bichat’s definition of life

I’ve always been fond of Xavier Bichat’s definition of life from Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort: ‘Life is the collection of functions that resist death’. This simple definition contains echoes of Spinozan conatus, and it can be modified to yield a general theory of life as maintenance. Life is the maintenance which resists decay. This is of course true at the level of the organism, which does whatever it needs to in order to avoid malnourishment, fatigue, vulnerability, and whatever else will lead to its demise. The same thing can be seen at the level of social movements, trends, and events in general. By contrast, there are events that persist without maintenance–happenings. These must be accounted for without appeal to their maintenance. In the latter case the aleatory is opposed to the maintained. The aleatory event dies a death without resisting; it dissipates on its own terms, which means that it has nothing to do with life as Bichat understands it. The maintained event, on the other hand, assumes a certain conservatism that may or may not become a burden to itself. Here, life becomes an obstacle to life, as Nietzsche discerned.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
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One Response to bichat’s definition of life

  1. oftheevent says:

    I like where this discussion of maintenance is going, especially the incorporation of Spinoza. What is a ratio of motion and rest, speed and slowness if not a mark or sign that maintenance has been/is being maintained? I’m interested in the distinction that you draw between social movements, trends, and events in general that require maintenance, and those that persist without maintenance, happenings as you call them. What results is clearly stated by you, aleatory on the one hand, maintained on the other, where the former, in contradistinction from the latter, ‘dies a death without resisting’ (a nice phrase). In Badiou, there might be a third category. His understanding of the event is something that may combine aspects of both.

    For Badiou, events come to interrupt a given state of affairs or set of conditions, and in this sense, have an aleatoric aspect to them. I guess you could understand this as a somewhat traditional understanding of the event. But what he adds to this is the necessity of a subject or subjects who retain a fidelity to the event. It is never certain whether or not the event was or was not an event, and thus did or did not disrupt the state of things. This can only be experimented with and tested. Badiou will give examples such as St. Paul with christianity, those who lived through ’68, and Peter Hallward will even go so far as to argue that Badiou is a subject to the event of Cantor’s discovery of set theory.

    Why I mention this is that it seems as though fidelity is not necessarily maintenance, because maintenance seems to have something definitive which it maintains. If maintenance looses sight of what is being maintained, this can prove catastrophic. With fidelity, there is an aspect of undecidability with respect to the status of the event that is being tested. In fact, the event really only becomes event through this process of fidelity, and even then the event may not be an event.

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