The Incorporated Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Embodiment

Michael O’Donovan-Anderson
Rowman & Littlefield, 1996

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The Incorporated Self demonstrates that although embodiment has long been a central concern of the theoretical humanities, its potential to alter epistemology and open up new areas of dualistic inquiry has not been pursued far enough. This anthology collects the the works of scholars from a broad range of disciplines, each examining the nature of the body and the necessity of embodiment to the human experience — for our self awareness, our sense of identity, and the workings of the mind.

Table of Contents

In Search of Real Bodies: Theories and/of Embodiment
   Michael O’Donovan-Anderson

“Darwinian Bodies: Against Institutionalized Metaphysical Dualism”
   Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

“The Ghost of Embodiment: Is the Body a Natural or a Cultural Entity?”
   Edward S. Casey

“Phantoms, Lost Limbs, and the Limits of the Body-Self”
   Stephen Meuse

“Identity and the Subject in Performance: Body, Self and Social World”
   Loren Noveck

“What Meaning in Her Breast? Ambivalence of the Body as Sign and Site of Identity”
   Michele Janette

“Hamlet, Neitzsche, and Visceral Knowledge”
   David Hillman

“Living Words: Physiognomy and Aesthetic Language”
   Colin Sample

“The Mindful Body: Embodiment and Cognitive Science”
   Evan Thompson

“Science and Things: On Scientific Method as Embodied Access to the World”
   Michael O’Donovan-Anderson



In Search of Real Bodies: Theories and/of Embodiment

Michael O’Donovan-Anderson

Perhaps it is the sly, proto-villainous expression of Descartes’ most famous portrait — just the sort of look we (Americans) expect from an European intellectual courtesan: a bit disdainful, a bit amused, and most certainly intellectually detached from the immediacy of his surroundings — which makes it so easy to saddle him with responsibility for the duality of mind and body which continues to haunt the theoretical humanities.  In reality, of course, no such simple attribution is possible; Plato at least must share some credit for his discussion of the immateriality of the soul, and certainly Christian metaphysics in general deserves recognition for the tendency towards a devaluation of the body and concomitant identification of the self with spirit.[1]  Descartes’ own arguments for the separation of soul and body are part of a long legacy of dualistic thinking, and should always be read against his insistence that although conceptually, and therefore ontologically distinct, soul and body are nevertheless an empirical unity.  But although we inherit this ontological separatism only through Descartes, it is fair to say that we inherit from his peculiar clarity a picture of the epistemic position of the self which powerfully serves that ontological claim: our only epistemic contact with the world is to be had through the senses.

                Insofar as questions of the nature and reliability of our knowledge have long occupied center stage, not just in philosophy but also in the disciplines for which philosophy plays an important role, these two Cartesian tenets have placed the body at the center of the theoretical humanities.  For what better way to encapsulate the nature of the knowing, feeling, moving self than as an "embodied mind"?  Descartes’ famous ontological realization that he is a thinking thing is conditioned and tempered by the epistemological admission that all he had accepted as most true had come to him through the senses.  The mind is in contact with the world only in virtue of the body, which transforms the causal impacts of material reality into the interpretable data of sense.  Yet it is precisely the body’s intrusion between knowledge and reality which philosophical reason abhors, for it credits Mind with the certainty of access to eternal truths, and charges the body with momentary and unreliable flux; the body is a source of betrayal, a cause of the senses’ deception.[2]

