What Is The Purpose of Art?

A while ago I posted about what the definition of art is in an attempt to convince a friend that he was horribly wrong about his conviction that art is simply having an aesthetic experience (which requires more definition anyway). One of his further questions to me is why art needs to be communicative. Perhaps this is an arbitrary way to define art, as is the idea that art needs to have a creator and a receiver.

There are two elements to this follow up, one of which is the historical meaning of words and how our understanding of words does need (at least in part) to draw from the common understanding of that word. Generally this involves the idea that art has a creator and is created to communicate in some fashion. The other element seems to get at something deeper though: what is the purpose of art?

Now it’s possible that art doesn’t need a purpose. Rocks don’t have a purpose, and probably we don’t either. But most people agree that art is at the very least a conscious phenomenon and quite probably a human phenomenon. Most, if not all, things that humans do serve a purpose of some sort. So what is the purpose of art?

There are probably a few main schools of thought here: self expression, communication, or deeper understanding of the world. Representation or decoration are also a possible candidates but most of modern art seems to blow those out of the water (performance art anyone?). The only one of these possibilities that doesn’t require some sort of creator is “deeper understanding”, but that seems to be implying a great deal more about art than either of the other two: it suggests that all art is looking to explore something, and even implies that to be art something must successfully lead to more understanding of the world or of self. This leaves very little room for bad art, or art that simply seeks to inspire or be beautiful.

So the remaining possibilities are self expression or communication. Both of these are incredibly broad purposes and by themselves don’t offer much by way of a definition. Each could encapsulate nearly all of human activity in some fashion or other, and a definition that’s so broad is simply unhelpful and probably not correct because our words do actually have to specify something, or pick something out in contrast to the rest of the world. So of course “purpose” has to come with some description of what the thing actually is, which is where having some sort of physical presence and aesthetic experience differentiate art from other things.

But both of these purposes do have communicative and creative elements. They ask us to be in community with other people in some fashion, to participate with an artist and other viewers. Of course there are some questions about what communicating and creating can mean, but that is at the root of why we have and conceive of art. So what of my friend’s proposed definition that art is something we experience in an aesthetic way?

It is possible that the experience of art is simply a human response to the world, like awe or joy, and that we began creating our own art in order to capture that feeling. There may be no way to know entirely what purpose art serves for us, but one underlying problem with this suggestion is the wide variety of types of experiences people have in response to art, up to and including nothing. If aesthetic experience were a natural part of the human experience like other emotions, we could expect to see it in a more consistent fashion across people and cultures.

The question of why we make art can help us understand a little more about what art itself is, and it seems to me that it indicates the use of including a communicative element in our definition. Additionally, in terms of how we functionally use the term “art” we most often use it to point to objects that another human being has created. When it comes to language, we do have to take into account the actual practical usage of a term, not simply what we ideally would like a term to mean. We can’t simply ignore that the most common usages of the word “art” include the implication of an artist who is communicating something with their art.

What Is Art?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what made something art. At the time I didn’t have a good definition, but when he gave his proposed answer I was unsatisfied.

“A work of art is something we have an aesthetic experience with” he suggested.

“So a sunset could be a work of art?”

“Yes.”

I was unconvinced. Let’s start at what might be the most basic level of definition. Art must be an artifact, some sort of physical object or experience. This seems like something we can all agree on, but modern art has taken even that firm footing out from under us:

John Cage’s 4′33″, have seemed to many philosophers to lack or even, somehow, repudiate, the traditional properties of art: intended aesthetic interest, artifactuality, even perceivability” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A work of art that is composed of silence seems to call into question whether art needs to be an artifact or an object at all. Yet even with 4’33’, it does seem that there is a physical context (either of a CD or a performer seated in front of the audience) that is the art itself rather than simply the silence (silence without this context is not viewed as art). So perhaps we can accept that a physical presence of some sort is required for something to be art.

