My Soul in a Fitbit: Spirit, Flesh & the Quantified Self

My Soul in a Fitbit: Spirit, Flesh & the Quantified Self September 13, 2018

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

About a decade ago, Herve Juvin published The Coming of the Body, a magnificently frightening analysis on the arrival and implications of a technologically enhanced body. This new body not only lived longer, but was also detached from the obligations of community and disentangled from the machinations of the will. This new body was one completely beholden to the individual will, and no biological, physical or sexual limit the body exerted could ever encumber it.

Among other diagnoses, I found Juvin’s most pointed was the thinning out of the person by collapsing the relationship between this new body and the soul. This new body, Juvin suggested, was a flattened version of Aristotle’s ensouled flesh. This is because this new body is one where only surface matters, and the movements of the soul have similarly become transposed to the surface of the skin. With the right cream, underwear or botox injection, one is able to don nothing less than immortality onto oneself, making the body, in Juvin’s words “the sacrament of eternal youth”.

Of course, this creates an inextricable nexus between the welfare of the soul, the body’s ability to consume an array of products, and the financial flows necessary to keep those products coming (on a related note, a colleague alerted me to this fascinating article on the “wellness industrial complex“).

This ensurfacing of the soul identified by Juvin provides some context to another colleague’s pointing out to me of the “Quantified Self” movement, a self-care movement wherein self knowledge is tied to a program of acquiring strings of data of every imaginable bodily function, from any number of tracking devices and apps, from fitbits to spend-trackers. Self-knowledge and self-care – askesis – is now synonymous with the ability to mine every bit of quantifiable data from every pore of the body, with the aid of the latest gadget, accessory or dietary program.

In the world of the quantified self, not only is the complexity of the soul reconfigured to strings of numbers. Getting those numbers and keeping them updated means that surveillance is now a social imperative, rather than an accidental unwelcome encroachment. Moreover, as put forward in a presentation for PeaceTalks at St George Anglican Church in Sydney, the accumulation of these commodified pieces of knowledge becomes a form of soulcraft.

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