Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

The Architecture of Experience

Lady In Red It’s 12.31 AM on a Thursday, and instead of sleeping I’m pondering the latest Dollhouse episode, Omega. Joss Whedon is a master story teller in his own right, but this time it’s more than just a good yarn, it’s more than character development. In Dollhouse he’s hacking into the collective unconscious of the American psyche. After watching this most recent episode, the weaker parts of me wonder if it isn’t better to let sleeping dogs lie. But that’s for another post.

Without spoiling the plot for those of you purests out there, let me say that Omega broaches a heady subject. What makes up the “you” of you? Assuming for a moment that we had the technological ability to store a matrix of information as complex as the human brain. If that information was uploaded from your brain and put into another one, would there still be a you? Would the upload itself be you? Or, would you be you if the upload was downloaded into another brain?

The first question we are tempted to ask in response to these questions is this. At what point does a change in structure preclude the structure’s usability? Is your favorite hammer still your favorite hammer if you swap it’s splintery wooden handle for a plastic one? Is it still your favorite hammer if you replace the head? At what point does a thing become another thing? This question is interesting, but it is the wrong question.

The right question is a bit stranger. And it’s answer stranger still. We know too well from the history of medicine that changing the brain means changing the person. Lobotomies, strokes, head injuries, they all may leave in tact memories and information, but may also significantly alter the identity of a person. On the one hand this could lead us to believe that the brain is just a storage facility, and that damage to the storage means damage to the persona who accesses the storage. But another possibility exists. The possibility that the youness of you is not just uploadable information, but architecture as well. TyPi@HlKtFlMk.jpg

When I say architecture, I don’t mean just the network of neurons, but the whole event of you. The architecture of experience is less a question of attributes: can you play a Beethoven sonata on a toy piano? And more a question of resonant space. It’s more like asking: can you sing in a vacuum?

We take for granted the substance of air because it’s invisible to us. But it is this invisible substance that functions, quite literally, as resonant space. We cannot speak or sing without it. Neither has meaning, or possibly even existence without a space in which to discover their expression.

Is it the same with the youness of you? What is the data without a space in which to resonate? I’m resisting the urge to bring up Lacan and Heidegger and Husserl and Void. I’ll save that for future posts. Suffice it to say, when it comes to human beings and the architecture of our experience, there may be no such thing as a picture without it’s frame. The you that you know as you, may very well be inherent to your personal architecture.


  1. I will definitely have to watch Dollhouse! Thanks for not spoiling the plot. I would have cried. These questions also remind me of issues raised in Battlestar Galactica. Here’s an initial response to some hairy questions:

    If a tree falls in the forest . . .

    Do I possess an identity when no one is aware of my identity? Let’s say I am alone and in a state of samadhi–absolute concentration–do I have an I-dentity? Or let’s say two people get lost in making love, what happens to their identities? Is there not some sense in which identities are constructed in the space between? The space between I and me? The space between You and I? In the negotiation of social forces? Perhaps the architecture of identity extends within and beyond the individual. Perhaps what we call identity is more like a Bedouin tent, that get’s taken down when it is time to get lost in the desert steppe.

    If a tree falls on your head, you will know it has an objective existence . . .

    But let’s not be naive. How could you guarantee that the tent is the same tent, unless you recognized that it was made out of the same materials? And isn’t this a false analogy anyway? Shouldn’t the tent’s inhabitant and the tent be one? Do I fold up the Bedouin and put her away too? Perhaps. But, biologically, physically, substance is also mostly in-between. Between atoms. Between physical forces and chemical interactions. I certainly do not have all of the same cells I did when I was born. Neither does the tent. Neither does the hammer, or the tree. Neither do you.

    My Grandfather literally had a tree fall on his head and it altered his memory and speech capabilities. Do I have a new Grandpa?

    I can’t see the forest for the trees . . .

    We lose the dynamism of identity when we atomize it and isolate its components. Identity is flux, negotiation, interplay, iteration. I am not the same person I was yesterday, but the traces of yesterday’s person act on me as a force–diachronic multiplicity. Identity is also synchronically multiple. There is part of me that can’t stop blogging. There is another part that says I need to do my homework. There is a part of me that is terrified, that if I can’t fix my identity, I will lose my-self. I think one thing about who I am. You think another.

    If there is an essence of identity, it will be found in multi-dimensional and shifting force-fields; force-fields that have at least as much complexity as the ecosystem of the Amazon rain forest. It will not be found in architecture, whether of a church, an idea, a narrative, or an ether.

  2. Something about the multi-dimensional aspect of identity rings true to me. Because here’s what both of these posts make me want to ask: Is there really such a thing as identity? I mean, as an actual thing or entity? (yeah yeah, “id-entity”) We always talk about identity as if it is this one thing–something we can quantify. My hunch is that “identity” is just a construct we came up with to make sense of the fact that we exist, and that we aren’t all the same person. And that’s okay. I just don’t know if we can talk about it accurately as something that we can have or lose. To me “Identity” seems utterly relative, and unconnected to physical reality.

  3. Here’s a serendipitous post from Larval Subjects about category theory, Badiou, and identity:


    From the sound of it, I would like category theory very much.

  4. I wonder if by “architecture” you are referring to modern architecture? Are you using it in the sense of “form follows function?”

