Is a blind man’s cane part of the man?

Based on a question I found in Hayles’ book originally posed by a professor (Gregory Bateson) to his graduate students, I queried “Is a blind man’s cane part of the man?” on my Facebook page. This launched one of the longer conversations I’ve had on FB, the culmination of which is worth repurposing into a post. As Socrates would see it, it was a rubbing together of minds through dialogue lead to a spark of illumination. So, here is an essay of my perspective on the matter formulated due to, and based on, that conversation with special thanks to Ronda W., Duglas K, Amanda B., Mark C., Lisa C-S, Cris B, Michael S., and Kim E.

This question stems from my reading this week of Hayles’ “How We Became Posthuman.” From my perception, the cane is part of the man. It is merely one example in the discussion that all tools are extensions of ourselves (a point I’ve touched on in last week’s blog posts on McLuhan and Hayles). The cane operates as part of the man’s body, it acts as an extension of his hand, being part of his working perception of the world (perception of the working world?).

One arguable differentiation might be that a cane is replaceable, whereas something that is a part of us might not be. However, while a foot is a part of the man, I’d also argue that many of our own parts are replaceable: a prosthetic foot is/becomes part of the man, but, in the realm of every tool being an extension of ourselves, so too is a shoe, a skate, and so on to other tools, such as a hammer. For example, consider the way in which we use a computer: even looking only at the typing aspect of it, the keys become extensions of our fingers physically, and there is a will-to-action nature to what we’re doing/typing.

This topic does get in to the ongoing conversation of what it means to be “human.” While there are important questions to ask in this vain, the subject can get quite loaded with certain scholarship and history, including discussions of post-humanism (which I referenced last week with my posts on Katherine Hayles’ book). For example, last year I struggled with the term “humanness” as referring to our sense of each other when speaking (verbal and non-verbal cues and such). The research became very loaded in trying to define the term while avoiding certain ties. Also, it got difficult when I began manufacturing terms like “humanessness.” I now refer to that awareness factor based on Social Presence theory. [from my pre-proposal intro]: Social presence theory (Short, Williams, and Christie) measures communication media based on the degree of awareness of the other person in a communication interaction. Generally, the higher the social presence level, the better the understanding of both speaker and message. The level is altered with the removal or addition of each communication modality (i.e. speech, non-verbal cues, and immediacy of exchange).

Another valid argument comes down to one of identity; the man might not want people to consider the cane a part of him, just as individuals in wheelchairs do not want that fact to define them. I do understand this want, as it suggests, on some level, a certain non-humanness, and people with disabilities are already too often relegated to non- or sub-human status. However, that one uses a cane is a part of his or her identity, from an objective perspective. The key is that it should not be called out as his or her main identity. But to deny that the individual uses a cane, and perhaps even extend that, adding that he or she is part of a community of others who also use canes, is to deny a certain part of that person’s identity. This is a sensitive issue in that we have both our own, formed identity constructed by the self and that formed externally by others who see us.

If I begin listing some things that form my identity, I begin by saying things like father, husband, brother, son, student, professor, writer, orator, cyclist, knee-pain sufferer, pacifist, pugilism fan, martini connoisseur, chef, trickster, etc. Within each of these we can see defining items, some seeming contradictions and oddities, some items with which various readers can identify, and some listings that are not necessarily positive to all readers. Additionally, each item is really just the surface for deeper levels of identity, such as student: what level? what field? what area of research? what school? what former schooling? etc.

I may not want to be identified with any one particular identity factor, or at least not have a certain one called out as my main identity, but the truth is that each of those elements and more are factors in what comprise Me. I am all of those (and more) things I mentioned whether or not I choose to identify with them. For example, I drive a Honda, and while I love my Element, I may not really consider Honda-driver part of my identity. But objectively, I AM a Honda driver; so, it is out there for others to consider in forming my identity. But, objectivity is, of course, subjective. In truth, I do consider “Element owner” as a part of my identity; I am struggling to come up with an example of something that is part of my life that I do not consider part of my identity, largely because I think all things in such a category do contribute to my identity. While there are things that I may not really want to come in to that definition, things that I am perhaps not inordinately proud of, I still acknowledge that all those things are part of my make up.

The issue, again, is that people tend to put different elements at the forefront of their perceptions of you. Unfortunately, this is the foundation for racism, stereotypes, and various other assumptions. However, this is not something from which we can easily separate ourselves (initial assumptions, not racist tendencies). Without being judgmental, we all get initial impressions and ideas of people based on what we know of them. That I am (was) a professor is foremost to my students. However, that aspect of my identity is of little consequence to someone with whom I might go riding, unless there is some reason that cyclist-buddy finds need or interest in that.

We are all involved with technology in various ways at various times, and these can change based on need and situation. They need not necessarily define us as one identity or another, though. This condition allows a changing description of experience separate from identity.

A few points of direction I’ve received and found on this concept include Donna Haraway’s writings (in part about cyborgs: a topic obviously quite close to this one), Merleau-Ponty’s passage on this man:can concept and his “Phenomenology of Perception,” and activity theory. These are references that I will need to examine further.

As a point of additional reading, check out this great Wired article that Kim Elmore provided: Your Computer Really is a Part of You opens by noting that Heidegger was right “Everyday tools really do become part of ourselves.” and takes the view that to be “part of the man” a tool needs to be part of his cognition and then give empirical evidence that it is.

2 Responses to “Is a blind man’s cane part of the man?”

  1. Comment From Eric on July 8th, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Have you read any of Andy Clark’s works? Both his Natural Born Cyborgs and his Supersizing the Mind are about this topic.

  2. Comment From Time Barrow on July 8th, 2010 at 11:56 am

    I have not read Clark’s work. Actually I find this topic fully facinating, but it is a bit off topic for my current research, so it will, like so many new (and old) interests, have to take a shelf for another 18ish months. But, it is a topic to which I would genuinely like to return.

    But, thanx for posting the references, Eric. Hopefully someone will find use in them here.

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