It all begins with a number. As part of a doctor’s physical, I get blood work done and one of the numbers comes back abnormally high — not freakishly high, not imminent death high, but peculiarly high. So there sits this number on a screen (of my laptop, from home, a benefit of the electronic medical record). What does it mean? And who, or what, determines this meaning?
Next to the number is a set of other numbers, a range of what is officially — whatever that means — considered normal. This is no doubt useful information as it’s presumably an aggregate of lots of numbers from lots of people. Of course, in many ways I am not a normal person. If we look at the aggregate of how people lead their lives, I don’t lead a normal life. So why should this be normal?
Yes, I realize that the body is different. At least I think I realize that. Are our bodies in fact so similar that we can offer what is normal and what is not normal? I suppose so; I suppose we are machines and, sure, there are deviations but for the most part, we are mechanically pretty much the same.
Still, there’s that number on a screen and what it means. My doctor-mechanic doesn’t know. I sit with him and offer theory after theory — maybe I eat too much rice and it’s the arsenic; maybe I don’t drink enough water; maybe I drink too much booze. He doesn’t look at me; he vaguely nods along to my nervous theorizing. And then he orders more tests.
To him, as a doctor, I am an aggregate of mostly discrete numbers, some of which can be taken together. He doesn’t consider my mood, which is a tad manic. He doesn’t look at my skin, my ass, my balls; he doesn’t ask about my sexual appetite or my sleep or what I’ve been eating, what I’ve been craving. No, to him, I am a set of numbers within a model of the body and its attending decision tree. It’s an elaborate economy of signification: if this, then that, unless there’s this, then it’s that.
I am not suggesting he’s wrong or right; I am suggesting that the way he finds meaning and the way I find meaning are quite different. And that both are premised on a certain madness — his, the madness of numbers; me, the madness of, well, madness.
I see that number and my mind goes in multiple directions at once. At first, feeling good and go lucky, I think nothing of it. Who’s the medical industrial complex to tell me what’s normal and what’s not? I like my kidneys functioning like this! This nonchalance, however, quickly gives way to a careening horror: I am dying. Suddenly, I start noticing all the tics and pains in my body. Everything becomes a symptom — how I shit, my appetite, my sleep (or lack thereof), bumps, bruises, tastes.
All of my thinking is run through with the horrific images of my sister’s death. She went from diagnosis — basically no real symptoms prior to a massive one — to death in five months. I remember being at Sloan Kettering and the doctor popping film into the light box and pointing to these little white dots — one in this lung, one in that lung, one in the liver, others I can’t remember. Those little white dots on a screen — a very strange photograph, for sure — was a death sentence.
So now that’s all I see: little white dots where there shouldn’t be. Of course, I can’t see these dots — they’re in my organs. And they’re not just little white dots; they’re animated, moving maliciously, mercilessly. Mind you, I haven’t seen any pictures of my innards. All I see is a number on a screen and my thoughts take me to little white dots of death.
I remember once, maybe 15 years ago, playing frisbee (I refuse to capitalize my f) golf in Golden Gate Park with my brilliant friend. We never played a course. The joy was to move through the park and pick ‘holes’ as we went. See that tree there? The crazy one? No, the one next to it. Ah, yes. There’s something beautiful about seeing together. Anyway, one time we’re making our way through the park and let’s just say we’re feeling good, as it were, and my friend says: See that rock there? And I reply: The tombstone?
He sees a rock; I see a tombstone.
All thinking is metaphoric, a movement from here to there. That is what metaphor means, movement, transfer, transport: going from a rock to a tombstone, a number on a screen to death. Nothing presents itself in some unadulterated being. Everything is enmeshed in economies of power and desire. Everything is historical.
This is the beauty and hilarity of thought. It’s rarely a direct line. It zigs and zags; it careens, makes surprising detours. Deleuze and Guattari give us a different image of the body, a different metaphor: a body without organs. Their body is one of diverse and varied flows, not one of organs and functions. The body with organs seem so, well, industrial. The body without organs is exquisitely psychedelic.
Clearly, our structures of thought — our categories and logics, our truths — serve different kinds of power. Usually, we think with fear — fear of the little white dots, of the darker skin, of losing a job, of dying, of being alone. Nietzsche tries to offer us something else entirely, what he calls a gay science, a knowledge of joy.
Meanwhile, my shrink says to let all thinking go, to enjoy my thinking, in whatever form it takes, but never to take it seriously for all thinking is historical, transient, all-too-human. And the world could care less if I live, if I die, if I’m sick or stupid or happy. So I might as well be happy, numbers be damned.