But not any physical experience or object is art (obviously). What distinguishes the computer I’m typing on from a work of art? Or is my lovely little Macbook Air a work of art (the answer is of course yes)? A few possible answers include beauty, communication of or embodiment of emotions, mimetic properties, or aesthetic experience. Beauty is fairly easy to take off the table as many works of art are disturbing, grotesque or straight out ugly intentionally. Perhaps there is a kind of beauty in the emotions we experience in relation to this art, but at least conventionally, beauty is not the mark of a great number of amazing works of art (this also has the problem that beauty is nearly impossible to define).

Art as communication appears to be faring better until you hit something like Duchamp’s Fountain or John Cage’s 4’33”, both of which appear to be anti-communication and simply designed to make one think. A great deal of modern art appears to be less focused on emotional and experiential communication and more on criticism and engagement, and there is little doubt for most people that modern art is in fact art. Additionally, this definition may be too broad in other ways in that it could include any expression of emotion (such as declaring one’s happiness). Additionally, not all art communicates: some art is simply representational (or may only be experienced as representational by the untrained eye). Could the Mona Lisa become not art if viewed by someone who simply saw it as a representation of a woman? It seems unlikely. There does seem to be something important in the communication view of art that should be included in any definition of art: it is intentional on the part of the artist. The viewer may not take away from the art exactly what the artist intended (as is true of any communication), but there is a give and take in art: it is put forth by someone and received by someone.

“A storm may prompt us to question the best way to avoid a shipwreck, but it is we (and not the storm) who are raising the question.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide. This suggests that the object or artifact in question doesn’t have any properties that are “art”, but the viewer is imbuing the object with art qualities.

Some people go so far as to suggest that a work of art can actually embody emotions. They suggest that even if no one involved in the work of art (the creator or the viewer) were feeling any particular emotion, it would still hold that emotion (e.g. Joy for Ode to Joy). From the perspective of modern neuroscience, emotions as we know them are a uniquely human kind of thing: they are experienced thanks to the reactions in our brains and the physical reactions of our bodies. To suggest that an inanimate object might embody a human experience makes little to no sense. This suggests another piece of the definition of art: it is not inherent in the object but comes about through the interactions of the artist and the audience.

A great deal of art clearly has mimetic properties: it is meant to represent or reflect something in the world. Unfortunately this definition can’t handle abstract art, or even art like Fountain which is not so much a representation as it actually is the object it’s meant to represent. But there are some ways in which all art seeks to represent something. “Works of art function more like different linguistic statements that reference objects, rather than mirrors that offer us a reflection of what we might otherwise see directly without the aid of a mirror.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide

It seems there might be a Wittgensteinian route to take here in the realm of language games: “A common family of arguments, inspired by Wittgenstein’s famous remarks about games (Wittgenstein, 1953), has it that the phenomena of art are, by their nature, too diverse to admit of the unification that a satisfactory definition strives for, or that a definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

In a Wittgensteinian conception of language, words do not have singular definitions but a series of ways that we use them in context that are considered successful if someone else can respond (deduce the rules of the game as it were). Perhaps in art we use images or symbols or context to put together a kind of artistic utterance that the people around us can interpret based on the other ways that those things have been used in the past, learned from a family of common definitions.

So perhaps there is no one clear definition of art, and we learn what art is by experiencing art and continuing that definition on to other things with similar characteristics, not all of which overlap. This also seems unsatisfactory, so let’s instead move to the definition that started all this: aesthetic experience.

The first and most difficult question to answer is what is an aesthetic experience? Taliaferro suggests “To have an aesthetic experience, one needs to step back or detach oneself from the urgency and practical preoccupations of life.” The Stanford Encyclopedia further states “As noted above, some philosophers lean heavily on a distinction between aesthetic properties and artistic properties, taking the former to be perceptually striking qualities that can be directly perceived in works, without knowledge of their origin and purpose, and the latter to be relational properties that works possess in virtue of their relations to art history, art genres, etc.”

There is some tension between these two definitions: one suggests something that takes us out of ourselves and the other something that inspires a reaction due to perception. There is a problem with both of these suggestions though, in that either of them could happen in reaction to something in nature with no reference to an artist, communication, or context.

