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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

The essays and responses gathered in Semiotic Flesh: Information and the Human Body, edited by Philip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell, focus on the interpenetration of bodies and data. The starting point of the contributions is therefore the identification of a "moment" when these two notions become indistinguishable. This moment signifies the point where informational bodies are produced, lived, and embraced, in spite of the modernist dictates that would preclude the loss of the flesh/data boundary. These essays thus have in common the choice of a cultural manifestation as starting point, a move usually associated with humanities and cultural studies. This is interesting to note not only because it is an important signal to give potential readers, but also because it articulates a view of culture as text. The body as data is therefore analogical to culture as text, and so the set up of the collection is itself an important reminder of the power of decoding inscriptions, even as it problematizes this practice.

This book is the first volume of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities Short Studies, and represents a lecture series held at the University of Washington in early 2001. The book contains three essays, as well as three short responses, as a way of capturing some of the interaction of the lectures as dialogical events.

The introduction by Thurtle and Mitchell, conveners of the lecture series and editors of the book, points to a number of interpretations of the phrase "data made flesh." In an impressively evocative yet concise manner, they sketch the range of ways in which "information and human bodies refuse to stay on their respective sides of the conceptual wall" (1). They identify the various tensions between semiotics and embodiment, and note that the moment of transformation, the "material poesis of informatics" (2), is the focus of the texts presented in the collection. If signifying practice and embodiments are no longer clearly distinct, as the editors discuss, the tensions between these realms remain. Each of the three main contributions addresses a different version of these tensions, and problematizes the embodied/informational divide. The tensions explored can be summarized as meaning versus manipulation as values in the conceptualization of dna and consciousness; fusion of information with the body as opposed to abstraction from it; and the experience of a mindbody as proposed by artistic projects rather than a Cartesian dualism.


Richard Doyle’s essay shows the parallel development of two types of experimentation, on consciousness and DNA. This comparison is made using cultural "motifs" that appear in both spheres of activities, and by tracing the interactions of various actors across them. The dealings of Albert Hoffman (who first synthesized LSD in 1938) with the substance are described, as he returns to the substance to investigate its potency, self-experiment, and reflect on why this substance "would not leave him alone." Doyle juxtaposes to this an account of Kary Mullis’ invention of PCR, a technique that has been at the center of the biotech revolution. Doyle describes how these two sets of experimentations and applications increasingly focused on the notion of manipulation (replicating code, recreating experiences), rather than on the discovery of their (secret or private) meaning. The implications of this theme in relation to dna are further discussed in his recent book, Wetwares (2003). As the body as DNA comes to be seen as data, so consciousness comes to be seen as something to be programmed and manipulated in the course of self-experimentation with LSD. Doyle shows these parallels by comparing writings of participants in these contemporary endeavors. LSD was presented as a way of decomposing, experimenting with consciousness, as DNA was with life. To tell the stories of hallucinations, DNA and RNA were key characters, and the narratives about nucleic acids, as programmable, also became part of the ways of describing and scienticizing LSD sessions.

The parallel telling of these stories would be intriguing enough, but Doyle further shows how the trajectories of these endeavors are entwined through the biographies of the main actors and through cultural motifs that recur in both tales. For example, the production of texts that were meant to structure, or program, the hallucinatory experience focused on motifs of translation, in which dna imagery figured prominently. The understandings of expansion, dislocation, and the practices of replication and programming were operative in the two spheres -- parallel moves that reorder consciousness and life.

The account of self-experimentation in the early period of LSD use both raises and illustrates the fundamental epistemic issues in self-experimentation:
    This is a question of endurance for the experimental self: usual experimental protocol demands that everything is involved in an experiment except the self, and yet here it is precisely only the self and its responses that are the very assay of LSD24. (13)
This makes the essay a must-read for anyone interested in this subset of scientific experiments, and hopefully this material will come to the attention of scholars in science studies.

In response to this essay, Steven Shaviro notes how these manipulations of consciousness and dna are persistently articulated along lines of moral judgement (and this may be why the entwinements seem uncanny to me, mixing the sacred cow of biotechnology and the quasi-folkloric quaintness of 1960s tripping). Shaviro’s response is an insightful elaboration of a moral and social map that adds another dimension of the materials provided by Doyle. Certainly, the moral valence of these activities is by no means simple. Shaviro’s contextualization shows how contemporary cultural geography maps out experiments in consciousness (prozac as acceptable modulation) and DNA manipulation (biotech as major industry and cloning as "playing god"). Although rearticulated in the decades discussed in these texts, the tension between meaning and manipulation is not resolved, and remains a culturally productive one.

Surgical Virtuality

Timothy Lenoir’s contribution is a discussion of new representations that change the conditions of surgery. Lenoir describes the development of increasingly rich and increasingly interactive systems for minimally invasive surgery, and the use of computers for modeling and integrating various types of information about bodies to plan surgery. These manifestations are better understood as fusion of information and the body, Lenoir argues, rather than a flight from materiality as proposed by Baudrillard. Digitized representations can even be seen as radically improved interfaces with the body for surgeons, serving them better than material instruments such as scalpels with fiddly long handles.

The surgical occupation is reconfigured and becomes postmodern, Lenoir points out, as it comes to rely on distributed production and medialization. Lenoir defines medialisation as the externalization of skill in an inscription device. This reconfiguration occurs, for example, when the surgeon’s ability to mentally combine two types of information about the patient in front of her is instead implemented as the merging of various kinds of information and of the body as display on a screen. Radiologists, Lenoir elaborates, are also involved in related dynamics, and indeed, consequences of neuroinformatics have similarly been analyzed in the field of neuroanatomy (Beaulieu, 2001).

