My relationship to my own body is shamefully dualistic, it is shamefully antithetical to (my own) feminist thought. This relationship is deeply embedded, though; it is deeply internalised. As Margaret Atwood wrote in Surfacing,
The trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies. I’m not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn’t have different words for them. If the head extended directly into the shoulders like a worm’s or a frog’s without that construction, that lie, they wouldn’t be able to look down at their bodies and move them around as if they were robots or puppets; they would have to realize that if the head is detached from the body both of them will die.
The brain/body dialectic is a Cartesian construction which depends on a masculine worldview and the false premise of the possiblity of transcending my body through pure thought. It is a Western, rationalist, male, white, ableist myth. I know all that. I know that my thinking is embodied, and the product of my stomach as much as the grey matter of my brain.
I know that the grey matter of my brain is fatty, nervous tissue, as much digestible and delicious as the clotted mass of my liver. Thought and mood are not teleological, but instead inchoately interlinked.
As Elizabeth A Wilson says: The gut is sometimes angry, sometimes depressed, sometimes acutely self-destructive […] I am not arguing that organs are indistinguishable from one another, or that psyche and soma are the same thing. Rather, I am claiming that there is no originary demarcation between these entities; they are always already coevolved and coentangled. I know this, I know it, but I cannot feel it, and everything from the neck down feels like a repellent mass of unnecessary, untameable flesh.
If you ask me to describe my ideal body, I would describe a brain with a mouth.
Maybe there would be hands, maybe there would be an ear, but the main thing is the mouth. A mouth is important. To be able to speak is important. To be able to eat is perhaps even more important. I love eating. My passionate relationship with food and the sensation of ingestion is a ruling principle in my life. But once my food has moved passed the region of my tonsils, once it passes into the digestive tract, it immediately becomes horrific. Perhaps it would be less so if digestion would be a process that took place without any sensation, but when I feel my stomach bloating, when I feel the griping of gas in my small intestine, when I feel the clench of large bowel spasming, and my waistband presses into my flesh, I am deeply, deeply, disgusted, and this should not be. In many ways I have internalised a patriarchal disgust of any non-male flesh threatening to occupy space. But it is more than flesh and its appearance: it goes deep into a physiological and phenomenological repulsion any time that my body will make itself known.
In tracing the narratives of ten renowned figures who were also, perhaps, hypochondriacs, Brian Dillon makes reference to the French surgeon Réné Leriche, who in 1936 described good health as a state of living life in the silence of the organs. It touches upon a deep-rooted idea, stemming from dualistic philosophy and transcendent ideology, that the body will only make itself felt when it is ill, and any other time, (male) bodies should move through the world as insentient, sanitary and well-bounded vehicles for brains. Exposure to this dominant idea—that I should not listen to my body, that my body should just shut the fuck up, or better yet, not exist at all—is hard to avoid. I just paused in writing this to clean my glasses: behind the two rubber pads that hold them in place on the bridge of my nose, an aggregate of sebum, dead cells and the gunk from my pores had built up in a grime which, when I wiped it away, smeared across the glass in a clouded streak. It was disgusting. It was disgusting because of a history of bodily abjection, and let’s not get into that now, but the point is that these normal bodily processes (sebum production, the shedding of the upper layer of the epidermis) are always seen to be excessive, to be too much.
I am trying, in some way, to draw a connection between the horror of seeing my body, the horror of feeling my body, and the diagnosis of hypochondria as a so-called pathological state which is nonetheless reinforced by Western culture. Fear of illness is often also fear of contamination, I should note, whether this is external contamination, or the contamination of the body into the mind. So how, also, does this relate to the Western history of the creation of the individual, and subsequent anxiety around the integrity of bodily borders? I don’t actually have an answer to this, by the way, and actually I really hate the device of asking questions then answering them, but let's overlook that for a second because I want to set these ideas side by side in the hope that perhaps their entanglement is reinforced.
Maggie Kilgour says: Like all acts of incorporation, [eating] assumes an absolute distinction between inside and outside, eater and eaten, which, however, breaks down, as the law “you are what you eat” obscures identity and makes it impossible to say for certain who’s who. Paradoxically, the roles are completely unreciprocal and yet ultimately indistinguishable. Ambiguity, however, is difficult to bear for prolonged periods of time; the history of Western tradition, at least, is marked by the recurrent desire to resolve uncertainty. She also later says, somewhat wonderfully: The “possessive individual” who owns himself is free from dependence upon others or relations other than those he chooses to enter into in his own self-interest. A society made up of such individuals must therefore be based on market relations, regulated by laws that attempt to determine and preserve the right to private property […] This is another point which brings me, in circularity, back to my initial sentence: my relationship with my own body is antithetical to feminist thought, and it is antithetical to my own politics more generally. It reinforces the false idea that my thought and my brain exists outside of its material containment, and can therefore be severed from the world. It reinforces the false idea that interdependence is a state which is chosen, with the default being individual sovereignty. This way of placing yourself in the world reproduces a capitalist economy based on mistrust, and dangerous rhetoric of outsiders and acts of Othering.
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes that Emphedokles’ celebrated doctrine of emanations, for example, maintains that everything in the universe is perpetually inhaling and exhaling small particles called aporrhai in a constant stream. All sensations are caused by these emanations as they are breathed in and out through the whole skin surface of living beings. […] Emphedokles and his contemporaries posit a universe where the spaces between things are ignored and interactions are constant. Breath is everywhere. There are no edges. What a beautiful way of conceiving the world: no, not even conceiving, it is a way of simply acknowledging the world and its reality of interconnectedness, rather than constantly fighting a futile battle of individualism. Still, I seem to go back to this battle, by default. I do not lead by example, and my politics are not embodied: in reality, I am more like an oyster, absorbing all of the pollution from my environment and carrying it in my tissues.
My text on migraines traces my refusal to recognise illness or exhaustion, and how also the body might carry trauma in its tissues. Look, we all know that psychoanalysis was not great for a huge number of reasons, but I will say that it was a discipline which actually took seriously the somatisation of internal trauma and psychological states. In contemporary Western medicine, until very recently, the statement that illness was all in your head was a means to discredit patient experience. If it is all in your head, the thinking goes, then you can just will it away, a somewhat bizarre premise based on absolute sovereignty of the brain and a complete elision of the entire autonomic nervous system, but you know whatever. Anyway, based on the idea that my body makes itself known at the point where I have worn it down to nothing, I look at historical ideas around migraine, personality and its cause to trace the connections between my own sexuality and queerness, and how chocolate makes my head hurt.
The other text in this project is more rooted around the horrors of digestion that I earlier described, taking my historic eating disorder and laxative abuse as a site of exploration for ambivalence around digestion, incorporation and contamination. I was asked to write and perform this in response to Matthew Verdon’s beautiful show at Kelder titled Vestigial Traits and Evolutionary Spandrels, and I drew from this work the subordination of plants into capitalist pharmacology, the idea of transfiguration and plants (and its material reality as pseudomelanosis coli, a hyperpigmentation of the gut wall from laxative overuse), and the desire to will plant growth systems into metaphors for human bodily ecologies.
Both of these are some form of attempt to explore my desire to be a brain with a mouth, to live, as Lériche wrote, in the silence of the organs.
How deep is your love
It has to be baby plum
Food is a convenient metaphor for existence
Cheese of the soul
Hands and desire
Archive visit to Bath Fashion Museum