But since the concept of the aesthetic necessarily involves the equally bankrupt concept of disinterestedness, its deployment advances the illusion that what is most real about things can and should be grasped or contemplated without attending to the social and economic conditions of their production.” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An additional problem here is that there are actually many practical objects that also could be considered art (Shaker furniture, African masks, religious icons), and because they can also be used practically we would be hard pressed to suggest they pull us out of our immediate practical preoccupations. Perhaps there is a way to combine the two definitions: an aesthetic experience is one that through striking qualities moves us outside of our own perspective. This gives us the benefits of not simply asking us to be disinterested but of asking us to expand our view, and of being slightly more specific than either of the previous definitions.

So thus far, art must be an artifact that is imbued with some sort of communicative properties through an artist and a viewer/recipient, which inspires us to move outside of our own perspective through perceptually striking qualities. Oof. That’s a mouthful, but it seems to be both specific and broad enough to capture most of the things we typically consider art.

A final few considerations to take into account: there are probably contexts in which a curator can become an artist by moving an object or a picture to a different context. They add in the communicative elements that wouldn’t exist simply by seeing something stunning in nature and being aware of your size or place in the world. The problem with this is that context can often be intensely political. When we view art as defined by the “artworld” (which is a definition some philosophers have proposed), we give a lot of power to the establishment of old, white men who already have power in art. We lose a variety of voices and tell those who come from different places that they cannot make art because they don’t have access to the proper curators or contexts. Hopefully, the previous definition is open enough that it allows a variety of contexts to serve as the vehicle for communication, opening art up for anyone who has something to communicate or anyone who wants to expand their perception.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any pieces of art that wouldn’t fit in this definition, or things that you definitively don’t think are art which would fit? Let me know!

Suicide and Rationality

The ethics of death and dying are complex and emotional, but also incredibly important. For most young adults, questions about death are interesting mind games: puzzles that you can play with and then put away for a while. This is not the case for people (like me) who have been or are suicidal. I like to fancy myself a rational individual (or as rational as an individual can hope to be in any given circumstance), but common wisdom holds that suicidality, particularly suicidality if one has depression, is irrational.

I’m not going to say that I’m pro or anti suicide here. This isn’t the place for a discussion of the morality of suicide. But I do want to talk about what it means to be rational and whether or not someone with a mental illness can accurately evaluate their life in a rational way.

Statistically speaking, if someone attempts suicide and lives through it, they are likely to indicate that they’re glad they are still alive. Mental illness absolutely can amplify the hopelessness of a situation and make it appear that things will never improve. People with severe depression tend to underestimate their ability to feel happy and overestimate all the things that will make them unhappy. Most of us would define this as the essence of irrationality: you cannot accurately see your own circumstances and you cannot make educated guesses about the future because of a skewed view of the cost/benefit analysis of your life. Rationality is about seeing facts without being skewed by emotion, and mental illness tends to create an emotional lens through which all facts are viewed.

So at first glance, it appears that suicide while in the midst of a mental illness is wholly irrational: it’s seeing a skewed version of the world and then acting on it as if it were objective. But I wouldn’t be writing this if it were so simple and clear cut. While it’s easy to simply see mental illness as a distortion of reality, what we often ignore is the intense pain and struggle that comes along with it, as well as the difficulty of recovering and the chronic nature of many mental illnesses. For someone who is in the midst of a mental illness, most decisions have to involve a consideration of the amount of mental pain or difficulty involved.

Especially for chronic conditions or personality disorders, this also means taking into account the fact that their mental health will likely be a struggle in the future. This is a very real and rational consideration: ignoring the impact of a chronic mental health condition when thinking about how to structure the future would be wholly irrational because it ignores a fact about reality and about an individual’s ability to cope.

To take this into the context of suicide, if an individual is struggling with a mental illness, it may be rational to look at the amount of pain that their illness causes in their life and decide that on balance, the good isn’t worth it. For some people whose conditions are temporary it’s probably a good idea to recognize the transience of the suicidal feelings, but as previously mentioned, chronic and personality disorders are likely to affect (and cause harm) throughout an individual’s entire life.