Lenoir also considers how these pioneering efforts, which herald changes in the surgeon’s ways of knowing about the body and of acting on it, may fit into the trends affecting mainstream healthcare priorities in the United States. Valued by corporate bodies because they are arguably cost-cutting, these tools may also fit in well with trends towards greater personalized care. Lenoir argues that the individual body may be better served by being represented via flexible, adaptable digital tools, than by reliance on the typical or ideal body of more traditional medical representations. This is the kind of "added value" that has also been touted in other bioinformatics settings (pharmacogenomics, neuroinformatics). This possibility of fully accounting for the individual may be a modern concept of self (the individual as the sum of its various calculable factors) that endures, and is articulated here through new epistemic tools. Indeed, the dangers of increased surveillance under the heading of prevention is also a well-known modernist plot, which takes on a new guise via medialisation and distributed production.

Lenoir’s closing note draws together epistemics and politics, noting that the ubiquity of representational and informational practices precludes absolutists critique from "outside." In response, Peter Oppenheimer reminds us that Plato’s cave and hierarchical thinking about reality and representation are not the only possible models for thinking about the virtuality/physicality distinction. The Necker cube experience (similar to the rabbit/duck or vase/silhouette figures of cognitive psychology), in which the terms can be made to alternate while always being present, provides another, perhaps most promising way of thinking about semiotic flesh, both body and information.

Flesh and Metal

N. Katherine Hayles’ essay invites the reader to turn to artworks to apprehend new understandings of body/information relations. She discusses three recent projects: Traces by Simon Penny and collaborators; Einstein’s Brain by Alan Dunnind, Paul Woodrow, and collaborators; and N0time by Victoria Vesna and collaborators. Hayles proposes art for guidance because "[t]hese artworks engage us in ways that make vividly real the emergence of ideas of the body and experiences of embodiments from our interactions with increasingly information-rich environments" (53).

While representing quite different esthetics, techniques, and approaches, these projects can be seen to pose common challenges. They problematize the notion of the body as corporeal and of information as virtual and non-physical, by producing elaborate traces which form an environment in which the visitor is forced to engage on different terms. For example, in one projected world of Dunning and Woodrow, VR goggles worn by the visitor ensure that
    vision is blurred, detail is shifting and inconstant, slower or faster frame rates suggest a rendering engine behind the scenes, left- or right-handed sides of stereoscopic vision blink out, depth perception is lost, objects only appear when the viewer is in motion, the edges of the world visibly reinvent themselves. (60)
In this and other artworks described by Hayles, vision as a technique of self-centering is challenged; the environment refuses to stay put thereby radically challenging object/subject relations; and interaction with information processing machines are represented as complex and anything but stable enough to be taken for granted.

Hayles discusses these artworks in terms of the new understandings of being posthumans, a term she has elaborated in opposition to the more traditional liberal subject.

In her response, Kathleen Woodward emphasizes how these artworks contrast with so many other deployments of virtual reality technologies, which reaffirm rather than challenge the possibility of subjectivity without embodiment. She proposes that these artworks be considered not only as "cognitive breaching experiments," but also as immensely valuable for the ways they emphasize social and emotional relations. Indeed, the bridging of gaps is the role proposed for these artworks, as experiences that "are good to think (and feel) with."

Information Studies

The editors propose that this volume might signal an "emerging area of study," which might be called information studies. Besides the work of the contributors, Thurtle and Mitchell note that of Mark Poster and Manuel Castells as early researchers in the field, and the importance of the fiction writing of Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, and of material on information written for non-academic audiences such as Hobart and Schiffman’s Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy and the Computer Revolution. To many readers of the RCCS, the label of information studies may already be a familiar one. Many schools and departments of what was traditionally called library science were reborn in the nineties under that very heading. From the contents of Semiotic Flesh, what Thurtle and Mitchell propose as an agenda and approach for information studies are somewhat different. Literary and cultural studies figure prominently, with a largely textual approach as I mentioned earlier. In terms of fields of interest, biomedical sciences and the art world are more prominently represented than the world of publishers and e-journal databases. A merging of the two areas that are similarly labeled may be a direction worth considering. The attention paid to the constraints and possibilities of various forms of infrastructure, intellectual property, and archiving and retrieval (broadly defined), in library science contexts may be a good complement to the more text-based and cultural semiotic emphasis found in this volume. In turn, studies of the new digital forms, and of electronic networks for the circulation of information, would gain by being understood as connected to shifting cultural patterns. A more culturally informed field could also move beyond the tropes of hopeful hype and despair that still tend to shape discussions of the new informational contexts in information services. This combination might also reconnect detailed cases studies and an analysis of cultural, political, and economic structures. In this catholic form, information studies would not only fully integrate the study of technology to the humanities (as achieved brilliantly in this collection), but would also link up with a range of endeavors in social science and Internet studies.

Beaulieu, Anne. (2001). Voxels in the Brain: Neuroscience, Informatics and Changing Notions of Objectivity, Social Studies of Science. 31(5): 435- 480

Doyle, Richard. (2003). Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hobart, M.E. and Schiffman, Z.S. (1998). Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Anne Beaulieu:
Anne Beaulieu is a member of Networked Research and Digital Information (Nerdi) at the Netherlands’ Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.  <anne.beaulieu@niwi.knaw.nl>

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