Hyperrhiz 09: Essays
Digital Fate of the Face and Body
Maria Curie-Sklodowska University
Software does not exist outside hardware, programs do not operate in isolation from the basis of discs and processors. Paying no heed to this, we decide to take another step in the post-Cartesian progress towards defiance of corporeality: we prefer to forget it is the body that positions us in cyberspace. We think that our emancipated rationality and spirituality will finally shed this ill-fated and unnecessary burden which demands constant care.
The human body becomes technologized in two ways. First, we start perceiving ourselves and our bodies as devices or machines and, enthralled by this perspective, we begin to understand their function as limited to tools and mechanisms. This is a phenomenon opposite to anthropomorphism, so familiar to us, that is searching for human features in technologies and endowing them with forms and functionalities similar to these possessed by their authors. Anthropomorphism is manifested, for instance, in shapes and forms given to robots. The redefinition of the subject done in this way stimulates the other process, that is separation of the organic "machinery" from the spiritual sphere, identity from its organic vehicle and its significant determinant: spiritual software becomes independent of physical hardware. In accordance with the principle of digital ontology, software does not exist outside hardware, programs do not operate in isolation from the basis of discs and processors. Paying no heed to this, we decide to take another step in the post-Cartesian progress towards defiance of corporeality: we prefer to forget it is the body that positions us in cyberspace, that eyes and ears make cyberspace available to the brain, and so forth. We think that our emancipated rationality and spirituality will finally shed this ill-fated and unnecessary burden which demands constant care, is slow against gravity, holds us back and impedes our navigation through the digital ocean. Without doubt, this is a turning point in the history of communication, which should make all communicating parties ask themselves questions about limits to eviction of physicality from the communication sphere and about consequences of carefree substituting it with media technologies, particularly neuronal interfaces.
The body: separated, serviced and extended
The diagnosis of cultural reasons for this state of affairs can be sought in downgrading the role of nature and corporeality in the Western culture, and their banishment from modernity, initiated by Descartes. It seems that the emergence of digital technologies with accompanying interfaces marks the beginning of another stage in this anthropologically and culturally significant process. In the modern culture of analogue media tools and machines, a growing distance between body and mind was still not disturbing their inseparability and consonance which ensures ontic security. However, the idyllic uninterfaced subject is vanishing (before our eyes, in front of the "interface" of sight) while our bodies become separated, yielding to identity programming in accordance with the doubling and splitting ontology of software / hardware interfaces. In the cultural sphere, a consent to this situation was given at the moment when the first artificial implant was successfully placed in a human body. Historians of medicine claim that it was achieved by the ancient Maya peoples a few thousand years BC. They replaced missing teeth with specially prepared seashells. Since then, medicine has offered increasing possibilities for technological repair / service / extension of the body. For those in need, there is a wide variety of available "spare parts" and their "service." There is also a growing number of machines, accessible to more and more people, which correct undesirable genetic effects or damage resulting from improper use of organic parts.
Thus, intermediation of digital technologies makes it unprecedentedly easy to go beyond traditional, natural interfaces of corporeality and communication sphere. Their replacement or elimination tempt us with the prospect of enjoyable experiences and comfortable service. However, similarly to children fascinated by new toys, users of new technologies frequently lack knowledge about consequences of their actions. An innocent game of getting acquainted with the medium and trying to use it may cause totally unexpected and unwanted effects, as in childhood experiences with an oven that burnt or a knife that cut. Under the influence of media technologies, we are forced to reconceptualize our own corporeality, just like photography provokes / compels us to act in accordance with the logic of photogenicity. Looking further: visual language of the contemporary media culture reduces the body to its image which is rather a caricature, Baudrillard?s simulacrum of corporality, flourishing in the areas of fashion or pornography. A consent to this definition and to resulting optics may signify, in consequence, overcoming the last bastion of the analogue, physical uniformity and integrity of a person.
Perceiving body parts and senses as "tools" and the body as a "machine" equals growing immersion in technologies. We want to use our bodies just as we exploit technologies which, if required, may be serviced, replaced with substitutes, modernized, switched on/off, updated, rebooted, or tuned up. Examples include attempts at technological adjustment and enhancement of the body, more and more widespread in the contemporary medicine, ranging from simple alterations to nature, as an artificial pacemaker, to the final stage of technologizing: a human machine, a cyborg. Nowadays, sports competitions can be won by participants moving on mechanical legs: their achievements are evaluated in the same way as results of "100% organic" contestants. One of the cultural images connected with deepening immersion in technologies is a vision of a human in cyborg?s body. In this being, an imperfect human body is substituted with an anthropomorphised machine which imitates bodily functions. The human element is represented by a human brain, transplanted into the machine and skilfully combined with it. Together with the brain, the intangible spirit of humanity is transferred to the machine: the cultural, genetic memory of the species, along with the transcendental personality. In pop culture discourse this motif is used in many ways and in numerous styles. One of the most aesthetically charming stories with interesting content is an animated film (of anime genre) entitled Ghost in the Shell. The film poses questions about the nature of life extended with technology, looks for differences between the organic and technological bodies, and seeks potential limits to development of interface technologies.
