Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Sensation of Being
The method of comprehending a function by observing its dysfunction seems to be quite instrumental in approaching one of Agamben’s recent essays, “The Friend.” At its core you will find an exegesis on “the ontological basis of Aristotle’s theory of friendship,” which begins with the latter’s seemingly unimpressive observation that “he who sees senses that he is seeing, he who hears senses that he is hearing, he who walks senses that he is walking.”
What happens, however, when you lose this sensation of being, this sixth sense or “inner touch” (as Daniel Heller-Roazen calls it)? Neurophysiologists call the sense of one’s own body and one’s own self “proprioception,” which is hence distinguished from our sense of both the external and internal worlds. “If a man has lost a leg or an eye,” Oliver Sacks explains, “he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self – himself – he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”
The perception of our own being is arguably the most important sensation that we have, but precisely because of its simplicity and familiarity it usually escapes our attention. This is the motive behind Sacks’ story about Christina, “The Disembodied Lady,” who overnight had to face the horror of no longer sensing her body as her own. She was not paralyzed: after three months she re-learned how to walk, but she could no longer sense that she was walking. This condition is not as abnormal as it may sound, since very small infants also have virtually no proprioception. Christina’s uniqueness lies in her ability to use language and share her experience (or its lack thereof) with other people, thus offering us a rare window into Agamben’s idea that friendship is the shared sensation of being.
Sacks compares Christina’s case with one of the characters from Wittgenstein’s On Certainty who doubts the existence of his own body. Wittgenstein actually objects to anyone who would try to raise his hand and utter a sentence like, “I know that this is my hand,” which the philosopher takes to be neither true nor false, but merely nonsensical. There is, however, at least one person in the world towards whom Wittgenstein would probably make an exception. As counter intuitive as it may sound, for Christina, the woman who could not sense that she exists, saying, “I know that this is my hand” would make perfect, painful, sense.