Part II of Leder’s The Absent Body



Spatiotemporal Continuity

The mysterious quality of our visceral space is based not only on such experiences but on all that is not experienced of our inner body, I have hitherto focused on what interoceptions we do have; they are marked by a limited qualitative range and a spatial ambiguity that together restrict our perceptual discriminations. Furthermore, as I will now address, there is a paucity of even such limited experiences.

Exteroception, at least during the waking state, manifests a certain spatiotemporal continuity. My eyes scan a visual world that is without sudden gaps or crevices. If I abandon one sense, perhaps closing my eyes, the other senses help to maintain the continuity of world. Similar­ly, proprioception traces out a completed sense of my surface body, allowing me to adjust every limb, every muscle, in appropriate motoric response to tasks. Though usually this sense is subliminal, I can close my eyes and proprioceptively hone in on the position, the level of tension or relaxation, in any region of the muscular body.

By way of contrast, the stream of interoceptive experience is marked by ineluctable discontinuities. In the above example, after eating the ap­ple it largely disappeared from perception only to resurface in an exper­ience of heartburn. This then faded away to silence, broken some time later by insistent cramps. This too passed. Finally, hours later I become aware of sensations from a new region signaling the need to defecate. But these are intermittent punctuations in a shroud of absence. Most of the intricate digestive process—its enzymatic secretions and peristaltic waves, its diffusions and active transports—proceeds without the pos­sibility of conscious apprehension. This is equally true of circulation, respiration, thermal or fluid regulation. By far the greatest part of my vegetative processes lies submerged in impenetrable silence.

Causal relations are rendered uncertain by these spatiotemporal lac­unae. I cannot be sure if my cramps are caused by an apple I previously ate, for this apple has, in the interim, disappeared from experience. Mo­ments of discomfort are noted while the baseline of ordinary functioning is largely invisible, it is as if my eyes only reacted to flashes of blind­ing light, the rest of the time residing in darkness.

This darkness is never absolute. When I focus inward at even the qui­eter times I still find some vestigial sense of my midsection enveloped in a sort of sensory neutrality, neither full nor empty, pleasured nor in pain. And this vague aura is not devoid of meaning. It shows that any hunger or illness has subsided. The very absence of discomfort is tinged by a positivity.

Moreover, through a heightened focusing of attention, I can increase my awareness of visceral processes. Certain dim sensations that I had never noticed—the feeling of my pulsing blood, the depths of respira­tion, the subtler reactions of my stomach to different foods—can be brought into experience by conscious effort. As cultural variations show, a certain degree of visceral disappearance can be attributed to Western insensitivities and overcome by a systematic development of powers. The awareness of and control over the inner body exhibited by trained yogis has far surpassed what used to be thought possible in the West.

Yet even such achievements take place only within an overall context of experiential disappearance. The very need for highly specialized training is evidence of the perceptual reticence of our viscera as com­pared to the body surface. And just as it is possible to speak of null points in relation to the surface body, the corporeal depths have their own phenomenological null points. That is, there are visceral regions that are almost entirely insensitive. In focusing upon stomach and gut I have ac­tually chosen two of the more loquacious organs. The kidney, gallblad­der. bone marrow, spleen, yield far less interoceptively. The par­enchyma of the liver, the alveolar tissue of the lung, are virtually with­out sensation. Unlike the completed perception of the proprioceptive body, our inner body is marked by regional gaps, organs that although crucial for sustaining life, cannot he somesthetically perceived.

We rarely thematize this sort of disappearance. Upon introspecting, I do not feel an emptiness in my body where my liver should be. This would make the absence into a presence-as-concealed hovering before my awareness. Rather, the absence of the liver parenchyma is so total that few would ever come to realize or remark upon it. Yet a medical mishap can suddenly awaken us to the significance of such bodily lac­unae. The vast gaps in our inner perception may conceal potentially damaging processes until they are far advanced. For example, while I may feel pain once damage to the liver has progressed to the point of affecting its membranous capsule, the initial process can go unper­ceived. Similarly, hypertension is experientially hidden through much of its career. As with my surface body, I can bring to bear upon these depth organs certain strategies of reflective observation. A blood sample can tell me a good deal about my liver function. Through a sphygmomanometer I can read off my blood pressure. I can look at an X ray of my lungs. I can even gaze through a colonoscope at the lumen and folds of my own colon. Such techniques enable me to gain knowledge concerning my viscera. Yet, as with my surface body, the absences that haunt my bodily depths are not effaced by these reflective maneuvers. Though I can visu­ally observe my colon, its processes still elude experience from within, The magical power my body has to absorb water and electrolytes is not perceived as I gaze through the endoscope upon this furrowed, tubular space. The mystery of my body is only heightened by the very strange­ness of the organ before me, its phenomenological noncoincidence with my body-as-lived.

Moreover, unlike the body surface, my inner organs tend to resist even these partial reflections. My viscera are ordinarily hidden away from the gaze by their location in the bodily depths, there is aspect of withdrawal may seem contingent, resulting from a sheerly physical harrier rather than an existential principle. Ye t this is to draw a false distinction; in the lived body, the physical and existential always intertwine.

The depth location of the viscera is no more contingent than the sur­face placement of the sensorimotor organs. Eye and hand could not perform their perceptual role unless they opened onto the external world- Thus, in order to perceive they must take their place among the perceptibles. They must be located at the body surface available to the gaze of myself and others, By way of contrast, my visceral organs, not constructed for ecstatic perception, disappear from the ranks of the per­ceived, I do not perceive from these organs; hence, they can hide beneath the body surface such that I do not perceive to them either. In fact, they require this seclusion just as the sensorimotor body requires exposure. My stomach, neither an organ of exteroception nor voluntary move­ment, could not screen the environment, secure appropriate foods, repel threats. It depends on a mediating surface, active and intelligent, to stand between it and the world, selecting what is needed for metabolic maintenance and protecting the vise us from hostile impacts. The hiddenness of vital organs, though frustrating at limes of disease, is essen­tial to healthy functioning.

Thus it is quite rare for the viscera to be exposed in life. This can happen, as in surgery, wartime injury, or violent accidents, yet these are pathological and dangerous occasions, Most commonly, the direct ex­posure of the inner organs implies or threatens the death of the person, Hence, as Foucault notes in The Birth of the Clinic, when nineteenth-century medicine made the direct perception of diseased organs an epistemological goal, the corpse, not the live patient, became the paradigmatic figure of truth. For the “anatomo-clinical” gaze, “that which hides and envelops, the curtain of night over truth, is, paradox­ically, life; and death, on the contrary, opens up to the light of day the black coffer of the body.”” While Foucault addresses this as a historical devel­opment, it manifests my phenomenological point; life itself is allied to a certain concealment, a withdrawal and protection of its vital center.


2 thoughts on “Part II of Leder’s The Absent Body

  1. I know i might sound uncivilized, but you wouldn’t happen to have an electronic version of the book, would you?or at least some more extensive quotes. More extensive than what one might find on google books. i’m an anthropology student with a phenomenological concern and no access to that book, besides an online ordering that could take months.

    1. I don’t have an electronic version, but I bet it is worth your money to buy a print copy. There is some really good writing in there. Surf around and I bet you can get a cheapo copy that will ship quickly.

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