by Yule Heibel on January 24, 2006

Who can honestly say they’d pass up an article, written by Roger Scruton who is well-known to OpenDemocracy readers the world over as a champion of conservatism, when it has a ripping title like A piercing revelation – I harm my body, therefore I harm you?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t pierce very deeply or reveal much. Scruton uses what I think of as a false dualism to set up his argument, which is that in previous epochs, people regarded their bodies as something on loan from God, while in our postmodern epoch, we consider our bodies to belong to us. What this argument suggests is that our bodies really are just vessels or objects or things, instead of full-fledged environments for all the electro-magnetic and chemical processes that pervade it and that create what we think of as our selves. It supposes that there is a kind of “pure” state of origin for the body, one that hasn’t yet been “polluted” by chemical or other external influences. I don’t think that’s true. Given what we know about neurochemical processes, about psychopharmaka and their potential to create essentially different brain environments, about the effects of electromagnetic fields on our sensory perceptions, etc., it seems disingenuous to proceed from the assumption of an original — an “unpierced” — body. Scruton writes,

In the postmodern perception it is not God who owns my body, but I. What I do with it is my business. This shift in attitude is gradually influencing events. For years the political process in America has been held up over the question of abortion, with feminists arguing that a woman’s body is personal property, to be protected under the Constitution as hers — a view that their opponents simply cannot swallow, even though they lack the language to deny it. The political process in Britain has got into a similar jam over cannabis. If I can abuse my body with alcohol, tobacco and junk food, why can’t I do the same with cannabis? Whose body is it anyway? [More…]

But those battles just recognise that there are social contracts that people have made, and that these transactions are political. Ownership of the body shouldn’t be made into some kind of transcendentalist venue: that’s the realm of religion, and there’s no good place for it in politics if there isn’t absolute transparency about the political and ethical goals. At least then, one can beg to differ and know what one is disagreeing with. I’m all for ethical and even moral behaviour, but I don’t agree with how Scruton wants to make the body a battleground for ethics and morality. He writes, “…my body is not my property but — to use the theological term — my incarnation. My body is not an object but a subject, just as I am,” but positing two subjects (“me” and “my body”) doesn’t get him off what I would call the false dualism hook (“not an object”). It’s a nifty trick to create subject-and-object (or subject-and-subject) dualities — to split something in theory — and then, like a magician or priest, magically put them back together again in a subsequent theoretical sleight of hand, the philosophical cure.

Scruton also appears to use the ‘slippery slope’ argument:

…there are ways of treating [my body] that cause me to think and feel as I would not otherwise think or feel, to lose my moral sense, to become hardened or indifferent to others, to cease to make judgments or to be guided by principles and ideals. When this happens it is not just I who am harmed: all those who love me, need me or relate to me are harmed as well. For I have damaged the part on which relationships are built.

Surely it is this that disturbs us in drug addiction. The addict treats his body as a pleasure machine. But by possessing it in that way he becomes possessed by it. His moral sense is flushed away by the drug, and in the final stages he is all body, all craving, all physical need.

Likewise the old morality, which told us that selling the body is incompatible with giving the self, touched on a truth. Sexual feeling is not a sensation that can be turned on and off at will: it is a tribute from one self to another and — at its height — an incandescent revelation of what you are. To treat it as a commodity, that can be bought and sold like any other, is to damage both present self and future other. The condemnation of prostitution was not just puritan bigotry; it was a recognition of a profound truth, which is that you and your body are not two things but one, and by selling the body you harden the soul. [More…]

See what I mean about the philosopher-theoretician magically healing the dualism or split, which he himself posited [theoretically created] in the first place? Eg., “profound truth,” “not two things but one,” etc. Not only that, but he manages to convince you that sturdy, old-fashioned religion will heal the rift…

