The Body

Reinventing Humans

Here is the course description for my ENGL 1102 course this spring.

Any suggestions?

In this course, we will examine the commercial viability, social implications, and ethical consequences of posthuman technology that appears in selected science-fiction series.

Our social and cultural critiques of this technology will serve as inspiration for our own inventions to change the way humans interact with each other and with the material world.

During the first half of the semester, students will pitch ideas and designs for a new invention, focused primarily on the advantages to science and business.

During the second half of the semester, students will integrate these inventions into a science-fiction narrative that interrogates the social and ethical consequences of these technological advancements.

In our final reflection on these inventions, we will consider the ways in which these technologies might become a reality.

Dollhouse image courtesy of Bright Lights Film Journal

Mosquito Meditation

In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das addresses the problem of “meditation with mosquito.” He’s simply referring to the moment when we are deep in mediation practice and a mosquito, or any other irritating distraction, appears buzzing at our ear.

What do we do?

Of course our natural instinct is to swat it away or simply become upset at our distraction by it. Lama Surya, however, suggests simply focusing on the buzzing as a “vibration in your eardrum. Buzzzz. . .” Development of this response cultivates mindfulness, “where awareness saves you from responding to the mosquito, or anything else, with a knee-jerk reaction.”

While Lama Surya’s main teaching is centered on this idea of mindfulness, what I feel most inspired by is how he suggests a Buddhist saint might respond: “A Buddhist saint might wish that the mosquito finds a tender juicy spot, has a decent meal, and a safe flight home.”

Not only do I respond very heartfully to this notion, but I find that it’s not so very out of reach in the viscerality of my imagination. Now, if only every distraction in my life could be transformed into that mosquito buzzing in my imagination’s ear…

Combating Laziness

The Places That Scare YouPema Chodron identifies three kinds of laziness: comfort orientation, loss of heart, and “couldn’t care less.” Comfort orientation, in particular, she describes as our tendency to over accommodate our physical needs, such as by turning up the heat at the first sign of brisk weather, and by doing so, we “dull[] our appreciation of smells and sights and sounds.”

It’s interesting to think of “comfort” in this way–because, for example, it’s possible to actively create comfort for ourselves in lighting scented candles, opening a window to let a cool breeze in, baking cranberry-apple crisp in the oven. These creations of comfort actively stimulate the senses instead of dulling them.

However, the kind of comfort orientation that Pema Chodron is referring to is that which is not active. We might seek comfort by sleeping in late when it’s too stimulating to shock the body into its awakened state or comfort by staying inside instead of jogging to avoid exhaustion of the lungs. Both modes clearly point to comfort by remaining static, by avoiding ignitions of the nervous system and engagement of the body.

In making a clear distinction between these two kinds of comforts, we might better care for our bodies and souls. To realize when staying in, staying put, and therefore becoming static is a kind of deadening of the senses and deadening of life experience–rather than a kind of resting nourishment–can enlighten us to when we avoid living and the “rawness of emotional energy.”

"The World Out of Clothes"

Of course Teufelsdrockh’s Philosophy figures clothes – in one way at least – as the invisible fabric of society, but this passage – with its crude literal denunciation of clothes – does indeed convince us to desire a “world out of clothes,” though our German philosopher would have us believe we are nothing but an “air-image” in this “so solid-seeming World.”

From Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) [1832-3]:

“While I – Good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; some film of it, frayed away by tear and wear, must be brushed off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither, and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down. O subter-brutish! vile! most vile! For have not I too a compact all-enclosing Skin, whiter or dinger? Am I a botched mass of tailors’ and cobblers’ shreds, then; or a tightly articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?”

Technologies of the Individual

Classes began today. I’m teaching an introductory survey of English literature on the “Technologies of the Individual.” Here is the course description.

“Never judge a book by its cover.” A simple truth, and yet, our culture is driven by its obsession with creating “image.” Magazines and television shows teach us hair, styling, and exercise techniques directed at further shaping this image of ourselves, an image that will presumably reveal the “real you,” but nevertheless a reality that remains on the surface of the body, on the “cover.”

Similarly, when we think about identity and the individual, we might create a mental picture based on one’s personal style, professional identity, leisure activities, or, at a more sophisticated level, cultural markers of distinction (race, class, gender, sexuality).

But even as we attempt to invoke representations of a deeper nature, our perceptions of the individual remain largely externalized. We rarely invest ourselves in the machinery of the inner life of the individual.

What kind of portrait might we paint that imagines the breathless fears, pulsating desires, and remorseful thoughts that mark the inner spirit of the individual? One of our most coveted desires as human beings is to witness the soul of another human being; one of our greatest fears is that someone other will catch a glimpse of our own.

One of the appeals, then, of reading literature is that it provides access to the hidden and complex inner life of the individual. In this survey course, we will examine texts that enjoin the spiritual and mechanical spirit of the age with a dynamic exploration of selfhood. As critics, and as individuals, we will piece together a portrait of the inner lives we witness and also experience.

The reading list includes:

  • Thomas Carlyle. “Signs of the Times” and Sartor Resartus.
  • Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
  • George Eliot. The Lifted Veil.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.

I need c-o-f-f-e-e

I am completely “awed” by this video song performed in mummenschanz style:

The Coffee Song with Mr. Sketch-it

The Coffee Song was written by Ralph Covert, former indie bandmember of Bad Examples, and now children’s musician. He wrote and performed the song on the spot after he arrived at a musical event with a cup of coffee and encountered a group of mothers on edge, who were envious of the coffee and requested, at the very least, a “coffee song.” So he made one up, pleased the mothers, and now we have this haunting tune to hum every time we need coffee (kind of relaxes the itch in that space of need and satisfaction).

Awed Job, aka Mr. Sketch-it, takes this simple, innocent song and transforms it with haunting mummenschanz theatrics. With a homemade cardboard mask and three embedded digital video cameras, Awed Job combines child’s craft with technology and likewise transforms a children’s song into an adult masquerade with bulging digital eyes. I love it!

Also take a look at this video of the mummenschanz Swiss theater group in their guest appearance on the Muppet Show–I identify with the poor guy on the left. What I’d give to put my hands in those silly putty faces.