Should I have been surprised that a meeting about marketing poetry would lead to sobbing in a toilet and pondering phenomenology?
One of my “day jobs” is at Australian Poetry, and of late I’ve been organising the 2011 itinerary for our mobile poetry library, the “Omnibus”. Basically, we take poetry books around to regional towns, run workshops, put on readings, give people the chance to browse, read, talk about, and buy books they may not normally get a chance to. I had organised to meet with Marcus Powe, RMIT’s “Entrepeneur-in-Residence”, to chat about how to position and promote the Omnibus, but also how to think about it. And, no Marcus didn’t make me cry. The meeting wasn’t the problem – it just put me in a certain place.
I’d arrived earlier than I expected, so I sat on the lawn outside the State Library of Victoria, one of the few green areas in the CBD of Melbourne. On fine days, it’s bathed in sun and swarming with students and workers of all shapes and colours. Pigeons and seagulls jostle for crumbs. The atmosphere is casual; friends meet and greet, some kind of communal recognition just below the surface, we’re all here to rest and take in the sky while the trams rattle past.
One guy, in his mid-thirties, baseball cap and 3/4 length pants, slows down as he passes me, looking back at me with bemusement. He turns around, walks up to me, directly. “What’s that?”. He touches my back, then lifts my shirt, looking and poking. I can’t remember exactly what I say, but it’s something like, “It’s me. Do you mind?!…”. And, as he’s walking away, “maybe you should ask before you touch someone…”. To that, he says, “don’t fuckin’ talk to me like that”.
Let’s get two things out of the way first. He wasn’t insane in any way. He was just your run-of-the-mill working-class tough guy. And me, I have a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome – it’s reasonably rare, and within that rarity, my particular manifestation is visually obvious spinal curvature.
I spend a quick half-minute in the bathroom, try to push out some of the excess emotional energy, before the meeting. You could call it sobbing. I am sick of being people’s object, people’s Other.
This encounter, both mundane and extraordinary, raises some critical questions. What does it mean to have a body? What is normal? Why is it that now and then something happens to rupture our habitual ignorance of embodiment? And, do I, as an apparently different-looking person, have a different sense of self?
From my meagre understanding of him, French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that we engage with the world not as subject examining objects at a distance, but synesthetically and implicitly. Our body opens onto the rest of the world, is the very condition of our experience. Our senses resonate with a unity of perceptions. In a way, the world is made for us, through the medium of our bodies, bodies that are situated and inescapably relational. Experience is a continual, complex flow, where meaning and relationship is ongoing and always incomplete.
So, in that vast rushing flow of experience, as a universe of different bodies surround and pass us – the gaggle of school-girls, a ragged man rifling through bins, a meticulously groomed business-woman, towering Somalian boys, waddling overweight children, people of all shapes and colours and ways of moving – some kind of sense of “normality” emerges. Edmund Husserl believed that our bodies seek always to normalise, to assimilate, to incorporate abnormality within the realm of the expected, through understanding or empathy. Oh, that person is blind, this man is drunk, that woman must be lost. We build our understanding on familiarity, push experience into categories, to ensure that we can move on, ready for our next encounter. And, yes, sometimes that process of normalisation stalls; the person appears so other to us, we stare, in confusion, discomfort, anger.
When I mentioned my experience outside the library to people, the overwhelming response seemed to be “how rude!” or “what’s wrong with him?!”. Fair enough. What I want to know is this – what does what he did reveal about abnormality in our culture? What sort of experiences help us to recognise self-hood in others? How is it we can fail to recognise self-hood in others, or disregard their bodily integrity? And what does poetry encourage?
Alexander Kozin, in his article “The Uncanny Body: from medical to aesthetic abnormality” (Janus Head, vol.9, iss.2, 2007), says that the experience of some bodies are purely unassimiliable. He seems to have his epiphany at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, Germany.
