A human body is not the individual organism its proud owner may suppose but rather a walking zoo of microbes and parasites, each exploiting a special ecological niche in its comfortable, temperature-controlled conveyance. Some of these fellow travelers live so intimately with their hosts, biologists are finding, that they accompany them not just in space but also in time, passing from generation to generation for thousands of years.
[Tangent for Karl: the piece ends with this observation about the relative parasitic filthiness of humans versus swine: "If pigs had a religion, it is pretty easy to guess which species they would designate as unclean."].
Several years ago I tried to get at a similar point in Medieval Identity Machines:
What if the body is more than its limbs, organs, and flesh as traced by an anatomical chart, as united into a finite whole? Microbiology, for example, describes the human body not as a self-sealed microcosm, but as a porous environment in which colonies of bacteria symbiotically enable digestion or poisonously invade wounds; in which tiny worm-like creatures contentedly inhabit the follicles of the eyebrows, oblivious to the emotions which traverse the face and animate their home; in which cells are semi-autonomous beings that communicate, labor, multiply, die. What if the body were conceived in other disciplines as likewise open and permeable? What if corporeality and subjectivity -- themselves inseparable -- potentially included both the social structures (kinship, nation, religion, race) and the phenomenal world (objects, gadgets, prostheses, animate and inanimate bodies of many kinds) across which human identity is spread? Suppose the wheelchair were not judged an enabling supplement to a defective form and instead hands, wheels, metal, plastic, and muscle were seen to form a loose, mutable, but powerful alliance which calls into being new possibilities for embodiment? Suppose the flesh were not some pregiven architecture, stubborn and inert, but were alive with flows of heat and cold, fluxes of phlegm and blood and choler which in their changing distributions connect the body to perturbations in the weather, the rising of the moon, the distant circuit of the stars? Donna Haraway propounded in her anti-technophobic "Cyborg Manifesto" that the body does not end at the culturally imposed limit of skin, but has seeped already into a diffuse material world. Contemporary theorists of identity tend to label this body "posthuman," implying that its challenge to the boundedness of the flesh is a possibility enabled only through a recent proliferation of technologies. As my conjunction of disabled, humoral and cybernetic bodies has already implied, however, medievalists have long known better.
When considered a finite object, the body tends to be analyzed only to discover a pregiven essence, a stability of being: how do its pieces fit together into a coherent whole? What are its secrets, its genetic destiny, its unchanging ontology? When bodies become sites of possibility, however, they are necessarily dispersed into something larger, something mutable and dynamic, a structure of alliance and becoming.
Though those claims now seem to me a bit overwritten (my prose is never anything if it is not purple) and overstated, I still find vast utility in thinking the body outside its seemingly natural and pregiven boundaries. I was trying to get at some of that possibility when I posted on Alba, the bioluminescent bunny.
I want to frontpage two comments that may have gotten lost there, since posts multiplied while the conversation remained vigorous. The first is by Michael Uebel, on ethics and boundaries:
Let me try this: Biology, as you doubtless know, describes the human organism as a collection of cells composed of molecules and atoms. All of these elements are in constant flux, and simple reflection demonstrates that the boundary between the human body and its environment is actually quite arbitrary. Example: When I hold an apple in my hand, the apple is clearly not part of "me." It remains a separate object as I chew it, and perhaps even in my stomach, when I could still throw it back up. But is the apple "me" when in my intestines? How about when the apple's sugars are circulating in my blood? Or when the energy from those sugars has gone into building new cells?
We also know that the level at which we identify "an organism" is arbitrary. An ant colony or beehive may be seen as a collection of individuals, but the communities are more meaningfully understood as complex organisms, much as our bodies can be seen as collection of interdependent cells (cf. Thomas, 1995).
So, if we take seriously the ideas that there is no bounded self (and hence no bounded nature), that the two flow into one another, that the cherished self is an event that arises when supporting conditions exist and passes when they do not, that the self is more "state" than "trait," then we have the ground for an ethical work--scholarly and/or therapeutic--where, once concerns for self-defense and narcissism are diminished, the way is clear for things like compassionate response and perception of genuine interdependence. We're talking about the work of Jean Baker Miller and Janet Surrey and others of the Stone Center at Wellesley around what they called "relational-cultural" theory and therapy (RCT). (And, of course, the tradition is only about 2500 years old [Buddhist psychology]). Miller and Stiver (1997) describe five desired outcomes of the restoration of mutual connection: 1) new energy and vitality, 2) greater capacity to act, 3) increased clarity, 4) enhanced self-worth, and 5) the desire and capacity for more connection.
Marsha Linehan's (1993) work with persons dxed w/Borderline Personality Disorder is also relevant here. Her method is derived from Buddhist and, I would argue, Gestalt frameworks.
When you translate all this into pedagogical method, as I am doing in my essay for Eileen, you come around to a highly ethical endeavor, charged in ways that the "dreamers" like Maslow (1966) and Brown (1971) were onto long ago. I am interested in the reasons we "forgot" them.
(See Michael's comment for supporting bibliography). The second comment is by Karl, on volition, generation, and queer theory:
It'd be easy to say that dogbreeding is 'unnatural' and that we should all own mutts, if we own at all. But I want to go after bringing anything into this world; I want to see Alba, or a pug, as the image of a human child. Reproduction, the foundation of the natural (and whose presence as such makes it the bete noire of Queer Theory?), is also an assault on agency, perhaps the assault on agency, that is, if we listen seriously to that teenage cliche: "I never asked to be born."
Think of this:
Alba's name was chosen by consensus between my wife Ruth, my daughter Miriam, and myself. The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my family and living with us from this point on.
Note the traditional family narrative, where the glowing bunny fits nicely into the structure where a child normally would be. We have the selection of a name, the announcement, the delivery of Alba, created not so much not against but indifferently to her will, to the family. Is this not the very image of the human family (having a little chuckle at my Zizek echo), of the child thrust into this world?
This is all I have to say, for now (as the diss does call). I'm led into this discussion by two recent posts at Pandagon about abortion and disability, one by Bérubé and one by Marcotte.
I'm not sure I have much more to contribute other than to point out that these two comments underscore what is ultimately at stake in our conversations about bodies, medieval and postmodern.
I'd also like to ask: is the child really the bête noire of queer theory? I guess it (<-- does it mean anything that you can call a child an it?) is for Edelman...