Friday, 22 April 2011

An Agoraphobic Hermeneutics

(Face to Face, 1976. Bergman)

In my previous post, I suggested that agoraphobic “symptoms” have an internal coherence to them if they are situated within the context of an agoraphobic mood. If this is the case, then why do those same sensations assume an uncanny appearance, as though possessed by an inhuman agency? The question points to the hermeneutics of phobia: how can we understand the context against which particular bodily sensations occur? Central to this question is the dissonance between cognitive and bodily experiences of the same environment. Let me return to Allen Shawn on the empty road. Standing at the frontier to the empty road, Allen Shawn’s body belies his rational appraisal of the situation, with physical reactions including “feeling my heart beat twice the normal rate, getting extremely warm and sweaty and feeling like discarding my coat and jacket, finding my vision growing dark and blurred, feeling my face grow cold, and my legs tremulous, weak, and then extraordinarily stiff” (117). The itinerary of bodily sensations should indicate that what is dreadful to the phobic’s experience is less the sensations themselves, but more their irrational placement in the circumstantial scheme of things. Despite being in the midst of the experience, the agoraphobe’s ability to understand the logic of the experience is undermined by the fact that the core of any phobic reaction takes place in the pre-reflective body, of which abstract thought has limited access.

To make sense of the mood of phobia, must we interpret a teleology working behind the scenes, and if so, does this mean making recourse to psychoanalysis? Ultimately, psychoanalysis is of little help in our understanding of the world of the agoraphobe. At stake is not the damaged psycho-biography of an individual’s history, but what Merleau-Ponty speaks of in relation to space as an “expression of the total life of the subject, the energy with which he tends towards a future through his body and his world” (330). Even if the agoraphobe is alienated from his bodily sensations, then those same sensations are nevertheless constitutive of his total being. The agoraphobe’s body is always already in the world long before the self-conscious “I” inhabits that same terrain.

How to interpret the language of the agoraphobe’s body if the “I” has disappeared? This question can be asked within the context of everyday embodiment. If I experience overwhelming lethargy each time I am obligated to meet a friend from my past, then there is nothing mechanical in this response. Lethargy is a physiological experience that carries with it an evaluative framework. Indeed, the accompanying sensations of tiredness and indifference are structured by an intentionality that is directed toward the old friend. If I experience a withdrawing of my body in the company of this person, then this is also a withdrawing of my world from this person. If this person attempts to rouse me from a state of indifference, then I experience this as a violation of a boundary that I have constructed in my bodily being. My body’s refusal to engage with this person is the means by which this relationship works in the first place. Thus, if I am walking or sitting with this person, then I will do so with certain restrictions and limitations, so as to avoid establishing a reciprocal space between us. At all times, the relationship is mediated by an asymmetry in our bodily comportments. In this way, the body is the principle manifestation for values in the inter-subjective/inter-corporeal world. The body is a sensing and thinking organ: in its flesh, values manifest themselves. Indeed, it is only through the body that the felt experience of value is possible.

The transparency underscoring this relation between value and embodiment is disarmed in the agoraphobic situation, given that the agoraphobe can rationally appraise an environment as being unthreatening and yet maintain disbelief that reason is absolute. The inclusion of the eponymous “and yet” points to the need to constantly revaluate what lies beneath the contingency of appearances. That there is such a hesitancy in the movement of the agoraphobe, as though possessed by some foreign body, reinforces not only a lack of trust in the materiality of the world, but also a lack of trust in the body. Because of this, the phobic response causes a rupture in the unity of selfhood, marking a dissent from the classical phenomenological subject as grounded in “one’s own body.” The language of the agoraphobic mood is ultimately unhomely, uncanny, ill at ease in the world of logic and reason. It is a language constituted by spectres and apparitions, a phantom language that alerts us to the shadows and drones that are ordinarily visible only at dark.