Fluid Physicalities – paper precis page

This page has short precis papers of some of those who contributed to the Fluid Physicalities series over 2016-17.

Stephen Curtis, ‘This Bleeding Piece of Earth,’ Bloody Topography in Early Modern Culture

Metaphorical associations between body and place through the discourses of anatomy and topography are commonplace in early modern literature. One of the most enduring of these is the recurring idea of the bleeding tree. Whilst these exist in nature and may well have been encountered by New World explorers, the most likely inspiration is the chilling account of the Wood of Suicides in Dante’s Inferno Canto XIII.

For another take on this bloody topography, we can turn to the mutilation of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Her uncle picks up on the tradition of arboreal bleeding in his description of her abject state.

Marcus:           Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches. (Titus Andronicus, II.ii.16-18)

Deborah Warner’s acclaimed 1987 RSC version of the play substituted mud for blood. Such a staging enables the atrocity committed to Lavinia to be considered in light of the messy realties of early modern warfare – a muddy, bloodied hellhole far removed from learned discussions of topographical knowledge. The inevitable result of early modern battle was a savage conflation of place and person:

Here falls a body sundered from his head,

There legs and arms lie bleeding on the grass, …

Mingled with weapons and unbowelled steeds,

That scattering overspread the purple plain.

(The Spanish Tragedy, I.ii. 59-62)

The melting pot of corpses and mud creates a truly bloody topography that resists any attempt to impose clarity. This harsh reality puts the aesthetics of early modern anatomy manuals into sharp relief.

Whilst these images also contain flayed or dismembered figures, there is a cleanliness and order that points to the discursive aims of the anatomical gaze. Blood was a gory obstacle to the anatomist, revealing the disparity between the corporeal body and the constructed one of the anatomy manual. The reality of blood was a destabilising presence in the anatomy theatre, and before the development of the microscope it was beyond the controlling discourse of the anatomist.

An alternative, although related, attempt to fix the messy meanings of corporeality can be seen in the famous title page of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Simultaneously part of and yet transcending the specificity of the location, the figure represents an attempt to impose an embodied order on the idea of the commonwealth. Such an excessive, embodied experience is the logical end to Mark Antony’s lament over the body of his friend Caesar. ‘This Bleeding Piece of Earth’ is at once the individual Body Natural and the Body Politic and the blood is flowing from the body but also belongs to and is part of the earth. The state can never be a body, as it is the population, not the metaphor, which must bleed. To be is to bleed, and the fluid physicality of blood consistently undercuts and deconstructs attempts to dominate and control the body.

Naomi Segal, “Spending and starving: the hydraulics of André Gide”

The ‘hydraulic theory’ models the functions of psychical desire on the supposedly mechanical processes of a man’s body. This body is imagined as operating like a machine. He is full of tubes and channels. Drives drive fluid down channels towards a point of outlet. Desire pumps out fluid; then he is at rest. In hydraulic heaven, no vessel holds more than another. But this ideal hydraulic balance is limited. For example, if I take all your money then I am rich and you are poor, but by feeding you I don’t necessarily become thin, and if I teach you I don’t, I hope, end up stupid.

Body fluids contradict the hydraulic theory. They are powerful because, magically and unreasonably (as popular mythology shows – magic porridge pots or Sorcerers’ apprentices), they are not finite in quantity but self-replenishing. Blood, breastmilk or semen obey laws of supply and demand. Thus, while the hydraulic theory relies on an economics of scarcity, body fluids represent the laws of an economics of plenty; they replace an either/or logic with a logic of both/and.

In André Gide’s sexual practice he experienced multiple orgasms and remained unsatisfied until he had cleared his body of seminal fluid; he needed more than one partner and ended in repeated masturbation. In this he was following a logic of both excess and undesire. The economics of scarcity thus changes by its own logic into an economics of plenty – but plenty remains for Gide a dangerous idea: the more there is to shed the more labour goes into the shedding of it.

In anorexia the inability to ingest is itself a motivating force. The anorexic is dedicated to the gratuitous refusal of food, barring it entrance to her body by prohibition or emptying and mirroring herself through it as different from how others see her. Gide’s undesire is not only a skewed way of desiring, then, but also the refusal to be a containing body. What would be left but a carapace? Where would the self then be located?

For Kafka’s hunger-artist the limit is set only by the temporal deadline of collapse. At this point he whispers to the inspector that he was not really an artist after all, but only made an exhibition of himself ‘because I couldn’t find any food that I liked’. This impossibility – or inability – is at the heart of Romanticism: very sensitive people cannot consume the world they find themselves in because they are, in evolutionary terms, without a fit ecology. For all its genuine ambivalence, the story’s ending does not abandon the metaphor of making art out of physical self-depletion.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid on sweat

’m writing this on the UK’s hottest day of the year. There is a light breeze, but everyone I have seen today has beads of sweat on their forehead. Seeing someone wiping their brow is a fairly common sight in midsummer, but it reveals a simple and fascinating truth about our species: without sweat, we would not still be here. Without this absolutely amazing technology we would not have climbed our way to the top of the evolutionary pile. Many animals perspire, but no others use it as such an efficient and refined cooling technology. So how does it work and why do we owe it so much?

