Where Does the Body End?

in which things seem so simple

How to Cite

Aylward-Smith, S. (1999). Where Does the Body End? in which things seem so simple. M/C Journal, 2(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1749
Vol. 2 No. 3 (1999): Flesh
Published 1999-05-01

One of the problems working with and about technology is trying to define what exactly technology actually is. This seemingly straightforward, even banal question -- because, let's face it, we all know what technology is, don't we...? -- has caused philosophers since Aristotle no end of grief, and causes humble graduate students like myself unspeakable dilemmas. Attempting to define what technology is involves diving headlong into such murky problems as the subject/object dichotomy, the ontology of artefacts and the limits of the body -- that is, the very definition of humanity, if I may be so melodramatic. I won't pretend this piece will be even able to address all these problems, let alone solve them, but it may at least point to some of the ways the implications of this very simple question -- 'what is technology?' -- might be thought through.

in which things seem so simple

Of course, it is always possible that I am making a doctorate out of a molehill here, as there are a number of ostensibly straightforward and simple answers to this question. The first one is basic common sense, and which we might call naïve realism. It says that technology is artefacts made for and used by humans. End of story, right? Well maybe, but what is an artefact? It's an object-in-the-world, a thing-in-itself, which can be directly experienced through sense-impressions by conscious beings. It isn't a subject, obviously, because it's inert, nonhuman, constructed and totally nonconscious. (Remember -- guns don't kill, people do!) There are a few philosophical problems with such a naïve realism though, no matter what use as a rule of thumb it might be.

For one, basic semiology demonstrates that whatever objects may or may not exist out there in the world, they are only sensible, comprehendible through and via discourse: to so much as understand an object means one is making sense not of the referent but of a signifier, which is, as we know, very definitely not an 'object-in-the-world'. Furthermore, to make the sort of ontological assumptions necessary to take for granted that objects are in fact objects-in-the-world, experienced or not by a subject, leads one more or less inexorably to the sort of crypto-fascism popularised by Ayn Rand and known, appropriately enough, as 'Objectivism'.

in which things get a bit messier

Another approach derives from our sense-impressions, and might be called inductive, or less charitably, naïve empiricism. We can, after all, decide fairly easily that some things -- cruise missiles, computers, automotive vehicles and microwave ovens, for example -- are quite obviously 'technological'. They don't appear in nature or spontaneously, they need a good deal of both human effort and other, pre-existing pieces of technology, to come into existence, and they consist largely of inorganic componentry. Other things -- human beings, most obviously, but other organic matter as well -- can reasonably be categorised as non-technological. Of course, once we move on past these simple examples, things get a bit messier: what exactly is a fulcrum, or a hammer, or a screw? Or a bandage? Technology, tool, non-technology or something else? Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that these problems might, in theory, be solvable with enough time and consensus. And yet, where does this leave someone like the Melbourne performance artist Stelarc? When he's not suspending himself from ceilings with fishhooks, he has a project known as the Third Arm. This consists of a metal arm-like mechanism, containing computer componentry, which is attached to his body. Simple enough -- sounds like technology: inorganic, non-natural and requiring sophisticated manufacturing capacity. Except that it is controlled and operated by the nerve-endings in his body, just like a real arm -- or a prosthetic arm, for that matter. It isn't attached like a dildo or a belt, it is attached and controlled like any organic limb. Okay, so maybe what Stelarc needs is not a new definition of technology but a strong bout of therapy and a good lie down, but what about pacemakers? Replacement hips? Dildos, for that matter? Or belts, for that matter? Or what about running shoes or football boots? There is a television advertisement for adidas football boots and featuring Alessandro del Piero, in which the ideal football player is built from the ground up according to written and reproducible specifications (that is, as a piece of technology) -- wearing adidas boots and looking exactly like the Juventus striker. True enough, this is just an advert on telly, they're allowed to use metaphor to shift their technologically produced product, but what about other sports people? James Hird, the AFL footballer, is about to have another (metal, technological) pin put in his foot; Michael Voss, another AFL footballer, has a plate in his leg and pins in his knee following a complete knee reconstruction. Where do their bodies end and the technology begin? Or mine, for that matter: I have a mouthful of mercury amalgam fillings, the result of a misspent childhood eating too much sugar. The fillings are obviously technological: they're inorganic, they require sophisticated manufacturing technology to install (unless your dentist is a butcher ouch!) and they're not naturally occurring. But they've been in my mouth for nearly two decades now, they're older and more part of me than any of my hair, nails or skin. Our inductive logic is just another rule of thumb, which breaks down just where it gets interesting, at the boundary of the body and the technology. It is neither by accident nor to be obfuscatory that Foucault talks of 'technologies of the self'.

in which things cease making any sense whatsoever

So if there is no technological ontology or taxonomy we can discern, what other possibilities are there for definitions of technology? One useful way forward comes from the Italian psychoanalyst Felix Guattari. In Chaosmosis, his last work before his untimely death, Guattari suggests that common usage would speak "of the machine as a subset of technology". However, he argues, we should

