Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Frozen Environments (Haddon)


"It is one of the quietest and darkest and most secret places on the surface of the earth. And I like imagining that I am there sometimes"

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night
Mark Haddon

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The Tiny Corporealities project is aimed at intense analysis of the body as matter entangled with meaning. Frequent observations will be journaled, tracing how "body," "thought," and "narrative" function as apparatuses by which corporealities emerge. Critical attention will be paid to how particular embodiments are formed and inform their social environment. 

This project arises from an engagement with a seminar 
“Alternative Materialisms led by Prof. David Mitchell at G.W.U.

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It is a dark and cold night here in York, Maine. My partner and I have just tucked her girls into bed. We were not expecting to have this extra time together. I had a flight back to Washington DC earlier today, but Winter Storm Titan (what a name!) froze the runways and the airlines cancelled my trip. After some time on the phone, I was able to re-schedule my return for tomorrow instead of later this week. Titan has spoken quietly but clearly: stay home and read.

This extra time in the solitary woods of south-eastern Maine was a nice respite. The cold weather has slowed things down here. Not least of which it slowed down the increase of pollen in the air that fill my sinus passages and cause me to double over in pain. The frozen environment has washed and sealed away many of these bothersome particles, allowing me to breath freely. In a sense, whether or not I possess Wallace Steven's "mind of winter," I may be said to have a head of winter - a head better suited to the snow-covered woods than the fluctuating damp of DC.

So, as I sit by the fire and open the pages of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon, I find myself more aware of my tiny corporealities and the alternative (frozen) environments where they find themselves thriving. Even if I won't be able to make it to the seminar on Alternative Materialisms the next day, I can imagine with Christopher, the benefits of the quiet, dark and solitary for those with different kinds of social allergies.


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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon, invites the reader to imagine with its central character, Christopher, alternative environments where crip embodiments wouldn't feel so out-of-place. Given all the qualities for the diagnosis of Autism, Christopher is a known entity in his community, prefigured, before he arrives as at the door, as a body in discord with normate relationships. By his corporeality and the society that structures his interaction, Christopher is marked as allergic to most types of human interaction.

In response to this discord between body and environment, Christopher narrates a wide range of extreme eco-systems from outer space to the deep sea where he and other uncommon bodies might live comfortably. Watching a documentary, Blue Planet, Christopher learns about organisms that thrive in poisonous underwater vents in the earth's crust.

"Scientists never expected there to be any living organisms there because it was so hot and so poisonous, but there are whole ecosystems there. I like this bit because it shows you that there is always something new that science can  discover, and all the facts that you take for granted can be completely wrong" (Haddon, 127).

While often at odds with normate modes of interaction, such as eye and body contact, Christopher is keenly aware of the expectations people have for bodies occupying different spaces. Scientists, like the doctors and teachers that watch over him, predict limits and capacities for organisms. Likewise, they deem certain environments and lives as unlivable. Looking at the gaps in the known world, Christopher relishes that the known, the expected and the normal are not all that there is. Bodies and places (like himself or like creatures at the bottom of the sea) are discovered, demanding that we diversify our world.

Diversity does not, however, mean universality. In fact, it can suggest the reverse. Alternative kinds of environments may be best suited to alternative kinds of bodies. Not every (or any) organism can thrive everywhere. Christopher is aware that these vents are extreme conditions where few things can live - an exclusive area of an open ecology.

Solitude appears to be one of the desirable characteristics of the ocean for Christopher: "it is one of the quietest and darkest and most secret places on the surface of the earth. And I like to imagine I am there sometimes." While Christopher admits that he would need some sort of special apparatus ("a spherical metal submersible with windows that are 50 cm thick to stop them  from imploding under the pressure") he nonetheless longs to live an exceptional life in an exceptional place (Haddon, 127). In place of human societies that cause him problems, Christopher would be in community with machine, fish, and uncharted waters.

This vision reframes social allergies from a problem in the body to a problem in the environment. Christopher takes the feeling of being a body out-of-place in society as an invitation to imagine other places, other societies and other kinds of bodies. Rather than reading himself as ill-adapted to one environment, he rejoices in the dreams of all the places he might excel, if only he could get access to the spherical metal submersible to take him there.

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Christopher's reframing of social allergies from the body to the environment changes how we view my sinus passages. Instead of marking them as disordered for being ill at ease with the pollen of warmer climates, we might imagine them as better suited for the frozen woods of Maine. In this extremely cold environment, my tiny corporeality rejoices in the ability to freely breath, focus and relax.

The constant transition from rain, snow, and sun in places like Washington DC can incapacitate bodies sensitive to pollen. According to allergy specialist, Dr Warren Carr, MD, "During a rainstorm, the pollen in your environment gets saturated and fractures, releasing small particles into the air at a much higher concentration" (Weather.com). The result is that the damp weather before or after precipitation makes the area very inhospitable for those diagnosed with pollen allergies.

Alternatively, in places where the snow falls and stays on the ground, the environment can be delightfully pollen free. Rain and snow can "wash the pollen out of the air" explains Dr. Rohit Katial, MD (ABCNews). If the snow remains (instead of melts right away as in Washington DC), then the frozen sheet of ice and snow inhibits plants from releasing more pollen into the atmosphere. The result, explains science writer Remy Melina, is that "Many people get better once the weather turns colder and stops fluctuating from warm and cold" (LiveScience). In other words, despite the many flowering plants and trees, the frozen woods of York, Maine, might be an alternative environment for bodies that enjoy the cold air more than pollen saturated DC.

This analysis of frozen environments does not aim to equate Autism with pollen allergies, but to gesture to how the range of differences between various bodies and relations changes how we regard disability in the environment. Whether it is the quiet, dark and secret places in the bottom of the ocean or the quiet, dark and cold places in Maine, the discovery of impossible worlds can offer a home to otherwise out-of-place bodies. Sometimes we just need a winter storm to cause us to stay put and read a good book to spur us to imagine the alternative spaces all around us.

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