Theory Teacher's Blog

Mind, Body, Discipline, and Flight: or, what to do when you feel lousy

I woke up late this Saturday morning and discovered I had caught a cold. I’m sure you know the feeling — headache, stuffy nose, and other yuckiness; I’ll spare you the rather gross details. I have a very particular way that I respond to the common cold, a regimen I’ve innovated after years of experimentation, and part of this regimen includes going to the movie theater to see a mindless action movie. But there’s not much good in the theaters this month, so I saw Sucker Punch. Actually, it was pretty fun, and coincidentally the movie suggests some interesting ideas about the relationship between mind and body, and it reminded me of the philosophy I’ve invented to explain (or rationalize) the way I respond to the common cold.

So, before I get to talking about the movie and the theory, here’s my somewhat idiosyncratic regimen. First thing is a small cardiovascular workout. Now, the word “small” is a relative term, and I exercise pretty regularly, so for me “small” means half of what I’d do if I were feeling healthy. I think this is the opposite of what most people do when they’re sick. Most people rest, but the first thing that I want to do is clear out all the stuffed up yuckiness that I feel has been collecting in my body while I slept. It feels gross, and I want to get rid of it. A short run gets the lungs and arteries moving so that they can clean up the yuckiness. After the workout, I have a big breakfast with lots of fruit and some hot green tea with some lemon, honey, and fresh grated ginger. Ginger is good for the throat and for the soul, according to many cultural traditions around the world, and green tea has antioxidants. After spending the morning reading enjoyable stuff (and it’s got be enjoyable, or it’s not going to work), for lunch I have a spicy-garlic-vegetable soup. Garlic is also a famous anti-cold remedy and generally good for your health, and I suspect that’s where the tradition of using garlic to ward of vampires and evil spirits came from. The spiciness just helps clear my head and my nose. I don’t know why it does this, but it does. I’ve heard that red pepper releases endorphins in your brain, which makes you feel better, so maybe that’s it. Then I go see an action movie in the movie theater. Something about being in the theater, with the loud sound and intense visual, allows me to stop thinking about being sick and gets my pulse going. And when I stop thinking about it, then my body seems to relax and begin to cure itself. In a sense, I suspect that worrying about being sick gets in the way of getting better. Then I come home, have some roiboos (a.k.a. African red bush) tea.

My practice goes against what’s usually done in Western medicine, which emphasizes rest, seclusion, repeated diagnosis, and drugs. Typically what this means today is sitting around the house, watching TV, taking cold medicine, and feeling like crap. All of these things combined basically make you feel even more lousy, and because you haven’t done anything all day, it’s hard to sleep, even though you’re tired, and so your sleep cycle gets messed up, and then you get more tired the next day. Cold medicines aren’t actually designed to do anything about the virus that causes the cold. They are designed to simply numb your body so it doesn’t feel the symptoms. I can’t see how this is at all helpful, unless the pain is so great that it prevents you from doing things. (I readily concede that there are cases — rare cases — when Western medicine is useful.) In my admittedly paranoid opinion, the primary goal of Western medicine is not to make you get better and live a happier and more productive life; rather, the goal is to make money for the pharmaceutical industry and doctors. There is a whole industry at stake here, and that industry funds a system of knowledge, a whole way of thinking about health — something the theorist Michel Foucault calls a regime of truth — a way of thinking that I wouldn’t say is false, but perhaps blinds us to more simpler, healthier alternatives.

For me, the way to get better is self-discipline and a flight into wellness. To put it simply, I want to be well, so I do well things. And also for me, the mind is connected to the body; it’s all one. There is no dualism between them, no distinction. The only way to make yourself well is self-discipline, a regimen of the body rather than a regime of truth about biochemistry. To put it another way, for me, the location of my soul is my lungs and my arteries. And I think the ancients understood this which is why the word spirit is etymologically related to the word respiration. To put it still another way, if you think of your head being connected to your feet, and you want your head to get better, then move your feet. This reminds me of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”

What does this have to do with the movie Sucker Punch? Well, check out its trailer:

The movie is about a girl nicknamed Babydoll, whose abusive stepfather puts her in an institution for the mentally insane after she tries to defend herself and her sister against him. She is traumatized by the fact that when she tried to shoot him, she accidentally shot her sister. Her stepfather is afraid her confession to the police might implicate him, so he makes a deal with the corrupt and criminal manager of the institution to have her lobotomized. The manager, we soon find out, uses the institution as a front for his criminal activity, and he prostitutes all the young girls. The girls are trained by a dance instructor to perform sexy dances for an audience. All of this we learn in the first few minutes of the film. The rest of the film is Babydoll’s plan to escape with her fellow inmates Rocket, Blondie, Amber, and Sweet Pea and her flights of imagination into these elaborate, action-packed, video-game-like battle scenes. So, the movie is pretty absurd, mostly just some cute girls kicking ass, but the absurdity isn’t there for nothing. The metaphor between the fantasy battles and the girl gang’s real strategy for libration is obvious, and it is a metaphor that (like all metaphors) moves us somewhere. The movie explicitly articulates its moral, “your mind can set you free.”

But what does that mean? Certainly, it does not simply mean to deny reality and fantasize. The movie deliberately blurs the lines between “reality” and “fantasy,” and what is more, Babydoll’s fantasies about doing battle only occur when she is dancing. The relationship between her body dancing and her mind imagining is the key here. The dance instructor tells the girls that the dance is a little world that they control in the midst of a larger world which imprisons and abuses them. She tells them that she is teaching them how to survive evil. Significantly, surviving evil is not the same thing as escaping it, and what Babydoll does is use the survival practice of dancing as a tool for imagining and putting into practice a means of escape — what the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call a line of flight. And it is Babydoll’s transfiguration of survival tactics into a revolutionary liberation strategy that is the basis of the plot.

Like me, Deleuze and Guattari also deny the mind-body dualism, and instead advocate a very empiricist and critical practice of freedom. Their philosophy also calls into question Western psychology, as the title of their first book, Anti-Oedipus, indicates. However, I think it is a mistake to think (as many scholars today do) that they were simply opposed to psychoanalytic teachings of Freud and Lacan. In fact, Guattari considered himself a Lacanian. What they did was move psychology away from reductive mind categories (e.g., id, ego, superego, Oedipal relationship, etc., which I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere in my blog [here]) and towards a philosophy and practice of the body. Their philosophy is somewhat based on the real-world practices of institutional psychotherapy that Guattari actually ran at La Borde. I have been reading about this recently in a new biography of Deleuze and Guattari by François Dosse, entitled Intersecting Lives. (I’m not finished with the book yet.) Guattari’s practices were reputed to be quite successful but were also radically different from standard medical practices. La Borde was something of a utopian commune in which the doctors, nurses, and patients all shared responsibilities (including the menial labor of cleaning and cooking) and regularly met to discuss the daily schedule and duties. The point was to move patients out of the subject position of “patient” and get them to actually act like a person. The line of flight out of mental illness was not drugs and diagnosis; rather it was activity, conversation, planning, the body’s relationship to other bodies, and an affirmation of differences. In other words, discipline and flight.


March 26, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. I enjoyed this post quite a bit.

    Comment by Ziad | March 31, 2011 | Reply

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