                The body is for Cartesian philosophy both necessary and unacceptable, and this ambivalence tends to drive mind and body apart in a way Descartes did not intend.  For without the theological underpinnings of Descartes’ entire system, it begins to look as if objectivity requires us to sift from the data of sense the contribution of the body, to divide, that is, the data from the sense.  Although all knowledge originates in sensation, we are called upon to repudiate that origin as personal, unreliable, subjective; as a result the "knowing" self becomes more ghostly, while the physical body’s attachment to mind becomes more tenuous.  If the physical body, captured in the form of sensation, is not permitted to ground the possibility of knowledge, to provide the originary locus and fundamental content of that knowledge, then that which mediates between the sensation-causing world and the information-processing mind begins to be defined in abstraction from the body; for the body itself is a source of sensation, is part of the sensibly-known world and must, therefore, be mediated in its contact with the mind by that in which the sensation is caused (and by which the unreliable physicality of sense can be removed).  In order to account for the mediation, and ensure the objective validity of information about the body itself we need to posit as mediator something which has no sensible effect of its own; this something stands between, driving apart, mind and body, transforming the body into mere known.  Descartes’ epistemic commitments reinforce and exacerbate his ontological stance.

                Curiously, although these two Cartesian tenets clearly support each other in this way, the sustained rebellion against ontological dualism has generally been waged under the banner of epistemic sensualism.  The efforts to reunite (or more properly speaking un-separate) body and mind (or body and self) have quite often involved embracing the Cartesian notion that our senses are surface receptors of object-surfaces, leading directly to an epistemic shallowness whereby knowledge is limited to and/or grounded in the obvious.  This by no means implies a history of complacence in the face of skepticism, but our collective refusal of that doctrine has not generally meant finding a way around it (as has been the strategy employed against dualism) but rather finding a way through it, moving forward to certainty with the epistemic premises of skepticism intact.  Thus idealism effects the unseparation of mind and body by reducing esse to percipi, and thereby the body to a mental phenomenon.[3]  Likewise materialism, as a condition of its own unseparation, takes bodily surface irritations to exhaust our epistemic repertoire, and through a cleverly deterministic physical biology roots in this premise its explanation of our successful negotiation of reality.[4]  In both cases we trade knowledge for certainty, disregarding reality and thought in turn.

                The case is not much different even for thinkers more interesting than such caricatures allow.  Derridean textualism (and its many variations) is a case in point.  Having accepted our epistemic limitation to the visible,[5] and yet recognizing our capacity to discern meaning in the apparent world, one can see the theoretical promise in understanding the world in terms of text, that paradigmatic instance of visible significance.  The attraction is, of course, much increased after the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy.  According to textualism, the world, and especially the ever significant body, can be understood as essentially, quite literally, legible: the body is not merely, as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone puts it, a ‘semantic template’ (and as such readable) but is in its essence a text.

                What is interesting about this approach, what has proven both exciting and frustrating for the cultural theorists who appropriate this epistemic-cum-metaphysical stance, is its casting of the body not simply as readable, but as written; since the body as written has not the resources to validate the writing (il n’y a rien en dehors du texte) we are compelled to ask who dictates the plot and logic of the body’s story.  Here the problems which this valorization of the visible creates for the invisible come to the fore: for precisely what has disappeared from this account is the Subject (who is not obvious[6]) and with it the authority to determine the roles in which the body is cast as (a) self.  The more we insist on obviousness as the only sign of existence or importance the more unreal (apparent, ghostly, phenomenal) become the things so exhibited.

                To extend this metaphysic is to submerge a great deal, to repress the evidence of that which exists beyond the veil of sense, below the text; it is to deny that we are writing on, writing over, the already significant.  But as we know, the repressed eternally returns and the body has a way of bleeding through even the thickest of conceptual overlays.[7]  It is important that this return always takes the form of the irrational, that which is illegible or, often, visible only as its opposite within enforced interpretive constraints.  Thus does the hysteria of the Victorian Woman, which appears as confirmation and validation of the mantle of illogic and illegibility which she wears as social role in place of (to prevent) self-determination, in fact serve as the foremost sign of her psychosomatic articulacy.  Likewise the emotions, which are expressed only by an embodied self,[8] nevertheless appear as the body’s illogical subversion of the self and will.[9]

                It is the nature of these appearances which makes possible the valorization of illogic as a strategy of resistance and freedom.[10]  For insofar as the text is constituted by logos, then the self which remains submerged by that text can be recovered only as illogic, anti-logos.  But to take the step, perhaps as a small rebellion, of identifying the self with the illogical submerged is just to make the materialist mistake of jettisoning thought[11] for the sake of unity.

