Drew Cordes

Exploring the Troublesome Link Between Body & Identity

Filed By Drew Cordes | December 22, 2011 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: David Foster Wallace, Elie Wiesel, gender, identity, ontology, philosophy, Victor Frankl

MRI_head_side.jpgLately, I've been falling into heated debates with myself on a contentious problem - my body. Or rather, our collective bodies, and what they mean (if anything) in relation to who we are. As someone who already sacrificed many painful hours and a sizable wad of green to changing her body through drugs, surgeries and other means, it may seem a bit late to be meditating on this now. But something drove me to do these things. They had to be done. The question is why. Why was changing my body worth so much? Why not my student loans instead?

I'm not looking for the easy answer here, i.e. "Drew, you have a medical condition known as gender dysphoria. The best treatment is to make your body match your mind." Rather, I'm looking for the ontological explanation.

This subject reminds me of a passage (many passages, really) from the late literary titan David Foster Wallace:

"Son, you're 10, and this is hard news for somebody 10, even if you're almost 5'11'', a possible pituitary freak. Son, you're a body, son. That quick little scientific-prodigy's mind she's so proud of and won't quit twittering about: son, it's just neural spasms, those thoughts in your mind are just the sound of your head revving, and head is still just body, Jim. Commit this to memory. Head is body. Jim, brace yourself against my shoulders here for this hard news, at 10: you're a machine a body an object, Jim ..."

The brazen nihilism of this harshly delivered message is one that will find resistance among most people, regardless of religiosity, spirituality, or lack thereof. However, it does contain a kernel of truth -- thoughts, consciousness, memory, knowledge, emotion, exultation, all the things that differentiate humans as a species are effected by the brain, a bodily organ -- an extremely sophisticated and complex organ, but living tissue just the same. All the individual aspects that comprise a particular person's essence, your "youness," well, it can all change with a brain injury, super-high fever or nasty disease (Nietzsche's insanity due to syphilis comes to mind). And when the body dies, your mind dies, too.

Pursuing this line of thought proves to be a slippery slope. Reducing everything to body cheapens human connection and it cheapens how we relate to ourselves. Civil society can no longer exist if all we are to ourselves and each other are eat-drink-shit-fuck machines. The word "identity" loses all meaning. In terms of gender trouble, viewing the mind as body is dangerous. If mind is body, the root of the problem is the brain. It is this rationale that leads to shock therapy and lobotomies being seen as valid treatment methods to achieve mind-body harmony.

This is one extreme of how our existence can be viewed -- mechanical, animalistic, reactionary. We like to believe that there is something special about humanity -- that the mystical spark of self-awareness and consciousness elevates us above other forms of life. Reducing that spark to bodily function rings false to all but the bleakest among us. Our intuition tells us it's false; we know it in our bones, but what is the real rationality behind it?

As I see it, the proof our intuition is correct lies on the other end of the ideological spectrum. I'm reminded of another passage from Wallace illustrating this opposing extreme -- the perseverance of the mind and identity in the face of bodily objectification:

"It's like Victor Frankl in ('Man's Search for Meaning') says that at the very worst of it in the camp in the Holocaust, when your freedom's taken away, and your privacy and dignity because you're naked in a crowded camp and you have to go to the bathroom in front of everybody else because there's no such thing as privacy anymore, and your wife's dead and your kids starved while you had to watch and you don't have any food or heat or blankets and they treat you like rats because to them really you really are rats you're not a human being, and they call you out and bring you in to torture you, like scientific torture so they can show you they can even take your body away, your body isn't even you anymore it's the enemy it's this thing they use to torture you because to them it's just a thing and they're running lab experiments on it, it's not even sadistic they're not being sadistic because to them it's not a human being they're torturing -- that when everything that has any like connection to the you you think you are gets ripped away and now all that's left is only: what, what's left, is there anything left? You're still alive so what's left is you? What's that? What does you mean now? See now it's showtime, now's when you find out what you even are to yourself. Which most people with dignity and humanity and rights and all that there don't ever get to know. What's possible. That nothing is automatically sacred. That's what Frankl's talking about. That it's through suffering and terror and the Dark Side that whatever's left gets to open up, and then after that you know."

