Breathless in Bristol (3)

Please note that audio files of all the talks given at this conference will be available shortly. Life of Breath PhD student Tina Williams writes:

On the 16th and 17th March, The University of Bristol hosted a conference on phenomenology, anxiety and breath, exploring these three themes as they arise in philosophy, literature, mental health, illness experience and palliative care. The conference began with a fascinating look at breath in the history of philosophy by Michael Lewis, highlighting concerns with Being and its relationship to language and the breath. This included the history of breath as pneuma, Geist, and spirit, as the name for Being (according to Heidegger). Anxiety was explored in relation to breath, speech and encountering Being. Anxiety can indeed be seen as stifling the breath, but actually it robs us of speech as the whole world (Being as such and entities in that world) slips away. Thus, only after the state of anxiety has passed can one discuss the encounter with Being.

Dylan Trigg presented a phenomenology of anxiety in the context of spatial phobias such as agoraphobia (further analysed in his book Topohobia). Anxiety and its relationship with the world can be seen as a boundary disorder in these cases, as the world becomes ‘formless’ and ‘uncanny’. Using a Merleau-Pontian analysis of the ambiguity of the body as both subject and object, Trigg discussed the otherness of the body revealed in anxious experiences and the dual role of the body as that which expresses the anxiety and that which is the object of anxiety. One’s sense of self is ‘contested’ as one becomes alienated from the body in such states.

I discussed anxiety in the history of philosophy in conjunction with psychiatric and psychological practice and policy today. I utilised Kierkegaard and Heidegger on the creative potential of anxious experience and suggested that this side of an uncomfortable but universal experience is often overlooked as we attempt to ‘cure’ the anxious experiences in short-term therapeutic contexts, rather than examine what could be a call to reflect on and potentially change our lives or our ways of relating to others and the world. 

Havi Carel wrapped up the first day, presenting a paper on the shadow of breath, examining three works: ‘The Shadow’, a short story by Hans Christian Anderson; ‘The Intruder‘ by Jean Luc Nancy; and the work of the analytic philosopher Laurie Paul on transformative experience. The ‘shadow’  (the subject of Anderson’s story) can be seen as both the illness, in addition to the actual person (similar to the saying ‘a shadow of their former self’) after the illness or transplant (in the case of ‘The Intruder’). Carel uses Paul’s work to show how transformation takes place in the case of transplant, and how the transplanted organ can be seen as an intruder. The new heart after transplant (in the case of Nancy) is an intruder, as are immunosuppressives and chemotherapy, which are unwelcome and painful.

On the second day of the conference, Petr Kouba opened with further comment on Nancy’s ‘The Intruder‘. He described how medicine and Hippocratic medicine differ, with the latter an art of life rather than the technological stance of modern Western medicine. Hippocratic medicine was concerned with making people feel at home in the world and embodied health via exercise and virtuous conduct. In contrast, technological medicine can be seen as fundamentally alienating, transforming people into intruders no longer at home in the world. When Nancy was betrayed ‘by his own heart’ it became something against him, an intruder bearing death. Medicine offered the remedy here: get rid of the old heart. Of course, the life-saving technological advancement of transplantation in addition to medical ‘intrusion’ does not stop here. Immunity becomes an issue. Immunity expresses a living activity, suppressing those things with heterogeneous origins to retain the fundamental identity of the tissue, organ and/or body. Thus, protecting against foreign bodies is vitally important as a weakened immunity means more intrusion by other viruses and foreignness. Kouba therefore points out that immunity is tied to one’s identity. The price to be paid (reduced immunity) can be seen as a state of reduced identity. Kouba also criticised Heidegger’s account of health and illness in the Zollikon seminars, noting how the adaptation and creative possibilities opened up by responding to the illness are covered over by his privative account.

Ulrika Maude presented a fascinating paper on D.H. Lawrence, Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of illness. This was an appreciation of their work, as well as exploring the similarities between the two on the themes of illness and anxiety. Maude discussed how Merleau-Ponty’s conception of embodiment helps us think about how Lawrence grappled with the body. Lawrence read about physiology and medicine, and many of his novels included talk of the nervous system. Our first consciousness is thought to take place in the nervous system and organs before mental consciousness; hence it becomes appropriate to say that indigestion (for example) disrupts the body and the consciousness. Lawrence often comments on the two modalities of the body: the body as lived and the biological (korper) body and how the relationship between the two affects one’s ability to be oneself. Ordinarily, little is needed for the body to repair itself, and the biological (korper) body can catch up quickly with the habitual, lived body to create an harmonious state. In illness, when the two modalities of the body cannot be completely aligned, a new self is required for the protagonist ‘to be himself or herself’. Anxiety, for Lawrence, or ‘feeling too much’, causes one to get very ill. Indeed, illness was linked to morality (teleologically speaking) for Lawrence: ‘in flesh the wisdom is spoken that the conscious cannot speak’. As Nietzsche argued, suffering has to have meaning: people struggle with the incomprehensibility and intolerability of meaningless suffering. For Lawrence, illness is not a causa sui, as the cause or reason comes from the very self.

Kate Binnie focused on anxiety and breathlessness towards the end of life: the use of breath, body, music and metaphor in palliative care. Her paper embodied the use of these elements in palliative care. She began with a discussion of the depth of time and its relation to the medical encounter. Often at the end of life, those in palliative care struggle to communicate, as they cannot breathe. Indeed, their very features may be altered by the illness, medication, or often by both. Medical practitioners thus do not have a sense of who the person was before, or even is now during brief encounters with them as they approach their death. This alienation can be compounded by the inability to attune to the suffering of the person as they struggle to communicate. Binnie is therefore often called in to visit patients and their family and friends. She explained how she would breathe with dying patients (afferent body-up intervention by breathing with them), rather than the top-down talking, dialogic interventions of CBT and psychological interventions. This relationship is described as ‘two people in a liminal hinterland’, rather than the usual medical or psychological intervention, with a desk separating patient and practitioner and the power imbalance therein implied in the encounter (cf. counsellor Rogers). She played music composed for patients, often with prompts from them from notes when talking was too difficult. This paper displayed the importance of the breath and an empathetic, attuned stance to people unable to breathe properly, who are at the point where medicine can do no more to ‘save’ them (hence palliative care).

The next paper was given by Emiliano Trizio on the transcendental significance of bodily normality and abnormality. Trizio discussed how Husserl worked on the phenomena of abnormality of life and the transcendental significance of the Leib. Indeed, Husserl was the first philosopher of transcendental philosophy to deal with the body. The Leib is the material thing that is also the bearer or the support for the subjective life, and thus has a transcendental significance. We were treated to an interesting exploration of the transcendental phenomenology of Husserl and his work.

Eran Dorfman gave the final presentation, ‘I Have No Air’: On the Double Who Takes My Breath Away. Using ‘The Horla’ by Maupassant, Dorfman looked at the relationship between physical breathlessness and the mental, describing how breathing combines the inner and outer. In respiration, ‘the outer’ is taken into the body. This is often a passive phenomena: we don’t even see our breath, unless it is cold or interspersed with smoke from smoking or vaping, yet this invisible air is full of power e.g. particles in the air causing allergies, coughs and cancers. It is necessary for our lives, powerful and yet full of hidden dangers. Dorfman discussed the importance of the wind ‘as the most powerful force in nature’ for Maupassant: an invisible yet undeniable force. He interwove the themes of the conference with examples such as sleep apnoea and sleep paralysis, and shared his experience of the death of his father. This was an excellent talk that finished the two-day conference expertly.

Thank you to all the speakers and those who were able to attend. 

Leave a Reply