The Pig That Therefore I Am
"The skin, a single tissue with localized concentrations, displays sensitivity. It shivers, expresses, breathes, listens, loves, and lets itself to be loved, receives, refuses, retreats, its hair stands on the end with horror, it is covered with fissures, rashes, and the wounds of the soul."1 -Michel Serres
I lift up my shirt with my left hand and carefully touch my lower abdomen with my right hand. My right ring finger delicately runs over a few raised bumps on the right side, directly over the appendix. I look down and count the bumps. Seven raised scars from shingles I had at the age of sixteen. It was a turbulent time. My skin had spoken out about the inner distress. My third year in boarding school, I would often sit in a dark dorm room and silently cry and scream until I felt I didn't exist anymore. No one listened. The language barrier was aggravating. It was a rigorous regimen for a maladjusted teenager. The sensation of my finger touching the scars, and my abdomen simultaneously feeling the subtle touch, immediately conjures up painful memories of my adolescence.
All senses mingle on the skin, the largest organ of the human body. Not only is it an envelope, a container keeping the body intact and safe, it is also a membrane that allows exchange between the inside and the outside of the body. Through millions of pores, temperature is regulated, impurities are secreted, and vapors are absorbed. Nerve endings, sweat glands, capillaries, and hair follicles are all intricately intertwined in the skin. The mucous membrane meets the skin at crucial points where all of our senses are formed—ears, lips, nostrils, eyelids, anus, and genital areas. Skin shapes the nose and the nostrils in a way that allows efficient breathing and our sense of smell. The opening of the mouth is carefully formed with a band of thin skin that we call lips, which connect the thicker exterior skin on our face and mucous membranes inside the mouth, where five tastes and further sensations are detected. These small openings on the body and the skin together create our total perception of the world.
The skin is also a defining medium for the internal consciousness of the body. This idea occupies a central place in Michel Serres's philosophy of the senses. In touching his lips with a finger, he examines the consciousness that dwells in parts where skin is tangential to itself, such as lips, eyelids, clenched fists, and so on. “Skin on skin becomes conscious, as does skin on mucus membrane and mucus membrane on itself. Without this folding, without the contact of the self on itself, there would truly be no internal sense, no body properly speaking, cœnesthesia even less so, no real image of the body; we would live without consciousness...”2 Cœnesthesia is usually defined as an aggregate of all internal sensations that generate the awareness of our physiological existence; for example, hunger, headache, and sexual desires.3 It is inextricably linked to external sensations through the skin, like temperature, vibration, and pressure. Breathing deeply and feeling the lungs fill with cold air, for example, is not possible without the initial sensation of the cold air rushing in through mouth and nostrils. A similar idea goes with a punch in the stomach. These sensations, both physically and mentally, incorporate the world into the body–the cold air diffuses in the lungs, and the outsider's fist makes a momentary but painful presence in the intestines. Situated in between the interior and the exterior, the skin becomes a meeting point, or more accurately, a merging point, of the inner body and the world.
Body and world mingle on the skin, as much as body and soul. The soul is inseparable from the body. It moves through the body like watered ink on mulberry paper. With the tip of the brush touching the surface, ink is applied and it spreads with water molecules through intricate fibers of the paper skin. When I put my two thumbs together and push them into my appendix region with force, my soul multiplies at that point, just like the inkblot applied with more pressure. The ink cannot be separated from the paper. Paper is the skin, and soul and body blend in the skin.
Through the sensations of skin on skin, living bodies in the external world are formed, in relation to the self. When two bodies come in contact–each of them touching and being touched at the same time–the souls meet and interweave on the skin, and the subject and the object become one.
Children, at a remarkably early age, learn very quickly how animals come into being through their caresses. Gently touching a cat, they feel the fullness of being in the cat– the soft fur, the flesh-colored skin, and the moving muscles underneath. At a very early age, I began to learn about massage, which gave me a natural sense of both my own and others' anatomy. Ever since I can remember, I have given and received massages from my family members, who often had sore backs, shoulders, arms, and the like. The morning after a long day at the amusement park, for example, my calves in pain, I would learn at which exact points in my leg muscles the outer pressure felt pleasurable or painful, or both. That awareness extended beyond myself to all beings around me, including our household cat. By the time I was six, I knew that the cat enjoyed gentle massages in the shoulder area. It came to me as a shock, that this small, furry being had shoulder blades and a neck, much like my mother or any other person. At that young age, I could already sense that the anatomy of a cat was not so far from that of a human being.
As I got older, I learned that pigs were strikingly similar to humans in their physiology. In some ways, pigs are anatomically closer to humans than non-human primates. As such, they are commonly used as specimens in laboratory classes for premedical students like myself back in college years. I remember peeling away carefully with forceps, scalpel, and scissors, the integument of a fetal pig. Layer by layer, I got to the abdominal cavity. When it was finally cut open, I saw an elaborate cluster of organs arranged in a way almost identical to what I'd seen in human anatomy books. Pigs–the animals we call greedy, lazy, and unclean–have long been chosen as the prime potential non-human suppliers of organs like kidneys, hearts, and livers to humans. Xenotransplantation–the transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another–has been researched for many decades, and it is now common to transplant porcine heart valves and bone grafts, and to implant collagen derived from pig skin. Although there are various immunological barriers and ethical issues involved, the transplant of genetically modified pig organs into humans may be successful in the near future; in this case, the painfully long waiting lists for organ donations worldwide will disappear eventually.4 Imagine a world full of humans with pig hearts pumping life throughout their bodies.
