Monday, 15 October 2012

As you see, I am all in pieces!

You know what a Leyden jar is it's the classical apparatus for storing electricity...  There was once upon a time a celebrated physicist, a man of science, called Professor Tyndall. He was manipulating a large battery of Leyden jars, while lecturing. Through some carelessness in handling them he received a very severe electric shock. It was so severe it knocked him out. ...He recovered himself, so to speak, very nearly at once. ...He was able to address the audience and reassure it immediately. But while he was reassuring the audience, his body appeared to him to be cut up into fragments. For instance his arms were separated by his trunk and seemed suspended in the air.


Technology as Efficacious Action on Objects . . . and Subjects
Jean-Pierre Warnier
Journal of Material Culture 2009 14: 459 DOI: 10.1177/1359183509345944
The online version of this article can be found at:
I have already suggested, a subject may be a subject-with-his-embodied- fountain-pen writing an article, or a subject-cum-Boeing 707 in the action of piloting.
This is where an ethnographic case may be usefully brought into the picture. In several recent publications (2006, 2007, 2009), I have tried to show that the people of Mankon (Cameroon) have a sophisticated bodily cum material culture focused on envelopes, openings, surfaces, contain- ers, the human skin, and on all the actions pertaining to the transit of substances through the apertures of the body and all kinds of vessels. People identify with containers and, since Mankon is a kingdom, the king identifies with a pot full of unifying ancestral life substances.
More precisely, for example, mothers give a daily massage to their newborn babies until they are able to walk. They work the skin of the infant with palm oil or industrial baby lotion, beginning with the shaved scalp and working all the way down to the toes, paying much attention to the folds of the skin around nose, mouth, ears, fingers, toes, genitals, buttocks, etc. They do not leave a single square millimetre of the skin untouched. Similarly, adults focus health practices on the skin. Rituals of marriage and succession are performed by anointing the skin with a mixture of palm oil and crimson camwood.
Such practices turn the bodily surface of the subject into a supple, shiny and healthy envelope. Although this is not explicitly verbalized in an emic way by the Mankon, I would gloss such practices by saying that young infants, adults, brides, grooms and successors are manufactured as leak-proof, sound vessels in order to retain healthy substances and all the principles of fertility and well-being within their skin-container. In other words, they are made to identify with material containers. No doubt, the facts that the human body itself is a container with a cutaneous envelope and openings, and that the self is built as an envelope by anaclisis on the lived experience of the skin envelope as indicated by Didier Anzieu (1985), play an important role in such an identification. This is underscored by the elaborate and extensive use of all kinds of material containers and substances embodied through sensori-motor conducts, and by the care that is paid to the openings and surfaces of people and containers alike in order to store given substantial contents and to make them circulate.

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