Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More on Nonintegral Bodies

From the science section of yesterday's NYT, a brief article by Nicholas Wade on how parasites assist in the mapping of human migration over vast temporal spans:
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...


Michael O'Rourke said...

JJC asked: 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...

The quick answer is that yes, the child is the bete noir for Edelman although he is at pains throughout No Future(most unconvincingly) to say that he is talking about the figure of the Child (capital C). This is one of the most contentious things about Edelman's book for those I have discussed it with, and most find his polemic against the child deeply offensive. Having said that the climate of queer theory right now seems to be anti-child. Although one can find alternatives in Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley's collection Curioser, on the queerness of children, in Sedgwick's many gorgeous evocations of queer childhood (her own and others), in Butler's recent response to a special issue of the British Journal for the Sociology of Education, in the work of James Kincaid. Beyond queer theory there is Derrida on the child and the future in the exergue to Of Grammatology, Julia Kristeva on genius and the infini, John Caputo's Against Ethics on our responsibility toward the child, and Lyotard on infancy and the event. There is a whole queer theoretical and philosophical tradition for thinking about the child and natality which edelman and those who buy his argument ignores and which I can only barely acknowledge here.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael, thanks for that quick list. I admit in shame that I have not yet read Edelman's No Future ... I seem to be intentionally avoiding a book that, with my own predilection to over romanticize childhood, I won't like.

I do like your description of Sedgwick's evocations of queer childhood as "gorgeous," because I think it is precisely that. She has such affection for the materials she lingers over; it gives her writing a warmth and a beauty that is hard (probably impossible) to match. When last I heard she was not in good health, sadly.

Eileen Joy said...

I keep telling myself to let go of this thread, but I can't, as it hits so close to so much of what I think and write about, and also because the BABEL project, in one fashion, is, admittedly, working at what might be called a "new humanim," so I have to keep lingering over the figure of the human, not wanting to let it go or make it wholly "post" or even "Other" or "everything at once in flux." First, as an aside [yet related], I want to thank Michael O'Rourke for the rich references he has provided here. Thanks to him, my dining room table [because the study is past capacity] is covered with books by Caputo, Ahmed, Edelman, Dean, and others, all of which are going to help me with the comments I have to give at Kalamazoo, but also with other ongoing projects. I grabbed Caputo's "More Radical Hermeneutics" [Indiana UP, 2000] first, and was immediately struck by this passage in relation to our conversations here about bioluminescent bunnies and the unbounded self and endlessly transmogrifying [N]natures:

"Suppose we confess that we do not know who we are? Would that not mean the end of ethics, for, lacking the knowledge by which action is to be guided, how could we do anything other than wander about, two headed, without a trace to follow or a law to keep us safe? "

Caputo follows this and similar questions with the statement that, in pursuing

"a particular ethics of not knowing who we are, I will defend the 'end of ethics,' which I take to mean that for certain philosophers . . . the business as usual of ethics has given out and the ethical verities that we all like to think are true, the beliefs and practices we all cherish, are now seen to be in a more difficult spot than we liked to think. The end of ethics is thus a moment of unvarnished honesty in which we are forced to concede that in ethics we are more likely to begin with conclusions, with the 'ends' or triumphant ethical finales we had in mind all along, and worry about the premises later."

Further on, Caputo [who writes so beautifully] writes:

"The end of ethics means that the business of ethics is to be conducted with a little more fear and trembling than philosophers have been wont to show. To a certain extent, the end of ethics is like the death of God for people who still believe in God: it clears away the idols and allows a more divine God to break out. . . . The end of ethics is also like the end of metaphysics for those of us who still believe in philosophy: it clears away the speculative brush in order to let little sprouts and saplings of factical life get some sun."

And then the turn, so to speak, to Alba and "her" ilk:

"On the view that I am defending here, everything turns on a specific affirmation, beyond any positivity or positionality, of the "other," the affirmation of . . . the "wholly other," tout autre. As an affirmation of the wholly other, this view originates not in a no but a yes, not in a refusal but a welcome--viens and bienvenue--to the wholly other, opening our home to the stranger who knocks at our door like Elijah. . . . In one sense, which is futural, the wholly other means something that takes us by surprise in a radical way, something that in some important way we did not see coming."

And finally [as far as my quotation goes, for now]:

"The end of ethics is very much oriented toward . . . surprises, these anomalous, unexpected horizon-breaking events that leave us asking, 'what is this?' What is going on? What is happening to us? What is going to happen next? It this ethical? Is this humane? The affirmation that moves and inspires thinking at the end of ethics is the affirmation of something to come, something deeply futural, something that we cannot forsee."

["The End of Ethics: A Non-Guide for the Perplexed," pp. 172-90]

Caputo invokes, in a move that reminds me of George Kateb's thinking in "The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture," again and again, the importance of singularity over any commonly-held assumptions and expectations, and by implication, the singular, extravagantly other individual over and against any group [and hence, over and against any group-thought, such as a "code" of ethics, rule- and norm-bound, would represent]. The singular, individual "person" or "living entity," is other words--the *idea* of such a thing existing as singular, unexpected, always unanticipated "event"--is central to ethics, and to thinking about ethics, and I guess I couldn't agree more. Albeit, thanks to science and post-structuralist thought, we may know the self is unbounded and is also, in Michael Uebel's words, "an event that arises when supporting conditions exist and passes when they do not," and whereas this may open important avenues, such as in various therapies, for new structures of inter-relationship that can only enhance happiness and well-being and even a certain more generously imagined communal providence, the idea of "singularity" and "personhood," however we maight want to define that, will have to retain some force if we are ever to consider the question "is this ethical?" important.

I also believe, I guess, that we live, often, through beautiful fictions, such as love, that sustain our lives, no matter how ephemeral, or even, ridiculously ungrounded in fact or reason. Let us admit, then [perhaps] that, while we *know* [via our intelligence] that the self may be unbounded, more fiction than material fact, that the idea & fiction of the singular self has some merit and can lead to some good in this world, and even more importantly, much happiness, which is, my mind, a chief ethical good. Even an inter-relationship between unbounded selves depends, to a certain extent, on the recognition that the singular other matters, somehow, *enough* to want to connect with it and thereby make oneself, somehow, more complete. This will involve a type of love that places, as Caputo puts it, "checks" upon the "I," "me," and "mine," and which allows one, not to grasp/touch the other, but to be grasped. Now, I know this will seem a sort of ridiculous question, but in what manner did Eduardo Kac allow himself to be grasped by "Alba" before she was born?