5.28.2009

Of the Cyborg and the Hermit

I would like to introduce you to two radical images: the Cyborg and the Hermit.

The realm of the cyborg (Haraway) is a highly artificial realm, a realm in which everything is constructed, including what we sometimes call nature. Nothing is pure, everything is transfigured by the curious and unstoppable winds of contingency. The cyborg has no original or everlasting centre. For the cyborg, a creature of communication, objectivity has been replaced by ‘intersubjectivity’ (Rorty). The cyborg is thus pragmatic and accepting of the contingency of its thrownness.

The hermit is everything that the cyborg is not. The hermit seeks the authentic and the real, wants to touch the soil with his fingers. The hermit dreams of home and paradise lost. The hermit seeks to reclaim a lost unity.

Where the hermit relishes in their own fallibility, the shortness of their arm and the limits of their vision becoming badges of their humanity, the cyborg replaces its parts as they fail, extending their reach through vast wireless networks and extending their life into the future. The hermit is nostalgic, but not the cyborg who associates nostalgia with death and for whom the past is gone.

Hand of the Future?

Back in February I posted an image of a painting I had recently completed entitled Cyborg St. Francis. A friend recently referred to this painting, which I have hanging in my office, as a bit of a riddle. I think this is totally fair, and although it wasn't intended as a criticism the observation points to a perpetual problem I have with my various attempts at 'art' - a whole bunch of the cerebral and a relative deficit of clarity. While I suppose I come about this honestly (most of my favourite art works in this way), it flies a bit in the face of the purpose of the art which is supposed to give me an opportunity to escape the linguistic, to engage with something more 'phenomenal'. If the end result of the work is perceived as the eliciting of an explanation (the solving of the riddle), then the work is not operating as it should. More on this here.
The original work was supposed to address (and the fact that the starting point is an idea might be part of the problem here) our relationship with 'nature' and how this changes as we become increasingly technological beasts.
The following three images are a continuation of this investigation:



In a future where you can buy various types of replacement hands, maybe one of them could be a 'birders' model! In the end, yes, becoming cyborgs changes our relationship with everything, including birds, but maybe this change could actually improve the possibilities of connection.

5.22.2009

Photographs from Al Purdy's A-Frame

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to gain access to the keys to Al Purdy's famous A-frame, the house that he built for himself and his family in Prince Edward County in the 50's. If you don't know who Purdy is, you should find out here. There is currently quite a concerted effort to raise money to purchase and fit-out the Purdy A-frame for the purpose of using it for a writers-in-residence program. If you're interested in this, the webpage for the A-frame Trust is here.
While at the A-frame I attempted to undertake something of a portrait of the A-frame including measured drawings and photographs. Below are a few of the photos I managed to snap:

Some books in the bedroom
Exterior detail
A lightswitch the family room
Exterior cladding on Al's writing shed

5.08.2009

Construction of 'Ways of Life' in Architecture

image from the advertising for the Bohemian Embassy Condos in Toronto from here
Dana Cuff and Russell Ellis point out in their book Architect’s People (1989), that there must always be an “implicit actor who lurks in the designer’s imagination.” The character of this actor affects our experience of the designed space. Crafting a building always involves imagining possible world-creating that could occur within it. Andrew Ballantyne has put this very well when he commented that, “what architects can do in proposing a design for a building, is to propose a fragment of a world.” The induction of delight in a visitor to a building depends on predicting how this fragment of a world will be perceived. The subject experiencing the space may choose to participate in the proposed world, or alternately it may seem discordant to them. If this architectural description of a proposed way of life manages to strike a chord with the subject, this can be one of the most effective means of achieving delight an architect has at their disposal.

Inclusion and Exclusion in the Construction of Place in Architecture

When dealing solely in what David Harvey has referred to as ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ space, paying attention primarily to issues of ‘firmness’ and ‘economy’, it is easy to end up designing the same building in several different locations. As the logic of capitalism does not necessarily involve any conception of mental or social space, as Juhani Pallasmaa has it, “architecture has lost its contact with its own mytho-poetic ground, the originary acts and images of dwelling and constructing.”[1] Architectural space, emptied of mythos and poesis, understood only in terms of technis, becomes alienated and sterile to the human encounter.

