‘No one has ever experienced metabolism, though everyone has experienced wakefulness and fatigue, and no one has ever felt their brain or the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on their body’, as Levi Bryant states in one of his most recent posts.
Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.
To agree within a disagreement: it is entirely possible for people to experience other depths of the body, to enact a phenomenological embodiment that exceeds the everyday embodiment of most people. There is a wealth of research into the hyperreflexive and hyperautomated experiences of the body in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, experiences of organs in people with eating disorders and starvation syndrome. These people enact their own ‘alien phenomenologies’ that deviate from what gets- ludicrously- called neurotypicality and what we could call the normative body. In suggesting that people do not experience the real of their bodies at all, Levi is at risk of engaging in a kind of idealism, even in the name of materialism, that cancels any non-normal experience of the body out from consideration. Only the healthy body exists, and only this health experience of the body matters, while of course the experience of the body is not the body, is a translation of the body. Between the text and the translation the materiality is lost: what do I experience if not the materiality of my body?
There is almost a temptation to ask whether, given Levi’s understanding of phenomenology (which he seems to conflate with phenomenography) as ‘constitutively unable to think the real of the body’ that there is anything that can think the real of the body. After all, any science that we might develop, any materialist naturalism, is a materialist naturalism that at the very least has to be understood by, be intelligible to, a human consciousness. Doesn’t all scientific experimentation and truth have to appear to a consciousness. They may well be true even without that consciousness, but truth and being registered as true in the organised form of knowledge called science are not identical. For instance while the theory of evolution may also have been a truth, its appearance to a living consciousness made a difference to the nature of that truth in relation to those for whom it was disclosed as a truth. If there is no way to experience the body at all then aren’t we back in Cartesian territory?
To suggest that one doesn’t experience ones own body is to think in terms of the disembodied society that we are living in; the society that can’t take up sensibility, that takes the body to be a fleshless becoming-immateriality that can only know itself as carnal in violence and disease. To suggest that there is no experience of the body but only its effects is also to separate what a body is from what a body is capable of and to set up some eternal body behind the body in interaction and interoaction. Pain, no longer to be considered an experience of the body but an experience of its effects, is rendered as a stereo-reality; carnal on the one hand, ghostly on the other. There is a risk that this is insulting to people who suffer from their bodies, people who are always aware of parts of their body that happily recede for others. It is also to suggest that pain and pleasure are matters not of the body but of effects of the body and so of certain inscriptions of the body onto consciousness and so we remain within a kind of textualism.
Finally, at the pragmatic level, if I am working with someone who is suffering from pain what tools am I offered by the thought that pain is merely an “effect”; I knew that already, it is an effect of the body on itself. Being able to phrase this from within a machine-oriented ontology gives me nothing new to offer the patient in pain, save to assure them all they are experiencing is an effect of the body, not the body itself. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, continues to be a source of pragmatic value for medicine and nursing. This pragmatic concern links with the earlier question of whether this is a new Cartesianism. After all, to say that the body does not appear to consciousness is to set up a separation between these two terms so that the body can be conceived of as material, while consciousness is something that is not material. This is to shy away from the findings of the embodied cognition wing of cognitive science.
These are brief questions, my immediate response to Levi’s post. I’d go on but its a little too hard to be a very serious theory blogger while listening to a five year old shouting at 101 Dalmatians.