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Disembodied Images of Disembodied Selves

Dreams, which were a gateway to our authentic self, became replaced within western culture by societal and mediated “meanings”. Images and representation became main forms of understanding of the world and ourselves.  Representation introduced a world arrested by description, a mere duplicate of the world. Ironically, it severed ties with the world it seeked to represent and replaced it within an “image” of reality. In this process, we stopped to understand life as constantly evolving and changing, we began to construct our lives to mirror our duplicates as they became increasingly meaningful to us – and in their static abstraction they preserve that meaning, the way a photograph freezes a moment (Sheperd, 2010, p. 22-23)[i]. An image is a frozen moment in time that abridges representations of reality and negates sensory life and difference. We began to want life to be a static moment in time instead of a flow of ever changing experiences.

The rise of mass image making brought us into an era of intense de-individualization, where social norms became equated with simplified versions of ourselves (Debord, 1967)[ii]. Social life became replaced with its representation, “being” became “having” and eventually “appearing” (Debord, 1967).  In such a society of spectacles, individuals are reduced to the role of performers instead of living being.

Such an idea is echoed in the work of Sociologist Ervin Goffman who believed that all participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others[iii].  Key to Goffman’s argument is that a certain secrecy underlies social interactions. Peoples’ daily life has in many cases become theatrical performances. Social interactions are a stage and individuals simultaneously actors and audience. Only within private space can individuals be themselves and get rid of their role or identity in society (Ritzer, 2008, p. 372)[iv]. The shame that a person may feel when they fail to meet other people’s standards, leads to a fear of being stigmatized, which, in turn, creates the need to hide elements of the self that are “faulty” or could be judged negatively (Goffman, 1963)[v].

But within a social system governed by representations:  “we all CREATE IMAGES of things we fear or glorify.  These images never remain abstractions: we understand them as real-world entities. We assign them labels that serve to set them apart from ourselves. We create “stereotypes”.” (Gilman, 1985, p. 15)[vi]

Stereotypes reflect the cultural categories of seeing objects as a reflection or distortion of the self.  “Pathology” is part of this system of stereotypes, which help drawn between “good” and “bad”.  Pathological categories of “differences” are protean, but appear absolutes. They categorize the sense of the self, but establish an order – the illusion of order in the world (Gilman, 1985, p. 24).

Eventually, the stereotype of a Cartesian self has allowed for a conceptual technological remapping of the body and, as Katherine Hayles observed, the erasure of embodiment from subjectivity (Hayles, 1999, p.4)[vii]. Cognition takes precedence over the body, which is narrated as an object to possess and master. Popular conceptions of the cybernetic post-human imagine the body as merely a container for information and code. This is a cultural perception where “information and materiality are conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, more important and more fundamental than materiality.”(Hayles, 1999, p.18)

Cybernetics, a modern science at the heart of many current development in computing, embraces such reductionist understanding of human senses.  As is rendered evident by the following words of post-humanist Kevin Warwick:

Humans have limited capabilities. Humans sense the world in a restricted way, vision being the best of the senses. Humans understand the world in only 3 dimensions and communicate in a very slow, serial fashion called speech. But can this be improved on? Can we use technology to upgrade humans?”[viii]

As western culture separated our “selves” from the sensory world, many of us forgot how to “be” in the world. We have become persuaded to separate the body and mind, to live in our mind by a culture that passes off this pathological dissociation as completely normal, natural and unavoidable (Sheperd, 2010).

In this process, we learned to censor our senses. As our technologies are evolving, some of us are denaturalizing life to the point of rendering it toxic to others. Instead of stewarding our world and ourselves, we are mechanizing it. A pretty grim understanding of ourselves, man reshaping himself in the image of his communication technologies becoming himself a mass media of consumption.

But as with any discourse and value systems in society, others exist that contradict and challenge these dominant views of the world. In media, “new media” became one of the places where opposition to this simplistic view of humanity has been challenged.

Next: New Media as a Battleground for Ideological Power

[i] Sheperd, Philip (2010). New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. North Atlantic Books.

[ii] Debord (1977) [1967] The Society of the Spectacle, translation by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970; rev. ed. 1977). Online at Library.nothingness.org

[iii] Goffman, Ervin (1963). Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, The Free Press.

[iv] Ritzer,George (2008). Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill Education.

[v] Goffman, Ervin (1963). Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, The Free Press.

[vi] Gilman, Sander L. (1985). Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Cornell University Press,

[vii] Hayles, N. Katherine (1999). How We Became Posthuman:Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[viii] Warwick, K. (2004) I, Cyborg. University of Illinois Press.




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