As I lay down next to a sow weighing five hundred pounds, I felt the warmth travel from the soft underbelly of the animal into my bare right thigh. Two bodies mingled momentarily, in the skin on skin contact. I could no longer reason whether I was feeling the pig's abdomen on my thigh, or the pig was feeling my thigh on her abdomen. The line between the subject and the object were obscured, and two souls mingled on the plane of contact.
The traditional dualistic thought in the Western world completely dissociated body and soul from one another. As a result, animals were regarded as complex, organic machines, because they lacked the soul and could not operate the mind. Renée Descartes, who notoriously stated, “I think, therefore I am,” also came up with the idea that animals are “automata or moving machines” because “they are destitute of reason.”5 Animals have been exploited as workers, food, or exotic spectacles for centuries. However, the 17th century model of animals as machines has been remarkably surpassed in the last century: animals as profit-generating raw materials for commodity production in mass quantities.
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Services, the current world production of pork exceeds a hundred million metric tons per year. The average market yield of carcass from one pig is a little over 80 kilograms, which means more than 1.2 billion pigs are slaughtered each year in the world. That number equals approximately four times the entire population of the US.
Listening carefully to the cacophony of echoing squeals and groans over a loud, mechanical hum, I unlatched the powder-coated steel door, discolored to a sickly beige and mottled with yellowish brown. As soon as the door swung open, hundreds of startled pigs jumped to their feet in unison with deep grunts and ran away from the fences, which in turn frightened me. I walked along the corridor of the standard-sized barn containing about twenty-four hundred hogs. Soon they came back up to the fence and started to poke their noses in curiosity. They had seen a new visitor and proceeded to examine her. Pig eyes are remarkable. They see right into the eyes of a human being. When they were looking at me, exposed before them, surrounded by them, I could not read their gazes, but they were somehow shockingly familiar. There was no language to bridge that disparity–the mysterious gap between the gaze of a pig and that of mine. But when I mingled with them with my skin, the gap momentarily closed in, as if I had forgotten my own language. My words were lost, and I felt the swinish grunts resonate inside me.
Archeological evidence shows that pigs were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in Central Asia.6 In China, domestication occurred independently, and there are speculations that this happened around the same time.7 Findings in the 8000-year-old Peiligang site in Henan Province include sculptures in the shape of domestic pigs. By 1300 BCE, the oracle bone script–one of the earliest forms of writings in the world– contained four disparate pictographic characters for a female domestic pig, a male domestic pig, a neutered domestic pig, and a wild boar with an arrow through its body.8 This indicates that pigs were known to grow larger and faster after sterilization, and that the common domestic pigs were already well evolved separately from the wild boars.
Pigs must have been a very important element of the household in ancient China, since the earliest character for “home,” notably, is comprised of a pig and a roof over it. These animals provided the first metaphor for safety and comfort of a home. This intimate correlation between the human being and the animal has been completely severed over the last century. Now, China yields more than 50 million metric tons of pork annually, which is about half of the world's pork production in total.
A sow has a very tender and warm underbelly. The firm, protruding teats get caught momentarily between my fingers as I stroke the belly back and forth. Then, as I rub my shoulder against the flank, I start to feel the rough bristles on my shoulder. She suddenly nudges me with her snout disc. Her brute force pushes me off, and I crawl next to other pigs. At eye level, three-hundred-pound pigs surrounding me, I am covered in their saliva, urine, and feces. They like to chew my hair and my heels. Sometimes their blunt, hard teeth bruise my skin, on different parts of my body. Still kneeling down, I swing my arms over their snouts, and they shrink back. In the afternoon, they all take a nap, and I lie down amongst them, my head next to theirs.
Both a pig and I carry our exteriorized memories on our cutaneous garment–scars, blemishes, wrinkles, and rashes that manifest markings of time, anguish of the soul, wounds of love and war. We all live at the same time, naked and not quite naked. Underneath our exterior coverings, whether they are silk, cotton or leather, we humans carry our own skin, just as pigs do. Born with a blank canvas enveloping us, we accumulate more and more brushstrokes of memories as years pass, on our garment that cannot be literally cast off until death.
Nevertheless, at some point in our lives, we must experience the emblematic process of flaying our skin and offering it up for others to see, hear, and feel through art, music, and poetry. I put my flayed skin on display in the form of a photograph–a paper skin that is touched by light–from which emanates the aura of mingled bodies. On that hanging skin, the animal and human souls blend like water and soil, creating subtle lines and fleeting shapes of a muddy shore.
1 Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (New York: Continuum, 2008) 52.
2 Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (New York: Continuum, 2008) 22.
3 F. G. Asenjo, In-Between: An Essay on Categories (London: The Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, Inc. University Press of America, 1988) 12-14.
4 Burcin Ekser and David KC Cooper, “Overcoming the barriers to xenotransplantation: prospects for the future,” Expert Review of Clinical Immunology 6:2 (March 2010): 219-230.
5 Renee Descartes, Discourse on Method (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 1998) 31-2.
6 Vigne JD, Zazzo A, Saliège JF, Poplin F, Guilaine J, Simmons A., “Pre-Neolithic wild boar management and introduction to Cyprus more than 11,400 years ago,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 106 (2009): 16135–16138.
7 Ping-ti Ho, The Cradle of the East (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Chinese University and Chicago: Chicago University, 1975) 107.
8 Chin-hsiung Hsu, Ancient Chinese society: An epigraphic and archaeological interpretation trans. Alfred H. C. Ward (San Francisco: Yee Wen Publishing Company, 1984).