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Bodies: Big Ideas/Small Books
By Susie Orbach
Paperback Trade, Picador: New York
$14.00, 208 pages

Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World
By David Ewing Duncan
384 pages, $25.95
John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive ....

Delmore Schwartz,
The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

For psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, the human body in the 21st century has become--as it clearly was for Delmore Schwartz when he penned "The Heavy Bear" more than forty years ago--a burden. "Our bodies," she writes, "no longer make things." They "are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself."

The new idea that our bodies are and should be an individual creation rather than the simple outcome of biology means that the body takes up enormous amounts of energy and becomes a source of considerable difficulty for many, many people today.

Worse, she claims, "Our body is judged as our individual production." This assignment of body as our "production" means we are responsible for it, in all its manifest messiness and inescapable breakdown. No matter how healthy our diets, how rigorous our workout routines, how dedicated our appearance regimens, we're going to age, wither, wrinkle and ultimately, decay. Failure of our physical body is, obviously, inevitable; previous generations often wore theirs out with hard brutal use. Today, we witness our own often more genteel declines and despair.

The fact that in the modern era fewer and fewer of us do physical work with our physical beings has made us psychically a mess, Orbach claims, both distanced from our physical selves yet dysfunctionally preoccupied with them. This preoccupation and accompanying questioning--Is it ornament? Luxury? Unused tool? Wasted on the psyche within?--has created a great dis-ease that has driven patients to seek out a wide array of body/mind specialists to try to resolve the ill fit. Nutritionists, personal trainers, beauticians, therapists, hypnotists, masseuses-- all speak to a desire to "treat" or "improve" our physical birthright. And how many industries now depend on this very discomfort with our bodies for their financial survival? From weight loss to gyms to cosmetics to plastic surgery .... Imagine how many dollars would be lost to the economy were everyone to wake up tomorrow morning feeling perfectly at home with their so-called natural bodies. Yet there's a catch: "In this time of body instability," Ohrbach writes, "what becomes ever clearer is that the natural body is a fiction."

In Bodies Ohrbach explores all the ways this "fiction" troubles us, using case histories from her own professional experience. Some of her patients are not unexpected--sex reassignment seekers, adolescent girls who cut themselves, anorexics. But others are more puzzling and mysterious, like the man who searches the world for a surgeon willing to amputate his legs because he's always felt, psychically, like an amputee. What are we to make of this? Aside from this desire, he has no other oddities that would point to mental illness. And at the risk of sounding like the mother that I am, discussing tatoos and piercings with my daughters, the case of the amputee raises the question of how far we dare take science and its promises, both of adornment and improved health. Just because we can and want to do something irreversible to our physical selves, should we? So much possibility for willed change exists, it seems it would be hard to know when to stop, once begun. And corporations, of course, know this:

The numerous industries--diet, food, style, cosmetic surgery, pharmaceutical and media--that represent bodies as being about performance, fabrication and display make us think that our bodies are sites for (re)construction and improvement. Collectively, they leave us with a sense that our bodies' capacities are limited only by our purse and determination.

Ohrbach's exploration of the relationship we have with our bodies is both thought-provoking and disturbing. Where our minds end and our bodies begin has always been a mysterious boundary, and modern science has become punctuated by studies that evidence that optimists are healthier than pessimists and that pessimists are more prone to dementia.

Yet, like the question of Should we do to ourselves all that we can do?, the question posed by the second book under review, David Duncan's The Experimental Man, looks at the state of modern science today and asks: Should we know all that we can know?

Journalist Duncan, a National Geographic and Wired contributor, had a notion a couple of years ago to undergo every test he could that's out there now in order to get a fix on his own body. In his effort to "humanize science" for readers, Duncan became a human guinea pig for sophisticated testing, from in-depth genetic analysis to brain and full-body scans, from dozens of blood analyses to examinations of all his organs.

