Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Eyes of the Poor (Animal's People)

"All things pass, but the poor remain...
Tomorrow there will be more of us."

Animal's People
Indra Sinha

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.


"Tell me about the pressure in your head," a doctor in a white-coat tells me as I sit in his Chicago office. He hardly looks up from his clip-board when he speaks. As I try to express to him how my sinuses feel on a given day in April, he jots down notes and asks me leading questions. By the end of our interview, I have articulated a narrative that fits within a certain definition of seasonal allergies. Mold and pollen are marked as causes. The pain and inflammation in my sinuses the effect. The result of my ability to give him to story he wants, he writes a prescription for nasal spray - a kind of steroid - that would make my tiny corporeality more docile. 

Through this exchange, there is an enactment of power against disability/debility. The demand for a certain kind of able-bodiement directs the doctor's search for pathology in my body and the arrival at a chemical corrective. Likewise, the same drive brought me into his office and sends me away with the slip of paper. It is a system run on the force of narrative and capital. 

  1. My ability to analyze literature has given me access to a job and healthcare.
  2. The insurance money has given me access to the doctor so that I might present a narrative of my own body.
  3. The effectiveness of my story produced a prescription which will allow me to spend money on pills.
  4. The pills will manage my sinuses so I can better analyze literature.

At first glance there is a circuit being enacted, but it is not a system found in nature. Rather, I have entered into this exchange of body, language, and capital through an ascendence to my Ph.D fellowship. Before this time, if my sinuses were in pain, I would have to consider whether or not I had the money on hand to buy a box of allergy pills. Going to a doctor and getting a prescription for something stronger was not at all possible on my budget. Living on loans and hourly wages, during my Master's program, I could not always afford the luxury of medicine. Thus even though the arrival at a fellowship did not radically change my quality of life, it continued the process of moving towards a certain kind of upper-class model of life - premised on certain kinds of able-bodiment and self-care. My entrance into the doctors office then signaled not only a disavowal of debility, the arrival at an ownership of my own body, but also a distinguishing move through which I disavow my former position among the poor. From this position as an insured Ph.D of literature, I assert an independence that affords me the power to look back at this poverty from the outside, as an object of society, of memory, of story.


In Indra Sinha's 2007 novel, Animal's People, a victim of an American industrial accident in India, calling himself "Animal," comes to articulate his voice to a wider readership (imagined simply by the speaker as  "Eyes") through a series of recorded/transcribed tapes. In the process, Animal distinguishes himself both from the pre-scripted narratives of trauma insisted on by western journalists and from amalgamation with his community members and fellow victims. The result of being distinguished, Animal is given the benefits of an exemplar of his people, offered up for charity and surgical intervention. Despite a longing for treatment that would allow him to walk on two feet, to be "an upright human," the novel concludes with Animal's refusal of the restoration narrative. In remaining Animal on "four-feet," he comes to acknowledge the tense relationship between being in community with the poor and coming to find his own particularity within it (366).

Animal, and his book, remain suspicious of readers. Already a victim of American industry, he insists that his story be told in his own voice, so that his narrative does not become a victim of the press, pressed and flattened into a broad overarching image of his people. Animal will be animal, his body and his story will be his alone. To facilitate, he is given a tape-recorder, allowing him to speak in his own voice. To help the process, Animal is told to consider the tape-recorder like a silent friend, listening to him talk. Twisting this metaphor, Animal calls the imagined audience "Eyes," the ones that watch him and read him like a book. Not only does this assertion turn the attention of readers back on themselves, their bodies, as they physically look at the text, it gestures to reading's larger psycho-social enactments of power. "Eyes" will gaze upon Animal and Animal's People, seeing them like a dark mirror, an Other, divested of humanity (e.g. animals) simultaneously reflecting their worst selves and staring back at them. The homonym between "Eyes" and "I-s" deepen this reading. The reader is the "I" and the Others become the image of the world, an amalgamation to be understood and mastered. In short order, the book names a central dichotomy to be overcome in the novel: the Eyes/I-s versus Animal's People.

