I hold my body at arm’s length, establishing a comfortable distance. I acknowledge something shared, a relationship, but I say my body to let you know that I mean something distinct from myself—as if my body were a relative I fear might embarrass me at a party, that is, in ways that only someone who knows me intimately could do. Though I could never control their actions, I’d still be held accountable; their poor or improper behaviour would reflect badly on me. Without malice, they would not think to exercise discretion, unknowingly revealing that you did not always have the cultural acumen you’re so proud of today—a self that you only remember as an embarrassment. Biology seems to know you in ways that you don’t know yourself.
Where do I locate myself if not in my body? My brain? We tend to think of the brain as a kind of central command system—it calculates, processes, transmits. The brain is all regulations and governance—cerebral in both form and function, utility and disposition, noun and adjective—administering instruction and direction to less cultured matter. Selfhood has not always lived in the brain, history has shown it to roam around the body—the heart, the guts—but rarely is it thought to claim multiple sites of occupancy simultaneously. There can only be one Executive Organ, a protagonist self. The Executive is the organ exercising authority in and holding responsibility for the governance of a state.
The body’s limbs have not always worked together as collegiately as they do now, as each had a will and way of its own. One time the bodily members began to find fault with the gut for spending an idle, luxurious life, while they were wholly occupied in labouring for its support and ministering to its wants and pleasures. So they entered into a conspiracy to cut off the gut’s supplies for the future. The hands were no longer to carry food to the mouth, nor the mouth to receive the food, nor the teeth to chew it.
They had not long persisted in this course of starving the gut into subjection, before they all began, one by one, to fail and flag, and the whole body to pine away. Then the members were convinced that the gut, cumbersome and useless as it seemed, had an important function of its own. They decided that they could no more do without it than it could do without them, and that if they would have the constitution of the body in a healthy state, they must work together, each in his proper sphere, for the common sustenance of all.
Social dissent in this sense is not only undesirable but unnatural because it dismantles the conditions necessary to sustain power’s relationship to life. Reproduction is about protecting a future built on the present, the maintenance of what already exists. It’s not power, labour, exploitation; it’s biology. The status quo is presumed indisputable because it is posited as biological fact and they say you can’t change biology—biology is a sovereign state—whole and undivided.
The state metabolises the gut, distending biological processes to include moral qualities—a provider, the giver of subsistence, working in perfect harmony with its constituents for the common good, just as nature intended. Common sustenance is a form of nourishment both literal and ideological. Gut reactions—an instinctual life, an anatomical and therefore natural (read: undisputable) system of governance. A healthy state is both a disposition and a territory. Biological categories are always already metaphorical.
It’s clear that viscera has communicative potential; otherwise it wouldn’t be deemed such a natural and convenient storyteller—its binding of body and feeling—a deep interior knowledge. My Granny used to tease that when I spoke nonsense or frivolity, I was opening my mouth and letting my belly rumble. Viscera’s communicative potential is not denied exactly, but it’s suggested that what it is has to say is somehow unreliable, unsophisticated, ill-conceived and therefore requiring translation or refinement, to be made useful and purposeful by a trusted authority, from someone or something who knows better. Perhaps this kind of communication is considered suspect because it is not simplistic or direct in its intentions—if it has intentions—and so is seen to be withholding what others feel entitled to—not unlike the way some native English speakers are supremely affronted by other languages spoken in their presence.
The human soul was once thought to be situated, not in the brain or heart, but in the guts. The pylorus, to be precise—where the stomach opens into the small intestine. We still talk about the guts as containing the essence of a person; to hate someone’s guts is to hate them to the core, the very fibre of their being. An emotional organ, it is the site of intense and bitter sadness (gutted) and a source from which to summon courage and determination (I didn’t have the guts). Gut reactions are something innate and instinctive, based on feeling, not fact. The physical, material capacities of the body could somehow also communicate some innate, invisible quality.
What I had believed to be an inherent personality trait (misery guts) was recently renamed depression and anxiety—a name used only by outsiders, as if it were a new territory waiting to be discovered, named, chartered and mapped. I went into the Doctor’s office having already decided I needed words, not medication. My problems were cerebral and therefore only accessible by language. Antidepressants would only be a quick fix—a simplification of the issue, as if I were a ledger requiring balancing—just an administrative error. Medication would not treat the problem, only deaden me to the effects of its symptoms through drug induced stupor and insensibility. Antidepressants were the digestible autocrats of big-pharma—they would somehow alter the authentic fibre of my being, my essence of selfhood. I believed that only my head could have an effect on the rest of my body. Despite the fact that I first feel my anxiety churn in my gut, that I’ve vomited from rage and adrenaline, I continued to deny my body’s role in intellectual life.