  5. I watched the first season of Dollhouse, but found myself getting less interested over time as they explore the idea of the soul. Whedon seems to be saying that body and mind are not enough — there is a third entity belonging to an individual which is the soul. Bunk Bunk Bunk. There is hardware (body) and software (mind), and while we don’t understand everything, adding the soul into the mix isn’t warranted or even interesting.

  6. I agree with you about the soul.

    What is the relationship that you see between software and hardware? Software runs on the hardware? Emerges from the hardware?

  7. There’s no need to add a soul to the equation, but there is a need to blur the line between hardware and software. I’m actually far more comfortable thinking about a human being as unified organism. The breakdown between hardware and software, when pushed too far, starts to feel just as bunky to me as language of soul.

  8. I’m not using it in either sense. The “architecture” that I’m refering to is the physical aspect of our psyche. At least in part anyway.

  9. My thoughts exactly.

  10. I still don’t get it. What is the physical aspect of our psyche- brain matter? Or physical experience in the world? If you are coining the new use of a term, I need more information to understand what you are saying.

  11. What is it about hardware and software that doesn’t work for you? It doesn’t need to be viewed as analogy or metaphor — it’s literally true. DNA holds digital information just as Flash RAM holds information. DNA happens to have four digits (GATC) rather than two (1,O), and it processes more slowly, but is otherwise quite similar.

    With computers, hardware and software are meaningless without the other. What does it mean to blur the line?

    A Mac and it’s OSX operating system are unified, but you can split them apart. OSX can be hacked to run on a PC, and a Mac can run Linux or Windows. Perhaps your mind would run less efficiently in another body, which would lead to a decrease in functionality, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t software. Other than the fact that it makes you queasy, what is it you don’t like about talking about mind and body as software and hardware?

  12. All good questions. This hearkens back to my first interaction with these ideas as a teenager reading the “Mind’s I.” The old “am I a mind,” or “am I a brain” question.

    It was Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse universe that got me thinking about this post in the first place. As a self-contained fiction the chair and the harddrives and dolls are great metaphors for today’s simulacrum laden society.

    But from the standpoint of neuroscience and phenomenological philosophy the whole mind in a harddrive thing (as much as it works for the story) doesn’t work as a model for human being. After all, the brain doesn’t store information in a quatrinary system like DNA. I’m out of my depth here, but memory is not simply a matter of flash storage. The brain physically changes to store information and adapt to stimuli. More than this it is not just our brain that processes information. Our entire physical aparatus is part of the equation. Or should I say, like I suggested in the blog, that our physical aparatus is the equation.

    I suppose one question I can’t move on from is this: is there a “you” to upload sans physical brain? Suppose we had the technology to grab a few memories from the billions of neuron connections. If that was downloaded into another brain, would that brain perceive it simply as non-sequitur information–like deja vu, or a day dream, or a dream? Or would this information carry the “you” along with it?

    That’s the rub for me. It seems like information and architecture (software and hardware if you prefer) are more like reader response theory than plug and play. It just strikes me as a strong possibility that there is a unique experience of the world generated from our body-based subjectivity. Our intersubjectivity means that we can understand each other in spite of our differences. But I’m wondering if awareness of self as self can be ripped from the physical aparatus that generates the awareness of self. After all, it’s this brain, via this body, through these senses, that has constructed a world, and an awareness of the awareness of that world. In the end I’m just not convinced that that phenomenon can be reduced to the metaphor of computer hardware and software.

  13. The idea of a space in which to resonate intrigues me. I think that very idea is killing our world and our souls. We need a building to worship in, we need buildings to do business in, we need streets to drive on, we need schools to learn in, grocery stores to shop in. We are so intent on creating spaces to resonate in that we forget we resonate everywhere.

    Yes, I do need my body and my mind to resonate in this space as a human mammal named Pebble. But without them I could still resonate in this space, just as something else. Maybe as a dog, or a bird, or a tree. Or what of my memories of past lives. Different body, different brain, different geographic location. Same soul?

    Science can’t explain everything and that is why I love the soul. There will always be that “theory” that is just out of reach and “explanation”. To me that is the soul, whether it’s my soul, or the greater soul. Hooray for not knowing.

    In yoga we are learning, practicing and being “everything all the time”. There is no linear approach. You must be all yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi at the same time. This means we are both experiencing the external life with the body we are in while focusing inward. We are turning inward in the mind while meditating to become one with the body. We are union.

  14. I agree with some of your sentiments toward buildings. The abstraction of experience into a caged physical space mitigates the same experience that it promises. For instance, a grocery store does have groceries, but provides none of the same satisfaction of growing or gathering one’s own food.

    But by resonant space I mean something very different from a cage. The term cage assumes that whatever is in the cage is out of place. And it is often caged because it is deemed dangerous in its natural setting. Instead of a grocery store, imagine the shaped wood of a violin. It’s hollow provides space for the vibration of the string to resonate in a way that it never could on its own. This is more what I meant by “resonant”. Something that enables rather than restricts.

    Also, I have to admit, I don’t really know what to do with the notion of soul. Whether it’s Christian, or Hindu, or Pagan, or Buddhist, it seems more etiological than ontological.

    What I am truly interested in is this phenomenon of identity, and whether it’s tied to the architecture of free of it. Though your comments are very different from stonyhill’s what I hear the both of you suggesting is that the body/mind (what I’ve been calling archirecture in this blog) is just a container. And that the “real” you is something other than packaging. I’m just not sure that a “you” exists without the frame of reference–I’m not sure that identity exists separate from the archicture of the experience in question.