One of the central victims of the technical homogenization of buildings that has persisted throughout the modern period has been that uniquely grounding quality of space that we call place. Place depends on difference. The preservation and construction of a sense of uniqueness and immediacy in the environment is one of the responsibilities of an architect operating in ‘relational’ space (Harvey’s third type of space, of mental, cultural, social, political dimensions). Norberg-Schultz went so far even as to define architecture as the ‘art of place’[2]. But although this engagement with place entails an attention to the historical condition of a territory, this is not at all to say that architects should be wary of change, of the new. The prescription that the architect must engage with how “life takes place”[3] in a given territory, should imply that the architecture must remain open to many different sorts of life that might take place. As the philosopher Albrecht Wellmer wrote in 1988, “the only choice we have is between different directions in which to progress, different directions for change.”[4] The new is compulsory. To not think so is to flirt with the possibility of exclusion. Recognizing that place is a constructed value, the architect must engage with the human subject through architecture so as to augment their constant, active construction of place. But to do so is always dangerous as the fetishization and propagation of what has been is always so very close to limiting the possibilities of what will be. The architect must listen to the past notions of place and use these as the foundations of ever new constructions. As Wellmer puts it: “It is not only people who dream: cities and landscapes and even materials dream, and perhaps it is the task of architects to interpret these dreams and translate them into built space.”[5] Wellmer pleads that architects “have the courage to intervene instead of merely preserving, the courage to pursue the ‘project of modernity’ instead of resorting to the mere gestures of defence, of conservation, of regression.”[6] Only in this way is it possible to have a regional architecture that resists exclusion.


[1] Pallasmaa, ‘Aesthetic and Existential Space’, 1.

[2] Norberg-Schultz, Architecture, 11.

[3] Norberg-Schultz, Architecture, 221.

[4] Wellmer, ‘Architecture and Territory’, 287.

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

5.07.2009

Architecture for Cyborgs

What is the role of architecture in an age when our technology is radically transforming us?

While our technology (and our architecture) has always been closely linked to who and how we are, it seems to be moving increasingly closer to us to the extent that you might even say we are becoming cyborgs! A number of important changes are taking place: the extent that we are becoming embroiled in large unfathomable networks is causing disindividuation and re-mystification; the merger of physical reality with virtual reality (the emergence of mixed reality) together with transcendence of the purely visual interface are causing a more harmonious relationship to develop between mind & body; the split self, or ecological model of self is supported by technologies that structurally divide attention, opening the potential for ironic attitudes towards truth, and more pervasive acceptance of plurality and multiplicity.

The architect can play several roles in all of this.

First, it is the architect’s responsibility to carefully calibrate our relationships with larger ecological networks. Given the alienating potential of digital technology, the architect must pay close attention to the scale of the body (or machine-body, or whatever) – to craft and to detail, and to the sensuous engagement between cyborg machine-body and its immediate ecosystem. The architect must also strive to accommodate those aspects of our cyborg-becoming, as listed above, which offer promise for the future. Our architecture must suit the ironic mind. If it structures a way of living and eternalizes images of the ideal life, let them be tolerant and liberal, and open to multiplicity. If the architect must imply stories in the architecture, let those stories have blurred boundaries and multiple endings. Let them be stories instilled with irony.

home is where the hearth is

Image taken from here

The fireplace was originally incorporated into buildings in order to keep the indoor environment warm while the temperature outdoors dropped. But it soon came to have a secondary purpose. Being the warmest spot in the house, it became where people would gather. Thus it gained a social function – it became a place for communication and for communion. In an oral culture, the fireplace would have been where common narratives were created and propagated. It was a place of solidarity, a focal point for families and the immediate community. But as technology changed, the hearth changed too. The evolution of indoor heating in the 20th century made the fireplace obsolete in its original capacity. However, largely because of its social function [I think it’s fair to propose that its aesthetic value is linked to its social function], it remained a feature of buildings up until the end of the 20th century. Often, fireplaces were replaced by simulations of themselves such as gas fireplaces. However, the 20th century also replaced the social function of the fireplace. With the popularization of the television, families and friends were soon choosing to gather around it instead of the fireplace. The television became a new sort of electronic hearth.

As with the fireplace, common narratives were created and propagated around the television, although these narratives were being shared on a much larger scale. Also, our engagement with the narratives being spun was far more passive than before. The bodies of television viewers were inert compared to the bodies of those gathered around the fireplace.

Today, the television too is becoming obsolete, with people choosing to go to their computers (and the Internet) for entertainment and communication. For a brief period, as desktop computers, complete with large monitors and ‘towers’, became commonplace, they started to become a new sort of hearth. However, with the progressive miniaturization of technology and the ability for machines to connect to networks wirelessly, desktop computers too are fading away. The hearth, which at one point had been a stabilizing focal point of the architecture, is disintegrating. We carry our hearths around with us in our pockets.

