How well do you understand your body?
Do you think your body can change your mind?
Or it is only our minds that can change our bodies?
Throughout history there have been many different definitions as to what constitutes our bodies. Some theorists of the social body regarded physical bodies as objects that need to be “trained, manipulated, cajoled, organized and in general disciplined” (Turner 15). Similarly, some considered the body as “a play of forces, a surface of intensities, pure simulacra without originals” (Braidotti 21).
This thinking becomes a problem as it conceptualizes the body as simply a biological object that is apart from rational faculties and furthermore, a gender biased object, which leads to a conception that “[w]omen are somehow more biological, more corporeal, and more natural than men” (Grosz 14). As a result, women become relegated to being apart from reason and culture and their bodies are conceptualized as passive objects for others. In addition, this thinking enforces a false belief in which the true essence of human nature is information and that human bodies are limited and thus, humans can be still human by uploading their consciousnesses to a vast computer network.
Can this transhumanist utopianism be achieved?
Can we still call ourselves humans when our minds and bodies are separated?
In order to answer these questions, I would like to introduce some materialist feminists’ thoughts. Refusing to see our bodies as passive objects, Claire Clorebrook calls for thinking of our bodies as a form of “positive difference” (71). Moreover, Karen Barad introduces a concept called “agential realism,” in which she sees matter or the natural world as a “substance in its intra-active becoming—not a thing, but a doing, a congealing of agency” and that all bodies “come to matter through the world’s interactive intra-activity” (139, 141). Barad further encourages us to dismiss the inherent difference between human and non-human, subject and object, mind and body, discourse and matter through emphasizing that “we are of the world” (147). Similar to Barad, Donna Haraway attempts to blur the boundaries between man/woman, machine/organism, culture/nature, and representation/real that have been enforced by modern scientific thought through using the cyborg as a hybrid tool (1991: 149-150).
All these modern feminist thinkers are tying to tell us that our bodies are active agents and thus they should not be neglected when we are talking about our mind. More specifically, mind and body should not be separated because they are a “collective.” In fact, there are evidences showing that our bodies can actually change our minds and therefore, shape our future. In 2012, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a speech at Ted Talk about how our bodies could shape our minds. In the talk, she claimed that our bodies actually hold the power to change our minds and “our minds can change our behavior and our behavior can change our outcomes.” But how? She then told her personal experience about her “change” and further suggested a small experiment: do some powerful postures—stretch your arms or spread your legs—for two minutes whenever you are nervous. For instance, right before a stressful job interview. Does this really help? It does! Because when you are in a high-power pose condition your bodily hormone does actually change—the decrease of cortisol or stress hormone—and therefore you feel more powerful afterward. Cuddy concluded her talk by emphasizing that we could fake it until we become it; “do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.”
To sum up, Cuddy’s study and those material feminists’ not only come to deconstruct the thinking that privileges minds over bodies but also deliver an important message to us, which is our bodies are our future.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Material Feminisms. ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print. 120-154.
Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Towards a Feminist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002. Print.
Colebrook, Claire. “On Not Becoming Man: The Materialist Politics of Unactualized Potential,” in Material Feminisms. ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print. 52-84.
Cuddy, Amy. “How Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” Ted Global. June 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are/transcript.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print. 149-181.
Turner, B. Regulating Bodies: Essays in Medical Sociology. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Whether it is defined as a container for things or the relation between things, the nature of space is often limned with the body-matter of women. Ever since Plato first introduced the existence of space and claimed the nature of space as the figure of the mother, women have become the body-matter for man (Plato 65; Best 184, 187). This linking of space and woman leads to a conception that woman is seen as “the body, the earth, the springboard for man,” which, as Irigaray suggests, enables men to place themselves as a higher subject whose “only connection to the corporeal is his imprint left upon ‘his’ object – the body of woman” (Best emphasis 187).
This hierarchal thinking is parallel to the relation between man and space, in which men see their countries (motherland) and languages (mother tongue) as feminine. In fact, not only countries such as Britain and France are characterized as women—“Britannia stands for Britain, Marianne for Republican France”—cities such as New York, Los Angles, Paris and so forth have also been characterized as women (Best 181). In Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, Marina Warner calls Paris as a feminine city (36). She describes the public space of Paris as a feminine flesh and the buildings as having “bosomy and vaginal contours…pillowy roofs and open-mouthed entrances” (36-7; Best 182). Also, drawing on Scott Fitzgerald’s description of New York as an “essentially cynical and heartless” woman (143), Sue Best comes to see New York as “an active libido”—she has “a clitoris at the entrance to her harbour” (182). Furthermore, Los Angeles is also named by scholars such as Joan Baudrillard (1983) and Edward Soja (1989) as the representation of woman (Best 182).
