface against the environment” (op. cit. 249), which humans are aware of.

Numerous phenomenological approaches operate with this differentiation between having and being a body, which is central to Plessner’s philosophy, and which has enabled his approaches to enjoy a renaissance in debates in the context of philosophy (of emotions) and sociology (of the body) for some two decades now. The relevance of this differentiation can also be traced at a systematic theoretical level: when phenomenological approaches see perception by the ‘lived body’ (leibliche Wahrnehmung) as relevant, or when post-structuralist perspectives construe the body as something formed discursively (Körper). Some interpretations seek to link the two apparently mutually incompatible theoretical approaches of phenomenology and post-structuralism. This enables the conceptualization of the body as “social and thus not natural (in the sense of pre-societal)”, “without losing sight of its materiality and the experience of self that goes with it” (Jäger 2004, 15).

Plessner’s differentiation between ‘having a body’ and ‘being a body’ has been further developed by Gesa Lindemann inasmuch as she has virtually freed his approach from the “earthly remains” (Plessner 1941, 210). For Lindemann (1995, 139) there can be “neither a natural body nor a natural experience of one’s own being”. The body is understood as body-knowledge (Körper-Wissen), and Plessner’s distinguishing characteristics of the ‘objectivity’ (Gegenständlichkeit) of the body that I have and ‘state’ (Zuständlichkeit) of the body that I am are transferred to the ‘lived body’ (Leib), through a distinction between an active and a passive dimension of experience of the body (op. cit. 138f.). Active means the experience of the body as a means of activity, of the representation of social order, etc. The passivity of the experience of the body is revealed in its traces, in exposure to feelings, pain or lust. In that, according to Lindemann (op. cit. 133) the ‘lived body’ (Leib) can only be experienced in relation to certain knowledge of the body, its experiences are incorporated body-knowledge. From this perspective, the body can be defined as biologically, medically, anatomically based body-knowledge, and thus as a “form of political power and dominance” (op. cit. 138). Further, the question arises of which medical, biological discourse the experience of the body is embedded in; with regard to what body-knowledge the body can be experienced.

Numerous post-structural approaches address body-knowledge. In them, the ‘body’ is not seen as something ‘natural’; rather, after Foucault, it originates in the nexus of power and knowledge, and can thus be regarded, even in its materiality, as the ‘effect’ of powerful practices and discourses (Siebenpfeiffer 2008, 56). Foucault sees power (1978, 35) as simultaneously repressive and productive; it “pervades the body, produces things, causes lust, generates knowledge, produces discourses”. Power generates knowledge and the knowledge structured around the body determines the ways of dealing with it. Foucault (op. cit. 108) shows, “how power dynamics can penetrate materially to the depths of the body, without being assumed by the perceptions of the subject”. In the third volume of his Histoire de la sexualité (1984) he shifts the perspective to the body as part of the self that can be cared for. Current diagnoses of the present take these thoughts further. The emphasis in these ideas is on social norms and expectations regarding a ‘healthy’ and ‘beautiful’ body, on the basis of which constructions the ‘material’ body can be formed and adjusted by various “technologies of the self”, in the form of diets, wellness, fitness (Duttweiler 2003; Klein 2008). For Judith Butler too, the body is regarded as produced by means of performative acts, so that the differentiation between sex and gender, relevant for early feminist approaches, becomes untenable. Butler (1993/2011, XXI) argues that “performativity is thus not a singular ‘act’, for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. […] Within speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names”. Of central importance for Butler here is materialization, by which is meant the process of the discursive production of material reality, and which thus points beyond the incorporation of normative order.

5        Concluding reflections: the constitutive vulnerability of bodily being

Helmuth Plessner defined the body anthropologically in the context of the 1920s, and made a significant contribution to rendering the boundaried (grenzhaft) being of the body, in its state of relationship, accessible to further, and particularly phenomenological research. If, however, the ‘body’ is defined social-ontologically, as most recently done by Judith Butler (2010), it can be significantly more clearly seen in its defencelessness, vulnerability and endangeredness, through its dependency on others and on social, political, economic and ecological conditions – and thus conceptualized as a boundary (Brumlik 2002, 76). “The ‘being’ of the body” – which can here be taken as Leib – “is one that is always given over to others, to norms, to social and political organizations that have developed historically in order to maximize precariousness for some and minimize precariousness for others” (Butler 2010, 2f.). “Precariousness” here means “not simply as a feature of this or that life, but as a generalized condition” (op. cit. 22). If “precariousness” is understood as the defenceless, as boundaried being of the body, then this creates political, ethical and social obligations and responsibilities with regard to the body itself, but also with regard to the prevailing social and material conditions. For a pedagogical perspective, the recognition of social dependence and constitutive vulnerability – here understood as the boundaried character of bodily existence – means the relevance of analysis of ways of dealing with the conditionality of bodily being just as much as the relevance of analysis of the surrounding conditions.

A political education, such as that conceived by Carsten Bünger and Felix Trautmann (2012, 408-412) with reference to Butler, absolutely requires critical reflection on hegemonic patterns of perception and questions concerning the boundaries of perceptibility and the political shaping of precariousness. It is thus not a matter of “paternalistic pedagogy”, but rather a “political formation of receptivity”, which “questions why ‘we’ can only seldom perceive what draws to ‘our’ attention the shared threat, in whose unequal distribution ‘we’ have a share” (op. cit. 412). A reflective approach to this question, which takes seriously the constitutive conditionality, vulnerability, and thus boundaried character of bodily existence, and the social ontology of the body, could very well be formulated as a further subject for pedagogical research and theory development.


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Author´s Address:
Veronika Magyar-Haas
University of Zurich
Institute of Education
CH-8032 Zurich
Tel: ++ 41 44 634 27 24

[1] The relevance of ‘effective discipline’ was also propagated in English-language guidebooks, such as that by Judith A. Myers-Walls (1980), who understood discipline as a “parent-solving response utilized by parents to help their children learn”.

[2] A critical discussion from democratic-theory perspectives of the discipline advocated by Bueb is also to be found in the contributions of the neue praxis (Otto/Thiersch 2007).

[3] See also


[5] On the following considerations, systematically and in greater detail, see Magyar-Haas 2013.

[6] Thus the Helmuth-Plessner-Gesellschaft summarizes Plessner’s understanding of humans, at: http://www.