Spring 2018–Winter 2019

The Non-Boundary

Inside out

Justin E. H. Smith

A thought experiment: what would our metaphysics look like if nature or the creator had endowed us with exoskeletons? No permeable membrane would mediate between ourselves and the world. We would be not so much embodied as encased. Nutrition and respiration would go on, inside the casing, and sensation would go on too, in some unimaginable way, mostly through the quasi-olfactive chemoreceptors of our antennae. But we would lack the direct and constant experience of exposure to the world. We would lack the experience of bodily flux, of being—as Björk said of girls but may in fact be said, at the very least, of all the land-dwelling vertebrates—fountains of blood.

One suspects that under such circumstances the dualism of inner and outer would only be that much stronger: inside is the self, outside is the world, and between the two is an insensate and non-negotiable wall. We would likely be only the more prone to developing philosophical theories in which the body, as Pythagoras taught, is a prison. If our outer surface, a fixed, stable, unfeeling pod, did not constitute that part of the veil of perception through which we feel out the outer world by means of touch, would that outer world, beyond our thick panzers, seem more real, or less? Would it still be, as the philosophers say, a “problem”?

Aristotle says of crayfish, crabs, turtles, and oysters that their “fleshy part” is on the inside. For them, the shell functions as a sort of lantern cover. “Since these creatures are bloodless, they possess but little heat,” so the shell “encloses the faintly burning heat and protects it.”[1] The bloodless animals, as Aristotle understands them, are not entirely without fluid analogous to blood, as one can observe in the blue-green trace of liquid oozing out of a crawfish or even a squirt of hemolymph from a crushed insect. But there is no question of the liquid jetting out here, and, if the tradition placed animals’ life and soul—which for the Aristotelians are coextensive—in what we normally call blood, no one would have ever thought to locate an oyster’s soul in its analogous fluid. Rather, it was thought to reside in its shell-enclosed fleshy part, which Aristotle calls sarx (whence our word sarcophagus, the “flesh eater”), but which may also be denoted by kreas, from which we have the word pancreas: that which is all meat, all the way through. Flesh or meat, we are starting to see, is not the same thing as skin. Flesh is the soft, moist, meat-like stuff of life, common to all animals, but which in the case of some creatures, such as oysters, can be made visible by prying them open without necessarily violating the integrity of their organic function, as you must do to cut through to the viscera of a skin-bound animal. This is possible with oysters and other shell-bound creatures insofar as they are contained within an insensate structure that is of a fundamentally different character than their flesh.

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