On the universe, (ab)normal bodies, and the voice of HAL

by Erin / Ieva / Steve

One thing I’m curious about, looking at Spinoza and Bergson in concert, is the way in which they take up notions of normality and abnormality in strikingly divergent ways in the service of their distinct but not entirely dissimilar perspectives on the relationship between mind, matter, and memory/affect. Both of these philosophies seem, at their core, to be dependent upon a fundamental belief in “human nature” as driven by intrinsic self-interest. Furthermore, this essence is deeply intertwined with what they both see as the nature of the human body. For Spinoza, this body and essence are determined, first and foremost, with relation to “God” – not a Christian God but God as a kind of universal oneness through which everything is, feels and knows and God as a logical reality that can be proven (QED) through an extended series of geometric proofs. It’s interesting to consider how, within Spinoza’s system, that which falls outside of his system of mathematical logic must necessarily be deemed “absurd” and thrown out the window so as not to corrupt his gradual, linear progression toward universal truth. When any sign of “contradiction” becomes grounds for “absurdity” and thus dismissal, how is Spinoza to account for departures from “normality” within his philosophy? “I do not know,” he admits “…how a man should be considered, who hangs himself,” he admits, “[n]or how we should consider children, fools, madmen &c” (126). While Spinoza doesn’t seem particularly bothered by this slight flaw in the universality of his philosophy, it’s something that strikes me as fairly problematic, not only politically (that’s a given, I think) but also logically, within Spinoza’s own system.

For Bergson, on the other hand, his understanding of the human body and its essence derive from, in part, an appeal to medical science and the inner workings of the human brain, though they cannot be reduced to such an approach, and, on the other hand, from an appeal to “common sense.” In stark contrast to Spinoza, I see him taking up so-called “abnormality” as the raw material for his philosophy, searching for insights into universal laws of “perception,” “matter,” and, particularly, “memory” precisely by looking to those bodies and minds that depart from what we consider to be normal. “Psychic blindness” and “aphasia” become the subject of his inquiry because the brains and bodies that exist in these states of “confusion” are still brains and bodies that exist as “images” and thus “matter” in the universe. Following from this, I wonder, what do we see as the place of “abnormal” bodies and minds in our thinking about questions of digital media, mediation, and affect? How might “abnormality” help us to shed light on what we take for granted or what lies beyond our limited powers of perception and imagination?

Taking up the question of “abnormal” bodies in the context of digital media, I wonder how we might think of virtual bodies – that is, bodies that are created and “live” in virtual worlds such as Second Life – in the light of Spinoza’s and Bergson’s texts and particularly their analyses of the complicated relationship between human mind and body. How can we think about the body/ mind dichotomy or the unity of mind and body when there is a multiplicity of bodies – physical and virtual – linked to one mind or, possibly, one virtual body tied to a multiplicity of actual minds?

For Bergson, one’s physical own body is a “privileged image”; it is the “seat of affection, and, at the same time, the source of action” (64). It is adopted as the centre of one’s universe and the “physical basis” of one’s personality. What happens, then, when a virtual body is “attached” to the mind? What changes in the relationship between the mind and the “privileged image”? Even if the virtual body seems less “privileged” due to its lack of physical embodiment, it still remains the focus of the virtual universe; it is still acted upon and being the “source of action.” Does the virtual body become an extension of one’s physical body or rather engender an alternative, parallel body in the center of its own universe? If, as Bergson argues, “the living body in general, and the nervous system in particular, are only channels for the transmission of movements, which […] are transmitted in the form of action, reflex or voluntary” (81), one’s virtual body – or a virtual body operated by several physical bodies – seems to become an alternate, separate body, not merely a deviant continuation of the “main” body or a flawed copy of it.

This is an interesting move. The whole rhetoric around “virtual reality” that surrounds this kind of mediated space seems to be worth looking at, particularly the ways in which people have conceived of such spaces as reflective of a “universe” separate from and outside of our own. It seems to me that all of the authors we’ve read for this week might argue against such a supposition, though in different ways. For Spinoza, there is only one universe that is God and all of “his” attributes and extensions. All thought, knowledge, and action are bound up in this world and such “virtual worlds” would necessarily be a part of it. For Bergson, such a space would still constitute “matter” in the sense that it is all a part of “the aggregate of images” that we move and act in relation to (22). And, for Leibniz, who argues that matter is an always moving “texture” without emptiness or voids (Deleuze 5), there is no “outside” within which this alter-universe might exist. If we agree with these philosophies, what exactly is it, then, that encourages us to make such false distinctions and what are the consequences?

