Rafael Narvaez, Winona State University – Souls

You’ve got body and soul. Or do you?

Rafael Narvaez, associate professor of sociology at Winona State University, explores the question of souls and our reality.

Rafael Narváez is a sociologist educated in Lima, Peru, and at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His research involves, broadly, the intersections of sociology, psychology, and biology, and he is particularly interested in questions pertaining to embodied collective memory. Current projects include an “Enduring Questions” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (# AQ-234985) to prepare a class that traces the development of the body/soul rhetoric in the West. Representative publications include, Embodied Collective Memory: The Making and Unmaking of Human Nature (2013), and others listed in the attached curriculum vitae. He is also an ethnographer, and has conducted most of his fieldwork in New York City, primarily in the areas of drug use and sexuality. He joined the Winona State University faculty in 2012.



Do we have a soul? Is it material, like air, or immaterial, like a shadow? Are souls feminine and masculine or do they remove their gender as they exit the body? If souls resemble the body, can they be, say, blue-eyed, or blind, or white, or black? Are there infant souls in the afterworld? Do they grow up? When we sleep, does the soul leave the body to enter into an otherworldly order that we experience as a dream? Can it be trapped there, to be sold in the black market? Where does it go after death? To the bush, the domain of spirits? To the underworld, where it loses its memory? Is there a place reserved for the souls of soldiers and one for those of philosophers? Can the soul be tortured? Are stars souls? Is the soul a bird?

Questions and beliefs like these have marked people’s identities, influenced how we see others, and how we divide the world. Spanish colonists, for instance, often thought that “Indians” did not have a soul, which partly explains the savagery of the colonial process. In the West, a body/soul rhetoric has evolved along with features of our civilization, a process that has marked, in particular, the humanities and the arts. (Why is medieval plainchant, for example, devoid of beat? Because beat, the clergy argued, leaps to the feet and to the hip to pollute the soul.) Changes in beliefs about the soul have also marked how we perceive reality, and even how we experience our body. Consider sexuality, for instance, an embodied experience historically regarded as a threat to the soul.

The world has seen age-old battles for the control of this body/soul rhetoric; battles that, still waged today, need our attention because they ultimately are about the social construction of reality and of features of civilization itself.