An enduring question about the human condition concerns the riddle of embodiment, or how to comprehend the very meat of our existence. Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, captures the quandary. It is 1632 in Holland and we are witness to the dissection of a criminal hanged earlier in the day. Superficially, this is a study of scientific observation and the object is human anatomy. And yet closer scrutiny of the painting’s composition leaves us feeling unsure about the actual subject matter. It is odd, for example, that the gaze of the attending surgeons, as well as Dr Tulp’s, is one of collective distraction. Only one fellow is actually looking at the dissection and even his eyes seem blank and disengaged. Rembrandt draws the viewer into this theatre of ironies with the confrontational stare of the surgeon who sits side-on to the scene. This man certainly sees us and the effect is unnerving; like an interpellative hailing, his intent look reaches across the centuries and pulls us into the frame. “Hey you! Yes, you… what do you think you’re looking at!” We are made to feel like impertinent intruders being called to account, as if the object of our scrutiny has turned the tables by subjecting us to the same existential question about flesh and mortality that has scattered the focus of these men. Of course, almost four hundred years on we have an uncomfortable appreciation that these onlookers have all been reduced to the position of the corpse, and further, that this same fate awaits us all. In sum, we are looking at ourselves! But what is this body whose abject status compels us to look away? Is it a sort of attachment or remainder of the self, a mere container or residue? Or is the precarity of the body’s internal workings, the ooze and mess that is seldom seen, the very stuff of being? In other words, could our dearest sense of self really be… that?

During this same historical period the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1650), is exercised by similar considerations as he searches for proof of his existence. After interminable speculation and doubt about his every assumption he deduces that to doubt is to think, and therefore the very process of thinking requires existence – cogito ergo sum – I think, hence I am.[1] Importantly for this discussion, Descartes determines that personhood, or what we might call the agential self, is entirely distinct from the body. The belief that there are two quite different components to our existence, one a natural part, or extension (the body) and the other a site of intellectual intention (the mind) is called the Cartesian mind/body split: indeed, the word “em-bodiment” reflects this logic, implying that something (mind/soul) is contained in or by the body.

Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632)

Today, Descartes is often derided by cultural analysts for dividing the subject because the demarcation is politically inflected. Nature/the body/woman/ignorance/darkness/the irrational/disability/the Other are tethered together by association and positioned hierarchically against culture/mind/man/enlightenment/whiteness/logic/ability, the One. The problem is that the latter cluster becomes the reference point against which the former is measured and found lacking. It is as if difference operates like a figure/ground, where the negative functions as a shadowy non-existence whose seeming absence enables the figure to assume self-definition. This economy of comparative valuation isn’t contained within its historical moment, now surpassed by more progressive and complex philosophies that have transcended such simplifications. Indeed, it is the linear progressivism that weighs historical difference in such binary terms – the movement from error to correction, as if the past is inherently faulty – that posthumanism challenges us to interrogate. The post, in this case, isn’t so much an “after,” a moving forward towards the resolution of previous difficulties. Instead, we are encouraged to question how historical traditions and commitments from the past, even back to the Stoics, might remain in play into the present.

What happens if we hesitate before representing the historical past as deficient – and here we might stretch the past to include evolutionary and ecological aspects of what came before human species being. By stalling the almost automatic rush to measure difference in linear models of increasing sophistication we can ask if the body/Nature is a material prop that merely supports the arrival and formation of mind, technology and the complex literacies that have come to define what it means to be human. We could return to Sigmund Freud’s work, as many feminists in the 1980s have done,[2] and review his work on hysteria, “the mysterious leap from the mind to the body”.[3] The question here is how the biology of the body could “perform,” or be, cultural, as we see with stigmata, hysterical blindness or psychological paralyses. How can cultural practices minimise or even prevent blood flow and scarring through ritual acts?[4] And how is the psychology of the placebo effect rendered biological?[5] Brain plasticity also registers social interaction and shifting individual capacities, thereby confusing cause with effect and culture with biology. Put simply, how can a body be culturally and cognitively attentive? And is Freud’s “mysterious leap” any leap at all?

More recent research into the human biome argues that bacterial flora in the gut are not mere additions to our bodies but intrinsic to our sense of personhood, our moods and ability to problem-solve.[6] Can we concede that perhaps the site of individual agency and cognition includes the large intestine, and what are the implications of this for our sense of self? Similarly, we are increasingly aware that genetics is a more open and mutable text than we had previously conceded – not fixed and prescribed, but changing with social and cultural experiences.[7] Is biology, then, already literate? If we look to Nature, or the non-human, we increasingly find evidence of decision-making and cognition even in plants, and surprising smarts in creatures such as squid and even mould on the forest floor. Of course, we can dismiss such provocations by explaining them away as the misrecognitions of anthropomorphism; a projection of our own human capacities onto a Nature that is bereft of them. This somewhat solipsistic perspective has resonance with cultural constructionism which posits that we can only perceive and understand our world in terms of the specific social and cultural environment that makes it meaningful. However, perhaps what we regard as unique human capacities are more distributed, ecologically entangled and creatively expressed than we had previously acknowledged. Can we risk the suggestion that the body/Nature is self-reflexive, a Cogito of sorts that investigates “the how” of its existence through myriad ciphers and morphological possibilities?

— The University of New South Wales Sydney, May 2017


[1] Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, ed. by John Veitch (Edinburgh: Sutherland and Knox, 1637/1850), p. 74.

[2] See for example, Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994); Moira Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality (New York: Routledge, 1996); Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. by C. Porter and C. Burke (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1977/1985).

[3] Felix Deutsch ed., On the Mysterious Leap from the Mind to the Body: A Workshop Study on the Theory of Conversion (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1959/2008).

[4] Crucifixion rituals in the Philippines illustrate this phenomenon.

[5] Elizabeth A. Wilson, ‘Ingesting Placebo’, Australian Feminist Studies, 23 (2008), 31-42.

[6] K.R. Magnusson et al., ‘Relationships between diet-related changes in the gut microbiome and cognitive flexibility’, Neuroscience, 300 (2015), 128-40.

[7] We see evidence of this in epigenetics, which studies changes in gene expression caused by social and environmental factors that are outside the gene. How is biology involved with what we thought was not biology?


Kirby, Vicki ed., What If Culture Was Nature all Along? (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Kirby, Vicki, Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Nealon, Jeffrey, Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

Shaviro, Steven, ‘Cognition and Decision in Non-Human Biological Organisms’ in Living Books About Life <>