The hearth had served a cosmological purpose, anchoring the immediate community to a place. Solidarity was focused around the hearth, with our networks radiating outward from it. The ecological metaphor of the self as an ecosystem nested within other ecosystems is complicated by the nomadicism of the cyborg at its centre. Now, for an electro-nomadic cyborg, it is as if the world were truly “an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere,” as Pascal once said. As with the fireplace, our new miniaturized electronic technology allows for communication and communion, and the sharing of common narratives, and it encourages a far less passive body in us than the television or the desktop computer. But in terms of providing a focal point of solidarity for the immediate community, it fails. The new technology still has an alienating component, separating us from our immediate environment while it connects us to larger networks. Architecture gives this level of environment its form, and so architects must respond to this alienation.

Architecture that serves

Architecture is changing along with the rest of our technology. There is the constantly present desire, for instance, for our buildings to be ‘responsive’. Architects, since the beginning of the Modern movement at least, have been incessantly pushing back on the dominating aspects of architecture. In this view, architecture restrains our liberty. It becomes a concrete image of history restricting the freedom of the present. Over time, this desire to free the individual from architecture has taken the form of the open plan, flexible spaces, and temporary buildings that can be reassembled to accommodate changing needs. More recently, architects have been attempting to make architecture that will literally ‘respond’ either to the individual or to other aspects of the environment in real-time. Some examples of this include Jean Novel’s Arab World Institute, where south-facing apertures adjust to levels of sunlight, the MIT-based PlaceLab, where a built-in computer will “sensitively adjust lighting and interior climate in response to your current activities,”[1] and Philip Beesley’s kinetic sculptures, large plastic billowing matrices that move in response to the presence of spectators. Although these projects are very different, they all incorporate contemporary technology to render architecture immediately responsive.


[1] Mitchell, PW, p.64

Architecture as prosthetic membrane; slow architecture vs. alienation

Architecture plays an important role in calibrating our relationships with each other and with the variously scaled networks in which we are enmeshed.

But we shouldn’t think of architecture as just a system of impersonal boundaries. They are actually very personal; these boundaries are very close to our being. As Juhani Pallasmaa has put it, “architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.”[1] Architecture is at the forefront of our confrontation with the cosmos and should be treated with care.

Architecture has always been close, but as technology increasingly bridges the gaps between the individual and the environment, the design of architecture becomes almost an act of surgery. At the end of the 19th century, Le Corbusier imagined the house as a machine to assist our living. This was a metaphor that represented the machine as separate – a sort of servant to our autonomous humanity. As Anthony Vidler pointed out, the metaphor is changing. Architecture now should be thought of as being much closer to our being than that – as a sort of prosthetic.[2] And indeed, as such visions as the mental control of household appliances via EEG sensors come to materialization, this is no light metaphor – architecture is prosthetic. We are architectural cyborgs.

Now here’s an interesting exercise: If we for ourselves an image of a student in their room at their computer . . . what do we imagine the rest of their room to be like? The room is dark, lit only by the light emanating from the monitor. The student has lost track of time, as David Greenfield, theorizer of the Internet as narcotic, has suggested that he might.[3]

I imagine that the room is largely empty and I imagine that it is a mess. With the amount of attention paid to the world accessed through the windows on their computer, the student has less attention to focus on the environment in immediate spatial proximity to them. As the phenomenon of continuous partial attention causes us to pay less attention to the world about us, it matters a lot less what it looks like. As William James apparently said, our “experience is a narrow thing, bracketed by our own editorial decisions. And it is likewise important to keep in mind the trace that our experience leaves on what we attend to. By observing the space of our hypothetical student, dazed and lost in (or is it on?) the Internet, it is evident that it is not the room that has been experienced; it lacks the trace of dwelling. But, and here is the hope for architects, maybe, the more attention we pay to crafting this immediate level of experience, the room, the more it will have the capacity to bring us back into the present place and moment.

Certain aspects of new technology – the possibilities of haptic interfaces, of a new orality, of mixed-reality, and of the mobility that arises from miniaturization – offer hope of counteracting the alienation from our environment encouraged by so much of our technology. Architects can help wage this battle both by engaging the mind and the body simultaneously and particularly by engaging the body. We need to break through what Mark Kingwell has called the “legacies of abstraction”[4] of the Enlightenment and the ensuing Modern period and ground our expanding phenomenological ecologies in the here and now. Although hearthless, we need to put the rest of architecture to use as we embody ourselves in place.

