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On Bodily Noises

The Philosophical Research Group.

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On Bodily Noises

Bodily Noises are something— like cursewords, and all things sexual before Freud— that are richly anthropological and lushly revealing, but are nevertheless ignored because they make "inappropriate study," and whose suppression as topics, I think, is connected with their suppression in society-at-large. Yawns, Burps, Farts, Sneezes, Coughs, Hiccups, and perhaps Snoring. They occupy a similar corner of our thinking, to the point where I feel compelled to say "Gesundheit" after another's Cough or Burp or Fart. They are all sudden bursts of air, named in English by onomatopoeia, that puncture social situations with rude reminders of the body and its mechanisms. But why for example does elementary school society esteem the Burper, while a poorly-timed Fart can lead to total banishment? Why are Farts and Hiccups funnier than Sneezes and Coughs? Can we order their rudeness, and what is this order based on? What can we stand to learn from writers like Chaucer and Rabelais and B. Franklin who use them lyrically and quasi-philosophically? And why are Farts so deeply humiliating and rude to some people— banished from Children's Television, prohibited even outdoors, analogous to the fearsome cunt in the curseword canon, and the Bodily Noise with the strongest practical reason for censure (i.e., it fills the room with the stench of the lower intestine).

I suppose Snores have a practical reason for censure, as well. Dad, snoring loudly and incessantly through the annual family camping trip, robs us of our much-needed rest. But we cannot censure him. One, he's your father and deserving of filial piety. And two, Snoring is an involuntary noise, like normal breathing— more than involuntary really. Unconscious by definition. Which is an interesting twist on things, and maybe the reason Snoring barely made the slate to begin with.

There is another shadowy figure which is technically a Bodily Noise, conspicuous by its absence, which is Laughter. When I was inwardly counting off Bodily Noises, I never for a second considered Laughter. I doubt most would, even though Laughter is a "sudden burst of air, erupting from the body," very audible, often rude, and usually involuntary. It sits too close to Language, for us, which is itself technically a set of Bodily Noises. Though involuntary, Laughter responds to meaning more than other Bodily Noises, which we usually think of as results of a physiological process. Bacteria. Trapped gases. Illness. Ugly Stuff and Bad Air. Bodily Noises are our body talking, by contrast, much like another unnamed Bodily Noise, Stomach Growls (known in medical terms as "borbyrygmi").

With true Bodily Noise, the I-proper is not speaking, not even subconsciously. There is a clean disjunct with our will and intention. It is vegetative, physiological, less than animal. Voluntary, semantic noises like scoffs, guffaws, and yelps are even closer to Language than Laughter, and are thoroughly discounted. But this body-speaking has something to do with their faux-pas potential in some ways. Much like putting an orangutan on the Board of Trustees, it drags Nature into Culture, and gives the body a chance to say some pretty ugly things. I think Nature-into-Culture imports are often the source of shame, and might be a good way of framing our picture of Bodily Noises.

As it turns out, the Yawn is not the result of a physiological process either, but apparently a relic of proto-Language. That is, the Yawn is not the result of a lack of oxygen, it is a proto-linguistic form of group synchronization among animals, though still involuntary and scientifically proven to be "contagious." That is, it responds to the outside world of sense, rather than the dark, blind, mole-like internal world of process. However this announcement came pretty late in the game and society-at-large always presumed it to be a physiological response to "a lack of oxygen in the tired brain." So, we'll stick it in the drawer with all the other veritable Bodily Noises, for the time being.

Historically, I bet that Bodily Noises were more significant than at present day. Rather than thinking of them as "little pressure valves" they were probably construed as symptoms of looming illness, which in the topsy-turvy world of premodern medicine, was often considered to the result of "bad airs." The connection between Bodily Noises and bad air is hard to miss. Like the cough, they may have all seemed symptomatic rather than indications of healthy metabolism. This may also partially explain their lingering suppression, in a way; that they were signs of the presence of bad, infected airs in the Burper or Farter.

Things shift if we ask what happens when we burp or fart— or sneeze— on purpose. Or when, like Rabelais, we use farts as emancipatory gestures. And who among us can use the Fart as an emancipatory gesture? Who's still ashamed to fart in public—even outside— and why? Burping has come a long way in the West. Obviously, the fart is scatological, and suffers the same suppression and exile as its black-sheep cousin, feces. I think we can safely say this is the faux-pas power and charge of farts, as a sort of epiphenomena of the scatological, the smoke above the fires. However, the question of "why is shit so shameful" is too steep to tackle here as a tangent, though. So we'll save it for later and keep to the question "why its more innocent echo, the Fart, bears this shame," and how this affects our outlooks.

When Rabelais penned entire chapters of Gargantua and Pantagruel about world-historical farts, this was to remind the world of the much-maligned Body, just as the fart does. Rabelais wanted the body to speak up, make itself known, along with all its impulses, needs, and processes. Rabelais wanted a robust body to answer centuries of Christian denial and devaluation. The fart, here, is not just a cheap joke or gimmick. It's allied with a heroic moral purpose, which is what gives Gargantua and Pantagruel such dimension throughout its innumerable fart jokes and wine-soaked vignettes. What can we learn from Rabelais? One, our own hesitation to fart in public gives us a good reading of own Bodily shame, the measure of an ancient body devaluation. We can give the "practical reason" behind it, that "it's unpleasant for others." Still, we are ashamed to fart outside, and might ponder our own deeper motives behind this injunction, whether we are doing this from Shame or from Decency. I mean, I'm glad people keep it to themselves, except for certain comic exceptions. If I was at the grocery store, and some hefty hausfrau kept fumigating the check-out line in front of me, I would be pretty displeased with her reclamations of the Body. I'd want her to have the decency to wait until she was in her car, with the windows rolled up if she so pleased.

Another angle is the pleasure or displeasure of some Bodily Noises. I have a secret to confess: that like many peoples of the world, I engage in recreational sneezing. Playing off old liaisons between sneezes and orgasms, this is comparable to masturbation in some ways, and elicits a similar, though far milder, public discomfort. Here's another interesting factoid: "1624: Pope Urban VII threatens to excommunicate those who snort snuff because sneezing is too similar to an orgasm," again pitting the Body versus the Church. This emboldens me to take my vice public. To make a special "sneezer" keyring, that I can sneeze at will, whenever and where ever. A technology of pleasure. A happy vice.

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