I don’t have any shoulders.

That might sound a little silly but it’s true. I have shoulders, of course, but they are barely worthy of the name, flimsy things whose existence draws attention to their bizarre lack of presence. My shoulders don’t look as if they could actually ‘shoulder’ anything, and so in a way they appear incapable of fulfilling their own function. I don’t have any shoulders.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has shoulders. Look at them!

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

The internet, as we probably all know, abounds with pictures of Putin in situations like this. Swimming, riding, hunting, shooting, quite often gratuitously bare-chested, the Russian premier announces his vigour and dynamism to the world as he disports himself in the great primaeval wildernesses of his motherland. And in this particular image his indomitable energy appears to a large extent to be concentrated in his impressively developed shoulder muscles. Those flexing deltoids clench to send Putin’s arms arcing out of the river in the difficult motions of the breastroke, bunching together in an expression of exultant vitality. And in the frozen moment of the photograph they even seem to keep him hanging impossibly amidst air and water, as if he were on the verge of taking flight in a spray of white foam: as if he were possessed of some strange, slightly-more-than-human strength.

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder. 1510-1511

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder. 1510-1511.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin I began to wonder a bit about shoulders. We have long been aware of the physical complexity of the human shoulder, as anatomical sketches by Leonardo da Vinci attest. But their function in language and culture is just as complicated. We can shrug our shoulders, for example, in a gesture which has subtly different meanings in various parts of the world. If in England the shrug connotes indifference or befuddlement or placid acceptance then in France, as the Trésor de la langue française states, it can also express mépris, contempt, or quelque autre sentiment, some other feeling. The English designate this use of the shoulders a ‘Gallic shrug’ and seem to feel that there there is something peculiarly, unforgivably French about its combination of haughty condescension and carefully studied ambivalence. So if the shrug is mutually intelligible in both England and France then it can also make us aware of the differences between the two nations. The shrug both unites and divides cultures.

In English and French shoulders are also identified with acts of strenuous labour and bear all sorts of burdens from the physical to the metaphorical, moral, psychological, and spiritual. In Greek myth the Titan Atlas was condemned by Zeus to hold the sky up from the earth upon his shoulders and thus became a symbol of heroic endurance, and in English we can say that someone ‘carries the weight of the world’ upon their shoulders. To speak of shoulders in this manner is to suggest that if some of us can cope with the tangible and intangible weights that we all have to ‘shoulder’ throughout our lives then some of us, unfortunately, are simply not strong enough. Shoulders and the act of shouldering thus become symbols not just of resilience and fortitude but of weakness and failure, a fact that is perhaps particularly explicit in French as it is actually possible to say that a person ‘does not have the shoulders’ to deal with a situation. Under the entry for épaule the Trésor cites a passage from Balzac’s 1846 novel Cousin Bette, which uses exactly this sort of language: ‘[c]e fut le succès, mais le succès comme il vient à Paris, c’est-à-dire fou, le succès à écraser les gens qui n’ont pas des épaules et des reins à le porter’. If the metropolis of Paris provides an environment in which certain individuals can thrive, then it is also a madhouse in which others are crushed to death because their shoulders simply aren’t sturdy enough to survive the trials and tribulations of modern life.

So the language of shoulders often reflects a belief that we are not all equal or at least that we are not all equally capable. The physical condition of our shoulders provides a means of thinking, in a very particular way about the nature of society and indeed about the nature of existence itself. Shoulders seem to say that if some us have our heads firmly on our shoulders then some us, sadly, do not, and that if some of us are fit for life then some of us are doomed to ignominious and contemptible failure. A duty or an obligation, meanwhile, might fall upon our shoulders owing to the incompetence of others and to the fact that their shoulders were just too feeble to handle the task at hand. If in French as well as English it is possible to have one’s head on one’s shoulders (‘[ê]tre realiste, bien équilibré, plein de bon sens’) then to be ‘sur les épaules’ means ‘to be ruined’. Shoulders thus embody the possibility of both physical and psychological well-being and decrepitude, existential contentment and abjection. Through shoulders a pseudo-medical language of health, vigour, and muscularity, enervation and infirmity, helps to paint a picture of a crassly Darwinian reality in which the weak are condemned to sink – a shame, really, but what can one do? – while the strong, like Vladimir Putin of Russia, are free to swim to their heart’s content, and to glory in their own dynamic potency as they surge through life’s turbulent waters.


I have thought too much about Vladimir Putin’s shoulders. Who spends this much time thinking about shoulders anyway? There’s something wrong with me. I’m wasting my time. I’m going to hell.


