Biotechnology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics

By Paul E. Brodwin | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Computerized Cadavers
Shades of Being and Representation in Virtual Reality

THOMAS J. CSORDAS

One way to address the question of what it means to be human is to begin with the observation that we have a world and inhabit a world. The inquiry unfolds under its own weight from this point, with the next set of questions necessarily having to do with how worlds (for they are always multiple) are constituted, what it means to have them, and how we inhabit them. In contemporary society, biotechnology, one of the central concerns of this volume, is increasingly implicated in transforming the bodily conditions for having and inhabiting any world. This is doubly the case when biotechnology includes sophisticated computer applications, since computers and computer networks are recognized as having enormous transformative potential. Indeed, psychologist Sherry Turkle has suggested important modulations of the self are in the making, and the philosopher Michael Heim has proposed that the computer is leading to a major ontological shift—a modulation in the structure of human reality.

Elaborating the cultural consequences of biotechnology applications of the computer with respect to the having and inhabiting of worlds requires, in my view, what can be called a cultural phenomenology (“Embodiment,” Embodiment, Sacred Self). For present purposes, the critical feature of such an approach is focus on the interplay between cultural representations and cultural modes of being-in-the-world. Much recent cultural analysis privileges the pole of representation, with culture understood as constituted by symbols, signs, and images. From this standpoint, textuality is the most prominent metaphor guiding the interpretation of culture, and the world is not so much inhabited as represented in a way that can be read. While interpretively powerful, however, the notion of textuality is less apt for specifying cultural modes of being-in-the-world—that is, the kinds of engagement and participation of humans in our worlds—than is the complementary notion of embodiment. This notion places us at once at the most general and limiting condition of our existence. Our bodily existence, or embodiment, is from this viewpoint understood to have a range of potential experiential modalities in relation to features of cultural and historical context.

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