Bad Vibes

Casting some bodies as inherently rational and others as incapable of true speech makes those with bodies most at risk for harm unable to protest.

Though philosophers today may be quick to reject its binary framing of the world as hopelessly obsolete, the legacy of Cartesian dualism still shapes how we believe others. Descartes’s dualism splits the world into opposing ontological distinctions: body and mind, material and immaterial, fact and intuition. In the post-Enlightenment Western tradition, what we know is that we must give credence to the material and the rational. What’s more, we are trained to recognize the rational on sight. This ordering of the world is often taken for granted—we assume such divisions as natural, when in fact they are a particular set of values mobilized by those in power dictating not only what to hold true and what to dismiss, but who. One of those famous social constructs, then. But social constructs are no less solid for their social basis; they are in fact harder to escape.

Lately, a stranger has been stalking me around north London. My friend noticed him first late one night, leering at me through the McDonald’s window on Upper Street. He was a middle-aged man, with a black moustache, dressed in a black hat and a black overcoat. I saw him again the next night while in a different neighborhood, then continuously over the next two months, usually late at night, while I am alone, leaving a friend’s. Twice I have been out in public, distracted by my mobile or items in a grocery aisle, only to feel a certain presence. I looked up to find him slowly walking past me, so close to my physical person that our bodies were nearly touching. Once, I boarded a bus and he was somehow already there.

Relaying these encounters to others and even day-to-day living now becomes a negotiation between the tensions of bodily experience and rational thought that such dualism creates. When my friend and I called the police, the female officer sent to write my report eyed me skeptically as I gave an initial cursory briefing of what had transpired over the past several weeks. “Are you sure it’s not just coincidence that you’ve kept seeing him?” This in London, a city of ten million people. One is unlikely to encounter a stranger here again, let alone six times over two months, in two different areas of town. After the fifth incident, when I saw him on the bus, my friend couldn’t suppress her doubt. “How could he have known you were going to be on that bus? I would never say you imagined it, but you were nervous beforehand. Maybe you saw someone similar, and it triggered something, and you thought it was him.” Those fortunate enough not to have ever experienced such an ordeal enjoy the luxury of refracting what I tell them through this rational way of ordering the world. Of course I thought of these excuses for his presence. Nevertheless, he was there.

When I filed the police report, the officer lamented that based on the existing circumstances and the lack of attempts on his part to make physical contact, there was not much she could do. “It’s like he has to do something more,” she said. In our society, evidence comes in the form of the tangible—what can be seen, touched, and observed. Marks, bruises, and bodily injury have the final say, both for the police and the society they uphold. But I kept seeing him, and I could not ignore or rationalize the sheer force of somatic experience that accompanied the incidents. My body was signaling that something was very wrong.

Medical anthropologist Thomas Csordas would call this a “somatic mode of attention,” the way that bodies are in tune with other bodies or their relation to the world. We don’t give our bodies enough credit: they are dynamic, they are lived, they are more than the passive objects upon which violence finds its expression, as rationality would have it. But in our society, rationality overrides embodiment. How many cases of assault or rape have we heard of in which we learn that the victim had previously filed a report against her attacker, only to have it dismissed at the time because there was not enough evidence for the police to act?

Whenever I recount these incidents to others, I tread carefully, making sure to meticulously outline the course of events in as detailed a fashion as possible: where it happened, what time, what he was doing. I attempt to come across as stoic and articulate, to convey a rational mind divorced of the psychological or emotional trauma that such an event naturally produces. Sometimes I even have trouble starting, to find my footing in the conversation, because I know that to say, “someone is stalking me” sounds so farfetched that it will automatically elicit doubt or suspicion. Even after I fully flesh out the details, I sense the skepticism lingering, as if the other person can still attribute these encounters to mere coincidence. And I have no material evidence to prove it otherwise, no physical injury or harm to the body, only my sensate experience, but of course, that is subjective and inadmissible in a police report. But the police are not the only ones I have to convince.

