"Cavity Sam" and the Clinical Gaze

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In 1964, University of Illinois industrial design student John Spinello invented the classic Milton Bradley game Operation. Currently made by Hasbro, his invention carries an estimated franchise worth of $40 million even though Spinello sold it to MB for a mere $500. The game features the cartoon-looking patient “Cavity Sam” lithographed atop an operating table in which there are a number of cavities filled with plastic figures of silly ailments, such as Brain Freeze, Writer’s Cramp, and Water on the Knee. The objective? Players must “operate” on Sam by removing the ailments with a metallic pair of tweezers, taking care not to touch the metal edges of the cavities. Should the tweezers bump the edge, Sam’s red bulb nose lights up and a startling electric buzz zaps the player. But, should the player successfully avoid the edge of the cavity opening, he or she earns cash just as a doctor or specialist would--$1000 for the Bread Basket, double if the player holds a Specialist card. Evidenced here is Michel Foucault’s notion of the “clinical” or “medical gaze.” Essentially, the progressive development of knowledge about the human body has led to modern society’s profound trust in medicine to cure disease and save lives, thus rendering medical knowledge powerful and valuable. Operation signifies the gaze in action—the body is simultaneously dehumanized by the medical separation of the patient’s body from his or her whole person or identity (i.e. the disease not the person is treated), and the body serves as a “cash cow” that sustains (and bloats) the healthcare market. See how the Specialist earns more, and governments use medical knowledge for capital gains. Global healthcare expenditures, for instance, are projected to reach $8 trillion dollars by 2020 in order to meet the increase in life-threatening ailments, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes. We could question why, with all this progressive medical knowledge, such diseases are on the rise instead of the decline. Or, we can keep playing games. Whatever the choice, think on Foucault’s words: “Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has power to make itself true.” And, remember, despite Cavity Sam’s anatomy, the human body has no Wish Bone.

Bodies Make the World Go 'Round

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At this post-intelligence moment in human history, if we asked Americans who is the greatest philosopher of love the answer might be Matthew Hussey, bestselling author of Get The Guy: Learn Secrets of the Male Mind to Find the Man You Want and the Love You Deserve, or perhaps Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider authors of that singularly successful Bible of man-hunting, The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. But for those old-schoolers out there, Plato is the man. For Plato, “The Rules” of love were all about the body, the beautifully proportioned and moving body. According to Plato, humans are attracted to each other because we literally fall in love with our lover’s body ratios. Here is the theory: Having learned the mystical qualities of numbers from that great romantic from the island of Samos, Pythagoras, Plato would develop the theory that love is more or less grounded on bodily proportions, and, most importantly, on the effective movement of well-proportioned bodies. This was literally of cosmic significance given that Plato, thanks again to Pythagoras, believed that the beautiful movements of the human body were synchronically connected to the movements of the soul which in turn were in concord with the movements of the heavenly bodies, which of course were effectively and harmoniously moved by that primordial mover, the One (God). If you notice the musical connotations here, that is not accident. Plato made the grand connection between the movements of human bodies and souls with those of the macrocosm through a great analogy of musical harmonies and concord. Plato got this idea also from Pythagoras who had identified the secrets of music as proportional ratios supposedly while loitering about in a shop in Samos sometime around 590 BC. Plato would go on to articulate these ideas in many of his most romantically inclined bestselling dialogues, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus in particular. Basically, when we fall in love we are literally attracted to and desirous of the lover’s beautiful bodily proportions which move beautifully and thus move us. That is, the lover’s body moves our soul, and this “vibration” is ideally in harmony with the proportions of the heavenly bodies. This corporeal musicality would be called the Great Chain of Being or the Music of the Spheres. Plato would say that in the end what we really desire when we are in love, what we are actually attracted to, is the One given that we simply want to be together with that primordial Lover, God, our ultimate soulmate. Thus, Platonic love is really the wish to un-forget (what Plato called anamnesis) that we were once in concord, corporeally, with God. It’s all about being moved to be with God. Love is the calling to be moved back into the body of God. That’s why we say, love makes the world go ‘round, because according to Plato, it literally does.

