Monday, July 11, 2011

the disappearing body

As I've been thinking about how big my body is, and especially about the phenomenon of feeling myself to be taller than normal, I've hit on two fundamental difficulties of phenomenological description of embodiment. One is the huge issue of accounting for a norm in experience. I'm working out something on that. The other is the ambiguity of embodiment.

One way it is often put, that I don't find particularly helpful, is by distinguishing "having" a body from "being" one's body. In general, it is said, we go around "having" or "owning" a body: wakeful conscious life consists of just going out and doing stuff, and "the body" is an instrument of that conscious life. "I use my body" to take out the trash or to type a blog post about embodiment. "The body" is said to disappear for me in those circumstances, because the focus of my attention is on the action at hand. That is, I am not aware of or attentive to the movement of my hands and arms and torso and legs and feet as I bend over, grab the extended flappy things on the garbage bag that you tie at the top, and proceed to bind off the bag, etc., etc. I just go and do it, and my consciousness spends its time worrying about the bag's structural integrity.

On the other hand, when conscious attention is drawn to the body itself, this is most often in a situation of dysfunction, disease, or pain (or, drawing from an intriguing analysis I read yesterday, when traits of that body subject me to social stigmatization). If, as I'm pulling the bag out of the trash can to carry it out to the dumpster, the weight and the twist of the plastic top of the bag presses against the index finger of my left hand that I cut last night paring a peach, then I experience myself as "being my body." Its direct affect on me is, in a moment like that, obtrusively palpable, my embodiment reveals itself as inescapable, etc., etc.

Obviously, the body only nearly disappears from us, and can always come back into the forefront of awareness, mostly by the unbidden event of the passivity or suffering of the body. But the normal condition, according to this standard phenomenological analysis, is of the body's relative disappearance.

Two things about this bug me. First is that I can't ever quite understand what is meant by saying we "own" our bodies. This phrasing comes into phenomenological writing in English, I believe, by way of translating Merleau-Ponty's term "corps-propre" as "my own body" or even (as I've seen it) "the owned body." Maybe I'm just weird, but I can't think of my body as owned in any but a weakly analogical way to the way I own other things. My everyday experience of embodiment is more intimate than that. Even taking out the trash, I have a strong sense of my body's presence in the action.

Like I said, perhaps I'm just weird. There could be autobiographical or physiological reasons for my having more constant everyday awareness of my embodiment, which would line up well with the common phenomenological analysis I laid out above. Since early in elementary school I've had a kind of body dysmorphism, and for as long as I can remember I've had pain caused by the bony skis I have instead of feet. I'm pretty constantly aware of my posture and movement as a result.

In any case, I don't know how normal it is for our bodies to "disappear" into the background of our actions. But even to the extent they do, what's interesting about this is not the disappearing, but that even the disapparent body (my coinage, as far as I know; I suppose I could say disapparated?) is still co-present in those actions. Even if I don't consciously feel the weight of my arms in lifting the trash bag, I do feel the muscle contractions that are the bracing of the weight and force of my arms against the weight of the bag. To me, that co-presentation, always passively synthesized into the action, is the point of interest. That's the sense in which embodiment is ambiguous, and I object that the "having/being" dichotomy obscures that ambiguity by superimposing that hermeneutic binary on the phenomenon.

In other words, one reason I'm interested in the phenomenon of suddenly-feeling-taller is that it tells me something about the constant co-presentation of the background phenomenon of my height. I always have a height, even in the everyday when no one is specifically asking how tall I am or when I'm not specifically reaching for something up high, etc. It is constant in my perspective on everything.

1 comment:

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

The bastards who speak of owning your own body are, in my estimation, using semantics to impose politics upon sex, which is always wrong. Sex should never be political, and politics are never sexy.

But you are taller than you think you are, which is why you keep spilling beer down your neck. Weirdo.