Thursday, 16 October 2008

Toward a Phenomenology of the Anxious Body

If Heidegger’s neglect of embodiment is considered an anomaly, then that omission is especially clear where anxiety is concerned. Once more, then, I am revisiting Heidegger’s essay “What is Metaphysics?” Only now, I am reading his treatment of anxiety through the prism of the absent body in the text. More specifically, I am posing the question of whether we can do a phenomenology of the anxious body without undercutting the indeterminacy of anxiety. My broader thought concerns the relation between embodiment and empowerment.

Heidegger introduces the theme of anxiety quite suddenly in “What is Metaphysics,” characterising it as a “fundamental mood” without much of a prior argument. He then goes on to make a familiar distinction between fear and anxiety, aligning the former with an object to be surmounted. Anxiety, on the other hand, lacks any discernible object to be overcome, as such. Rather, what we are contending with, suggests Heidegger, is the “essential impossibility of determining [determination].” This impasse causes unease. But the positive outcome of this disquiet is that the “no hold on things” surfaces, revealing the Nothing. For Heidegger, this “hovering” gesture is revelatory, inasmuch as it strips identity of its individuality and certainty before disclosing the facticity of Dasein as being there all along.

Even from this sketch of Heidegger’s text, at least two things are missing in his account of anxiety. First, there is no mention of how anxiety is taken and through the body. What this means is that we are left with mood of “hovering” that itself hovers above the body. True, Heidegger refers to bodily gestures such as “speech” and “grasping,” but nowhere is the kinesthetic dimension of anxiety as a lived experience attended to. Second, there is no mention here of how anxiety and non-anxiety reconcile with one another, except for a brief but notable allusion to the “lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance.” But does this leave us in the region of cognitive or body memory?

Before, I said that the anxious and non-anxious bodies were incommensurable. This may have been wrong. After all, in placing an embodied dimension on Heidegger’s “fresh remembrance,” the two bodies come into contact with one another in terms of nervous exhaustion. As a point of departure, then, nervous exhaustion is a tenable position to begin attending to the anxious body. This is a state of embodiment that appears to be fundamentally reverberating from a prior experience. The body memory is what Husserl would term primary, still constitutive of the present. But while the levelled-out mode of nervous exhaustion incorporates a prior experience, there is a clear arc of difference from where the body has been and where the body is going.

This is clear enough in that the onset of anxiety – even more visible as a panic attack – acts as a threshold demarcating a different way of being-in-the-world. Felt through the body, once both the level of adrenaline increases and the heart rate gathers speed, then bodily comportment alters. Things tighten but at the same lose their solidity, confirming Heidegger’s claim that “Anxiety robs us of speech.” Language and things lose their intimate bond. Alongside this, the palpitations of the heart serve as a constant reminder that there is such a thing as the human body in the first place. The presence, however, is one of alienation and radical contingency. But if we are to say that anxiety is a threshold between different bodies, then we should also be prepared to take into account the environment which serves to reinforce that threshold.

Time and again, I have returned to the image of standardised, fluorescent lighting – no doubt because it is implicated in my own body memories and history. Irrespective of this fixation, though, it is clear that if the body becomes hyper-tense and hyper-sensitive during bouts of anxiety, then the surrounding world assumes an exaggerated form running parallel with this hyper-status. Harsh lighting during daylight hours is notable for its attempt to seize the body in a premature and malformed state of unity. This gesture of pinning the body down before it has fully been restored instigates a different structure of being-in-the-world. Suddenly, what was previously felt as being peculiarly mine – the heterogeneity of my body – is reduced to a mode of anonymity and non-specificity. “I” have been overrun by “it.” But this “it” is not the horror of Levinas’s il y a. Rather, what is at stake, is the suffocation of being trapped in a body that has now become independent of my idea(l) of the body. In a word, the dream of embodiment has been shattered by the failure to incorporate corporeality into subjectivity.

Once this movement of disempowerment and disembodiment ceases, then the self is dropped back into a wholly different post-anxious body - the body of nervous exhaustion The surge and recession of adrenaline through the body has a profound effect on the unity and coherence of the self. The post-anxious body is literally depleted, displaced not only from place but also from time. Indeed, inasmuch as the body once occupied a position in place, then that certainty now becomes an object of abjection, opposed to all modes of fluidity and mobility. Seizing the materiality of the world – gripping the corner of a desk or grinding my feet into the ground – attests to the attempt to re-place myself in a world that existed before anxiety. But the lived body has been ceased in its tracks, leaving in its place the physical body which both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty placed central. In this way, Bachelard was almost certainly right to suggest that inside and outside can reverse their ontological status. Above all, we see this in how both the body and place can be a source of comfort and abjection simultaneously.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008