Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Body Horror II

I pose the question of whether the "straightening out...uniform" presents a challenge to Heidegger's anxious (and disembodied) subject in light of a traditional problem that finds its explicit articulation in Locke and Descartes: dismemberment. The pages of John Locke’s famous Essay are open; the section is “Of Identity and Diversity.” Locke is in the midst of discussing personal identity and memory. Locke’s distinction between “persons” and “men” concedes to an intimacy with the body, such that “the limbs of his body are to everyone a part of himself.” However, this level of ownership is immediately reversed once the limb has been severed: “Cut off a hand, and thereby separate it from that consciousness he had of its head, cold, and other affections, and it is then no longer a part of that which is himself, and more than the remotest part of matter.” (pp. 181–182). As I asked my student’s the other day: why must it be the case that dualism is taken from the question of whether there can be a mind without a body? Surely, given the impossibility of being able to conceive of spirit without occupying a particular place, the more pressing question is: can a body exist in a conscious state without a mind? I suspect the tension to this question has something to do with the ocular-centrism of philosophy, but that is another problem altogether.

Likewise, in Descartes dismemberment presents an equally pressing issue, phrased now as a problem of “divisibility.” The relation between dismemberment and divisibility comes up as one of the Cartesian arguments for dualism. The relevant line is concise: “I recognise that if a foot or arm or any other part of the body is cut off, nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind.” I am less interested in how these strands of thought contribute to classical problems in philosophy, and more with the fact that body parts are taken to be a rejoinder to the notion of a corporeal mind in the first instance. All I shall ask for the moment is the following: if we take “the man condemned to die [who] straightens out his uniform” as a gesture of being human, then does that emergent humanity depend upon an affective relation with body parts themselves? Can we, for instance, picture a scene in which artificial body parts - limbs - conspire together to produce a more "human" subject. Phrased another way, the question would be: does a prosthetic limb have a memory?

The problem is whether or not bodily unity is a given of experience or something modified alongside experience? I take Locke and Descartes’s worry about dismemberment seriously, since the emphasis on body parts is presented as undercutting the entwinement between cognition and flesh. But even here, the question is surrounded on all sides by the question of to what extent we are identifiable with our bodies. Since I have very much positioned myself in a phenomenological framework for some time now, albeit committed to pathological instances of embodiment, the unity of this relation has nevertheless been there from the outset. But just as strong as my commitment to phenomenology, is my broad sense that Schopenhauer was fundamentally right in thinking of the body—taken as both an object among many, but also a site of experience—as a manifestation of an anonymous will.

How to affectively respond to the sight of oneself as “only phenomenon or appearance of a will that is in itself groundless”? (p. 107). The body becomes the will visible, and in turn establishes its own independent colony, entirely aligned with the will’s “chief demands and desires.” (p. 108). And so we come to Schopenhauer’s great image of embodiment: “Teeth, gullet, and intestinal canal are objectified hunger; the genitals are objectified sexual impulse; grasping hands and nimble feet correspond to the more indirect striving of the will which they represent” (Ibid.). In addition to the metaphysical dismemberment that is occurring in this passage, Schopenhauer also places the body in a parasitic relation to the will, such that flesh becomes nothing less than a symptomatic expression of the disease generating life.

The flesh, in its treachery, is diseased by its own genesis. As if there was any doubt as to the horrific kernel deployed in this image of the body as fundamentally exterior to the self, forever relegated to the status of being nothing more..., then by the time we reach the end of Schopenhauer’s treatment of the will and embodiment, all accounts of empowerment seem both remote and empty. At the service of an irreducible desire, Schopenhauer’s account of nature becomes overridden with account of animal life in conflict not only with each other, but also with their own bodies, culminating in the particularly vivid example of the bulldog-ant Australia:
“When it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head attacks the tail with its teeth, and the tail defends itself bravely by stinging the head. The contest usually for half an hour, until they die or are dragged away by other ants. This takes place every time.” (p. 147).
Dismemberment and anonymity: two poles of the same flesh, prised apart before being reconstituted in a new form. I return to that crystalline image: empowerment. I acknowledge it now as a memory, something to be retraced. It is there in a moment of exhalation, and visible in the glossy sphere of a spiritually mute aesthetic design. And yet – no worse because of that spiritual impoverishment. Perhaps this was the source of my confusion: by mistaking empowerment as the conjuration of embodiment, I omitted the possibility that empowerment might equally be synonymous with disembodiment and displacement. Toward a phenomenology of empowerment? Such a route is perhaps only possible if we’re prepared to leave the body behind, however brief or long the sojourn might be.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Body Horror I

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Wittgenstein)


Once again, I must backtrack. Why was I so convinced that “empowerment” was the natural successor to anxiety? My procrastination to resume that post testifies to my uncertainty. My plan was broadly as follows: against Heidegger’s emphasis on anxiety, the thought would be that something like “jouissance” intervenes, and that because of this intervention, an account of anxiety and empowerment receptive to the lived dynamism of materiality would follow. I am only marginally interested in post-phenomenological uses of jouissance, since my thoughts for the most part were rooted in Levinas. As such, should I have pursued this path, I would have consulted a passage from Time and the Other:
And when one writes a book on anxiety, one writes it for someone, one goes through all the steps that separate the draft from the publication, and sometimes behaves like a merchant of anxiety. The man condemned to die straightens out his uniform before his last walk, accepts a final cigarette, and finds an eloquent word before the salvo (p. 60).
How do we get from disembodied anxiety to embodied empowerment? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I would be tempted to suggest through adopting an aesthetic outlook. “Straightens out his uniform.” This line has fascinated me for some time, as though death could be marshalled into a state of order through the composition of clothing. But I take the thought seriously: the relation between clothing – the fabric, cut, and style of an article of clothing – and one’s aligning sense of spatio-temporal orientation is neither arbitrary nor trivial. Elevated above flesh-vessel, the act of adjusting one’s outfit to fit the occasion, even death, marks an incipient kernel of empowerment, such that ownership is reclaimed.

But as I say, something intervened in this trajectory of thought before jouissance stamped its presence. Self-affirmation was thwarted. “The man condemned to die straightens out his uniform,” and yet does this afford any unity of the body hidden beneath that clothing? More specifically, does this essentially aesthetic gesture merit anything more than the production of a false resolution? I ask this question in the shadow of the anxious body, which, taken seriously, contests the embodied subject so privileged to phenomenology (cf. Michael Tweed's recent translation of Henry's "The Living Body"). Specifically, I have two worries: the first is concerned with the body as a collection of parts. The second is concerned with the body as a manifestation of an anonymous entity. I will sketch these out aloud tomorrow.

[Images from the excellent Tetsuo: The Iron Man by Shinya Tsukamoto]