The trouble I have is the work of a larger social phenomenon. The political imaginary we exist in holds the most vulnerable as most subject to doubt, and figures their bodies rather than their words as sites of truth. The state and its institutions accord or withhold from certain bodies the attribute of rationality. Anthropologist Didier Fassin explores this issue among asylum-seekers in France: As the state tightens its immigration controls, those hoping for refugee status must submit their bodies to medical examination in order to confirm that whatever injuries they have were, in fact, sustained through political persecution. The personal narratives or subjective experiences of these asylum-seekers are held in doubt, as those seeking asylum are automatically assumed by the state to be lying in order to reap social benefits, or that their faculties of reason have been compromised through political violence. At stake is a medical certificate which would exponentially increase the odds of gaining refugee status and, in turn, the right to remain in place and in safety. In Belgium, the immigration office demands undocumented youth to undergo radiographic examinations of their teeth, wrists, and clavicles to determine whether or not they are over the age of eighteen. Verified minors are afforded the right to remain in-country and receive social benefits, while those whose bones might betray them are expelled.

The cultural dichotomy of “men’s rationality” versus “women’s intuition” was given medical legitimacy when hysteria became a psychiatric label in fin-de-siècle patriarchal Vienna, deployed as diagnosis against bourgeois women. Medical authorities at the time believed women to be innately governed by their unbridled emotions and sexual urges, and this disorder manifested in its subject when she repressed these “natural” tendencies.With the invention of this disorder, women were pathologized as tending toward the emotive, the sensate, and the visceral, while simultaneously being barred from “rational” speech in any other register. Though hysteria is no longer recognized by the medical establishment which created it, the cultural impact of the “hysterical woman” lingers and informs responses to allegations of stalking and sexual violence. And it becomes particularly difficult when this issue of gender intersects with that of race or class (the police officer sent over to write my report within the first few minutes inquired about my immigration status). Female victims too must fight against suspicion and produce material evidence in excess of their word for their cases, the most conclusive of which finds its expression on the body as injury, the result of attack or assault.

In no way am I saying that my experiences are comparable to those of the refugee, only that we are shaped by the same social and political landscape that pathologizes our perceived alterity (the lying or traumatized asylum-seeker, the hysterical woman) to deny us reason, so that we can never be fully trusted, so that our bodies will have the final say. This tendency is characteristic of a culture that “externalizes its social categories onto nature, and then turns to nature in order to validate its social norms as natural,” in the words of anthropologist Michael Taussig. Sovereign power, of which the medical institution is a part, treats rationality as a gendered social or national attribute which may be given or denied, granting it freely to certain bodies (men’s, broadly) and provisionally to others (women’s). On a larger scale, this dispensation of rationality also erects the imaginary boundaries of the nation-state (in the case of the refugee). We are constituted through this regime of knowledge that works to exclude us, that denies our words, our lived experiences, our lived bodies. And this imposition of the mind-body dualism brings very real consequences.

Even as I write this, the spectre of the hysterical woman haunts me. I cannot help but wonder if what I have written so far substantiates my claims or leaves the reader questioning whether these incidents were a figment of my imagination. And as I exist in this social order that subordinates the sensate to the rational, I am forced to concede to the logic of its institutions. The man who has been following me, he knows it too. The fourth time I saw him, he lingered around the bus stop where I was standing, moving from person to person around my periphery, attempting to inch ever closer to me. He engaged these strangers in lengthy conversations, and as I apprehensively glanced over at them, I noticed an overly genial nature to his mannerisms so that the other person felt comfortable engaging back. I soon realized he was behaving this way so that in the event I panicked and made a scene, I would be the one to make a spectacle of myself, coming across as irrational, “hysterical.” “He was a nice guy,” bystanders would tell police.

As I narrate these encounters to others, what often gets lost is the immediacy of the very real, very visceral feeling that overtakes the body. This embodied response—which feels raw, presocial, and unmediated by rationality—can only be described as that of the blood suddenly running ice cold through your veins, an overwhelming sense of dread rushing through the body and freezing it at a standstill, warning of impending peril. Intuition displaces reason at that moment. The more I see him, the more severe the state of shock becomes.

