LESS Steven Moffat’s cotton socks! Quite aside from his past work, his scripts for Doctor Who are exemplary, and usually stand out as the best of the season. ‘Blink’ I think is up there. Scary funereal angels with the most perfect defense system ever! What more could you want?
But to the theory… The posts thus far are only partially indicative of the work towards my thesis. It actually has no Heidegger in it—at least not yet!—but Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault make some major appearances, alongside the thinker probably most key to my work, the Australian feminist philosopher, Rosalyn Diprose.
The idea of the bodily tolerance I actually first encountered in her work. (She uses it to help get at how and why ‘safe sex’ discourse might be problematic (not so much in the strict please-use-protection sense, but in the sex-must-always-be-and-appear-to-be-entirely-equal), and while I find that work really interesting, that’s not quite what I’m going to write about today.) So having been exposed to this idea, I quickly read up (or rather, quite slowly, for Phenomenology of Perception is a long book with thrilling bits, lyrical bits, confusing bits and bits of only occasionally relenting tedium. Also, being mostly familiar with Merleau-Ponty as he’s used by critical race and feminist scholars—like Alcoff, as we saw—I would find myself thinking “Really? I wouldn’t have thought that he’d be saying that,” only to turn the next few pages and think “ooooh… I see. He doesn’t.”). Anyway. Already interested with the way that suffering circulates discursively and experientially around techniques and technologies of bodily alteration, I was intrigued. And more than that, I wanted some ‘body’ to add to Levinas’ subject; bloodlessness in Irigaray’s sense (This Sex Which Is Not One) is not what I wanted to produce in my work. Bringing Merleau-Ponty’s thorough critique of and counter to the left-overs of Descartes in his argument for the thorough intertwining of body and mind, self and other and self and world really helps. Stage set: intertwining of body and mind. Context. Suffering.
The main section in POP that discusses bodily tolerances is, interestingly, in the last chapter which is concerned with freedom (and to my untutored eyes appears to be an intervention of sorts into Sartrean existentialism with some sympathy for de Beauvoir’s (or is it Beauvoir’s… I never know!) approach thrown in). As we’ve already seen, Merleau-Ponty argues that any given subject cannot be separated out from their context. Alcoff gave us examples of how race and whiteness operate in and through specific styles of bodily being-in-the-world, and how they inform not merely the ways we occupy space, but the ways we think, talk, speak, move, laugh, engage with others and so on. And we saw, albeit briefly, that these styles are repeated and thereby sedimented, such that alteration of them becomes more complicated than a mere changing of a mind. The image water carving its way into the landscape to form a river was what I used (that’s not a Merleau-Ponty thing).
The concept of bodily tolerances enters here. Basically, Merleau-Ponty argues that a particular style of being-in-the-world, in becoming sedimented, will tend to be that which we wish to continue. And so we come to a peculiar and complex notion of freedom. He writes (bear with me, it’s long but dense):
It has been perceptively remarked that pain and fatigue can never be regarded as causes which ‘act’ upon my liberty, and that, in so far as I may experience either at any given moment, they do not have their origin outside me, but always have a significance and express my attitude to the world. Pain makes me give way and say what I ought to have kept to myself, fatigue makes me break my journey. We all know the moment at which we decide no longer to endure pain or fatigue, and when, simultaneously, they become intolerable in fact. Tiredness does not halt my companion, because he likes the clamminess of his body, the heat of the road and sun, in short, because he likes to feel himself in the midst of things, to feel their rays converging upon him, to be the cynosure of all this light, and an object of touch for the earth’s crust. My own fatigue brings me to a halt because I dislike it, because I have chosen differently my manner of being the in the world, because, for instance, I endeavour, not to be in nature, but rather to win the recognition of others. I am free in relation to fatigue to precisely the extent that I am free in relation to my being in the world, free to make my way by transforming it. But here once more we must recognise a sort of sedimentation of our life: an attitude towards the world, when it has received frequent confirmation, acquires a favoured status for us. Yet since freedom does not tolerate any motive in its path, my habitual being in the world is at each moment equally precarious, and the complexes which I have allowed to develop over the years always remain equally soothing, and the free act can with no difficulty blow them sky-high. However, having built our life upon an inferiority complex which has been operative for twenty years, it is not probable that we shall change… [he discusses statistics, psychology and probability for a lil bit, then:] ‘It is improbable’ that I should at this moment destroy an inferiority complex in which I have been content to live for twenty years. That means that I have committed myself to inferiority, that I have made it my abode [dwelling? ethos?], that this past, though not a fate, has at least a specific weight and is not a set of events over there, at a distance from me, but the atmostphere of my present. The rationalist’s dilemma: either the free act is possible, or it is not—either the event originates in me or is imposed on me from outside, does not apply to our relations with the world and with our past. Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open, which implies that it calls up specially favoured modes of resolution, and also that it is powerless to bring one into being by itself. (pp. 512-514)
The habituation of my particular manner of being in the world is like the flow of water across the ground: the ‘confirmation’ of water continuing to flow slowly produces banks on either side of the river which both limit and allow the flow of the river. The edges of this habitual mode of being in the world are marked by bodily tolerances which can cause suffering if exceeded: a ‘tolerance allowed by the bodily and institutional data of our lives.’ (p. 528)
Merleau-Ponty then goes on to discuss how these tolerances are related to question of revolution, particularly in relation to freedom. I won’t go into these just now, but:
What then is freedom? To be born is both to be born of the world and to be born into the world. the world is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, for we exist in both ways at one. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness. (p. 527)
This concept of the bodily tolerance has proven deeply useful to me, primarily because it helps us get at the specificity of any given case of suffering, being the product of a particular subject’s institutional, social and cultural embodied ‘data’ and helps us give some content to Levinas’ idea that suffering breaks apart the subject and their habits of meaning-making, engaging with others and being in the world. Soon (as I keep promising, soon!) I will demonstrate the ways that ideas about normalcy come to inform the very ways we are in the world, and thus how our bodily (in)tolerance for what is not normal might mean that if and when we suffer because we do not adhere to the normal, this might not merely be a neutral, natural response to a neutral, natural wrong; rather it may be a political technology that seeks normalisation.
Forgive the fuzziness today—I’m still (even though it’s half-past ten in the evening) suffering a little from a hangover. Just in case anyone ever thought that it could be a good idea, trust me, following white wine with alcoholic punch, port and finally fake Malibu with pineapple juice ends in badness. And fuzzle-headedness. To be avoided.