In a sense, he voluntarily and intentionally undertook what Ohrbach is seemingly deploring: the body experienced as a project. From this intriguing premise--that as a journalist he would learn all the knowables he could about the machine that is him, and then share the experience with readers--some very unexpected issues arise, many of which raise more questions than they answer:

  • There is more information available about our bodies than we know what to do with. By the end of his vast scientific self-exploration, Duncan is the proud possessor of far more data about himself than he could ever hope to sort through (at least for now) in his lifetime. What all this data means cannot even begin to be fully interpreted--science right now is in the stages of mastering the gathering of information, not necessarily in interpreting what a majority of it actually means.
  • So much information can be amassed, with such a small proportion of it completely understood, that much of it appears to contradict itself. Genes may predict one outcome for a certain propensity for, say, heart disease, while blood markers may predict another. Probably a majority of Duncan's tests came out this way -- with quite a muddle from which to pick and choose.
  • With all these possible tests and results--most of them conveyed to Duncan via email--how do we as citizens protect our privacy as we move into a brave new frontier wherein our maladies become more identifiable and predictable? How do we as a society put into place safeguards against insurers, employers, government, heck ... even future romantic partners from accessing our innermost physical selves from unsolicited probing?
  • Our environment lives with us forever. Duncan, age 50, was still carrying around within him traces of toxins from pesticides and toxic waste dumps he lived near as a child. Alternatively, he also was able to make his mercury levels spike by simply having one meal of fresh fish and testing himself the next day. Our chemical selves are highly responsive to both our past and our present, no matter how safe a life we think we've lived or are conscientiously, currently living.
  • Sometimes our bodies are not only about ourselves. Discovering information about yourself can raise questions not just about how you would handle knowing your innermost physical time-bombs, but those of your relatives as well. Duncan learns he carries some genes that could raise the risk for his daughter of having breast cancer. She too has volunteered simultaneously to undertake comparative genetic testing. What does such knowledge about her genes mean to her when thinking of her future?

Ultimately, Duncan discovers that for his age, he is one healthy guy, with good indications that he’ll live a longer than normal life. But what if the journey had revealed the opposite? Obviously, if something already wrong with him had turned up, he’d have begun treatment. But so much of what he was tested for could only be discussed in terms of trends, statistics, probabilities. How does one live (and would one want to), knowing more specifically the likelihood of dying in one age bracket as opposed to another? If we were purely creatures of cold logic, such information would probably be welcome for all sorts of reasons (financial planning for retirement, for instance). But clearly, we’re not. The emotional reality of our own death is something we generally keep at a distance, and it’s unlikely that many of us would be comfortable with a more specific date than the hazy "some day" hanging out there.

In this way, both Ohrbach’s and Duncan’s book come to a nice circle together. How we think about ourselves, how we define ourselves, is both assigned to the physical body and the unmeasurable mind that is doing the thinking and deciding about ourselves. We are projects, inescapable ones, somewhat artificial ones as well, who think about thinking with an organ assigned to do so. And how we deal with that, and create societies and civilizations and science as well is what makes us unique humans with shared but differing experiences.  

In terms of quality and mode of writing, both books' styles serve their purpose, but neither is earth-shatteringly lyrical. Ohrbach's shorter work reflects her technical background, and the prose leans toward the academic. Duncan strives for a storytelling approach, describing test settings in detail and diagnosticians as characters. There are passages where this doesn't work well and he'd be better off just telling of his journey more journalistically; at times he becomes entangled by setting a scene when he gets news, then enters a flashback to when the test was given, then refers back to a previous portion of the book. In one instance, he never does return to the cafeteria where he's being given the results at the opening of a chapter, and it's hard to escape the thought that there's just a little too much literary affectation in such a case. Sometimes straightfoward chronological reportage works best, dull as it may sound to undertake.

Still, both works are highly engaging and well worth the read. Thoughts about bodies, their secrets and mysteries, the use of information about them, and how our physical selves feed into our personal identities (and in Duncan's case, our ultimate personal demise) will haunt for days afterwards--a sign that a book has hit a sweet spot.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 24, 2009 at 05:07 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Fascinating analysis (6+ / 0-)

    Thanks, Susan, for posting this. As a 59 year old man trying to stave off the effects of aging I am all too aware of my obsession with my own body. I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area, and worked on my grandfather's farm. When I go to a gym I think of how absurd my grandfather would have found such empty activity - work was our exercise when I was a kid.

    Yet when our bodies are separate from work, when we are desk-tied, we still need to care for them.

