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"Put the thing in the thing."
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November 20 2010

"The Mind Doesn't Matter, It's the Body We Want": Identity and the Body in Dollhouse. An essay from 'Inside Joss' Dollhouse: From Alpha to Rossum.'

A good read. I may have to buy this book.
Hmm, well enough written I guess but the thesis doesn't seem particularly coherent to me (i'm assuming the essay was written with the author having seen the entire show, if not some sort of note should've been attached).

The essay seems to somehow imply that "the electrical and chemical activity of the brain" is something apart from our body but of course it isn't. There's no need to talk about brains and bodies as if they're different things, brains are a part of our body (some would say quite an important part ;). Similarly, claims like

"This similarity lies in the fact that both the soul and the term “the body” refer to an indescribable aspect of our existences that makes us who we are."

annoy me slightly. "Indescribable" ? "Not described yet" for sure, "possibly indescribable" i'd even give but just flat-out not able to be described as if it's magic rather than (ultimately... probably ;) physics strikes me as, frankly, the kind of woolly-headed thinking that gets people eaten [on other shows] ;).

The emphasis placed on a unique body interacting with the world as an integral part of identity seems to gloss over (to me) fairly trivial counter-examples like identical twins or people suffering locked-in syndrome (since their bodies interact with the environment in extremely limited ways are we then to suppose that they're either fundamentally different people or even non-people as a result, even though cognitively they may be almost - or even entirely - unimpaired ?). Bodies (or the ongoing gene/environment amalgam we call our bodies) are an important aspect of our identity for sure but not, IMO, in the way the author seems to suggest.

"We know that Echo began as a blank mind, an empty container, in her Doll state, and so the individual that Echo became could only have grown out of the encounters of her body with the world..."

Well, no, we don't know that, that's begging the question in a fairly big way IMO. We know that's what the dollhouse thought happened but as the author says themselves, the dollhouse didn't have the complete picture.

The conception of identity established in Dollhouse depended on the fact that we exist for the world in our body, and through that body we can act in the world...

Again, not really. In fact i'd say the conception of identity established in 'Dollhouse' crucially depended on Cartesian dualism (much as Joss' other shows tend to - it's hard-drives on DH and magic jars on 'Angel' but the principle's the same) i.e. the idea that "we" can still be considered coherent entities even when we're taken out of our body (mini-Caroline is still Caroline, even in the little girl's body, the Paul we see in Echo's mind is presented as the actual Paul, Margaret in Caroline/Echo's body is Margaret not Margecholine). As viewers we can (and did ;) wonder if it's really them but the show presents it as if it is.

And without meaning to be nasty about it

"Echo’s story demonstrates that we could take away all of the world’s influences on someone (their memories, their history), or we could add more than it seems like a person could handle (“imprints”: opinions, facts, rules, Facebook status updates), but there will still always be a human being there, a body, who is separate from these things, more than the sum of those parts."

is almost laughable. Echo's story doesn't demonstrate anything, anymore than Buffy's story demonstrates that vampires and werewolves are real. It's fiction, made up, one or a few people's personal opinion about the nature of self and even then, the show's somewhat ambiguous about that nature (as befits such a complicated question).
Wow! I appreciate your response to my essay. You've clearly put a lot of thought into your comment, and I am glad to see that my essay provoked such thought. There are a couple of things I would like address in your response, however, if you'll permit me.

Brain/body: you're absolutely right that I make an artificial distinction between the brain and the body. This is why, in the print version of this essay, I have a footnote explaining my reasoning. I don't know why they excised the footnotes in the online version, but I will reproduce it here for you:
Bennett's words point out the somewhat artificial nature of the distinction I am making between mind and body. Of course, memories and thoughts and response patterns (what I have been calling the "mind" of the "personality") are stored in the brain, and the brain is the body. One cannot exist without the other - a fact which provides a physical manifestation of of the importance of the body to identity. However, since many Dollhouse characters believed in this division between mind and body, it is necessary to retain the distinction for clarity's sake, even though, of course, the show eventually broke down any such clear division.

Indescribable: I was referencing the aspect of the human which makes us individuals and which is extinguished at the moment of death. You're right, people have attempted to describe it. As I believe we have yet to agree on the correct description, however, I went with indescribable. Perhaps I could have picked a different word, like ineffable. I didn't want to get too woolly-headed, though.

Unique body: Your example of the twins is interesting but not, I think, outside of the scope of my essay. As I discuss the fact that both Caroline and Echo share the same body, I argue that what gives them individual identities is the unique collection of experiences they have in the world. As I mention in yet another missing footnote, this conception of identity is influenced by Adriana Cavarero's work in Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (trans. Paul A. Kottman, New York; London: Routledge, 2000). I encourage you to check out this fascinating book if you have more questions. Also, twins' bodies are not identical, just similar. And, in regards to your mention of locked-in syndrome, I explicitly discuss in the essay that the fact that having a body which is considered to somehow fall outside of the mainstream does not mean that one has a less desirable identity.

