Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.
Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.
But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.
This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.
But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.
Something about this moment, when this familiar, existentially invisible object throws itself into a sudden assertion of being has always struck me. On one level, it reminds me of Sartre’s own treatment of strange objects in Nausea, writing:
“Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts.”
I doubt many feel this “unbearable” sense every time objects suddenly assert this more alien, uncontextualized sense of being, but I think a similar shock or recognition occurs for many at times, particularly with the body or more intimate objects, suddenly throw once-invisible patterns together or recede from comprehensibility and familiarity.
As Lindgren draws from Drew Leder, the everyday, “healthy” body often recedes from experience, contributing to the conceptual power of Cartesian dualism. But when the body grows ill–when it breaks, if I may bring in the imagery of the hammer–a split may take place, and one gets “a sense of the body as an other to the self” (Lindgren 149). But as Lindgren articulates, via Merleu-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology, “the body can never be an object like other objects,” as we are part of it (149). Though we may feel like we “have” a body, we “are” a body, a distinction that Lindren also builds on.
With this tension leading to a spectrum of “radical disassociation” and “radical disembodiment,” terms Lindgren draws from Murphy and Mair, respectively, I think a further expansion of this embodiment can take place in light of a more worlded approach.
As Thomas Rickert asserts in Ambient Rhetoric, “We do not have a body; we are bodily. We do not have a world; we are worldly” (10). Looking at the “broken” body and fractured self at the center of a chain of culturally and historically contingent relations, like the hammer, one must confront complex interdependence. Here, the world and other people, objects, and concepts help form the embodied (and enworlded) self.
In the context of disability, how might the illness of the body or its brokenness be formed and contextualized by this “world”? How might we better confront ableism with the realizations present in these times of crisis? The role of nonhumans and other humans?
To me, this approach opens up a whole array of ambiance worth exploring.