The Internet, the Body, and Unconscious Dimensions of Thought, Part II

The Embodied Unconscious

Part Two of Three. Part One.

Ulmer’s project — fashioning a heuristic apparatus that brings the social unconscious partly into view — focuses on the semiotic elements of the socially situated self. Yet, this is only one of the unconscious, or pre-cognitive, dimensions of identity and action. In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles drew attention to the relationship among embodiment, cognition, and subjectivity.  The group subject emerges, according to Hayles, not only out of the realm of image, symbol, and language, but also out of the matrix of embodied practice.

Ulmer’s unconscious may be labeled the semiotic (or iconic) unconscious.   Adapting Lacan’s psychic schema, Ulmer proposes to map the group subject by recognizing the pattern of recurring signifiers within the four discourses of what Ulmer calls the popcycle (Family, Entertainment, School, Career).   The recurring signifier, analogous to the Lacanian symptom, takes on the role of Guattari’s “existential refrain”: “An implication for electrate identity,” according to Ulmer, “is that a unique refrain, a singularity, may be the clasp that holds together a collectivity (that the nation, so to speak, ‘hangs by a thread’).” The emerging apparatus of electracy allows the group subject to be written, and thus to emerge, at least partially, from its blind spot.

Hayles supplements the semiotic unconscious with what may be called the embodied unconscious.  The embodied unconscious consists of “bodily practices” which have sedimented

into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness.   At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.

Pierre Bourdieu

In articulating the significance of the embodied unconscious, Hayles draws heavily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu arrived at his conceptions of practice and embodied knowledge through his study of a group of Berber tribes known as the Kabyle living in North Africa.  Bourdieu observed that the seasonal rituals of the Kabyle conveyed considerable “understanding” about the world, but did so by communicating not “abstractions,” but “patterns of daily life learned by practicing actions until they become habitual.” Habitus, as Bourdieu put it, preserves “a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles,” and it does so by embedding this knowledge or remembering in the body.

In summarizing Bourdieu’s findings, Hayles concludes that his

work illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structurally elaborate, conceptually coherent, and durably installed without ever having to be cognitively recognized as such . . . The habitus, which is learned, perpetuated, and changed through embodied practices, should not be thought of as a collection of rules but as a series of dispositions and inclinations that are both subject to circumstances and durable enough to pass down through generations.  The habitus is conveyed through the orientation and movement of the body as it traverses cultural spaces and experiences temporal rhythms.

This durable knowledge carried in the body and yielding dispositions and inclinations is transmitted through the ritualized practices of a society.  Ulmer tends to associate embodied knowledge and its modes of acquisition with oral cultures and religious liturgies, consequently this form of subject formation is unfortunately marginalized in his analysis of literate and post-literate societies.  By contrast, Hayles forefronts this form of knowledge and argues for its ongoing significance.  She concludes her discussion of Bourdieu by identifying four key elements of embodied knowledge that emerged from his research:

First, incorporated [or, embodied] knowledge retains improvisational elements that make it contextual rather than abstract, that keep it tied to the circumstances of its instantiation.  Second, it is deeply sedimented into the body and is highly resistant to change.  Third, incorporated knowledge is partly screened from conscious view because it is habitual.  Fourth, because it is contextual, resistant to change, and obscure to the cogitating mind, it has the power to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place.

The fourth point is particularly significant in relation to ATH or blindness and Arendt’s call to think what we are doing.  Hayles explicitly links the obscurity of embodied knowledge with the contours within which conscious thought flows.

Walter Benjamin

Connecting embodied knowledge with blindness is not intended to disparage embodied knowledge.  In fact, without offloading certain procedures, interactions, and functions to the embodied unconscious, it would be difficult to function at all.  But the benefits of embodied knowledge come at a price.  Here it is helpful to recall Ulmer’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious”:

The capacity of the camera to separate itself from the human physical and mental eye, combined with the theories of psychoanalysis, produced the notion of the ‘optical unconscious’ (Benjamin).  The attitude toward truth as standpoint in the image apparatus of electracy is that clarity is an effect of repression, blindness (ATH).

“Clarity is an effect of repression” is a dictum that applies not only to the optical unconscious, but also to the embodied unconscious.  The benefits of the embodied unconscious come at the cost of installing habitual repression into our experience of the world.  Habituated forms of attention are simultaneously habituated forms of inattention.  Interestingly, the connection between repression and habituation appears in Rosalind Krauss’ analysis cited by Ulmer in his discussion of the optical unconscious:

As Rosalind Krauss explained, applying the poststructural psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the ‘extimate’ inside-outside nature of the human subject installs an opaque obstacle “within the very heart of a diagrammatic clarity that is now a model both of vision’s claims and of vision’s failure . . . . The graph of an automatist visuality would show how the vaunted cognitive transparency of the ‘visual as such’ is not an act of consciousness but the effect of what is repressed:  the effect, that is, of seriality, repetition, the automation.”

