I’ve recently been reading an article by one of my colleagues (this one here, “Taking care of one’s brain: how manipulating the brain changes people’s selves” by Jonna Brenninkmeijer). She’s done some, as we call it in the biz, qualitative work with people participating in some of the edgiest of brain treatments (you know, the ones that have little or no scientific proof – sometimes because of little research – and supposedly magical results). Mostly neurofeedback machines. Her concern in the paper is not with ‘whether it works’ so much as with how it works; what effects these new technologies have on how people conceive of themselves; indeed, who they think is doing the conceiving of the self.

This is something that I’ve been intrigued by for a long time. We tend, I think, to use phrases like ‘I have depression’ or ‘I have bipolar’ rather than ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I am bipolar’. This configuration intrigues me: it suggests ownership of the mental illness, but it also makes clear a differentiation between the self and the illness. The self itself is not ill, it has an illness. Disability activists have been aware of this issue for a long time, of course. It tends to manifest along an Anglo/USAian split (though obviously not in any absolute way) where the Brits angle for ‘I’m disabled,’ as a claim of the difference of the self, and a refusal to see disability as irrelevant to the real self, whilst the USAians tend to prefer ‘having’ a disability because it’s ‘person-focused,’ not letting the subject be obscured by the disability. This in turn is the manifestation of some very different commitments, familiar from other sites of activism, to do with the (predominantly liberal) assertion of similarity and the (predominantly radical) assertion of difference. But this configuration of illness and disability, of course, has an older manifestation. Our dear old friend John Locke explicitly situated the body as property. Inalienable property — unable to be given away or sold (though this is of course coming into question with some of the new biotech… and that’s a story for another day, a nice long story!) — but property nonetheless.

This long history, of course, is part of what is challenged by certain kinds of phenomenologists, and the feminist theorists of the body that I talk about all the time. Merleau-Ponty, for example, explicitly tells us that we do not have our body, and nor are we ‘in it’, but we are it. Elizabeth Grosz focuses on the gendering of the mind/body split, saying some interesting things about how bodyliness gets allocated:

The male/female opposition has been closely allied with the mind/body opposition. Typically, femininity is represented (either explicitly or implicitly) in one of two ways in this cross-pairing of oppositions: either mind is rendered equivalent to the masculine and body equivalent to the feminine (thus ruling out women a priori as possible subjects of knowledge, or philosophers) or each sex is attributed its own form of corporeality. However, instead of granting women an autonomous and active form of corporeal specificity, at best women’s bodies are judged in terms of a ‘natural inequality,’ as if tehre were a standard or measure for the value of bodies independent of sex…. By implication, women’s bodies are presumed to be incapable of men’s achievements, being weaker, more prone to (hormonal) irregularities, intrusions, and unpredictabilities. Patriarchal oppression, in other words, justifies itself, at least in part by connecting women much more closely than men to the body and, through this identification, restricting women’s social and economic roles to (pseudo) biological terms. Volatile Bodies, p. 14.

In exploring the inadequacies of this account, the problematic politics involved, and some of the shape of an alternative account,she goes on to say

corporeality must no longer be associated with one sex (or race) which then takes on the burden of the other’s corporeality for it. Women can no longer take on the function of being the body for men while men are left free to soar to the heights of theoretical reflection and cultural production. Blacks, slaves, immigrants, indigenous peoples can no longer function as the working body for white ‘citizens,’ leaving them free to create values, morality, knowledges. Volatile Bodies, p. 22.

It is unsurprising, then, that the mind/body split continues to so inflect these supposedly new ways of talking about ourselves. Jonna’s paper is especially nice because she’s interested in how those who take part in neurofeedback understand the connection between self (mind) and brain (body). As always seems to happen when people attempt to maintain this distinction, there are (what get coded as, given the Cartesian split) confusions, incoherencies, fuzzinesses, and willfulness attributed to both brain and self in certain ways, in certain dimensions.

The self/brain split, of course, is not quite the mind/body split: the self/brain split leaves the rest of the body irrelevant, the dramatic influence of other aspects of corporeality notwithstanding (Elizabeth Wilson’s Psychosomatic does a good job of considering the influence of, for e.g, the gut on aspects of the brain). The brain gets configured, then, as slightly less bodily, slightly more modifiable, slightly closer to the mind than the body proper, fuzzing out the mind/body split into something that looks slightly less splitty but isn’t really. It’s still about the capacity for control.

