Friday, August 12, 2011

My Body Before the Chasm

To say something painfully obvious - space is related to body. As embodied creatures, are mode of existence is inherently linked to the limits of physical presence, which in turn means our very identity is radically spacial. Yet, spatiality itself is hardly a fixed concept. Leaving aside issues of modern physics, the way we interact with space is shaped by the technological and cultural framework in which we find ourselves. The citizen of Rome, with access to its incredible system of roads, had a very different interaction with space than a medieval peasant who's life was likely to be constrained to roughly the same area in which he was born. Our modern world takes this to yet another extreme.

This fact was made very vivid to me on my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. The most striking thing was the raw experience of the canyon as an entity. This chasm in the earth, a mile deep and miles wide, was nigh incomprehensible to me, even as I stood before it. To say that I felt tiny before it is to make a nearly criminal understatement. And I don't just mean tiny in a physical sense, I mean existentially minute. Yet this very fact led to a distancing. My mind almost automatically tried to push the Canyon into familiar and manageable categories like paintings and photographs. I had to force myself very consciously to acknowledge the reality of the massive untamed space before me. And my friend's and I also turned very quickly to levity - planking near the edge of the Canyon, for example. I suspect this had a certain aspect of coping to it.

I've been reading Matt Anderson's book, Earthen Vessels and he relates in it his own experience of hiking in the Grand Canyon, and how it forced him to realize more strikingly his physical need for water. I suspect the act of testing your body against the size of the canyon would likewise help to make solid the reality of its massive scale. Yet, the very fact of my body prevented this experience - I am simply not fit enough to hike the Bright Angel trail.

At the same time as all of this was going on, however, there was also a shrinking of space precipitated by modern technology. For one, we left California on a Monday afternoon, spent all of Tuesday at the Grand Canyon (and even got a late start on that) then drove through the night at arrived back in California on Wednesday morning. All the distance from California to Arizona, which dwarfs the size of the Grand Canyon, became a matter of a couple of days and several cups of coffee. Likewise, all of us took a great deal of photographs, extending the moment of our time in the Grand Canyon forward in time, and seeking to share it with others. And I tweeted. And texted. For all the size and distance of my time there, it was largely collapsed by my ability to be in ready contact with others every instant.

I can't begin to imagine all the ways in which this expanding and collapsing of our bodily interaction with space has shaped us. We go about our lives in a world that is forever distancing us from our embodiment. We carry around the internet in the palm of our hands, the entire world never more than a click away. Yet, at times the world forces through, we encounter it in its raw untamable expanse and it humbles us, as did my experience with the Grand Canyon. The more technology advances, however, the rarer these experiences become. This is not an inherently bad thing, but it is dangerous lest we rush headlong into this future and forget what we are at our core. I think here of Thoreau's claim that "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."1 This, of course, does not have to be the case, but if we don't stop to think about it, if we do not go into this future with a solid anthropology, then I very much think it will be. Man will not make machines, they will make him. The experience of our embodiment is one of the most beautiful things about our nature, and it is an inextricable part of our being. If we loose sight of it, it will be to our peril.
1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau