Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Boundaries of Self: Introduction and Index

Some weeks ago I told Leah at Unequally Yoked that I would write a series of posts on what constitutes "me", or the self, in relation to a conversation she had been having about transhumanism and prosthetics. I have been busy and so unable until now to think about starting that series. I do not promise that I will produce this series at anything more than snail's pace, but perhaps this outline will prompt me to write.

Because I am writing this in response to a previous conversation, I will take a few paragraphs to summarize what that conversation was. If this summary does not interest you, please skip down to the first bold sentence.

On a post entitled Time For a Few Facts, concerning Catholic theology of the Eucharist, a commenter pseudonymed dbp discussed detached limbs. He suggested that if you were to remove your knee, it would still be part of you but would, over time, become less and less identified with you until it was eventually not part of you at all, due among other things to cell death and physical distance. He then suggested that a prosthetic, upon integrating functionally with your body (he used the term "harmony"), would become part of you by some conceptual standard. This argument was an analogy and/or example in a discussion of essences, existences, and accidents, but it was taken up in its own right by subsequent commenters. (dbp: If you are reading this and identify as female, please let me know and I will adjust all pronouns accordingly.) Matt DeStefano responded with the claim that a prosthetic is "yours" in the sense of property, not part; only organic tissue connection can make something part of you. In my opinion, DeStefano made the strategic error of suggesting he knows more about identity and prosthetics than people who have prosthetics. He suggested that functionality does not create identification, and further tied this in with the conversation on the Eucharist. I hope to address these issues over the course of this series. dbp then responded with the claim that there are more ways to identify than the organic/genetic.

Because Leah loves transhumanism, she took this discussion as an opportunity to start a new post entitled "Sorry, did someone say 'Transhumanism?'" In this post she argues that prosthetics are part of a person in the same way organic parts are. She sets this up as coming from her quasi-dualism; what is important to note is that Leah seems to be operating under the assumption that those limbs or organs which serve our will, unmediated by anything more than synapses (carried over either nerve cells or circuitry), are part of us in any real sense.

dbp appears again in the comments with a theological reference I do not wish to explore here and now. March Hare offers a distinction between a prosthetic me and a real me, the latter being his preference, seemingly organic in structure, and according to him non-existent. I am struggling to understand his claim, but it seems to me a reformulation of what DeStefano said in the previous post's comments. DeStefano does appear, but not on this topic. As you could also see if you look at those comments, I enter the conversation and suggest that I will write a series on the delineation of self.

I will take a moment to outline my intent and methodology. I do not intend to map out the markers between me and not-me. This is not only because I don't claim to be an expert but also because I don't think there are definitive boundaries. My intention is not to offer a comprehensive theory of self. It is instead my goal to destabilize existing theories. If, by the end of this series, you (my reader) think of the self as having fuzzier edges than you'd previously imagined, I will consider myself successful. I will not be doing theology here. What I will be doing is offering a number of examples, mostly real-world, which challenge our preconceived notions of the boundaries of self. Over the course of the posts you will, if all goes well, be able to see the everyday and systemic applications of this question, but in the meantime I hope you will be able to enjoy it as an intellectual exercise. If you are interested in doing some prior reading, I would suggest Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal and Judith Butler's Precarious Life, in particular the chapter entitled, "Violence, Mourning, Politics." My ideas will also be indebted to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, which I have lots of big problems with.

Without any more ado, here is an index of my forthcoming posts. The links will go live as I write the corresponding posts.


  1. The Problem of the Organic Body; or, What is our body? part 1

  2. The Problem of the Obedient Body; or, What is our body? part 2

  3. The Problem of the Augmented Body; or, What is our body? part 3

  4. The Problem of the Compartmentalized Person; or, What is our mind? part 1

  5. The Problem of the Unknown Self; or, What is our mind? part 2

  6. The Problem of the Interrelational Person; or, What is our identity? part 1

  7. The Problem of the Located Person; or, What is our identity? part 2

  8. Parting Thoughts on the Frontiers of Self

I will start with the body because that was the crux of the conversation from which this series has come. The Problem of the Organic Body will look at why we can't simply assume that what is part of us is determined by physically attached, genetically identical, living tissue (ie. cells). The Problem of the Obedient Body will consider ways in which things we consider parts of ourselves are not especially obedient to our will; this will address concerns of functionality, as will the third post, The Problem of the Augmented Body, which will look at prosthetics and some other transhumanist issues. From here I will address the "mind" in The Problem of the Compartmentalized Person, in which I will think of about the will, consciousness, and desire. If so far this has seemed too dualist for you, then you might be happier with the remaining posts. The Problem of the Interrelational Person will deal with people in the social world, especially regarding friendships. The Problem of the Located Person will mark a departure away from real life or historical examples and into the rich thought experiments of speculative fiction; I will ask whether we can imagine a person being in two places at once, and attempting to draw conclusions from our success or failure. Finally, I shall review the ground we have covered and indicate some loose ends and tangents in my Final Thoughts on the Frontiers of Self.


This has proven to be a long introduction, for which I apologize. I cannot guarantee that any of the posts in the series will be short, either. I will part with final caveats: I am not a specialist in disability theory, body theory, gender studies, atypical anatomy, medicine, or psychology. Take everything I say with a grain of salt. My credentials come only from having thought a lot about this. Remember that I am asking questions and challenging preconceptions. I am not offering viable alternatives.


Edit: I realize that I have more to say on the mind, so I am expanding that section. This will change the flow, but until the series is done I do not intend to change the summary given here.

3 comments:

Jon Wong said...

"My intention is not to offer a comprehensive theory of self. It is instead my goal to destabilize existing theories. If, by the end of this series, you (my reader) think of the self as having fuzzier edges than you'd previously imagined, I will consider myself successful."

How very post-modern of you.

Leah said...

I'm really looking forward to this! And I'm definitely telling my readers to bookmark this page on Quick Takes Friday.

March Hare said...

This should be an interesting series, I'm looking forward to it.

If I may make my position clear(er): There is a muddled, self-contradictory idea of self, which everyone has, that contains various components - body, mind, memories, attitudes and a various other things. Each one of these can be foremost depending on the situation but the general point is that they are similar enough for the idea of self to be continuous. Incidentally this applies to other people's view of you as well as your own.

This is an illusion. Virtually every atom in your body is replaced every decade, your desires, memories, interests and everything that (you think) makes you you changes over the years.

I go further - the only you that exists is a snapshot, a fleeting instant that changes the instant a single thought flows through your head or when you take a breath. That it changes so slightly (in the vast majority of circumstances) is what gives the illusion of permanence but it is false. It is a useful illusion and one that is tough to shake.

In the same counter-intuitive way we are mostly space (atomic theory), we are also not continuous selves.

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