Rhythms: second movement

Rhythms: second movement

Second post on the subject of rhythms. Begins to explore the idea that madness may be an experience of corporeal rhythms, and that power operates by imposing its rhythms of its own.

In the first part of these diversions into rhythms I got to the point of asserting that power always imposes a rhythm on life. In that post I looked at how the lived temporality of everyday life comes to be segmented and serialised according to imposed and adopted rhythms. Serialised time is the time of regulated by imposed routines; time lived according to a regime of temporal planning. This segmentation of temporal flows is out of our control. Just as the spatial arrangement of cities is the domain of the knowledgeable practices of urban planners so are the temporal arrangements of our lives often out of our hands, confined to the management of chronocrats. Before examining this any further I need to elaborate on what this has to do with mental illness and a militant approach to mental health.

Psychiatry is founded on a disavowed dualism, the etymological ground of all psy-disciplines finding itself in its historical emergence from the study of psyche. Psyche is mind understood as spirit: the mind as a disembodied and therefore supernatural entity. This isn’t to say that psychiatry hasn’t concerned itself with the body. From its inception as a distinct branch of medicine it has always had a relationship to the body whether in terms of humours, endocrinology, libidinal drive theories, or, as is the case today, genetics and neuroscience. In one respect we might say that biomedical psychiatry and neuropsychiatry are born not only out of advances in the natural sciences but also from the anxiety particular to the psy-disciplines among fields of medical practice: that they have been too concerned with a disembodied mind. The rush to embody the mind, to bring the soul back down to earth, has resulted in a reductionism wherein the pragmatic coupling of brains to bodies and both to environments that are physical, historical, social, economic and political has been left out of the picture 1.

But we are bodies. Whatever we call the mind is nothing more than the body and its various couplings: the practically oriented, situated, extended, embodied mind. To go into the specifics of the various forms of embodied mind theories would go far beyond the point of the present post, with its focus on the link between rhythms, mental illness, and power. Suffice to say that the natural sciences are our most sophisticated and most evidenced forms of knowing, that materialism of one stripe or another is necessarily the truth that has been disclosed to us. To cling to transcendental egos, disembodied minds, Cartesian theatres or other hypotheses that would make “mind” into some special category independent of matter is to hold to a religious principle. We begin by agreeing with neitzsche's Zarathustra:

body am I entirely,and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.

As bodies we are biophysical machines. We are machines insofar our bodies are composed of the ever mobile and combinatory connections and couplings that form transverse drawing-together of disparate units. By connections I’m talking about all what we normally think of as relationships that belong to the body’s insides as described by biology and its various subdisciplines, as well as chemistry and eventually physics. By coupling I’m getting at the relationship this or that body has with the various environments that it forms a pragmatic relationship with. When I use a tool I am forming a machinic coupling with that tool, when I am using a laptop to “think on the page” I am forming a machinic coupling with the keys, the screen, the whole laptop, and more abstractly with the knowledges and rules implied by laptop use. This is necessarily only a sketch of what is going on- after all, the machinic connections extend in absurd directions: my laptop proximally couples me to the near object “laptop”, and to the rest of the room around me, the world beyond it, and distally connected to elements, techniques, laboratories, aircraft and cars and other vehicles involved in distribution networks, to the roads they travelled on, and so on and so on until an entire onto-cartography was sketched. It should be clear that every connection is also an coupling from the perspective of the coupled bodies: my lungs are coupled to my trachea. These are transverse because there is no absolute distinction to be made between lungs and trachea etc. In living matter such as humans, the appropriation of these enmeshings and weavings is called sensibility: the machinery of the flesh of the world making contact with itself. Like any other machines, our bodies produce and are regulated by certain rhythms and in many respects these rhythms are the pulsations of the materio-energetic movements across and within certain thresholds.

Some of the more obvious of these rhythms include our pulse. Our pulse is the effect of the forceful muscular action of the contraction of the heart. When this mechanism contracts it pushes blood, the liquid medium of billions of molecular machine-bodies, into the circulatory system with such power that a shockwave is produced. The heart is an explosion that keeps exploding. The shockwave travels out along the arterial tissue you can feel through the skin, ready to be touched by the fingers of another body. The fingers as seismological instruments detecting tremors on the surface of the flesh, the invisible is made palpable and sensible contact is made.

