On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 4

This is the final part in a 4 part series.

Progress is beginning to break down. The fuel that runs our society is getting too expensive and difficult to extract from the Earth. The climate is heating up, and everywhere we turn is pollution. Humans are overpopulated and underfed. It is getting more and more difficult to believe that the better future that Progress promises will ever come.

There are ways that Progress’ disembodiment is breaking down, too. There are ways that people are turning back to their bodies. Take this blog and modern paganism as an example–modern paganism tends to believe that embodiment is a virtue to strive for. People are meditating or practicing yoga. People are becoming interested in food production and composting. Urban gardens are popping up in every city. “Handmade” is becoming a good thing again, rather than being seen as shoddy. Many people would now prefer to buy handmade jewelry on Etsy rather than machine-made jewelry from a mall. Corporate clothing chains like Anthropologie are making a point to sell clothes that look a little imperfect so they will seem handmade. There is a huge resurgence in people wanting to DIY so that their things show the mark of their hand, in people seeing things they made themselves as indicative of their personalities because of the mark of their hands. People are brewing their own beer, pickling their own cucumbers, canning their own jam. People in huge numbers are taking up crafts like knitting that only a few decades ago were seen as backwards Grandma activities. People are intentionally forming communities, putting down their phones for the weekend, or leaving Facebook. People are converting to Paganism or just choosing to believe that their embodied selves have a place on this planet. People are demanding that magazines show unedited photographs so that we may have beauty ideals that reflect actual people, so that people might have a slightly less contentious relationships with their own bodies. Progress is breaking down a bit, and with it, its foundational belief that the body is the worse part of a two-part humanity is also breaking down, little by little.

It’s got a long way to go. But by embracing and cultivating our embodiment, we can bring back a central place for our bodies in our own lives. What if we called people instead of texting them, and visited instead of Facebook chatting? What if we danced more instead of watching movies? What if we built instead of bought, and felt along with thought?

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 4 part series.

The main way we choose to separate ourselves from our bodies is by using technology. There do exist some really excellent applications for this. For example, there is a team of researchers studying the use of virtual reality software to treat burn victims. It allows them to leave their bodies, in a way, to experience their lives somewhere besides where they really are, which helps to ease their inescapable pain.

Since the dawn of industrialization, we’ve attempted to outsource our bodies as much as possible. First it was manufacturing–instead of having women sit at spinning wheels and work, a machine could do that. So we outsourced our bodies’ capacity for primary productive work. Then we worked on machines that did the work, and the pathway of the past few centuries has been to outsource more and more work.

We had people working in the factories taking care of the machines, then we had machines to fix machines, and the people started working at desks, writing. Then we outsourced the writing to machines, and now we sit and type letters instead of writing words.

Then we outsourced our entertainment. Instead of playing cards or talking, we could watch movies or tvs. The machines could entertain us.

Then we outsourced our home lives—machines (microwaves) can cook our dinners, roombas can clean our rooms, all so we can keep outsourcing our social lives to the internet.

And now, we are even outsourcing our memories to the internet, so that in a way, the mind is even becoming separate from the brain. We don’t have to pull our memories out of our minds, we can look at them on facebook. We don’t have to memorize facts or spelling, we can google them.

There was a Sprint ad for iPhone recently that got me thinking about the extent to which we have outsourced our identities and memories. Here is a transcription of that commercial:

“The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes, our minds. We can share every second in data dressed as pixels. A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular. So why would you cap that? My iphone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity. I need to upload all of me. I need, no I have the right, to be unlimited.”

If we can upload the entire human experience, all of ourselves, then what is the body for? Notice the narrator does not say he wants to download each of his experiences, or all of his interests. He needs to upload all of him, his entire identity. Since bodies are not uploadable, he clearly considers that his body is not a part of himself or his identity. Pixels have become clothing that require no wearer. His body as photographic subject matter becomes an object to entertain others, the product of a machine, right alongside other technological photographs and tweets and status updates. Our bodies have become the art in a culture that doesn’t value art.

If we are our minds, and our minds are uploadable, then we are packets of data, and our bodies, perhaps, have become the pale green pants with nobody inside them.

We are supposedly at the endpoint of progress, where people are hoping for artificial intelligence so that we can outsource the last shred of our humanity, where movies like Surrogates offer a picture of a world where our lives can be as separated from our bodies as we already are from the production of our food. Where our bodies are disgusting, where they are to be hidden away behind a machine, unless it’s a really nice picture you want to share on Facebook.

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series.  Find Part 1 here.

In many ways, our separation from our bodies can be linked to Rene DesCartes and his Discourse on Method. It’s the source of his most famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” With this canonical work, DesCartes suggested that our humanity lies in our rational processes, that the only way we can know that we exist is that we think about it. Feeling, however, is just as good a method as thinking for proving we exist. I am never more sure of my existence than when I’m in pain, or when I am feeling sorrow. Are these not equal tests for knowing our humanity?

But, to DesCartes, our humanity is evident only in our ability to think. And so began centuries of thought based around the idea that thoughts elevated us above our base human (or our animal) bodies.

In DesCartes scenario, the mind is where our humanity lies, and the mind lies in the brain. The body is the mind’s vessel, and its feelings must be attended to for the sole reason that they keep the mind going. Pain’s purpose is to avoid death, which is the end of the mind. We have to keep eating to keep our minds strong and stay healthy to avoid our minds being distracted by our bodies’ ill health.

It’s not really DesCartes’ fault that he felt this way about reason, though. His philosophy  came after a few centuries of Christianity’s transcendental religion being the most basic belief system of the West. In that system, our souls are what elevates us above the animals. In DesCartes’s philosophy, the mind has simply displaced the soul.

