Editors’ note/strong content warning: This essay—a genre-shifting mix of prose poetry, theory, autofiction, pulp fiction—contains references to death and loss, eating disorders, and self-harm. Please read with care.
Phenomenology of Bones
Chris Shen (BFA IL 2022)
1. The History of Mankind, of which we will speak here, enters the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. By Reason, we mean the most noble property that Man could possess, which necessarily entails the Just degradation of those who are not endowed with such Gift of Grace. Thus to distinguish themselves from the savages, the learned gentleman, whom I humbly address at present, will be so charitable as to excuse me taking certain liberties in my methods of Inquiry, such as the intentional confusion of tenses, pronouns, and genres.
2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that “I” exists, and “I” clearly and distinctly hold fast onto shafts of the crystal that is time.
3. I know my friend is dead and I do not know if he was my friend. Put in other ways: I do not know who I was friends with; I know who I was friends with was not him. Also, it is not him that I knew, the person I have known was not him.1
4. And, having thus demonstrated that God does not exist, and that if She does, we have killed Them,2 it follows that one could not but desire one’s sternum to be ripped open.3
5. Like their painting of Napoleon,4 Ingres “reigns over a bloodstained altar like some cruel Mexican god.”5
6. Senses are particular. Per Hegel, We only know this taste and this sight. The universality of language, which involves abstraction, generalizing, and cutting, is incompatible with senses and feelings, which by definition ellide language. Alexithymia6 is a universal condition, not an ailment.
7. Words murder the thing. Our thoughts are cadavers of the world, perhaps even before they enter language.
8. On the stairs, ghosts disappear once I look away. The moment before I opened the drawer, they were there, idle-talking. They are waiting for me to do them justice. They begot a monster who will now turn back and think the thought of God, before all things.
9. “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.7
10. The world spirit turns “toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, [they] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of [their] feet.”8
11. The absolute knowing9 speaks: “from here, I saw what happened, and I cried.”10
12. The zeitgeist11 is happy that he just got promoted to middle-management, and can now afford a PodShare bunk bed.
13. ________: “If I am absolutely different in kind from other humans, what right do I have to speak for them? If I am like other humans, and the separation of me from myself and others I feel is applicable to everyone, others could, or could, say it better than I can. If I mistake my particularity for universality, or vice versa, do I not either justify my own malformation, or indulge in my perceived solitude?”
14. When I touch something, I do not actually contact the surface of that thing. Instead, I am feeling the repulsion of the outer shell electron charge of the object, which pushes away the electrons on my hand. The very act of touch is enabled by my inability to permeate it, by the exclusive nature of physical beings.
15. Leibniz contends that as a result of the Identity of Indiscernibles, there is no vacuum.12 The contemporary support of this theory is the notion of quantum fields, which posits that energy fluctuations populate all space; nowhere is left with absolute stasis.13
16. I live in constant vertigo.14 The ground will be snatched away from me at any moment.15
17. In Karen Barad’s essay on trans-materiality, she suggests we should read electrons, which we conceive as the smallest possible unit of reality, as “intra-acting” with their past and future selves.16
18. Yet, the starting point of Leibniz’s Primary Truth is the Law of Identity, that A=A, and if A = B, A does not equal Not-B.
19. “Labour is repressed desire, transience delayed, or a formation.” Labour ”becomes permanence, because it is precisely to the labourer that the object has independence.” In other words, to the labourer, the object she labours on has their own life and personality that cannot be easily absorbed.17
20. “Negativity becomes an object, and gained a terrifyingly alien essence.”18
21. “I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom, and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.” This is Pascal’s caricature of the complacent atheist who boasts of their own despair. Pascal characterized this cynical and hypocritical sentiment as ingenuous, firstly because this kind of atheist doesn’t try hard enough to find God, and secondly because they (inevitably) take pleasure in mundane diversions despite themselves.19
22. The penis, breasts, beard, vulvas, wide hips, wide shoulders, defined muscles, body hair, Adam’s apple, etc., are excrescences that simply should not have been there.
23. I have purged. Why did I do this? I felt no shame after eating dinner, which was a reasonable amount of food. I did it simply because I can.
24. Purging is a ritual of cleansing. It:
a. Takes place in a designated, special, liminal space, usually a bathroom, which in Journey to the West was called “where crops reincarnate”. The clinical white cell heaves like a wounded frog-goddess. The ceramic grid is erased hieroglyphs. The sublimity glimmers on the assortment of tears, snot, vomit, and saliva.
b. Is the reversal of regular digestion, and makes eating an obscene debauchery. The food never fills the cavity yet is simultaneously overflowing. The lack generates itself. One drinks the bane in the golden goblet of the king in Thule.
c. Regenerates, re-creates the ideal eternal body-Form through offering the terrestrial body. Synchronous to my desire to drop to zero and evaporate is its opposite: I want to become all that could exist and will exist and had existed, the in-itself-for-itself.
