PRINT October 1987


the brain.

“THE SPIRITUAL IN art,” “the spiritual in people”—we inherit and we read and we watch and listen to descriptions of a person, or a thing made by someone, as “spiritual.” Such an idea is commonplace, but in reality, of course, we are all mammals, and what we make are the products of mammals. It’s true that we have realized certain inventions that sometimes allow us to behave as if we were something different: for a while now we have been able to make machines that we fly like birds, for example, and human females’ eggs can now be fertilized outside the womb, like those of fish. As a rule, though, we eat, digest, sleep, copulate, give birth, get sick, and die as apes do. We think we humans are different because of our famous brains. Come to think of it, it’s surprising that we have used our brains to change so much about the shape of things in our surroundings but not radically to change the mechanisms that shape the processes of our bodies. Our environment is utterly different from that of the Cro-Magnon, but not our two bodies. That’s changing, and what could happen to our bodies is something that relates to art, to the spiritual, and to the artificial.

For some time now we have been trying to improve our mammal condition. During this period we’ve read all the predictions and warnings that what we’ve done with automation may eventually transform some of our organs—hands, legs—into appendages fit only for the lightest physical tasks. Genetic engineering promises to transform our grandchildren’s grandchildren into beings no longer strictly mammal. In the same way, machines will no longer be strictly machines. A combination of neurophysiology and electronics is beginning to project the functions of our brain beyond the skull into computers. Pharmacology may have us experiencing sensations, from vision to orgasm, within our minds, quite independently of our bodies. These are some of the future possibilities; they tend to make the body more subservient to the brain, and thus the irony is that they could indeed eventually make spiritual beings of us. Our immediate instinctual response has been to exaggerate our bodies—by body-building, for example—but with this type of reaction we are just improving our climbing skills. (Climbing is included in our primate program.)

It seems we are moving from the enthusiasm that seized us in the first flush of the new technologies into sober consideration, from being seduced by artificiality into criticism of it, and there is a lot of expression that we don’t really like what is happening. Artificial immortality, for example, may be a possibility, and we may like it even less than we like natural death, because we don’t know how to live with it. If we were artificially immortal, we would have no reason to live—no reason even to get out of bed in the morning. We’re not sure that we want to abandon our mammal condition, not sure that we want to become spiritual beings. No one likes to be mutated; I imagine our ancestors clung with both hands and feet to their branches, and we are just as reactionary about change. It isn’t that we always love our animal bodies—we sometimes have toothaches, for instance. Still, we know the feelings that go with physicality, and we wouldn’t want to miss them.

When the power of artifice was a figure of speech, we could comfortably see ourselves living in an artificial world. Today, artifice is genuinely powerful, as in artificial kidneys, but we don’t necessarily think artificial kidneys are better than natural ones. The moment chemical manure was invented we claimed the beauty of unfertilized produce. The moment chlorophyll was artificially synthesized we rediscovered natural greenery, and even organized political parties to protect it. Now, when biology has stopped being a natural science and has turned into genetic engineering, we feel more and more concern over endangered species. This is the way of utopias: we want them to stay where they are, namely nowhere. As long as it was utopian to speak about “pure spirit” we could praise spiritual values. Today, pure spirit is on its way. (Is a hologram of a nonexistent object a foreshadowing of it?) Now that brains have been on the agenda of the artificial maybe we can rediscover them too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the past three or four million years could be seen as a preparatory stage for humanization, spiritualization, whatever name makes us “brilliant.” Then it could be our privilege to be present when humanization happens—when “true art” is born.

Vilém Fluster is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He has written various books on modem communication.