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Semiotic Flesh: Information and the Human Body

Editor: Phillip Thurtle, Robert Mitchell
Publisher: Seattle, WA: Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, 2003
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Sarah Stein
 REVIEW 2: Anne Beaulieu
 REVIEW 3: Simone Seym
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell

"Informatic poiesis" is the term the editors of this slim but provocative volume use to designate the "moment when flesh and information merge and begin to signify" (2). Drawing on William Gibson's Neuromancer in which the possibility is raised of "data made flesh," Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell have assembled three essays in which the breach of the conceptual wall between bodies and information is pondered.

Semiotic Flesh is an inviting work on several grounds. The essays included were originally part of a lecture series entitled "Information and the Human Body" that took place at the University of Washington in January and February of 2001. In the spirit of the interactions that took place during the series, each essay is followed by a brief response from a scholar in the field. The volume thereby reads more like a dialogue, a research colloquium in which one is privy to engage with eminent scholars in the emerging field of information studies. The publication's brevity (seventy-one pages) is another dimension of its appeal: this is a volume that could be used productively in graduate seminars as well as scholarly research as a springboard for further exploration into the relationship between bodies, information, and meaning.

The first essay, "LSDNA: Consciousness Expansion and the Emergence of Biotechnology," is by Richard Doyle, whose field is rhetoric and science studies. Doyle juxtaposes biotechnology and psychedelic technology to trace the rhetorical and conceptual evolutions of each. His investigation takes him to three forms of agency -- laughter, terror, ecstasy -- that replicate in the self-experimentations he claims are common to molecular biology and to hallucinogenic research. Within both of these scientific enterprises -- the mapping of DNA and attempts in the expansion of consciousness--he finds parallels of the undoing and doing of identity.

Doyle begins by chronicling Albert Hoffman's discovery of the transformative effects of LSD-25, which he had synthesized first in 1938. Following a brief encounter with cognitive changes after handling the substance, Hoffman decided that ingestion was his best way of testing the compound's potency. His subsequent attempts to report his experience to his colleagues failed, though they in turn ingested LSD as well, with similar transformative effects. The experiment's replication required experimentation on the self: "Only by encountering a veritable undoing of the self -- a submission to the possible transformation one is in fact testing for -- can interesting data from this novel pharmacological agent be gathered, evaluated, and transmitted" (16).

Doyle then recounts the process by which the Nobel Prize winning Kary Mullis created PCR -- polymerase chain reaction by which nucleic acids are duplicated. Mullis had previously ingested LSD and had met Albert Hoffman. In his fascinating account, he attributes to LSD a tolerance for "bizarre" frames of mind that led to his discovery of PCR.

Ultimately, Doyle is interested in the understanding of information at which the research of LSD and PCR arrived. Rather than seeking meaning, subsequent experimentation of LSD by researchers such as Timothy Leary and of PCR by Mullis resulted in a pragmatic approach to information -- something to be replicated and transformed -- with the subjects both authors and platforms, "interactive wetware of infinite experimentation and transformation" (18). As Steven Shaviro states in responding to Doyle's essay, the connection Doyle makes between biotechnology and hallucinogenics makes it possible to see clearly these parallels. Both rely on self-experimentation, with the body as host to transformative effects, and both regard information through a pragmatic rather than interpretive lens. "They are not oriented toward understanding the world, but toward changing it . . . The promise, as well as the danger, of both genetic and psychedelic engineering is that they bind us to an unforeseeable futurity" (27).

The second essay, historian of biology Timothy Lenoir's "The Virtual Surgeon: Operating in an Age of Medialization," reflects on the growing field of computer-assisted surgery. Looking ahead to what Lenoir refers to as a "fusion of digital and physical reality" (28), surgeons will use three-dimensional models that serve as software-surgical interfaces guiding the surgery.

Lenoir details the history of endoscopic procedures that relied on the introduction of a miniature video camera, leading to a range of minimally invasive surgeries and, as importantly, greater cooperative teamwork. These developments lead to telepresence surgery dependent on workstations that enable surgeons to telerobotically perform complex procedures aided by sensory feedback (including haptic interfaces) and highly refined motor control.

Computer modeling, simulation, and virtual reality are being incorporated to enable predictive medicine. Lenoir gives examples of craniofacial and cardiovascular surgeries, in which postsurgical outcomes and simulations of physiological functions help physicians predict the efficacy of alternate treatment plans. He describes robotic systems that utilize virtual reality interfaces with haptic feedback that give the surgeon the sense of being inside the anatomy at the surgery site, facilitating training and rehearsal of complex procedures. In a future scenario, Lenoir describes surgical procedures performed by a teleoperator system that corrects for human-generated hand tremors and provides the human operator with augmented information from remote specialists, databases, ultrasounds, patient histories, and so on.