Perhaps this is why there has been such a resurgence in recent years in interest in the phenomenological understanding of the world amongst architects. As ocular-centric technology has tended to increase our alienation from the ecologies immediately about us, architects such as Juhani Pallasmaa have yearned to reconnect us with them. Perhaps ‘slow architecture’ like that recommended by Peter Zumthor, with its careful attention to dimension and material could be a means of doing this.


[1] Pallasmaa, EOTS, p. 50

[2] Vidler, p. 147

[3] Greenfield, p.17

[4] Kingwell, p. 212

Ecology Rorty & Networks

The older ways of talking about the self as stable and singular have been slipping away for some time now. Instead we have begun to speak of the self more as a crowd of elements or as an ecosystem.

According to the ‘ecological’ metaphor of the self it is possible to say that the self as an ecosystem of thoughts, beliefs and desires. I would like to speak about this ecological metaphor using two ideas taken from the work of Richard Rorty. First, it is Rorty’s position that there is no intrinsic self that has thoughts, beliefs and desires. Rather, the self is these.[1] This is an important distinction to make. The self is thus not somehow separate from the ecosystem, nor does it contain the ecosystem. It is the ecosystem. Rorty’s second idea that will help us construc this metaphor of ecology is that the self is really a “network of beliefs and desires which is continually in process of being rewoven.”[2] The self, as represented by Rorty, is continuously in a process of flux as “it reweaves itself, in response to stimuli” encountered in larger networks. This new image of the self, as opposed to earlier, less flexible and partitioned images, is better able to accommodate the irony and multiplicity required of a 21st century pluralist liberal democracy.

This metaphor of ecology has the potential to be very powerful and useful when combined with the image of the cyborg, the sort of ironic metaphor that may help us escape from the ‘logics and practices of domination’ described by Donna Haraway in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’. And it is all the more powerful and useful when extended to describe social and cultural manifestations and when the lines begin to be blurred between physical and mental ecologies. As Gregory Bateson has written, “there can be an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds,”[3] but the big question of the day is: can the ecology of bad ideas be connected to the ecology of weeds? If we are trying to talk about the contiguity of the mental and the physical, maybe it would be useful to talk about ideas and weeds as being parts of the same ecosystem.

As an electro-nomadic cyborg I am an ecosystem. I consist of abiotic components [machine], biotic components [body], and mental components [thoughts, beliefs, desires]. These integral components are always engaged in reciprocal, dynamic relationships with each other, and also with phenomena outside of the system. As a network, I must deal both with my physical and cultural context as well as with other networks of similar scales [other people]. And, since ecosystems have soft and flexible edges [Rorty’s reweaving in response to stimuli], there is always a reciprocity between all of these things. There is also a dynamic reciprocity between different scales of ecosystems. When we move up in scale, smaller ecosystems begin to act as organisms as they relate to one another and to the abiotic factors operating at this expanded scale. This image of concentric ecosystems has resonances of William Mitchell’s image of the self as a nomadic “system of nested shells, with carefully articulated and controlled interconnections among the levels.”[4] In fact, when we cross these three images, the image of the cyborg, the image of the self as ecosystem as augmented by Rorty, and Mitchell’s image of radiating networks, we get quite an astonishing picture of the world: my ecology of parts interacts with and absorbs a layer of personal electronic equipment; outside of this ecosystem is a ‘bio-region’, including our vehicles and our buildings and also our close networks of family and friends; beyond this we are surrounded by larger communities of people, cultural constructions, and “large scale, long-distance infrastructure and geographically dispersed networks.”[5]

So here’s where architecture comes in. Architecture exists at a very specific scale in this picture, at the scale of our immediate communities, containing us and mediating our relations with the larger world. It is through architecture that we are connected to many larger-scale networks such as energy grids, water distribution systems, sanitary systems, and up until recently, telecommunication networks. Architecture also mediates our relationship with air, with the sun, with rain, with animals, birds and insects. If the air is too cold, our architecture warms it for us; if the sun is too hot or it is raining, it shelters us; if we want to avoid insects or animals, our architecture also can provide a zone of refuge for us from them. Buildings mediate the boundaries between our intimate surroundings and the next scale of network. I believe that in this mediation architects should take their cue from Donna Haraway when she calls for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.”[6] Architecture calibrates our lived relationships with ‘nature’, our technological networks, and with other people.


[1] Rorty, ORT, p.121

[2] Ibid, p.123

[3] Bateson, in Ballantyne, p. 35

[4] Mitchell, ME++, p.41

[5] Mitchell, ME++,p.41

[6] Haraway, p. 150

Could our technology make us more open to difference & multiple truths?

