The Body Electric: Extending Soul into Cyberspace

by Andrew Neuendorf

Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a gorgeous and meditative exploration of a 25,000-year-old ceremonial cave in Southern France. In the clip below, the camera crew illuminates the walls and brings the intricate paintings to life, thereby simulating the cave’s likely function as a temple for ritualized mythopoetic imaginings:

This prehistorical cinema is not alien to us. We also project our longings whenever we descend into the darkness of the movie theater and root for superheroes or become entranced with hyper-real special effects. Myth is always ritual, Karen Armstrong reminds us in A Short History of Myth. Is there anything more ritualistic than buying a ticket, some popcorn, and sinking into a dark room for two hours of alternative reality, only to leave disoriented and squinting into the sun like an unchained man escaping Plato’s cave?

Surfing the internet has also become a prominent ritual of the electronic age, accompanied by predictable physiological responses, unending streams of surreal and disconnected imagery, and the need for communal bonding.

Cliff Bostock’s 2003 article “Cyberwork: the Archetypal Imagination in New Realms of Ensoulment” (which Jeremy wrote about here) argues that cyberspace is not a retreat from the hard work of spiritual questing, but is instead a medium that allows us to engage with archetypal imagery and to explore manifestations of psyche. The ritual of browsing the internet produces the same effects as the ceremonies of ancient shaman:

“Multiplied over time, the viewing of images in a session of ‘browsing’ the World Wide Web produces an experience of fascination that is like a virtual or digital poeisis. The imagination is seized and in browsing, the metamorphic movement through imaginal space (telos of the mouse), mood is altered, meanings are constellated, experience is affected. This can involve sinking into a world of visual, aural and written images.”

Clicking on the television priovides an initial drop in blood pressure, and the viewer, despite boredom or dissatisfaction with the content, will remain slumped on the couch, hypnotized by the pulsing lights, which, if viewed from the sidewalk outside your living room (the perspective of an anthropologist or a peeping Tom) appear as strobe lights aggressively massaging the face of a stupefied zombie. This is arguably ritualized torture, delivered to billions of masochistic eyeballs each night.

A similar ritual takes place whenever we sit down in front of a computer, or whip out a smart phone during a few spare moments. Poke, swipe, poke, swipe, swipe, swipe. A trance so intense and focused that mobile phone users, their faces illuminated, have been known to walk into traffic while glued to their friends’ party photos on Facebook.

Internet browsing differs, though, from television viewing.  For the most part, a television viewer is a passive observer, a slave to the progression of rapid-cut frames and interspersed commercials. The web user is in charge of the journey, or at least is presented with genuine options. A television viewer can flip channels, but, of course, there’s never anything on. (Bruce Springsteen figured this out back when there were only 57 channels. Thousands of additional channels bring diminishing returns.) A web user has infinite options, literally the entire virtual world.

Bostock pushes back against criticism that the online experience leads to a negative form of disembodiment. His opponents argue that “the cyber inhabitant has forsaken his body” as he “travels through space and time.” This is perhaps true of the television viewer whose posterior is parked on the sofa against his will, who acknowledges the lack of quality on the screen, but seems unable to turn it off. Bostock, however, see the internet fulfilling McLuhan’s promise of technology extending human senses:

“Technology, as McLuhan noted too, does not just disembody us. It extends (and accelerates) the body, even as it produces the experience of disembodiment.”

Perhaps our physical body is distracted or inert, but our “cyberbody,” in Bostock’s words, is off to the races, and it’s hard to deny that cyberbodies have been mingling in new and interesting ways, and for a plethora of positive purposes: revolutions, social action, romance, knowledge building, and so on. Of course, each of these carries a shadow side, but Bostock insists that too many serious thinkers are ignoring the most robust arena for mythopoetic imagination that has ever existed:

If archetypal psychology does not turn its lens upon the cyberbody, it may well be turning its back on the future. The numen hidden in the hollow of the cyber persona may be our collective daimon attempting incarnation.

