Saturday 25 November 2017

The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“The fate of a single man can be rich with significance, that of a few hundred less so, but the history of thousands and millions of men does not mean anything at all, in any adequate sense of the word,” writes Stanisław Lem in Solaris. Daisy Hildyard’s interesting book, The Second Body, addresses itself to possible reasons why, despite evidence of both the causes and mechanisms of the crises that face the planet (climate change, loss of species diversity, pollution, water precarity, overpopulation, war, refugee imperatives), we collectively choose to take what amounts to next to no action when we could be doing something that would go at least some way towards action. Hildyard models our existence as taking place in two bodies. The first is the individual body we move about in. “The second body is not so solid as the other one but much larger. This second body is your own literal and physical biological existence - it is not a concept, it is your own body. You are alive in both.” It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the first body, the one we tend to think of, somewhat sloppily, as co-extensive with our individuality, is the one that is conceptual, or at least that its individuality is conceptual, and that this is why we so carefully maintain its borders, and the other borders (between bodies, between species, between social groups (sports teams!), between nations) that are part of the conceptual construct that seems to us to give it validation. Our conception of ourselves as individuals, as persons, a flavour of consciousness that we generally attempt to reserve for humans (sometimes withdrawing it from groups of humans we regard as significantly ‘other’, sometimes unthinkingly extending it to particular animals (e.g. pets) with whom we share the locations of our quotidian existence), gives us a dual existence: both correlated and individual, natural and unnatural, animal and non-animal. Because our identities are hard-won and have both pragmatic and conceptual advantages, at least on the scale immediate to that individuality, we defend them by suppressing the greater actualities of what Hildyard calls the second body. To be aware of the first body is to experience fear, the violability of the borders of that body, of its transience and mortality, generally conceptually more than physically. To the individual, the truth is a pathological state. On the scale of the second body and from an epochal viewpoint, the ledger of our consumption and output are of vastly more importance than any concern we may attach to our individuality. “The smallest half-conscious acts of your first body are transformed, by the existence of your second body, into momentous political decisions which have global impact. It becomes impossible to rule anything out of a relationship with anything else. When we look at the global body, it is impossible to relate that body to anything individual because there can be no certain borders between one thing and another. The whole of life becomes a mass. The second body appears to pose a threat to the first body - the one you live in. Any body that is global doesn’t understand that individuals exist at all.” Hildyard suggests that we are not actually as concerned with global crises as we pretend to be, because if we were we would be doing more about them. The end of the world, death and extinction are not our greatest fears. We are more afraid of our subsumption. “I am not sure that the end of the world is very horrific to humans. The threat posed to the human by its second body is not the end of the world, but the loss of individuality, which presents itself in the prospect of parity with other living beings, and possibly objects.” To expand without limits is to dissolve. To witness expansion without limits is to be overwhelmed. To be aware of the body on the vast scale is to lose sight of the body on the individual scale and to be aware of the body on the individual scale is to lose sight of the body on the vast scale. Could we find a way to be able to bridge the conceptual divide between our individual body and the global body that is also ours, without losing our individual identities? Can we build dual, or, rather, multilevel, ‘Russian-doll’ identities that synthesise our interests on every scale at which we exist, or is there always a limit, somewhere, to these sympathies? Must we always define ourselves in opposition to an ‘other’ in order to be aware of ourselves? Are we more attached to ourselves as individuals than we are to our physical survival? 

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