                This book is meant to herald a new way of thinking about these issues.  Together, the essays gathered here aim to recover the notion of a fully embodied self by challenging both Cartesian tenets.[12]  The hope is thereby to avoid the dualism of Descartes’ ontology and the reductionism which results from his epistemology.

                Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is perhaps most forceful of all the thinkers gathered here in calling for a philosophy of real bodies, a philosophy which understands thought to suffuse the whole of the living body, manifesting itself in actions far beyond speech production.  Relying heavily on Darwin’s observational biology, it is her explicit aim to give the body its due by insisting on the intelligence of behavior, and the continuity of ‘animal’ and ‘human’ in all aspects of our lives.  The body is, to paraphrase Evan Thompson’s contribution, a mindful entity.  Even the unlikely field of cognitive science, until recently apparently unconcerned with the mind’s embodiment, has begun to recognize the validity of such insights.  Thompson details the emerging focus within cognitive science on "situated action" (as opposed to concept manipulation or information processing) as a model for and sign of mindedness.  According to this approach perception is not reception but action, and cognition is an emergent property of this activity, and not an epiphenomenon of behavior miraculously present only in humans.  The self which knows, thinks and does is quintessentially an embodied self, and the mind is not merely attached to this body, located at and limited to some single command center, but is present throughout the body in lived experience.  Thus is thought fully present in activities beyond the linguistic, and language, we must presume, once understood as the incorporeal yet worldly repository of mind, must be more bodily than heretofore imagined.  In this spirit (perhaps more appropriately, in this vein) Colin Sample informs us that language is not just semiotic, but mimetic; meaning is carried not only in virtue of the consensus of a given community, but also by the body’s capacity through gesture, posture, and movements more subtle still, to communicate mimetically, carrying in the physicality of movement a protoconceptual significance which in some sense resembles and grounds the conceptual.  In aesthetic language in particular, the body’s ability to grasp onomonapoetic, physiognomic and other expressive underpinnings of the conceptual (negation is a pushing away, sadness is blue, a low, slow and heavy musical line, the downward ‘aww’ rather than the bright, uplifted ‘hey!’) is essential to the possibility of full and complete communication.  As Sample writes, "Verbal communication is not merely the exchange of propositional content.  It is also a meticulous dance… envelop[ing] verbal utterances in a felt context of emotion [and] physiognomic significance…expressed by the bodies of the interaction partners."

                Our bodies, this is to say, are far more important than has generally been reflected in the canon.  Indeed, Steven Meuse points out that it is a condition of self-awareness to have a grasp of ourselves as a bodily presence in the world, to know where we are, and where we are not.  The ur-self takes itself to extend and encompass the entire cosmos, but it is just this expansiveness which prevents consciousness from being self-consciousness.  The formation of a workable ego thus requires the amputation of those parts of the psyche which extend beyond the limits of the body; the ego is in fact a body-ego.  This basic thesis in elaborated and expanded by Meuse through a study of an interesting converse phenomenon: the amputation of a bodily limb which leaves behind its psychic, or "phantom" counterpart through and with which some amputees seem still to experience and confront the world.  Meuse intriguingly suggests that the rash of phantom-limb reports and "appearances" in the late 19th century can be attributed to a socio-historical context in which the body politic was threatened with amputations.

