I have always shied away from thinking and writing about “the body,” a theme that had been fashionable in philosophy and social theory at least since the 1980s. Not that I find the topic excessively intimate; on the contrary, it seems to me that the body is too idealist, too abstract even, to say anything meaningful about. As a concept, it is still marked by its corralling in the infamous mind-body split that poisons everything on either side of the divide.
Things are different with respect to specific organs and positions. I have recently realized that, holding the bones together and supporting movement, joints are the body parts that epitomize our epoch. Even the complex apparatus of the nervous system does not do justice to this age of connectivity and disarticulation, of linkages and dislocations, to the same extent as joints that also play a literal role in today’s politics and everyday life.
Two events have hurled elbows and knees, among other joints of the extremities, into the spotlight: the COVID19 pandemic and what is now officially confirmed as the homicide of George Floyd in police custody.
In the pandemic, elbows have been entrusted with the work of the hand, whether constructive or destructive, intentional or not. To minimize the possibility of passing the new coronavirus to others, we now take part in an equally new etiquette. An alternative way of greeting that has replaced handshakes is an elbow bump, while coughs and sneezes must be contained in an arm folded at the elbow. A peaceful salutation and danger converge on the same joint (with the minor nuance that the first activates the outer side of the elbow, and the second belongs to the inner pit) and even on the same position of the extremity it is a part of.
The death of George Floyd followed a nearly nine-minute period when police officer Derek Chauvin was kneeling, pressing a side of Floyd’s neck down with his knee. In the subsequent widespread protests against police brutality all over the United States, numerous officers, including NYPD chief Terence Monahan, “took the knee” alongside the protesters. North of the border, Justin Trudeau repeated the action at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Ottawa. The practice of taking the knee was, of course, pioneered by American athletes during the playing of the national anthem at sporting events in order to highlight racial injustice in the country. Again, the worst and the best are aggregated, joining together and revolving around actions centered on the knee joint.
Rather than merely ensure the flexion and extension of limbs, granting them the freedom of movement within the anatomical limits of bones and ligaments, elbows and knees take charge of acting. That action is immediately combined with a counteraction: every articulation is, simultaneously, a disarticulation. More importantly, though, it writes another chapter in the story of a being we still call “human.”
From an evolutionary perspective, upright bipedal posture liberated the hands of our ancestors in a self-perpetuating cycle of humanization. The early humans were humanized by the work of their hands, which, in turn, was made possible through the development of bipedalism. Against this background, kneeling is a symbolic act of consciously giving up the physical (and the associated moral) uprightness of the human stance. It can signal the humility of coming back down to earth or descent into the whirlpools of violence and raw force with its wordless proclamation of the right of the strongest. Being beyond and below the human. Similarly, the actions of elbows free the very hands that had been freed for activity thanks to bipedalism. The redoubled freedom of the hands is the crux of the controversial post-human condition, where incredible technological advances coincide with the pronounced loss of fine motor skills and finger dexterity in children.
My point is that the involvement of knees and elbows in some of the recent events is far from accidental. Our “time out of joint,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the time of the joint. But, if the focus of action shifts to knees and elbows, so should the locus of thinking. Instead of thinking with our hands in an attempt to integrate theory and practice and instead of thinking on our feet, we should start thinking on our knees and elbows, with our elbows and knees.
The task is as inherently contradictory as its anatomical support structures: joints are not seamless connection between bones, but “broken” articulations, integrating the skeleton into a whole and allowing for the freedom of movement. To function properly, joints must be out of joint. Are their effects not reminiscent of solidarity in isolation many of us have experienced during the pandemic, or of solitude in the midst of social media technologies and the apparently all-embracing virtual networks?
The thinking of the joints and jointures is contradictory, because it belongs in the space in-between (bones, and not only). Curiously, the philosopher of contradiction par excellence, G.W.F. Hegel does not discuss joints in his Philosophy of Nature, where he considers in excruciating detail other aspects of “the animal organism.” Joints, after all, do not form a system, which is probably why Hegel omits them at the expense of the skeletal structure. Unless he silently discerns in them the living structure of dialectics as such.
Now is the moment to invert the scheme and to view time from the standpoint of its rupture, not continuity, and the bones from the perspective of the synovial joints: the humerus, the radius and the ulna from the perspective of the elbow; the femur and the tibia from the perspective of the knee. Doing so will give us an embodied approach to the terms that perform relational work, instead of prompting us to concentrate on those that are interrelated through them. And, as we zero in on the relation itself, we will be privy to a whole slew of upheavals, reversals, surprising twists and turns that populate the in-between.