"consider the problematic of technology as dependent upon machines, and not the inverse. The machine would become the prerequisite for technology rather than its expression. Machinism is an object of fascination ... about which there's a whole historical 'bestiary'. (33)

A machine, or more precisely, a 'machinic assemblage' is thus a functional ensemble of different components that are swept up and reshaped by a power of ontological auto-affirmation (35). These components are by no means limited to material existence, however -- Guattari gives the example of the hammer, which can be destroyed through various ingenious means until it reaches "a threshold of formal consistency where it loses its form" -- where it ceases to be a hammer. This threshold beyond which a hammer ceases to be a hammer is not simply physical, however -- it might be semiotic or representational, for instance: "this machinic gestalt", says Guattari, "works moreover as much on a technological plane as an imaginary one, to evoke the dated memory of the hammer and sickle" (35). That is, "the technical object [is] nothing outside of the technical ensemble to which it belong[s]" (36): technology is never simply inert alterity, the silent other -- it always contains humans inside it and before it, and contains within it "a 'nonhuman' enunciation", a protosubjectivity (37).

Another way to consider this queasy combination of subject and object that makes up technology -- and by corollary, makes up the body of the subject -- is through Bruno Latour's conception of the 'quasi-object' (closely allied, as it is, to the 'cyborg' deployed by Donna Haraway in some of her earlier work). Latour shares much of Guattari's unease at common-sense definitions of technology and his desire for 'ontological relativity' (51). Working from a sociological (albeit a French sociological tradition that is far less obsessed with particular forms of reductive rationality than the mainstream Anglo-American sociological tradition) rather than a philosophical or psychoanalytic perspective, Latour's quasi-object is perhaps more user-friendly and widely applicable than Guattari's machinic assemblages. In his work We Have Never Been Modern, his most sustained attempt at a coherent philosophy rather than a contingent pragmatics, Latour argues that the distinction between the Object and the Subject is not ontologically given nor a pre-existing truth, but rather the result of struggles over the naming of things as 'objects' or 'subjects'. "We do not need", says Latour,

to attach our explanations to these two pure forms known as the Object or Subject/Society, because these are, on the contrary, partial and purified results of the central practice which is our concern. The explanations we seek will indeed obtain Nature and Society, but only as a final outcome, not as a beginning. (79)

The quasi-object -- which Latour sometimes refers to as 'quasi-subject' to remind us that he is not simply describing especially complex objects -- is thus an entity of variable ontology and dimensions, structured by the particular and contingent needs of its own and of other quasi-objects who/that seek to enrol, mobilise or define it. Quasi-objects are, says Latour, "[r]eal as Nature, narrated as Discourse, collective as Society, existential as Being" (90).

Questions like 'where does the body end?' or 'what is technology' therefore, are not so much abstract philosophical questions as very real struggles between different agglomerations -- different networks or arrangements, if you would -- of quasi-objects, the answer to which will not result from a logical exercise so much as a 'reality on the ground', to use current NATO parlance. As Latour says in a companion piece to We Have Never Been Modern,

the quasi-object is a continuous passage, a commerce, an interchange, between what humans inscribe in it and what it prescribes in humans. It transplants the one into the other. This thing is the nonhuman version of people, it is the human version of things. (ARAMIS or The Love of Technology 213)

So there we have an answer -- questions concerning technology and the body do not need to be answered before one proceeds to study any given socio-technical imbroglio, because they are not ontological realities. Rather, such questions become answerable -- albeit in highly contingent and specific ways -- as one proceeds through the research and the variable geometries and ontologies of the assemblage of actors becomes apparent and definable. Sure, its not as universal as Heidegger, I admit, but it's a damn sight more useful.

postscript: in which the plot has been lost

If we take seriously Latour and Guattari's imputation of agency and removal of certainty from what used to be harmless objects, we are led, eventually, to question just what we, as speaking, thinking, centres of agency -- i.e., as subjects -- actually are. If we too are quasi-objects, where does subjectivity reside and come from? Although I can confidently state that there are several doctoral theses in that question, I'd like to hazard a solution in the space available. Guattari and his frequent collaborator, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in their immense work A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, define a mode of individuation that is not a subjectivity as a haecceity (261). The haecceity precedes, exists underneath and exceeds the subject -- they are "the subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages" (266), "the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate" (262). That is what people are, that is what we are: collective assemblages of haecceities -- of looks and stomachs and fillings, of becomings and desires and histories and career paths, of tired feet and sore heads, of emotions, mood swings and family backgrounds, and many more individuations and affects. As Deleuze and Guattari state,

you will yield nothing to haecceities unless you realise that is what you are, and you are nothing but that. ... You are longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between unformed particles, a set of nonsubjectified affects. You have the individuality of a day, a season, a life (regardless of its duration) -- a climate, a wind, a fog, a swarm, a pack (regardless of its regularity). Or at least you can have it, you can reach it. (262)

Where does my body end? Well, that depends upon the question.

Author Biography

Sean Aylward-Smith