Bodies Without Skin: Feeling Out of a Ubiquitous Future

Theory Beyond the Codes

Bodies Without Skin

Feeling Out of a Ubiquitous Future

Deontological theorizing in critical cultural theory might begin with a gesture to Jacques Derrida (1997/2008), who rejects the traditional Western philosophical view of the human as an independent, rational creature able to grasp the world “as such” and contemplates what it means to be human following his proclamation, “there is no pure and simple ‘as such.'” [1] It might begin with Gilles Deleuze (1962/1998) who steps beyond the semiotic emphasis in poststructuralism to dance within his own melody of bodies, capacities, forces, and trajectories in material processes of Becoming, joining with the ancient Sophists in mocking the great philosophers spending all day asking, “what is it?” [2] From there, a discussion of deontological theorizing might move to Donna Haraway (2003) who argues that “there are no pre-constituted subjects or objects, and no single sources, unitary actions, or final ends.” [3] Or, it might rehearse Cary Wolfe (2003) who explores how the circular, recursive workings of the embodied consciousness in Maturana’s work in cognitive science reveals an originary lack, and thus, no ontological basis. [4] These various starting points represent different approaches and concerns, yet they gather together in the development of a post-Deleuzian analytic wherein material sets of unstable “bodies” co-develop and alter each other amid intermediating semiotic structures, a form of thought explicitly intended to embrace an ecological approach and, thereby, resist all essentialisms and humanisms. The characteristics of this analytic are codetermination, a focus on heterogeneous collections of affecting and affectable “bodies,” a mapping of relations, and a liberatory ethics for all that is identified as living. [5]

If this essay can wrap an artificial skin around a post-Deleuzian deontological “body” of thought that, admittedly, has many “sub-bodies,” then a discussion of Wolfe might initiate a discussion of the contingency of the very concept of Deleuzian “bodies” following Wolfe’s insights into Maturana’s assertion that “the bodyhood of those in language changes according to the flow of their languaging, and the flow of their languaging changes contingently to the changes in their bodyhood.” [6] In other words, Wolfe understands that critical cultural theory cannot adequately account for an ever-contingent and shifting scaffold of meaning without a more detailed discussion of the materiality that resides within that scaffold; thus, any discussion from a deontological point of view would benefit from closer attentiveness to the forms and flows of materiality. Drawing from Maturana implies that Wolfe recognizes the biological body as one material entity involved in the referential condition of all “bodies” or in the organization of those “bodies” as Deleuzian “bodies.” Even so, Wolfe’s efforts are largely directed toward reinforcing the radical deontological stance, not toward skinning it to think about its material dependencies or to think about the possibilities of eroding a regime of post-Deleuzian thought through attention to significant bio-technological alterations now happening to the brain-body, which is so often conceptualized today, as Brian Massumi (2002) puts it, as the always indeterminate activity of sensory combinations of “bodies” characterized by movement and rest. [7]

This essay argues that thinking about the role of biological skin in the formation of human subjectivity and the current impetus to bio-technologically “re-skin” the human body through the development of a sensual and sensing ubiquitous domain can challenge the efficacy of an analytic founded on heterogeneous collections of “bodies” in a post-Deleuzian mode. To make the case, this essay first challenges Mark Hansen’s description of “the skin ego” as a passing of the subjectivity through the body and re-situates the emergence of a subjectivity in childhood as a “bursting forth” from the material affordances of skin/s. This subtle shift is intended to exhume for discussion the skin dependencies of bodies in understanding themselves as bodies and in conceptualizing the world-as-world. After establishing the importance of skin, the essay then asserts that multiple skins in a ubiquitous, bio-compatible, mutually developmental environment causes an unprecedented shift in the formation and awareness-capacities of human subjectivity. Characterized by collectivity and immediacy, this shift leads to a situation of “exceedingly complex emergability” where the traces of “bodies” coming together disappear as no individual can trace or detect how, where, or why its affects are produced or what its affecting scope might be. The essay ends by arguing that greater complexity and dependence on the immediate coming together of Whatever Anywhere all the time in a ubiquitous “pure presencing,” indicates a problem in deontological theory with an analysis developed from X subject’s identification of affecting and affectable “bodies.”

