Some More Forethoughts for a Study of Body-Image and Self-Image

How do images become externalized? Although a genealogy of this transformation might resound with illuminating institutional contexts and far-reaching echoes in concepts such as ‘body-image’ and ‘self-image’ (if a self is assumed to imagine its body, then what imagines the self?), one point of departure that might reveal just how strange is the idea of an external image is quickly to consider the status of the image in Spinoza.

Initially Spinoza analyzes images and the imagination that produces them in the context of a critique of ideology (of error in physics, metaphysic, and religion). Yet, Spinoza does not consign images solely to error, nor does he deny their being the natural configuration of our life-world. Instead, images and the affections of which they are images become the very object of the third kind of knowledge that orients us towards beatitude.

Spinoza defines images as “the affections of the human body whose ideas set forth external bodies as if they were present to us, although they do not reproduce the shape of things. And when the mind regards bodies in this way, we shall say that it imagines.” An image is not a reproduction or representation that one might make or produce of an external body. Rather in image is a way of being affected by an external body that involves together the nature of one’s body and the external body.

To make present – this is not necessarily the temporal designation of memory, to make present the past which is nothing but to make present those bodies by which the human body has been affected. Rather, it is the very structure of the present, presence, and presenceing. An image is a temporalizing structure. Since for Spinoza affections of the human body are affects or moods, we might compare the affections together with the ideas of those affects that are images and imaginings with Heidegger’s equiprimordial structure of disclosedness as attunement and understanding.

Heidegger identifies three characteristics of attunement wherein moods disclose thrownness, Being-in-the-world as a whole, and an existential openness to the world by which encounters within-the-world can ‘matter’ to it. This latter characteristic implies for Heidegger a circumspective concern that has the character of “becoming affected in some way.” To be touched by anything or have a sense for something “in such a way that what touches them shows itself in an affect” is only possible for a kind of being that is in and attuned to the world.

An image as the sort of affection that has significance in disclosure, or for Spinoza that has significance in the involvement together of the natures of this body and that body, then, is neither a thing nor an image of a thing. It is even less a relation between these bodies as the splitting them off from each other. Images are at once the disclosure of the world and the disclosure of that kind of being in the world that is its disclosedness. Images are the present that has the characteristic of ‘together with.’

Although, the body and mind parallelism might not hold up in an analysis of Dasein, the absence of subject and object distinction in Spinoza is perhaps conducive to this comparison. For, in Heidegger and in Spinoza there is an openness, a not being closed off, that replaces a thought of the in-between that, though it might be close to this togetherness, still separates. The openness in an image that is not an internal depiction of an external reality – even less it is an external depiction of some inner reality – comes before those designations of internal and external.

Which is why it is so strange that image immediately means an external image – a photograph or a painting, yes, but even more immediately an advertisement, a television screen, a window through which is still visible at night some lonely light.

Some Forethoughts for a Study of Body Image

An image is the trace of an external body on this lived body in its spatial and temporal situatedness. That an image is a trace implies a confusion of absence and presence, such that that the external body can be made to appear to a lesser or greater degree of presence, even if it is absent in either space or time. This presence, though perhaps its paradigm is memory (the ability to make present the past), in its confusion implies extension, above all the extension of this body to a being-with an external body. Moreover, to make such an absence present is not to bring it into being or presence but precisely to determine the trace of the external body on this lived body as itself the externality of the external body.

For Spinoza the mind is only aware of its own activity and the activity of external bodies to the degree that it is aware of the activity of its own body through the affections whereby it is affected by or affects other bodies. But the mind is not external to the body, merely being the same body considered under different attributes of substance. To what degree then can we call an external body ‘external’? For not only is the mind aware of these bodies through its own body, but, moreover, individuality is not some simplification of the ego from its corporealization but rather bodies in their externality entering into a precise relationship to which corresponds an intensive, modal singularity.

