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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

What is the place of the human body in the information age? Do bodies and information immerse? Do systems of information gathering and analysis determine or guide social interactions of human bodies? For those concerned with the impact of genetic and information technologies alike, Semiotic Flesh: Information & the Human Body is a cutting-edge reader. It examines the convergence between information and flesh, an instant of material poiesis of informatics.

Semiotic Flesh is the first volume of the Simpson Center’s Short Studies and represents a lecture series, "Information and the Human Body," held at the University of Washington in January and February 2001. It combines three essays with their assigned responses from researchers at the University of Washington. Historically in the realm of Mark Poster and Manuel Castell, this discourse is meant to collectively suggest an emerging area of tentatively called "information studies."

The volume is edited by the organizers of the lecture series: Robert Mitchell (English, Duke University) and Phillip Thurtle (Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University). They contribute a thorough introduction that guides the reader carefully through the results of a very fruitful, diverse and dense discussion.

Semiotic Flesh features essays by scholars in science studies, communications, and literature -- Richard Doyle, Timothy Lenoir, and N. Katherine Hayles -- with responses from Steven Shaviro, Peter Oppenheimer, and Kathleen Woodward. All contributions offer collected memories of the ways that "information" emerged in the Western hemisphere. They demonstrate how "information" has changed our concept of embodiment and illustrate how broadly this concept reverberates in different fields.

Richard Doyle’s "LSDNA: Consciousness Expansion and the Emergence of Biotechnology," focuses specifically on paradoxical forms of agency like laughter, terror, and ecstasy, and on a significant change in the notion of information in biological discourse to a pragmatic paradigm. Doyle, author of On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences and WetWares: Experiments in Post Vital Living, provides an evolutionary description for the emergence of biotechnology in human culture, the alleged application of human consciousness to biological evolution. He points out that in particular, the necessary role of the self-experiment, that most tabooed and double-entendred scientific enterprise, in the scientific study of hallucinogens, which is an inquiry not into life but into consciousness, provides the ecology for the emergence of these innovative and even ecstatic modes of interaction, namely laughter, terror, and ecstasy. Moreover, he maps the emergence of rhetorical practices within an evolutionary context, and then connects this evolutionary model of rhetoric to the micro practices of innovative conceptual events in the unlikely ecologies of biotechnology and the scientific study of hallucinogens.

In his discussion of the strange connection between Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, and Kary Mullis, the inventor of PCR, a DNA duplication technology, Doyle emphasizes that Mullis "was not hero but host, as his instantiation of an iterative, pragmatic understanding of information replicated not just DNA but psychedelic culture itself, as the notion of ‘expansion’ and decontextualization that dislocated consciousness in the 1960s now deterritorialized life, allowing it to become just another sample" (23). Doyle’s most important point, however, is his suggestion to begin on the effects of such a deterritorialization or "expansion" of life, by beginning with replication: "And if any molecule was replicated, perhaps that molecule was LSDNA" (23).

Steven Shaviro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, attests to Doyle’s provocative approach and focuses mainly on the impact and synergy of the DNA and LSD research. Shaviro smartly notes various similarities between the research: Both share common presuppositions and goals; both manifest the same shift from hermeneutics to pragmatics; both technologies have already had an irreversible effect upon the world we live in; and the "promise, as well as the danger, of both genetic and psychedelic engineering is that they bind us to an unforeseeable futurity" (27).

In "The Virtual Surgeon: Operating on the Data in an Age of Medialization," Timothy Lenoir, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford, navigates us through the historical milestones that led to "medialized" surgery. The minimally invasive surgery revolution dates back to the 1970s, and accelerated at an even faster pace by the end of the 90s. Technology has ever since dramatically transformed modern medicine. A revolution in microelectronics and semiconductors led the way to entire new fields of biomedical imaging such as ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT and PET scanners), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and with the development of charged couple devices (CCDs), fields such as endoscopic surgery.

Lenoir accentuates the impacts of predicative medicine and performs real case scenarios. The most striking haptical interface he describes is the da Vinci® Surgical System. It is an integral part of the operating room and supports the entire surgical team. The system consists of a surgeon console, patient-side cart, instruments, and image processing equipment. Using the da Vinci Surgical System, the surgeon operates while seated comfortably at a console viewing a 3-D image of the surgical field. The surgeon's fingers grasp the master controls below the display with hands and wrists naturally positioned relative to his or her eyes. Intuitive Surgical’s technology seamlessly translates the surgeon's hand, wrist, and finger movements into precise, real-time movements of the surgical instruments inside the patient.