One cannot deny one's mind and identity are derived from the brain, which is a part of the body. As such, one's "spirit" is not eternal. It dies with the body. However, as the above Wallace excerpt shows, one's mind/identity/spirit (pick a moniker) can disassociate and exist separately from body. Examples of extreme suffering, like the Holocaust, contain numerous testimonials of this. Frankl himself mentions many in "Man's Search for Meaning." Those who survived were not necessarily the healthiest, but the ones that clung to hope, an ideal, or empathy. One literally needed a reason to live. A father would not give in to death because he had to be there for his son. A woman would hang on in hopes of seeing her husband again. In these cases, the body endures because the spirit endures. This is why we find these tales of survival from the Holocaust so moving -- they confirm the transcendent power of our spirit and identity over our bodies.

As moving as this is, however, we must not forget it is an extreme scenario. If we were to pursue this line of thought in terms of the everyday we will hit another dead end. Forgoing bodily concerns in favor of the inner exploration of philosophical certainty will result in human beings walling themselves off from each other and all external stimuli in a Cartesian prison. In terms of gender, it would be unacceptable to tell a trans person that their body is irrelevant and that they should be satisfied to know their true identity internally. Our mind and our bodies are not synonymous, but the degree to which the two can separate under crisis conditions is no way to live one's daily life. For many trans people, this crisis condition is the status quo. They must force their true identity and spirit to be purely internal, because, as Wallace puts it, "your body isn't even you anymore it's the enemy."

Pushing the horrors further, as stated before, one can completely destroy the body and manipulate the brain to kill or alter a person's identity. The spirit is not eternal. But, although your former "youness" might be gone, holding on to it till the end is a grand achievement. For many philosophers, it was the highest accomplishment. Nietzsche again comes to mind (thankfully not for syphilis this time), as the Ubermensch in "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is the living embodiment of this ideal -- selfhood as godhead. Admittedly, this is a cold comfort at best since one still ends up dead or unrecognizable without having had the chance to live out one's true spirit.

The good news, however, is that even if one's identity is successfully taken away, it can be regained. In "Night," Elie Weisel describes how he and his father endured the torture, degradation and dehumanization of Nazi concentration camps. After his father dies, near the end of the memoir, Weisel finally succumbs:

"I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father's cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him away before daybreak and taken him to the crematorium. ... I remained in Buchenwald until April 11. I shall not describe my life during that period. It no longer mattered. Since my father's death, nothing mattered to me anymore. I spent my days in total idleness. With only one desire: to eat. I no longer thought of my father, or my mother. From time to time, I would dream. But only of soup, an extra ration of soup."

This scene in "Night" takes place when Weisel was 17. He is 83 today. He has a wife. He has written more than 50 books. He teaches. He runs his own charitable organization. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. No one would suggest that Weisel could or should erase the horrors of the past from his mind. Rather, his continued life and impact on the world are a shining example that even after you hit rock bottom, after you even cease to be yourself, the opportunity exists to reclaim your spirit and identity. It may be changed, but it is still you.

Transposing this phenomenon to the world of gender, this evokes thoughts of trans people who torture and hide from themselves for a lifetime, only to finally own their feelings and take action late in life, near Weisel's age. Spirit is resilient, and true identity is always there waiting to break through, it just needs a chance.

Head may be body, as Wallace writes, but spirit is not. It can't be. If the entire human body including the brain is torn down to the point of death, and this human somehow wills himself to hang on through faith or love or an ideal, what creates that will? If the only thing propelling the body is will, even to its last breath, then that will must be separate. The body is not propelling itself. It is driven by something else. Something not necessarily external, but that has remained indefatigable, untouched - something separate, something outlasting, something above the corporeal. Will, spirit, identity, again use whatever moniker you like - it transcends body.

Undoubtedly, the horrors of the Holocaust, and drastic measures such as shock therapy and lobotomies prove that altering the body can destroy identity. However, the flipside also must be true: Altering one's body can validate and strengthen identity, as it does for many trans people in transition. This is the reason we change our bodies, our physical appearance. When that spirit/identity/"youness" is able to exist in harmony with the body, only then do we have a human being in full. Discounting the body, we retreat to the internal, the Cartesian prison. Discounting the mind, we are husks, machines who, as Weisel chillingly attests, dream only of extra soup. Trans people deserve to be humans in full. Some may need surgery, some only drugs, some may only require a new haircut, but the paths tread are the same. To see one's internal truth, the inner identity, finally reflected externally is to see one's spirit fulfilled.

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