It seems as if the electro-nomadic self is a disindividuated self. It also appears to be a split self.

The structure of our electronic technology, from cell-phones, to ‘window’-based operating systems, to the anonymity of online exchange, encourages the dissolution of the traditional singular model of the individual. Older ways of talking about the psyche such as Freud’s or Jung’s which described an organic singular entity which grows, shifts and changes are being side-lined. More contemporary ways of talking about the individual imply an internal multiplicity instead. For instance, imagine yourself in two very different social situations: there is a growing acknowledgement that we behave noticeably differently as we relate to different people in different contexts. Just as organisms change to fit into an ecosystem, so do we change to fit into different situations. In the same way that an ecosystem can be said to behave as an organism as it relates to other ecosystems, so the organism that I am is also an ecosystem: a group of thoughts and beliefs and desires that learn to get along within me.[1] Apparently when talking about their collaboration in writing their book Anti-Oedipus [1972], Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once wrote that, “since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.”[2] But we’ve been flirting with this sort of descriptionof self for ages – what does it have to do with technology?

Many of our contemporary tools such as cellphones, pagers, ‘smartphones’ and other sorts of wireless networked devices allow us to operate simultaneously in [at least] two distinct contexts. The people on the bus talking on their cellphones are interacting with both the world about them and also another unseen world. If we take seriously the notion that we are different people in different situations, then what we are experiencing are increasing instances of people operating as different people simultaneously – a ‘layering’ of different versions of themselves.

The structure of our computing devices and their relation to the Internet cause us to easily run several programs at the same time. This sort of simultaneity is made possible by the ‘windows’ of our operating systems. Because of this structural change in our tools, multi-tasking, the engagement with multiple concurrent tasks, has become the standard mode of operation for many of us. Although many of us have grown into this condition, many young adults and children [so-called ‘digital natives’] have actually grown up with, in and through it as a normative condition[3]. Consider the following illustration of a student writing an essay: they are sitting in a room, at a computer. The sun has dropped outside and the room has grown dark. Their hands are connected to a keyboard, they are wearing headphones that are plugged into the computer, their eyes gaze intently at the screen. On the computer, in addition to the multiple programs running in the background, they are intentionally running four programs. Their word-processor is ‘open’ twice, once displaying the essay that they are updating and once displaying their notes cobbled together from class and various sources on the Internet. They also have their Internet browser open – one tab displaying information from an on-line encyclopaedia and another set on the webpage of their email provider where they are perpetually awaiting correspondence. They also have open a media player through which they are streaming music from an on-line ‘radio’ station and an instant-messaging program allowing them to keep in constant contact with friends. In addition to an awareness of sensorial data from the environment around them, they also keep in constant awareness of the information being offered to them by their computer programs. Only a significantly fragmented state of consciousness makes this possible, what psychologists have called ‘continuous partial attention’.[4] As our attention gets spread out over various phenomena, the amount of attention that can be directed towards each element is diminished.

The fact that our minds are being so pulled at in different directions, fragmented by diverse interests and types of information, is worrisome. It is more worrisome that whole generations of citizens are growing up in this mental environment, their neural pathways adapted to it. Careful thought takes time and deliberation. How can a person be expected to make important and meaningful decisions when we can only find a few moments of half-powered cognition to devote to them? And not only does the individual’s thought process take on a scattered, staccato character, but the media by which we access information mimics this. Essays in magazines have progressively become shorter. News articles have shrunk to telegraph-like messages – in desperate attempts to vie for our shortened attention spans. In such amputated media, how can we possibly hope for the depth and complexity of argument that was once demanded of our journalists and critics? There is no doubt about it, ways of communicating that eschew brevity for complexity are being out-moded.

Freed of many of the traditional constraints, our minds drift on the Internet sizelessly. When ‘jacked-in’, we exist as information, flitting in the midst of other information. This phenomenon, which I would like to call the digital derive, is becoming increasingly similar to the hallucinogenic vision of cyberspace described by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer [1984]. Gibson’s vision of how cyberspace would evolve described a dream-like space in which disembodied intelligences float, drift and zoom freely. Although this isn’t exactly how we experience the Internet yet, there is an element of it in the way people flit through clouds of sites following loose connections and memes, becoming what the psychologist David N. Greenfield has called ‘electronic vagabonds’[5].