The patient-side Cart provides the three or four robotic arms -- two or three instrument arms and one endoscope arm -- that execute the surgeon's commands. The laparoscopic arms pivot at the 1-cm operating ports eliminating the use of the patient's body wall for leverage and minimizing tissue damage. Supporting surgical team members assist in installing the proper instruments, prepare the 1-cm port in the patient, and supervise the laparoscopic arms and tools being utilized. Moreover, a full range of instruments is provided to support the surgeon while operating. The instruments are designed with seven degrees of motion that mimic the dexterity of the human hand and wrist. Each instrument has a specific surgical mission such as clamping, suturing, and tissue manipulation. Quick-release levers speed instrument changes during surgical procedures.

In the footsteps of da Vinci and Goethe, two thinkers concerned with and involved in improvements for the surgeon’s performance, Lenoir asks, how the "surgical body" and the medical body, redefined as the "digital body," will affect "the heroic subject we’ve called surgeon?" (42-46). In addition to anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and pathology, the "new techno-supersurgeon" will need experience in biophysics, computer graphics and animation, biorobotics, and mechanical and biomedical engineering. Towards the end of his essay, Lenoir seems to have a slightly pessimistic view about the outcome of these endeavors.

Peter Oppenheimer’s response, "The Irony of Virtual Flesh," underlines the fundamentally virtual nature of our physical bodies, if not all matter. Oppenheimer, a virtual reality researcher at the Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab at the University of Washington, unfolds in a witty discourse how "data" and "flesh" interact in a mutually complementary system of exchanges. His believes that new materials will arise that will blend traditional metaphysical distinctions. He suggests acknowledging the possibility of transcending the body’s duality beyond mind and body.

In "Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments," N. Katherine Hayles, Professor of English and Design/Media Arts at the University of California at Los Angeles, asks whether the distinction between the "body" and "embodiment," articulated in her influential text How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, still depend upon a Cartesian dualism. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles looked at three intertwined stories: How information lost its body, that is, how it was conceptualized as a reified entity independent of any material substrate; how the cyborg was constructed as a technological and cultural entity from 1945-present; and how the version of the "human" defined by the liberal humanist subject is being transformed into the "posthuman."

Her essay picks up where the book left off, as she explores the role of the human body in three virtual reality (VR) installations: Traces, by Simon Penny and collaborators; Einstein’s Brain, by Alan Dunning, Paul Woodrow, and collaborators; and Nøtime, by Victoria Vesna and her collaborators. She argues that all three VR artworks emphasize the non-Cartesian mindbody but stress different modes of relation. Traces foregrounds the relation of mindbody to the immediate surroundings; Einstein's Brain focuses on the perception as the relation between mindbody and world; and Nøtime emphasizes relationality as cultural construction. All three of them shift the focus from entity to relation. Hayles is convinced that the significance of these works is profound, for they operate with "a performative intensity that makes us realize the importance of emergent relationality in mind and body, transforming these two ‘elements’ into the mindbody that in turn is embedded in our relations with the techno-world" (67). Her final statement -- "We do not exist in order to relate; rather, we relate in order that we may exist as fully realized human beings" (67) -- reflects an astonishing conceptual analogy to Kant’s famous categorical imperative.

Kathleen Woodward, Professor of English and Director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, is full of praises in her response "Distributed Systems: Of Cognition, of the Emotions." She points out that Hayle’s core paradigms of mindbody and emergence are rooted in interaction, mutuality, and codetermination. In her view, it "is thus altogether fitting that Hayles, drawing on Don Ihde’s phenomenological theory of technology, emphasizes three different kinds of interrelationships among the human, technology, and the environment as they are each foregrounded in pieces by Simone Penny, Alan Dunning and Paul Woodrow, and Victoria Vesna -- movement, perception, and the cultural construction of relationality respectively" (69). Woodward is especially interested in Hayles’ observation that all three art works are examples of distributed cognitive systems. She underlines that "in all of these texts, what is thematized is the process of technocultural feedback loops generating emotional growth. The emergence of intersubjectivity between the humanworld and the technological world (represented by replicants and nonhuman cyborgs) results in a form of intelligence -- emotional intelligence -- that is not only resourceful in a multitude of ways but is deeply benevolent (these texts are profoundly utopian in spirit)" (71).

Semiotic Flesh: Information & the Human Body is a cutting-edge reader. Body and information overlap, immerse, meta-morph. It is a winning goal, to discern this process and to communicate it in the most transparent way.

Doyle, Richard. (1997). On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences. Palo Alto: Stanford

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

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

Simone Seym:
Simone Seym is an adjunct professor in the Communication, Culture & Technology Program at Georgetown University. She is also an ISO 9001 Certified System Specialist for Online Publishing. She teaches and researches in the fields of theater, technology, art & representation, cultural studies, and cross-cultural communications.   <ss266@georgetown.edu>

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