Here Lies Theory, May It Rest In Pieces

Fig 1: The Disembodied. (With apologies to Futurama.)

I was excited and somewhat relieved to read “After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the World” by Kurt Spellmeyer this week. It was quite validating to hear him rail against the rarified atmosphere of theory and try to elevate the lived, bodily experience of “the People”. I found particular delight in his endeavor to embody language, to re-incarnate The Word as something spoken by flesh-and-blood people. The otherworldly idealism of Plato, as translated through the substance dualism exemplified by Descartes, seeks to elevate humans to disembodied minds, subjects that can dispassionately consider the world around them. (See Fig. 1.)

This clean distinction between mind and body may at first seem ennobling; and many people, even non-religious people, cling fervently to the idea that there is some true self that isn’t burdened by these faulty senses and flimsy, fragile bodies. And yet, as freeing as this idea may seem at first, it can only lead to a devaluation of the body as such; if the body can’t be relied upon to give us accurate information, then what good is it to an intellectual person? 

But this quickly falls apart; our primary source of knowledge is our sense experience. And rather than being a source of frustration or shame, this realization ought to be truly uplifting. To say that I am my body is to acknowledge not only an inherent goodness to my body, but also to the richness of the information available to my senses. 

And this doesn’t just apply to the sort of categorical knowledge I get through seeing things, or tasting things, etc. The passage describing the illness of Robert Murphy beautifully illustrated the delicate relationship between the senses and self:

As my body closes in on me, so also does the world….To fall quietly and slowly into total paralysis is much like either returning to the womb or dying slowly….This growing stillness of the body invades one’s apprehensions of the world….and I must continually fight the tendency for this growing passivity to overcome my thoughts.

There cannot be loss where there is nothing to be lost; so this sense of stillness and alienation points to the “conviviality” that a healthy body offers. Spellmeyer then goes on to describe the way that this alienation from our bodies leads to all sorts of ills, leading us to transfer our sense of self to various places or things outside of ourselves entirely. For example, we transfer individuality outward into a “thoroughly commodified social self whose needs become more pressing than the needs of our own bodies, as every person knows who works twelve-hour days for the sake of rewards as intangible as ‘reputation’ and ‘the career.'” 

Another example he gives (and a fun one) is comparing specialists in a particular theory (specifically, theory as described by a famous writer, like Derrida or Foucault) to celebrity obsessives:

“the Beckett specialist somehow became his incarnation; the Stevens scholar learned to speak in Stevens’s voice….[so that] academic literacy….is deeply complicit with the same culture of disembodiment that makes possible Elvis look-alikes and the stalking of the stars by their admirers.”

By requiring the aid of such luminaries as Lacan and Foucault to light the way to “the text,” we not only abnegate the agency the individual and the value of their lived experience, we also set up a new priesthood, shrouded in mystery and divine insight. And yet, it flies somewhat in the face of many ancient religious traditions. For example, the book of Deuteronomy, Moses, during a long speech to the people of Israel, says (speaking on behalf of God):

“For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’….No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

Indeed, there is much religious import in this essay. The Quran speaks of Jews and Christians as “people of the book;” meaning that there is a text which identifies those faith communities. (And it ought to be said that Islam is similarly defined by its own sacred text.) While each religious tradition has its own orthodoxies, debates and disputes about the “proper” way to interpret their respective texts, the very presence of debate implies an acceptance of the breadth of experience brought to bear in reading a text. In his excellent book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony points to the complexities and occasional contradictions within the Hebrew Scriptures as strengths and sources of insight, rather than intellectual holes to be plugged by fancy theoretical footwork: 

This center of the biblical teaching….must be sought, and the Bible points to it not by way of one brief and sharply delineated understanding, but by way of a family or a school of viewpoints, each of which brings us to this center from a different place.

The sense which many religious people have of the polyvalence of a timeless text means that, while there is value in historic and literary criticisms of that text, the same logos must be able to touch people’s lives at the same time. People who have never heard of “reader-response theory” have no difficulty at all in determining how particular stories from millennia-old books impact their lives today; in just this way, Spellmeyer is urging readers to bypass the new priesthood of theorists and ivory-tower critics, to re-embody themselves, embrace their physical, lived experience, and reject the colonization of thought that has sped up in the latter part of the twentieth century. And I couldn’t agree more. 

What Do You Think?