Some of us feel our bodies are strongly identified with our selves and that our bodily feelings of presence are stable and predictable. These people are probably young and healthy; as we age, lose limbs, lose abilities, and generally transform into different versions of ourselves, we may find new correlations between self and body. Thoughts like “Ow, I never noticed that muscle before,” or “Was that bump always there?” are the kind of subtle reminders that the map of the body may not be as stable as we once felt it was.
In my case, having just acquired a major new body part that was crafted, origami-like, out of previous body parts, I’m noticing some startling sensations related to the maps of my self and, perhaps more importantly, the legends of those maps that are beginning to feel outdated and desperately in need of a cartographer to re-chart everything.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
You see, I am a perfect example of an ecologically-friendly cyborg, my new parts having been fashioned out of old ones, and thus I think it’s fair to say I reduced, reused, and recycled in the process (maybe I should use passive voice and say “I was reduced, reused, and recycled”). I didn’t come up with the origami metaphor; that belongs to a woman who was interning with Dr. Bowers from Chicago and who asked my permission to observe the operation. She reported that it was utterly amazing how all the old parts were shaped, reorganized, folded, and ultimately reassembled “like an intricate origami.” She said that unless you knew how it was going to turn out, it all looked like a terrific mess on a craft table. But to the surgeon, having performed hundreds of these procedures, the mappings must be nigh intuitive, floating above and on the skin like a paint-by-numbers project.
But the point of this blog post isn’t to marvel at the artistry of the surgeon or the cartographer’s skill at remapping, but rather to relate what it’s like to actually be the map, the origami itself, and to grapple with what strikes me as a conflict of two mapping systems existing simultaneously in my mind.
New and Phantom Feelings
Some of my nerves have worked just fine since surgery and some of them haven’t, but are beginning to reconnect in jolting ways. The ones that have always worked seem to me to remain mapped to my old body so that if I feel an itch or a pain, my mind immediately recognizes it as belonging to a certain spot on my body — there’s no interpretation needed because this mapping is so old and (seemingly) so stable that I “know” where the itch is coming from. But the landscape has changed, even if the map hasn’t, so that itch is no longer where my mind thinks it is. Where is it? Who knows? I don’t have a current map so it could be anywhere. Exploring can sometimes help, but not always, as the intricate folding of an origami swan could move an ink dot into un-findable places, maybe three folds underneath a wing, if you can picture it. These phantom pains are funny, mostly, because they initiate a guessing game in my mind, one that involves identifying the spot on the old landscape, then trying to picture just where that nerve might reside these days.
New feelings are different, or at least they seem so to me. Maybe when nerves are cut, and as they seek to reconnect, the map is erased, like a computer’s RAM that resets when you lose power. Whatever the reason, these new pains, often shooting or stabbing, come from who-knows-where, and are thus already mysterious, but also belong nowhere on the old map, and are thus doubly-mysterious because there is no cartographic system on which to locate them. Unlike the phantom pains, which are amusing, these new pains of re-connecting nerves are surprising, daunting, and a bit frightening. Why frightening? I think their newness, their randomness of appearance, and the intensity of the sudden stabbing make these new pains feel alien, unpredictable, maybe even dangerous to my primitive mind. They lurk like strangers in my corporeal shadows and jump out like the bad guy in slasher movies, just when you’ve relaxed and are enjoying your popcorn.
I suspect these feelings are well-documented somewhere — maybe in the Mind literature of philosophy, something my friend Michele could elucidate, or maybe in the literature of prosthetics and what it means to be dis- or super-abled, as my friend Amanda could no doubt clarify. Maybe these are typical feelings for everyone who undergoes various life traumas or evolutions and are rebuilt, better and faster with modern technology like the Six Million Dollar Man, and thus we’re all joined in a common post-human existence. The relationship of the body to the mind raises all sorts of ontological and epistemological questions, certainly more than I have a right to grapple with in such a small blog post. Maybe my individual experience can help move the inquiry forward a baby step, either for post-humanists generally or merely for other transsexuals more narrowly.
Maps? Legends? Both? Neither?
Thinking of REM’s song “Maps and Legends,” and the wonderful line, “Maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood,” I picture myself studying a map of the United States printed in the 50’s, and being puzzled when there are no freeway cloverleafs where I can plainly see them approaching in my windshield. With competing maps existing in our minds (youth vs. age, pre-surgery vs. post-surgery, pre-cancer vs. post-cancer, or whatever transformations we experience in the course of our lives), it’s not surprising that we can have these moments of mapping confusion (or revelation) between what we “know” to be real and what the abstractions of maps, GPS’s, timetables, and other artifacts of modern existence tell us is real. I don’t think these moments are a case of either the maps or legends being misunderstood, but merely out of synch or out of time. How we re-synch may be a matter of patience, or maybe it’s acceptable to learn to enjoy the disconnection as an integral part of living a complex life.