I was prescribed sertraline—a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). I felt the drug work on my gut, or perhaps my gut work on the drug, long before I could discern its effect on my brain. Enlivened, my guts churned aggressively—I could feel their efforts undulate from the inside out, rippling across the skin of my stomach. I lost my appetite, I vomited, I learned that 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut.
Researchers found that when they transferred the gut cultures from stressed mice into the guts of calm ones, the calm ones quickly became stressed; a cultural shift. In a click bait kind of way The Guardian asked me is everything you think you know about depression wrong? I realised I didn’t know anything about it other than the fact that I had it. The article said that the cure we needed was a culture change—depression is the result of power imbalances, not chemical imbalances. As if culture and circumstance are conditions you’re either impervious to or not. But biological and social cultures assimilate through osmosis, cross-contaminating to form interlinked areas of inquiry. Cultures are the maintenance of a set of conditions that sustain and proliferate particular ways of life.
If stress can inhibit the production of serotonin then perhaps power imbalances might manifest as chemical imbalances? Perhaps a lack of serotonin is a power imbalance. We refer to the cultures in our gut as ‘flora’, a delicate and carefully balanced ecosystem, home to around 100 trillion microbes responsible for the production of neurotransmitters. I do not know this indigenous plant-life, this microbiotic self, but on some level we must at least recognise ourselves in one another in order to distinguish self from intruders, to identify friendly bacteria from bad bugs? This ecology is vulnerable to changes in diet, environmental factors and cognitive functioning; environment can no longer be reliably understood as being outwith the body.
This recent confrontation of my mental health made me reconsider what my natural state, my true character even was? What constitutes the fibre of my being if I am technically more microbe than I am human? Biological essentialism is the belief that an individual’s personality, traits, and qualities are an innate essence rather that the product of culture, circumstance, and environment. This somehow suggests that biology is fixed and unaffected but biology itself denies this reading as it is always in a state of permanent change. The character of the gut evokes the mindedness of all matter, biology is a constituent of selfhood but not its origin, author, or arbiter, in fact, perhaps we could see it as an antagonist to the idea of a protagonist self.
The gut, like the mind, processes information, ruminates, takes in, takes up, absorbs, assimilates, consumes. Long before it came to describe a biological function, ‘digest’ was used to denote a collection of writing - condensed versions of ideas of distributed elsewhere. Writing is a digested thing, a metabolic process. Information is trafficked, circulated, broken down to be recouped and reconstituted in new forms. Reading is necessary for writing—a processing, a transformation, one material assimilated into another.
I feel thoughts in my gut. Gut feelings evade simplistic or easy translation. They may not speak with certitude, but that does not preclude them from speaking truths. Are the only legitimate feelings those that can be communicated linguistically, the ones that can neatly and decisively attribute cause to effect? Not all feeling need be retched into language. It seems that a pathological body is the only body that announces itself, its dialect is not always easily understood but it is always self-determined. Biology often feels like language placed on the body, organs are named, utilities and function are detailed, systems of transit and circulation are mapped. If biology is facts we are told about our bodies, our selves, then writing that does not intend to speak on behalf of the body, but from the body is important; metabolising existing resources into new energies. My body is not just a site of inscription but capable of inscribing new bodies of knowledge.
Metabolise also means to overthrow, to disestablish and breakdown structures, to disrupt traditional interpretations and deeply held assumptions. Not objective facts but subjective truths. Perhaps in this sense, writing can be a diagnostic tool; bodies that are written through, not written about. The body is a fiction we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Reader’s Digest was commissioned by Market Gallery as a response to Reproductive Technologies, a six month reading group and event of the same name that considered how gender, motherhood, and sexual difference emerge within and produce new scientific technologies.
Kirsty Hendry is an artist who produces writing, events, and projects. She is interested in practices of distribution and their relationships to language, identity, and subjectivity. You can find her here and sometimes here.
Thanks to Daisy Lafarge, Suzanne van der Lingen, and Jake Watts.