Skinning the Skin-Ego

Conceptions of the “skin ego” by both Didier Anzieu and Mark Hansen illuminate a discussion of the material dependencies of human subjectivity. Anzieu appeals to human skin as a materialist origin for the processes most inherent to, and responsible for, the very existence of poststructuralist narratives about meaning-making, which assert no origin of meaning “as such,” only historical relations. Anzieu argues that life opens “on the basis of its experience of the surface of its body.” [8] Here, he employs the word “its” likely because IT made the point, i.e. children had no world until their bodies allowed them to recognize their bodies-as-bodies, until life opened through the felt-experience of the surface of their bodies in the instantiation of an inside-outside. Only then, from that skin-experience, could they structure the scaffold of relations and move within historical lines and maps.

Following Anzieu, Mark Hansen (2006) asserts that the experience of the “skin-ego,” as Anzieu calls it, is “the most primordial locus and expression of the indifferentiation of the biological and the psychical marked and overcome by the function of the anaclisis.” [9] The “anaclisis” that Hansen employs refers to Freud’s concept of a leaning psyche. The skin, in brief, is thought in this Freudian explanation to function to “prop up” the psyche such that Hansen can assert “the passage to exteriorization is only possible because of a passage within embodied being.” [10] Yet, the language of passages and passing that Hansen uses in his argument is somewhat misleading when speaking about the psyche and the body in the context of a child’s experience with ITs skin. And this makes all the difference to the stability of conditions under which Hansen works in the first place.

The problem lies in the assumption haunting the word “passage.” “To pass” insists on a passing subject who passes like a ghost through a wall. In the case of skin, however, the human subject exists out from skin and does not pass from a body to an exterior world; this is because there is no body for the child, no inside body nor exterior world, until the skin is felt. The psyche does not haunt the body as a structure it exists out of before it comes to exist. The body in that psyche-less space — no time or (poststructuralist) meaning can exist there — is nowhere, not even a ghost. There is no world where passing can be meaningful and, thus, where passers can pass. By saying “the passage to exteriorization,” Hansen assumes the material instantiation of skin somehow guarantees the existence of a meaning-making passage that will come to organize skin-as-skin — that is, biological skin as it is known and felt today — which will then prop up the psyche-as-psyche. The discussion fails to explore how bio-technological assemblages, over time, mediate, adjust, and engage the skin’s functioning and role in the biological body’s first instance of setting up the material “passaging” conditions in childhood for a subjective experience.

In other words, Hansen builds-in a difference between body and world by using the word “passing.” The grammatical nuance is not an insignificant one. Hansen’s languaging concretizes each body and world by treating the material of the body, namely skin, as a passage and not a coupling with world that bursts forth a sudden explosion of time and meaning that gives life to the material human-as-human and the world-as-world, a bursting dependent upon the convergences and compilations of the sensuous and sensing body-material. This bursting is THE happening of the consciousness, not a passing through, a living out from a possibility for entities and for recognition. In other words, Hansen speaks as if a subject who passes to exteriorization has skin-as-skin already installed such that a passing from some inside to some outside can occur, as it does today. But is it appropriate to assume this kind of “passing” will not pass away?

Re-Skinning the Human

The feeling in and through what elite technological “innovators” call an anytime, anywhere ubiquity of Whatever [11] de-skins bodies and re-skins them, forcing a re-thinking of bodies and skins and what skins can do and how they might burst forth conditions for meaning. This is not simply a discussion of a body-formation stage replacing the mirror-stage of Jacques Lacan. [12] This is much more radical and material. Indeed, if the “skin-ego” that is the bursting forth of skin-as-skin passes away from changed material conditions for what the sensing of the self is or might mean at the origins of self-formation, then one wonders what the passing to multiple skins or seamless skins will burst forth, and one wonders what a ubiquity of skins might do to the Other ghost in the haunting structure that concerns Foucault in Discipline and Punish. [13] What happens to the ghost of past suppressions that becomes visible because it was unable to be drowned out by the historical dependencies of new structures if new structures are forging Whatever from Anywhere anew all the time? This is a problem of knowledge that develops from immanence, which limits human awareness of the coming-together of things; magnitude of scale in a world of Whatever having the potential to affect Whatever in Whatever way; and speed.

