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Number 9: Winter 2013

Trauma in and out of mathematics with intestinal ontology: on what is in ate and: is allergy a phobia?

Philip Hill

Pollen and horses are non-mother and so are common to the structures of allergy and phobia.  The question that the phobic and the allergic have both answered is, ‘What will separate me from mother?’  What agent has sufficient repressive force to constitute a sustainable ‘no’ to my identification, my bondage with her?  In both cases there has been too little repression, too little non mother.  Thus, to avoid phobia it is not sufficient for there to be a ‘good enough mother’; there must also be a bad enough father – not a Homer Simpson, a weak, absent father or husband, but some agent with sufficient force to separate mother and child.  The phobic / allergic subject’s made-up answer is something arbitrary and harmless in its environs  such as horses, pollen and indeed anything benign to which the subject has sporadic access in principle.  This allergen / phobic object has the effect of causing anxiety in the subject with its characteristic physiological effects.  The anxiety marks the absent separation of the subject and its mother in allergy and phobia.  The phobic object and allergen are not sufficient to properly separate the mother and child but they are a partial compensation.  Separation of a different order is achieved when the mother is seen by the child desiring something or someone other than the child.  It is one thing for there to be an episode of separation and another for the function of separation to be institutionalised.  There is some fine tuning called for here. In Lacanian terms this other is not simply non-mother that would remedy the child’s phobia but the identification by the child of the mother’s desire for someone other than the child, perhaps her work, a lover or another sibling.  This is a continuous function rather than a single episode. What is the parallel here in immunology?   The idea of a ‘sufficiently large reservoir of non mother’, in place of Lacan’s idea of ‘the mother’s desire for someone other than the child’.  Where is this other?

The sufficiently large reservoir of non–mother in psychoanalysis is the symbolic father:3 in developmental immunology where the reservoir is typically populated with a stable population of some 10 trillion bacteria.  That is some ten times the number of cells that exist in (the remainder of) an adult human.

This is the space available as a vacuum, an empty space in each of us, a multi-dimensional hole that passes all the way through our centre.  This hole is a demanding invitation, an insistent hospitality, sporadically interrupted by antibiotics. The area from mouth to anus is typically 400 metres square:4 the average UK home – including older and new-build properties is 85 sq m.5 To put it simply, are our intestinal bacteria part of us or not?

There is a currently popular domestic program of bactericide that is closely correlated with allergy. Mothers armed with Domestos eliminating 99.9% of all known ‘non-mother’ are far more likely to produce children with allergies: this broadly phobic program is aimed against some other imagined to be terrible. In fact, in the healthy human gut, bacteria generally help us digest food, protect us from other pathogenic bacteria that could make us ill, and produce vitamins for us. As x (assuming this is a quotation) says:

Most of the microbes associated with humans appear to be not harmful at all, but rather assist in maintaining processes necessary for a healthy body. A surprising finding was that at specific sites on the body, a different set of microbes may perform the same function for different people.6For example, on the tongues of two people two entirely different sets of organisms will break down sugars in the same way. This suggests that medical science may be forced to abandon the one-microbe model of disease, and rather pay attention to the function of a group of microbes that has somehow gone awry.


  1. And the ‘names of the father’ whose identity are the episodic marks of the symbolic father. 

  2. http://www.prn.org/index.php/progression/article/hiv_1_gastrointestinal_galt_267 

  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14916580 

  4. The bacterial function represents the person for another bacterial function.