Monday, October 19, 2009

self? (part V)

The first species of content identified below is that of body. Living (and dying) in a world still swaying under the spell of Cartesian dualism, where religious ethics of every creed pit the soul against the body, most people take the body as the locus of the self most of the time. Our bodies are viewed as casings for our soul, regardless of whether ‘soul’ is meant as consciousness (the seat of will, ideas, knowledge, reason) or as the eternal spirit alluded to by King Solomon. As the property of the self in the classic Lockean sense, the body is typically considered as belonging to and subsequently not thought of as being of the self. Indeed, in an increasingly sterilized society where we dwell and work in climate controlled environments, vacate into sanitized receptacles perpetually filled with clean water and with minimal trace of previous content, where we prevent the body’s natural odors from arising by constantly washing it away or masking it with chemicals, and where the sick and dying are isolated, hidden from view, and tended to by specialists, it is small wonder that bodies are typically thought of as little more than a means toward an end. This detached perspective, however, may be dramatically upended should the body become damaged or malfunction. The field of neuroscience, for example, is rife with harrowing accounts of loss of proprioception (an autonomic sensory faculty of the body that gives one a perpetual account of where the different parts of the body are located in relation to one another whether moving or still), of “locked-in syndrome” (where one loses the ability to move any part of the body but is otherwise in perfect mental health, thus becoming a prisoner in their own bodies), of phantom limbs: that is to say, of people who are suddenly and unexpectedly made aware of the body as an undeniable and vital component of self.

As one of the aggregates of self, the body is also a historical record. Calluses are records of effort and repetition, scars records of intervention, injury, or angst. One’s complete history of drug use is in a hair follicle whereas one’s entire evolutionary lineage is recorded in every cell. Acne, the hue of the skin, the condition of the eyes, odors, and more, combine to form a “state of the union” address, an account of one’s health. Tattoos are windows into a past and/or a personality while bone structure and hair color are a tribute to the mother and father. Indeed, the body is such a rich record, an entire history of events can be reconstructed via a “close reading” by pathologists or forensic examiners.

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