extended bodies

A fascinating piece on ethnography, actor network theory, and the extended body of Stephen Hawking. The author, Hélène Mialet,  undertook 10 years of ethnographic study on Hawking, which included interviews and observations of Hawking, his students, his caregivers and his colleagues. In her own words:

traced and made visible the coordination and articulation of complex collective bodies composed of humans and machines that produce—and indeed, are—an individual. Thus, if Hawking has a body, he also has a multiplicity of collective bodies of which he is at once an element and a product: this is why I titled my book Hawking Incorporated.

The idea of a collective body, or, in Mialet’s terms, a distributed-centered subject, fundamentally destabilizes the notion of the autonomous, rational individual. It also destabilizes the notion of individual genius (which apparently got Mialet into some hot water over at the Daily Mail). What would happen, she wonders, if we were to take up this notion? How might we understand ourselves – and others – differently?

What would happen, then, if we began to think about ourselves, or to represent ourselves, not as individualized disincorporated brains, but as subjects materialized and distributed in a series of overlapping and interconnecting collectivities—that is, as “distributed-centered subjects”? What would happen to our conception not only of the scientific genius, but also of the artistic genius, of the political leader, of the entrepreneurial manager, or the CEO? What would be the impact on our ways of presenting ourselves to other cultures, on our ways of rethinking the distinction between the worker and the leader, the chief and the assistant, the humans and the machines? What would be the significance for this way of approaching the individual for thinking about how we establish salaries and distribute rewards; think about authorship and imagine collaboration; design machines; and more prosaically, how we navigate the world? These questions are at the core of a long-term program of research I propose to explore. I believe they can only be answered on the common ground where philosophy, ethnography, and industrial concerns meet.

  1. Jan said:

    A fascinating approach! Very interesting and revealing. While I am not a fan of actor network theory (I was not impressed by Latour’s original articles on the subject), I can see why it would be attractive to describe this particular case. The concept of an autonomous individual is probably a social construct. Most individuals have many identities each of which could be considered to represent the “autonomous individual” for the particular circumstance.

    • Bui Petersen said:

      But isn’t it classical sociology to think that we are exactly NOT “autonomous individuals”?

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