“It is there that I saw a person whose appearance broke any and every anticipation of an embodied human being… She was a collage made of odd objects; her arm stub and her twisted legs looked as if they came off from a non-human creature… Her body, small and fragile, half a body, appeared to be torn apart by some mechanical mangler of flesh. This strange assimilation of incompatible parts made her movements as bizarre and as majestic as if she was a royalty raised from some underground dream-world, invading one’s peace and usurping it, leaving us with nothing but emptiness in the wake of explosive astonishment and awe…”
I’m tempted to say, Alex, calm down. This woman, whose mother took the drug Thalidomid during pregnancy, can hardly be said to have “half a body” – from her perspective, her body is entire. And I doubt she came from an “underground dream-world” – more likely, her home in a typical German suburb. But what he is says is revealing, on many levels.
Earlier in his essay, Kozin asks “How can abnormality of the body be available to us most generally?”. Whether he realises it or not, just who is implied within this “us” is absolutely critical – and it is this that is potentially the most “explosive” element of his encounter with abnormality. Think about it. Does he mean “those of us who have normal bodies”? It seems to me that the person he calls “the Contergan woman” is not included within the “us”. By definition, she can’t be.
Based on what I know from my own experience of having an unusual body (though certainly not as unusual as hers), I expect that, to her, abnormality is normality.
I also know that the normality of an abnormal embodiment doesn’t cancel out it’s abnormality. For some, of course, certain tasks, movements, journeys are immensely difficult or impossible, due to their bodily situation. But even for those of us who are not “disabled”, we get our sense of self through our interactions with others and the world. If I am continually reminded of my otherness, then I am other. Self and other simultaneously.
I see people with unusual bodies and, yes, they are other to me. Yet very often, something in me also feels a tone of recognition, affinity. Self and other.
Kozin also unwittingly tells us something about poetry, too. Whenever he discusses the appearance of “the Contergan woman”, he shifts from academic philosophical language into a heightened, almost ecstatic tone. He crams his sentences with metaphor, analogy, hyperbole, disjunctions. His experience of her body can’t be assimilated, doesn’t make sense – instinctively or deliberately, he drops the authority and detachment of rationality, dives into a disorienting, passionate poetry. Then, as an academic should, he composes himself and returns to discourse.
What exactly is otherness? What make us look at other people as Others? Is that “making other” inevitable, primal, tribal? Is it fuelled by an inability to empathise, a simple lack of familiarity, or a kind of shock at seeing repressed aspects of ourselves in other people? And is poetry the natural home for that space between self and other?
By myself, I have no answers. But then, I’m not by myself, am I?
Brilliant article, Andy. Eloquent as always. I look forward to more like it. I think embodiment is a continuum like so many other things and that it is significant that the authors you quote are male and white/European. I think there is an otherness of the female body and of the Jewish body and of the queer self that I experience even while I also experience a form of passing/invisibility that you do not.
The experience you describe, of bodily invasion, is also something pregnant women encounter constantly from strangers. There is a notion that the other is communal property, that the boundaries of dignity no longer apply. I wonder how this relates to the 19th century freak show and the encounter with the abnormal there.
More recently, I have had a different transformation. Having finally become comfortable with my body shape at about 30, I acquired a caesarean scar at 38… And it’s a doozy of a scar, because it has become keyloid. I have had people touch it and assume rights over my experience in a similar way.
Much food for thought. Thank you!
Cheers, Rosanne. Indeed it is a continuum, and (as I think you’re implying) there’s more than one axis, there’s many – sex, gender, culture, age, skin, bodily comportment, (dis)ability, the list goes on. Each axis has its variety of perspectives, and different degrees of visibility. Though sometimes people subliminally pick up on little cues – we think we’re invisible, but sometimes we’re not.
I’ve done a bit of thinking about the whole freakshow phenomenon – in its era, from the perspective of the “freak” (whose otherness was often exaggerated or just plain made-up) it was some kind of empowerment, to perform, to control the stage. For the audience, it’s certainly about shoring up a sense of who’s normal, who’s not. What’s our present-day equivalent or inheritor? You-tube? Funniest Home Videos? Public transport? Seriously, I sometimes think we’re in the middle of a culture of detachment.
A couple of lines in your essay got me thinking about how abnormal bodies are found a lot in groups that distance themselves from society with symbols of danger, eg circuses/freakshows as you mentioned and outlaw bikers.
No touching or poking when your abnormal looks are appended with looks that could kill. Self-hood asserted by membership of a gang that explicity states to outsiders – don’t even think about messing with us.
