I’d be happy if I could remember where in my browsing I encountered this argument clincher. I was many hours removed from that first (and only) encounter — “Face it, you’re only a computer!” — when I realized that the triumphant argument clincher didn’t really stop the discussion.
It would be equally true to blurt out “Face it, you’re flesh and blood!” or “Face it, you’re DNA!” or “Face it, you’re a Highly Evolved Mammal!” or maybe even “Face it, you’re an Emotional Time Bomb, or a Jungle of Bacteria!”
What’s interesting here is that I could be all of these simultaneously. Yet the contextual impact and threat of the utterance relies on a suppressed “only!” You’re only a computer, only DNA, only a 150 pound sack of liquid.
This reminds me that Galileo said (more or less) that objects were only dead matter, atoms in motion. Why can’t objects and people and atmospheres be several things at once? I’m a creature within an ecology of meanings, and a creature within an ecology of atoms in motion, and a creature within an ecology of political and social ideologies and strata.
I’m fascinated by Thoreau’s perception that after his brother John died all of John hadn’t died. John was flesh and blood while he was breathing and alive and John was flesh and blood after he stopped breathing. After he stopped breathing his flesh could still contribute to the ecology of living things. His flesh and bones might be broken down as he lay in the earth by other organisms in the earth. He was nutrients and nutrients contribute to living.
Thoreau thought we should respect the body and its organic vitality quite apart from whether the body was singing or signing checks or rowing on Concord River. The body contributing nutrients plays a part in nature’s life-cycles, and that part was important to respect.
Thus Thoreau flooded the area where John was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery so that a minor swamp, teeming with life, would teem with the life of John’s flesh and bones. Thus Thoreau extended the life of his brother into the natural environment, into the life of a swampy basin, refusing to identify the extent of John’s life with the extent of his breathing or heartbeats.
In his view, pyramids, burial crypts, and lead-lined caskets were acts of denial, refusals to acknowledge continuities of identity within a wider life. Writing was an affirmative act, bringing his life not only into continuity with the natural niches he occupied but into the ecology of historical existence. Through writing Thoreau kept biblical wisdom and Greek wisdom and the wisdom of the Vedas alive.
Nature is an infinitely complex and dynamic receptacle in which we find shifting identities. Culture and Technology are also infinitely complex and dynamic receptacles in which our shifting identities emerge.
My intelligence grows at the tip of a pen, or at the tip of a keyboard, or at the face of an iPad. My emotions grow at the spot my eyes pick up the line of a sonnet, or at the spot my ears pick up the beat and pitch of a tune. Orchestras and Bands and electronic recordings are technological matrices that feed my identities.
We have some leverage over our identities as we pick some technological extensions and reject others, as we pick some cultural extensions and reject others, or as we allow or reject expansion of a brother’s identity past the time of beating hearts into the time when the nutrients of flesh and bone are still alive and kicking, spreading life.
If our bodily extension is enhanced by prostheses and electronic devices and implants, will we want to have our prostheses, our devices, and implants buried with us, as part of us – even if they provide no nutrients to living things of the earth?
Or will ceremonies of burial morph into ceremonies of recycling?
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Citations: On Thoreau’s swamp for John, see Thoreau, Journal, October 10, 1860, p. 109. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/writings_journals32.html, and see Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Appendix II: On Thoreau’s Grave, pp. 385–7. Inspiration comes from William Eaton, Zeteo 06.25.2015, “Morandi, Bonnard, and Silences Within,” and from Walter Cummings, Zeteo 07.07.2015, “Where Do Humans End?” Some momentum comes from Ed Mooney Zeteo 07.12.2015 “Lilts, Mists, and Memories aren’t (just) in my Head.“