Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down : Some seasonal reflections on body politics

The well known nursery rhyme flashed into  my mind as I pitched forward onto the wet pavement, instinctively putting my right hand out to break my  fall. No it was’nt a serious as the  Black Death, but neither was the searing pain in my right shoulder a benign memento of a children’s counting out game,  to take the two dominant interpretations of  Ring a Ring of Roses nursery  rhyme. I could do the  sneezing  part all right as I had a ferocious cold but later in the A & E , where they diagnosed a fractured humerus, that seemed the least of my concerns.

I do not regard myself as accident prone but over the past few years for various reasons I have become something of a connoisseur of A & E departments. St Thomas’s was definitely a cut above the rest. Of course it had its  cast of stock characters: the alcoholic in residence who spent his time shouting obscenities at passing nurses, the woman giving an all too graphic description of her injured thumb to a long suffering friend (or was it an imaginary companion, as there was no pause in her lyric flow) “and  where the nail was there’s just a purple gash with the blood oozing out, and strips of skin hanging off like icicles..” There  was the usual assemblage of wrecked humanity,  most of them conspicuously poor, both young and old, and much the worse for the wear and tear of their daily encounters with a  hostile or indifferent world.

What made St Thomas’ different from the  other hospitals  was its combination of procedural efficiency and tactical care. The nurse in reception realised I was in a state of shock and promptly organised pain killers and a cup of hot sweet tea,  before expediting me to X ray. After that came the Big Wait, until around 2.am I was seen by a middle aged Polish lady doctor who gave me a rather world weary look and a lecture about not drinking too much. Quite how she had got the idea that I had fallen over because I was drunk, I have no idea. Maybe she just assumed that anyone with ‘writer’ down as their occupation would have a natural disposition  to compete with Dylan Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote,  just to mention a few of my favourite  literary lushes.  At any rate it made me think that I had better dream up some more or less heroic cover story  to disguise the all too mundane circumstances under which my bodily auto pilot had crashed while navigating some slippery cobblestones. So had I injured my shoulder bringing down an armed robber with a rugby tackle outside  the Co-Op Bank? Or perhaps I had been beaten up by a gang of thugs dressed  as policeman – this  version at least had the street cred of actually having  happened to me.

Sadly there was no getting away from the fact that the whole regrettable episode  was a dress rehearsal for the infirmities and indignities of old age: needing help with dressing, having your food cut up for you, the general loss of  facility  with one’s body, disrupting the  taken for granted easy intimacies of its daily care, a premonition of the end game I had already experienced with  my  dad who is now 100, blind and suffering from serious dementia.

Cue for  displays of stoicism, fortitude, resilience and coping, those weasel words which cover a host of equivocations. So as a paid up member  of the Islington Grin and Bear it Club I have now bought a poncho from Top Shop and  become of  one of this season’s fashionistas, even without the Clint Eastwood look.  I have also started to write emails with one finger of my left hand so they came out looking

like

an ee

cummings

poem

with (out)

the funny bits

at     the           end

On the same principle I have learnt how to shave all over again with my left hand.  My  new diet is spoon fed , I  avoid toast  and  rare steaks and anything in tins. Worse still I have broken the habit of a life time and now   gently tap the shell of my boiled egg with a spoon to gain entry, rather than vigorously slicing its head off with a knife,  thus becoming one  of those crypto- veggies who, like Freud,  equate eating with oral sadism.  I have even  joined the Boy Scouts, being only able to do a left to left  handshake and, at last, many years after reading Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, I have heard  the sound of one hand clapping..