Suffice it to say that human bodies will come to know themselves as bodies differently when bodies adjust to new bio-technological environments and become qualitatively different kinds of machinic assemblages. At that moment, the bursting forth of a subjectivity that knows itself as bounded, as meat, as organism, will be compromised in favour of understandings of integrated cross-platform architectures rather than anything that could be called “skin.” This is already the case to some extent today, as Andy Clark (2003/2008) attempts to show in his work on the Extended Mind [14]; however, new technologies may transform human skin-as-skin into wholly new skin or into a multiplicity of skins (in terms of their functions) both inside and outside that make a more foundational difference to the conceptualization of body and world in the formation of the subjectivity. In fact, if the ubiquitous drive is summarized as “physical integration and spontaneous interoperation” [15] that lets “services and systems become aware of each other without explicit human administration,” [16] striving for human-human, human-robot, human-Anything to share information, memory, and knowledge as a life-long means for human experience [17], then it is now conceivable that advances in cognitive neuroscience will combine with bio-compatible and biomolecular computing systems and allow for neural-based computing [18] and for electronic circuits to be deployed directly inside of living cells to do work below and before consciousness in the joint yet dispersed mutual production of experience. [19] This new assemblage of the human could burst forth a wholly different subjectivity, or none at all, as those systems are injected, employed, and embedded in the growth of the Whatever child.

The child, the Whatever in development as human, thus, becomes more of a contribution to the continuation of the sensual ubiquitous apparatus than a node. Indeed, the results of the current research into ubiquitous life already intend to reconfigure a human-world to be about more than merely sending and receiving; the goal is to co-create and manifest, to sense and be sensual in a movement of things together in a complex co-evolution (“emergability”). [20] This results in a de-privileging of thresholds and makes finding “bodies” a chore or wholly arbitrary. The Whatever child, one imagines, at that point, recognizes the insignificance of biological skin in binding together a primary set that defines it as an IT, yet at the same time, the child emerges from a system too diverse, complex, and immediate to be effectively mapped.

This imaginary is put forward without yet mentioning the swimming of nanotechnologies and nanoparticles, substances small enough to disturb skin boundaries, or rather, to exist in a world beyond skin-as-skin boundaries, a world of particles that may now implement reactions that “are physical manifestations of programs in a simple logic programming language” and, thereby, build unities between the synthetic and biological. [21] The collection and interweaving and informing of these material changes in the world may maintain the world as exterior, or they may move across that felt boundary, perhaps slowly eroding it in a new movement of life, perhaps leading to an existence that never consciously organizes the biological skin-as-skin in a skin-sensing of boundaries. Today, the skin-as-skin offers the very real but otherwise simplistic sense of interior and exterior that Deleuze (1992) poetically folds over on itself in The Fold [22] and Andy Clark (2008) strategically critiques in Natural Born Cyborgs. [23] But the simplistic sense of an interior and an exterior folds over on itself in both human languaging and materiality under the ubiquitous conditions of Whatever anywhere all the time.

Brian Rotman (2008) cogently envisions some limited loss of a unified subjectivity by thinking about the flourishing of networks in a world of integrated and compatible computation. He claims that this kind of social computing creates variable and unstable relations between the internal and the external:

since it is a machinic implementation, not of individual linear thinking but of distributed bio-social phenomena, of collective thought processes and enunciations, that cannot be articulated solely on the level of an isolated, individual self. Its effects are to introduce into thought, into the self, into the ‘I’ that engages its various forms, parallelist behavior, knowledge, and agency that complicate and ultimately dissolve the idea of a monoidal self. [24]

But further than this — in a more radical gradient — the assemblage called “human bodies” could, in the now imaginable future, cease to configure body-as-body and world-as-world in a new bio-technological sensing across time and space that would eradicate insides and outsides. The whole poststructuralist scaffold, dependent on certain folds of subjectivity, may fold over once again as the sensing technological world envelops the current iteration of self through a yet unexperienced bursting forth. The re-skinned may fold into ubiquity rather than transcend the ontological. The skin experience — that sudden bursting of the human subject appearing in the daylight of the world the moment the material body allows for the recognition of the touch as touching and toucher [25] — may burst forth again from a wide set of skins, this time breaking the skin-as-skin. And the long struggle against the ontological in deontological thinking that prefers the terms affecting and affectable as analytic tools for describing constitution as relations may find those relations that forge those collections called “bodies” slipping right through its fingers.