25. There is strikingly little research on the link between eating disorders and transgender dysphoria. I wish to pass as non-existing, therefore I must eliminate the feminine thighs, hips, breasts, and face. I must starve myself to a point at which estrogen stops.20
26. In front of the dazzling light the night clouds injected a wish into me: to leave this game21 I have been playing and flip the table once and for all.22 This appointment fits well with my schedule. I have booked the ticket to Mahapadma Naraka,23 and subsequently after four nights’ stay the Avi ci Naraka.24
27. Everyone desires to be burnt alive. He decides to pour gasoline over herself and light it on fire in front of the park. The flames blossom on the wet green lawn; She feels cold, its lungs swells up. We cannot breath, almost as if you are under water. My skin peels away like a flimsy gift wrap, or a silkmoth pupae.
28. In the cocoon, one would discover a soup of proteins and the imaginal discs. Imaginal discs are the groups of cells that turn into adult butterfly body parts. Essentially, the entity dissolves their tissues for the generation of the imago, self-decomposing so that the new may bud.
29. The skin was supposed to contain the subject. Our North American culture considers body hair, especially on those one may call females, disgusting. It is between the outside and the inside, the male and the female, the infant and the adult, and the animal and the rational.
30. Where am I, exactly, if I am not at ease inside my skin? Why am I not to be expelled from where I do not belong? Do I not trespass the holy private property of someone else? Who owns the space that is “I”? The suprasensible thing engloves me. Fuming is the wish to go beyond, to trespass the horizon of my shrieking pulse. One looks at its fingers and they strike one as maggots. Words are mere shapes that visualize my thoughts as if by telekinesis, but what right do I have to say they are mine? That they are somehow attached to my brain physically, even when one considers the vast gap between quarks and electrons? This very void, this mutual repulsion of charges, engenders my materiality, my extension, and the energy fluctuations of gluons percolate mass into me. Where am I, answer me again, and what am I?
31. All of us are condemned to perpetually re-birthing and aborting oneselves. Or, better yet, rewriting, editing, and censoring the selves. “Reading,” taken in the context of passing/not passing as (a) gender(s) implies the extended body (including gestures, voice, ornaments ... ) is a text with references, footnotes, quotations, metaphors, allusions, metonymies, and so on. Conversely, one can read the text. I read that the Descartes of the first two meditations reeks with pre-transition paranoiac and compulsive self-doubt, losing contact with their body and the external world. Sadly, she soon shrunk from this hyper-reflective orientation and clinged onto a transcendental Daddy.
32. One may name the cocoon, the shell, “I,” “subject,” or “self.” It is always empty in content. There is nothing but the appearance through which the “I” manifests and externalizes its essence. The essence is the apparent. By kenosis the “self” leaves behind its abstract purity and immerses into the blood and dirt of the world. As such “I” will become the alembic of revolution. By transforming the world, by losing the “I”, I become.
33. Today we wake up to our death knell. We are living in the future of extinction; we will be haunted by a past that never was; we had always been dead. Today the humans are fugitives feasting in a hinterland. Bare feet twirling on barbed wire. Unpropitious summer flowers and barren streams populate this limbo. In the middle of the desert is a pedestal on top of it is a mass of knots.
34. You will become a queen of the night in a silver desert. You will be, come boundless blossoming orifices. And “[everything] that was ever torn apart/ has been torn apart in me.” And “[everything] that was ever mutilated/ has been mutilated in me.”25
35. The working issues at hand are:
a. What does it mean to feel inhuman,26 and
Whether living one’s own monstrosity could inspire, generate, and radicalize27
b. Given the above axioms 1-15, I will now flesh out the implications and finally draw a conclusion regarding a. and b.
1. He is the sand that eludes my seizure and the patchwork effigy made of my own bones and sinews. We were never there, and who they think they saw were not us. We have never been human and what is human was never us. At late nights we hover above the lamp posts with dark wails and crimson tears. We are your contraceptive shudder that prophesied the birth of a freak. We are the echo that negates your speech.
2. Pavel Smerdyakov, the epileptic, elliptical, eclipsed bastard and parricida in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, through murdering Her landlord Father, took their half-sister’s words way too seriously and put them into praxis. (I badly paraphrase them as: if there is no afterlife and no God, everything is permitted, because there will be no punishment).
3. It is all too late. I started to sense something was wrong when she, I mean Isabella, threw an apple at me and I immediately shouted at her. She went out. After I read the newspaper I realized she was driving her Honda N600 around campus, I don’t remember what color it was. She called me after nine, I think, from one of those old phone booths that you had to throw quarters in. They don’t have those anymore. She called and said, “I’m so, so sorry I lashed out at you like that,” and something like “I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it.” She hung up on me and I thought, naturally, she meant she won’t come back to my place that night, or something like that. I just didn’t think much of it. And now that I have all these court documents and medical stuff and the media’s been fussing all over it, I piece things together. I just couldn't believe what I came up with, you know. I mean, I just couldn’t tell myself, that right after I hung up, she went out and whacked those co-eds with a jewelry saw. I don’t know who she was anymore. I felt like I never knew her, this person I’ve been in bed with. Hell, I don’t even know who I am anymore, thinking about all the little things about her that I knew were off but chose to ignore. I don’t know why I did what I did. Maybe I could have … Maybe those girls wouldn’t have been … You know.