Transcendental religion teaches that this world is bad and to be rejected through ignoring as much of it as possible. Ignoring your desires and focusing only on a transcendental deity is what gets you to heaven. The religion teaches little about how to improve this world. Confess your sins, ignore the desire to sin in the first place. Etc, etc.

In a world-denying religion, our physical bodies as vessels for our souls are leaky in a sense, and our pure souls leak out the cracks. But the bodies are NOT the souls in any way, so they must not be treated as the center of our experience. As the fertile ground from which our worldview of progress grew, Catholicism’s belief in the sinfulness of the body is indicative. Once industrialization took hold, it was machines that we should aspire to be instead of souls.

Every few weeks, one of my facebook friends will quote C.S. Lewis as having said “You do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” This is an assertion with which I heartily disagree. I think it is definitely the case that you are a body, but I will leave it up to my readers as to whether we also are a soul or also have a soul. The point is that, at least during the course of our lives, we are not capable of leaving our bodies without the use of some pretty impressive technology. According to these beliefs, our bodies are the central locus of our lives, and they are the location of the soul’s experiences. (Interestingly, C.S. Lewis didn’t say it, according to Mere Orthodoxy, whose post on the subject is relevant to the greater subject at hand, namely embodied spirituality.)

Religion itself does not have to be transcendental or encourage disembodiment. Modern paganism, as my readers will know, does not. Neither do religions not rooted in the Western tradition. This quote by Kevin Simler pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject:

“Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I had a realization: religion is not about beliefs. In hindsight this should have been obvious. In trying to understand the phenomenon of religion, how could the (specific) beliefs matter? They’re what makes each religion unique, different from all the others.

But I grew up in the West, and a hazard of the Western (disembodied) sensibility is to focus on the beliefs — those verbal, propositional units that yield to analysis. Either gods exist, or they don’t. That’s what religion is about, right? Who cares about the menagerie of bizarre rituals; they can’t be particularly important. I now maintain almost the exact opposite. Religion is a thin dross of verbal confabulation clinging to a bedrock of embodied practices. Talk is cheap. Behavior speaks louder than beliefs. And beliefs about the supernatural and/or esoteric are especially cheap, because those are precisely the domains where holding false beliefs doesn’t cost anything. Say whatever you like about the afterlife, but be careful what you believe about tigers.”

Though we’ve decided that having beliefs or faith is no longer in vogue, and have replaced them with rationalism and atheism, we continue to maintain our civilization’s philosophy that beliefs matter–we continue to believe in the transcendent qualities of the human mind. Belief in science matters, effort toward rationalism matters, but belief in faith is enough to bring about scorn. However, instead of transcending our suffering through non-attachment as the Buddha suggested, or transcending ourselves by becoming close to God, we literally transcend our physical existences by separating the mind from the body and then creating proxies for our bodies so that they can become useless and forgettable. So that we can become walking minds who forget that we even have bodies. We use all the energy we have at our disposal to consistently and thoroughly transcend our physical existences.

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 1

As I discussed in a recent post, despite the fact that these days, the word “Progress” is usually used as a generalized expression of the future being inevitably better than the present and the past, the definition of the word “progress” requires a destination. What are we progressing toward? We say that it’s a better future, but in what ways is it better? What, ultimately, is the goal of Progress?

In all my writing about dance, one theme has come up over and over again: that we as modern, Western people would benefit from increased embodiedness. Our culture looks at the body as a mere vessel for the mind, so our human experience should be rational and objective. But an embodied perspective is necessarily a subjective one because it must always be tailored to the scale, abilities, and preferences of the individual human body. When DesCartes invented mind/body dualism, he was suggesting that the mind is separate from and superior to the body.

Once this separation was formed, and the hierarchy entrenched, subjective experience became devalued, and progress found its destination. Progress is, in effect, the process of disembodiment.

Modern philosophy, thanks to DesCartes, espouses the belief that our bodies are the vessels of our minds, and our entire culture is built around finding proxies for the functions of the body to free up the experience of the mind. The experience of the body is always and everywhere secondary to the experience of the mind; anything pleasurable to the mind is considered good and just, whereas those things pleasurable to the body are considered mere luxuries or worse, sins.

Normally, this process is described as the elevation of reason, the founding of a just and rational society.  However, I would suggest that it is more accurate and thorough to describe the philosophical trajectory of the past few centuries as a rejection of the body. John Michael Greer calls this “biophobia.” We are so removed from our own bodies that we become disgusted by or afraid of them. And even beyond our bodies–those things that are “gross” are more often than not physical expressions of biology injecting themselves into our lives where they do not belong.

The human disgust response is often a response to those things that are out of place. Someone’s fingernail is not disgusting to touch if they are shaking your hand. But if they trim it off and hand it to you, your response suggests the fingernail is dangerous. The same is true of hair–hair attached to the head is nice, but a hairbrush full of shed hairs (or even worse, a shower drain!) is gross. Insects in the house are gross, because biology has infested our otherworldly, biology-free households. Our entire society has been built on finding ever more complete ways to remove ourselves from our bodies, those disgusting, lowly vessels for the clean and moral souls and minds they carry.

In a modernized, industrial society, I argue, the human body itself is seen as matter out of place in a world built for machines and reason. Our bodies are disgusting for sweating and producing visible waste that machines do not. Our bodies are frail and difficult to repair because they don’t function on a machine’s logic. The parts aren’t interchangeable. They have feelings and urges that are unreasonable and impossible to program out. In a society at the far end of progress, the body is a senseless object that is in the way of our reaching the end of progress– a world without death, want, or irrationality, all things that are inseparable from bodies.

This is the first of a series of four posts on this subject, discussing nuances and examples of this process of disembodiment, and evidence that mind/body dualism may be beginning to break down as our civilization begins its descent from its height.