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.

3 thoughts on “On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 1

  1. I really love this blog post. Have you read Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject; your ideas with respect to nail clippings and other bodily waste really speaks to that particular concept.

  2. Pingback: On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 2 | Flame in Bloom

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