Blank container: you're right, we don't know that these characters begin as blank slates. But, of course, as in all fictional universes, our knowledge of characters come from what they say and do (just like the real world), and they characters say that they are blank and act blank. The dumbshows, for example, are pretty darn blank. Regardless, I acknowledge that even though characters like Alpha may not have been fully wiped, what matters (in the show) in identity formation is the interaction of that body with the world around it now, not its past. Check out my section on Briar Rose for more on this.

Conception of identity in Dollhouse: What I love about Whedon shows is that there does not have to be one right answer. My goal in this essay was not to deny that there may be a dualist conception at work in the perception of identity, but rather to point out that Dollhouse is doing things his other shows have not and, so, perhaps we should be open to seeing the differences between Dollhouse and other shows, not just the similarities. for example, I agree with you that while the show does have instances in which we are expected to treat characters a certain way (Caroline in Margaret's body), these instances are usually chronologically brief. Instances in which personalities live in another body for prolonged periods of time do produce figures with different identities - for example, when the copy of Caroline is placed in little Iris Miller and lives there for a time, the two Carolines are different, no longer sharing the same identity.

Demonstrates: This essay is an argumentative piece making claims about Dollhouse's view of the world. Forgive me if my word-choice led you to believe that I was making claims about the world, rather than claims about what Dollhouse is saying about the world. And what, vampires aren't real?

Anyway, I do appreciate the feedback, and I thank you again for the close reading of my essay.
Demonstrates: This essay is an argumentative piece making claims about Dollhouse's view of the world. Forgive me if my word-choice led you to believe that I was making claims about the world, rather than claims about what Dollhouse is saying about the world. And what, vampires aren't real?

Well Spike and Angel are, obviously ;). One problem with discussions like these is that we have to be really clear about what we think is true in reality and what we think is true in the "dollverse" so where you say "demonstrates" and then go on to talk about a general "someone" and 'Facebook status updates' etc. (i.e. real-world entities) then yep, it did seem very much like you were drawing conclusions about the real world from fiction (that would be laughable, your actual position not so much ;).

That said, I read it with the view that you were talking about the nature of self/identity using 'Dollhouse' as a sort of jumping off point, i'd have to read it again with the other perspective in mind to really speak about it sensibly (and the essay's not free anymore so I can't - not a poke at you BTW, people gotta eat ;). Also, to be honest, something that's "only" an interpretation of a fictional view of the world isn't as interesting to me because though it might give me insights into 'Dollhouse's view of the world ultimately it can't transcend that fictional viewpoint (in other words i'm more interested in how selves actually work than in how 'Dollhouse' portrays them as working).

I don't know why they excised the footnotes in the online version, but I will reproduce it here for you:

Thanks for that and fair enough, with the footnote that seems perfectly reasonable (bet it's pretty irritating to see them remove an important part of your essay).

... for example, when the copy of Caroline is placed in little Iris Miller and lives there for a time, the two Carolines are different, no longer sharing the same identity.

Hmm, not sure about that (in the dollhouse sense that is - I totally agree in reality, no two things are identical just by virtue of being in different places and therefore "experiencing" the world differently, however slightly - quotes because it applies to inanimate objects too). They don't seem different and mini-Caroline self-identifies as Caroline ("I guess I do").

Also, twins' bodies are not identical, just similar.

In reality right ? In the dollverse we don't know ;). True, fingerprints are different etc. But I guess that raises the question how different is different enough ? How granular is a body-determined identity ? I don't directly experience my fingerprints for instance, if they change (as they do constantly in minor ways) or cease to exist then I don't become a different person, surely ? It seems to me that it isn't just the unique body that determines the individual identity but also cognitive differences (including for instance the awareness that i'm one of twins).

And, in regards to your mention of locked-in syndrome, I explicitly discuss in the essay that the fact that having a body which is considered to somehow fall outside of the mainstream does not mean that one has a less desirable identity.

I'm not talking about "falling outside of the mainstream" or some other normative judgement, i'm talking about not being able to engage in the body/environment interaction that you stress is so important to having a unique identity. If you accept that someone unable to engage in that interaction is still a someone (and not a lesser someone at that) then surely you have to accept that that interaction isn't a necessary part of, for want of a better word, someonehood ?

Perhaps I could have picked a different word, like ineffable. I didn't want to get too woolly-headed, though.

Something like "so far undescribed" would have been clearer IMO (maybe not as nice from a prose point of view though, granted). 'Ineffable' isn't only woolly-headed (in this context), it's also just jumping the gun since we don't yet know whether we'll eventually be able to describe the nature of self/identity or not. It's claiming that something isn't explainable before we fail to explain it (as we may do, time will tell). Unless you just meant, effectively, "supercool with a hint of the spiritual" in which case something like "wondrous" maybe (not being patronising by suggesting words - well hopefully ;) - I just mean i'm not quite sure precisely what you intended).

But yep, as I say, a lot of my issues with your essay were with your description of reality, if you're not describing reality then a lot of my issues go away. And thanks for your response to my response to your response to 'Dollhouse' ;).

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