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Noe, Damasio and Stelarc

Damasio believes consciousness can be found in the brain stem and therefore that the outside world is largely determined by the brain. Noe believes consciousness is largely found outside of the brain (holistic and action-based) and is determined by our interaction with the outside world. While their arguments are fundamentally different, there is a lot of overlap between them.

Damasio and Noe both recognize the importance of the outside world on the brain. Damasio believes that the self changes and evolves in accordance with the outside world. On numerous occasions, Damasio draws attention to the porous boundary between self/world. His theory of mapping relies on this openness and he argues that as the world becomes more complex, our consciousnesses adapt to this complexity. This is why human consciousness is advanced but not totally unique.

While this sense of openness is peripheral in Damasio (compared to Noe, not compared to most neuroscience), it is central to Noe’s argument. Noe contends that it is because of the porousness of the self/world boundary that consciousness cannot be “located” in the traditional sense. If consciousness is determined by the outside world, and the world itself has agency (not a product of our conception), consciousness is process-oriented. It cannot be grasped because it is in a perennial state of change with the natural world.

The aspects of Self Comes to Mind that appeal to me most are central in Out of Our Heads. What I love about Noe’s thesis is that there is no origin for consciousness; the origin itself is derivative and fluid. In the past I have mostly studied the self through cultural/critical studies & history of consciousness studies. Noe’s theory that brain-bound consciousness is a long held prejudice seems very plausible to me. I think Noe titled the book Out of Our Heads because his task is to expose both that consciousness is not in our heads and that we should move beyond our insular prejudices.

Noe’s theory open ups up an interesting ideological space. The question “What is consciousness” is not only a scientific question but a moral one as well. When the self/world boundary is radically opened up, other boundaries open as well. Man/woman, human/animal, nature/culture, subjective/objective, self/other. Blurring boundaries often means increasing our responsibility to other people and to nature. I say people because if the self is not sovereign, it is constructed through others. I say nature because Noe’s theory is particularly adverse to anthrocentrism. If objects of the natural world make human consciousness, they are not passive resources that simply exist for human exploitation. Noe says: “We are not autonomous. We are in the world and of it” and I agree.

Has anyone heard of the performance artist Stelarc? He is a scientifically-trained “post-human” performance artist. He does suspension performance art, which creates leaky sites throughout his body. He literally and metaphorically opens the self/world boundary. He also does this by reconfiguring his body. In his most recent work, Ear on Arm, he is in the process incorporating a fully functioning ear onto his forearm. Like Sur’s experiment with neural rewiring (Noe, 53), Stelarc aims to demonstrate that human nature, including what we consider to be crucial to consciousness is malleable. At the moment, Stelarc has only a relief of an ear on his arm but his next planned surgery will involve implanting a miniature microphone with wireless Internet capability, making the ear capable of hearing and transmitting sound. After this stage is complete, he plans to integrate “an extended and distributed Bluetooth system” in which both the speaker and receiver will be located inside his mouth. His description of this project is compelling:

If you were to telephone me on your mobile phone, I could speak to you through my ear, but I would hear your voice ‘inside’ my head. If I keep my mouth closed only I will be able to hear your voice. If someone is close to me and I open my mouth, that person will hear the voice of the other coming from this body, as an acoustical presence of another body from somewhere else (http://stelarc.org)

Stelarc’s intention in this performance is to “connect [his] body to a global, distributed awareness” as he perceives his body as “an extended operational system — extruding its awareness and experience.”

Stelarc has “moved beyond the skin as a barrier” and claims, “skin no longer signifies closure.” By duplicating, transferring and reconfiguring various bodily parts and functions and by implicating bodies together, or what Stelarc refers to as deconstructing and reassembling “evolutionary architecture,” he exposes the fluidity and changeability of the body. Current realities and possibilities regarding the integration of technology and the body exposes that evolution is driven not simply by natural determinism but by desire in movement. The work of Stelarc and Noe disrupt teleological models of evolution and therefore contradict Damasio’s thesis. For instance, if Noe is correct that consciousness is fluid and has no origin, Stelarc’s post-human body is also a pre-human body. If the body has always been determined by the outside world, even the cyborg body, which marries technology and flesh, does not represent something new about the body but represents something that has always been true.

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3 Responses to Noe, Damasio and Stelarc

  1. Hi Amber,
    Stelarc reminds me of the plastic surgery ORLAN has had done. As I am planning on a performace piece I am excited to learn about Stelarc and the way he blurs interior/exterior, “nature” and technology. I think exploring the liminal spaces between genders, the body and the public, the acceptable and the taboo can illuminate maybe-false boundaries.

  2. Hi Amber,
    I had the same reaction about Damasio and Noe. Despite their opposing arguments, they seem to have much in common by the way they refer to each other’s domains. Damasio, being a neuroscientist, builds his argument using the knowledge of his discipline as its foundation. His discipline imposes a natural limit to the scope of his argument. Thus the moment he starts talking about the social cultural homeostasis, he flounders. Noe meanwhile is unlikely to spearhead new discoveries in neuroscience to support his argument as this is not his expertise. Although philosophy has some leeway when it comes to viewing knowledge across disciplines, it cannot venture deep to the point of meddling with science. Thus Damasio and Noe’s arguments are shaped by how their backgrounds dictate or rather limit their approach to the problem. I can imagine a fusion of their arguments, with some heavy compromises on both sides, to produce a third hypothesis that would describe the inner workings of the brain from Damasio’s perspective and place it within Noe’s consciousness-shaping environment. Another point to make out of Damasio and Noe’s approach is that the mystery of consciousness forces us to break loose from the divisions of scientific disciplines. Part of this problem may stem from trying to describe something with the very thing one is trying to describe, that is using consciousness to explain consciousness. We do not have an objective vantage point to view consciousness, no subject-object relationship on which empirical knowledge is gained through the scientific way. In this sense I agree with you that Noe has an advantage over Damasio because of his philosophy background.
    As for Stelarc. I have not heard of him. While I admire his craziness in the name of art, I am not sure whether the knowledge we glean about ourselves through his performance is worth the damage he does to his body.

  3. Jason Tougaw says:

    Stelarc sounds like he’d make a great research project–perhaps a multimedia one.

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