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.

1 comment:

Jon Wong said...

Paralysis: you could make the distinction that these are body parts that ought to (and would) be obedient were it not for whatever random reason.

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