In the period before my mind makes a full recovery and is able to again make sense of the scenario, the state of panic lingers. For at least a couple of days after I see him, I become a recluse in my building, making sure every door that exists in the space between us is locked—front, hallway, bedroom. I cannot sleep until my flatmate comes home from work at five in the morning. When I need to use the restroom, I unlock my bedroom door with trepidation, almost expecting him to be on the other side. I then scurry in and out. He appears at times when I am least expecting him, catching me off-guard, so I think that if he at least always resides in the back of my mind, then perhaps he won’t appear at all. One night while alone in my flat, I thought I had left the bathroom light on earlier to light the hallway, as that one needed to be replaced. When I opened my bedroom door and noticed that it was turned off, I feared he had somehow entered the house and was hiding somewhere. But these unsettling incidents of psychological trauma leave no traces on the flesh.

I had heard about but never really knew what PTSD sufferers describe as a “trigger” until now. The more I see him, the more frequent the triggers become. I have become fully Cartesian: I can feel the splitting of my self. My mind soothes the frayed nerves so I can leave the house, so I can be social, while my body always stands at full alert. I notice my body acting independently of thought now; it automatically jolts whenever it senses a pedestrian coming too close in proximity to what it will allow. It also abruptly halts to a standstill whenever a man dressed in a long overcoat passes, before I realize it’s not him after a closer look (and here I recognize I have internalized this mind-body distinction and subsequently reproduce it through language: the body is “it,” and the mind is “I.” What is self and not-self at this point?). Yesterday, I boarded a packed Overground train at Hackney Wick; standing about three feet away was a man who kept eyeing me. When I looked over at him, rather than breaking eye contact, he returned a thin-lipped smile, more lascivious than friendly. The invasiveness of his unrelenting gaze proved more than I could handle. Three stops later, the train cleared enough so that I could move farther down into the carriage away from him and breathe again.

The most acute trigger occurred while my friend and I were sitting in a pub on Liverpool Road. Just a few minutes before closing, two middle-aged men walked in and sat at a table a couple away from ours. While talking to my friend, I noticed out of the corner of my eye one of the men frequently fixing his gaze on me. My friend observed my mannerisms rapidly becoming jerkier, my speech ever more clipped, my eyes darting swiftly from him to her and back again. “Is that him?” she asked. After several furtive glances, I concluded it was not him, though he looked similar enough to provoke this fight-or-flight response. This tension between the rational and the visceral emerged again; the mind knew it was not him, but the body remained in a state of alarm. This continued for perhaps another twenty minutes before my friend asked if I wished to leave. As I began to put on my jacket, the man caught my attention. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked. Panic seized my body. Once again, I struggled to breathe. “No,” I replied curtly. I shifted my gaze away, but he continued his attempts to establish a line of communication. “Are you American?” he pressed. We rushed out the door.

How to translate this into a police report? So illustrative of this dualistic world we still live in, physical violence is recognized while the daily violence of mediating psychological trauma is overlooked or minimized. If the state and its patriarchal institutions hold women’s words and subjective experiences as secondary to “objective” truth which is borne on the body, then doubt and suspicion emerge as the de facto responses to allegations of stalking and sexual or emotional violence. This doubt and suspicion then further give shape to subjectivity and experience: we learn to question or second-guess ourselves, until finally, the line between real and imagined becomes irredeemably blurred. In this way, this society and its institutions deny women—along with others who may also fall outside the parameters of social or national belonging—of a rationality in the service of such a society. By pathologizing us as “irrational,” we are preemptively excluded from the dominant social order, marking us as bodies upon which harm may be inflicted, with relatively minor consequences. This is patriarchy’s form of biopolitics; society and its institutions do not outright inflict injury to those it deems “irrational,” but foster the social conditions to make harm possible, to decide who to protect and who to allow to be harmed.

In the case of victims of sexual violence, the body speaks but cannot be heard; the body is fated to suffer before it can become the objective terrain upon which truth is deduced. How appropriate is it that final, legally-legible evidence comes in the form of corporeal trauma—injury to the only entity that could warn of this impending danger in the first place.