                We should not be surprised to find such a correspondence or affinity between the individual and social body.  As Ed Casey carefully details, the human body is always everywhere both biological and psychical, empirical and cultural.  The body, Casey writes, "carries culture and brings it to bear by performing it outright," an insight expanded and developed in Loren Noveck’s work.  Noveck sets up four scenarios which examine from different perspectives the demands placed upon the body by the roles into which it is cast by the life it leads.  Insofar as all life is a stage, performance theory offers us an especially apt tool for analyzing and uncovering the potentials and pitfalls of freedom and subjectivity in the face of social demand.  Casey’s analysis complements Noveck’s by insisting that the notion of a self-contained socially-saturated self connected to a culturally-free empirical body is not viable; the opposition of Nature and Culture is an artifact of the opposition of body and mind which we hope here to overcome.  We cannot without conceptual if not literal damage divorce the "real" body from some acculturated body-in-society, and neither can we take the subject, revealed here as a socially-saturated body-ego, to be transcendentally free.  But what is freedom if not transcendental?  Noveck suggests that the notion of performance itself possesses the resources to think free-agency into the subject; she calls for a real freedom, a situated freedom, to accompany the real body.

                But to recognize that real bodies are acculturated bodies is not to assert their reality apart from the empirical or the adiscursive.  Bodies exist both within, and sometimes in spite of, the cultural categories woven in, through, with and around them by language.  As is made apparent in these essays time and again, the purely textual body is the unreal body.  Michele Janette is at particular pains to counter the textualist tendency in literary theory.  For how shall we understand that text by, through, and within which the body-subject is identified when it is not the theoretical, analogical "text" of the hermeneutic encounter, written, as it were, in the epistemic air between known and knower, but is instead carved from flesh, available not as interpretive matrix but as scar-healed wounds which both shape and symbolize the self?  The body-texts of Janette’s essay are literally inscribed on the backs of two women in different social but similar hermeneutic situations; the text is thoroughly owned by and part of the women, and yet its placement on their backs makes it impossible for the women to read themselves.  Interpretation of the text requires the introduction of another reader.  Thus the tension between self-definition and an externally imposed identity so central to Noveck’s paper is played out here again on the bodies of the characters Janette investigates, and her analysis indicates that real bodies are at once more stable, and also more ambiguous, than the "text" of their identity suggests.

                David Hillman inverts Janette’s inquiry in interesting and complimentary ways, for Hamlet is concerned with the meaning not of surface shape, but of the interior of the body, the significance of innards.  Further, the focus of Hillman’s essay is on the eros of the reader, rather than on the position of the read, on asexual ingression of the body of the other, instead of on visual, tactile and sexually charged transgression from the other.  For Hamlet, to know the other’s mind is essentially to know his innards; gut feelings and innermost thoughts are played out in the viscera to which Hamlet desires access.  Interestingly, Hillman shows how closely this desire to know is linked to the desire to be known (as is always the case with Eros); the (desire for the) revelation of the other, it seems, always involves the (desire for the) revelation of the self, an insight which problematizes any reduction of the act of interpretation to the phallic, visual penetration of the other in which the reader remains closed, unseen, invisible.  The hermeneutic encounter may instead imply a mutual vulnerability; thus was Janette’s woman warrior able to decapitate (castrate) the baron even as he "feminized" her with his intrusive gaze.

                The concern with the status of the knower and the accessibility of the known takes different form in Science & Things. There I argue that the canonical epistemology of science, according to which the information gathered by the senses is given form and significance by the conceptualizing mind, fails to account for actual scientific practice and for science’s epistemic success. This essay is meant to be a direct confrontation with the epistemic tenet of Cartesianism, and I insist therefore that the body possesses a nonsensual receptivity to the structure of the world, an epistemic openness intimately bound up with the active, moving body.  Following Thompson, we might usefully understand our perception-organizing/interpreting concepts or theories, not in terms of mental constructs working on sensual material to produce contentful representations, but rather in terms of comportmental potentials and practices, whose epistemic value and activity cannot be so easily located in a "mind" considered separately from the body; this brings the body more fully into the epistemic picture than "perception" allows. The knowing self is not just the sensing mind, but the living, moving, intruding, fully embodied interactive self, a self which can access the world by means other than the epistemic text of interpreted sensation.  This opens the possibility of an epistemology which allows the world to provide epistemic friction, revealing that skepticism, in those very areas of scientific knowledge where it seems most plausible, can be subverted by insisting that the knowing, thinking, interpreting self is more fully and thoroughly embodied than Cartesianism admits.

