Monday, September 28

minds bodies words and shared responsibilities

this draft has been waiting some time for this day. I'd been thinking for a while to rework it into a post, but something always got in the way of my actually doing it. and then when I realized there was a date on the thing-- today's date-- I put it off yet again just so I could ultimately post it on its anniversary. 

this end-of-September Monday marks five years since I wrote the following five paragraphs for Dr. Thomas Rickert's posthumanism class. it is in a genre of grad school essay called the "paper day paper." (if you're curious for more examples, it just so happens that fellow Purdue student Ryan has impressively assembled all of his paper day papers here. not all of mine would be so easily digitized, though I have repurposed snippets from them before, but maybe it would be cool to follow Ryan's example someday eventually.)


Mind and Body are Just Words
28 Sept. 2015

I stole the title there from a recent podcast episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being, where she interviews Dr. Ellen Langer. Dr. Langer’s experiments on wellbeing and mindfulness hinge around an idea that “mind and body are just words,” separation between them is artificial, and there is real power in our expectations and perspectives. I am skeptical about the word just. It carries such belittling dismissiveness. Yes, mind and body are words, but words and meanings surely play into Dr. Langer’s whole point that perceptions can make a physiological difference. We can’t ignore words in all that. As Francesca Ferrando puts it, “futures do not appear out of nowhere: they are based on the presents, the pasts, and the ways they are being envisioned” (1). How we talk about things is part of how things thing for us, after all. How we talk about the future will be part of how the future futures.

One thoughtful listener’s reflection on the podcast’s webpage, from a semi-anonymous Sarah, adds, “Our whole body thinks, it's not a function confined to (that admittedly amazing organ) the brain; and the body, with it's [sic] internal and external senses, is dependant [sic] on it's [sic] environment as part of that thinking process.” Perhaps Sarah has been reading Andy Clark. He and this Sarah person at least seem to share some enthusiasm for the possibilities of describing our selves as inseparably enmeshed with environments and tools. Clark writes, beautifully, that “Minds like ours emerge from this colorful flux as surprisingly seamless wholes: adaptively potent mashups extruded from a dizzying motley of heterogeneous elements and processes” (219). Without all that mess, minds like ours (…if we can call them ours…) may not be possible. But for all we owe to the motley universe, Clark does allow us to own our minds and our agency. He describes these “surprisingly plastic minds” as belonging to “profoundly embodied agents: agents whose boundaries and components are forever negotiable and for whom body, sensing, thinking, and reasoning are all woven flexibly and repeatedly from the accommodating weave of situated, intentional action” (43). According to this model we are individuals, yet also systems and parts-of-systems, with flexible boundaries and all kinds of negotiable bits and pieces.

I wonder who/what has the upper hand in these negotiations. Where exactly does agency live in these woven, mashedup contraptions? Anywhere? I imagine it must be distributed, shared among world and self and materials, just as enmeshed as anything else. And if so, the question of control and responsibility—of agency—begins to feel worryingly and impossibly mystifying. This On Being episode that I have stuck in my head suggests, in its earnest, pop-sciencey way, that if one can just change one’s attitude, one can change one’s whole life (for the better, presumably). What power. What responsibility. Several comments in response to this theme argue with great concern about the ethics of asking, say, a lower-class/minority laborer to adjust their attitudes to their work, as if that should be empowering and liberating enough for any profoundly embodied agent. Is it really? Could it ever be?

Along these lines, Katherine Hayles points out early on in How We Became Posthuman the need to consider “how certain characteristics associated with the liberal subject, especially agency and choice, can be articulated within a posthuman context” (5). It doesn’t seem very easy. She later returns to the concern of subjectivity, recognizing that “As the liberal humanist subject is dismantled, many parties are contesting to determine what will count as (post)human in its wake. For most of the researchers discussed in this chapter [Narratives of Artificial Life, ch 9], becoming a posthuman means much more than having prosthetic devices grafted onto one’s body. It means envisioning humans as information-processing machines” (246). And this, of course, is only one sense of human-ness. We can—and at times already do—conceptualize ourselves as information. Hayles quotes William Gibson on the posthuman body as “data made flesh” (5). But might we reverse this? Will distinctions between information and identity blur as much as those between mind and body and world are blurring? Activist and tech designer Aral Balkan would argue and has argued in numerous talks that they have. In a manifesto-esque blogpost called “Indie Data,” (and elsewhere) Balkan writes about the tools and information and processes that are our digital selves—informational yous and mes—digital selves caught up in a market where human rights don’t necessarily apply, where corporations ask us to trade all our digital fingerprints for free access to technology. Balkan begs his audience to pay attention to the ways we participate in that conversion of self into data, and he hopes “to create, support, and popularise products that empower you to own your digital self; your data, tools, and derived intelligence.” Such ownership is not given. It too must be negotiated. Clamored for and defended and somehow brought into sustainable possibility.

Our texts so far in this class have been prodding us to draw fewer dividing lines and to start recognizing the ways in which every thing is part of a lot of other things. Whether it’s Heidegger’s Being and presencing, or Hayle’s enacted/embodied/empatterned systems and information-processings, or Clark’s EXTENDED models of mind, all these words urge more careful thinking, more open awareness, more inclusive considerations of a good future for humans and non-humans and everywhere they overlap. I’m not sure exactly how much control we have over using our present presencing to carve out space or language where the future will best future for the most people, places, and things, but I hope we have a little bit. Whether we do or don’t, we should keep talking about it and writing about it with words that are just words and words that are more than just words. Whether we do or don’t, we should try not to mess it up, if we can.

Scholarly References
Clark, Supersizing the Brain: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension
Ferrando, "Is the post-human a post-woman?"
Hayles, How we Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics


I have a new academic idol of sorts. Patricia Roberts-Miller blogs about key principles of argument and rhetoric and how those intersect with politics and demagoguery and it's all gloriously insightful stuff. I might blog more about her work later on, someday

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