4. Napoleon was depicted on her imperial throne; their complexion ethereal and pallid, almost buried in the painstakingly rendered minutia. The result was a transgressive and bizarre image, yet completely within the formal tradition of aggrandizing portraiture.
5. Quote from Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, Garry Tinterow, et al., a comment attributed to one of their contemporaries.
6. The inability to speak about, identify, or put words on feelings.
7. Quote from Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History. I take this to mean that a buried epoch, for example, the year of the Paris Commune, which passes on its legacy to a current group, is constantly under threat. Their historical memories would be smeared, defaced, and recycled to suit the purposes of the victors. It is crucial for Benjamin that the subjects of contemporary emancipatory movement cherish “the picture of enslaved forebears”.
9. “Absolute knowing” for Hegel is the culmination point of philosophy, at which the subject conceives every presupposition of knowledge, turns back to its history and grasps how they got there. Or, the (in/non)human consciousness understands the universe is ultimately a part of itself by constituting the consciousness’ subjective position. There is no neutral observer. Rebecca Comay, in Mourning Sickness, characterizes this concept as the exposition of “the structural dissonance of experience.” In other words, knowing always comes after the experience, a little bit out of sync, precisely because of the taint left by the implicated watcher. Absolute knowing is nothing but the embodiment of this subjective taint.
10. Carrie Mae Weems’ title for her 1995 appropriated photographic/poetry series.
11. The shared idea, moods, of beliefs that characterizes a period of time. We, art-proletariats, or anyone, really, are slipping into job precarity. Goods and services necessary for survival carry on a semblance of shared-ness yet are, of course, stonks. How many of us could be Brian Chesky? How many of us honestly want to? Why settle for less when we could inherit the earth? Why settle for the mere plentitude when we can be subsumed by the infinite?
12. The argument behind the Identity of Indiscernibles, which states that if there’s no perceived difference between two things, they are in fact one, is beyond my scope here. If there is empty space, it is impossible to distinguish its parts from each other, because they will all be identically empty. For space to exist, every point must be occupied by distinguishable substances.
13. The uncertainty principle guarantees there will always be a remainder, a precipitate of uncertainty in even the “purest” state. Virtual particles emerge and vanish ex nihilo, out of spite.
14. It is the nausea in the face of the long shadows the moment the dusk dies. It is the compulsive search for a straw on top of one’s radial artery. It is the dictatorial freedom. It asks me to do all things possible and impossible. When I can, I ought.
15. Notice the passive voice here: this usage is not commendable in writing because the author wants the piece to be engaging. The absence of an actor implies the act took place in a vacuum. Passive voice occurs often in scientific writing for the sake of objectivity but this instance is not an appropriate place to use it.
16. Karen Barad, “TransMaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” You can find a free version on the scholarly archive Sci-Hub.
17. See Hegel’s master-slave section from Phenomenology of Spirit
19. See Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
20. Still I will be read as a female, and I will be read as a sorry little creature corseted by Unrealistic Beauty Standards. I expect to be recommended Wildfang T-shirts and body-positive music videos. Or, I will be read as a butch lesbian, or a prepubercent boy, or a living, thinking human being, while I want to be read as a skin sack containing a pile of proteins, yearning to be eaten by the butterfly-to-be, the imago ideal.
21. The game that is the cycle of eating and defecating.
22. I think about a dead friend. I recall the moments in which our lives coalesced, instances through which I assure that I have known him for eternity. The air we once inhabited in condensed his conscious and unconscious histories and imbued those gems into me. Still I do not know what I know of his life and his death. His resemblances apparate on, and sometimes substitute for, eating, talking, laughing, loving, excreting human faces. The faces live as though nothing has happened and nothing has mattered, and we live as if the tantamount fissure hovering in us will one day be remedied. What differences are there between a friend who is gone for good and a friend who moved to the south and became extremely busy? What keeps me from joining him? What significance is buried in the thick dirt of life that is worth excavating? What separates me from I and Him? Nothing, no-thing, none-thing, nothing. It tramples and trembles and throws its tantrum and screams. Yet it is nothing. Like the December sun on a dark opaque green river, or a sliver of flickering candlelight that draws moths in.
23. The Buddhist level of hell in which frozen bodies blossom into giant lotuses.
24. The hell in which beings are baked in extreme heat for forever.
25. See Aime Cesaire, Lay of Errantry.
26. See axioms 30, 20, 8, 7, 6, and 3.
27. See axioms 32, 28, 27, 19, and footnote 13.
Chris Shen is a tenure-tracked eco-uncanny-post-nomadic-osmosian-cyber-guerilla, or a clown.