This question is not the problematization of the existence of the external world but precisely the determination of the external world and the totality of bodies and their relationships which ‘world’ properly designates as external. In order for the existence of the external world even to be put into question implies an internality whose identity cannot break out of its enchainment to itself – an identity for which alterity and externality come from the far side of exteriority.

One way to breach this question is to consider the status of images in Spinoza. For mainly we understand images as external depictions or representations of a reality that is by definition there for all. But images for Spinoza are the traces of affections of the body in the two directions of mind affecting/being affected by body and body affecting/being affected by other bodies. That is, images occur at the border – or rather at the anterior determination of a border before there are borders – of self and other. In order for an image to become ‘external’ something very strange must happen – they must be anaesthetized.

An external image – a screen, a mirror, a sky, a portrait, a poem, that is any media in any manner of aesthetic mediation – is only the trace of this body’s having been affected by an externalized affection of the body that has been purged of any corporeality. You see you seeing yourself without realizing that it is your self that sees you. Where the ‘without realization’ is determined – this is the border’s first determination. A threshold becomes a wall when a body having been extended to an ‘external’ image cannot return to itself, having been walled off in the determination of exteriority.

Is this aesthetics? When I see the wind through the trees and the wind becomes the impression of a poem, for instance, in the ineluctable enigma of the wind’s longing through me for its loss do I only see my self seeing me without recognizing that this longing is my longing, that this self seeing me sees only the impossibility of its return to me or my return to this?

The wall at the border of inside and outside is not the skin of the wind but the screen and the television sky. The extension of the body then exceeds the body’s own delimitations – and what is extended is then not the body but the body’s skin past touch to the threshold where the outside is not touched but occluded in a false totality that excludes it, the body becomes an obesity, a combustible terrain, a consumer.

For, if all images are only traces on and of a body, then the paradigmatic example of this alienating determination of the outside is the body image and the warp and the weft on which it is weaved.


addendum to the Spanish Poet

this poet is not Borges, who wrote of his own other the poem “Borges and Myself

It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen. I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires, stopping now and then––perhaps out of habit––to look at the arch of an old entrance way or a grillwork gate; of Borges I get news through the mail and glimpse his name among a committee of professors or in a dictionary of biography. I have a taste for hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose; the other man shares these likes, but in a showy way that turns them into stagy mannerisms. It would be an exaggeration to say that we are on bad terms; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can weave his tales and poems, and those tales and poems are my justification. It is not hard for me to admit that he has managed to write a few worthwhile pages, but these pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good no longer belongs to anyone—not even the other man—but rather to speech or tradition. In any case, I am fated to become lost once and for all, and only some moment of myself will survive in the other man. Little by little, I have been surrendering everything to him, even though I have evidence of his stubborn habit of falsification and exaggerating. Spinoza held that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is so that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in those of others or than in the laborious tuning of a guitar. Years ago, I tried ridding myself of him, and I went from myths of the outlying slums of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games are now part of Borges, and I will have to turn to other things. And so, my life is a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man.

Which of us is writing this page I don’t know.

Borges also wrote a poem entitled Spinoza:

Las traslúcidas manos del judío
Labran en la penumbra los cristales
Y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
Que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
Casi no existen para el hombre quieto
Que está soñando un claro laberinto.
No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
De sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
Ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
Libre de la metáfora y del mito
Labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus estrellas.

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
Polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
Cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
That whitens at the Ghetto edges
Do not quite exist for this silent
Man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
Undisturbed by fame, that reflection
Of dreams in the dream of another
Mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
A stubborn crystal: the infinite
Map of the One who is all His stars.

Spinoza and the Spanish Poet

I’ve been tormented recently by that Spinoza scholium about the Spanish poet, he whom, having lost his memory, Spinoza is not prepared to call the same person. It’s a strange scholium, not the least because as Montag points out, it’s one of the only loose threads in the Ethics. It’s almost as if the second Ethics (to borrow Deleuze’s topology of the project) is not an esoteric sub-terrain, which system, like the double language of Strauss’s Maimonides, can be uncovered as a secular project concealed for fear of persecution beneath words shaped to appease both the student’s simplicity and the authority’s rigid canon.