All well and good, but hang on a moment. I try to confine my  macho-masochism to watching England play cricket, rugby or football. I have never thought of pain and suffering as more than an inevitable and unpleasant part of the human condition  to be minimised as far as possible, like mosquito bites or academic bores. I have never be able to understand that version of Christianity which sees something redemptive about suffering, or worse still, regards it as   self -inflicted punishment for failing to walk the straight and narrow path to salvation. The wages of sin may be death, but as someone who takes delight in wandering off the beaten track, I think it is about time God gave us  wayward travellers a pay rise, and realised that without  sinners He and his followers would  be out of a job. A free ticket  to ride on Blake’s  Road of Excess that leads to the Palace of Wisdom would do just fine…

In the meantime I have had to make do with a much restricted regime of pleasure, and an exploration of just what the fearful asymmetry  of  mind and body actually amounts to.  Neuroscience tells us that the left hemisphere of the brain  controls the right hand and arm, and the right hemisphere the left. Lateral specialisation is specific to hominids and has evolutionary value, although there is disagreement as to the cause. Some argue that right handedness became dominant because women hunters used  their left arm to hold their babies close to their bosom and heartbeat, so they could use  their right for hurling rocks, or later, spears  at  passing animals  or menfolk. Others have suggested  that the left hemisphere, and hence right arm, is  better adapted to performing precise movements with tools, for the purposes of drawing, writing or fashioning artefacts. No –one has explained why that situation is reversed for people whose left hand is dominant and does most of the work. Even so,  it turns out  that right handed people’s left hands  play quite an active role; in fact  they are a bit like the sidekick or foil  in a comic duo, who feeds  the lines that enables  the  dominant partner to deliver the punch lines. Our left hand  always knows what our right hand is planning to do, even though it appears to be quite ’hands off’  while   the right hand is so busy doing its hands- on thing that it quite forgets to acknowledge this supporting role.

Its a perfect double act, but when the dominant  hand is for some reason put out of action, its accomplice  suddenly find itself having to do a whole lot of tasks for which it is ill equipped. My left hand, let’s call it Stan ( as in Laurel), is no longer on speaking terms with Ollie (aka Hardy), who is furious at the sudden loss of power. They are   seriously out of synch and sulking,  in revolt against this newly imposed  division of labour. Stan never though he would have to wipe my bum, that is Ollie’s job, and Ollie resents Stan taking over  the clever stuff, like cutting  toe nails  or typing on a keyboard to write this.

Hands,of course are multi-taskers, they stroke and caress, they slap and tickle, they catch balls and chuck  bombs,  they clench  themselves into fists and grab what they  can get away with,  they are capable of the most sublime gestures and the most hateful. Shoulders on the other hand (sic)  have a much more restricted repertoire. They are not so  laterally specialised, and   they mostly  work in tandem. Ever tried hunching one shoulder, or trying to give an impression of off handedness by  shrugging the left shoulder and not the right?  Even giving someone the cold shoulder, which seems to imply that the other one is hot, or at least more warmly disposed, turns out  be more metaphor than model of how this part of the body works. As proof of this,  I have no problem with doing a  two shoulder shrug, but cannot move  my right hand to synchronise with the left’s upward movement  which usually accompanies  the gesture, especially if you are Jewish. What use is an ‘Oy’ without  a ‘Vay’ when it comes to kvetching, and what better excuse for complaining about ill fortune  than an accident which costs you an arm or a leg?

Perhaps it is this apparent symmetry that has made our shoulders  such  beasts of burden. Ever since Atlas undertook to bear  the weight of the world on them, shoulders have been  allotted the task of carrying  out the most onerous  civic duties. While  Homo Faber  developed handicraft skills, Animal Laborans was condemned to  put his shoulder to the wheel of industry and use brute  bio-energy to keep the forces of production in business. Even today when manual labour, like the form of masculinity it  gave rise to, is more or less redundant, or sublimated in various kinds of athleticism, we still routinely talk about putting old  heads on young shoulders, as if the putative wisdom of age could somehow  be appropriated and lighten rather than  intensify the burden  imposed on each new generation to carry the hopes  of its  parents and  predecessors.

