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  • Anorexia:That Body I Am-With
  • Drew Leder (bio)

Lucy Osler's piece, "Controlling the noise: A phenomenological account of Anorexia Nervosa and the threatening body," lays out an important new interpretation of anorexia. Anorexia Nervosa is no longer viewed as primarily a perceptual distortion of body-image, an obsession with thinness, or an attempt to dematerialize—to free the subject from its inert thing-like body. Rather, the body itself, and the visceral body in particular, takes on a "voice" which the anorexic experiences as demanding and threatening. Anorexic monitoring and self-starvation beckons as a way to regain power over this renegade viscerality. Unfortunately, this strategy of self-empowerment is doomed to backfire; hunger, illness, and body/food obsession take over in anorexia's later, and sometimes lethal, stages.

Throughout her piece, Osler uses the phenomenological distinction between the body-as-subject (the embodied self as perceiver and actor) and the body-as-object (thing-like, measurable)—while also subverting it. She acknowledges with Moran (2013, p. 294) that one should not absolutize this distinction, creating a false dichotomy. The "I" is never a purified subjectivity, but always embodied; conversely, the body-as-object is not simply an inert thing, but, as Osler writes, "alive, with its demands and needs." We see this exemplified in a quoted account by Hornbacher of her anorexic thinking: "Somehow I learned before I could articulate it that the body – my body – was danger ous … I did not trust it. It seemed treacherous. I watched it with a wary eye" (1999, p. 14).

In fact, such descriptions suggest we go even farther than Osler in superseding the dichotomous language of traditional phenomenology. This renegade body is not exactly the body-as-object nor the body-as-subject, but a kind of blended, but internally unstable, "object/subject." That is, it combines the "objectivity" of raw organic demands like hunger, with characteristics we attribute to subjects, like being treacherous and untrustworthy. This, after all, is what we might say of another person, one with whom we are in a fraught relationship. Yet this other being is ultimately my own embodied self; this is precisely what makes its demands so inescapable. Hence, this visceral body as "object/subject" also constitutes a kind of "other/self."

This is not meant as metaphysical terminology, though it goes some ways toward challenging Cartesian dualism and solipsism. That the lived body is a kind of "object/subject" that is also an "other/self" describes the paradoxical strain at the heart of anorexia. In such compound words, the slashes (/) are not incidental, but refer to the uneasy tension, with elements both of deep connection and of painful fissure, experienced in anorexia—and for many struggling with other modes of chronic illness, pain, or incapacity.

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, undergoing a heart transplant, writes, "My heart was becoming [End Page 59] my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside" (Nancy, 2002, p. 4). The body is both alien intruder and that which extrudes from our innermost organic being. It manifests both personality and mechanical automaticity.

Along with proposing object/subject and other/self as compound terms, let me offer one other. It is often said in the phenomenological literature, including my own, that I both am a body (subject) and have a body (object). But neither seems to quite capture the tone of Hornbacher's words: "I did not trust it. It seemed treacherous." After all, this body seems like neither something she simply is, nor something that she has. Rather it is like a being, a quasi-person, with whom she is trapped in a difficult relationship. Of course, we would neither say I "am" nor "have" another person; both verbs would be inappropriate, almost incomprehensible. It would seem more accurate to say I "am-with" the other, whether our relationship be friendly or hostile in tone. (I include the hyphen to mark the depth of both connection and separation the anorexic experiences.)

However, this human sense of my body as that which I "am-with" throughout life can take multifarious forms. Whether guided by a holistic orientation, or forced to deal with the vicissitudes of...


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pp. 59-61
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