If we change our scale into a domestic view, we also find that the representation of our home has been always a feminine one. In Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a house is a “maternal” feature: “a warm, co[z]y, sheltering, uterine home” (7; Best emphasis 182). It was as though our home serves as the womb of our mother, where we receive foods, waters, sense of security and comfort. This metaphor of home is parallel to the earth we are living, in which we gain foods, water, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients from our Mother Earth. And yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world, the space that we are living, the womb that we come from. The rise of technology and industry has led us toward a modern and convenient life. However, under the influence of capitalism and the rising of consumerism, we come to “forget” about there is only one Mother Earth. As even it vanishes little by little, we still take everything in nature for granted and keep consuming. If our planet were a woman, we were all cannibals, as our lives are fed on the blood and sacrifice of a single living female body.
In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre links the female body to the contemporary neo-capitalist space: “The ways in which space is thus carved up are reminiscent of the ways in which the body is cut into pieces in images (especially the female body, which is not only cut up but also deemed to be “without organs”!)” (355). Lefebvre’s description calls attention to the danger that lies underneath this shifting of space and female representation in the contemporary time: from the maternal body to the sexually available female body and now towards “the fragmented female body of postmodern industry” (Best 183).
Furthermore, the female body has been linked to the image of the cyberspace. The association between the female body and the cyberspace is derived from a stereotypical thought that women are technologically incapable, which, is derived from the separation of labor between men and women, whereby women participate mainly in cooking and childcare. Drawing on this, Judy Wajcman calls for a re-definition of technology because this thinking is indeed gender-biased (137). In fact, cyber-feminists claim that women and technology together are viewed as a double threat to the rational patriarchal order (Huyssen 71) and thus, a gender-biased idea in which men are technologically capable while women have always been re-emphasized. Alternatively, some feminists suggest that by embracing cyberspace as female space, women can actually change the “male-defined technological landscape” (Toffoletti 24). As Sadie Plant suggests, “Cyberspace is the matrix not as absence, void, the whole of the womb, but perhaps even the place of woman’s affirmation” (60). By embracing the cyberspace as feminine it becomes possible for women to liberate themselves from the structure of patriarchy.
Best, Sue. “Sexualizing Space.” in Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. ed. Elizabeth Groz and Elspeth Probyn. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. pp. 181-194. Print.
Fitzgerald, S. F. “My Lost City.” in The City: American Experience. ed. A. Trachtenberg, P. Neill and P.C Bunnell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.
Friedberg, A. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1993. Print.
Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.
Plant, Sadie. “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics.” in Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows. London: Sage, 1995. Print.
Plato. Timaeus and Critias. trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.
Toffoletti, Kim. Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and The Posthuman Body. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Print.
Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Cambridge and Oxford: Policy Press, 1991. Print.
Warner, M. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. London: Picador, 1985. Print
“I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I WILL NOT SETTLE FOR THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR.”
Car Seat Headrest, “Not What I Needed.”
Marshall McLuhan’s “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity” appeared frequently on my graduate school seminar syllabi. My professors believed that it was a text that deserved to be read, revisited, and remembered. Occasionally, a passage from the text comes to me as I am thinking or writing. Finding the right quotation is like coming home to discover that someone else has cleaned your apartment, that someone else has already done the dirty work and put everything in the right place. Ironically, the following quotation is a quotation of a quotation of a quotation from the tale of an old Chinese Sage to Werner Heisenberg’s The Physicist’s Conception of Nature to McLuhan’s text itself:
“As Tzu-Gung was travelling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meagre.
Tzu-Gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?” Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would that be?” Tzu-Gung replied, “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said, “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”
In 1962, Everett Rogers proposed a theory of the diffusion of innovation to explain the spread of an idea or invention through a society. The circulation of new thoughts or technologies involves five different types of people: the innovators, the early-adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. Diffusion starts with the innovator who introduces an invention that appeals to the early-adopters, and then gradually becomes popular with the majorities. In terms of the market, the innovator is the entrepreneur; the adopters and majorities are the consumers.
So, where does that put the laggard? The laggard is usually classed as a traditionalist who refuses to abandon their old, less efficient ways in favor of the latest technology. Marketers do not bother to appeal to laggards, because it is not profitable to advertise to a demographic who are unlikely to buy the latest products. They are immune to hype. They will not settle for the lowest common denominator. The elderly gardener in Tzu-Gung’s tale personifies this laggard. Despite the obvious advantages of the draw-well, he prefers his outmoded methods and simple way of life.
So, what the hell is this gardener’s problem? What’s the harm in adopting a draw-well? Although the gardener accepts that he could irrigate ditches more quickly with a draw-well, he understands that using this invention would integrate him into a market that prioritizes efficiency over simplicity. As soon as he adopts this invention, the humble gardener becomes the industrial farmer. Forty-Six Indian farmers commit suicide every day; their hearts cannot endure their transformation into machines.
The laggard, much like the luddite, is often painted as a reactionary figure who reviles and resists progress: the old granny in the retirement home, the cantankerous codger in his vegetable garden, the rural recluse in an empty farmhouse… What possibilities are thought-leaders and marketers hiding behind these caricatures? Should we trust their definitions or propose an alternative?
