Digital Bodies, Part One

Part of my talk Friday morning involved the argument that the unfamiliarity of online interactions has fuddled us into thinking that there’s a sort of given, inescapable difference between ourselves as physical agents and ourselves as electronic agents. (I’m not guarding my language carefully enough, so I expect I’ll muff some technical terminology; apologies in advance.) I’m not denying the obvious: we can’t touch each other physically online, and even digigloves won’t equal touch. We justly prefer to spend time in physical proximity to our friends. This is good, and touch is important. So I’m not propagating such absurdities as the notion that everyone should seal him- or herself in a garret and never have physical contact with another person. Please, let’s leave banalities out of the discussion. (This whole meditation proceeds in part from discussions such as those David Weinberger summarizes in last month’s “JOHO-the-Newsletter.”)

I called the anxiety that online interaction will displace and supersede other modes of interaction “replacement panic.” It’s my term, and I’m sticking to it.

And the point of the argument is that we have always been digital — not in the sense that we’re merely binary digits in some vast Matrix, but in the sense that the characteristics that become obvious when we interact online also apply to our physical interactions (though in attenuated or infrequent ways).

So, for example, we usually do want other people to be part of our lives in physical ways. I’ve long wanted to meet Naomi Chana, Anne Galloway, Steve’s friend Sage, and one of the Tutor’s associates; the Digital Genres conference afforded a congenial opportunity to satisfy that interest. It was great to meet, physically, some people I had hitherto only read about. But there are people in the world I’d prefer not to meet. For instance, some readers of these words may dislike their bosses; might it not be preferable to interact with the Boss only online? Those who have been scarred by unwelcome physical interactions with others — should they welcome the possibility of touch? Of course, we enrich our friendships by knowing one another in a variety of settings (online, offline, at work, on vacation, in a game, in shared enjoyment of a movie, concert, whatever. That doesn’t imply that one of those contexts enjoys an ontological privilege, such that it’s real-er than others.

Now, I can just hear David Weinberger’s pointed and appropriate riposte to this argument (I can hear it because I have heard him say it several times in several different conversations): “My physical body is ontologically different because I care more about it, because if you cut it I bleed, because if this body dies, that’s it, I’m dead.” (I keep meaning to ask David if “care,” in this context, is an echo of Heidegger?) And David’s right. His physical body is different (and not his alone, I mean, although. . .). But I don’t think that “different” means “realer,” unless only living things are real. (And all this simply bypasses my theological commitments to calling into question the simplicity of death; we ought to be able to conduct a fruitful conversation about digital bodies without expecting that everyone adopt a Christian theology of life and spirit and bodies.)

If the physical is different-not-realer, though, then we’re in the position of giving an account of differences that respects our physicality without rendering it the index of our reality. Anne introduced the language of “flows” and “intensities” (from some of the theory — Foucault, Irigaray, Deleuze, Guattari, — that other DG participants roundly blasted), terms that help me point to the body as a distinctly intense locus of my identity — but not the only, the true, the real me.

That’s all on that topic for today.

DRMA: “I and I” by Bob Dylan; “Blue Spark” by X; “Lullabye” by the Judybats; “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode; “Nature” by Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafil Jazz; “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley; “Illumination” by Fatboy Slim; “It’s So Hard” by John Lennon; “No Language In Our Lungs” by XTC; “Divin’ Duck Blues” by Taj Mahal; “Why Not” by Dorothy Love Coates; “I Ain’t Got You” by the Yardbirds.

3 thoughts on “Digital Bodies, Part One

  1. Yes, I do have Heideggerian Sorge in mind when I use the word “care.” On the other hand, I understand his use of the term in a plain and ordinary sense: I care about what happens to me. (Why would anyone have to say such an obvious thing? Because philosophy’s view of consciousness excluded that little fact, just as Heidegger forgot that care is rooted in our bodies. Whoops!)

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