    I am sometimes embarrassed by how secretly vain I am. Yet it is the essence of our culture to be that way.

    "One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others." - Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898

    by Audio Guy on Sun May 24, 2009 at 05:20:56 AM PDT

  •  Comprehensive look here, thanks. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ChemBob, Audio Guy, leighkidd

    I balance my perception of my physical condition between Zen acceptance and horror at the withering. Boomers probably still think we can cheat the aging process. For my friends, not so much with cosmetics, but with vigorous discipline (exercise, nutrition, meditation). We won't out-maneuver death, for sure. But we may be able to luxuriate in our conscious choices,  determined to create the best possible heartiness until our end.  
    The trick for me is fulfilling every day in this body with awareness, compassion and service. Everything is so impermanent. Even us.

    Stay calm, cool, collected.

    by heart4idaho on Sun May 24, 2009 at 05:38:56 AM PDT

  •  An interesting article (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mem from somerville

    but somewhat of a negative undercurrent tone it seems to me. I'm not particularly worried about dying on a day to day basis, far more concerned about the mortality of those whom I love.

    And the answer to the question is yes, we should know all that we can know about the science of life overall and, when the data are manageable, about our individual constructions. We are making great strides in understanding the interactions of complex sets of variables in a statistical sense and in comprehending the interactions of genes, evo-devo and environmental affects on gene expression in terms of biology. There are even significant inroads into understanding the processes that cause aging.

    So yes, science should be let loose on this so that we might not only enhance our longevity, but increase the quality of life before we finally do die.

    Life isn't a battle between good and evil, it's a battle between signal and noise.

    by ChemBob on Sun May 24, 2009 at 05:52:22 AM PDT

  •  The great Manga artist Shirow Masamune (0+ / 0-)

    has been way out ahead on this concept in a way that only Japanese can. He posits a world were most anyone who can afford it has replaced their physical body with a cyborg one; some for cosmetic purposes, some for combat. There's not even any consistent anthropomorphism. The male lead in Appleseed, Briareos Hecatonchires, essentially has a robot-rabbit's head.

  •  Thanks for the reviews! n/t (0+ / 0-)

    γνωθι σεαυτόν

    by halef on Sun May 24, 2009 at 05:59:45 AM PDT

  •  Susan Orbach is nuts. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ChemBob, Jack the R

    "Our bodies," she writes, "no longer make things." They "are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself."

    I suppose she's complaining about having to stay fit and the "work" involved in good nutrition and exercise, the two big keys to good health. The link between exercise and depression alone should be enough for Orbach to go home and rethink her life.

    For someone to be a psychoanalyst and not understand that there is no separation of mind and body demonstrates someone waaaay out of touch with science particularly her own field of behavioral science.

    The science of behavior is turning out to be more and more the science of biochemistry and here's Orbach making the religiosity argument that there is a fictional separation. The sciences of genetics, biochemistry and  behavior are merging, not diverging, to the point that many in neuroscience feel they are getting closer and closer to being able to predict behavior based on a person's physical attributes, genetics and biochemistry.

    •  I think you completely miss her point (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I seriously doubt Orbach is suggesting that the mind doesn't reside within the body.  Even if the brain is a physical thing, it can lack the data structures that optimally interface with the rest of the machine.  Think of it as a computer with the wrong video driver installed; it might still work, but not very well.

      In the past, we did not need to go to the gym to get exercise because our body was a project we were perfecting; we did physical labor for survival purposes and as a result our bodies got the exercise they needed to be healthy without conscious effort.

      •  Can only go by what she said which is nuts. (0+ / 0-)

        "it [brain] can lack the data structures that optimally interface with the rest of the machine"

        I think you miss the point also. The brain is the machine. It is not something separate.  The brain is not "interfacing" with "the body" like some business meeting, the brain is an integral part of the body.

        Orbach was trying to separate the brain from the the body which any medical student can tell you is fatal to both.

        •  This is demonstrably not true (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          The brain may be part of the body, but it can be quite unaware and unresponsive to things going on in that body.  My blood sugar can get high enough to be seriously poisoning me, but I need a machine that isn't part of my body to let my brain know about this.  The fact that a brain is part of a body does not magically make it aware and properly programmed to keep the body in proper repair.

