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FleshFactor: "The Eclectic Butterfly Strikes Again"

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

Sean Cubitt wrote:

> So. (in this kind of forum, a little pop science is important, and it's
> important that media artists make these bridges, even at the risk of being
> eclectic butterflies who don't have the full monty on every nook of
> specialised knowledge) -- ....

So -- (maybe you weren't referring to me in your brackets, but I want to
believe you were and was very glad to be welcomed) -- here's some more
'pop science' from yours truly (at the same risk):

> -- your brain doesn't stop inside the bone box at the top of your
>neck: it extends through the nerves out into the world where, as Merleau
>Ponty says, the world touches it back. We are already physically
>hardwired into our environments. 

This mixture of strict reasoning and metaphor is confusing; you draw
conclusions on axiomatic premises.  My brain actually does stop inside the
bone box at the top of my neck, and so does yours (both physically and
conceptually speaking).  The neurons it consists of do not spread out into
the world, but on the contrary constitute a circumscribed entity, a vast
self-organizing network, inside our skulls. (I think we can agree that it
is within this entity that 'I', or the mind, or consciousness, reside.) 
The nerves the brain extends through are there to receive raw physical
inputs, and yes, when you burn yourself you can say you're physically
hardwired to your environment, but that is probably not what Merleau Ponty
had in mind when he said that "the world touches us back".  The
connections, and the degree of connectivity between the brain and the rest
of the world are of a radically different order to those which exist
within the brain.  Not the least important is that they only transmit one
way.  One may say we ARE physically wired to our environment, but the
interface through which we are wired is a very distinct and palpable
boundary between 'us' and 'the rest of the world'.  The flow which takes
place across this interface does very little to alleviate our
separateness. (Jumping to another level: where otherwise could our feeling
of loneliness, one of the fundamental states of mind, come from?)

(This by the way was the ground for my objections to Stocker's "hybridized
networked subjectivity". The way I interpreted it, hybridization would
imply a breakdown of those features of the brain that preserve our minds
as separate entities, and therefore the loss of subjectivity per se, so
hybridized subjectivity seems self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it
is impossible for us even today to envisage the kind of network connection
which would be so sophisticated that the boundary between brain and
network would begin to dissolve.) 

The crucial property of the brain is that it is self-organizing (like the
neural networks we make, but can't actually say how they work in a
conventional, algorithmic sense), and reorganizing - which is a unique
quality, different from everything else in nature.  This organization
doesn't include the outside world (the cooker that burned you doesn't get
reorganized), i.e. the brain doesn't interact with the outside world the
way elements within the brain interact with each other. 

The human brain is unique as an organ in that in the newborn infant it
lacks practically all (high-level) structure and function.  All the other
organs are up-and-running, but the brain is just a huge unrealized
potential.  As the child grows it restructures itself enormously.  It is
known that children a few years old have many more connection paths in
their brains than adults, as though the brain is 'trying out everything',
then gradually abandoning functions which don't turn out useful or
meaningful.  Somehow the connections which don't get used much die out. 
Few offspring are as helpless as a newborn human, but once grown up, with
a fully organized brain, the human is not only superior to all other
animals but also unique in creating artefacts, both physical and abstract,
which often having nothing to do with survival and the propagation of the
species.  It seems that while the brain may have evolved in response to
common forces which have driven all forms of evolution, the result has
been a massive overkill.  Our minds have too little to occupy them in the
'natural' world, and we are continually trying to expand the world in
order to find new challenges and to create new appetites which we can seek
satisfaction for.  We have become 'too smart' for nature, and we have
'naturally' abandoned it.  Strivings to 'return to nature' and 'become
whole' again, although laudable as a thought, appear as something almost
perverse ("Nature is Perverse Sometimes", Tom Sherman).  Since we can't go
back to where nature was, we try to 'invent' it (the way we invent
computers) so we can return to it (the new nature) fresh - we go out for
our walks the way we go to the gym to build up muscles we no longer need. 
I wouldn't like to be misunderstood, the most valuable moments I have had
in my life are just those I've spent alone with Nature.  But when looking
at it from a distance, what I see is not my exchange with Nature or my
belonging to it - it is the longing, just this vast longing to be at one
with the universe.  I don't think it is possible, because I see our minds
as something parallel to the universe, something comparable with it.

To connect this to what I started with (how wired we are with our
environment), I believe that the development of the brain (and the mind) 
necessarily entails its (our) alienation from the environment.  This
development proceeds predominently via abstraction, of experience and
self, whereby more and more we inhabit a virtual world of relationships
instead of the immediate world of sensory experience.  In a way, the
better (more abstract) grasp you have of yourself and your environment,
the more isolated you get.  Outstanding people whose minds we admire so
much have always been very lonely, always striving to go one step further
away so as to achieve a better vantage point from which to view the
(already virtual) world, to establish new links and extract new concepts
from it.  The urge to be constantly moving into new territories where we
can discover provocative new relationships to the world is typical of the
mind's quest for new forms of satisfaction, and is perhaps the foremost,
if not the only purpose of art.

One provocatively beckoning territory is without doubt the extrapolation
of technology towards 'inventing ourselves', and even if this never
happens, we may well find ourselves creating 'artificial beings' which
turn out much more intelligent, sentient and complex (even emotionally) 
than we are, with brains we find so superior to ours that we will WANT to
be hybridized with them.  That would perhaps be the end of man as an
individual and of the whole of mankind, but I don't see it as something
tragic except in the way that every death is tragic, and trying to come up
with strategies to avoid it seems totally meaningless and absurd.  We
can't possibly predict where this is leading us from the little we already
know (the distance gone so far is too short to extrapolate anything).  And
even if we could, what would the criteria be?  There is no precept that
says that a VR excursion is worse or better than sitting in front of the
cave and watching the sunset.  We are caught up willy nilly in an ongoing
process. "Stop the world I want to get off" raises a laugh but won't help,
and why complain about where we're going when we cannot even say where
we're going?  It may be our destiny to engineer our own obsolescence, but
if this is the way we fulfill ourselves, then what is there to invent
strategies against?

William Morris: "Men fight and lose that battle, and the thing they fought for
comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out to be not
what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another

Dinka Pignon


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