                It is my hope that this collection will reveal not just that the thinking self is embodied, but that the embodied self is mindful; not only that a subject is far more corporeal than we generally have had the courage to admit, but that a body is a far more rich, complicated and interesting thing to be than we have seen fit to acknowledge.  It is in this thoroughgoing revisionism, the vision of the full, complicated reality of the incorporated self, that the strength of this volume lies.  For insofar as it is the mark of a successful work to intelligently challenge the accepted, to open up new vistas for intellectual progress, I can say with confidence that this is a successful work.  I can only hope that the theoretical challenge it represents will one day be embodied in the corpus of the theoretical humanities.

[1]. Of course, Plato’s soul-as-harmony requires the existence of physical parts, and likewise certain strains of Christian metaphysics insist on the necessity of the body to resurrection.

[2]. The science of mechanics would do much to temper this image of the unreliability of the physical, thus making possible the philosophical promise of materialistic determinism.

[3]. This tendency to treat perception as a largely "mental" phenomenon follows easily from the above noted tendencies to distance knowledge from its bodily origin.  Here the knowing self (the perceiving self) is not really a body at all, or is a sort of ghost in a machine.

                The further reduction of body to instances of perception has been the source of some consternation among feminist thinkers, for in a cultural context which denies subjectivity to female bodies, the woman exists only for the other (or narcissistically for herself-as-other) as the object of the gaze.

[4].  See, e.g. W.V.O. Quine "Epistemology Naturalized": "Awareness ceased to be demanded when we gave up trying to justify our knowledge of the external world by rational reconstruction.  What to count as observation can now be settled in terms of the stimulation of sensory reception, let consciousness fall where it may." Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969) p.69.

                See also Joseph Margolis’ commentary on this and other features of recent analytic philosophy in "A Biopsy of Recent Analytic Philosophy" The Philosophical Forum, Vol. XVI, no. 3 (Spring 1995) pp.161-188, esp. p.164.

[5]. Literally, of course, we have five senses, but sensible knowledge has so much been taken as knowledge of surfaces that vision has seemed an appropriate metaphor for all of them (and the senses, as well as knowledge itself, have often been re-conceptualized along visual lines).  See, e.g. Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 1993.

[6]. Although it is, of course, the object of certain strains of neo-behaviorism (I am thinking in particular of Daniel Dennett and Wittgenstein in certain moods), where they wish to preserve the subject at all, to do so by making subjectivity obvious.

                It should be noted that I am not setting up an argument for an epistemically inaccessible Subject; rather I wish to argue for an account of access which goes beyond perception.

[7]. This is how I read one of Foucault’s central themes, much to the dismay of those who take him to be a prime representative of cultural constructivism.

[8]. See, e.g. Albert Sheets-Johnstone "The Bodily Nature of the Self or What Descartes Should Have Conceded Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia" in Giving the Body its Due, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, ed. (Albany: SUNY Press) 1992.

[9].  When in fact the emotions are necessary to agency precisely because they are not "rational".  See e.g.. Ron Katwan’s work on Schopenhauer.

[10]. For a thorough, although critical, review of this way of thinking see Calvin O. Schrag The Resources of Rationality. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press) 1992.

[11].  Or, more specifically, what appears as thought given the pre-enforced dualism, for thought is in fact the embodied unity of structure and content which the anti-logo-centric and logo-centric theorist equally fail to capture.

[12]. This is to say, the essays were gathered with their service to this end in mind; they were not necessarily written for this use.  In this sense I am making the authors speak in one voice without being able to claim that this voice always speaks for the authors.