I see this as recognizing that you will most likely have a skewed vision of the world indefinitely and that the skewed vision of the world is painful. In that way it is recognizing the reality of your situation. Where this gets really complicated is in trying to figure out the likelihood of recovery. One of the trademarks of something like depression is the inability to imagine anything other than a life with depression. Trying to determine with any amount of rationality the likelihood that your mental illness will persist, the suckiness of your mental illness, and the amount of that suckiness that you can reasonably live through is a challenge for even the most rational individual.

Obviously suicide is highly contextual and the rationality or irrationality of the act is dependent on the individual and the life they’re living. But it does not seem out of line to me to imagine someone with serious mental illness deciding in a completely rational way that their mental illness has made their life more painful than it’s worth. Having a mental illness does not necessarily imply that your decisions are irrational.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that rational or irrational is an appropriate criterion for whether something is a moral and good decision so please no one go off and hurt yourself on the basis of this post.

The Ethics of Unplugging Your Computer

Because CONvergence is largely a fan convention, many of the panels offered involve panelists whose qualifications are “I was really excited about this topic”. Sometimes this means that you end up with a very interesting variety of perspectives, but unfortunately sometimes it makes for panels with unprepared and uninformed panelists. One of these that I attended this weekend was “When Is Turning Off a Computer Murder?”  The concept of this panel (when and how might a computer reach a state of consciousness on par with personhood) was fascinating. The execution less so.

So for that reason, I’m going to explore what makes something eligible for ethical consideration, connect those concepts with sentience and consciousness, and see if we know anything about whether or not machines have reached these stages yet.

Let’s start with the concept of murder, since the title of the panel looks at when we think a being deserves moral consideration. There is a great deal of argument within ethical spheres over what kind of beings deserve moral consideration. Religious ethics often tends to afford human beings a special consideration simply by dint of being part of the species. However most ethical systems have a slightly more objective criterion for ethical consideration. Some ethical systems believe that being alive constitutes enough of a reason to let something keep living, others suggest sentience, others consciousness, others self consciousness. I personally tend towards Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism, which suggests that we shouldn’t cause any unnecessary pain, and that if something has a preference or interest in remaining alive, we shouldn’t kill it.

Even more complex is the fact that we have different standards about what types of beings we shouldn’t harm and which types of beings we should hold responsible for their actions. So for example, many people feel as if we shouldn’t kill animals but they do not feel that animals should be held morally responsible for killing each other.

I doubt we’re going to reach any conclusions about what types of beings deserve moral consideration and what exactly constitutes murder, especially considering the fact that the animal rights debates are still raging with a fiery intensity, but we can at least potentially place computers and machines somewhere in the schema that we already have for living beings. For more conversation on what personhood might be and who deserves moral consideration, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Center of Ethics at U of Missouri.

But let’s start at the very beginning of moral consideration: living things.

The current characteristics that we use to classify something as “living” include internal organization, using energy, interaction with environment, and reproduction. All of these things are things that machines have been able to do, so it doesn’t seem off base to consider some machines as “alive”, at least in some way. Some people may assert that because computers can’t reproduce or replicate in an organic way they are not alive, but this seems at odds with the ways we treat human beings who cannot reproduce (hint: they don’t suddenly become non humans). One important element of being alive that we usually take into consideration when thinking of ethics is pain: hurting things is bad. The question of whether or not computers can feel pain is wrapped up in the questions of consciousness that will be discussed later.

The next level of moral consideration is usually sentience. Most people use the words “sentient” and “conscious” fairly interchangeably, and one of the difficulties with the panel was that neither of these terms was defined. Typically, sentient simply means capable of sensing and responding to the world. Under this definition, computers have definitely reached a level of sentience, although their senses differ from human senses (this is not a problem as far as sentience goes. There are certainly sentient animals, such as dolphins or bats, that have senses like echolocation that humans do not).