In his work on the subject, Greenfield has often compared the use of the Internet to the use of drugs. As he has written, “the act of being online is in itself arousing.”[6] When interviewed about their experiences on the Internet, his subjects report intense intimacy, dis-inhibition, loss of boundaries, and feelings of timelessness, all contributing to the highly addictive phenomenon. One of the most addictive components of being online is the extensive array of possibilities, not just of action but of being – not only can you do a wide range of things, but also you can be a wide range of things.

As the MIT psychologist, Sherry Turkle, has pointed out, “if, traditionally, identity implies oneness, life on today’s computer screen implies multiplicity and heterogeneity.”[7] She compares the online experience to adolescence when people traditionally explore the different possible incarnations of themselves. By allowing people to explore all kinds of identities, the new technology plays, as she puts it, “a significant role in the life cycle dramas of self-reparation.”[8]

But more than simply providing a forum for people to test out various selves en-route to finding a clearly articulated primary self, the online world is a place that accepts the perpetuation of the flexible, split self. “The notion of a decentered identity with multiple aspects,” writes Turkle, “is concretized by virtual experiences.”[9] But according to Turkle the multiple aspects of self nurtured in this environment aren’t truly autonomous – they are all related to each other. The difference between the split self that navigates the Internet and someone suffering from multiple personality disorder is that for the digital flaneur there are lines of communication open between their identities that encourage “an attitude of respect for the many within us and the many within others.”[10] Our age is one in which each person is populated by a multiplicity. More than this though, it is one in which this multiplicity is accommodated – in fact encouraged by our technology.

But what does it mean to allow for a multiplicity within – to think of the self no longer as germ, but rather as ecology or a series of simultaneous windows on a computer screen? Historically, multiplicity in a person was considered a negative trait – inconsistency keeping open the threat of ethical transgression. Inconsistency is a menace to a stable, structured society with clear hierarchical and moral institutions. Stories, such as Plato’s origin of love, that of the Judeo-Christian Bible, or more recent stories such as those of psychoanalysis or Marxism, consistently depend upon an original unity which is splintered and is in search of reconciliation. But there is hegemony to all of these stories in their subtle implication of a male-dominant heterosexual society.[11] Such stories, in Haraway’s words, are “ruled by reproductive politics – rebirth without flaw.”[12] In the 21st century new stories are needed to escape from this hegemony, like Haraway’s image of the cyborg which emphasizes flexibility and the blurring of boundaries: stories instilled with irony.

This sort of ‘irony’ plays an important role in Richard Rorty’s work. His claim has been that irony, which he defines as an attitude built on recognition of our own fallibility, has the power to keep us constantly retuning our values and thus to help avoid cruelty. In this manner, irony allows us to accept difference and build a tolerant, pluralistic society free of domination.[13] Haraway uses a similar definition of irony. In the ‘Manifesto’ she states that, “irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true.”[14]

It may just be that this split self, encouraged by our technology, with its evolving ‘empathetic gaze’, is actually perfectly suited to this type of ‘ironic’ thinking. Sherry Turkle thinks so. In her studies conducted at MIT she has found that “different children [who have grown up with computers] comfortably hold different theories, and individual children are able to hold different opinions at the same time.”[15] Maybe I am wrong then to mourn the sustained argument and thought structurally disabled by the changes in media. The type of thinking encouraged by our new technology – quick, flexible and plural – may actually be better suited to the ideals of a liberal and tolerant democratic society.


[1] Ballantyne, p.116

[2] Ibid, pg. 108

[3] Small & Vorgan, Scientific American Mind, October/November 2008

[4]

[5] Greenfield, p.17

[6] Ibid

[7] Turkle, Social Research, Fall 1997, p. 1093

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Haraway, p.150

[12] Ibid, p.177

[13] Rorty, CIS, p.xv

[14] Haraway, p.149

[15] Turkle, Social Research, Fall 1997, p.1093

Could our technology encourage the re-fusing of mind and body?

Image taken from here.
Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein, written in 1818, was a potent image to Victorians coping with the creep of mechanization into their lives. Perhaps an appropriate parallel image for today is Gibson’s neuromancer, whose body is essentially inert – his mind elsewhere. Many instances of this image exists in our fiction. Another prominent example is in the movie The Matrix [1999], in which the entire human population is reduced to a sedentary state, their minds abstracted from their bodies, engaged in a distant virtual world. The humans have been tricked into thinking the virtual world is the real world. But, honestly, how were we to tell the difference? The two worlds look the same, smell the same, sound the same.

Still taken from here.