Of all bodily parts, the face has special significance as a medium: it is the communication centre of the body. Traditionally, it is regarded as the place where the self is concentrated, as the most important element of self-perception, the opening to the world, but also the gate that conceals and guards inviolability and integrity of a person. In most cultures, the face is the ritual and magical uncovering / covering of the inside, sensitivity to surroundings and to other people. The face contains the majority of sensory apparatuses — entrances to the "human system." At the same time, the face accumulates the most significant — from the perspective of communication — exits from this system: speech, facial expressions, nearby hands. In accordance with the descriptive categories adopted by me, the face is the most important non-technological "interface" of a communicating individual.
A diagnosis of the integral consistency between corporeality and spirituality of a human being concentrated within the face can be found in Emmanuel Lévinas? philosophy. The philosopher grants the Face the primary role in organizing all his relations and interactions with the Others. Through the Face we enter the world, exist in it and reveal ourselves to one another. It is an epiphanic message, preceding any other messages, exposing us — our elusiveness and infinity — to others and bringing to light the sense written inside us. Only a Face to Face meeting eliminates anonymity and estrangement between communicating parties, makes them jointly responsible for the meeting, makes them credible to each other as equals.
In the communication sphere, at the socio-political level, Lévinas? diagnosis is confirmed by e.g. Hannah Arendt, a well-known political philosopher. Also in her opinion, true and meaningful communication with chances for mutual understanding and reaching the agora begins no sooner than at the moment when the participants make a physical appearance to each other and to the world. We learn about one another, our intentions, views or dislikes through the sensory defining and discerning others from the social and cultural background.
Corporeality has also major significance for self-definition of individuals? social identity and for relations and communities constructed on the basis of it. Anthony Gidden claims that corporeality is a necessary condition for normal functioning in the society: only those who use the "interfaces" of their bodies consciously and efficiently are able to behave with full competence and to establish good and effective communication with others. Creating the social identity of individuals takes place in close correlation with their corporeality, while exclusion of this determinant results in redefinition and structural dysfunctions, of enormous social importance. For instance, it is worth pointing to redefinition of political and national identity which is manifested in such phenomena as transnationality or cosmopolitanism, as opposed to traditional cultural, social and ethnic rootedness.
This theoretical discussion can be illustrated with an example of the relation of closeness. Hiding or eliminating the face (the Face) in contact established by means of digital interfaces transforms the character of this relation with others (Others). The spatial, physical closeness of direct contact — face to face — is increasingly replaced by virtual closeness. This is a kind of relationship that does not need to be based on previously established contact and, in consequence, has limited associative value. Virtual closeness can be treated by the participants only as a tool, without any tangible consequences and without responsibility for its character and development in the real life. Presence during a meeting or gestures in space are substituted with media telepresence at pseudo-meetings suspended in cyberspatial no-places.
Thus, if we can free ourselves from communicative credibility and responsibility, guaranteed mostly by the irreducible "face", we are tempted to adopt various virtual "faces" (avatars) — "identities" changed in particular conditions, used for specific purposes, abandoned and assumed again, without established rules, restrictions and sanctions. One of the pop culture prototypes of this strategy is "bad" terminator from the sequel of the well-known Hollywood production. This vision of anthropomorphised interfaces of technology is radically different from the one shown by authors of Ghost in the Shell. In "The Terminator" machines rebel against people and try to exterminate the human race. To achieve this, "bad" terminator imitates all types of human behaviour: he can impersonate any individual and is able to assume any form — an interface.
To recapitulate, the body and the face constitute an irreducible and irreplaceable natural interface which we — whether willing or not — handle instinctively and efficiently. This interface makes us credible to others, forces us to take physical responsibility for our actions and guarantees their standardization. Gestures, looks, sounds form the magical protolanguage of the species, founding culture at its anthropological sources. Physical presence in communication makes its participants steady and credible towards each other, anchors their actions in space-time continuum and sets them in a cultural context. On the other hand, digitality causes dematerialization of all existing cultural forms, a special case of which is disembodiment. In digitally mediated communication, participants can ignore and remove corporeal limitations, and in consequence create disembodied / virtual identity projects. In this case, disembodiment means both potential disregard for organic limitations and possible casualness, temporariness and variability. Communication procedures in cyberspace can easily change, so communicating parties do not feel bound by joint participation or physical responsibility. Let us sum up the issue with a banal, but expressive, illustration: when we face another person and hurl abuse at him or her, we take into account (or at least we should) that the person may react by undertaking some physical actions in response. We are afraid of such a reaction, mainly on the bodily level. Therefore, in this situation a person will try to use all organically available interface formulas and will select — intuitively and efficiently — those which will be the most useful to express feelings and thoughts concerning the event in question. On the other hand, the identical statement in internet forum may not receive such a tangible response.