Lenoir considers the arguments for and against the increased use of technology-mediated surgical procedures. Proponents point to cost savings and decreased error rates, as well as the greater individual customizing of treatment plans. The downside, Lenoir notes, is the increased surveillance of the patient, as insurance companies could preprogram in which procedures would be covered -- and which would not. He takes exception, however, to the claim that these technologies represent greater dehumanization of medicine. He points to the myriad of factors that are bringing these changes, including the motivation of greater improvements in surgical procedures and outcomes.

Lenoir concludes with an explanation of his term, "medialization": "By this term I have sought to call attention to the ways in which the medical body is being redefined as the digital body . . . Media not only participate in creating objects of desire, they are desiring machines that shape us" (46). He makes a convincing case that the "morally neutral ground" is no longer accessible.

Lenoir's respondent, Peter Oppenheimer, works on similar surgical applications of virtual reality at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington. Oppenheimer refers to the dualistic nature of the body in its physical and virtual interpretations, and reflects on the changing skill sets that new medical professionals will require. He looks to the acceptance of the dual nature of our bodies in the hopes of revealing further unknown realities of ourselves. One outcome of this he foresees is "the ultimate super doctor, founded in compassion and in an understanding of our multifaceted and ever mysterious nature" (51). Given his earlier imagining of a "virtuoso video game player, pre-filtered for compassion" (51), one question that troubles me about this future projection is just how and from what this compassion will arise.

The third and final essay in Semiotic Flesh is N. Katherine Hayles' "Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments." Hayles begins with a statement of her inability to avoid the duality of body and embodiment in her recent book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Her strategy in this essay is to "focus on the idea of relation and posit it as the dynamic flux from which both the body and embodiment emerge" (52) signifying this emergent quality as the "mindbody."

Hayles examines three virtual reality artworks that address the experiences of the mindbody in times of rapid technological change. The three include Traces by Simon Penny and collaborators, Eisntein's Brain by Alan Dunning, Paul Woodrow and collaborators, and NOtime by Victoria Vesna and her collaborators. The works were chosen as exemplars of different modes of relation, which Hayles names, corresponding to Don Ihde's Technology and the Lifeworld, enactment, perception, and enculturation.

Hayles' descriptions of the three artworks are as penetrating and illuminating as all her work. She is particularly interested in the way these projects resist "the fantasy that information technologies will allow is to escape our bodies and move into transcendent spaces where we can escape the ravages of time" (56). Trace foregrounds its computational constraints, giving rise to new kinds of creative interplay between humans and intelligent machines. Einstein's Brain deliberately opposes the military and corporate push toward greater realism in virtual reality, and instead works to problematize the belief in the existence of our bodies and the world independent of relation. NOtime focuses attention on the quality of "having no time" in contemporary culture and stresses relationality on a local and global level through distributed cognitive collaborations.

Finally, Hayles turns to the urgent necessity of projects such as those explored: "As we have seen, the relational stance enacted by these works puts the emphasis instead on dynamic interactive processes from which both mindbody and world emerge together . . . We do not exist in order to relate; rather, we relate in order that we may exist as fully realized human beings" (67). Kathleen Woodward's stimulating response to this essay suggests that an addendum to Hayles' interest in these works as distributed cognitive systems would be to consider distributed emotional systems. She refers to popular texts such as Steven Spielberg's AI, Arthur C. Clarke's trilogy Space Odyssey (from which came Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into Ridley Scott's Bladerunner) in which emotional intelligence arises from the intersubjectivity between the humanworld and technological world.

Overall, this is an immensely invigorating set of discussions. They cast new light on the ongoing debates over issues of embodiment and information, and point us in new directions that both broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves in our technologically-mediated world.

Gibson, William (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, p. 16.

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

Ihde, Don (1990). Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sarah Stein:
Sarah Stein is an Associate Professor of Communication Media in the Department of Communication, North Carolina State University. She teaches film and digital production, media theory and criticism. Her research areas include the rhetorical discourses of new technologies and their influence on shaping identity, gendered dimensions of old and new media representations, and pedagogy and new technologies. She reviewed Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet for RCCS.  <sstein@unity.ncsu.edu>

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