Have you looked into the band Die Antwoord and their working with that South African artist with progeria? Really interesting stuff on heaps of levels going on there. The persona of ‘Ninja’ in Die Antwoord is also really interesting — and since he’s a poet (in the hiphop sense) and deliberately abnormalising(?) his body — maybe could be something related to your work there?
Thanks! The exhibition of photos by Leon Botha and Gordon Clark (here) is amazing. In a different league to Joel-Peter Witkin’s work.
See my comment reply to Rosanne, but yes, the gang/toughness thing reminds me of freakshows – a totally understandable aggressive taking-back-how-you’re-seen. Empowerment, yes, and complicating, yes, but also runs the risk of reinforcing distance (though distance has its benefits!).
The research continues!
Invasive and confronting.
Somtimes I think of myself in terms of how others might see me. I picture myself as a newspaper headline and now no longer fit the “Young woman” or even “young mother” or even “mother of two” since my kids are grown and left home. In the eyes of others I am “fat woman” or “middle aged fat woman” or “old fat lady”. This is something I am still not able to come to terms with as I am still 24 and fit in my internal picture and mirrors and shop windows show me lies.
I sometimes wonder if there’s some collective consciousness of lovely people that I am not now and never have been a part of. That thing where they know how attractive they are and how they can behave because they are what we know as “normal” (or even “pretty/handsome”) and how to dress and how to be cool and all the things that I will always strive for but never achieve because I have to go to the “big” section of the shop to buy my clothes.
Thanks. I wonder about that myself – and there seems to be some kind of collective – think of the news reports that say “man of middle-eastern appearance” or how male politicians talk about parental status of their female counterparts. We mention what stands out, not what blends in. Or, perhaps, we mention what challenges the simplicity of the status quo, we create categories outside of normal, whatever that is.
The constant assessment of women’s appearance (even by women themselves) I find really upsetting, and revealing about how our culture operates. I like to think we aren’t products, and that we should aspire to become ourselves.
Sorry to hear about your encounter! I liked this essay, though. I especially liked your thoughts on the “us” in Kozin’s question “How can abnormality of the body be available to us most generally?”
Do you think the notion of the other is useful? I ask because I found that discussions of “otherness” at university could be vague – abstract – when the subject in question (e.g. slave characters in African American fiction) would often provoke very particular emotional responses in you. I do think “otherness” is quite relevant to bodily difference that’s bound up with a sense of alienation (on both sides of the encounter), and realise its usefulness in that regard. But such an encounter provokes such particular emotional responses that I worry otherness is too abstract. Hope I’m being clear!
In other words, I appreciate the idea much more when it’s narrated like you’ve done, so that the “others” are you and the man in the baseball cap. Perhaps poetry IS well situated to working through such encounters, because it deals less in abstractions, and more in the particularities of the experience…
Thanks, Prithvi. At the moment, I’m finding reading about otherness is interesting – although, as much for what the author unwittingly reveals as for what they explicitly say. It makes me wonder if the concept of otherness is used a lot more by people who see themselves as not-other. I mean, in particular states of mind, pretty much everyone can look strange or other, so I’m with you on the limitations of abstraction – I’m all for particularity!
I’ve got a lot of thinking to do in terms of the role of poetry, but I do feel that poetry somehow deals with reality in a more wholistic way, that it captures the complexity of life without imprisoning it (and arguably some abstract poetry does this too). Interested to read poems and poets dealing with physical difference to see what comes up…
Realise that’s a generalisation about poetry – I mean it has great potential to get right into the particularities of an experience of so-called “otherness”. Abstract poetry does exist too (alas!)
Just wanted to say that I still think the person had a mental disorder as “most” people who thought such things would not have the lack of inhibition or lack of social skills/empathy required to know that touching your back like he did was innapropriate. This is in no way a criticism of your writing…but a tangent to say that without someone crazy enough to defy social protocol as they did (and offer a completely incoherent response when questioned) then we can pretty much assume that they are an outsider/other when it comes to ettiquite, meanwhile you are a really great person to be around and spend time with…so from my perspective you would be the “normal” because to me personalities are what makes people bearable or not.