Body Language(s)

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Before words, our bodies speak through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and touch. We can shirk or shrink to become small, even invisible. Or we can expand our bodies to command power or intimidate others. Yet, the language of the body isn’t limited to these nonverbal cues. Dance, for instance, is a universal element of culture. While the aesthetics and roles of dance may vary across societies, its ubiquity suggests it derives from natural instinct. Looking back, bodily gesture was the primordial human communication, and all ritual began with dancing as the bodily compliment to music. In ancient cultures, dance was always a way to make the life force present as a reminder of death. One of the first known dance rituals was the dance-praise ritual to Osiris, the resurrected god of life-death in ancient Egypt, a ritual meant to animate his eternal spirit.

Other movement practices, like yoga and tai chi, work to transcend barriers between the physical and spiritual, body and mind. Originating in India as early as the 6th century BCE, yoga is an austere Hindu spiritual discipline that requires adopting specific body postures, breath control, and meditation. Practiced in the West mostly for health and relaxation, yoga at its root intends to release suffering. Through breath and the transitions between movement and stillness, it intends to raise and expand consciousness from the individual self to being coextensive with everyone and everything. Tai chi, the Chinese martial art said to have developed in the 12th century, similarly opens pathways in the body, allowing “qi” (the life force) to flow freely for good health and the practitioner to respond to outside forces with appropriate change. So too, dance is thought to offer health and healing benefits through its communicative, physical, and emotional expression. What’s more, these body languages illustrate a cosmic knowledge latent within all of us. We just have to be willing to learn.

 

The 2016 premiere of The OA presented audiences with a five-movement dance sequence that, when done "with perfect feeling,” is the key to healing sickness (in individuals and in societies), resurrecting the dead, and opening a pathway to another plane of existence. The significance of such movements may seem unclear to Westerners, but perhaps that’s due to cultural values that pressure us to live in our minds instead of in our whole beings.

Sorry, Leonardo Was Correct (Again!): The Body Is a Perfect Machine

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That doggedly curious Milanese jack-of-all-trades, Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps our first great scientist, believed that the human body was a great machine designed by the greatest designer of all time, God (as he would put it “Il corpo é una macchina perfetta”). Nonetheless, humans have continued to view the technologization of the body as a Frankenstein-like aberration of nature. For humans, the more benign and comforting idea is to see technology as but a supplement, a prosthetic extension of the “natural” body. But, as we take on the biotechnological possibilities of posthumanism, we need to take heed of historical and philosophical arguments that confirm Leonardo’s discoveries. When humans become cyborgs, we will simply be a different type of machine because, as Leonardo showed us, we have always been machines. At the core of this notion is the idea that to be human is grounded on scratching. This great discovery was made by our modern version of Leonardo da Vinci, that great Algerian jack-of-all-possibilities, Jacques Derrida.

Derrida’s deconstruction of the privileged position of speech over writing was based on his critique of presence. According to Derrida, nothing is actually ever present for two key reasons, one ontological and the other linguistic. Ontologically, nothing is ever present because at no moment in time is anything, including the subject of perception, ever ontologically static; nothing is ever at an absolute standstill. All matter throughout the universe is always already changing, developing, and moving; therefore, nothing can be said to be but can only be said to be at a state of becoming. Nothing ever is in terms of time and space given the physical flux of the material universe. Moreover, in terms of language, the irreducible code for human representation, nothing is also ever present given the constant and infinite movement between signifier and signified. Speech, since Plato, has been viewed as more truthful than writing because speech is understood an immediate expression of the idea present in the mind, whereas writing is removed from the presence of the actual thought, making it, literally, an after-thought.[1]  That such a view would of course privilege the mind over the body is clear, most significantly for Derrida, from Descartes to Husserl. But this deconstruction is not the end of the story.

When Derrida then articulates the notion of the trace as the essence of writing—writing as γρᾰ́φω (gráphō) “to scratch, to cut,” he was not simply applying etymological precision but was uncovering the basic function of the human body.[2] As his student Bernard Stiegler argues, the zero-point of the human is what he does to involve himself in the physical environment, technics.[3] As no other species, humans do not simply make tools but make tools to produce other tools. As such, humanity is essentially technological in that the human and the technological have always coevolved. To be human is to be technological and the medium, the media, of this co-evolutionary relation is the body and as such the body is thus the ontological condition of humanization itself. I am embodied, therefore I am.

 

[1] “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago, 1981), pp. 61-171.
[2] Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1976).
[3] Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. George Collins and Richard Beardsworth (Stanford, 1998).