Just as we often see through habituated acts of not seeing, we also often act through habituated acts of not thinking.

Meeting the Rule of Technology with Counterpractices

From Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure:

“… for a long time time to come technology will constitute the common rule of life.  The Christian reaction to that rule should not be rejection but restraint … But since technology as a way of life is so pervasive, so well entrenched, and so concealed in its quotidianity, Christians must meet the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counterpractice.

Therefore, a radical theology of technology must finally become a practical theology, one that first makes room and then makes way for a Christian practice.  Here we must consider again the ancient senses of theology, the senses that extend from reflection to prayer.  We must also recover the ascetic tradition of practice and discipline and ask how the ascesis of being still and solitary in meditation is related to the practice of being communally engaged in the breaking of the bread.  The passage through technology discloses a new or an ancient splendor in ascesis.  There is no duress or denial in ascetic Christianity.  On the contrary, liberating us from the indolence and shallowness of technology, it opens to us the festive engagement with life.”

The crucial insight here, for Christians and non-Christians alike, is the necessity of formulating deliberate and intentional counterpractices.  It is not enough to merely desire or will to live well with technology.  The “rule of technology” engraves itself on us by shaping the routines and habits of daily life so that it is both pervasive and unnoticed. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Jamie Smith makes a similar point in a recent blog post:

But as Pierre Bourdieu would emphasize, such “micropractices” have macro effects: what might appear to be inconsequential micro habits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world–indeed, they begin to make that world. As Bourdieu puts it in The Logic of Practice, “The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant” (p. 69).

The force of such habituated, world-making practices and micro-practices must be met with counterpractices.

Inevitable Elitism

A charge of elitism carries with it a healthy dose of opprobrium in today’s society.

First question to ask yourself:  Was it elitist to use the word opprobrium?

Second question to ask yourself:  “Would it be too Stalinist to exile to Siberia anyone who thinks big words are Leninist?”

That second questions is asked near the conclusion “Revolt of the Elites,” an exploration of elitism in contemporary American culture by the Editors of N+1.

It’s a longish piece referring to the likes of Pierre Bourdieu and Ortega y Gasset which will of course, in certain circles, mark it as irredeemably elitist.  But you may want to read it anyway; who will know unless you go off and talk about the “diffusion of a non-Bourdieu-reading-but-nevertheless-Bourdieuvian view of culture” at your local Super Bowl party.  I feel this might be particularly damaging among Steelers’ fans, although I can’t imagine that it would go over much better with Packer aficionados.

Here is what I take to be the heart of the article’s argument:

Who, then, is guilty of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.

The funny thing about such cultural antielitism is how steeped in the work of the left-wing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu all “real Americans” would appear to be. Bourdieu’s Distinction famously unmasked “good” or distinguished, educated taste as so much “cultural capital,” a mere panoply of status markers. To favor a more challenging type of book, a less strictly tonal sort of music, a less representational kind of painting — or, more to the point today, a less completely shitty grade of film product — mostly demonstrated that you came from a higher social class. And many Americans have come to agree. So when Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard . . . .

The noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith. Everyone else in America more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it. Upon making their money, real Americans are furthermore honest enough to spend it on those things that evolution or God have programmed humans to sincerely enjoy. In winter recreation, this might be snowmobiling — genuine petroleum-burning fun! — as opposed to cross-country skiing, a tedious trial of aerobic virtue. In wintry Scandinavian literature, it might be Stieg Larsson rather than Knut Hamsun. Oppositions of the same kind — between untutored enjoyment and the acquired taste — can be generated endlessly, and are. Half the idea is that genuine, honest people differ not so much in their tastes as in their economic ability to indulge those tastes; there exists an oligarchy of money but no aristocracy of spirit. The other half is that less sincere people — elitists — lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts. Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports. Cynical common sense, a draught of table wine Bourdieu, permits you to see through this maneuver.

I suspect that there are many ways to parse the roots, essence, and consequences of elitism in America — Tocqueville launched the enterprise nearly two centuries ago — and this is a compelling enough analysis.  But here is my (third) question:  Isn’t something like a cynical, Bourdieuvian view of culture and elitism inevitable in the context of a generally agreed upon, yet unstated and perhaps “soft” relativism in all matters aesthetic and cultural?

