The Formal Body and the Subtle Body

Deleuze and Guattari say that we all are at once an organism and a Body without Organs.

Buddhists say that we have at once a formal body and a subtle body.

As far as I can see, the formal body=the organism and the subtle body=the Body without Organs.

The difference is between an external and internal perspective.  The organism, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the ‘organ-isation’ imposed on top of the Body without Organs.  To be an organism is to be all internally subdivided into self-contained little organs which can be anatomised, worked on surgically, diagramed and colour coded.  Metaphorically, it is to have a socially embedded identity.  Your organism is that you which can fit into a form: write your name in block capitals, and then tick the appropriate boxes for sex, race, age, profession.  And don’t leave the house without your wallet and your pants!

Similarly, the ‘formal’ body or matierial body is that which has form, which has matter, which can be perceived by and exists for others.  And it corresponds to an ego.  It’s all very self-contained and relatively stable.  The organism and the formal body are neat, and from there we can easily move into a modern Western fixation on the polite body versus the grotesque body.  The polite body farts silently and pretends it wasn’t me.  The grotesque body shits explosively and has a big laugh about it.

The subtle body is the body as experienced internally.  With a throbbing headache, the subtle body has a huge head, for example.  The subtle body of an amputee may still have that limb–the source of terrible phantom pains.

The Body without Organs is that in you which is not contained by and in fact protests against all of the labelling of identity.  Rather than self-contained organs, we have all those permeable membranes, arranged in patterns but pulsing, linked with flows, sparking with electricity.  There is the you that gets lost, that gets high, that goes mad, that slips free of all the organisation.

The subtle body of Buddhism is, it seems, less a thing in revolt.  There are pathways laid out for it, and there are maps and diagrams drawn for it.  The chakras are an anatomy of the subtle body, of the paths by which intensities move through the body.  Tantric yoga is a way of working with the subtle body, getting the intensities to flow in a certain way, and coming to understand an absolute connection between the self and the other (so much so that there seems to be no division).  It’s a way of stepping out of a contained formal body into a subtle body that embraces and transcends dualism.

The Body without Organs is a 20th century Western coming towards the subtle body.  And it is a subversive thing, a thing which it’s hard to talk about and understand.  This is clear from the way that Deleuze and Guattari write about it.  They write about the BwO of the drug user, across which intensities of cold circulate, freezing the spinal column, approaching absolute zero.  Or the BwO created by a masochist program–sew up my arse, put a bit in my mouth and beat me with a crop so that waves of pain will flow across my BwO and that I may become a horse.  The schizophrenic is the BwO par excellence, so that Napoleon, God and Anastasia become names by one can designate zones of intensity–not so different from chakras, really.  When Bessie Head writes that Elizabeth is becoming Isis and David and Al Capone, she’s mapping Elizabeth’s subtle body.

The trouble is, of course, that the BwO (versus the subtle body) isn’t so well hooked up to cultural apparatuses in the West, and if one dismantles the organism in a hurry and all alone, that’s a very dangerous project.  You can bring the whole structure crashing down on you.  You might go out of your mind and not come back.  Head’s Elizabeth gets way far out of herself, all the way to heaven an hell, and it makes her suicidal–she needs the interventions of hospitals twice.  It’s not that those hospitals understand what’s going on at all, but they give her an anchor and haul her back from the extremes of her demented journeying.  And so, although they don’t seem very aware of Buddhism or Hinduism and the close equivalents there, Deleuze and Guattari urge caution, careful practice, when one is constructing a BwO.  What are the forms of Buddhism (the various ‘yanas’), after all, but practices, methods, tools?


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