The Ephemeral Cyborg

Szpilman-award-logo[1]

The Szpilman Award is awarded to works that exist only for a moment or a short period of time.
The purpose of the award is to promote such works whose forms consist of ephemeral situations.  Szpilman Award

I first became aware of the Szpilman Award a couple of years ago. I found the concept interesting but up until now haven’t been able to organize myself to execute a project for it, and to then submit an application.  First prize includes a 10 day trip to Cimochowizna, Poland, a village in a Polish national park.

Saturday, I sent in my application based on my recent Post #74.

The selection of past winners of the Award have shown the jury to be every bit the quirky bunch one might expect in such a project.  So any application constitutes an improbability at the outset.

Adding to this for me and my poor damaged brain, making such a trip would entail managing a sensory assault and overload I can barely imagine. It could only result from the realization of a set of cascading improbabilities that in itself would result in an example of the ephemeral sublime.

This element of sublimity is missing from the Szpliman description, yet it is implicit as the defining feature of art that is eligible for the award.

After all, to the extent that anything exists, it exists ephemerally.  In past posts, I’ve discussed the Buddhist presentation of Emptiness.  The causes and conditions supporting an object or process are all always changing, are ephemeral, as is their result – the object or process.

The view-point and the time scale one uses in considering something determines whether it seems to exist for a long or short time.  Seen from the perspective of cosmic time, all of human existence is ephemeral.

The implicit presence of this kind of time scale as backdrop is what makes the “short time” of the ordinary sense of ephemeral mean something worth mentioning at all.

I wonder, for example how much of the experience of the users of ephemeral social media includes some sense of the sublime.  Does a cyborg using Snapchat experience a glimpse of cosmic time hitting Send?

The Legal Cyborg

The recent unanimous US Supreme Court decision, Riley v California, ruled that police need a  warrant to search the cell phones of those they arrest.  At issue was whether or not searches of the cell phone of an arrested person was a search incident to the arrest.  Such searches are allowable because they can find objects harmful to the safety of the arresting officer, and prevent the destruction of evidence.  The Court found that neither concern applied to information accessible by cell phones and that police should obtain warrants to authorize such searches.

This is of course an important finding, but my purpose here is to look at some of the ideas about communication technology embedded in the decision.  The most obvious example and widely quoted is the following.

mmw_newspaper[1]These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.

While undoubtedly an attempt at humor, the “visitor from Mars” mistaking a cell phone for a body part also introduces the concept of the cyborg, the hybrid of human and machine.  Is it too much to speculate that our Supreme Court Justices are Anxious Cyborgs too?

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; … One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy.

I read “physical realities” here as shorthand as “non-digitally coded” realities.  The decision goes onto to discuss the file cabinets etc that one would have to cart around to have at immediate disposal the information accessible with a cell phone.

Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cellphone, with all that it contains, who is the exception. According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.

I find identifying the pervasiveness and intimacy of cell phone use especially significant.  It may begin to begin to recognize “cyborg” as a legal meaning of “person”.

Alexis Dyschkant writes about the legal importance of establishing the boundary of a person when determining if one has been wrongfully contacted.

 Historically, “one’s person” has been limited to “one’s natural body” and some, but not all, artificial attachments to one’s natural body.  The cyborg, a creature composed of artificial and natural parts, challenges this conception of a “person” because it tests the distinction between the natural body and an artificial part.  Artificial objects, such as prosthetics, are so closely attached to bodies as to be considered a part of one’s person.  However, claiming that personhood extends to things attached to our natural bodies oversimplifies the complicated interrelation between natural objects and artificial objects in the cyborg.  If our person is no longer limited to our natural body, then we must understand personhood in a way that includes the cyborg.  I argue that the composition of a body does not determine the composition of a person.  One’s person consists to the extent of one’s agency.  Cyborgs: Natural Bodies, Unnatural Parts, and the Legal Person

I doubt the Justices intended Riley to redefine the boundaries of a person as the boundaries of one’s agency.  However, their arguments based on pervasiveness and intimacy do, I argue, move in that direction.

In a Buddhist context, I have argued in the past that many people experience their communication devices as a part of the illusion of an inherently existing self.  There  I suggested extending traditional mediations on establishing the boundaries of this illusion to include cell phones for example.

For the cyborg, this meditation could be expanded to include the artifacts of technology that she has aggregated into his experience of self.  For instance, many people might experience the theft or malicious destruction of their cell phone as an assault.  Some may relate to the field of information their communication technology produces as a part of their inherently existing self. The Negated Cyborg

Dyschkant echoes and extends this meditation, creating a vision of personhood eventually eliminating the idea of mediation and consisting entirely of agency.