          Orbach's point seems quite sensible; yours does not.  The brain is not "the machine, period," in any meaningful sense; it is one part which may or may not be in shape to perform its role.  Would you say this about any other organ?  Is the heart "the machine?"  The liver?  The spleen?  Is it possible for those organs to be malformed, diseased, or stressed so that they don't perform their necessary roles?  And if so, why not the brain too?

          You seem to be flailing against a straw man of mind/body dualism that Orbach is not putting up at all.  In your flailing you make a much crazier sounding claim than anything Orbach says, that the brain does not "interface" with the rest of the body.  Of course it does -- that's what the nervous system and hormones are for.

          The particular job that the brain performs is the processing of information to evaluate and optimize our situation within the surrounding environment.  The brain can be in perfect physical health but acting on incomplete or incorrect information; it can be unaware of or ignore inputs from the rest of the body and it can fail to act in ways that would make the body healthier and stronger.  In fact, Orbach's point is that this is exactly what is happening, and it has nothing to do with the brain's physicality.

          •  Science contradicts you completely. (0+ / 0-)

            "The brain may be part of the body, but it can be quite unaware and unresponsive to things going on in that body."

            Simply wrong.

            There's no separation.

            •  Now who's nuts? (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I would tell you to tell this to Christopher Reeve, except that his brain's inability to interface with the rest of his body finally cost him his life.

              •  When you manage to seperate brain/bod, call in. (0+ / 0-)

                There's always been a left wing anti-science group similar to the right wing anti-science group (small pox parties, anti-immunization, therapy candles, etc)
                Orbach is apparently one of them.

                •  I begin to suspect you are trolling (0+ / 0-)

                  It is not anti-science to treat the body as a collection of systems which do not always work together optimally; indeed I would say this is the dominant paradigm among both scientists and doctors.  By contrast, your bizarre assertion that "there is no separation" smacks of some kind of weird mystical belief.

                  In any case, as for separating the brain from the body I would submit that when Chris Reeve fell off his horse, that is exactly what happened.  If you have some other interpretation of what it means to be a quadruplegic with no feeling or motor control in your body and no ability for your brain to regulate your body's systems, perhaps it is you who should call in.

    •  You've completely misread her (0+ / 0-)

      and your arrogance is stunning.

      No she's not complaining about having to work out and be fit, though that is one part of it. She pointing out that our relationship to our bodies has changed and it has become the site for social expectations.

      Your other opinions are equally misinformed.

      Well I run to the river, it was boilin' I run to the sea, it was boilin' I run to the sea, it was boilin' All on that day

      by MnplsLiberal on Sun May 24, 2009 at 10:13:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  skip the books (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ChemBob, Aidos

    The review was excellent--the books themselves seem to belabor the obvious.  Thanks Susan.

  •  i'm in such bad shape (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Boston to Salem, ChemBob

    my body is a burden

    but i'm still glad for every day I have it

    Politics is like driving. To go backward, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
    President Obama. Still a thrill to see that in print.

    by TrueBlueMajority on Sun May 24, 2009 at 06:21:12 AM PDT

  •  And the media too (3+ / 0-)

    While our ancestors got a lot more exercise, they also took a lot more dings -- they got a lot more ultraviolet radiation, calluses, injuries, and scars.  But it didn't occur to them that the results were problems that need correcting because they were not faced with a very public class of professional people whose job is just to be beautiful, so their job is basically to go to the gym every day, get plastic surgery as necessary, and perfect themselves as mannequins for the products they endorse.  Nobody who has a real job of any type can go on to compete with that unless they just get really lucky in the genetic lottery.

  •  SusanG--You might want to add . . . (0+ / 0-)

    that Duncan has a website for the book, where he plans to post much of the data.

  •  I'm seeing a couple of body trends (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that I think are disturbing.  One is this "toxins" thing.  People are becoming obsessed with avoiding toxins--to the point where it is becoming a disorder for some of them. One guy has named it Orthorexia nervosa. I know it isn't an official disease at this point.  But I have seen it in my circle.  I think one person I know actually lost a job over the food purity obsession.  She can't stop thinking about it, talking about it, and you can't have this mania in front of customers.  And some people are passing this on to their kids in unhealthy obsessive ways too.  

