Today’s article, like the previous one, starts from a Deleuzian concept, but may drift apart from it. Someone who is hypochondriac is someone who keeps asking Why do I have? “Why do I have a spleen, why do I have a liver, why do I have organs?” (Abécédaire, J for Joy). In his seminar about Cinema in 1985 at the University of Vincennes, Deleuze evokes the microscopic death of thousands of cells that occurs at the same time and that the hypochondriac could theoretically feel. The state of hypochondria would be an acute perception of one’s body micro-deterioration. Of course, there are limits to conscious perception but, just like Deleuze explains the concept of micro-perception in Leibniz’s philosophy (see past article) by describing the macro-perception of the wave as the totality of micro-perceptions provoked by the quasi-infinity of water droplets, he seems to attribute the feeling of hypochondria to a macro-perception including the totality of micro-perceptions caused by the simultaneous death of all these cells.
Being a little bit of a hypochondriac myself (the luxury of the healthy man), I have the intuition that we should go further than this analysis Deleuze – who was far from being healthy himself – gives us. We experience our body on an absolutely continuous basis, and yet we are used not to conscientiously feel it. I can feel my legs crossing each other – such a gesture already provoke a conflict of perception if you pay attention to it – I can feel my nose scratching a little, I can feel the pressure of my fingers against my keyboard but, ultimately I don’t really feel my body and the trillions of microscopic operations that allows the maintaining of vitality. When I do feel something more, the “event” that it manifests makes me think that something “in me” is dysfuntionning. In those moments, I am wrong twice. Firstly, there is no “inside” of the body. The skin is not a wall protecting a fortress; it is fully part of an assemblage of matter that forms a body. Talking of an event “inside the body” is therefore one more way to dissociate our self from our body when these two things are only one. Secondly, and that is why hypochondriac are often mocked for the illusionary status of their pain, the feeling that one experiences is not the symptom of a dysfunction but rather, the acute perception of the body actually functioning.
Deleuze is right when he affirms that this feeling is a macro-perception of a totality of micro-perceptions including the thousands of simultaneous deaths of cells, but he should add to them, the thousands of simultaneous births as well as the entire biological – we might want to say, the chemical – operations that allow the effectuation of “the totality of functions that resists to death” (Xavier Bichat’s definition of life). As pointed out by Hiroko Nakatani in her guest writer essay for The Funambulist, in the laps of time of a year, approximately 98% of the matter that compose the body is being renewed. This does not mean that 2% are always remaining and they would be the receptacle of the soul. The whole body is renewing its matter and yet succeeds more or less successfully to maintain is vital integrity until the forces of disintegration that we call death end up being stronger than the ones that were resisting to them. When knowing these facts, it becomes more understandable why the hypochondriac would occasionally feel something.
The hypochondriac is therefore an individual who has a better perception of his or her body than other healthy individuals. Since the matter that forms the body is, by definition, spatially situated, the hypochondriac can be said to have a better knowledge of his or her physical environment. To give an autobiographical example, I was biking in Brooklyn the other day and the wind was carrying an important amount of pollen towards my body. It did not take much time for it to penetrate inside my mouth and to depose itself within my throat, thus giving me a sort of cartography of my esophagus through the sum of contacts between these quasi-microscopic particles and the surface of my corporal topology. Of course, the cartography I am writing about was partially a reconstruction of the mind, which is probably a manifestation of hypochondria; yet this reconstruction was possible only if the material operation that mixed together small part of the environment with the parts of my body. There was therefore, at that moment, a more acute “understanding” of the materiality that compose my body, as well as the materiality that composed the environment and also the relationship between them two.
One might cleverly points out that the systematic coughing that I was not mentioning so far and that followed this story is not the best illustration of the good function of the body. It actually may be, as coughing constitutes a tentative for the body to reconstitute the equilibrium that maintains vitality and that we call health. As George Canguilhem points out in his book The Normal and the Pathological, disease is not the entropic force that deteriorates the body, but rather the mechanism of defense that the body undertakes to resist to it:
Disease is not simply disequilibrium or discordance; it is, and perhaps most important, an effort on the part of nature to effect a new equilibrium in a man. Disease is a generalized reaction designed to bring about a cure; the organism develops a disease in order to get well.
Fever, for example, is the mean a body dispose of to trigger temperature conditions improper to microbes’ survival. Of course, disease decrease the body’s physical abilities and therefore, is not a wishable state for it; yet by considering it for what it really is, we acquire a deepen knowledge of the forces our body is part of and embedded into. It also helps us to get closer to a response to the Spinozist scream (see past article): what can a body do?