Flesh is not sensation, although it is involved in revealing it.
(Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, p. 178 )
‘Dream 11’ by Yasmina Alaoui & Marco Guerra v. Walt Whitman
The life of the mind is not kind to the human body. Large amounts of time in sedentary activities—sitting, reading, watching, computing—are not how these bodies of ours reached the form that they have. From at least one perspective, the ‘evolutionary advantage’ of our giant brains has led to possibilities that work dramatically against our health.
The mind/body debate is an old one, and not very interesting, in many ways. I suppose, though, that there comes a point at which the recognition that ‘I am my body’ is both a theoretical and a practical consideration, no matter what position one has previously occupied in philosophical debate.
Perhaps this is why the sensual occupies a somewhat strange position in philosophical discourse. The body and its experience seems generally to be taken as a subject of philosophical debate, rather than a contributor to it. Given the development of philosophy in a western mould, this makes sense—from Plato onwards, the sensible world has ben treated as though it has a lower value that the transcendent. Even Plato’s construction of love (in, for instance, the Symposium) works hard to differentiate physical sexuality and desire from the beauty-oriented picture of love that puts it firmly in the category of the divine. The body—the physical—becomes, for the next 2000 years of philosophical thought, that which philosophy overcomes. Even Epicurus—the first to give us a picture of something like an a-spiritual materialism—counsels dramatically against partaking in certain pleasures. While everything else can be enjoyed in moderation, there is no 10% orgasm.
The sway of the Church over European and European-derived culture during the vast majority of the Common Era is by no means a done deal. Though the weakening of that control has, of course, been in train for the last two and a half centuries, the fact that the Western philosophical tradition has so thoroughly disparaged the body for so long has left a pattern that is independent of the Church (in fact, I would argue that the Church merely co-opted this disparagement in the first place).
Nietzsche’s famous treatment of this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra gives a succinct statement of the primacy of the body that begins to re-assert itself in Enlightenment work:
The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd. A tool of your body is your lesser intelligence, my brother, which you call ‘spirit’—a little instrument and plaything of your great intelligence. ‘I’ you say, and you are proud of that word. But the greater thing—in which you are unwilling to believe—is your body with its great intelligence; it does not say ‘I’, but performs it.
(from the beginning of section 4—’The Despisers of the Body’)
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, people like Diderot and de Sade had already argued for such a position, but this is, really, a very young voice in the conception of the body in philosophical debate.
One of the features of a long-standing debate is that the shape of dispute codes more and more of its history into the possible direction that a debate will take. The dialectics of reaction can replicate precisely those structures that one wishes to counter, unless the shape of a response alters so radically from that which precedes it as to depart from what it might look like to be a response.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m not convinced that the Western philosophical tradition has the tools to re-engage the human body. I’m not advocating for some sort of Orientalist cherry-picking that posits primacy of ‘Eastern philosophy’ over Western, but I suppose I look longingly at traditions that drive me towards an integrated view of the body.
Forever tempted by evolutionary biology, I find myself arguing from a perspective of ‘what I evolved to do’ in the same way that, in my religious youth, I used to argue from the perspective of ‘what God wants’ or ‘how I was designed’. There’s a way of building a force of necessity out of the imperatives of biology that neatly replaces this function. Part of me wants to resist this (because a Stoic teleology has already been responsible for far too much territorialization), but another part of me wants to see in my biological being the ability to resist the territorialization of society.
Much of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy depends on precisely this logic, and it may be this, in part, that draws me to them over and over. The notion of affect—i.e. bodily experience—has a tradition from Spinoza and Diderot through Bergson that Deleuze and Guattari put to great effect in detailing the ability of the human to resist societal patterns that channel our energy towards the benefit and power of others—the ‘despotic signifier’ of the body without organs model from Anti-Oedipus. As they put it in What Is Philosophy? (p. 180):
The flesh, or rather the figure, is no longer an inhabitant of the place, of the house, but of the universe that supports the house (becoming). It is like a passage from the finite to the infinite, but also from territory to deterritorialization.
More and more, as I ruminate on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as a multiplicity with no constrains—a concept first introduced in the sequel to Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus—as opposed to arboreal hierarchy that restricts and organizes flow, I find myself focussing on the biological side of this. The control of the body—treated by Foucault in his usual descriptive style throughout the much-misunderstood A History of Sexuality—is a legacy of Plato. Foucault’s ‘careceral archipelago’, described at the end of Discipline and Punish is the direct successor to the self-controlled individual that Plato envisaged as the only way to combat the impossibility of any truthful politics.
The philosophy of affect offers a different option for resistance, but it is one that is remarkably difficult to conceptualize, at least from the perspective of the traditions of Western philosophy. How does one give a logical equation for the feeling of stretching a muscle? For the laugh of a child? The moan of a lover? Our philosophical languages are remarkably beggarly when it comes to the sensual. We have diminutized the flesh for far too long.