(I wonder if Bostock has seen a change in this outlook since this article was published nine years ago? After all, in 2003, the world of social media as we know it did not exist.)

I think Bostock would have an unlikely ally in Walt Whitman, no Luddite, who celebrated the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable  in his poem “Passage to India,” which is largely about the unfinished journey of Columbus. Whitman writes about this journey symbolically (not from a historical perspective, which would reveal Columbus’ mission to Christianize and enslave the indigenous West) as an attempt to unite East and West by bringing Europe and India together to begin a global civilization. (Columbus’s journey is also Edgar Morin’s historical starting point for the beginning of the planetary era in his book Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future, which I’ve written about recently here). In “Passage to India,” Whitman writes:

Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World the east the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires;

The work of uniting the world is still in progress, but whether the means consist of ships, cables, or the internet, technology always provides the backbone.

In “Song of Myself,” we encounter Whitman’s version of extension, his body taking flight and touring the nation. However, he is not disembodied. His journey is concrete and rooted to the land:

Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess’d at,

What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass,

What I guess’d while I lay alone in my bed,
And again as I walk’d the beach under the paling stars of the
morning.

My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.

His flight is rooted in the American landscape, in the vast extension of the material world, the expanses of nature on the continent. In the remainder of Section 33, he surveys a diverse country, urban and rural, man, woman, plant, and animal. He extends himself not away from bodies, not away from concrete experience, but toward it, cataloging images like a cache file:

Pleas’d with the native and pleas’d with the foreign, pleas’d
with the new and old,
Pleas’d with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas’d with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and
talks melodiously,
Pleas’d with the tune of the choir of the whitewash’d church,
Pleas’d with the earnest words of the sweating Methodist
preacher, impress’d seriously at the camp-meeting;
Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole
forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass,

This is not surprising from a man who claims to be the poet of the body as well as the soul. He is fleshy, sensual, and quite often nude. He celebrates eating and sex as well as delighting in speculations of God. Whitman, despite (or maybe because of) his fanciful flights of soul,  is our most embodied poet, and his grand sweeping vision of every facet of American life portrays a world as interconnected and united through its diversity of life as the internet is. His vision, however, is not detached, overly-cerebral, or disembodied.

In Section 24, he announces his version of spiritual materialism:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag
of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch
or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

Camille Paglia argues in her 2000 Salon article The North American Intellectual Tradition, that a kind of earthy, visionary pragmatism is the dominant philosophy on this side of the Atlantic. She argues against the continental philosophers (such as Heidegger, Derrida, and Lacan) whose works are too dry, abstract, and jargon-laden to appeal to the American sensibility. Instead of the disembodied mind, she embraces the body:

“My argument is that the North American intellectuals, typified by McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown, achieved a new fusion of ideas — a sensory pragmatism or engagement with concrete experience, rooted in the body, and at the same time a visionary celebration of artistic metaspace — that is, the fictive realm of art, fantasy and belief projected by great poetry and prefiguring our own cyberspace.”

If, as McLuhan argued, technology extends the senses, and if electronic technology extends the central nervous system, then the internet allows us to take our bodies for a spin, to learn what lurks within, and to tour the unending, and at times frightening, manifestations of the psyche, which are not restricted or deadened by electronic media, but instead heightened and deepened.

There used to be a tendency to think of the solitary internet user as a sexless, pajama-clad basement dweller, not unlike a slave in Plato’s cave. This only works if you ignore the content of the Internet, which is filled with the desire for interconnection and, yes, sex. Bostock writes:

Eros drenches every corner of cyberspace. It is filled with millions of erotic self-portraits of ordinary people something that probably is unique in history. Romances, platonic and sexual, are conducted in cyberspace. ‘Cybersex’ and ‘virtual sex’ describe new styles of lovemaking. For the average person, this is what cyberspace concerns.

Perhaps we are less social in the “real world” than we once were, but the virtual world has seen an explosion of connection and psychic exploration. If the internet user allows himself to be disembodied, it is only in order to project and extend the cyberbody in rituals that serve as the electronic age’s answer to the shamanic rites of old.