Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/18/2011

the mystery/curiosity of bodies in (shocking, lovely, delicate, sacred) detail

One cannot help thinking about bodies here

One cannot help thinking about bodies here

One cannot help (at least I cannot help) thinking about bodies while visiting a retirement community. Our bodies are mysterious things (curious at the very least), and walking the halls of the residence of hundreds of people who inhabit bodies they have used for decades, used to the point they have nearly worn them out, one sees (I, at any rate, see) the mystery/curiosity of bodies in (shocking, lovely, delicate, sacred) detail.

My father, in the picture my memory holds as “my father,” is a tall man who carries himself with dignity bordering on pomp. In this place where nonagenarians (and some of the youngsters, the octogenarians) come to rest themselves into their deaths, I find a man with hardly any dignity in his appearance, stooped—even sitting in the wheelchair from which he cannot stand without help—disheveled as the picture my memory holds would never have been, not even at home relaxing in the evening with only his family to see him. The last evidence that my father is a tall man is the special long bed the Hospice nurse found for him so his feet do not touch the end when he lies stretched out. He cannot stand his feet touching the end of the bed. His comfort is all important now.

One cannot help thinking about bodies here. The caregivers can think of little else. Clean the body, feed the body, help the body evacuate, poke the body, give the body medicines, take the body’s blood pressure, check the body’s temperature, make sure the body cannot get out of its chair without activating the alarm on which the body sits.

Some few caregivers see beyond the body to a presence greater than itself.

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a [disciplinary] power. . . . This real, non corporal [sic] soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge (1).

I don’t know about souls. But I know for sure that my father—the picture my memory holds as “my father” –is not this body slumped in this wheelchair. This week I’ve been pondering more than I usually do the relationship between the body and the person. When I see many of the residents here, I want to have met them when their bodies were as intact as my picture in memory of my father. The British ballerina. The 1930s graduate in piano from the Julliard School (who, at 97, still plays). The golf pro. The powerful politician.

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion

At the same time I am here, thinking about bodies, I am preparing to guide my writing classes through their research and subsequent writing on Body Modification—the torture I put myself through every semester. I have written many times about students’ attempts to deal with body modification, and about Orlan, whose body modification fascinates me always.

This semester I have an altered view of my students’ subject. Orlan’s project is, at least partially, to reject, to control the natural process of aging that prevails among the bodies in this community. She says that controlling the shape, the appearance, of the body gives one power over nature.  She says she “fight[s] against God and DNA.” Her modifications of her body help her to reinvent herself, define herself, even create herself. She hates nature, she says,

because I don’t know where the switch is that forces me to die. . . . Life is a killer. . . . Nature represents everything that locks me in, that applies force to me, that bothers me (2).

Whatever one might think of Orlan’s performing body modification as art one cannot (I cannot) deny the power of her desire to “fight against God and DNA.”

Foucault asserts that the “soul” is “the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power,” and this power is necessary, one might think, to ward off, to postpone, even to overcome the natural effects of the body’s aging. This power is also necessary for resistance to the “control” of social and ideological domination.  Whatever one believes about the “soul,” one obvious conclusion to draw in this community is that every individual is struggling both against nature and against the impossibility of living autonomously in society. Each person here is aging—and reacting to their own aging—uniquely, without reference to each other, and without care for rules, regulations, and formalities.

The Body Modification my students will research is the conscious attempt to struggle for autonomy—autonomy against both “God and DNA” and against rules, regulations, and formalities—in the same way because

. . . the body is a site of symbolic resistance, a source of personal empowerment, and the basis for the creation of a sense of self-identity. By . . . altering their bodies in symbolically powerful ways, both punks and neo-tribalists may proclaim their discontent [and] challenge dominant ideologies (3).

My father’s struggle to resist both nature and dominant ideologies is centered at the moment in the physical reality of his brain. His mind can no longer function as it always has, but he resists that reality. He calls to consciousness events in his life which are, I am sure, vivid in his memory, but which he cannot describe logically or completely. He struggles to ask questions, to remember the date, to know what the plan is for the day. He struggles. He apologizes for his inability.

And he includes us, his children in the struggle. “I hope you all will be able to succeed in your goals,” he says of three adults of retirement age. His mind, his soul are “articulat[ing] the effects of a certain type of power,” the power “of symbolic resistance. . . the basis for the [continuing] creation of a sense of self-identity.” He resists for himself—and for his family (his life)—God, DNA, and dominant ideologies.

However, if my father could speak it, could say his truth, I know it would read something like Whitman’s words for Christopher Columbus.

Steersman unseen! henceforth the helms are Thine;  
Take Thou command—(what to my petty skill Thy navigation?)  
My hands, my limbs grow nerveless;  
My brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d; Let the old timbers part—I will not part!  
I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me; 
Thee, Thee, at least, I know (4).

Let the old timbers part—I will not part!

Let the old timbers part—I will not part!

Exactly how his clinging fast is part of the struggle to resist, I do not know. It is “the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge” for him. Do not pity him. He has that power and that reference still.
(1) Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. ed. A. Sheridan. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1979. Quoted in: Sullivan, Nikki. “The Somatechnics of Bodily Inscription: Tattooing.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 10 (2009): 129-141.
(2) Brand, P.Z. ed. “Bound to beauty: An interview with Orlan.” In: Beauty Matters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. 289–314.
(3) Wojcik, Daniel. Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. Quoted in Sullivan, ibid.
(4) Whitman, Walt. “Prayer of Columbus.” Leaves of Grass. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2011.


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