There are a few consequences of this way of talking about the mind and brain and body that I want to discuss briefly. One is that turning a mental illness into a possession probably makes therapy a lot easier, in a few ways: first, it creates a self separate or separable from the illness, that can then negotiate with the illnes; second, it makes that self ‘innocent’ of the ‘badness’ or ‘wrongness’ or ‘pathology’ of the illness; third, it reorients authenticity, situating the depression-less-self as the really true self, and thus undermining the sense that one is depressed because one is realistic, and that any modification of that idea makes one inauthentic or fake. Peter Kramer, in Listening to Prozac, gives an example of a woman who feels like Prozac lets her ‘be who she really is’: socially easy, great in negotiations at work, a good manager, a cheerful daughter…. isn’t it interesting what counts as a true self, now? (My copy of the Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed has not yet arrived, or doubtless I’d be citing her just here!).

There are a few questions to be asked about this, of course. One is the question of responsibility: the separation of the self from the illness can be used to suggest that one cannot be held responsible for the effects of that illness on others. Again, therapeutically this can be useful in that guilt can hinder therapy, and politically, because the question of whether or not one can ‘help’ one’s illness (strange turn of phrase, that one, isn’t it?) is bound up with our ideas about the immutability of the natural being grounds for the social sphere to actually deal with difference, although with the increases in our ability to change ourselves, this is getting less strong. But it also shapes relationships in ways that can be problematic, especially in contexts of abuse, because it can make drawing lines around what one will and won’t accept difficult (why no, I’m not speaking from experience, however could you tell). After all, oughtn’t one to care for, rather than punish or reject, those who are sick? And if they aren’t their sickness, and you love who they really are, then can you stop loving/caring (etcthanksfemininityyoutellakillertale). Another, more extreme, example of this might be the inclusion of Paraphilic Coercion Disorder in the new DSM, which situates rape as not a crime but a symptom of a sickness. (My superpower (ambivalence) goes into overdrive over that one; if nothing else, it certainly makes especially clear Foucault’s argument that the psy sciences are slurping up judicial power).

Another is the way that it configures the self. The expansion of psychological abnormality–such as through the Paraphilic Coercion Disorder referred to above, or through the increasing talk about how ‘we’re all on the (autism) spectrum,’ or through questionnaires such as those for Sex Addiction (be warned that I suspect the box you tick at the top of the survey modifies your results substantially) which implicitly pathologise a range of very common, if unwanted behaviours (obviously my concern is not what is ‘real’ sex addiction or autism or anything, so much as why we want (psychology) to draw the line)–this expansion of pathology coincides with the push of the “normalizing society” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended, somewhere I can’t find just now because fuck googlebooks/the publisher/my books are still on the seas etc). This push isn’t just towards a statistical norm, it’s towards an ideal. The splitting of the self through situating all ‘abnormality’ as not-really-me functions in really fascinating ways, enabling an ideal self to become the real self, even if that self is never manifested. Which on the one hand might make some space for difference, in that I-am-really-x-but-can’t-quite-manifest-it-oh-well. On the other, though this configures the difficulty in achieving the realisation of the ideal self unfair rather than just-the-way-life-goes (an external impediment rather than, well, me) especially given that the world offers so very many means to achieve that self.

And all of this feeds into the modification of individuals (ha! ‘in-divid-ual’ indeed!) through therapeutic, pharmaceutical and other means. My concern about this (and I hope that this is obvious by now on this blog) is less to do with the number of pills people take, or the amount of therapy, or the idea that people might be changing away from some naturally-given ideal. I really couldn’t give a fuck about all of that. My concern is more with how rigorously intimate the refusal of difference is becoming through this kind of discourse. My concern is that this intimacy–it’s playing out within the self now– means that the extent to which ideas of the normal, sustained by these ‘innocuous’ phrases about having rather than being, become so thoroughly a part of our selves that they seem neutral, seem natural, seem to be about the way that things really are. Not only does this problematically continue to situate those deemed to be ‘more bodily’ than some ideal as still problems, as Elizabeth Grosz sketches above. The intimacy of these issues–this is about how I situate me, myself, I, my brain, my mind, my body, when I’m not even thinking about them/me–preclude examination of the terms by which suffering is produced and sustained by them. Or so I’m thinkin’ just now. Thoughts welcome, as ever, mes amis!