It seems that one of the arguments for making such a distinction (and, I agree, a pretty false one) is the level of “reality” involved in making a bodily move, for example, turning one’s head IRL and turning one’s head in a virtual environment. (Spinoza’s assertion that “[…] the motion and the rest of the body must arise from another body […]” got me thinking about this issue.) It is a physical activity, more or less mediated, that makes the head turn – but the “common sense” approach (not the Bergsonian one) privileges the physical world movement as more “real”, genuine than the movement in the virtual space. What is fascinating to me is that the same approach creates a certain hierarchy of emotions as well. The genuineness, “realness,” and, consequently, the “worth” of emotions felt and events experienced are judged based on the hierarchy of bodily movements: emotions are assumed to be more intense and simply to matter more if bodies meet and part in the physical world. It seems that mind in such an approach suddenly becomes dependant on the physicality of the body…

As a sidenote, I have very little experience with such “virtual worlds,” so I would be really curious to hear from someone who has encountered such spaces, particularly as to the affective experience and the relationship that they felt between their human mind / soul / body and those that exist in and through such a space. I wonder how Spinoza’s taxonomy of human emotions might play out on such a stage. If we assume that this “universe” is, in fact, not separate from but in fact part of what we consider to be “our own,” can we assume that one’s own self-interest would also be a driving force behind the actions and relations one undertakes in a space like this in the way that Spinoza argues?

I also don’t have much experience with “virtual worlds” unless having a presence on facebook counts – which is probably a question that could be debated for a while.  I think there is definitely some version of traditional Spinozan self-interest  driving initial participation in those realms. I do wonder with these things (and this is also a weird theory I’ve always had about fiction) if you somehow get a mirror into what humans would be like if they didn’t need food or shelter or sleep (though I guess there are virtual versions of all of those things in Second Life, they don’t seem to be as much the point as they are in material existence).

While Spinoza privileges the intensity of a phenomenon over its duration, for Bergson, the defining aspect of presence (and, consequently, “realness”) is not the space or intensity of images and perceptions – it is time; it is when an image is obligated

to act through every one of its points upon all the points

of all other images, to transmit the whole of what it receives,

to oppose to every action an equal and contrary reaction, to

be,  in short, merely a road by which pass, in every direction,

the modifications, propagated throughout the immensity of the

universe. (28)

A virtual body seems to fulfill these requirements. Could we possibly think of it also in terms of the Leibniz-inspired-Deleuzian folds?  It seems quite fascinating to consider a virtual self in a virtual environment as a type of “irreducible foldings” of the body – as an example of development that “does not go from smaller to greater things through growth or augmentation, but from the general to special” (The Fold, 10), thus suggesting the possibility of a more inclusive notion of “body” and, consequently, “selfhood” than the “common sense” approach allows us now?

One of the troubling things in discussions of virtual bodies and I think virtuality in general, is that the relationship of the virtual body as it is linked to the mind is just one of the connections between the material world and the world of ideas (this is probably a terrible term for it – I’m still pretty shaky on all the philosophical terms that have been presented). There are also the relationship of the code that creates virtual worlds to the experience of the world that is created, the hardware through which we experience them and the networks that deliver them. I think these virtual experiences are experiences that are very much mediated experiences in ways that aren’t immediately apparent to the senses. So, like Ieva, I don’t think you can describe a virtual body as a one-on-one extension of a physical body.  I also thought the Liebniz/Deleuzian folds model was an interesting way to describe this relationship in that there is a “corresponence and even a communication between the two levels, between the two labyrinths, between the pleats of matter and the folds in the soul.” (The Fold, 4)  However, I think in this case matter is far more pleated than it initially appears.

Another angle to approach abnormality that I’m interested in is the way we use technology to treat it abnormal minds. There are whole industries devoted to providing software solutions for disorders that drew Bergson’s interest such as aphasia. A quick google search on “aphasia software” revealed a page full of therapeutic options such as http://www.sentenceshaper.com/, http://www.parrotsoftware.com/, etc. They seem to approach disorders by changing the patient’s experience with the material world.  For example, sentence shaper does so by “slowing down the clock” and allowing patients to record and play back parts of sentences and build these parts into sentences by moving icon’s around.  Thus, Bergson’s “confusion” directly becomes viewed as a problem of mediation.