What the cyborg shows us is that the body can be composed of any kind of part but the person is necessarily the agent which controls, benefits from, and depends upon these parts.  Human tissue, animal tissue, or mechanical “tissue” all allow a person to exercise their agency and interact with the world.  The type of body which a person controls need not be relevant.  Hence, determining when one has made contact with “the person of another” does not necessarily depend on the naturalness or composition of one’s body, but on the relationship between the object contacted and the person’s agency.  We can imagine a technologically advanced future in which people retain control over parts detached entirely from their body or in which one’s person is dispersed across great spaces.

Perhaps at some point the concept of a legal person begins to break down.  Perhaps then the Buddhist idea of non-self, of the negation of an inherently existing self, becomes codified into law.

The Emptiness of Wang Wei

Karen recently gave me 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.  This small book is a compilation of 19 translations of Wang Wei’s (7th century Chinese poet) poem, Deer Park,  alongside an essay by Eliot Weinberger, and a concluding essay by Octavio Paz.  This helped deepen my appreciation for Wang, and motivated me to attempt to transduce the poem myself.

Transduce seems a better word than translation for what I’m doing. It is an attempt to transform a distant literary energy to a local one. It follows in the footsteps of Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems.  As Paz points out, referring to a TS Eliot remark, Ezra Pound invented Chinese poetry in English.  He did this without in fact knowing any Chinese, but working from, as I am here, literal translations.

Here are the literal and poetic translations from Chinese Poems.

Deer Enclosure

Empty hill not see person
Yet hear person voice sound
Return scene enter deep forest
Duplicate light green moss on

Hills are empty, no man is seen,
Yet the sound of people’s voices is  heard.
Light is cast into the deep forest,
And shines again on green moss.

The literal translation of the title’s second word is fence or enclosure, which Chinese Poems uses. The title is most often rendered in English as Deer Park.  Weinberger says this is probably a reference to the site of Buddha’s enlightenment.   Robert Okaji titles his version of the poem Deer Sanctuary, which I think is the best version if one decides the poem is not primarily a Buddhist one.

However, I think it clearly is.  As I noted in a previous post, Wang closely associated himself with the Vimalakirti Sutra, which discusses Emptiness with the bodhisattva Manjushri .  Wang also studied Buddhism for 10 years with the Chan master Daoguang.

chinese_symbols_for_empty_8521_2_0[1]

Chinese symbol for “empty”

Then we get to the first line.  How are we to understand empty?  It seems an odd word choice on its own.  Do we retain it?  Most trans(lators)(ducers) do keep it or render it as some version of lonely, or uninhabited.  I have to wonder if Wang meant something like either of those why didn’t he just say so?

This suggests to me that Wang’s emptiness might be just what I mean when discussing Buddhist Emptiness.  On the other hand, contemporary use of emptiness for sunyata may just be an artifact of translation choices of early translators of Buddhist texts to English.

Without too much effort I found these passages.

The word kong is among Wang Wei’s favorite descriptive word and frequently occurs in his nature poems.  It is also the standard Chinese translation for one of the key concepts of Mahayana Buddhism -” emptiness” (Skt. sunyata).

The Chan Interpretation of Wang Wei’s Poetry: A Critical Review by Jingqing Yang

And

What is an empty mountain?  Clearly it is not barren as we are informed there  is a “deep forest” there. Kong is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term sunyata.  Primarily the term is a negation – a denial that phenomenon have self existence – that is permanence independent of causes and conditions.

How To Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology edited by Zong-qi Cai  (C10.6 Recent Style Shi Poetry. The Deer Fence Wang Wei) by Charles Egan

So in my transduction, I sought to covey a sense of this Buddhist Emptiness in the first line.  To do so in the economical style of the poem is quite a challenge.  I don’t think I quite succeeded but it’s a start.

The other part of the poem that trans(lators)(ducers) have difficultly with is the last line.  Weinberger’s literal translation provides more nuance than the Chinese Poetry’s bare bones approach.

To return/Again  to shine/to reflect  green/blue/black  moss/lichen above/on (top of)/top

As I see the scene, sunlight re-illuminates the forest floor generally, and the moss specifically, which reflects in a figurative sense the brightly lit forest canopy above.  I have not encountered quite this interpretation of the last line in my reading so far.

I plan to keep at this.  I’m take the following as my first version, the start of a path, a variation on my ongoing practice of Emptiness Yoga.

Deer Park

Contingent mountain, unseen people,
Voices like an echo.
Again sun lights the forest floor,
The green moss, the canopy above.