Naked Bodies, “Feelings,” & the Buffered Self

In his A Secular Age Catholic Canadian analytic philosopher Charles Taylor gives a detailed genealogical account of the rise of “the buffered self” (ie, an experience of personal subjectivity in which one’s fundamental identity is fixed, walled-off from external forces such as ghosts, black magic, peer pressure, and social convention, and which is seen as the result of one’s own self-disciplined character formation; the opposite of the buffered self is “the porous self”).

Taylor’s account is detailed and multi-faceted. Much of it concerns the emerging “rage for order” which we see in Latin Europe in the early medieval period, together with the concomitant shift from ethical “praxis” to ethical “poesis” — ie, a shift away from the older idea (which we find in the classical tradition of moral virtue — that we can nurture character through the practice of working out our inherent, god-given human telos, to the idea that we can impose an external ideal upon the human person and through discipline … not unlike, according to Taylor, to the modern scientific approach to exploiting the natural resources of the earth).

However I want to focus specifically on Taylor’s account of our relationship with the body and the culturally constructed ways of experiencing it, or “disciplining” it, which begin to emerge sometime around 1500. What emerged gradually is what Taylor calls “the disengaged, disciplined stance to self.” (A Secular Age, 136)

The stance is “disciplined” in the ways I allude to above. The goal is to impose an ethical ideal upon the human person, much as the goal of a black smith is to impose an external ideal (for example, a sword) upon a formless piece of metal. (Influential here are Stoicism, Descartes, and the “Christian” neo-Stoic Lypsius.)

The stance is “disengaged” in that there emerges a separation between the “self” on the one hand, and a “certain modes of intimacy … and bodily functions” on the other (A Secular Age 137). This disengagement from certain bodily functions gives us an utterly concrete case of the rise of the buffered self.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit” when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. (138)

Taylor also documents the practice of the aristocracy regarding nakedness. It would not be uncommon, just before this period, for a duchess or baroness to expose her naked body to a servant, for one would feel shame while naked only in the presence of someone of a higher rank. “Kings would dress in the company of their courtiers; they would even sit on the “chaise-percee” [a commode chair] in company.” (140)

From here naked exposure and open bodily functions move to becoming taboo outside of a small circle of intimate relations. But this expectation is not “natural,” not written into the foundation of the universe, not a matter of natural law. Rather, it is learned and culturally conditioned. Taylor situates this development within the shift in early modernity to a more disciplined stance, in which the “true self” (that which is totally incorporeal in the human being, a kind of “ghost in the machine”) is distanced from and seeks to suppress or hide all exposure and contact to undisciplined, raw nakedness and unrefined creaturely performances.

This distancing or buffering goes hand in hand with a shift in how we understand “intimacy,” which here comes to refer to the dimension of shared feeling. This sense of intimacy “is part of our modern concept … in an age where the having of certain profound and intense feelings comes to be seen as central to human fulfillment. At this point in Western history, Taylor writes, “We are on the road to our contemporary age, where creating a harmonious household, having children, carrying on the line, no longer define the point of marriage, but this finds its main goal in an emotional fulfillment which is identified as one of the central human goods.” (141)

I think that this absolutization of feelings plays a central role in the inability of our contemporary western society to produce human beings who can successfully raise children (to allude to Stanley Hauerwas). That is, this absolutization of feelings, which plays a key role in the rise of the modern buffered self, is deeply relevant to the issues of divorce and “same sex unions,” two intimately connected issues, even if only the latter is currently under public discussion (within the church and without).

As an example, I appeal to  the rhetoric in a video of Bishop Gene Robinson (appearing on “Frost Over the World,” in conversation with the more traditional Anglican priest Lynda Rose) who appeals to his feelings and to some “inner core” of the identity of gay and lesbian people.

Please note, I find much of what Bp. Robinson says, but I’m trying to isolate one facet here of the gay issue — the absolutization of the “feelings” of the buffered self — and I think that his discourse is a good example of this. This “inner core” of (experience-derived) identity is, all too often, presented as inviolable, and it seems to trump scripture, tradition, and reason.

 

 

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This Present Moment

Renowned Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thick Nhat Hanh is perhaps the greatest teacher of Zen Buddhism of our time. In You are Here the preface begins in this way:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

In this simple statement is the essence of Buddhist practice. You can build a satisfying and fruitful life on it. You can help yourself and others. You can experience the world as pure and joyful. You can even become enlightened.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing out.

… You [can] discover how far this simple act of mindfulness can take you….. You [can] learn how Buddhist meditation will help you to harness your natural insight, wisdom, compassion, and so transform your life and benefit those around you.

For a practitioner of Zen meditation, the point of this “breathing meditation” is to be fully present in the present moment. Not to be plagued by guilt about the past, not to be anxious about the risks of the future, but to be fully present, right here and now.

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot shows how the members of early Christian monasticism inherited and “baptized” the spiritual practices which were shot throughout the “neo-Platonist” movement of the centuries before and after Christ. Philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus, as well as the “schools” of the Stoics and Epicureans, would work to attain a kind of inner peace, using three spiritual exercises in particular: meditation on one’s own death, examination of conscience, and breathing exercises to attain full presence in the present moment.

Both Zen and Christian contemplation (I think, for example of James Finley’s excellent book Christian Meditation) are saying, “Don’t waste your life. Don’t be everywhere but here. Open your eyes to the mysterious beauty that is all around you in the ordinary, miraculous world. Train yourself to be so calm (as expressed in the phrase “mind like water”) that you can “hear” the still, small voice of God.

“Be still,” the Psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

It is hard, nay, impossible, to do this in a life full of distraction and worry. Both Zen, and the more comprehensive Christian tradition of contemplative prayer create a path, a way, a Tao, for one to get more in touch with self, world, and God.

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