The Post-Deleuzian Analytic and the Washing Out of Bodies

If meaning-making is, today, at all dependent on a bodily experience of skin that allows for references to be made, then a bio-technological environment forged from the child and the Mother and the computer far away may burst forth what Victor Vitanza (2003) calls WHATEVER. For Vitanza, this term points to a “pure presencing” of meaning that is immediate and sensual, and he views it as a movement toward a “coming community of humanity.” [26] But if what Vitanza wants — like Haraway and Wolfe — is to view things in the world as “a set that is not a set, setless of radical singularities that are not in the realm of being but in the relation of being or presencing,” and if this desire is typified for Vitanza in the immediacy of things presenced through the digital, then it is important to consider that what might be felt through the material, technological enactment of this relation of being is not the hopeful “community of humanity.” [27] Instead, what might be felt is the totalizing loss of community orientation since any orientation toward a community remains dependent on an inside-outside (of the community) structure of thinking. Nothing “outside” remains inside or outside in the presencing of pure presencing. From the perspective of that which lives in pure presencing, all that lives at any moment is Whatever is presenced; it would not be prudent to assume that this experience of exceedingly complex emergability will not essentially alter the subjectivity that emerges. This new form of subjectivity will differ from the current one that views the world in terms of a semi-stable inside and outside, a community. Vitanza’s current longings for a blending and a joining may simply be irrelevant or ancient to a material ubiquity. On the one hand, this may be exactly what he desires, but on the other hand, this desire itself, effaces the necessity of reference in meaning-making and attempts to move past the role of the Self-Other in social and political critique by working from the amazing powers of the digital. A bio-technological ubiquity in its ultimate manifestation fails to allow its “users” (its emergences) to see where what is coming from or where what went, how what was composed, a care-less-ness for relations, an ineptness to say anything at all about constitution.

Of course, the wanting of this transformation to a complete coming-together, as Vitanza recognizes, is not generated independent of the compelling material shifts brought about by the digital or the drive to overcome the terrorization of liberal humanism; however, despite the reasons for the celebration of Whatever, this coming-together has not yet been seriously examined for how it cooperates with the Whatever systems produced by elite technological “innovators” or for how it calls into question the future efficacy of a post-Deleuzian deontological critique that starts with identifying affectable and affecting “bodies.” Diane Davis (2010) serves as a good example of the desire for a deontological Whatever that embraces technological transformation, and, thus, she allows for a further discussion of the problems associated with deontological thought faithful to a regime of “bodies.”

Davis hopes to bring together cultural theorists, neuroscientists, and psychologists around the notion that “the singular being is not enclosed in a form and cannot appear or even exist alone” but is “by definition shared,” always the limit, the “being as threshold” that presents or exposes itself as “an inappropriable outside that constitutes it, affects it, alters, prior to and in excess of symbolic intervention.” [28] For Davis, the recognition of a non-essentialist and dependent appearance responds to a fascist impulse in the “communication of the One to establish itself.” The solution to the dilemma she circulates here — the need to call out identity without imposing a “One” — is a recognition of the “compearance” or the mutual dependence in appearance that can foster a “rhetoric of responsibility” wherein the circumscribed entity exposes its own exposedness through a self-reflective awareness and reliance on its scaffold of appearance. [29] This solution, however better or ethical, can only be achieved out of material contingencies that themselves appear out of an ever-shifting scaffold, and this makes the point — advocating the identification of “bodies” in appearance may effectively undercut the labor to write the One identity, yet it, simultaneously, follows a larger technological movement that may eventually undercut the processes of writing the Many compearances of deontological theory.

In other words, like Vitanza, Davis seems to call for a realm of presencing that washes across and moves from within the technological drive to innovate new forms of integrating the sense capacities of the technological into Whatever is called human, but this integration, in turn, may accelerate a masking of Whatever comes together to make the human into Whatever it comes to be. Although Davis rightly seeks an “exposure” of the inappropriable outside to recognize its necessary role in the exposedness of Being-as-relation, the movement to celebrate the Many compearances might also cooperate with the continued splattering of bio-compatible, ubiquitous Whatever-devices that makes the act of exposing any appearance no longer so simple. In short, the turn to the affecting and affectable within a Deleuzian regime of “bodies” employed beneath the surface of Davis’ work privileges the view of a subject who exposes and can still expose its own relations, while the entwined presencing of the infrastructure being made sensual before and below the bursting forth of the subjective experience may well wash out the subject’s own view of the world.

Conclusion

If skinning the skin-as-skin through a collective and immanent bio-technologized skin-experience results in a different bursting forth of the subjectivity with different exteriorizations or none at all, then everything may become Whatever once and for all. At least, Whatever seems to be what is in want. But in the more radical and material imagination of the fulfillment of this desire for Whatever — which is a thoroughly technological wanting — the world becomes uniformly skin without skin-as-skin and without reference through the total loss of orientation. A blinding of referencing results from pure presencing. Embracing Whatever Anywhere all the time may not illuminate the processes of Being (Being-as-relations) or produce a liberation for the Self; rather, it may mask the processes of Being (Being-as-relations) in the material, technological alterations that result. The question I want to ask is: must an embrace of deontological theorizing be an embrace of the Whatever human? And if so, what is at stake?