My little obsession with shoulders slumbered, for a while, but it woke up quite recently with tiny bright eyes, snuffling at the air, while I was looking at an ominous painting by Edgar Degas, exhibited under the name Interior in 1868 but often and more tellingly known as The Rape. Art historians have come up with all sorts of theories to explain what is going on in this picture: the aftermath of a sexual attack (there is perhaps a streak of blood upon the bed), or a man’s sordid assignation with a prostitute, or a scene from Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. But no matter how you read the painting at least one thing seems pretty certain, which is that the woman’s state of undress and the skin of her shoulder – glowing warm and soft in the light of the bedroom lamp – serves as a symbol of her appalling vulnerability to the man who looms over her, his body blocking all access to the door behind him. Since the woman’s face is barely visible, turned away and obscured by shadow, her shoulder actually appears to be the most eloquent and expressive part of her body. It ‘speaks’ somehow about the unbearable situation which she has no choice but to bear, whatever it might be. It draws our attention to the sordid, claustrophobic nature of the world in which she is forced to live and from which she cannot escape.

Edgar Degas, Interior, 1868

Edgar Degas. Interior. 1868.

It’s unlikely that Degas ever meant his painting to be a clarion call for female liberation. But that single bared shoulder, slipping from the dishevellment of a loosened bodice, emblematises not just the predicament of an individual woman or the status of women in nineteenth-century France but the failures and inadequacies of our own time. Part of the point of the painting, really, is that we would not be especially surprised to find a woman in this sort of situation in either the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The shoulder thus serves as a reminder that gender-based violence is still very much with us and that if gender politics have changed radically since 1868 then they still haven’t changed anywhere near enough. However the shoulder signifies more than historically contingent, continuing inequalities between men and women. It represents a world in which inequality and exploitation have been inscribed all the way down into the heart of things: a world which insists on thinking about everyone and everything things in terms of strength and weakness; a world governed by very particular decisions about who exactly should be weak and who should be strong; a world shaped by the relations between those who possess power and those who are powerless, and by ideas about what those relations look like.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1868

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith. 1868.

The motif of one naked female shoulder, I realised, occurs in a fair few paintings from the nineteenth century. One example is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, also painted in 1868. Another is André Brouillet’s 1887 Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique a la Salpêtrière. Charcot, sometimes known as the father of modern neurology, was famous for his studies of hysteria – a word derived from the Greek word for ‘womb’ and associated since antiquity with female biology – and in Brouillet’s painting he is busy demonstrating his theory that hysterical women were especially susceptible to hypnosis. The woman falling away into a dead faint under Charcot’s influence is supposed to be the so-called ‘queen of hysterics’ Blanche Wittmann, whose arm curls behind her in a manner that suggests some sort of seizure and whose shoulder is conspicuously exposed in contrast to all those male bodies enclosed in crisp black jackets. As in Degas’ painting, although in a rather different sense, it’s a question of vulnerability. This shoulder, perhaps freed from Blanche’s clothing in anticipation of her fit, reveals how thoroughly the nineteenth century could ‘construct’ woman as constitutionally pitiable and supine, simultaneously nerveless and convulsive, incapable of thought and speech and quite literally requiring the support of a man to keep her from total collapse.

Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique a la Salpêtrière. 1887

Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière. 1887.

Neither Blanche’s shoulder nor the painting as a whole invite us simply to sneer at the nineteenth century, or even to contemplate the misogynies of our own time. They ask us why the world that we inhabit needs to be so profoundly imbalanced, split between those of us with the authority and self-confidence to determine the nature of things and those of us deemed too hysterical, too vapourish, and too weak-minded to cope with the rigours of the real. If they obviously represent the emerging discourse of nineteenth-century medicine then Charcot’s attentive audience also embody all those who, thoughout history, have claimed to occupy the privileged position of Truth and whose cool, calm, collected gazes have defined and judged other individuals, other groups, other ways of living and being. By this logic, too, Blanche and her exposed flesh stand for history’s others: struggling with the violence of being told what she is or ought to be, she is not simply ordered to shut up but is actively deprived of speech and volition. Hypnotised, classified, pathologised, her identity constituted in the very absence of thought and speech, she is rendered mad even if insanity is perhaps the only sane response to the situation that she finds herself in.


Vladimir Putin rises majestically out of the sparkling water of the river and his shoulders swell to gigantic proportions. He is a Titan. He crushes his enemies between the palms of his massive hands and his eyes burn like suns.


Thomas Eakins. Wrestlers. 1899.

Thomas Eakins. Wrestlers. 1899.

Madly, badly, I speak about shoulders. In a beer garden, through clouds of cigarette smoke, my friends look at one another nervously as I declaim. I say that in Degas and Brouillet’s paintings shoulders contribute to the depiction of an intrinsically violent, unequal reality. But at the same time these shoulders ask why we need to see the world in certain ways and why certain ideas about strength and weakness, or power and powerlessness, have so persistently structured our seeing. Shoulders help me to realise that rather than hitting the gym, taking our supplements, growing big and strong, we need to find a means of moving beyond certain habits of thought and certain fantasies of energy and muscularity. We need to escape all the compromised ways that we have traditionally used our bodies and their physical condition to make meaning, our dreams of endless and indomitable might. I sit back in my chair, my non-existent shoulders slumped. The conversation moves on. But later I’ll walk through the city, and take a bus, and watch the light of the streetlamps flash on black, wet pavements through glass, and continue to think about shoulders.

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