In the same way that Frankenstein belied anxiety about mechanization and our power to create machines, these stories reveal our current anxiety about digital technology and our power to make a virtual world. Is it possible to recreate the world using digital technology? If so, how will we be able to tell the recreated world from the original? This sort of anxiety reminds me of RenĂ© Descartes who, in his Meditations on First Philosophy [1642], was worried that an evil genius, “supremely powerful and clever,”[1] was intercepting his perception of the world and confusing him as to its true nature. How, he wondered, would he ever be able to tell the difference?

The influence of Descartes’s line of reasoning, which implied a clear split between the mind and the body, is well documented and thus he is often blamed for inserting this schism into the history of Western thought. Many contemporary thinkers have found this split to be extremely detrimental to our well-being.[2]

The mind simply does not exist apart from the body. Memory and cognition are contained and expressed within the body and through the body, but somehow we continually forget this and think of them as being different. As the late American philosopher Richard Rorty has put it, “if the body were easier to understand, no one would have thought that we had a mind.”[3] However, despite constant philosophical criticism of this schism over the last half-century, new technologies seem to reinforce it, supporting the dominance of the mind over the body. New technology mimics the behavior of the mind, attempting to interface directly with it and to bypass the body. In addition our networked technology emphasizes a particular form of communication – an intellectual and verbal communication, heavily imprinted by the logic of written language. Not only does this forget the body, but it also forgets the emotions. In such an environment, structured by the logic of clear intellectual communication, where does our emotional self take refuge?

In the priority of the mind over the body, and in the parallel priority of the intellectual over the emotional, there is an implication of the dominance of the male over the female. This is a bit of a slippery claim to justify, but for the moment I’m just going to make it without contestation, hopefully to back it up at a later date. Such dualities as ‘mind / body’ are, in Donna Haraway’s words, “systemic to the logics and practices of domination.”[4] However, the way to escape these patterns of domination is not, as people have sometimes thought, to compensate through reactionary privileging of the body over the mind, but rather it is to broker a merger between the two, a solution that depicts neither body nor mind as being better or more essential than the other.

This is certainly the dream of the 'new orality' hoped for by Juhani Pallasmaa. In his book The Eyes of the Skin [2003] he links the domination of the body by the mind to the ocular-centricism that was born in the Enlightenment. In an ocular-centric culture, he says, “instead of experiencing our being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina.”[5] Thus our visual bias prevents us from being fully present in the world, so stuck in our heads are we.

Although Pallasmaa’s argument that the overwhelming tide of images is causing us to retreat from our visual bias is a fair one, the primary means of interfacing with most technology remains through our eyes. But perhaps this is changing with the advent of haptic feedbacks and more tactile input mechanisms (tablets come to mind). Maybe technology, so long structurally biasing the visual and the intellectual, will soon return some of its emphasis to bodily experience, engaging the body and mind in an integrated manner.

And there is further hope for the merger of body and mind in what is being called ‘mixed-reality’, the marriage of the virtual and real. As the real becomes increasingly mediated by our mental prosthetics [our sense of place being determined as much by our GPS co-ordinates as the scent of the air], perhaps a new territory is being forged in which our minds and bodies can comfortably co-exist. Maybe there’s hope that we won’t end up like those poor saps in the Matrix. Maybe we are not fated to remain as “frighteningly inert”, as Haraway has described us.[6]

Here’s to hoping the cyborg ‘body’ will be as active as its mind.


[1] Descartes, Discourse . . . ,p.62

[2] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.406, for instance

[3] Rorty, in Pallasmaa AAES, p.8

[4] Haraway, Simians Cyborgs and Women p.177

[5] Pallasmaa, EOTS, p.20

[6] Haraway, p.152

Could our technology be disindividuating us and re-mystifying the world?

In his Modern Man In Search of a Soul [1933], Carl Jung described the collective quality of humanity’s mental foundation. In early ‘oral’ cultures, humanity’s thinking was structured by myth and custom and the individual was perceived primarily as an integrated part of the collective. Likewise there was little distinction between this collective consciousness and the environment. “In the primitive world,” Jung wrote, “everything has psychic qualities.”[1] Human history then can be read as the history of the separation of the individual’s psyche from the world, a process that Jung has referred to as ‘individuation’. As the individual is articulated, the world simultaneously becomes demystified.

Scientific ways of describing the world have been very important in this process of individuation. If the goal is to understand the world in order to master and control it, it is obviously not useful to have this world populated by spirits. Or as Jung put it, “civilized man . . . must strip nature of psychic attributes in order to dominate it; to see his world objectively he must take back all of his archaic projections.”[2] Distinction between things is absolutely necessary for this sort of control, as is a clear set of reproducible laws. Thus it is imperative within the paradigm of science to distinguish between separate individuals, between individuals and the natural world, and also between elements in the natural world. The need for the natural world to follow reproducible rules implies that it cannot be inhabited by spirits. The individual thus becomes separated from the world and the world becomes demystified.

