Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bodies II

I felt that I did not do justice to Orbach’s book in the first entry, hence, this “Bodies” entry clarification.

Orbach is actually advancing two arguments in her 2009 book, the first of which is that “bodies are and always have been shaped according to the specific cultural moment,” and the second being what I summarized in the previous entry – how our body sense or our relationship to our bodies is being shaped at this cultural moment.

In other words, Orbach is addressing the question of “why bodies?!” If in this cultural moment, there is intense commercialization and commodification and distress over the body – why the body? What is it about this relationship that is important or vulnerable?

A first point: Everything from how we walk to the way we speak to what we eat to how we mark ourselves – all are indications of bodies belonging to a certain time and place.

A second point: There is a biological projection onto the body. For instance, scientific studies have shown that the human body is capable of feeling what is not there, such as feeling a limb that is no longer. Another example is how human infants learn to walk, develop their cultural specific gaits and so on. Humans may not have a mirror neuron system, but Orbach contends that there clearly appears to be a cellular function of how to move by observation before one has made the movement.

From this Orbach weaves together a delicate telling of how intricately our emotions and bodies are tied together. One way in which she illustrates the body-mind complex is by making a case for the importance of touch – touch being “the most basic and fundamental of human experiences.”

Rene Spitz, a Hungarian-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, reported from a wartime hospital in the 1940s that babies who received the same feeding and changing but were closer to the nurses’ station and received more touches had a higher rate of survival. Spitz also compared babies raised by mothers in a penal institution who were raised by their mothers the first year of their lives with babies who were raised in a hospital who had less than an eighth of an individual nurse’s attention. The babies raised in the hospital suffered from illness or skin diseases as well as development lags.

Another example: Scientists have discovered that the physical process of touching raises the level of a bonding hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin helps us be receptive to soothing, calming and closeness. In contrast, those exposed to much stress or brutal touch have raised levels of the stress-related hormone called cortisol. The effects of high cortisol can be permanently damaging, because the person is readied to seek out stress. And the way stress is relieved is by increased stress, as the body’s opiates kick in with heightened stress.

A discomforting argument that she is making is that how we are touched and generally the physical sense of our caregivers as young people deeply affects our relationship to our bodies as adults. In other words, it is not just that we as young people are exposed to disquieting images on the television, but that we are disquieted in part because of the dis-ease carried from the generation of our parents.

This argument may seem to put extraordinary responsibility on the caregiver for an epidemic as large as body distress! However, the author’s point is more profound. Again, we must move away from “thinking of our bodies as just existing, propelled to grow by reasonable nutrition and genetic inheritance,” and rather think of them as part of a cultural moment with its emotions, neurosis, preoccupations. For Orbach we can not understand the disquietude of the ‘acceptable body’ today – and its particularly tight contours for girls and women – if we do not understand the historical trajectory of the unhappy physical sense of selves.

And this seems to be more profoundly revealing than any narrow interpretation of personality formation that derives from story telling of the modern self.

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