Body Construct: Reason and the Body

April 21, 2015

This is version of a short essay I wrote a few years ago (2013, in conjunction with the Gymnasia exhibition by Rochelle Goldberg, Dmitri Hertz, Krista Peters, Matthew Schrader at Cleopatra’s) and am now releasing. I think much of it needs to be further developed, and would probably engage Acker’s attempt to draw attention to the body as a component of cognition much more favorably, using it to modify the semantic/normative account of reason, though I still have a wary eye towards the Heideggerian mysticism she gestures to at the end. I’d also probably ditch the Sloterdijk reference, which, while rhetorically evocative, suffers from the same malaise I critique Acker for. Finally, the Meillassoux critique, while somewhat pointing in the right direction, is really underdeveloped and little too far to the side of this discussion, and could do with a complete overhaul.

“After each workout, I forgot: to write. Repeatedly. I…some part of me…the part of the ‘I’ who bodybuilds… was rejecting language, any verbal description of the processes of bodybuilding. I shall begin describing, writing about bodybuilding in the only way that I can: I shall begin by analyzing this rejection of ordinary or verbal language. What is the picture of the antagonism between bodybuilding and verbal language?”
— Kathy Acker, Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body

The antagonism between thought and being is an enabling condition. As Adorno and Horkheimer recognized, reason is the ratio of alienation from nature. But we should not follow them in recovering some mythical authentic being, rather we will examine and complicate Acker’s vision of the mastery of the body through artifice. Our task is to think how, in virtue of this separation we conceive freedom, for our thought is not dependent upon being. It is in its distinction from the being of the body that we can reconceive it, not merely as a disciplinary object, but an object whose particularity forces us to reconceive ourselves.

We first encounter our body as a given. Our senses, our embodiedness, are there for us as a simple matter of fact. But the body is not a mere given, for it is not a whole in itself. It is mutable and interpenetrable. We discover this through pain and need, but also sex and pleasure. Here the body reveals its difference from our psyche, it becomes a thing in whose integrity is not always subject to my whims, but whose being in the world is dependent upon many factors outside of our own beliefs about ourselves.

Peter Sloterdijk sees the introduction of this division as a trauma, and introduces a new stage to the standard Freudian litany of psychic development, a pre-oral, intra-uterine stage. This is a state of monadic unity which the child experiences in the mother with the placental.There is no division between the being who inhabits and the inhabitation, and therefore no objects for the child, for all is oneness with the placenta. The first trauma, then, is birth, in which we are ripped from the placental world which is our twin, and is a part of us. Sloterdijk calls this umbilical castration, and names the scar that is the navel as the first cut which marks us, introducing the originary split between the mind and the body. In having been alienated from our home, we seek to conceive of a new one. The infant is obliged to rely upon the external world for support, such as the breast upon which it suckles, replacing the blood of the cord, with milk. Symbolically, then, the breast comes to resemble the cord for the infant, marking the passage to the first abstraction, the recognition of the other, and the beginning of language formation. [1]

Trauma ramifies the path of our development, forcing us to part with what had been given, and conceive of the world in new terms. This trauma also reveals the inadequacy of the given; for if the world as it is was sufficient, we would have no need to correct it. We cannot return to the monadic safety of the womb, nor should we want to. In that undivided space there is no freedom, no differentiation of the world from it is to what it ought to be. We can only conceive of freedom against nature; for nature is the rule of physics, the inescapable laws of cause and effect. Pure necessity. Language is the beginning of rationalism, for it allows us to symbolize and generalize the forces of nature so that we may predict and affect them.

How do we arrive at this generalization? Language is a game, that I play not just with myself, but with the other. It is inherently communal. Language requires a minimum of two. To name a thing is to declare that others should agree upon our designation, and see that signifier in respect to the signifiers of the game. There is what Robert Brandom calls an inferential activity of norms here, where one passes a term to another, and the other affirms or challenges it a discursive structure of giving and asking for reasons.