Rather, when this thread, which as we shall see has a strange course, is pulled, the whole tapestry doesn’t collapse, but, there being symptoms in the seams, what is revealed is a shadow-portrait painted over, a work of which Spinoza is not the master. Certainly the work is masterful, but while traversing the disparate perspectives of infinite substance and finite modes, the play of power leaves gaps in the cloth’s folds. Montag, asking what external forces compel Spinoza’s pen, proposes that, “[t]he product of such heterogeneous forces would necessarily be a composite, nothing more than a factitious unity whose diverse elements. while combined, are never harmonized. Indeed, what would the ‘something more’ be, if not the very supernatural/supertextual realm that Spinoza so vehemently rejects?” (27).

More than anything else I want to trace the thought of the outside in Spinoza, there where there is strictly speaking no outside, for everything is immanent to an infinite substance that envelops itself in itself, but also where everything is the outside, for everything is just a play of forces and a play of folds, ceaselessly entangled without inside.

The thread weaves through these passages:

Pr.5.III: Things are of a contrary nature, that is, unable to subsist in the same subject, to the extent that one can destroy the other.

Pr.10.III: An idea that excludes the existence of our body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

Sch.Pr.20.IV: Therefore nobody, unless he is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature, neglects to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being. Nobody, I repeat, refuses food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature, but from the constraint of external causes. This can take place in many ways. A man kills himself when he is compelled by another who twists the hand in which he happens to hold a sword and makes him turn the blade against his heart; or when, in obedience to a tyrant’s command, he, like Seneca, is compelled to open his veins, that is, he chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind (Pr.10.III). But that a man from the necessity of his own nature should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought.

Sch.Pr.39.IV: For I do not venture to deny that the human body, while retaining blood circulation and whatever else is regarded as essential to life, can nevertheless assume another nature quite different from its own. I have no reason to hold that a body does not die unless it turns into a corpse; indeed, experience seems to teach otherwise. It sometimes happens that a man undergoes such changes that I would not be prepared to say that he is the same person. I have heard tell of a certain Spanish poet who was seized with sickness, and although he recovered, he remained so unconscious of his past life that he did not believe that the stories and tragedies he had written were his own. Indeed, he might have been taken for a child in adult form if he had also forgotten his native tongue. And if this seems incredible, what are we to say about babies? A man of advanced years believes their nature to be so different from his own that he could not be persuaded that he had ever been a baby if he did not draw a parallel from other cases. But I prefer to leave these matters unresolved, so as not to afford material for the superstitious to raise new problems.

Sch.Pr.38.V: Hence we understand that point which I touched upon in Sch.Pr.39.IV and which I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less hurtful in proportion as the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge is greater, and consequently the more the mind loves God. Again, since (Pr.27.V) from the third kind of knowledge there arises the highest possible contentment, hence it follows that the human mind can be of such a nature that that part of it that we have shown to perish with the body (Pr.21.V) is of no account compared with that part of it that survives. But I shall be dealing with this at greater length in due course.

Immediately it should be strange that there’s any talk of a ‘subject’ in Spinoza. In fact, every other use of the word is the verbal ‘being subjected to.’ Even more strange is that this proposition (Pr.5.III) is the very basis for the establishment of the universality of the conatus or our very essence in so far as we strive to persist in our being.

The argument goes like this: I cannot destroy myself. Moreover I oppose everything that can destroy me. Therefore I endeavor to persist in my being, an endeavoring which is my very essence.

Spinoza must then decisively establish the impossibility of suicide in order to identify the conatus with an individual essence. How does he do this? On the one hand he shows that, like the previous demonstration, no one can kill oneself from the necessity of their nature or the laws of their essence. But, on the other hand, when one does kill oneself, it is because of external forces. Suicide as such is impossible, while what actually takes place when “one kills oneself,” is merely the event of a death, like all other deaths, that comes from the constraints of the outside.