To put this another way: in the absence of a shared vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful won’t every choice to “trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones” be seen as a transparent facade for some deeper, darker motive usually assumed to involve power, status, or ambition?

And to try it yet one more way:  unless I can appeal to some inherent worth and value independent of my own subjectivity, but to which my subjectivity is nonetheless drawn, in choosing this over that, then the choice of this over that will always appear to be motivated by something else.  And since we are all good Nietzscheans  now, it will be interpreted through a hermeneutic of suspicion which will judge my choice to be a grab for status, power, influence, etc.  — hence the inevitability of the charge of elitism.  In other contexts, elitism may not be a charge at all, but rather a compliment.

Or, since in fact we know that there are those who have always pursued power, wealth, and status through their cultural choices (Bourdieu was hardly the first to point out as much), perhaps we reserve the charge not for those who believe in a hierarchy of beauty, goodness, and truth, but rather for those who believe that their recognition of such makes them inherently better than others.

Of course, for such as those there are other more colorful words too, words which will fit in quite nicely at your Super Bowl party.

Katherine Hayles on Posthumanism

Hayles’ describes her project in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics as an intervention.  “I view the present moment,” she explains in the first chapter, “as a critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity.” (5)  Later on at the close of chapter two she writes, “I believe that our best hope to intervene constructively in this development is to put an interpretative spin on it – one that opens up the possibilities of seeing pattern and presence as complementary rather than antagonistic.” (48-49)  Writing in the late 1990’s, she clearly believes the shape and form of posthumanism to be as of yet undetermined.  No doubt she would acknowledge a multiplicity of possible and complex paths along which posthumanism might evolve, but she tends to speak in binaries.  Dream or nightmare, terror or pleasure – these are the options.  (4, 5, 47, 284-285)

As the first quotation above suggests, the preservation of embodiment is among Hayles’ chief objectives.  She notes that one prominent way of rendering posthumanism – the nightmare scenario in which bodies are regarded as “fashion accessories rather than the ground of being” – is not so much a posthumanism as it is a hyperhumanism, an extension and intensification of the modern, humanist notion of possessing a body rather than being a body.  (4-5)  This dualism has deep roots in the Western tradition; we may call it the Platonic temptation, or the Gnostic temptation, or the Manichaean temptation, etc.  Viewed within this genealogy, the cybernetic construction of the posthuman shares core assumptions not only with Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism, but it betrays a pedigree reaching much further back still into antiquity.

Against this long standing tendency and building upon the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Pierre Bourdieu among others, Halyes masterfully argues for the significance of embodiment, for the formation of thought and knowledge.  The body that “exists in space and time … defines the parameters within which the cogitating mind can arrive at ‘certainties.’”  (203)  Citing Johnson, she reminds the reader that body writes discourse as much as discourse writes the body.  Briefly stated, embodied experience generates the deep and pervasive networks of metaphors and analogies by which we elaborate our understanding of the world.  Hayles goes on to add that “when people begin using their bodies in significantly different ways, either because of technological innovations or other cultural shifts, changing experiences of embodiment bubble up into language, affecting the metaphoric networks at play within culture.”  (206-207)  In this light, Electronic Literature can be understood as part of an ongoing attempt to direct posthumanism toward embodiment.   Hayles theorized electronic literature as a category of the literary that performs the sorts of ruptures in code (introduction of noise?) which make us conscious of our embodiment and embodied knowledge nudging us away from the disembodied nightmare scenario.

I’m cheering for Hayles’ version of the posthuman to win the day (if the outcome is still undetermined), but I am less than hopeful.  Not that I believe the Moravec scenario will in fact materialize, but that it will remain deeply appealing, more so than Hayles’ vision, and continue to shape our imaginings of the future.  For one thing, the dream of disembodiment and its concomitant fantasies of “unlimited power and disembodied immortality” have a long history and considerable momentum as was noted above.  For another, this dream has roots not only in Gnostic suspicion of the body and Cartesian dualism, but also in the modern apotheosis of the will which also has a long and distinguished history.  Embodiment in this context is the last obstacle to the unfettered will.  Hayles’ dream scenario includes the recognition and celebration of “finitude as a condition of human being,” but the entanglement of technological development with current economic and cultural structures and assumptions hardly suggests that we are in the habit of recognizing, much less celebrating, our limits.  “Mastery through the exercise of autonomous will” may “merely be the story consciousness tells itself,” but consciousness is a powerful story teller and it weaves compelling narratives.  (288)  These narratives are all the more seductive when they are reinforced by cultural liturgies of autopoietic consumption and the interests that advance them.