Here’s where it starts to get complicated: consciousness. Trying to define consciousness is a little bit like making out with a sea slug: it’s slippery and uncomfortable and you’re not entirely sure why you’re doing it. But unlike sea slugs, consciousness is an integral part of our experience of the world and is highly relevant to our moral choices, so we probably should spend some time grappling with it and hoping it doesn’t wriggle out of our fingers (side note: my brother did once kiss a sea slug).

There are lots of things that make consciousness tough to pin down. The first of these is that depending upon what we’re trying to talk about or the context in which we’re speaking, the way we define consciousness changes. The entry on consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists six different ways to define consciousness*:

1. Sentience

2. Wakefulness

3. Self-consciousness

4. What it is like

5. Subject of conscious states

6. Transitive consciousness (being conscious of something)

Some of these are clearly more relevant for moral considerations than others (we don’t generally consider wakefulness relevant in our moral decisions). We’ve already touched on sentience, but let’s take some time to examine the other possible definitions and how we could determine whether or not computers have them.

Self-consciousness is often a test for whether or not something should have moral standing. It’s often used as an argument for why we should afford more consideration to animals like dolphins and chimps. Currently, we use the mirror test to determine whether or not an animal is self conscious. This test is not perfect though, as self consciousness is an inner awareness of one’s own thoughts. It relies on meta cognition, inner narrative, and a sense of identity. This points to one of the serious challenges of understanding consciousness, which is that we cannot understand it simply by using “objective” data: it requires both first and third person data because it is a subjective state.

With those caveats, there is a robot who has passed the mirror test. This is a good indication that it has some sense of self awareness. What it doesn’t give us information about is “what it is like”, which is the next possible definition of consciousness. This suggestion is championed by Thomas Nagel (who is really one of the more fantastic philosophers writing today). The best example of this is Nagel’s classic essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat” (that title alone is one of the reasons I loved majoring in philosophy), in which Nagel explores the idea of experiencing the world as a bat and posits that the consciousness of a bat is the point of view of being a bat. This may seem tautological, but it gets at the idea that consciousness is a subjective experience that cannot be witnessed or entirely understood from an external perspective. We can have some cross subjective understandings of consciousness and experience between beings that are quite similar, but (as an example) we as humans are simply not equipped to know what it is like to be a bat.

Nagel says of consciousness: “It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons”. We can see the “objective” facts about an experience, but not the point of view of that experience (Nagel goes into much greater detail on this subject in “The View From Nowhere”, an exploration of the fact that an objective point of view will always be missing some information because it will never know what it’s like to be situation subjectively).

While “what it is like” seems to make an intuitive sense in terms of consciousness, it doesn’t have a whole lot of explanatory of power about what it is that we’re actually experiencing when we’re conscious, nor does it point us towards a way to find out whether or not other things have a way that it is like to be.

The next potentially useful definition is “Subject of conscious states”. This doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information without definitions of potential conscious states, but luckily we can glean some of these from the elements that many of the definitions of consciousness have in common. These point towards the quality of conscious states, although are not those states themselves. They include but are not limited to qualitative character, phenomenal structure, subjectivity, self-perspectival organization, intentionality and transparency, and dynamic flow. Briefly, these are as follows:

Qualitative character: This is the point at which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy started using the word “feels”, which really just made my day in researching this blog post. Another, more pretentious word for “feels” is of course qualia. This is deeply related to Nagel’s “what it is like” and points at that experience, the quality of senses, thoughts, and feelings.

Phenomenal structure: Phenomenal structure is one of the few elements of consciousness that appears to be uniquely human. It is the ability not only to have experiences and recognize experiences, but to situate those experiences in a larger network of understanding. It refers to the frameworks we use to understand things (e.g. not simply using our senses but having associations and intentions and representations that come from our sensory input).

Subjectivity: Closely related to the previous two concepts, subjectivity is the access to the experience of consciousness.

Self perspectival organization: this is a ridiculously long way of saying a unified self identity that is situated in the world, perceives, and experiences. This again exists on a spectrum (not all of us can be fully self-actualized ya know?).