In an information wash, Whatever may stir, but that form should not be expected to recognize the death of the subject. There may no longer be any Foucauldian ghosts lingering for the haunting — the ITs can move beyond that kind of IT-OTHER formation out of the very origins of a collective and immanent subjectivity that cannot get a grasp on its own history of experience. Then, Derrida may not say or may not care to say that all of life “is caught in a movement that we’ll call here that of the living, of life.” [30] Who or what, at that moment, could privilege life in such unrestrained movement? All that matters is the movement of Things, aware or unaware, given or gotten, and knowing by or from whom or what or why is quite insignificant. What, then, is the living? What isn’t affectable? Where are the affecting relations? What is history?

Notes

[1] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am. Ed. Marie-Louise B. Mallet. Trans. David Wills. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997/2008), 160.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), 89.

[3] Donna Haraway, The companion species manifesto. (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 6.

[4] Cary Wolfe, “In the shadow of Wittgenstein’s Lion: language, ethics, and the question of the animal.” In C. Wolfe (Ed.), Zoontologies: the question of the animal. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 46.

[5] Deleuze carries a discussion of “bodies” and “affect” in A thousand plateaus that proves influential to the establishment of an analytic for some theorists taking a posthuman deontological viewpoint embracing the importance of materiality and reaching beyond the focus that Jacques Derrida gave to the semiotic.

[6] Humberto Maturana, “Science and Daily Life: The ontology of scientific explanations” In W. Krohn et al,. Selforganization: portrait of a scientific revolution. (Dordrecht [Netherlands]: Reidel Publishing, 1980), 28.

[7] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: movement, affect, sensation. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 5-21.

[8] Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 40; Mark Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[9] Hansen, 62.

[10] Hansen, 62, italics in original.

[11] Mike Revett, Mike Knul, and Lee Stephens, “Network computing”, BT technology journal 15, no. 2 (1997): 172. Also See: Greg Vrana, “Pervasive computing: a computer in every pot”, EDN, 47, no. 3 (2002): 75.

[12] Jacques Lacan, “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience” 16th International Congress of Psychoanalysis, Zurich, July 17, 1949.

[13] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. (Vintage Press, 1977/1995), 198.

[14] Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. (New York: Oxford UP, 2003); Supersizing the Mind. (New York: Oxford UP, 2008).

[15] Armando Fox and Tim Kindberg, “System software for ubiquitous computing,” Pervasive Computing 1, no. 1 (2002): 70.

[16] Keith Edwards, “Discovery systems in ubiquitous computing,” Pervasive Computing, 5, no. 2 (2006): 70.

[17] Kenji Mase, Yasuyuki Sumi, Tomoji Toiyama, Megumu Tsuchikawa, Sadanori Ito, Shoichiro Iwasawa, Kiyoshi Kogure, and Norihiro Hagita, “Ubiquitous Experience Media,” Multimedia, IEEE, 13, no. 4 (2006): 20.

[18] Anas N. Al-Rabadi, “New dimensions in non-classical neural computing,” International journal of intelligent computing and cybernetics, 2, no. 2 (2009): 348.

[19] Clint Morgan, Darko Stefanovic, Cristopher Moore, and Milan Stojanovic, “Building the Components for a Biomolecular Computer,” DNA computing: 10th International Workshop on DNA Computing, DNA10, Milan, Italy, June 7-10 (2004): 247.

[20] Jian-Qin Liu, “An evolvable proteomic computing method for robust artificial chemistry systems,” Artificial life and robotics, 6, no. 3 (2002): 126.

[21] Darko Stefanovic, “Biomolecular computing: molecules that reason” Nature Nanotechnology 4, (2009): 625-626.

[22] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

[23] Clark, 2003.

[24] Brian Rotman, Becoming Beside Ourselves: The alphabet, ghosts, and distributed human being. (Duke University Press, 2008). 92.

[25] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception. (New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1962).

[26] Victor Vitanza, “Two Gestures, While Waiting for a Third” in: Mark Bousquet and Katherine V. Wills (Editors). TechnoCapitalism. Vol. 3 (2003). http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/libidinal (accessed on 24 April 2011).

[27] Ibid, para 10-19.

[28] Diane Davis, Inessential Solidarity: rhetoric and foreigner relations. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 6-12.

[29] Ibid, 6-8.

[30] Derrida, 160.

David Gruber’s research bridges the philosophy of technology, media history and rhetorical theory. He is interested in brain-body dynamics and the joint processes of sensing and making-sense. His work can be found in Visual Communication Quarterly, Media History and the journal POROI. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media Program at North Carolina State University.