Un projet Labex Arts H2H
en /fr
2012 - 2016

Coding Subjectivity: Canguilhem’s “Le Cerveau et la pensée” Today
By Samuel Talcott

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia


This paper suggests that Georges Canguilhem’s work is useful for orienting contemporary thought about the meaning of code for subjectivity. In “The Brain and Thought” Canguilhem worried about the commercial and industrial pretensions lurking behind figurations of the human brain as computer. Such figurations served, he suggested, to diminish individual resistance to normalizing social projects. Only 35 years after Canguilhem stated this worry, the computer industry has far surpassed its early goal of putting a computer in every home, leading to a whole milieu of personal micro-computers (phones, cameras, watches, wrist bands) and virtual realities by which many regulate their lives. Perhaps this movement was successful because we have come to think of ourselves individually as computers, that is, machines programmed to follow a code. The iPad, for example, conjoins self and machine in one name. Canguilhem thought such self-understanding threatened to extinguish human invention. Since a computer cannot make errors (se tromper), that is, go wrong with the eventuality of realizing it, it is not capable of thinking, of inventing new ways of understanding or doing things, capabilities that do arise in the course of life. Instead the computer is coded to perform a number of procedures and this, even if it is with astonishing power, is what it does. He does not, therefore, accept that life should be explained in terms of a code, whether genetic or computer, that lays out its operations, course, and meaning in advance. The sense of self, moreover, emerges in the course of life. He dismissed “the myth of interiority” according to which I inhabit my body, whether as the sailor does the boat or software hardware. Instead, the “I” is coextensive with the world that is experienced in the moment but it persists even as my experience of the world changes. The “I” is, then, a function of the living individual relating to a changing milieu that serves to watch over (surveiller) this relation, thereby creating a world and providing the impetus for action within it. Adopting such a critical attitude in the face of new techniques of control, for Canguilhem, makes possible individual and collective resistance to the totalizing pretensions of these techniques. Canguilhem was right to be worried: computer and communications networks have made possible all sorts of large-scale projects of political control, violence, and domination. But code is no longer just a means to control or secure life, it has become another possible milieu within which people can, and many do, reside. New subjectivities, whether feasible or not, whether encouraging fantasies of immateriality and immortality or embodied political movements, have emerged thanks to life in this new milieu. Following Canguilhem, I conclude, we would do well to cultivate a critical subjectivity concerning the ways in which our willingness to encode our lives, also entails our subjection to normalizing powers.


About the author

Samuel Talcott is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He has published articles on Canguilhem and Foucault and is currently working on a book that critically elucidates their major works by reading them against each other.

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Un projet Labex Arts H2H