Friday, April 01, 2005

Who speaks for the res extensa?

Terri Schiavo has died. My condolences go to all who cared for her. Your grief will weigh on me as I explore the questions Terri's situation has raised for my fellow citizens, my neighbors.

A few days ago Brandon at Siris initiated a serious discussion of being a human person and what that means in the context of the public debate about the life and death of Terri Schiavo. Andy at Under the Sun asks What Is A "Person"? He maintains that person and human are analytically orthagonal, though in practice they are not (a formulation which I should like to unpack). Brandon's reply to that argument was met by Chris at Mixing Memory with his thoughts about higher brain death and personhood.

Chris presents a cogent argument for the neurological view of the person, and comes to the conclusion that when our higher brain structures are gone, we are not persons; "we are merely bodies with life, but no lives." Being a provocateur by avocation myself, I can appreciate Chris's argument, but I cannot accept it--certainly not as a conclusion. As a conversation starter, it works. One bit of conversation that caught my attention appears to be a rather straighforward rejection of Cartesian dualism from Macht of Prothesis:

It isn't clear to me why we should single out the "history that is recorded in the configurations of our higher-brain structures" from the entire "bodily history." .... I can understand isolating the brain from the rest of the body in order to make studying it easier, but when we are talking about personhood it seems wrong to talk about "a person is a brain and the rest of his or her body" rather than "a person is a body (part of which is a brain)."

My reading of Macht's argument is anything but unbiased. It reflects a general prejudice I have against Cartesianism, which may owe itself to certain life experiences of mine, a defensive ignorance, or simply the residue of an excess of Husserliana in my youth. In any event I had been fishing for perspectives on the Terri Schiavo case informed by a reading of Descartes (of which Aaron's Descartes would be proud is a sterling example). I've been uncomfortable with some of the political baggage that has been brought into this discussion--for the most part these critiques have been articulated by conservative Republicans whereas I am for most intents and purposes a liberal Democrat--so I appreciated Macht's directness on this point.

As much as I sympathize with the emotions on display around this case-- anger, shock, indignation, sorrow--the polemics make no sense to me. Heartless or braindead: as a political proposition it ought to be a nonstarter. When one of the two dominant parties points to the other and says "braindead" or "heartless," they reveal themselves to be either braindead or heartless, and probably too much of both. The culture of life or the culture of death: by and large the people offering such a choice are not the intellectual descendants of Arnold van Gennep.

The irrealities are not limited to binary oppositions (though dissertations could be written on the current profusion of facile dichotomies more diversionary than insightful). AI isn't real, but it may have real consequences insofar as it informs the thinking of bioethicists and the decision making of medical and legal practioners. Even as a possible or conceivable personhood, if not an explict model, AI ought to be considered real even by serious Epicureans, if only for the sake of minimizing their own suffering. Disembodied voices are not real, not really, and yet a legal doctrine (dare one speak of hegemony) of "silence equals consent" and a culture of hyperrepresentation set the stage for acts of hideous ventriloquism by which the living become the living dead and communicate their wishes to be merely dead, not silent, but dead. As if a person could aspire to dead letter status, much less would want to, and would sacrifice life and limb to do so. Are there rational political responses to such irrealities? In bits and pieces, sure, but the partisan grand narratives can't persuasively claim to cover the hypertrophies of the Logos in all its particulars, such is the extent of its suffusion into our daily lives.

How is language possible, asked Julia Kristeva with some urgency, as she proceeded to lay out her distinction between the symbolic and the semiotic orders of language. To put it crudely, Kristeva's distinction maps to the one between res cogitans and res extensa, langue and parole, theory and practice, etc. Naturally, being an intellectal of the truest sort, Kristeva laid emphasis on the latter side of the polarity, the semiotic. This would seem to be the weak position, for the symbolic self-evidently has the means of explaining itself and may (therefore) well claim to speak for its putative other half. But that begs the question. We know that for the most part the semiotic goes without saying, but then we forget that we know it when assume that the possibility of language is given. What are its conditions of possibility really?

To all of the definitions of the person floating around, I will add one more: the person is a mask. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1225, from O.Fr. persone "human being" (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona "human being," originally "character in a drama, mask," possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask." This may be related to Gk. Persephone.

The mask, for the ancients, was "that which represented the character and at the same time was the device through which the actor sounded the character's spoken words" (Towards A Contemporary Anthropology of the Person, by Kenneth Schmitz. See also Persönlichkeit werden: Zum höchsten Glück auf Erden, by Bazon Brock.) Our modern courts no longer rely on masks to amplify and distort the voice, to terrify, entertain, and hide the face of the executioners, but the functions remain, and the vestiges of ancient mysteries are nowhere more apparent than in the legal concept of the person.

The prime contingency, the body, of course does not go away simply because its essential contribution to the subject is ignored. It may be deprived of speech, or even denied water and food, in which case it is affirmatively starved to death, but it does not simply vanish. It cannot be willed out of existence; if death is the intention, the body must be killed.

So who speaks for the res extensa? Who speaks for the dehydrated? Jesse Jackson, who speaks of our obligation to stamp out poverty and starvation wherever it exists? Then what of Tony Blair? Paul Wolfowitz? And who shall we hold accountable for the high rate of malnutrition in Iraq today? Is there one side of the political divide in the United States that will join the chorus to feed all those who are hungry? At present Jackson is largely being ignored by liberal opinion leaders, while conservative Republicans have almost nothing to say about widespread starvation in Iraq. We are given every reason to doubt whether the genuine political voice of the res extensa can be anything other than pragmatic and provisional.

The res extensa speaks in the subjunctive, as Victor Turner might have said, but there's no reason to suspect that the voice is not therefore real. The body's voice is completely real, though it wants completion. Its realization as signification depends upon a symbolic faculty, or one might say a hermeneutic faculty. We who have the freedom to speak must necessarily have responsibilities to listen, to cultivate faculties for empathic, interpretive understandings, and to enact these understandings in our daily lives to the fullest possible extent. It is a question of how we live and die; and for that it is no less a matter of life and death.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:09 AM.


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