Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dotted Lines and Fountain Diagrams in Descartes's "Treatise on Man."

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dotted Lines and Fountain Diagrams in Descartes's "Treatise on Man."

Article excerpt

Adding to a body of work that revisits the outdated idea of Cartesian dualism, this close reading of illustrations and the fountain automata in Rene Descartes's Treatise on Man shows that whether early modern or contemporary metaphors, we still use similar diagrams to describe identity.

Early in the first volume of his Treatise on Man (1664), and alluding to a tradition dating back to Plato, Rene Descartes imagines man to be like a fountain, its soul the engineer stationed at the valves, opening and closing them at will; its body the various tubes and levers through which water flows, imitating the fluids of humours and spirits coursing through our veins and arteries. (1) With this powerful image of a hydraulic fountain automaton, Descartes illustrates the dualism between soul and body that informs much of his works, a seemingly radical binary that has become the most recognizable aspect of Descartes's thought to scholars outside the field. His text continues to frustrate our post-humanist efforts to find alternatives to such radical binaries: mind-body, self-other, subject-object, and so on. Today, we try to remap the subject and confront such strong binaries. As Brian Massumi writes in Parables for the Virtual, we favour "theories privileging notions of hybridity, bordering and border culture, and queering attempt to [...] [valorize] the in-between" (69). We want new maps to replace the old. In that process either we are post-humanists, and somehow better for it; or we are not, we are Cartesian.

I have no problems speaking for myself here: Je suis cartesienne. I certainly feel that I am me, not you reading this; even with a strong practice in partner dancing and as much as I deeply believe that there is a hybrid "in-between" structuring both of us, I cannot but feel that my mind resides inside my body and that the world occurs somewhere "out there," beyond the sheath that is my skin.

I come to Descartes's work as a French reader familiar with the Discourse on Method, the Meditations, the Treatise on Man, and Optics; as a translator who enjoys exploring the open-endedness of words and meanings; and as a literary critic who finds in Descartes's text puzzling fault lines that confront cliched descriptions of a binary "Cartesian." Such a reading of Descartes, in itself, is nothing new. Ever since John Cottingham's argument for Cartesian trialism ("Cartesian") pointing to a hybrid mind-body function in Descartes's theory of mind, an increasing body of work is Reading Descartes Otherwise, as the title of Kyoo Lee's book suggests. This essay bridges different fields and adds to that growing scholarship of a less binary, more nimble Descartes.

A cursory reading of Descartes could easily give the impression that these hydraulic fountain descriptions are overly "rational"; but first we need some scientific historical context to remember that early modern metaphors such as Descartes's fountain automata were symptomatic of a new ontology of man in which our very life force emerged not from an all-powerful God but from a mechanistic framework of the material world. Laws of physics governed not only all matter, but also man's body and its humours and, by extension, thought, reason, and all mental representations. As Brian S. Baigrie has pointed out, mechanics was the structuring language of neoclassical epistemology: "[science] employs no other concepts than those found in mechanics--geometrical concepts such as shape, size, and quantity, which are employed by mechanics as a department of mathematics, and motion, which forms its specific subject" (97). The language of all sciences was for Descartes the language of classical physics. His contemporaries and many of his successors developed this line of inquiry, such as with Julien Offray de La Mettrie's Man Machine, and materialist physiologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But there was nothing novel in Descartes's mechanizing physiology. …

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