Epidemics, embodiment and Sartrean slime

The epidemic chaos, of the body, of other bodies, and of national borders, reminds us – among other things – that we are mortal, perishable. We are material bodies that are subject to the whims of nature and rely on very real structures to carry out our lives.

By Helene Scott-Fordsmand

The epidemic chaos, of the body, of other bodies, and of national borders, reminds us – among other things – that we are mortal, perishable. We are material bodies that are subject to the whims of nature and rely on very real structures to carry out our lives. While philosophers and scientists may long for purification, for streamlined rationality, medicine must work in the slimy reality between human and biology, nature and culture.

When epidemics hit, they bring chaos in their wake, escalating breakdown in both body and society. Vomit, sweat, mucus, faeces and puss flow from bodies, they break down, their systems short-circuit and death follows, sometimes before we even realise what is happening around us. Societal structures and global networks are disrupted, the touch or even nearness of others becomes potential death. When epidemics break out, we are overwhelmed by the acuteness and deadliness of biology and our own materiality.

Epidemics, with their very physical manifestation, re-actualise the body as a core of the human condition. From philosophy – particularly phenomenology[i] – we may learn something about what this re-actualisation of the body means, and why it occurs. Contemporary phenomenologists describe the occurrence of (physical) illness as a disruption of the lived body (e.g. Carel 2008, Toombs 1993, Leder 1990). That is, usually, in our everyday doings our bodies are transparent, or, present only as a pre-reflective habit. We experience through our body rather than direct attention to it: We reach for door handles, coffee mugs or start running for the bus without really paying much attention to our body; how it moves or feels – even if it is exactly our body that allows us to open doors, lift coffee mugs or reach the bus in time. To some degree, this transparency of the body may mislead us to think that we are in fact without bodies, that “me” is something independent of the body: pure (mental) experience, or as many philosophers would have it pure rationality.

Reproduction of woodcut from Plague Epidemic Copenhagen, 1711 (Image source: Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen).

When we fall ill our habitual ways are broken, by shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, or splitting headaches. Forget reaching for the door handle; even moving towards the door may seem an overwhelming task. When this happens, the body – in a phenomenologist turn of phrase – is thematised in our experience as a thing, and particularly as a thing of limitation.[ii] There are things that that our body simply cannot do, even if we think they should be easy, even if we really set our minds to it. Importantly in these cases, the body as a thing of limits is not merely a thing, but also us. It is not just that my body cannot reach the door, I can’t. More than the suffering of the symptoms of illness, what is also brought about when we fall ill, is an experience of being tied down by our own materiality. In more literal words, no matter social norms or strong wills, there is no controlling cholera’s diarrhoea, or rather, there is no controlling my diarrhoea if struck with cholera, for it is my body, me, that is subdued to the whims of nature.

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls this invasion of the material world on me, on the subject – the realisation that subject and object / nature and culture are not separate – the slimy (Sartre 1969). The world is slimy, it sticks to us in whatever we do, because we are bodies, and it refuses to be easily wiped off because of its insistent facticity. Slime, in this sense, is the fact of the human relation to materiality, or rather, the human inability to become purely “subject”. Blood, faeces and vomit will flow if certain material things are set in motion in our bodies, no matter the will of the intellect inhabiting it, no matter how well-understood the processes are. Nausea will distort your entire worldview, just as the lack of liquid will make you incapable of moving anywhere by your own will. Disease, and more radically, epidemics reveal this to be true not only for the individual but for societies as such – we are material bodies.

Slime is the revenge of the [material world] In-itself. A sickly-sweet, feminine revenge which will be symbolized on another level by the quality “sugary.” […] A sugary sliminess is the ideal of the slimy; it symbolizes the sugary death of the For-itself [i.e. the subject] (like that of the wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it). But at the same time the slimy is myself, by the very fact that I have outlined an appropriation of the slimy substance.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p630 

Interestingly, but perhaps sadly not surprising, Sartre links the slimy with the feminine, reaching into western mythology of the female link to nature (or – its less optimistic version – the impurity of the female intellect). And for this, his notion of slime has received much well-deserved critique (see Heinämaa 2008). It does however nicely capture the longing for purity that is shared between philosophers and patients. That dream of floating out of your body when it is in pain, of ridding yourself of your heavy arms and legs when nausea weighs you down, when warm, fluid saliva is building up in your mouth, heaviness in every limb and every sensuous impressions feels like an attack. In these moments you are nothing but your body. The slimy is uncontrollable, in the sense that it sticks, and threatens to drown us (i.e. the experiencing, conscious us = free subject). It is however also inescapable, exactly because we are embodied, we are bodies.

With illness there is an immediacy of the body, and the disruption of the lived, and although we long for the calm state of the undisturbed intellect – cleansed of bodily needs – our corporality reveals itself as an undeniable fact. There is a point to be made here, from the phenomenological analysis of embodiment. Namely, that this longing for purity and control, and the conception that it is rationality that is human-proper, and the ill biological body that interferes, originates in mistaking transparency for absence. We are always body, always also biology, dependent on and entangled in slimy matter. The overwhelming force of epidemics emphasise this. We are bodies that can die, bodies that can be forbidden to move across borders, or to hug people dear to us (and with this follows a realisation that the body makes a difference in social exchange).

While scientists and governments attempt to capture epidemics: in microscopes, models, glass jars or locked-down areas, a pragmatic negotiation between absolutes and reality goes on. Bodies need food and shelter, activities and social stimulation – we cannot abstain from being biological while scientists solve the puzzle at hand. At times – such as with vaccination – opening up the lid a bit, to allow a small (controlled) release of the epidemic agent, may even be the best strategy. As a practice of care, medicine maintains and relies on a negotiating with the material, not the negation or eradication of it. The task of medicine becomes perhaps the task of managing slime more than the matter of ridding ourselves of it.

Epidemic ambulance. A closed stretcher from the nineteenth century for transporting the sick. A coffin-like boundary between the infected and the healthy. ©Nicolai Howalt, Courtesy of Medical Museion & Martin Asbæk Gallery

Carel, H. (2008). Illness. Acumen Publishing.
Heinämaa, S. (2008). “Psychoanalysis of Things: Objective Meanings or Subjective Projections?”. Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence. Daigle C & Golomb J (eds.). Indiana University Press : p128-142.
Leder, D. (1990). The absent body. University of Chicago Press.
Sartre, J. (1969). Being and Nothingness : An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Taylor & Francis Group.
Toombs, S.K. (1993). The meaning of Illness. Springer Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

[i] A philosophical tradition originating in the early 20th century. Usually Edmund Husserl is seen as the founder, although some draw lines backwards to Hegel or Descartes. Canonical names from the tradition count Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur as well as Edith Stein and Simone Weil. Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception (1945) is particularly influential on the topic of embodiment.

[ii] Other things than illness, may of course also bring the body out of its transparency. For example when we can willingly direct our attention to it, observing it: looking at the traces on your palms, pressing a vain to feel its bounciness, feeling the coldness of your hands against another body part. Or when we move out of our habitual space, for example by training for some specific ability that we do not have (yet), e.g. running for a marathon or attempting to do a handstand. This latter experience resembles that of illness, only, it usually doesn’t intrude into our everyday life, as most new abilities are exactly that, new, i.e. not yet something we depend upon in our habitual practices.