Monday, 21 March 2011

Pointing an Arrow

I'm going to direct your attention to a post by Ily of asexy beast, a blog about asexuality. This post discusses what romance is, and I think it's worth looking at. She contrasts romance with sensuality, drawing a parallel between them but also making a distinction: sensuality is about immediacy, romance about escape.

I want to call your attention to this blog generally, though, for a few interrelated reasons. First, Ily's voice is one little heard in our culture, and I think wholeheartedly that we should use the blogosphere for a way of sounding the depth (and breadth, but that metaphor doesn't work so well) of human experience and identity. This technology is unique in it's ability to publish and disseminate minority positions of all sorts. Second, Ily's insights into (a)sexuality and other relational stuff is helpful, I think, to anyone at all in understanding human experience. One of the biggest advantages of Ily's thinking is her ability to a phenomenon (say, romantic attraction) and pull it apart and show that it is actually composed of parts, and that these parts can occur on their own. (It's very helpful to realize that feeling strong affiliation and a level of physical comfort with someone of the opposite sex does not mean that you're romantically attracted to the person, for instance.)

Friday, 18 March 2011

Examined Life -- Disability and Body Issues

Instead of updating my body-self series, I'm going to give you this video. It's well worth watching. (It helps if you already have the Cole's Notes version of Gender Trouble, but I imagine it wouldn't be necessary?)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Have you read xkcd this past week?
This makes me angry. When did dismissing charity become funny? The alt-text is even worse: "I usually respond to someone else doing something good by figuring out a reason that they're not really as good as they seem. But I've been realizing lately that there's an easier way to handle these situations, and it involves zero internet arguments."
It's been a while since I've found xckd very good, but this is a new low.
[Edit 16 March 2011: I think it is worth stating that today's xkcd was enjoyable (to me).]

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Problem of the Obedient Body

or, What is our body?, part 2

If what does and does not count as part of my body is not determined by organic attachment (or at least not entirely), then is it possible that obedience does determine it? That is, can we say that whatever obeys our mental commands is part of our body? This is the sort of reasoning Leah at Unequally Yoked suggests, along with some commenters. Explaining why she thinks a prosthetic counts as a part of one's body, she says, "It's attached to me and serves my will." Presumably, then "regular" body parts are governed by the same principle: that which is obeys your will is part of your body. It is not this particular claim that I'm interested in refuting, but a similar one. That is, that our body is that which obeys our will. Perhaps (I'm not yet conceding this point) whatever we can command is part of our body, but I am going to suggest that not all of our body is especially obedient. In the course of this post, I am going to suggest that obedience can only be part of the story because our bodies have a knack for disobedience.

First I want to notice briefly that our bodies have physical limits. We cannot, for instance, bend our elbows beyond a certain angle no matter how hard we will it. We cannot bend where we do not have joints. We cannot expect our eyes to smell or our noses to hear. We can only will our body parts to perform the functions they can perform. This seems obvious and does not seem to me to suggest that the body is disobedient. One could easily enough stipulate that we're only refering to a body's normal functioning. (I am using "normal" deliberately because I plan to indicate later how big of a problem normativity is in this question.) Again, I am going to use a list to indicate ways in which bodies are disobedient.

1. Paralysis Bodies sometimes do not act when willed to act; they are paralyzed. This can be permanent or temporary, caused by nervous tissue damage, psychoactive chemicals, or psychosomatic disorders. Whatever the details, sometimes our bodies, even when physically capable of the action we will, do not move. If obedience alone determined what counted as our body, would we then be required to say that a paraplegic person's lower torso is no longer part of their body? This seems to me to be a highly problematic move.

2. Conjoined Twins and "Two Headed" Snakes You may recall that last time I worried that, by the definition of organic attachment, conjoined twins could not distinguish their bodies when it seemed clear that they should be able to. In this post I want to suggest instances in which conjoined twins actually cannot distinguish between their bodies. Since I do not know of any human twins to whom this applies, I will refer to snakes. (Note on phrasing: it is typical to refer to human conjoined twins as plural people but to refer to animal conjoined twins as a single two-headed organism. This seems an arbitrary distinction to me. Insofar as animals have consciousnesses, two conjoined animals would have separate consciousnesses and therefore be distinct animals. So I am continuing to use the phrase "conjoined twins" rather than "two-headed snakes" to emphasis that these are two snakes sharing a body, not one snake with two heads.)

