There is an old joke about how aliens would describe the human physic. If they would send a scout to earth and he would report at the senior commander, he would only have to make one gesture: holding up a thumb and index finger because only those parts of the body humans are used actively.
As technology in various areas makes the body evermore redundant, it is quite useful to question what role our body plays in human nature nowadays. In a time where well-known artists like Stelarc and Orlan state that the human body is obsolete, what happened to the notion of embodiment? In a time where you can live life in a completely virtual world, how humane does the touch of our own bodies still feel? In short: how alienated are our bodies, how much have we become E.T?
Dualism splits body and mind
Despite our modern cyberculture old ideals still seem to reign. Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) dates from the Enlightment but fits perfectly our contemporary attitude towards our bodies. With his famous statement Descartes – as a true master surgeon – separated mind and body with one quick clean cut causing the Cartesian dualism. This presumes not only a systematic belief in the supremacy of logical reason over the illogical nature, but also that the rational self has an ‘inner’ relationship with the mind and an ‘outer’ relationship with the body. Therefore, the body is conceived not as part of ‘who we are’ but as part of nature.
Bodies like iPads
In this culture of disembodiment, the body is thus reduced to a state of ‘floating heads’. This may seem a little strange in a visual culture with magazines occupied by food and fitness regimens displaying (semi) naked bodies everywhere in advertisements. But how much attention do we really have for the body? Bodies exist, but only as obedient from the mind: “like an iPad or a car, to be conquered and mastered” as Eve Ensler, writer of the famous Vagina Monologues, states. In her moving 2010 TEDWomen Talk she describes our attitude against the body and how cancer exploded her personal “wall of disconnection to her body” and not only reconnected her with her body, but also to the world.
This is precisely the importance of the body which the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty points out: “being is always being a body in the world”. Replacing the concept of reason or consciousness with perception, he states that we understand and perceive the world through our body: I perceive, therefore I am and I need a body to do this. And so, neither experience nor knowledge are ‘out there’ but rather, as emerging out of the inextricability of the body and it’s spatiality: “Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).
Connecting to your body is essential
In these times in which the body slowly seems to disappear into cyberspace and through gadgets which only require minimal physical efforts, it is important to acknowledge the indispendable value of the body as a connection to the world. The body thus is an essential part of human nature. And so, the touch of our bodies is not something alienated, but something which is inherently human. Instead of E.T., it is Michelangelo’s famous fresco Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling in which the touch of God sparks life in Adam, which seems more appropiate to visualize the role bodies play in human nature.
This blogpost is also published on TedxAmsterdam