    It's beyond healthy eating.  It is OCD.

    I also suspect that people are going to become obsessed with their genomic information.  I work with the human genome every day.  I know what's there.  I know what's not there.  But people are going to get crazed with the data.  I have called it Genorexia nervosa.  People are going to disrupt their lives, their diets, their families.  Parents are going to be pressured to know their all kids genes and act appropriately on those.  And it won't just be whether you eat an organic carrot or not.  There are thousands of loci that can drive you insane.  Multiply that by the number of people in your family....

    I've seen people here harassed because they can't feed their kids organic foods.  I can't even being to fathom what will happen when they don't deal with every gene.  

    Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice. --A Man for All Seasons

    by mem from somerville on Sun May 24, 2009 at 08:12:18 AM PDT

    •  It's an interesting subculture you describe. (0+ / 0-)

      It's not the one I run in, of course.  My associates are worried about far more mundane things.  It must be nice to have such abstractions as one's most pressing problems.  

      Not really understanding the mentality, I can only say that it seems the people you describe think death can be avoided.  It can't and trying too hard is not just wasted effort but also something that can seriously cut into your enjoyment of the time you have here.  Worry gives you wrinkles too.  Self defeating.....

      I've seen people here harassed because they can't feed their kids organic foods.

      Like I used to tell my little sister, people who would harass you for that are the reason God gave you a middle finger.  Confront bullshit and watch it get rarer. :)

      They see me trollin'. They hatin'

      by obnoxiotheclown on Sun May 24, 2009 at 10:24:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very Nice Review (0+ / 0-)

    A lovely way of starting this day on the left coast.  Very nicely written and actually makes me want to read the books reviewed.  

  •  I've always loved Susie Orbach's (0+ / 0-)

    points of view -- provocative and original.  

    As someone who celebrates humanity as a part of the wonder of the natural world, I loathe the cultural ethos that rails against aging and dying as if they were unnatural and undesirable.  Dying is part of who we are.  

    Because we're in denial about our nature, we also strip older humans of their dignity and consign them to society's trash heap.  Who knows how much we'd benefit from viewing senior citizens as assets rather than burdens?  At the very least, we'd save ourselves untold quantities of angst and self-hatred.    

    Being a majority party means very little if you can't work the system to push your agenda forward.

    by dotalbon on Sun May 24, 2009 at 09:48:40 AM PDT

  •  That was very interesting (0+ / 0-)

    I especially liked this part:

    Where our minds end and our bodies begin has always been a mysterious boundary, and modern science has become punctuated by studies that evidence that optimists are healthier than pessimists and that pessimists are more prone to dementia.

    Optimists are also more successful in life than pessimists. The reason is that pessimists are people who have difficulty lying to themselves. A pessimist is someone who has reached a conclusion about the world, but we do not really know or understand the world so the conclusion is very likely to be in error. Pessimists will say to themselves, "Everything is fixed, you can never win." Then they act on this erroneous belief and therefore fail.

    Optimists on the other hand habitually lie to themselves and tell themselves everything is fine when perhaps it may not be. But the odds are that things are nowhere near as dire as the pessimists think they are. But the pessimists will not act, their cynicism and despair prevents them, while the optimists will, therefore they have the advantage.

    We do not know the world, we do not know the future, but many believe they do. They are mistaken.

    Well I run to the river, it was boilin' I run to the sea, it was boilin' I run to the sea, it was boilin' All on that day

    by MnplsLiberal on Sun May 24, 2009 at 10:02:30 AM PDT

  •  Where did Duncan get tested? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'd like to know how Duncan (author of "Experimental Man") got tested for all these things, especially for mercury. There are some disreputable medical testing businesses out there. Some of them specialize not in tests ordered by doctors, but tests requested by ordinary folks. There's one testing place, for example, that specializes in mercury testing for worried parents of autistic children. Their results have been shown to be unreliable -- some skeptic made a watered down concoction of stuff, with zero mercury in it, then split it into 3 batches and sent each batch in separately. All three came back as containing differing high amounts of mercury.

    Want tests? Get them done through a doctor, not mail-order Internet companies.

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