Elsewhere I wrote that “one of the greatest oxymorons is the idea of a lived body. The body is never given to consciousness or lived experience”. Some people have had trouble understanding this. All I mean when I say this is that we never have direct experience of our bodies and the causes of our affective states. In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I articulated this in terms of nicotine fits. In the midst of a nicotine fit I believe that my friend is the cause of my irritation, when, in fact, it is a mess going on with my neurotransmitters that is the cause of my nicotine fits. My conscious mind casts about for an explanation of the displeasure of this situation and alights on my friend, when the cause has nothing to do with my friend and everything to do with bio-chemical processes. If you think you’ve ever experienced a nicotine fit you’ve never understood phenomenology or its methodological requirements. You experience the effects of nicotine fits, not the organic causes. You can’t experience the organic causes of anything taking place in your body and never have. Organic causes can only be understood in the natural attitude and from a third person perspective that correlates the descriptions of people with what’s chemically, and through the use of brain scans being detected in bodies. No one has ever experienced their brain.
This is what Spinoza is getting at in 2p27 when he says that the body is affected in many ways of which we’re unaware. We think that x, y, and z is the cause of why we’re feeling as we are, when it’s really p, q, and r. This is where semiotic (symbolic) and (imaginary) discussions of the body will always fail to reach the real body. The paradox is that I both am my body and have no privileged insight into the causes that animate the affective life of my experience. They could be of the imaginary order (phenomenology) or they could be of the semiotic order (culture, the signifier) or they could be of the real order (organic, chemical, material). First person experience can never decide these issues. At best, it can give us a “pataphysics” of our bodies, never an ontological ground of embodied experience. Descriptive analysis can only take us so far and certainly not give us reliable knowledge of causes where our bodies are concerned because our real bodies are withdrawn from us. If we uncritically accept the descriptions of phenomenological approaches and semiological approaches, we risk misconstruing all sorts of issues. Oddly only a third person approach coupled with first person descriptions can give us any insight into the real body (consider the distorted image of the body experienced by an anorexic or the more familiar experience of phantom limbs).
Catherine Malabou has done a wonderful job underlining these issues in works like The New Wounded, when discussing phenomena like strokes and Alzheimer’s. These are phenomena that don’t fit with the semiological fetish of the Lacanians, nor the phenomenological prejudice of first-person experience. They require a different analytic framework. Jane Bennett made similar points about the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on cognition and lived experience in Vibrant Matter. Were we to adopt, for example, a phenomenological mode of analysis for the impact of omega-3 fatty acids we would get things entirely wrong. We’d be talking about the lived experience of students and prison inmates, their “horizon of meaning”, and so on, missing entirely what the causes of these changes are and how they had nothing to do with meanings, signifiers, lived experiences, horizons of significance, and the rest.
People get nervous when these things are mentioned. Usually the first words that come out of the mouth of those of us in the humanities are “reductionism” and “scientism”. Lord knows that Bennett got plenty of grief for what she wrote about omega-3 fatty acids. There were calls to “burn the witch” or the polite academic equivalent. In response, people should remember that the claim is not that these are the only causes, but that these types of material causes are excluded from the sorts of analysis we in the humanities and social sciences generally engage in. The point is not to exclude all we’ve gained from phenomenology and semiotics, but to recognize that they’re limited and that there are other fields of causation that we don’t even begin to entertain or explore. Us humanists really have nothing to say about strokes, Alzheimer’s, nicotine fits, and partial lobotomies. It’s text, text, text and lived experience all the time.
We call ourselves materialists, yet exclude any materialist form of anlaysis a priori; so effectively that we don’t even recognize we’re doing so. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that academics do not work with people who suffer from these things, and have generally led fairly privileged lives where material reality works (exactly what Heidegger described when discussing the withdrawal of tools when they’re working) and have seldom experienced poverty or homelessness as a result of coming from privileged backgrounds. We just don’t see because we’ve never experienced broken material worlds and therefore reduce everything to first-person descriptive experience and texts to be interpreted (the things available in our offices when pondering issues about mind, culture, human behavior, meaning, etc). The issue is one of recognizing our blind spots and making room for these other causal factors. It’s a logic of both/and, not either/or. It’s a question of multiplying sites of intervention, not abandoning sites of intervention. I think that’s a good thing. At any rate, our experience of our bodies is not identical to our bodies and how we narrate or experience our bodies is no reliable guide to what’s going on inside us.