The basic rhythm of living, the heart beat, is both an intimate biophysical rhythm (“my heartbeat”) and a communicative rhythm (“the patient’s heartbeat”). Another basic rhythm of living: the respiration rate, the taking in and expelling of air, even more directly observable as the chest rises and falls, the nostrils flair, a wheeze is produced, steam fogs the cold air in front of the face. Codified in medicine into normal ranges- more or less- we can “read” from the body whether that body is in distress. If we live in a time of nervousness, in the anxiogenic rush of acceleration, then the pulse and the respiration rate are both phenomenological and material markers of that anxiety. As the pulse races (acceleration of circulatory rhythm) and hyperventilation floods the body with carbon dioxide (respiratory rhythm), panic sets in. The acceleration of the rhythm of life is already the rhythm of anxiety.

Anxiety, whatever else it is, is a rhythm. It is a series of rhythms; a polyrhythm2. The “unexperienced experience” of the physiology of anxiety that subtends and determines the “experienced experience” of anxiety is thus a specific spatio-temporalising sequence that gives rise to a very definite embodied experience of time. Anxiety can be mild and fleeting. It can also be chronic and low-level, forming a kind of debilitating existential hum (as in generalised anxiety disorder), or it can rise into a terrible cacophonous explosion (as in panic attacks and phobias). Of course anxiety isn’t reducible to the physiological only, but neither is the physiological to be kept outside of the political. If we can talk about precarity inducing anxiety and depression- nervousness- then we can talk about precarity as an abstract machine for the production of nervous bodies.

The incitement of an awareness of corporeal vulnerability- for instance, via the exposure to the possibility of homelessness, hunger or starvation, an absolutely uncertain future- and the experience of the body as vulnerable are the cognitive outcomes of the conditions of precarity. The cognitive component of anxiety forms the semiological aspect of its semiosomatic horror as catastrophic interpretations of bodily sensations take hold. As someone who used to suffer from regular panic attacks I can assure you that every single one “felt” like a heart attack. The production of rhythms of anxiety is the result of the conditions of precarity that all workers find themselves in following the neoliberal recomposition of labour. As such we can see this production as a specific example of a physiological intervention carried out on the social body via the productive body.

These interventions are carried out within the context of the society of stimulation that actively aims at the incitement of hyperaroused bodies. Whether or not anxiety is produced by design or as an epiphenomenal byproduct of processes of excitatory subjectivation doesn’t make much difference as the result is the same: biological rhythms are excited into a state of electrocution thereby generating pathological existential rhythms. In the enervated body all modes of machinic coupling with the enervating environment produce a lived world that is nervous. The world itself takes on the affective tenor of anxiety. In other words, the anxious body lives in a world of anxiety.

Anxiety also involves electrical rhythms 3. The heart generates it own electricity that powers the action-potentials which trigger contraction. But there are also neural electrical considerations. Neural rhythms are (imperfectly) detectable with brain imagining techniques that provide us with low resolution representations of what is going on inside our skulls. This low-res problem is compounded by the fact that these representations are taken in clinical situations that don’t accurately simulate the complexity of everyday life, and which still require the interpretative labour of technicians and neurologists who operate with various assumptions about what it is they are interpreting. Nonetheless, we can’t simply ignore what these techniques provide us with, even if we have to be careful not to completely reduce subjectivity to its neuroelectrical correlates.

In an experiment conducted by Tognoli and Kelso et al.. 4 two people were placed sitting facing on another, both moving one finger each up and down before one another. Later, a screen was placed in front of the two so as to block each ones view of the other. The experimenters were able to observe representations of the neuro-electrical rhythms generated by each participant in both of the experimental conditions. When they could observe each other the participants scans showed the presence of a particular rhythm that was absent when they couldn’t. When the screen was removed the rhythm (dubbed phi) reappeared. Tognoli and Kelso also reported that the pattern of the rhythm altered depending on whether the participants moved their fingers separately or whether they mirrored each other’s movements. The suggestion is that the rhythm of the body and the neural rhythm synchronise with each other and can operate transindividually as shared rhythms. This transcorporeal rhythm- rhythm across bodies and within bodies- has come to be known as “social rhythm”.