As for the slippery slope argument: note how we’re led from pondering our own, individual sense of self (do I think of myself as one with my body?, do I think of myself as separate from my body? etc.) to casting our gaze on “the addict” (presumably not one’s own individual self), who supposedly “treats his body as a pleasure machine” (oops!, or perhaps abracadabra!, subject-object dualism has crept back in, but it’s the bad subject-object variant, not the good subject-subject kind!). According to Scruton, the addict does a bad job at sublating the duality: “…in the final stages he is all body…” The addict is a bad philosopher: he didn’t do the theoretical sleight of hand correctly. He “lifted” the duality by becoming “all body.” Is he really? What about his brain, which has been (often irrevocably) altered by the changed chemical processes? Which part of his brain would one excise to eliminate the addiction? Or does it boil down to a question of correct environmental management — my brain has fewer chemical baths of a certain order than the addict’s brain has, but we undeniably share in a propensity to wash our brains in chemical processes, because if we didn’t, we’d both be dead. So which part exactly is “pure,” which part could possibly stand for the good?

Likewise, treating bodies as commodities surely involves a bit more than armchair tinkering and thinkering about the role of religion and positing theoretical dualism that can be “resolved.” What are we trying to fix here? The hurt feelings of people who, bristling puritanically at prostitution, feel maligned by a society that laughs at them for their sensibilities, or the economic plight of people who prostitute themselves? To say that “by selling the body you harden the soul” is to say a truism without much depth.

For what I consider a much more interesting take on the body-place-mind conundrum, I’d recommend Winifred Gallagher’s compelling book, The Power of Place. And for a truly enlightening discussion of religion (yeah, I know it sounds weird coming from me, but I have my special places, too), see her book, Spiritual Genius. After reading these two, there’s no way that I can think of mind-and-body either as dualisms or as something that can be pondered separately, and I’m more convinced than before that calls for a return to old-style authoritarian conceptions of “ownership” based in alleged transcendent (i.e., religious) power are bound either to fail or to throw us seriously backward. Ownership is a socio-economic issue, saturated with questions of power and money. For a depressing look at how porn is insinuating itself into all aspects of our social and economic transactions, see The Pornification of America…. I guess “Respect yourself” has been replaced by “You go, girl,” but you know: the folks pointing where the girl is supposed to go are still the ones who stand to profit from her journey. Want to talk about hardening the soul by selling the body? Then let’s follow the money seriously, and shine some “incandescent revelation” in that direction…

n.b.: that Boston Globe link to “The Pornification of America” takes you to a log-in page. Is there a Globe equivalent of a NYTimes link generator, by any chance? The article was linked to on Arts Journal today, and the link worked fine. It’s http://www.artsjournal.com/artsissues/redir/20060124-61742.html. If that works, I’ll change the link in my text, above.

But no, it doesn’t. For the time being, go to Arts Journal and find the link there, or read the comments posted by readers to today’s article (the article itself is behind a log-in page on the Globe site, too)…


joseph duemer January 25, 2006 at 3:49 pm

Scruton would seem to be trying to subsume the body with the soul, turning flesh into spirit. Isn’t this just one more old denial of the flesh–all those mendicant monks lacerating themselves with whips. His logic leads back to harming the body in order to save the soul.

Yule Heibel January 26, 2006 at 4:29 pm

I think you’ve summarised a big part of the problem with Scruton’s argument, Joe. He is trying to couch it in “social” terms, but (like you) I don’t buy how he’s doing it: there’s the assumption of dualism, of a consciousness that can “master” the flesh, whether that consciousness is “god” or the individual, coupled with the assumption that he has an appropriate ethos that will enable mastery.

Mastery as such isn’t something to be sniffed at, and I’m not dissing it at all. It’s just that the whole body-self/ body-mind / body-environment delineations aren’t nearly as neatly separate as one would think, but because we think about them in simple terms, we think there should be simple social solutions, too. What I think about children or addicts or the disabled or any other identifiable group that lacks power (a perq of mastery?) might be very very different from what someone else thinks about them. Which gets back to how we can talk about and identify “mastery,” perhaps?

Currently yours truly is being mastered by bugs who appear to want to take up permanent residence in her sinuses. After holding off for quite a few days, it’s off the doctor’s this afternoon for me, perhaps to load up with some WMDs (antibiotics). Ah, all creatures, large and small… Microcosm, macrocosm, yin and yang, ding and dang…

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