I have studied otherness in sociology and it is kind of useful to expain people’s experiences of anomie…it is kind of amazing that when people actually spend time with the “other” they drop all their predudices and just accept them as equals. So basically the sense of “other” can be destroyed by one or two positive experiences with them. So, say for example you and the baseball cap guy had to work together on something, and he found you were just as good or better at the task than him…or just a top bloke…then he’d stop considering the differences (obvious) because there would be some other common interest or shared experience. So I guess a sense of “other” can only exist with people we have not interacted with. Notice how racism towards “wogs” died out as Australians became familiar with them and did business with them and played sports with them and bought pizza from them…so they shifted the “other” to more exotic races (currently middle east). lol.
Because of this…the “other” has to get increasingly more extreme as people normalise what WAS the “other” through contact. This is where youtube is great…there is so much extreme crap on there it makes you feel normal no matter how alienated you are! Although sometimes it has the inverse effect also…because those who want to maintain their “self” leave abusive comments against the other because they never will have a real interaction with the subject.
Also the self is very peer-generated…lots of othering can break down immediately when you remove people from their clique/peer-group.
I think where poetry comes in…is that perhaps through art we can express empathy/rage/admiration for the other even if we don’t/can’t have real contact with it. Skinhead poetry would talk about “us and them”, hippie poetry would be “we are all one”. But I agree…all those subtlties of experience inbetween those extremes and the to and fro between them are all great resources to inspire great writing, essentially beause the poetry is like a statement about identity and so where you feel you are located on that spectrum of “insider/outsider” is incredibly important as it frames the context of our experience…not only context but I think it also (for better or worse?) limits what we can/can’t experience in reality.
Sorry if this makes no sense due to tiredness…but I thought I would add my perspectives so you can play around with them also. Hopefully they will help in some way even if they are not thought through. 😉
Hey James. I might be tired too, but what you say makes total sense to me. 😉 You could be right about our “friend” – my radar for mental disorder could have been malfunctioning (distracted by the baseball cap?). “The self is very peer-generated” – absolutely. What’s totally strange one day, becomes totally invisible after a while. While I know what poetry does for me in terms of expressing/exploring the insider/outsider complication, I feel like I know less about how people in general experience poetry that deals with marginality. I do know that Deleuze & Guattari’s idea of “becoming-other” keeps popping into my head. Not that I understand them…
In case you (or anyone reading this) is interested, Melbourne Free University hosts lectures (with following discussion) on Wednesday evenings from 6.30pm to 8.00pm at Dexter Cafe and Bar, 123 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill. The one on 15 March will be “On Nietzsche and the body” by Dr Philipa Rothfield (La Trobe Uni). It will eventually be archived as a sound file, as have been previous lectures in the series.
All the best,
(BTW there doesn’t seem to be a preview comments option so I hope this is legible)
It’s legible, no problem. These “I (heart) philosophy” lectures look great – there’s one on Zizek, Negri & Communism too. Shame, I’ll be at work. Still, that’s what the sound files are for, I guess… Thanks for the heads up.
Hi again Andy
Your description of the incident outside the State Library put me in something of a state of shock, so I can imagine how it must have affected you. At the very least a gross invasion of privacy and possibly, technically, an assault. It cannot have been a unique event either because I know your poem “Amputation” (which includes the line “Sometimes strangers poke me as if I’m an interactive exhibit.”). I heard you read it once but I can’t remember where.
I am reading Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception at the moment. He mainly contrasts the senses of vision and touch (e.g. in the chapter “Sense Experience”), but also writes a lot about the “unity of the senses” throughout the book e.g. “… my body is not a collection of adjacent organs, but a synergic system, all the functions of which are exercised, and linked together in the general action of being in the world, in so far as it is the congealed face of existence.”
As we know from tasting beer, the holism of appearance, touch (mouthfeel), aroma, taste and even sound (of the pour) is the essence of the experience. The guy was obviously a connoisseur. You are probably lucky he didn’t try to taste you!
He probably smelled me from metres away and thought better of it!
Supposedly, we’re born synaesthetic and our brains develop their way out of it – though the percentage of artistic synaesthetes is much higher than the general population! Creativity, I think, is partly the ability to create metaphor, or perhaps unearth metaphor – which would include linkages between normally-considered-to-be-distinct sensations. In other words, yes, the five senses are really one, divided only in abstraction. Well, I like the idea anyway.. 😉