What does it mean then that Animal's tale has been heard? He is given money and the offer of corrective surgery. Through the power of story, Animal has gained entrance into the world of the Human. He can become an I/Eye. At this point, Animal's violent and successful narrative opposition reveals itself as a power-play that has distinguished him from his People and put him in leagues with the Eyes who silently consumed him and his story. By trying to be the opposition of the Eye, he made himself into the Other, reflecting and staring back at them. He can be an individual, made like them, acceptable into society, but always dependent on them as a kind of lesser creation. "If I'm an upright human, I would be one of millions, not even a healthy one at that," Animal considers (366). The repetition of the word "one" signifies that he has become a singularity, but singularity is the very language of Neo-Liberalism, of the I-s/Eyes, where every one is a solitary and more manageable one. Everyone is special, so no one is especially threatening. Animal is separated from his community in order to stand in for his community. He is taken, they are left behind.

The decision to "Stay four-foot," and proclaim "I'm the one and only Animal," requires that the story come to an end. "Eyes" he says, "I'm done" (366). To conclude the narrative with his restoration would be to cover over his People's continued suffering with the balm of Western charity. To continue the narrative would be to cover over his People's continued suffering with the acid of Animal's looming personality. The project of the novel has failed. The novel must fail if it is to avoid easy resolution. In a narrative sense, Animal is "done" insofar as his story passes away so that his People's can continue. This is one critical sense that we can understand the final declaration, "All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the people of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us" (366). The Eye/I of Animal's story is replaced by the "We" of the People of the Apokalis. The particulars and individuals come and go, their stories, their bodies, but most of all their sense of individuality. What remains is the sense of community and the dependencies of living through the political and material environment. One person's story cannot vanquish poverty, but the refusal to tell the prescribed story of victory or defeat might yet allow the poor to survive the conquest. 


While Animal's twisted spine and my Tiny Corporeality's sinus pressure are distinct materialities, the drive of the industrial medical complex which alienates both of us from our embodiments (as debilitated) also alienates both of us from the poor (as disabled). We are mutually caught in an image of able-bodiment and independence that powers the flow of story, medicine, and money. In accepting the one, moving towards a certain form of body, we accept the other. We come to claim our bodies not as a shared material condition with others in our environment (e.g. chemical waste or air-born mold) but as a personal possession which we (as neoliberal citizens) manage and others fail to manage. Walking upright with clear heads, we distinguish ourselves socially from those who remain bent. Rather than helping to fix the problem in the environment, as a part of that eco-system, by pinning the problem and solution on our particular bodies we have joined a system aimed to separate ourselves from our environment and our society.

In choosing to stop his personal narrative, and thus end his novel, Animal encourages us to remain suspicious of our own participation in systems of power that exploit and marginalize the poor. What stories do we tell with our bodies and with how we narrate our bodies? How does our success as story-tellers move us from the exploited to the exploiter? This does not mean that we all should refuse treatment in the form of surgery or allergy-medication, but it does mean that we should resist the pressure to take this access into the sphere of industrial medicine as an exit from our environment. When the pain in our backs or faces are not so pressing, can we keep feeling the whip of capitalism or the weight of human sovereignty on our heads like crowns of nature? How do we resist telling the I's/Eye's story and instead tell the story of our People?

How has my tiny corporeality come to stand as a synecdoche for a whole ecology of embodiment?

Animal releases Animal's People from the cage of his narrative by ending his story. As I move towards the end of my Tiny Corporeality project, I too release the flow of allergins from being directed through my personal story. This is not a call to shut down story. Animal's People had an effect on me (as an Eye/I), just as I hope the Tiny Corporeality had an effect on you (as an Eye/I). The effect of story in each case, I hope, is an opening up. Instead of a conclusion, this move should be seen as an invitation to tell stories together. I become quiet for a while so that others may speak. I allow my voice to join a chorus of voices calling for social and environmental justice. I turn my voice to tracing our collective stories. Returning to Animal's final words, we might restate them: 

One point of view passes away, but the eyes of the poor remain. We are the people of narrative. Tomorrow there will be more stories to tell.

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