What Brandom calls norms, derive from the Kantian description of concepts [2]. Kant regards the legitimacy or authority subject according to the subject’s ability to fulfill his or her commitments. Concepts were commitments for Kant, and he saw them as laws governing a subject’s behaviour. If a new concept was introduced it was the subjects responsibility to reflect upon it, judge it, and synthesize it within their existing realm of commitments, which he called the apperceptive unity. But the force of assent in normative status resides in the reciprocal relationship with the other, not in the subjective attitude of the individual. We have recognitive authority over over whether we except the other into our field of conceptions, but they too have the authority of recognition over us, and it is this mutual and symmetrical recognition that institutes norms.

Does Acker play this game with her body? While bodybuilding, Acker turns to the extremely simplified formal language of the count: “What do I do when I bodybuild? I visualize and I count. I estimate weight; I count sets; I count repetitions; I count seconds between repetitions; I count time, seconds or minutes between sets: From the beginning to the end of each workout, in order to maintain intensity, I must continually count.” [3]

There is then, a coding which Acker overwrites the body and her actions. In this count Acker appears to be doing two things: One, precisely limiting the measure of her symbolization to the material of the body, and two, reformatting the body to the propositional attitudes expressed in the formalization of the count. It is in the encounter between these two that she finds the reciprocal relationship between the body and its encapsulation by her knowledge. She moves from a conception of what she should believe the body is capable of to the freedom of what it ought to be capable of. It is a precise response to the variances and invariances which the body allows, and a generalization of that invariance that gives her the means to control the gradual restructuring of the body.

She expresses the invariance in terms of failure: “I want to break muscle so that it can grow back larger, but I do not want to destroy muscle so that growth is prevented. In order to avoid injury, I first warm up to the muscular group, then carefully bring it up to failure. I do this by working the muscular group through a calculated number of sets during a calculated time span. If I tried immediately to bring a muscle group up to failure by lifting the heaviest weight I could handle, I might injure myself.” [4]

Nevertheless, she documents a failure of the count, or the count interrupted by chance — sometimes she finds she can no longer reach the expected count, and some essential matter of the body has escaped her attempt to encapsulate it within this count. Her system for the body is unable to express the contingencies of the boy’s failure, and she finds herself unable to locate the causes that may grant her control.

Here we might take recourse to Meillassoux’s reading of Mallarme’s Coup de des [5], where he details the poetic production of the count against the infinity of nature, and the vicissitudes of chance. Meillassoux sees the poet coding the number despite the probabilities of chance, and the historical contingency which it renders. Meillassoux’s master confronts nature, and with the instrument of the die, throws his last hand. For Meillassoux, this gesture is intelligible rendering of chaos, the local inscription of the law of the dice against the infinity of nature.

Acker writes: “My unexpected failure at the sixth rep was allowing me to see, as if through a window, not to any outside, but inside my own body, to its workings. I was being permitted to glimpse the laws that control my body, those of change or chance, laws that are barely, if at all, knowable.” [6]

Meillassoux, unlike Acker, posits the knowing of chaos, but I think his knowing is puerile and tautological; a post-facto rendering of the contingency of nature into a thing which is doomed to its actuality. This immanent structuring of local laws against the background of a global contingency raises the question of how one might have a grasp upon the future, without falling into incoherence. To turn to Acker’s example, while she knows variance in the local laws that govern her bodybuilding, the number of reps that she can normally tolerate without damage, something unexpected in this case altered the usual conditions. She articulates this in terms of what we can regard as an unknown quantity within the global condition which her body takes part in. Meillassoux might regard this change as the indeterminant contingency of the event asserting itself. So, the supervenience of the local operation is no longer meaningful in relation to the global scale, since the very laws that governed the global condition are no longer applicable, or even could have been discovered, prior to their transformation. That is, in Meillassoux, there seems to be a problem with locating the interactions of generalities between hierarchical relations, since the fundamental global condition is one of absolute contingency, and this contingency intervenes as a spontaneous event to unpredictably alter the laws at any level of operativity.