This is fascinating. I wonder what Bergson would think of this approach? [I tried to download a trial copy of the software to understand better how it works, but it wasn’t compatible with my operating system.] I also wonder (following from your point in the following paragraph), what might happen if we began to move away from the heavily-privileged pharmaceutical approach to so-called mental illness and emotional disorders as problems of a strictly “cerebral” nature and looked more at the interface between these individuals (minds / bodies) and the material world. What would the equivalent of the “sentenceshaper” software look like if it were designed for a person suffering from depression? What might be the implications of approaching “treatment” as mediation?

That’s a really interesting question. I just googled “depression software” and am a little terrified to find out that such software exists. They tend to follow a “cognitive therapy” model, which encourages users to be aware

of their symptoms and design their own treatment plans based on their recommendations.  So, it’s sort of like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure self-help book. There is an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry     that finds them efficacious in reducing the amount of treatment time needed with an actual therapist, but definitely recommends using them in concert with an actual human therapist. I have some mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, you do have something that might be empowering people to take more responsibility for their mental health. On the other hand, I have a gut reaction of “ugh.” It does seem a little creepy to be talking to a computer about your feelings. To give you an example of what I mean, here’s a quote of sample text from an article describing one of these programs (downlodable as a pdf here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11977785?dopt=Abstract)

Program: We were talking about

your depressed feelings. What else can you tell me

about them?

User: I have been down in the

dumps now for six months.

Program: It must be a burden to feel

so depressed.

User: It is. I feel like I’m drown-

ing in a swamp.

Program: What in particular de-

presses you?

User: Mornings. I can’t get out

of bed in the morning.

Program: It must be hard to get up

when you have nothing to

look forward to.

User: Right. I hate the idea of

going to work.

Program: What in particular don’t

you like about your work?

User: I have a dead-end job. I

don’t know which way to turn.

Program: What makes you feel you

can’t do anything about

your situation?

User: I feel helpless to change


Program: Some of your feeling of

helplessness comes from a

misjudgment that there is

nothing you can do on

your own to improve your


I don’t know. I just can’t help but read the program part of the text in the voice of HAL from 2001.


On the other hand, for Spinoza’s fools and madmen that hang themselves, an overwhelming amount of the resources spent treating the depressed or mentally ill pharmaceutically – physically changing the chemical makeup of their brain (body) in order to treat their mind. OK, so the last part may stray from a discussion of digital media. But I find it interesting/troubling that on one hand we have all of these very mediated experiences (virtuality, software solutions to brain disorders, etc) that we don’t consider the physicality of at all.  Yet our treatment of something like depression or psychosis that many would consider belongs purely to the mental realm, involves an incredibly physical, materialist solution. What does this say about the relationships between our minds, our bodies, and the physical world? Do they intersect in complicated ways that we haven’t been able to fully describe? Is it completely muddled?


~ by erinand on September 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “On the universe, (ab)normal bodies, and the voice of HAL”

  1. I have to say that I am somewhat disturbed by this notion of treating mental difficulties through virtual means, especially “illnesses” (depression, anxiety) which almost always have a cause/effect in the realm of social relation (such things are difficult to differentiate properly) rather than strictly neurological problems (aphasia and others). I think the problem relates to this idea of virtual vs. real bodies in the digital world, and what exactly a virtual existence is, a separate body, an extension of the physical body, an extension of mind, etc. Why is it that in a world where almost everywhere has a substantial virtual presence, often characterized by extensive connections to other virtual presences (particularly on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter), that (according to some important group who did some study that I cannot remember right now), 85% of college freshmen polled said that they feel misunderstood and alone? If virtual bodies act on other virtual bodies, and those bodies are attached to physical bodies, why are the effects on the mind from virtual interaction so different in the virtual world than in the “real” world? Simply, why does someone with 500 Facebook friends feel alone?

  2. I think the idea of Facebook as a virtual world is an interesting one. What is virtual and what is real? How does your identity online differ from your “real life” persona?

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