In addition to science as described by Jung, capitalism also requires that the individual be distinguishable from the collective and that the world be de-mystified. This was the point made by the sociologist Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and The “Spirit” of Capitalism [1904]. Protestantism, the technology of the printing press, and early capitalism put a new and universal emphasis upon the individual that had only been in its nascent stages in the humanism of the Renaissance. By printing the Bible in German, Luther put your relationship with God in your own hands. Simultaneously, mercantile capitalism created a new class of self-made elite – individuals who didn’t have to depend on the power of their family or tribe for power, but created it themselves.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the invention of the printing press. In addition to further establishing the role of the individual in the cosmos, it was also being used to revolutionize the efficiency of accounting, creating, as the French economist Bernard Steigler has put it, “a new understanding of reason as ratio.”[3] This sort of capitalism also requires that the world be divided up into equal, quantifiable elements that can be valued according to the logic of production, distribution, and consumption. Together with science, capitalism aided by the printing press continued the demystification of the world.

In addition, the printing press also put a new emphasis upon the visual consumption of the written word. Words which had primarily been spoken, or at least when written had represented spoken words, suddenly stood on their own as visual symbols. This custom of reading words finally wrenched Western society from what had primarily been an oral culture into a visual culture. And with this emphasis on the eye comes an emphasis on the mind. A visual culture always privileges the mind over the body.[4]

A history emerges from all this, showing a transition from orality, collectivity, and mysticism to an ocular-centric society of individuals moving about in a de-mystified, measurable world. But, the industrial revolution created by our scientific discoveries actually caused disindividuation as the individual craftsman was reduced to a “unit of work”, as Steigler puts it.[5] And this does not stop at the factory door: “when proletarianism extends to ever-widening spheres of activity through progress in automated tasks, the result is psychic and collective disindividuation.”[6] The automation of tasks reversed the process of individuation, both in the factory and in the office. While this was the case, is it still true today?

For this electro-nomadic cyborg, standing in a room with a remote control in my hand, the remote control allows me to manifest change in the world with very little effort. It makes me very powerful. But does this make me more articulated from the world as an individual? Does the new technology render me more or less individuated? Despite my increased power as an individual, the tool still blends me with the world. Through my networks, as described by William Mitchell, I am linked to the rest of the world by a pseudo-telepathic connection. Being increasingly networked certainly feels like disindividuation. Through these networks, we are now capable of remembering things that we never experienced or learned. We can reason through a problem with the capacity of 3 billion minds. Technology like wikis and clusters of blogs make ‘truth’ a constantly negotiated thing – ‘communicative reason’ manifest. Our capacity to effect change increases drastically in size [in terms of physical geography]. And phenomenologically, we also increase drastically in size with our capacity to effect change.

Our new forms of technology are in fact creating a disindividuation, similar to that produced by the industrial revolution. But something else interesting is happening too: there is also a re-enchantment. As the vastness of the networks and the complexity of the technology move well beyond our capacity to understand, there is an unmistakable whiff of magic to it all. The way in which we discuss the technology implies a ghost in the machine, an assumption not far off from believing in sorcery. Children who have grown up with computers have actually been found to consistently describe computers as ‘sort-of’ alive.[7]

Technology seems to be causing a movement back towards collectivity and enchantment. It may also be leading us back to a new ‘orality’. The books and images of the ocular-centric culture that arguably reigned from the Enlightenment until now, encouraged a focused, precise gaze. The barrage of images that we are now producing and being confronted with, however, seem to be inspiring an unfocused, “participatory and empathetic gaze,” which allows us to cope.[8] In Juhani Pallasma’s view, this new “mode of looking” sees a “multiplicity of standpoints and perspectives, and is multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary, horizontal, and caring.”[9] This, paired with new interface systems that circumvent the eye such as haptics and EEG sensors, seems to indicate a retreat from the visual and the intellectual which has dominated culture for so long, giving the rest of the body a chance to assert itself.


[1] Jung, p.145

[2] Jung, p.145

[3] Hubaut, Queens Quarterly, Fall 2007

[4] Pallasmaa, EOTS, p.15

[5] Hubaut, Queens Quarterly, Fall 2007

[6] ibid

[7] Turkle, Social Research, Fall 1997, p.1093

[8] Pallasmaa, EOTS, p.24

[9] Ibid, p.25