Yet, why does Spinoza add the qualification “Or it may come about” in order to continue, “when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind.” This reads like an unfinished thought.

Is it that when one’s body becomes contrary in essence to what it once was, this becoming-contrary is itself suicide? Or is it that one kills oneself, not from the necessity of one’s own nature, but rather this other nature is that which accomplishes the act from its own striving to be – like a virus, like a parasite that smothers its host?

When Spinoza speaks of the Spanish poet, however, it is a question of exchanging the death of life with the death in life. One’s body can become contrary in nature to what it once was, but one can neither have knowledge of the previous nature or the fact that this nature has changed. This is what it means when Spinoza qualifies the contrary nature as that, “whereof there can be no idea in the mind.” Yet, how is there still a mind? For Spinoza a mind is the idea of the body. If the body has become contrary to itself then it makes enough sense to say that, if there is an idea corresponding to its nature, it cannot be an object of thought for the mind that corresponds to its previous nature. But how can there be a mind of the previous nature if one is neither aware of the previous nature or the change therein?

This might make more sense if we present Blanchot’s analysis of the impossibility of suicide as a foil. In the section of The Space of Literature entitled “The Work and Death’ Space,” Blanchot asks the questions, “Can I die? Have I the power to die?” three times, each enunciation shifting the emphasis from ‘I’ to ‘power’ to ‘death.’

When Blanchot asks, “Can I die?” on the first instance, this question

has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected. It is when he concentrates exclusively upon himself in the certainty of his mortal condition that man’s concern is to make death possible. It does not suffice for him that he is mortal; he understands that he has to become mortal, that he must be mortal twice over: sovereignly, extremely mortal. That is his human vocation. Death, in the human perspective, is not a given, it must be achieved. It is a task, one which we take up actively, one which becomes the source of our activity and mastery. Man dies, that is nothing. But man is, starting out from his death.

For a being that must account for their ownmost death that makes them, death becomes, in a shrewd twist of thought, an accomplishment, an act, a suicide. To make death possible is, as Kirilov in Dostoevksy’s Demons formulates it, “practically [to grant] us the right to live.” It is to find a path from one to oneself and also from one to God, to the abslute, to existence as such, in a suicide that in order to be affirmed must be carried out.  

Yet, the addition of ‘practically,’ like in much else of Kirilov’s dizzying and disorienting language, Blanchot finds moreover a shame and a fear that precisely these thoughts of God mask by giving death a face. In the second instance, then, it is a question of the power of death: Have I the power to die, or does this power not belong to death itself? Against the anonymous omnipotence of death, one becomes utterly powerless, for to meet death is always to be met by death first, just as to grasp death is to be grasped by death, such that in the third instance of the question, it is the very impossibility of death that is at stake, for it is not I that dies.

Do I myself die, or do I not rather die always other from myself, so that I would have to say that properly speaking I do not die? Can I die? Have I the power to die?

The death that I make possible in my sovereignty over myself is not the same as the death in which I cease, that impossible death which “I” do not die, for this death has no relation to me. Death doubles as does the self, which is split both in relation to itself and to death. Consciousness of disappearing severs from consciousness disappearing, the self that kills from the self that is killed, and the death that the one makes a possibility from the death into the impossibility of which the other dissolves.

The expression “I kill myself” suggests the doubling which is not taken into account. For “I” is a self in the plenitude of its action and resolution, capable of acting sovereignly upon itself, always strong enough to reach itself with its blow. And yet the one who is thus struck is no longer I, but another, so that when I kill myself, perhaps it is “I” who does the killing, but it is not done to me. Nor is it my death – the one I dealt – that I have now to die, but rather the death which I refused, which I neglected, and which is this very negligence.

Who then is the subject of suicide?

For Spinoza, when “I kill myself,” I am not the one that kills myself even though I am the one that dies. For Blanchot, when “I kill myself,” I can certainly be the one who kills, but it is not my self who is killed.