Intentionality and transparency: we aren’t immediately aware of our experience of perceiving/thinking/feeling: rather we experience/think/perceive a THING.

Dynamic flow: This is a great deal like learning or growing, however it is something more: it means that we don’t experience the world as discrete, disconnected moments in time but rather that our consciousness is an ongoing process.

It seems quite possible for a computer to have some of these elements but not all of them. I would not be surprised if at some point computers developed a qualitative character, but having a phenomenal structure seems less likely (at least until they begin to develop some sort of robot culture bent on human destruction). This would give us a spectrum of consciousness, which maps quite well onto our understanding of the moral standing of non human animals. Again, different people would have different moral feelings at different places along the spectrum: some humans have no qualms about killing dolphins which almost certainly have consciousness, while others are disturbed by even killing insects.

The most relevant definitions of consciousness appear to be “self awareness”, “what it is like”, and “subject of conscious states”. It seems to me that the latter two are really  just different ways of expressing each other since most of the conscious states that we can identify are quite similar to “what it is like”. In that case, it seems that in order to be the most relevant for ethical consideration, a being would have to be self aware and also have an experience of living or conscious states.

Unfortunately there is no real way to determine this because that is an experience, a subjective state that we can never access. At some point we may simply have to trust the robots when they tell us they’re feeling things. This may seem unscientific, but we actually do it every day with other human beings: we have no solid proof that other human beings are experiencing emotions and consciousness and feelings in the same way that we do. They behave as if they do, but that behavior does not necessarily require an inner life. It is much easier to make the leap to accepting human consciousness than robot consciousness because the mental lives of other humans seem far more parallel to our own: if my brain can create these experiences, it makes perfect sense that another, similar brain can do the same.

At the point at which computers start expressing desires is when I will start to have qualms over turning off my computer, but as a preference utilitarian, this is the consideration that I try to give all beings.

 

 

*These definitions are what SEP calls “creature consciousness”, or ways that an animal or person might be considered conscious. It also looks at “state consciousness”, which are mental states that could be called “conscious”. These are clearly related, but in this case creature consciousness is more relevant to determining whether we can call a computer “conscious” or worthy of moral consideration.

Stronger Than The Pills: Dependence and Identity

I was talking the other day with a friend about how people can act completely differently around their significant others. Some people are super bothered by that. “They’re not being themselves!” these hypothetical people whine. “They’re changing!” There are a lot of people who argue that you shouldn’t allow other people to change who you are, that you should “be yourself”.

My friend and I went back and forth for a while about what this meant for your “real” self, but by the end of the conversation we had mostly agreed that everything we do and everyone we interact with affects our brain. Brains are malleable things, and there’s evidence that (especially when we’re young) even single interactions can have impacts for years to come. Relatedly, we all adjust our behavior and self based on context. We change our clothes when we go to work, our language changes based on who we’re around. When there are different inputs and contexts, our “self” has to adapt. This is part of being a successful and functional human being.

Brains tend less to be like a static identity and more like a processor: we have ways that our brains like to interpret things or respond to things, but there is always something there to interpret, there’s always stimuli coming in that will make slight adjustments to our processors. So it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal if you choose to be around someone who affects your processor.

What does this have to do with pills you might ask?

Well some of those things that people say about relationships that affect your personality are things that people say about pills. I’ve been listening almost nonstop to Neon Trees for a few weeks and one of their lyrics says “I’m stronger than the pills”. I’m so done with phrases like this. They imply that anything that affects your brain chemistry is a crutch, a cheat, a way out of being you.

The biggest problem with this is that just like a relationship that affects the way you act, there is no integral self to interrupt. “Self” is choosing which inputs you would like. There’s really no way we can figure out what we’re like without the influence of our environment and the food we eat and the sleep we get and the people we talk to and the job we have (see: Judith Butler). We’ve got influences from the moment we’re conceived. This is not to say that there aren’t some elements of personality and self that stay consistent across time, just that it’s silly to imagine that you can have a pristine, untouched self that would be horribly tainted forever by the introduction of meds.