Against Meillassoux’s ontological description of nature as fundamentally contingent, we should posit not another ontology, but the deontological approach to nature. This is the transcendental other of nature indexed by a formal and empty conceptual negativity, guided by reason’s demand toward truth, not a metaphysical position. We regard the abgrund of nature, in this respect as continuously asymptotic abyss. Reason operates on this abyss by constructing local and global fields of knowledge, and synthesizing them toward a universal orientation. It seeks to bracket our knowledge of it into relative epistemological systems, expressed as norms. This position suspends judgement on either the absolute necessity or contingency of nature, and therefore is free from either as the condition of possibility for thought. We reject any metaphysical or logical foundationalism which could come base thought, rather it is the autonomous process of reason itself which we seek to propagate.

However, Acker remains fundamentally tied to a Heideggerian phenomenology, in which the human being and its specific lifeworld remains the measure for Being. Reason demands that we move beyond phenomenology if we are to remain true to the world, and its abyssal depth, else, we make the mistake, as Acker seems to do, of mystifying the complex systems for which her sensation of her body’s limitations allude to, but whose necessities are not intelligible on the level of sensation. Sensation alone is not enough, for it is a private subjective experience, whose implicit contents can only be made explicit through the mediation of language and the mutual recognition and judgement of what one believes to be the causes that gave rise to the sensation. One might imagine that Acker could undergo blood tests, or other forms of external verification to seek the underlying problem that led to this difficulty, but to do so is to enter within the discursive regime of science and its normative measures of the body. This is no guarantee that she will locate the cause, especially if this is an isolated occurrence, but the point is that it is in principle possible to supersede her own ignorance of the underlying complexity, and not that that complexity itself imposes a necessary limitation upon reason.

Beatriz Preciado, who experiments with the transgender possibilities of testosterone, outlines a methodology of the body, whose intervention occurs on distinct levels of operation beyond Acker’s more ready-to-hand technique of bodybuilding:

“After World War II, the somatopolitical context of the production of subjectivity seems dominated by a series of new technologies of the body (which include biotechnology, surgery, endocrinology, and so forth) and representation (photography, cinema, television, cybernetics, videogames, and so forth) that infiltrate and penetrate daily life like never before. These are biomolecular, digital, and broadband data transmission technologies. The invention of the notion of gender in the 1950s as a clinical technique of sexual reassignment, and the commercialization of the Pill as a contraceptive technique, characterized the shift from discipline to pharmacopornographic control. This is the age of soft, feather-weight, viscous, gelatinous technologies that can be injected, inhaled—“incorporated.” The testosterone that I use belongs to these new gelatinous biopolitical technologies.” [7]

Preciado points to a series of technologies which intervene on the body from both above (photography, cinema, television, cybernetics, videogames, and so forth) on the level of social organization, and below (which include biotechnology, surgery, endocrinology, and so forth) in the material substrates of the body. This is a hierarchization of the body, whose global valence exists across the strata of environment and base materiality, but is approachable on multiple local levels of intervention. We cannot say that the body is reducible to any one of its local constructions, but its continuous nature is reconstructed through the reciprocal process of inferential norms. Globally, it is reconstituted through a series of gluings and transversals of these various relativized epistemologies.

Through the process of reason, and the successive critical judgements and synthesis of our conceptions of the body, we develop new functional footholds upon it. What seemed essential is now mutable and navigable. This is the positive conception of freedom that Kant saw in constraining ourselves to norms. For, in locating what is implicit within our commitments, we make explicit what was latent in our concepts, submitting it to the reciprocal process of critique and judgement [8]. To know that we are flesh is one thing, to know how to sculpt the flesh is a technical feat, gained by a recognition of what we should believe that the flesh is capable of. This is to know the constraints and permissibility of the flesh; to know this is to know how we should be capable of altering these conditions. The technical capacity engendered by the development of our concepts spirals out from the human being as it has been manifestly conceived; the inhumanism of the human begins to predominate. As Preciado states:

