Xenomelia, Wherefrom the Phallus

January 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

What good are explanations of mental illness based entirely on the speech and utterances of the patient? A short encounter with a person, who in not too clear terms spoke of a Lacanian practice she was involved in, made me want to compile a list of howlers. The sort produced by the hermeneutics which operates in such practice. Wherein subjects who are presumably constituted by the interpellative structure of speech, address themselves to discourse of the other, whose desire is signified by a/the phallus.

V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego, has been a prominent popularizer of the wonders of neurosciences. Many a lay tube viewer has first learned of Synesthesia, Capgras Symptom and the phenomena of Phantom Limbs through talks by him. His later appearances unfortunately seem to show him in poor health.

In the following lecture titled “Embodied Souls -Lessons from Neurology” part of UC Berkley’s Foerester Lectures he adds Xenomelia to his set list of neurological curiosities.

A psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels one or more limbs of it’s body do not belong to itself. This is followed by a desire to have the limb amputated.

A phrenological guess Ramachandram says would posit that the limb in question lacks a proper representation in the brain. So it was expected that when poked, the portion of the limb which the patient desires to be removed should show diminished galvanic skin response. It showed instead an increased response.

It has been known through the study of patients with neurological lesions that damage to the right hemisphere, and particularly to the right parietal lobe, can lead to a variety of disorders of body image

Ramachandran goes on to explain (here I provide the wording not from the talk but that available from a paper by Paul D McGeoch, David Brang, Tao Song, Roland R Lee, Mingxiong Huang & V S Ramachandran on Xenomilia) that: Anatomically the right Superior Parietal Lobule (SPL) is particularly well placed to combine disparate sensory inputs to construct a dynamic body image as it receives inputs from, the dorsal visual stream, S1, S2, the premotor cortex and M1.

So the hypothesis that cortical representation in the right SPL fails to represent a particular limb was tested. A statistically significant reduction in MEG activity in the right SPL following tactile stimulation of the subjects’ affected legs was seen as support for the hypothesis.

In the cases studied the visual and somatosensory cortices are intact, so the individuals with xenomelia could still see and feel the affected limb; however, insufficient corresponding representation of the affected limb in the right SPL, seems to create  a conflict where sufferers failed to incorporate (the tactile sensations)  into their body image.This discrepancy is seen as explanation for the significantly heightened change in skin conductance response (a marker of sympathetic activity) to touch below the desired line of amputation.

One wonders wherein could Lacanians import the phallic signifier, destined to designate meaning effects.

Believe it or not says Ramachandran, there did exist a psychoanalytic explanation for cases were patients wanted an arm removed. It asserted that the subject wanted to amputate the arm to create a giant stump which resembles a giant penis.

# Besides the plain absurdity, there is something very upsetting about this intrusion. I felt a similar violation of senses whilst reading Deleuze and the Genesis of Representation by Joe Hughes a year before coming across Ramachandran’s talk. So I’d like to describe the occasion in order to better understand the nature of it.

Joe Hughes has written two amazingly clear books on Deleuze, so good that in fact on each start I had the sense, that finally am about to penetrate the thought of the esteemed Frenchman. 

But then the invasion of master signifier took place, already on page 32, in the midst of what appeared to be an account of bestowal of meaning by the mind (i.e. the process by which a series of mental acts give form or animate sensuous data) or as the title would have it the genesis of representation.

A series of passive synthesis are hypothesized or imagined by Deleuze by which sense is created from what is labelled primary order (sensation at the level of unindividuated bodies).

It is unclear on what basis this schema is asserted, not accounts of developmental psychology or neurophysiology?!! 

Hughes does explain its connection to similar schemata by Husserl and Kant. So one has a sense that it may not be fully absurd. But paradoxes abound in the new schema such as there being an ego present in the primary depths. To imagine an ego (the notorious BwO)  in an as yet un-constituted body is truly psychedelic.

During what is labelled the conjunctive passive synthesis of partial surfaces (apparently a term denoting an assemblage of the ego and the image it contemplates) Joe Hughes explains that “The image of phallus gathers together all partial surfaces into one complete surface.”

what? please?

This strange news is followed by this passage from Deleuze’s Logic of Sense:

The phallus should not penetrate, but rather, like a plowshare applied to thin fertile earth, it should trace a line at the surface. This line emanating from the genital zone, is the line which ties together all the erogenous zone thus ensuring their connection

A footnote informs us that in the page previous to the one from which this passage was taken Deleuze had asserted ‘…the direct and global function of integration or of general coordination is normally vested in the genital zone’

The novelty of this discovery is astounding, I was or am still under the impression that human brain is the organ burdened with those duties. Not so for one in Paris in 1969.

But is it the phallus or its image which is involved in sense creation? Joe Hughes takes further trouble to translate the savage psychedelic dream into the following phenomenological account.

“In pregenital sexuality, the ego moved from the direct fragmented contemplation of its object to the contemplation of an image which stood for the object that had affected it. In genital sexuality these images of its affections  have been coordinated and put in relation to one another by virtue of a second kind of image: the phallus. ”  

How can images of affectation come together by virtue of another image?

Why are the terms pregenital and genital sexuality used for the two passive synthesis by which sensuous data are organized? If say one wants to give an account of processing sounds from an orchestra, why would one characterize a gradual process of sense making as stages of increasing erogenous coordination. Unless organs such as the outer ear and the inner ear are to be relabeled or imagined as a sort of scrotum or a kind of clitoris.

Even absent the hideous genital element, a more fundamental question for any such phenomenological project that seeks to explain the genesis of sense and  representation is perhaps: How is access to a passive realm possible?

There is no reason to expect the mechanism by which appearances are produced, to be apparent. Since a ‘Deleuze’ is not as a ‘Ramachandran’ tracing excitation and correlating trends in them to defects in functions which have accompanying phenomenal aspects, what licenses the former to posit say three rather than seven passive synthesis or absurdities such as larval subjects and an ego of the passive depths?


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