If you watch the video, you should be able to see that the two snakes here share (or, perhaps more accurately, compete for) control over their body. Both control the body; put differently, the body is obedient to both snakes, except when they compete. In this instance I think it would be quite fair to suggest that at least some of their body is shared. That is, it is part of the left snake's body and part of the right snake's body. However, obedience as an indicator of being part of a body is complicated by the possibility that your body could obey another. Further, it makes more complicated the idea of what a "body" is. The left snake's head is not part of the right snake's body, I shouldn't think. But both of these are attached to the parts of the body which the share. Conceptualizing the body as some sort of concrete "thing" is therefore pretty problematic. That human conjoined twins have never been reported to share motor control does not, to my knowledge, mean it could never happen. Further, conjoined twins do sometimes share tactile perception. (Abigail and Brittany Hensel, I have heard, can both feel touch on the skin between their spines. Do their bodies not just connect but overlap in this instance?) And what of internal organs that "obey" signals from both brains? Not conscious willing, no, but signals which help moderate chemical production in digestive and reproductive organs. This does occur in human conjoined twins, and suggests that we cannot simply write of these problems as ones belonging exclusively to conjoined animals.

Perhaps someone at this point will object that these are not normal bodies with normal functioning. There are two problems with this objection. The first is that if we want a universal definition of what constitutes a body, it needs to account for ALL bodies. The second is that we will have trouble defining what a normal body is. "Normal" is a problematic word, in the first place, because it has a normative element: that is, normal is how things should be. And just switching for "typical" isn't going to work. If we say that we're only talking about "typical" bodies and then define bodies as we are used to them, we're still saying that these atypical bodies are somehow uncategorizable according to the rules we've set up, recreating a standard by which bodies are considered "typical" or "atypical", with these terms functioning identically to "normal" and "abnormal." But if you remain unconvinced, I have two parallel examples remaining which apply to all bodies.

3. Inert body parts Some of our body parts do not obey our will. I was somewhat interested that in Leah's post on transhumanism she suggested that our teeth obey our will. Do they really? I haven't ever commanded my teeth to do anything at all. I don't think they would do anything if I did command them. And this is something slightly more than limits to their functionality: there is literally no way that they can obey my will. Neither can my bones or fat deposits. Like a person with paralyzed body parts, not all of my body can obey me. Therefore obedience cannot possibly be the only marker of what counts as my body, unless I wish to forfeit my bones and teeth and fat.

4. Body parts that do things "on their own" Sometimes body parts seem to act of their own volition. The other day I got into an argument and immediately afterwards I was shaking so badly I had to sit down. My legs buckled without my ordering them to; in fact, they continued buckling even when I tried to stop them from shaking. Of course I am sure this was a result of things going on inside my nervous system, but if we're defining according to will, then I must say they weren't obeying my will, even though they were fully capable of doing so. There are numerous physical states and phenomena which have the same effect; off-hand, I can think of nervous tics, hyperventilation, and unwanted physical arousal. In each of these cases, one or more organs act in ways counter to our conscious will. If you are still skeptical, let me suggest an exercise for you (don't actually do this). Turn on one burner of your stove range. Wait five minutes. Touch the burner. Don't pull back. See if your body obeys you. (Even if you succeed in keeping your body there, I am rather sure your arm and finger will be "attempting" to jerk back in ways you did not will.) In the case of paralysis or inert body parts, sometimes parts of our bodies do not obey our will but are nonetheless part of our body. In the case of some conjoined twins and some physical states/phenomena, our bodies will do things we did not will, either because a conjoined sibling willed it or because of a command given by the nervous system outside of a conscious will. While I might be able to say that something is part of my body if it obeys my will, I cannot say that obedience to my will is the only feature which could make something part of my body.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Problem of the Organic Body

or, What is our body? part 1

For most of us, this seems a fairly simple question because we have something to which we can refer. I can point toward my body and say, "This is my body." This is not a definition (description) but an indication. What happens, however, when we rely entirely on indication for our definitions is that we don't actually have a useful definition. Trying to determine what exactly defines your body as yours is a difficult question. (It might seem to be a useless question, too, if it weren't the case that a number of controversial ethico-medico-legal issues--abortions, amputations, and separation surgeries--are directly concerned with what is whose body. I'm not going to trace these particular problems out in this post, but if you're concerned that this is all fruitless philosophizing, I'd think again.) So I'm going to take a crack at it.

One of the positions I think I detected among the commenters on Leah's blog (see the introduction to this series for a summary) holds that what something (an organ, say) is part of your body because it is 1) attached with living tissue and 2) composed of living, organic cells. So my hand is part of me because it is attached and organic. If my hand were chopped off, it would no longer be part of me. If it were replaced with a prosthetic, that prosthetic would not be part of me because it is not organic. No matter how strenously I insisted that it was part of me, I would be mistaken.
I would suggest that there are people who would wish to add that those cells must be genetically identical (or at least genetically similar) to those that make up most of your body. I do not want to suggest that the commenters I mentioned have this requirement, but I imagine that someone does. After all, there are parasitic animals that fuse themselves onto their hosts (or live deep within their hosts) such that there is a band of continuous living tissue extending from one organism to another. Genetic markers could be a way of differentiating one body from the next.

