Friday, 17 June 2011

The Problem of the Augmented Body

or, What is our body? part 3

I return to this series somewhat more hesitant about it than when I began. Much of the reason there has been such a gap between instalments is that I realized I had little to say. Or, alternately, that what I had to say was not very well considered. In my discipline, literary analysis, there is a lot of discussion of bodies; how we relate to them, how they are represented, how they interact, and what they are. So when I say that I know nothing much about them, I do so in a field in which theorizing about bodies is taken very seriously and is done a great deal. Perhaps this in part explains my trepidation to proceed.

But proceed I will, because I still feel as though I can say something that will be new at least to some people, maybe even ones that will read my blog (especially if Leah continues giving it publicity). What I can perhaps offer is a sense of how the more postmodern, English department-style of thinking about things can impact such a question. I think I’d just like to bracket this post off as somewhat provisional, subject to revision. Or, even better, maybe we should think of it as a starting point for further inquiry.

And don’t worry. I will have a lot more to say, with more confidence, later in the post, once we move away from this issue of raw bodies.

Let’s catch up on the ground we’ve covered here. In my first post I considered a very biological, organic, cellular, genetic sense of body: bodies are made of continuous living tissue, distinct from one another based on disconnect. I used a number of case studies to indicate how this conception must fail. Continuous living tissue is not sufficient to any definition of a body, and I mean this in more than one sense: that which defines one body from another is not continuous living tissue. But I have not ruled out that it might be necessary. That is, it might be one component of a more complex picture.

In my second post I considered an instrumental sense of body: my body is that which I have motor control over. I used a number of case studies to indicate that this cannot be a necessary definition of body. There are things I do not have motor control over (my teeth, my heart) which are my body. I want to clarify, though, that I do not mean to say that instrumentality is not sufficient to being part of my body: perhaps motor control over something is enough to make it my body.

It cannot be the case that continuous living tissue is necessary but not sufficient and motor control is sufficient but not necessary because there is at least one instance in which people have motor control over an object but do not have a continuous living tissue connection. That instance is possession of a prosthetic limb. (Which is the issue that sparked the whole controversy over at Unequally Yoked.)

So let’s get some examples. We have limbs which replace typical human appendages and have some motor function determined by synapses. This is a fairly commonplace example and is fairly easily conceived. While you might from the outset disagree, I think most of us could at least understand why a person with a prosthetic might consider it part of his or her body: it replaces a part of the body which is formerly there. If you replace a computer component with a new one, that new one is now part of the computer. If you replace a body component with another one, we could analogously consider it part of the body. This breaks down somewhat when you realize that prosthetics are not necessarily replacements: they are sometimes function where a person did not already have a limb or they sometimes offer functions which the “original” limb did not have. However, I think it’s a good place to start thinking about prosthetics. We could also say that the addition of a new periphery becomes part of the computer when added even if it does not replace anything that formerly existed there. If you would consider a transplanted heart as now part of the new owner’s body, I think I can expect the onus to be on you to explain how a non-organic heart would be any different. (If you wouldn’t consider the transplanted heart to be part of the new owner’s body, I would like to hear you explain why. The idea is alien to me.)

Let’s move in another direction for a moment. Let’s consider the Emotiv EPOC, a console device which allows you to play the video game simply with your mind. You wear a device on your head and, after a calibration process, it lets you move characters around on the screen with your thoughts. It does this by reading your brain waves. I must admit that I am personally less comfortable taking the characters on the screen to be part of my body. I must also admit that I would be less comfortable taking distant objects also moved only by synapse/circuitry to be part of my own body. To suggest that a remote control car is “me” because I can move it with my mind seems deeply problematic. That such a situation isn’t unimaginable given the EPOC indicates that we must take it seriously.
(And to forestall any complaints that this is not the same as a prosthetic, I’ll point out that some prosthetics operate on this technology and not through nerve-circuit interface.)

The point I see being appropriate here is that the Emotiv is not part of my body because I do not identify with it. That is, I specifically disagree with the claim that identification is not relevant to the conversation. Certainly it is not sufficient: no matter how badly I may identify with your body, that does not mean it is part of my body. But I think it is a component of what is going on. The physical attachment of a prosthetic encourages the owner to define it as part of her body; even when removed, in fact, it may still be considered part of her body due to her identification with it over time. Motor control also plays a role in this, of course; sensory feedback would play even more, and is perhaps part of why the EPOC, lacking as it does in tactile response, does not have the same identification.

But I am merely asserting that identification is relevant. I cannot, actually, back that up, but for two points which might be suggestive. The first is that many people with prosthetics say that those prosthetics are part of their body. While this doesn’t prove anything, I want to point out that we as a society have done a pretty bad job of listening seriously to minority groups. Once we do start listening, we often learn a surprising number of things from them. So maybe listening would be a good idea in this case; to simply say that they are wrong because they go against our own predetermined ideas is not a good idea politically, rhetorically, or epistemologically. The second point is also the destination of this post:

My opinion, as it stands and for whatever it’s worth, is that there is no way of determining, definitively, what a body is or who it belongs to. What we have instead are a number of competing ideas that almost work but that always, somewhere, break down. In the previous instalment I said that if we want a universal definition, it must apply to all bodies. Since I do not think we can find a definition that does apply to all bodies, then we cannot have a universal definition. I want to suggest, in fact, that we not only have no way of writing such a definition, but that the category of a discrete body might not exist outside of our idea of it anyway. There are not discrete bodies.

However, it is important that we act as if there are. (Imagine what rape would look like in a society which did not recognize discrete bodies.) But this doesn’t mean that we pick a definition of body and stick to it regardless of the consequences. Instead I suggest we ride definitions as far as they go until they break down. When they break down, we look around, see what the issue is, and draft a new definition that we can use until it stops working. What becomes crucial, then, is to listen very closely to what the people with those exceptional bodies are saying, because they’re the ones who have the best insight into what a body is in that situation. (And so I circle back to my first suggestion.)

So, to be clear: I would say that if people with prosthetics define body such that that prosthetic is part of their body, then it is part of their body. However, how we define bodies is not so simple because it must take into account the society we live in. I will address this a forthcoming section. In the meantime, I will spend a few instalments dealing with the opposite half of the dualist equation: the mind.


Nick said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had with some classmates recently. It started as a joking debate about whether the Terminator was a cyborg or an android, and turned into a discussion about if it offensive to label someone with a prosthetic as a cyborg.
I don't know what we decided on, but I doubt it was politically correct.

Security word: boingler

Christian H said...

Personally, if I had a prosthetic, I would identify as a cyborg.

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