“The consumption of testosterone, like that of estrogen and progesterone in the case of the Pill, does not depend upon any ideal constructions of gender that would come to influence the way we act and think. We are confronted directly by the production of the materiality of gender. Everything is a matter of doses, of melting and crystallization points, of the rotary power of the molecule, of regularity, of milligrams, of the form and mode of administration, of habit, of praxis.” [9]

The ‘is’ of being human, and its constitution according some vulgar humanism, based upon phenomenological limitations, must be abandoned. Reason brackets and reconstructs the human along lines that have nothing to do with our picture of the sensual being, but instead creatively constitutes it in terms of chemical reactions, genetics, neurobiology, and structures that are not given, but whose representation of their conditions are discovered through a rigorously formal explication of nature. These processes are developed through the methodological framework of the sciences, whose contents are derived from intersubjective coordination of what we should believe to be the case about the material conditions. Science actually follows a methodological program of reasoning, in which it brackets (that is constructs a space of investigation) and proposes a concept (a hypothesis) whose contents are judged through the reciprocal assent or dissent of others in relation to the discursive field of existing commitments (scientific consensus) and making explicit what is implicit in what we know. It is by this process of excavating what is implicit in the human being that we make explicit what the human can be.

Preciado writes:

“I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the State will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. I am a copyleft biopolitical agent that considers sex hormones free and open biocodes, whose use shouldn’t be regulated by the State commandeered by pharmaceutical companies.” [10]

Reason opens up new possibilities for being, possibilities that in turn ramify our conception of the human, beyond the any apparent necessities, whether they descend from the state or arise from nature. In knowing what we should think, we can imagine what we ought to be. For Preciado, the refinement of the conception of gender and sexuation, and the locating and making explicit the implicit materiality which affects our understanding of these concepts, has allowed her to develop a new freedom to be other than apparent accidental and necessary form which nature had given her. We have the capacity to re-imagine and reconstruct the human, not only in a manner that transforms our folk conceptions of of who we are socially and culturally, but even in radically fundamental and material ways which may ultimately modify the limits of our capacity to conceive and perceive the world.

When NASA was developing the space program and trying to figure out the best way to put humans in space, it conceived of technologies that went radically beyond what we thought was possible, and are only now coming into view. It was imagined that, rather than recreating the environmental support system which we were already adapted to survive in a bulky and unwieldy spacesuit, we might actually re-engineer the human body itself to survive in outer space [11]. This cybernetic program would require a massive re-constitution of the human being on a deeply material level, to the point at which we may not recognize the result of the project as being of the same species.

Today we are once again reconsidering the cosmic imperative, the demand for the human species to spread out and colonize the stars. This project comes with an incredible number of technological hurdles, for which, if we are to be successful, will require a significant transformation in our understanding. Every step we take in the development of our concepts ramifies the trajectory of our journey. Consider, for instance, the project to colonize Mars. Should we make it to the red planet, colonists would not only be exposed to a massive radiation dose upon entering the atmosphere, but long-term habitation would alter bone-density and other functions of the human body while adapting to the lower gravity. Should a colonist then chose to return to earth, new technologies would have to be developed to allow their body to survive on Earth once more. We can not go back, but only forward. There is no mythical originary being which we can return to — once we have left the womb of being, we are forever transformed by our accumulated experience and knowledge. All we can do is embrace the infinite demand for truth, and free ourselves to widening vistas of possibility that it opens into.

1. Peter Sloterdjik, Bubbles,Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, 2011.
2. Robert Brandom, Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, 2013.
3. Kathy Acker, “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body“, 1992.
4. ibid.
5. Quentin Meillassoux, The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des, 2012.
6. Acker, 1992.
7. Beatriz Preciado, “Testo-Junkie“, 2013
8. Brandom, 2013.
9. Preciado, 2013.
10. ibid.
11. Nicholas de Moncheaux, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, 2011.