Any alternative description of the laggard lies in defining freedom as the rejection of optimism. Rejecting optimism means knowing that the promise of the latest technologies will probably be broken, and contesting the platitude that better machines create a better world automatically. We live in a technocracy, where we are ruled by technology. Fun is no longer any fun. Innovation is no longer innovative. Customization obscures standardization. Everyone searches for different products on the same websites; everyone scrolls through different Facebook newsfeeds on the same screen. This is why people slobber over typewriters from the 1940s, dig their Gameboy cartridges out of boxes in the basement, and scribble handwritten letters to their new pen-pal. We are living in the future of technology, but it is so boring that we are desperate to return to the past. Laggardism compels us to find a way to approach technology without believing the hype of futurists and advertisers. Laggardism is a pessimistic futurism.
Admittedly, the alternative Laggard could be misconstrued as a bit of a spoilt brat. Complaining about one’s ability to afford and access new and efficient technology can seem trivial compared to the fact that many people in the U.S. do not have a reliable supply of clean water. Although it appears that these two problems differ in type and scale, they represent the same predicament. An anecdote from Henri Lefebvre’s masterpiece Critique of Everyday Life might help to prove this claim:
“Several years ago a world-wide firm which was trying to extend the market and put a rival firm out of business decided to distribute paraffin lamps to Chinese peasants free of charge, while its rivals, less ‘generous’ or less shrewd, went on selling them. And now in several million poverty-stricken Chinese households artificial light (an immense progress) shines down on muddy floors and rotten matting—because even peasants who cannot afford to buy a lamp can afford to buy paraffin…The ‘progress’ capitalism brings, like its ‘generosity,’ is just a means to an end: profit.”
The people of Flint, Michigan took pictures with their smartphones of the dirty water flowing out of their faucets. Immense progress can coexist with the most scandalous regression. Laggards are aware of this hypocrisy of progress. In fact, they would prefer a kind of progress that enables people to access clean water over one that attempts to relocate the global elite to a colony on Mars. Laggards do not feel much affection for these advancements that transport only the few to their destination of profit.
Silicon Valley, a contemporary synonym for “progress,” is entering a dangerous period in which it must introduce solutions to problems that it created (solving progress with more progress). Mark Zuckerberg puts “disputed” tags on Fake News stories which could not have gone viral without Facebook’s ‘Share’ feature; Elon Musk launches Neurolink to combat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Eventually and inevitably, these solutions will become problems that will require new solutions. Every new solution must be greeted with a critical glare rather than open arms. We lose our freedom if we succumb to the optimism of innovation and early-adoption.
So, how does someone become a laggard? Let’s be realistic (et demandez l’impossible). Whether one subscribes to the philosophical tenets of Hobbes or Rousseau, no one possesses a return-ticket to the state of nature. Golden Ages are no more than the apparitions of forgetful nostalgia. Moreover, Golden Ages were not golden for everyone. If you wish for a world free of technology, sign up for the nearest Amish community. We must acknowledge that most of us live (comfortably or otherwise) in a capitalist society. Furthermore, our participation in this society requires a minimum level of prosperity. Ironically, I cannot write or publish these words without the products made by those people in Silicon Valley that I seem to hold in contempt. The whole affair reminds me of Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London in an old episode of Have I Got News For You?
One is not ethically obligated to return to a pre-technological state of nature to critique the role of technology in our lives. One can protest capitalism while drinking Café Lattes and using your smartphone. The Laggard is the opposite of the person who believes that we cannot have innovation without capitalism. Under capitalism, we are permitted only one regime of innovation: FREE WIFI AND DIRTY WATER FOR ALL! The Laggard wants to try out other regimes of innovation. Some of them even hold the radically subversive view that everyone has a right to access clean water (in Flint, Michigan, Sebring, Ohio, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation…): FREE WIFI AND CLEAN WATER FOR ALL!
So, I start and end with water and machines. Why did McLuhan deem it appropriate to insert an ancient tale into his book about the then-emergent phenomenon of mass media? Every new technology disrupts the physical body and the body politic in electrifyingly dramatic ways, but very few people notice. Two decades ago, no one could have imagined or anticipated the seismic impact of Facebook. Nowadays, the extraordinary become mundane instantly. The abnormal becomes hypernormalized. That’s why we need people who pay attention more than ever. Admittedly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ famous awareness tests prove that we see only what we are told to watch:
We are too busy watching the basketball game to notice the gorilla. Some people do not realize that there is a heart of a machine growing in their chest, wired up to the market with transcontinental fiber-optic cables. Everyone has a heart of metal these days, but they also have a choice to sever the wires. Water is too precious and necessary to become a commodity. Water is life. Ironically, the humble gardener refused the offer of more clean water, whereas the new Laggards demand it. Sites of struggle change. As soon as we cut the wires, our machine hearts can roam wherever they wish and fight whenever they want. They will beat and beat. To fight for one’s life and the lives of others is the only progress worth chasing.