Either way, I'm going to suggest that this is the wrong way of finding the edges of your body. Once again, I am not looking so much to prove through syllogism as provide instances in which this sort of definition seems entirely unhelpful.

1. Organ and tissue donation

I cannot systematically prove that a transplanted heart becomes part of the new owner in some metaphysical sense. What I will suggest is that we have a number of reasons for wanting to think so, primary among them practical and legal concerns. I will spend more time discussing this issue in part 3, but let's for the moment identify a few traits: the new organ was formerly part of another person (or their body, at any rate), and most likely carries a quite different genetic signature. If we say that a new heart is part of the person who received it, we must conclude that at the very least the genes do not determine what is or is not part of your body. I suppose you might want to argue that the transplanted heart isn't really part of your body, in which case my next example might prove harder to refute.

2. Chimeras

No, I don't mean the Greek mythological monster. I refer to tetregametic chimerism, in which a person has two genetic lineages. Chimerae are people (or animals) who either developed from an egg fertilized by two sperm or from two non-identical zygotes which fused into one. This means that some of their cells have one genetic code and some of their cells have another. This could result in pigmentation or hair-growth unevenness or in intersexed anatomy, but it may very well go undetected. (Which is to say, you could be a chimera and not know it.)
I hope you can see what I'm driving at. This is one body, satisfying the connected living tissue requirements, that contains multiple genetic markers. Unless you want to claim that a chimeric person has two blended bodies, genetic material cannot constitute a useful distinction.
If you really want to push it and say that at least the cells are related on the level of siblings, I'll observe that researchers have created chimerae lab rats from two non-related zygotes... and other chimerae from zygotes of different species.

3. Conjoined Twins and Parasitic Twins

(Some people may not be surprised to see this example come up. I assure you that it will appear again in this series.)
The connected living tissue requirement is a problem when there are people (genetically identical) who are connected with living tissue. Consider Violet and Daisy Hilton (right), connected at the base of the spine. At their point of connection it would be exceptionally difficult to determine which tissue was Violet's and which tissue was Daisy's. Furthermore, since they (along with most if not all conjoined twins) have connected circulatory systems, it would be impossible to say whose blood is whose. We might want to make some kind of argument based on whose "side" the blood is on, but ths is a problem (and here's the real kicker) if we're defining bodies based on connected living tissue because under this definition Violet and Daisy Hilton have one body. You could trace a path of continuous connected living tissue from the centre of Violet's brain through to Daisy's brain. Under this definition, there is no way to distinguish Daisy's body from Violet's.
I think it might be worth distinguishing the instance of conjoined twins from supernumary limbs or digits. An extra thumb or arm does constitute (I would suggest) part of your body. Additional pieces don't fall outside this category. This is interesting because parasitic twins are like supernumary organs in some respects and are like conjoined twins in others (origin, say). Parasitic twins do not have brains or consciousnesses, so do they count as separate bodies? However, we are here moving into a new way of defining body or self, and so I shall rest with the observation that it seems that connected, genetically identical, living tissue is at the very least not sufficient in defining where your body ends. I will return to this topic again in the part 3.

Finally, I will point out an interesting piece of etymology that will help segue into the next post. Organic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary On-Line, can mean a number of things. The entry most representative of common use seems to be the following:

Having organs, or an organized physical structure; of, relating to, or derived
from a living organism or organisms; having the characteristics of a living
organism (OED).
However, there are other meanings, some of which are obsolete. One of these offers a second way of thinking about what does or does not constitute part of your body (the one advocated in some form or another by both dbp and Leah):

Serving as an instrument or means to an end; instrumental. Obs. (OED)

To Series Index

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Boundaries of Self: Introduction and Index

Some weeks ago I told Leah at Unequally Yoked that I would write a series of posts on what constitutes "me", or the self, in relation to a conversation she had been having about transhumanism and prosthetics. I have been busy and so unable until now to think about starting that series. I do not promise that I will produce this series at anything more than snail's pace, but perhaps this outline will prompt me to write.

Because I am writing this in response to a previous conversation, I will take a few paragraphs to summarize what that conversation was. If this summary does not interest you, please skip down to the first bold sentence.

