A response to Fiona Giles, Milkbrain: Writing the Cognitive Body

by Beth Spencer

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Fiona Giles’s beautiful essay, ‘Milk Brain’, brings together ideas from an interesting range of sources which all in one way or another destabilise the ‘truth’ of the body/mind split. In its intelligence and lyricism it performs its subject and rewards repeated readings.

Giles and the writers she cites, in collapsing the neat clear lines and hierarchies of the mind/body opposition, provide for a much more open and fluid notion of the bodymind (or self) and its strategic boundaries and processes.

However how is empiricism, as a ‘hard’ science, to cope with such fluidity?

Luce Irigaray has suggested that any systematic and logically coherent representation or theoretical model – any truth discourse – depends for its coherence on the repression of an Other (or system of Others). Thus the ‘will to power’ within classical science and the dominant western medical model has always required a concept of the body as a closed and hence controllable system.

Objective science needs to exclude the body from knowingness and reason, just as it requires a firm boundary between (observing) self and (observed) other; or between culture and nature.

Thus, rethinking matter as a part of mind rather than as something separate and Other to it—accepting the body as an intelligent and essential participant in the formation of our ideas, beliefs and knowledges (as Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Theory, Candace Pert’s Psychoneuroimmunology, and the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio and others suggests we must)—has far reaching implications.

Tomkins has been referred to as ‘the American Einstein’, for the brilliance of his formulation of a systematic way of understanding the affective quality of bodies as integral to the complexity of human being. Indeed, in some ways his work (while much less well known) could be seen as being as fundamental a challenge to the epistemological integrity of western materialist body-science, and its desire for a one-way street of cause and effects, as Relativity was (and is) to classical science.

The move towards a new physics of embodiment – seeing the mind-body as a complex dynamic network of information exchange (Pert), a system of ‘incompletely overlapping assemblies’ (Tomkins), with no controlling term, no master of the domain – is still being strongly resisted. And no wonder, as it has repercussions across the entire traditional Western system of powerful oppositions. Not just in the way it collapses the structural opposition between reason and emotion but, if we keep opening the body out, in its challenge to the divide between self and other, culture and nature, even spirit and matter.

By continuing to explore a concept of the body that returns breath and heart to it, we might start to see dynamic exchange and interdependence as a fundamental operating principle of all of life.

Beth Spencer is a writer and an Honorary Research Associate at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. Her PhD thesis, The Body as Fiction / Fiction as a Way of Thinking ( University of Ballarat, 2006), explores these issues in greater depth, and can be accessed at her website at http://www.bethspencer.com.

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