On the Emerging Form of Embodiment

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”– Friedrich Nietzsche

What does it mean to say that contemporary culture is enthralled by ‘post humanism’? Our ‘docile’ bodies, the  sites of subjectivation, and thus our sense of ‘self’, have become (often willing) canvases for technological prostheses and surgeries. Our mentality has shifted away from acknowledging internal structure, limitation and form. This destruction of the notion of a cohesive ‘human’ body that appears so natural to us, would have been an abomination at other points in history. The questions begin to pile up: Why has it become so permissive to interrogate and re-imagine the body? When did we begin thinking of the ‘body’ as ours to command, ours to puncture, ours to probe and ours to re-imagine?

Here’s a brief, yet illuminating set of opposing comments to examine these questions:

(Position 1): In his Metaphysics, Aristotle writes: “And since the soul of animals (for this is the substance of a living being) is their substance according to the formula, i.e. the form and the essence of a body of a certain kind.”

(Position 2): Donna Haraway writes in her Cyborg Manifeso: “Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exception. A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generates antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted.” Or, to supplement Haraway, take this excerpt from J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash:

I lifted her breast in my palm and began to kiss the cold nipple, from which a sweet odor rose, a blend of my own mucous and some pleasant pharmaceutical compound. I let my tongue rest against the lengthening teat, and then moved away, examining the breast carefully. For some reason I had expected it to be a detachable latex structure, fitted on each morning along with her spinal brace and leg supports, and I felt vaguely disappointed that it should be made of her own flesh.”

Nothing could be more opposed than Aristotle and Haraway/Ballard. What an abyss separates these two positions! While Aristotle asserts that the form of one’s body is its soul, Haraway (and Ballard to some extent) offer views of a ‘cyborg’ body that cares little for recourse to Edenic or originary physiology and – as such – has little use for the Aristotelian soul.  But what has opened this abyss, this crevice between the form as isomorphic with soul (for Aristotle), and form as isomorphic with an ironic heterogeneity (for Haraway)?

While we, obviously, cannot hope to answer this question in its totality, we can begin by directing our attention to the divergence between Aristotelian and Modern ontologies of matter. Whereas the Aristotelian cosmos was governed by a place for things, a fixed celestial hierarchy of fifty-five concentric crystalline spheres, the modern cosmological picture obliterates a place for things, and replaces the crystalline spheres with an infinite space.

One no longer, under this later world view, in inclined to understand things as having a ‘nature’ of their own. Whereas all things had specific types of movements for Aristotle, for the Modern, all things, demonstrated by Newton’s first law (“A body continues to maintain its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force.”) become subject to the same laws, earthly or heavenly.

Not only does the universe lose its sense of purpose, but the ‘bodies’ in it do too. And the post-humanist would gleefully exclaim: ‘here I are, five-hundred years after Copernicus, modifying my body, working with virtual-worlds, designing textured skins for my virtual personae, sculpting my face, designing prim angel wings, ascending to the virtual Valhalla I’ve created.’ At the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, as the Gods perish the crowd of human ‘selves’ turn to Valhalla and watch it burn: the world is theirs now, so too is their flesh. The curtain falls.


~ by dccohen on February 9, 2010.

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