13 December 2011

Body #1: Insides, Outsides, Passivity and Activity in a Visit to the Dentist

Today I had to go to the dentist, mostly for a checkup and cleaning of teeth. My main attitude in this situation is to relax and sort of take a nap while I'm being worked on. I don't usually get opportunities to lie down in a comfy chair mid-day, so why not, and this makes some of the unpleasantness of the dentist go away. Of course, this usually opens room for thinking, and then reflections on being made an object, i.e., on me being taken up not as a lived body (as Merleau-Ponty would put it) but as a thing.

This is especially so when I pay attention to and am appreciative of just what the dentist or hygienist is doing , which is scraping away toughly impacted tartar with great finesse and nuance without injuring me, and when I note how doing this requires the dentist or hygienist planting fingers on my jaw with a fair bit of force so as to give a firm platform for fine tool work. All this makes me experience myself not just as an object being operated on, but as a sort of ground or firmament for someone else's work, as if I were not just a thing being worked on by a carpenter, but the carpenter's bench as well.

Today I noticed something further on these lines, when the hygienist's use of my lower jaw as stabilizing platform led to my head being pushed back and forth. This made me realize how weak my neck is at holding my head against these forces. And then when the hygienist shift to my upper jaw, all of a sudden my head became more stable.

What was really interesting was at just this point I became aware of my body as if from the inside. I felt my neck bones holding up my skull, and my skull levered off the front of this neck post, and my lower jaw hinging down from my head. The feeling was somewhat kin to feeling, in the dark of a hotel room, how a cupboard you are trying to open is in fact a folding according door and thereby feeling how solids are hinged together, or again, feeling the flexibility of different thickness and kinds of rope in flopping them about. Only in this case, the feeling was for the insides of my own body, insides that I don't usually feel as material objects at all. I inhabit the world from the position of my head, I don't feel the bony scaffold that holds it up inside. But in this moment I did.

What is notable here is that feeling arose through my being passive to the hygienist's manipulations. It was someone else manipulating me as object who gave me for a feel for these inside articulations. To feel things we need to be passive to them. But we are not often passive to our own bodies, or the deep passivity one might have to the heft and workings of one's body is overwritten with living one's body toward the world.

07 December 2011

Art #2: Statuary & Statutory Animacy

In which the author learns about animacy from a statue.

Phenomenon: The strike by support staff at McGill is now over, so I've resumed my usual walk to work through McGill campus. It was nice to be back on old turf, and as I was walking through I found a familiar fellow catching my eye and then my whole attention, pulling me round to give a gander as I passed him by:

This is a statue of James McGill. What really caught me (and what my absence from campus let come to the fore, I hadn't quite noticed it before, it was all too familiar) is the flapping of his coat tails in the wind (not so much the gentle clapping of hand to head to keep his hat in place). This flapping isn't as noticeable in the photo; it's much more compelling when you're walking by on equal footing with him, in the round. (I noticed that right way: my iPhone screen caught him dead, took the wind right out of his sails.) [You should know that McGill himself is reported on various website to be a slave owner; this is also stated in the book James McGill of Montreal (search for slave/slaves). My affection here is for the statue, not for the fellow himself.]

Wonder: How is that I am caught by and see: coat tails blowing in the wind, not just a solid, fixed piece of bronze? How is that I perceive animacy in a statue? (Two related phenomena that I ran into many years ago in a Merleau-Ponty reading group that met at the Green Room in Toronto: I walk into meet the group and find myself skirting around a person so as not to have him step into me, only to realize the person is in fact a mannequin; and then I find the group, and think there are some more mannequins behind them, but it turns out they are real people, actors practicing freezes. This is a true story, with witnesses; the coincidences are explained by the fact that the Green Room wasan actors hangout with the mannequins as a deliberately theatrical prop.)  

Insights and answers after the jump...