Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 2 – Disembodiment)
In his collection of clinical reports titled The Man who Thought his Wife was a Hat neurologist Oliver Sacks recounts the tragic story of Christina; the world’s first disembodied woman. Christina was a healthy young woman who required an operation to remove her gallbladder. The day before her surgery she had an odd and particularly intense dream where her sense of balance and motor senses spun out of control. Later in the day the dream became a reality. Her arms began to flail awkwardly, she could not hold objects properly and her feet began to fail her. Despite the hospital psychiatrist’s assertion that her condition was mere “pre-operative anxiety [and] hysteria” her condition began to worsen. She became unable to stand at all and experienced a total loss of co-ordination. “‘Something awful’s happened,” she mouthed, in a ghostly flat voice. ‘I can’t feel my body. I feel weird – disembodied’“. As Dr. Sacks investigated Christina’s condition it became increasingly clear that the physiological area responsible for our sixth (and often underappreciated and unnoticed) sense had sustained serious damage.
This sixth sense, called proprioception, allows us to monitor and adjust the movable parts of our body. It is the most automatic, unconscious and hidden of all our senses, allowing us to feel our bodies as proper to us, as our ‘property’, as our own. Despite being able, to a certain extent, to compensate with her vision and other balance organs Christina lay in a “state of shock, horror and despair. [For] what sort of a life would it be…? What sort of a life, every move made by artifice? What sort of a life, above all, if she felt disembodied”. Christina’s horror reminds us of the extent that we are embodied beings. We rarely realize the fleshy bedrock of our own bodies until it fails us, as it did in Christina’s case. While she was able to compensate with other senses, concentrating on her limbs with her eyes to substitute for her body’s blindness, without proprioception “her body is dead, not-real, not-hers – she cannot operate it herself”. She can find no words for this state, and can only use analogies derived from other senses: “I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself…it has no sense of itself”. It is as if as a result of her physiological damage the core of her being, her self, was altered to the point where she was no longer Christina but something quantitatively different. Sacks describes her realm frighteningly as a “non-realm” and a “nothingness”, quoting her disconcerting cries: “Something’s been scooped right out of me, right at the centre…that’s what they do with frogs isin’t it? They scoop out the centre, the spinal cord, they pith them…that is what I am, pithed, like a frog…Step up and see Chris, the first pithed human being”.
Theorists such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, two of the major proponents of the scientific and cultural movement known as transhumanism, have celebrated cyberspace as a sort of realm for disembodied subjects. I am willing to maintain an open mind in the face of such claims and even entertain the suggestions posited by the two futurist thinkers, in order to interrogate them. To let such ideas proliferate without serious interrogation, as they have done for the past couple years, threatens the work of a number of theorists whose ideas draw on similar concepts in divergent and less literal ways. For example, in How we Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles theorizes using the image of the ‘posthuman’. She understands the rhetoric of disembodiment to be merely one way (and one of the worst) of achieving posthumanity. She writes:
If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.
We find such fantasies of ‘unlimited power’ and ‘disembodied immortality’ in a peculiar sub-chapter in Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology fittingly titled ‘Uploading the Human Brain’. Kurzweil has garnered an immense amount of acclaim and respect over recent years for both his inventions like the flatbed scanner and his striking (and occasionally accurate) predictions for the future. He has been granted the highest technology related award in the United States, named MIT’s inventor of the year and honored by three US presidents. He has written two books prior to The Singularity is Near each growing increasingly radical in their views. His first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines predicted the rise of the internet, the defeat of Gary Kasparov and the extent to which intelligent weapons would be utilized in warfare. His second book, The Age of Spiritual Machines describes a scenario where the earth is populated by intelligent hybrids of human and machine.
His views are so radical and his position so exalted in the political and corporate sphere that one might find it alarming that they have not been critiqued more frequently in contemporary philosophy.
———–Cybject is only a thought experiment —————–
~ by dccohen on December 27, 2009.