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Posted by on Nov 9, 2010

Hayles, Post-Human, and Cartesian Dualism: Reclaiming the body

As I normally do, I will attack this question via the portal of literature. Cartesian mind/body dualism has governed our our take on the nature of being both individually and collectively as a society. All religions are governed by it (soul, as extension or essence of the mind, is eternal); all philosophies have it somewhere in its core. While many religions attempt to unify the mind and body in one essence (think Buddhism here), science, most notably information science, has gone another route.

Rather than go into a philosophical debate that I have no hope of arguing properly, maybe we should proceed with the following alteration to the mind/body dualism approach. The mind and body can act (act being the operative term) independently, but not exist independently. That distinction is important in proceeding with this argument. So, on to the literature. I take a quote from the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms from around two thousand years ago.

“Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. This it has ever been.”

Substitute mind and body for empire and there you have it. The natural state of being is to assemble and disassemble; to unify the mind and body and then rationally blow it apart. How does this constant assembling and disassembling play out online? I would argue, much as Hayles did, that this period since World War II (1945 onwards) and even with precedent before that in rationalism/evolution/communism emerging from the 19th century, is the disassembly of mind/body unification. Certainly this has played out online in terms of subjectivity and identity. What are we if not divorced from our bodies? What are we when we role play with avatars unlike our physical selves? Are our bodies merely massive feedback loops for our mind; regulating the machine to provide the foundation for the mind to act.

Online, our identities are bound in information, in digital representations of self, but I do not relate this to the negation of the body. In fact, technology is providing the channel for assembling the bits of identity (both mind and body) by mapping the technology directly to the body. I am thinking of mobile/nanotechnology here and with mobile this begins to veer much more towards cyborg than posthuman. A mapping of technology to the body revives the body, reclaims it as an instrument of identity, more than merely an instrument of feedback and input. While it doesn’t necessarily negate subjectivity, it places a nice bridge between mind and body.

It also, I think, buttresses this notion that the body is merely an instrument that needs to be controlled and mastered (by the mind); this relates to Hayles mention of anorexia as evidence of this desire for mastery. Mobile and nanotechnology (even DNA mapping and bioinfomatics) does not merely attempt to master the body (some of that is there, though), but rather attempts to master what the body wants and demands to grow/augment itself. Rather than merely divorcing itself from the mind, the body provides feedback to the mind which provides feedback to the body and on and on (some simplistic reflexivity there). Overall, I suppose my point is that mobile/nano/biotechnology puts the body back in play; a factor in what it means to be.

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4 Comments

  1. Michael, to quote you “The mind and body can act (act being the operative term) independently, but not exist independently.”

    As you point out, that’s the crux of the debate but is the ability of the mind and body to act independently a reason to pursue that to its logical conclusion and divorce one from the other? If you view the human as an imperfectly designed system in which the body is the flaw, I suppose the concept of the cyborg makes sense.

    However, if as you say

    “the body provides feedback to the mind which provides feedback to the body”

    then the system cannot function without the body.

    Also, don’t we need the body to experience our emotions and don’t our emotions make us human or are emotions essentially faults in the system too?

    “The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings.
    Emotion and thought are physically entangled—immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain.” James E Zull

    I also wondered what happens when a person’s relationship to their bodies is fundamentally changed as in paralysis/amputation or even changing gender?

    “Knowledge about the self is established primarily through sensory experience and perceived viewpoints of others.”

    Why do we need a body to be ourselves, to be unique? Isn’t it our minds or personality that make us so?

    I like this quote from Shontz (23, 28)

    “The body offers a private world for the personal self to exist. Shielded by one’s physical boundaries, a place of private expression is available, unique and impervious to others.”

    You ask some great questions at the end of your posting,

    “What are we if not divorced from our bodies?…”

    Are you asking if we are determined by our bodies, biological determinism, as in being a woman is being able to give birth?

    What are we when we role play with avatars unlike our physical selves?

    I see this one as exactly like role play in the real world – avatars are like costumes – we can take them off, change them at will without fundamentally changing our self-perception or minds.

    • Great discussion here, Noreen. Let me go at each point separately.

      “Michael, to quote you “The mind and body can act (act being the operative term) independently, but not exist independently.”

      As you point out, that’s the crux of the debate but is the ability of the mind and body to act independently a reason to pursue that to its logical conclusion and divorce one from the other? If you view the human as an imperfectly designed system in which the body is the flaw, I suppose the concept of the cyborg makes sense.”

      It does make sense as stated here, but I would argue that independent processes (independent as in unrelated to the other processes per se, just to the larger whole) are not a ghost in the machine, a flaw of any sort, that needs to be divorced from the larger whole. I see it like a university structure (take Edinburgh-even the Moray House of Education). A thousand research projects going on, some with intersections to me, most without. These are independent of me, yet we all feed from/belong to the same whole structure. That is how I see independence here; free from dependencies on every other process. My heart beating proceeds independently (to some degree; I acknowledge shades of dependence here) of my emotional state in lamenting the passing of a loved one (just an example). They are not the same (at least enough variance to be considered variety), but they cannot be separated from the whole either.

      “Also, don’t we need the body to experience our emotions and don’t our emotions make us human or are emotions essentially faults in the system too?”

