The state embodied

rs300713brittania-15.jpgIn my last post I discussed how the body of a speaker conveys their character and is part of the persuasive tools of the politician. But the body of a politician, and in particular the head of state, can also be taken to convey the character of the entire country.

A body politic is a metaphor in political philosophy in which a nation is considered to be like a human body. For example Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan famously shows on its cover a body formed of a “multitude of citizens which is surmounted by a King’s head”:

But one would hope rationally that the successful, wise and just governance of a country (or indeed the failing, foolish and unfair governance) is something of a team effort and that no leader of a democratic state can be singularly praised or blamed. We would not put the success of a sports team down to its manager in the same way would we? So why do we attribute so much significance to the person in charge, and consequently place so much importance in their appearance, behaviour and character? Stephen J Dubmner (author of Freakonomics) suggests the idea has origins in philosopher Thomas Carlyle book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History which “embraced what has come to be known as the “Great Man Theory.”

His view was, essentially, that history is blessed now and then by a rare heroic person who is born to lead and without whom our civilization would crumble. It is as anti-market a view as you could conceive. Personally, I find this idea a bit depressing, though I do acknowledge the common psychological need for a strong father or mother figure, for someone to stand tall and protect us, assure us, and take responsibility — even though, except in extremely rare cases (Hitler comes to mind), it is irrational to think that any one person can be responsible for the actions of millions.

Still, I think I’m in the minority. Americans’ widespread belief in the President’s absolute power — love him or hate him — is proof that the Great Man theory is alive and well. My simple argument is that this belief, as emotionally appealing as it may be, is not founded on truth.”

But I think it’s also about seeking to extrapolate information about an entire country — in all it’s confusing bureaucratic complexity — from something that we can all comprehend; the character of another human. The ethos of the whole country.

And it is for this reason that when Egyptian, Israeli, US, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders were photographed at Middle East peace talks in 2010…


…Egypt’s state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram, published an altered version in which (Egyptian) President Mubarak was moved from behind the other leaders, to the head of the pack: photo2-620x353

Al-Ahram’s editor-in chief, Osama Saraya, responded that “The expressionist photo is … a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington or any other.” (Source:

The very same extrapolation from one to many happens in prejudice: “people’s knowledge is often incomplete or wrong, and they may also inappropriately generalise their knowledge, resulting in bias and prejudice. For example, it is false and clearly prejudiced to assume that every Muslim in the UK poses a terrorist threat.” (Dominic Abrams, 2010, Processes of prejudice: Theory, evidence and intervention)

But in many important aspects it can provide a quick and powerful sense of the society that they govern. If a mixed race man is president or a woman is Prime Minister, even if they are exceptions, they reflect the possibilities in their countries. Conversely, as I set out in my last post, a politician may be selected because they embody the traditional gender roles that they want to maintain in wider society. As Melissa Harris-Lacewell puts its “anecdote is more compelling than structural analysis.”

And similarly in dance, the bodies of the people that are allowed to dance, for example, on the stage at The Royal Opera House reflect the values and structures of British society. As Elizabeth Strebb wrote in How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (2010):

“A goal of presenting your acquired physical skill in this manner is a thinly veiled exposition of privilege. It would signify that you had the opportunity to train as a dancer for say, twenty years. Someone paid for it, too you to and from those classes all those years, believed in you and participated in this social construct. I think that in a subconscious level this is what gets noticed on stage by certain audience members, and it surreptitiously celebrates a class divide. It is partly responsible for the elite demographic that attends dance concerts, separate from how uninvited the general public feels vis-a-vis the act of entering the theater”

Grand Defile © Johan Persson
Royal Ballet School 2010. Grand Defile © Johan Persson

All of this highlights why political speeches remain so potent. One thing that interests me about them is that no matter how democratic, bureaucratic or decentralised a state is, a great deal of importance is still placed in the way that one person (the prime minister or president) speaks directly to other people in the same room.

Groups too

But a state is not only embodied by the individual leader. The entire political class witnessed together contains further information about the state. Take China for example where members of the Communist Party assemble in carefully choreographed ballets with near identical suits and black hair (often dyed):

The closing of the 18th Communist party congress in Beijing, China. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Compares this then with the European parliament where there appears to be a diversity of age, gender and dress (if not ethnicity):

Members of the European Parliament take part in a voting session in Strasbourg, France. 13 June 2012. Photo: Frederick Florin, AFP, Getty Images

Such uniformity and conformity is only possible in China because “The Communist Party is one of the most disciplined institutions ever devised by humankind” (according to Steve Tsang, professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham). The uniformity helps to avoid individual responsibility and places the emphasis on the group.

And what about when members of a dance company are indistinguishable from one another, in terms of age, gender, body type? In the extreme “[Robert] Joffrey in the olden days would pretty much enforce plastic surgery on people [in the Joffrey company] …you were ugly you would have to have your face fixed” according to choreographer Mark Morris.

Ballet boyz Scarlett Serpent
Ballet boyz Scarlett Serpent. Image: SWT

See also
It’s not just what’s said. It’s also who says it
When do politicians dance? Part 1


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