In my last post I discussed the serialisation of rhythms with the example of the routine of the unit I work on. The ward routine served as a means of showing how psychiatry attempts to bring patients back into the generalised social rhythm of the social body by structuring the day. Where I work this includes a therapeutic program but in many psychiatric wards this is absent. All that remains of the routine is the skeletal frame of wake up, take meds, eat breakfast, take meds, and go to bed. In between patients are regularly left to their own devices. That was certainly my experience in training where the most therapeutic activity was often a game of pool. The social rhythm of the ward routine is an organisationally imposed one that the residents/detainees of a given clinical environment have more or less zero say in. Their social rhythms are alienated from them, organised from the outside by an alien power, and so can only appear as empty. I can’t advance on what the leading figure of the Italian “democratic psychiatry” movement, Franco Basaglia, said on this subject at a 1964 conference:

The loss of a scheme, the loss of the future, the state of being in the power of others without being able to direct oneself, and having one's day tuned and organised on an impersonal rhythm, dictated only by organisational demands that - such as they are - cannot take into account the single individual and particular circumstances: this is institutionalisation. This is, however, also the rhythm on which society is based. Thus, when the patient - alienated from life, suffering from the loss of relationship with others, and himself - enters the mental home, instead of finding here a place where he can free himself from the burden of others, where he can reconstruct his own personal world, he find new rules, new structures that make him lose himself still more, and push him more and more towards objectiveness, until he identifies himself with them. This is why men still fear each other, why they do not trust one another and why the consequences of madness, that are for the legislator the centre of his apprehension, overcome the value of the mentally sick patient as a man 5.

The rhythms of the ward are also the rhythms of capitalist society. We suffer from nervous rhythms in our own bodies and across the social body; but we also suffer from institutional rhythms. We are synchronised by capitalist oscillators that operate on our biorhythms, sending them into the bivalent extremes of stimulation and destimulation, acceleration and deceleration, excitation-discharge-deflation, frenetic activity and mindfulness. In this post I’ve considered how physiological interventions act as devices that conduct our neurological rhythms and gestured at how this affects our coupling to the environment, our ability to act in the world, and how is both pathological and institutional. In the next post in this series I’ll apply these considerations to circadian rhythms.

  • 1. I take this term from Manturana and Valera, and from its use in Thompson and Valera's Embodied Mind. The theory of structural coupling is vital to the enactivist school of thought that is taken up by philosopher Alva noe. noe's own work often appears as a reactivation of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology defended with reference to contemporary cognitive science. To provide a quick definition of the enactivist program I quote from a wiki article: ""Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations. Natural cognitive systems...participate in the generation of meaning ...engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world". It is this subject that I did completed my nursing dissertation on, and which I defend as the correct approach to the mind and madness.
  • 2. It should be noted that an emphasis on rhythms means an emphasis on temporality over topology. For instance, consider Henri Lefebrve discussing a rhythmanalysis: "In place of a collection of fixed things, you will follow each being, each body, as having its own time above the whole". This might appear unimportant but recall that the mind and cognitions are often reified into static objects; even neuroplastic brains can be reified into the synchronic identity of "the brain", thereby erasing the neurodiversity of the multiplicity of brain-bodies that exist .
  • 3. A future post will discuss this in more detail, especially as it is these rhythms that psychiatric technologies- by way of neuroengineering/neuromodulation- wish to control. To some degree this technology already exists and represents the possibility of the emergence of a neurototalitarianism.
  • 4. The phi complex as a neuromarker of human social coordination. Here
  • 5. Basaglia, F. 1964. The destruction of the mental hospital as a place of institutionalisation: thoughts caused by personal experience with the open door system and part time service. Here ,

Posted By

sometimes explode
Jun 3 2014 20:07


  • In the enervated body all modes of machinic coupling with the enervating environment produce a lived world that is nervous. The world itself takes on the affective tenor of anxiety. In other words, the anxious body lives in a world of anxiety.

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