Nevertheless, easy experimentation with "identities" assumed through digital media is / can be dangerous to mental and physical integrity of their users. Ardent computer players or users of online chats, fascinated by identity games, take on and "live in" virtual identities, omitting the element of corporeality. They enter their created projects to such an extent that they fail to keep their distance, they get lost in adopted roles. There is a growing number of reports about computer game players who died of exhaustion caused by hours of intense involvement in a game. A less drastic, but more common price we pay for disregarding our bodies and reducing their function to the role of batteries supplying power to virtual creations is reflected in diseases of the spine or thumbs.
Until we have duly effective mechanisms of authenticating cyber-identities, making them as credible as bodies in unmediated communication, their reliability will be limited and, thus, possibilities of their use will be restricted (as exemplified by the long-lasting process of implementing the digital signature). Without doubt, putting cyber-identities alongside the physical ones leads to more or less funny or dangerous situations, as in a well-known satirical cartoon published in "The New Yorker": two dogs sitting in front of the computer screen talk to each other: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
New grammar of communication
Reducing the body to the role of an interface as in media practice is a major communication and cultural change whose multiple effects cannot be fully predicted yet. Similarly, it was not possible to envisage that the invention of digital communication technologies would result in a situation where the natural "interface" gives in to pressure of technology interfaces, effectively limiting its functionality in the program: I am in the world and I am communicating in it and with it. Thus, let us try and redefine here once again the Newtonian principle: technologizing, as an attempt to improve the communication sphere, works in parallel with the directly proportional force limiting it. Increasing saturation of the communication sphere with technologies limits the use of corporeal, physical "tools" — the human body — in communication, and consequently makes the human body less useful, restricts its functions and impairs its effectiveness. While the body gets more and more immersed in media worlds, we gradually stop perceiving it as the fundament of communication, as an indispensable and irreducible element creating the environment and enhancing credibility of communication procedures.
Communication by means of new media usually entails (at the current stage of digital technologies development) elimination of corporeality from such contact. Neuronal interfaces may become a breakthrough here. In the future we will be able to talk without moving our lips, look with closed eyes, hear without using ears, and move with no physical activity. In this project, the technologically imperfect body can be ignored / discarded as an unnecessary burden not prone to updating, as an anchor that restrains a sailor from embarking on a limitless journey through cyberspace. Is it the final fulfilment of McLuhan?s ominous prophecy about amputation of senses?
We are determined by technologies. This statement gains new life and meaning in the context of digital interfaces. Under their impact we change our behaviour. In accordance with programs embedded in them, we perceive ourselves and the world around us, build our relations with others and create culture. Interfaces suggest and / or impose new grammar of communication, redefining identities of its parties, restructuring procedures of communicating and interpersonal relationships, and thus transforming the communication sphere. Even though we create technologies according to our needs and in our own image, it is difficult for us to predict and be ready for a number of changes that each of them — each medium and related interface — brings to our environment and into our lives. This happens especially nowadays, when we observe the splitting and overlapping of analogue and digital communication tools, we witness the unusual and rapid proliferation of their interfaces, primarily the web. In these conditions, the only thing we can do is to observe closely this sphere of our life and to thoroughly study the rules governing it. This is an unprecedented situation in the history of media and communication: never before we have been forced to operate so many, so varied and so quickly evolving media technologies simultaneously.
- More in: J.P. Hudzik, Filozofia a przyroda, cia?o i moralno?? [in:] Hudzik, Niepewno?? i filozofia, Warszawa 2006, pp. 47-66.
- An interface is a class of devices (machines) which mediate in interactions between the universe of digital data and a human being with his/her cultural environment. Interfaces are monitors, mouses and keyboards, but also laptops and operational system desktops.
- On anthropology of the face - see e.g.: J.-J. Courtine, C. Haroche, Histoire du visage. Exprimer et taire ses émotions XVIe - début XIXe siècle, Paris 1988.
- See: E. Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by A. Lingis, The Hague-Boston-London 1979. We read: [...] The signifier must present himself before every sign, by himself — present a face (p. 182). [The face] produces the commencement of intelligibility, initiality itself, principality, royal sovereignty, which commands unconditionally (p. 201). The question who? envisages a face. The notion of the face differs from every represented content. If the question who? does not question in the same sense as the question what? it is that here what one asks and he whom one questions coincide. To aim at a face is to put the question who? to the very face that is the answer to this question [...] The face, preeminently expression, formulates the first word: the signifier arising at the thrust of his sign, as eyes that look at you (pp. 177-178).
- See: A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford 1991. We read: Facial expressions and other gestures provide the fundamental content of that contextuality or indexicality which is the condition of everyday communication. To learn to become a competent agent - able to join with others on an equal basis in the production and reproduction of social relations - is to be able to exert a continuous, and successful monitoring of face and body. Bodily control is a central aspect of what 'we cannot say in words' because it is the necessary framework for what we can say (or can say meaningfully) (p. 56).
- More in: Z. Bauman, Razem osobno, translated by T.Kunz, Kraków 2003, pp. 162-166.