27 July 2005

War on Isolation

I had a fascinating conversation with a visiting researcher the other day. Coming (I believe) from a partially theological ground, she is investigating the relationship between the mind-body connection, the nature of identity, and in particular, what happens when that embodiment is severed, as occurs via instantaneous communication technologies. She refers to McLuhan’s observation and commentary on the subject, that can be found in his book War and Peace in the Global Village; an inventory of some of the current spastic situations that could be eliminated by more feedforward, and in some of his Letters:
On the telephone, or on the air, man is in every sense discarnate, existing as an abstract image, a figure without a body. The Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland is a kind of parallel to our state. When discarnate, man has no identity, and is not subject to natural law. In fact he has no basis for morals of any sort. As electric information moved at the speed of light, man is a nobody [“no body”]. When deprived of his identity, man becomes violent in diverse ways. Violence is the quest for identity. (Letter to Clare Boothe Luce, 5 April, 1979
Does this, she wondered, explain the rise in violence – particularly terrorist violence – and will the situation get worse as an increasing proportion of the population engages in electronic disembodiment?

One can make the relatively straight-forward connection between McLuhan’s comments on body-mind-identity-violence on the one hand, and his devout Catholic practice on the other. For example, the “talk he never gave” – because days before he was to give a talk to St. Michael’s College students in the fall of 1979 he suffered the stroke that robbed McLuhan of his speech – was to be entitled, “Discarnate Man and the Incarnate Church.” But I would suggest probing this body-mind-identity connection to see if McLuhan himself may have missed something.

If we consider medium and message in the McLuhan sense as I have interpreted them, the mind-body connection producing identity can be considered the figure of the medium, that to which we obviously pay attention. The message, on the other hand, or ground effects, are something else altogether. I would suggest, as a probe, that we consider the process of connection between mind and body as the source of identity, with identity being an emergent property of that process of interaction, rather than stemming from mind or body alone. In the former case, as the body is obsolesced under conditions of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity – the body becoming an objet d’art or recreational form – the mind is disconnected from the body as McLuhan suggests, and discarnate man loses his identity and embarks on an amoral quest for identity, leading to violence.

However, with pervasive proximity in which we are all connected to one another, the process of mind-body interaction is replaced by mind-mind interaction, from which a new form of identity can begin to emerge. While it may be significantly different than our previous notion of identity (that ties closely to "Gutenbergian" individuality), it is a form of identity nonetheless - a most exciting form about which we are only beginning to learn through its emergent culture (for example, this). Rudimentary versions of this new form of identity can be understood in terms of one’s digital persona, or in more complex fashion as the digiSelf. However, more exciting and interesting forms occur when they emerge from global, trans-modal interactions.

What this line of reasoning suggests is that it is not simply the aspect of becoming discarnate that threatens identity and engenders violence. Rather, it is isolation that does the damage. When processes of interaction are blocked, identity is lost, an violence ensues, whether it occurs in an individual or in a group.

The idea that identity is socially constructed is not new. The “self” as defined “in relation” is a foundation of contemporary feminist theory, for example. However, isolation of figure from ground that in turn precludes meaning does explain the importance of considering identity or self as socially constructed. It is the isolation that disconnects the process of engagement and interaction – be it among body(ies), mind(s) or context(s) in the world – from which violence is created. For a group, this means that isolating the group from the ground (context) of society at large, destroys that group’s identity-in-relation, and this inevitably leads to violence.

Thus, the ill-begotten “war on terror” should more rightly be restructured into a “war” on isolation. And most certainly, that one is not fought with guns, bombs, death, destruction and vengeance.

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