Strength is knowing what allows you to behave positively and functionally and choosing to put yourself under that influence: because you will never be without influence. “Being true to yourself” is about what you choose to surround yourself with. Changing our inputs is part of how we remain independent. Unless you cannot choose to change your inputs, you are always stronger than they are.

Another issue some people have with meds or serious relationships is dependence. They don’t want to have to rely on something external to themselves. I hate to break it to you all but we’re all dependent on things that are external to us. we’re dependent on food and on sleep for god’s sake, and those things affect our brain chemistry and biology. There are things we need each and every day, whether that is a medication or 20 minutes of alone time or running or food or a book or your Facebook. We’re dependent on the world around us. And all of these things affect your brain in ways similar to your relationship or your drugs.

It doesn’t feel nice to realize how dependent you are on external things, how fragile you are. And when you’re dependent on things that others aren’t dependent on (like pills), it’s a reminder over and over that we have to choose our inputs but that we don’t get to choose whether or not there are inputs. That can be scary. It can feel like you have no control over your Self. But you do. You get to choose (to some extent) what things affect your Self. You get to choose whether to sleep enough or work a shitty, stressful job, or eat healthy, or be around validating people, or whatever it might be that turns you into a processing machine or a bumbling Windows ’95.

That’s all the power you get. So yes, your identity will be dependent on your pills. It might change who you are a bit. But that’s ok. Because everything and everyone you encounter does. If you don’t like how you change then you get a choice: you can continue to depend on it or you can move away from it. But if you want to stop being influenced, if you want your identity to be pure and unadulterated you, then you’re pretty much just going to have to die because that’s the only way you stop being influenced.

Making choices to change yourself so you don’t act like a dick is not selling out: it’s being an adult.

 

Assorted Poetry (TW: Self Harm, Eating Disorders, Ennui)

Note: No one freak out about mentions of symptom use. These are all just capturing feelings, not literal.

 

 

Last night I took a blade to my skin

Blood letting for the soul

The foul humors escape.

There is more life within me than the flimsy walls of my body can contain

Bursting and breaking through in fits

A quick slice so much easier

Draining an abscess

 

Have you ever felt a nostalgia so melancholy your breath flees?

Or fallen in love with the golden caricatures of humanity?

Do you walk the streets in the twilight, breathing in the scents of rain and promise

And wonder if you could live forever?

Have you ever run your hands over your body and wondered

How easy it would be to rip it open

off

just for the freedom?

 

Sometimes when I love too hard, I refuse food

A quiet prayer that my body disappear

To give me more space to stretch and love you more deeply.

Did you know that a body can burst if you fill it with enough loves?

 

Some girls bend their bodies into contortions, hoping to confuse the fire within

into fading out

Their skin paper thin

They glow as lanterns

Until they concoct an emptiness to kill the flames.

Their insides were yearning for people, for places

So they replaced passion with need

for size 2, for vodka, for death

And now their skin simply crinkles, hollow

 

I let the heat bleed out of me when I can’t carry the weight

But I can breathe flames on days I am strong enough to stand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A single face, glimpsed

A face that might be the face of one I once loved

is enough to leave me shaking with nostalgia

 

At night my feet know that it’s time to leave

but my mind has no destination.

My heart supplies the names of everyone I have every shown myself to

truly

and my feet anxiously trip through memory and longing

 

I can’t escape the way that feeling so much is always pain

And the flood of insecurities that returns with each face

I am sitting alone in the dark

The razor blades of my eyes cutting over each ounce of fat

And everyone I’ve ever loved is not here

Object permanence has escaped me, and they are lost

 

I am more, I am more than ennui

I could be more, and perhaps I could collect each face for good.

But I am already too much

And they cannot fit into my long list of labels.

I cannot chase lost souls.

Hierarchies of Eating Disorders: A Spiritual Perspective

If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.

There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.

Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.

Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.

She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal.  She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).

However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).

These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.

Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.

Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.

This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.

On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.

And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.

While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.