We often assume that it is our brain power that differentiates us from other animals. It is obvious that we are able to process more intellectual stimuli than other mammals, but any PC owner knows that computational power is completely useless if the cooling system fails. And this is what really sets us apart. It is our ability to maintain an effective working temperature, not just so that we can keep moving, but so that we can keep thinking while in motion, efficiently chasing down the quarry.

As a species, over short distances, we are hopeless runners. We might be able to go a long way but what use is that if we can’t catch anything? The truth is that we never could if it weren’t for several factors that make us identifiably human. And it is our ability to perspire which renders them all effective. So we may have perfect bodies for distance running, but those features that enable us to move so effectively are useless without correct temperature control.

Two legs are better than four

There are distinct thermoregulatory advantages to being a two-legged human. Being merely upright, for example, means that less of the sun hits you when it’s at its hottest. The bipedal human exposes only about 7% of their surface area to sunlight; it is triple this for a quadruped. This fact alone means that being on two legs enables you to move with greater heat efficiency.

Also, by being upright, we can take advantage of the fact that our brains are further away from the harsher micro-climate at ground level. It is hotter there because it is heated by the sun and because there is less air movement. And with air movement comes evaporation, which is the real miracle technology. Evaporation is such an effective way to lose heat that if a litre of sweat is able to evaporate on the surface of your skin, you can lose about half a million calories of heat in the process.

While most quadrupeds sweat, they do so to maintain skin health and create scent (we do this, too), and even to create ear wax (which, amazingly, is a sort of sweat). But for thermoregulation, most animals use interior air movement (panting) to cool down – where their bodies have to actively work to lose heat. So that means, on a hot day, we could chase down a quadruped, and when it stopped to shed some heat, we humans could keep going and close the gap a little. Eventually, the distance between predator and prey would close as their technology failed, and ours kept functioning. Sweat meant that we were much better hunters than we appeared.

Conflicting sweat signals

It is decidedly odd that sweat is taboo in our society. Do it in the wrong place or from the wrong part of your body and the people around you will become uncomfortable, or at the very least make you feel so … and that will probably make you sweat.

Sweat in a gym and it’s aesthetic: it’s a badge of honour. It’s part of the training montage of any sports movie you might think of. But get it wrong – sweat in a job interview, a presentation, or in a social situation – and people will think you’ve lost control, or that it’s a stress response because you are deceiving them. But without it we would never have become who we are, have survived to the point when we could invent things, create art, make music, or surf the net.

So as you struggle through the next few days of hot weather, think of those beads of sweat on your forehead, and the fact that the exposed skin there, and its ability to perspire, is what keeps your brain functioning in the heat. In the past, it made you a lethal weapon out on the savanna, now it might allow you to reflect on what it has allowed you to achieve in the past, and that without those 2.5m sweat glands on your skin working to maintain the correct temperature for thought, you would not be here, reading this.

Hetta Howes on medieval fluids

‘Then one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance and there came forth blood and water. Hasten, linger not, eat the honey-comb with your honey, drink your wine with your milk. The blood is changed into wine to gladden you, the water into milk to nourish you. From the rock fair fresh running rivers have flowed for you, wounds have been made in his limbs, holes in the walls of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide while you kiss them one by one. Your lips, stained with his blood, will become like a scarlet ribbon and your words sweet.’

This quotation is taken from Aelred of Rievaulx’s De Institutione Inclusarum (or, A Rule of Life for a Recluse), a twelfth-century guidebook for religious women. It is a section of a Passion meditation, a text which encouraged readers to imagine themselves present at the scene of Christ’s Crucifixion, as active participants rather than just passive observers. In this passage, the female readers are urged to run up to Christ and drink those fluids which flow from the wound in his side and which intermingle and transform into one another as they do so – wine into milk, blood into wine, water into milk. The fluids are a miracle in themselves because Christ is already dead. His blood should not be able to stream forth like a river.

Whilst critics have long recognized the importance of blood in Passion meditations – and particularly in passages like this one, which focus on Christ’s wound – other fluids, like water, have been overlooked in these narratives. The medieval writers creating these narratives were, in contrast, acutely aware of the words of John in the Gospel: ‘But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there flowed out blood and water (John 29:34, italics mine). Thomas Aquinas tells us that the flow of blood and water showed Christ to be a true human. Margery Kempe has a vision of Christ in Jerusalem where she sees rivers of blood flowing from Christ’s side, a wound which sheds out blood and water as a testament of his love.  Accompanying the bloody descriptions of Christ’s suffering and death there is frequent reference to water in Passion narratives. Mary’s face is lashed with tears. Readers are encouraged to use their spit to lick the dust from Christ’s feet. The tears of Passion meditators should be used to wash away the spit of Christ’s tormentors.

Medieval descriptions of Christ’s suffering body, and the responses which readers are encouraged to adopt, are therefore significantly fluid experiences. Christ’s broken, suffering, leaking body sheds life blood, as a way of cleansing and redeeming the sin of mankind. In passages like this one from A Rule of Life for a Recluse devoted Christians can repay this ultimate sacrifice by imaginatively offering their own water – their spit and their tears – in return.