On a post entitled Time For a Few Facts, concerning Catholic theology of the Eucharist, a commenter pseudonymed dbp discussed detached limbs. He suggested that if you were to remove your knee, it would still be part of you but would, over time, become less and less identified with you until it was eventually not part of you at all, due among other things to cell death and physical distance. He then suggested that a prosthetic, upon integrating functionally with your body (he used the term "harmony"), would become part of you by some conceptual standard. This argument was an analogy and/or example in a discussion of essences, existences, and accidents, but it was taken up in its own right by subsequent commenters. (dbp: If you are reading this and identify as female, please let me know and I will adjust all pronouns accordingly.) Matt DeStefano responded with the claim that a prosthetic is "yours" in the sense of property, not part; only organic tissue connection can make something part of you. In my opinion, DeStefano made the strategic error of suggesting he knows more about identity and prosthetics than people who have prosthetics. He suggested that functionality does not create identification, and further tied this in with the conversation on the Eucharist. I hope to address these issues over the course of this series. dbp then responded with the claim that there are more ways to identify than the organic/genetic.

Because Leah loves transhumanism, she took this discussion as an opportunity to start a new post entitled "Sorry, did someone say 'Transhumanism?'" In this post she argues that prosthetics are part of a person in the same way organic parts are. She sets this up as coming from her quasi-dualism; what is important to note is that Leah seems to be operating under the assumption that those limbs or organs which serve our will, unmediated by anything more than synapses (carried over either nerve cells or circuitry), are part of us in any real sense.

dbp appears again in the comments with a theological reference I do not wish to explore here and now. March Hare offers a distinction between a prosthetic me and a real me, the latter being his preference, seemingly organic in structure, and according to him non-existent. I am struggling to understand his claim, but it seems to me a reformulation of what DeStefano said in the previous post's comments. DeStefano does appear, but not on this topic. As you could also see if you look at those comments, I enter the conversation and suggest that I will write a series on the delineation of self.

I will take a moment to outline my intent and methodology. I do not intend to map out the markers between me and not-me. This is not only because I don't claim to be an expert but also because I don't think there are definitive boundaries. My intention is not to offer a comprehensive theory of self. It is instead my goal to destabilize existing theories. If, by the end of this series, you (my reader) think of the self as having fuzzier edges than you'd previously imagined, I will consider myself successful. I will not be doing theology here. What I will be doing is offering a number of examples, mostly real-world, which challenge our preconceived notions of the boundaries of self. Over the course of the posts you will, if all goes well, be able to see the everyday and systemic applications of this question, but in the meantime I hope you will be able to enjoy it as an intellectual exercise. If you are interested in doing some prior reading, I would suggest Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal and Judith Butler's Precarious Life, in particular the chapter entitled, "Violence, Mourning, Politics." My ideas will also be indebted to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, which I have lots of big problems with.

Without any more ado, here is an index of my forthcoming posts. The links will go live as I write the corresponding posts.

  1. The Problem of the Organic Body; or, What is our body? part 1

  2. The Problem of the Obedient Body; or, What is our body? part 2

  3. The Problem of the Augmented Body; or, What is our body? part 3

  4. The Problem of the Compartmentalized Person; or, What is our mind? part 1

  5. The Problem of the Unknown Self; or, What is our mind? part 2

  6. The Problem of the Interrelational Person; or, What is our identity? part 1

  7. The Problem of the Located Person; or, What is our identity? part 2

  8. Parting Thoughts on the Frontiers of Self

I will start with the body because that was the crux of the conversation from which this series has come. The Problem of the Organic Body will look at why we can't simply assume that what is part of us is determined by physically attached, genetically identical, living tissue (ie. cells). The Problem of the Obedient Body will consider ways in which things we consider parts of ourselves are not especially obedient to our will; this will address concerns of functionality, as will the third post, The Problem of the Augmented Body, which will look at prosthetics and some other transhumanist issues. From here I will address the "mind" in The Problem of the Compartmentalized Person, in which I will think of about the will, consciousness, and desire. If so far this has seemed too dualist for you, then you might be happier with the remaining posts. The Problem of the Interrelational Person will deal with people in the social world, especially regarding friendships. The Problem of the Located Person will mark a departure away from real life or historical examples and into the rich thought experiments of speculative fiction; I will ask whether we can imagine a person being in two places at once, and attempting to draw conclusions from our success or failure. Finally, I shall review the ground we have covered and indicate some loose ends and tangents in my Final Thoughts on the Frontiers of Self.

This has proven to be a long introduction, for which I apologize. I cannot guarantee that any of the posts in the series will be short, either. I will part with final caveats: I am not a specialist in disability theory, body theory, gender studies, atypical anatomy, medicine, or psychology. Take everything I say with a grain of salt. My credentials come only from having thought a lot about this. Remember that I am asking questions and challenging preconceptions. I am not offering viable alternatives.

Edit: I realize that I have more to say on the mind, so I am expanding that section. This will change the flow, but until the series is done I do not intend to change the summary given here.

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