      Actually this is a really good one, Noreen. I am just not smart enough to get my head around it, but I think that emotions are a big part of what makes us human; they cannot be divorced from that sense of being. I am just not sure why, though. I can sit here and articulate a physiological need being expressed through emotions, but that isn’t the full story. Emotions are the wildcard of being that I want to explore in more depth. I don’t see them as faults in the system (being), but I suspect they are more profound than merely being regulatory agents (physiological). I suspect even a cyborg would want to augment emotion, if only to harness its potential.

      ““The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings.
      Emotion and thought are physically entangled—immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain.” James E Zull

      I also wondered what happens when a person’s relationship to their bodies is fundamentally changed as in paralysis/amputation or even changing gender?”

      Great quote and a great question. I suspect that in the case of paralysis/amputation, there might be a (if only temporary) degradation in the person’s sense of being human. A sense of being incomplete, perhaps? Emotions are a big part of this feedback loop in humans; emotions manifest themselves physically (nervousness leading to indigestion; amputees scratching legs that have been missing for years, SL avatars falling from the sky leading to reddened cheeks).

      Fantastic comments, Noreen. As always, much appreciated.

  2. It is an interesting notion that you perceive here: a cyclic movement of the cultural understandings of ‘being’, oscillating between holism and dualism (certainly reinforced by the historicity of your 2000 year old quote). However, I felt that Hayles, admittedly through a historical discussion, was reaching beyond dualisms, rather than demonstrating a particular proximity between mind and body.

    “The mind and body can act (act being the operative term) independently, but not exist independently.”

    Not so sure, you’ll have to convince me. Despite lamenting the loss of the body, I think Hayles is really interested in doing away with the idea that information and the material in which it is embodied can be considered as separate entities. My thoughts (information) are particular to my brain, because ‘thought’ and ‘brain’ are not separate. The entirety of that information would not be preserved in the act of writing, or speaking (although stream of consciousness literature perhaps attempted this).

    I think that much of technology is allowing us to rethink ‘mind’ and ‘body’ entirely, neither of which are apt descriptors for contemporary ‘being’. (‘Body’ is inadequate to describe my use of an avatar, and ‘mind’ is incapable of conveying a consciousness that includes Wikipedia as short term memory storage, as readily as it might a collection of synapses in my brain). So rather than working out the boundaries of ‘mind’ and ‘body’, or whether they can act independently, I would say that we don’t really have to…

    And to bring Noreen in here:

    ‘However, if as you say
    “the body provides feedback to the mind which provides feedback to the body”
    then the system cannot function without the body.’

    I agree that they cannot work in isolation, but for me this ‘feedback’ is still acknowledging the dualism. Rather than a dialectic, I suggest a simultaneity.

    ‘Online, our identities are bound in information, in digital representations of self, but I do not relate this to the negation of the body’

    No, agreed, it just makes me think that we have to rethink the body. This relates in a way to our discussions of multi-modality. The information that constitutes our identity online is enmeshed in its medium and mode, and I would say is therefore embodied – part of our identities are embodied in the modes of Facebook, and so the boundaries of what we consider to be ‘body’ has shifted.

    Noreen, I think emotion is a rather good example of what I am saying. Emotion is holistic, it is information that means nothing without organic structure, it is as you say ‘human’, which is perhaps a better term to encapsulate both ‘mind’ and ‘body’.

    • Thanks to you both for some wonderful comments!
      @Jeremy, let me try and respond to the individual questions/points you raised here:

      ““The mind and body can act (act being the operative term) independently, but not exist independently.”

      Not so sure, you’ll have to convince me. Despite lamenting the loss of the body, I think Hayles is really interested in doing away with the idea that information and the material in which it is embodied can be considered as separate entities. My thoughts (information) are particular to my brain, because ‘thought’ and ‘brain’ are not separate. ”

      I agree that Hayles is interested in doing away with this, but I suppose my distinction I wanted to make (which after reading it again, I failed!) was the difference between components and the whole, the bits and the container they are contained in. While thoughts and the brain they are contained in are not indeed divorced from one another, they needn’t be the same. I suppose essentially it is possible to be holistic yet articulate, if not dualism, than distinction between A and B. Perhaps as humans we have lost sight of the context (the body) that this all takes places in, but I suggest that thoughts, emotions, processes, logic, breathing, digestion, etc., all these elements that comprise what it is to be, are nuanced enough to register separately in our consciousness.

      “So rather than working out the boundaries of ‘mind’ and ‘body’, or whether they can act independently, I would say that we don’t really have to…”

      Agreed, on the macro level. We don’t have to work out these distinctions as they are all encapsulated in what it means to be. On the micro level, perhaps we need to recognize shades of distinction between elements to understand them fully. To understand that logic and emotion, while stemming from the same place, have enough variance to be analyzed as variables. Maybe not independent variables, but distinct enough to warrant closer inspection.

      “”the body provides feedback to the mind which provides feedback to the body”
      then the system cannot function without the body.’

      I agree that they cannot work in isolation, but for me this ‘feedback’ is still acknowledging the dualism. Rather than a dialectic, I suggest a simultaneity.”

      There it is, Jeremy. Well said. A simultaneity rather than a dualism. I wanted to articulate that there are thousands of processes comprising being, all firing and cycling constantly. Simultaneity encapsulates all of that and I thank you for bringing it here. I just wanted to say that these processes might be unique enough to name (they certainly all exactly the same) without being foreign enough to sever from the larger entity. Well said there, Jeremy.

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