It is partly  because shoulders  give such a good impression  of  even handedness  that we  fail to recognise the profound asymmetry at work  in co-ordinating our  movements behind the scenes, unless our attention is drawn to it.  The one per cent of the population who are genuinely ambidextrous  are the object of curiosity, but rarely of admiration or envy. We had one boy at our school who could bat as well left handed as right, he was quite an asset in confusing the bowlers of the opposing team, but  privately, behind his back, he was regarded as a bit of a freak. I think this ambivalence must be   put down to the subliminal recognition it is our very lopsidedness that confers competitive advantage  and has evolutionary value, although symmetry continues to rule Ok in terms of our appreciation of  human beauty and its  physical features.

As soon as we move from physical to moral anatomy, from the aesthetics of body imagery  to the  ethics of the body politic it is a very different story. Now all the latent antinomies emerge into view.Here is a simple inventory of the binary attributes of left and right handedness  whose normative power is exercised   through  a whole range of  social, cultural and political institutions:

LEFT                                                          RIGHT

Profane                                                   Sacred

Sinister                                                    Benign

Ill fated                                                   Fortunate

Impure                                                        Pure

Gauche                                                   Adroit

Slow                                                           Quick

Weak                                                        Strong

So  who in their right mind would be a leftie? It  has been easy  enough  to  find consolation for this unjust distribution of connotations by tracing the historical provenance and evolution of the left/right distinction within   the field of political  discourse.  But today we are faced with the  possible obsolescence of these terms, in a world where the  association of the Left  with forces of   Progress and Modernity  and the Right with Reaction and the Ancien Regime  can no longer  be taken for granted and no longer has the same purchase on  the sociological imagination of the future. Under these circumstances  we can expect a certain regression from the ideological polarities inscribed in the body politic  to an asymmetric  moral economy anchored in a more primordial  set of relations to the body and its Other scene.

We are already familiar with how this  economy works. We  get a perverse sado-masochistic kick out of watching slapstick comedy routines,  safe in the knowledge that  the trading of insults and even blows does not lead to permanent physical or moral injury. Translated from the idiom of body language into the realm of  political aesthetics we arrive at the notion of Concordia Discors, whose organising principles were first spelt out by Alexander Pope    in the  early 18th century  and which have been re-iterated  in one form or another ever since:

Not chaos, like together crush’d and bruised

But as the world, harmoniously confused

Where order in variety we see

And where, tho all things differ, all agree.

This notion of   ‘harmonious confusion’, of a  reconciliation between  principles of symmetry and asymmetry, whether in power  or exchange relations, has been a  key  element in  reaching ideological consensus  around issue of governance. If there is to be a re-enchantment of politics as an arena  of  popular democratic action in which  the struggle for social justice is  even handed  – and not just a lopsided  project of  revenge –  then it will have to  free itself  once and for all from its  dependency on  such organic constructs. But how do we  shoulder the  responsibility  of creating such an alternative  space of representation  when it is so much easier to shrug  it  off as just another utopian project, or worse still, a ‘post capitalist’ attempt  to put Humpty Dumpty  back together again after his great economic  fall.

The fact is that  all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (aka the  IMF,World Bank, EU) cannot fix the coming crisis of profitability  and mass precarity ushered in by the global  informatics economy.  There will be no shortage of neo-labourist proposals for  mending  the  broken   system, and in the short term perhaps that is the best chance the Left has of constructing an electoral majority. But in the long run,  we have to find the common resources to imagineer a  future beyond the chaotic synchronicities  of capital  and  learn to live by metaphors  of resistance  other than  those offered by  the natural symbolisms of the body, however ‘ crushed and bruised’ .  Instead of   alternating  between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ models   of change which only underwrite their  common  bio-political template of hierarchised function,   we need  to invent a new transversal  language, neither cerebral  or scatological,  to articulate a vision of  everything that matters in between. At the very least  that task  should keep me busy  over Christmas while I wait for normal service to be resumed.