In this two part series, I’ll be exploring the legacy of the body-as-machine metaphor and then explore an option to view the metaphor in an alternative conceptual way.
If I were to ask physiotherapists about what words underpin our identity as healthcare professionals, I would expect to hear “health, the body, movement and rehabilitation” as some examples. If I were then to ask physiotherapists about the word machine in relation to physiotherapy, I expect most would refer to the conceptual metaphor body-as-machine, which describes a mechanistic view of the body. Biomedicalism and the biomechanical body as an applied science, have had an enduring legacy and can be attributed to the Renaissance and figures of that period including Leonardo Da Vinci, Renes Descartes and Galileo. Favouring a physical and mathematical scientific method over a naturalist ontology, these thinkers demonstrate examples in their writing. Descartes specifcally, referred to the body as a machine, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s artwork represents many metaphorical depictions of the workings of the body in relation to mechanical parts. By the 19th and 20th centuries the ‘body-as-machine’ metaphor became dominant in biology and medicine (Fox, 2012; Leder, 2016). It was a powerful metaphor that provided a scientfic understanding of structure and function of the body, and when a part was “faulty” or “abnormal,” it could be repaired, rehabilitated or replaced (Fox, 2012; Leder, 2016).
The adoption of body-as-machine by the founders of physiotherapy was an important strategy as it legitimised the profession. By separating it from unscrupulous practices, it provided a strong foothold for rapid growth and professional prestige (Nicholls & Gibson, 2010). However, the biomedical model and body-as-machine crenellated the view of the body, health and movement to disordered physiological processes. Additionally, the biomedical model reduced the body into respective parts and with a particular focus on ‘abnormality’ of the part, it became specialised, aggrandised, and the focus of rehabilitation. This view perseverates in modern physiotherapy practices. Simultaneously, some have argued this view has become problematic. As Nicholls and Gibson emphasize in their paper, the mechanistic and simplistic view of the body, “has contributed to, or even precipitated, a perceived quality of care crisis in healthcare” (Nicholls & Gibson, 2010, p. 500). They further state the quandry that by adopting such a model to raise our status, “we may have inadvertently reduced the subtle complexities of health and illness to a narrow set of biological principles” (Nicholls & Gibson, 2010, p. 500). It stands to reason, despite attempts to broaden clinical physiotherapy practice, physiotherapists have a very set and rigid view of the body, movement, health and rehabilitation because of the biomedical and biomechanical models (Nicholls, 2017).
Deleuze and the Simulacra
Before we dive into reconciling the body-as-machine metaphor we need to unpack Deleuze’s concept of the simulacra. In part two of this blog, I will depart from the machine metaphor as a view of the body and offer an alternative view to the word machine. To do this, I draw upon Gilles Deleuze’s machine ontology as an alternative way to think about the body-as-machine, proposing that the body(-as-machine) is machine.
The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995) was influential and creative, and whilst his thought, concepts and writing can be considered esoteric, once ensnared by his ideas, the possibility for new ways of thinking are captivating and no less inspiring. New possibilities and ways of living were at the core of Deleuze’s thought. He was a strong proponent of viewing the world not from a single perspective or identity i.e. body-as-machine, but from multiple perspectives or “multiplicities.”
In his book Difference and Repetition, Deleuze outlines, in great detail, his proposal to viewing the world as multiplicity. To do this, he critiques the Platonic view of Simulacra. According to Deleuze’s interpretation of Plato’s philosophy, Plato believed in the existence of transcendent Ideas or Forms that are more real and perfect than the material world we experience through our senses. These Ideas serve as models or originals for the things we see in the world around us. In this sense, Plato valued the ideal over the material. In other words, the model is an ideal or perfect version of something that exists beyond the material world. It is a standard against which we can measure the things we see in the world around us (Smith, 2006). For example, if we see a chair in the material world, we can compare it to our idea of what a perfect chair should be (the model) and determine how closely it matches that ideal.
Plato valued faithful representations of his transcendent Ideas (copies) over distorted or perverted versions of those ideas (simulacra). However, Deleuze challenges this hierarchy by arguing that there is a “practical difference” between copies and simulacra that goes beyond mere resemblance to an original idea (Smith, 2006). By emphasizing this practical difference, Deleuze offers an alternative way of thinking about images and representation that challenges traditional Platonic philosophy. Deleuze refers to a “practical difference” between two things, meaning it is a difference that affects how we interact with or understand the world around us. Deleuze argues that there is a “practical difference” between copies and simulacra because they have different relationships to the transcendent Idea. This has implications for how we understand the nature of reality and representation. By emphasizing the practical difference between copies and simulacra, Deleuze is highlighting their significance beyond mere theoretical distinctions.
Body-as-machine as Simulacra
Deleuze did not believe in transcendent Ideas or Forms as Plato did. Instead, Deleuze argues that the world is made up of a multiplicity of forces and intensities that are constantly changing and interacting with each other. Deleuze challenges the hierarchy between model and copy, which Plato believed, by arguing that there is a practical difference between copies and simulacra that goes beyond mere resemblance to an original idea. He believes that copies are well-grounded claimants to the transcendent Idea, authenticated by their internal resemblance to the Idea, while simulacra are like false claimants, built on a dissimilarity and implying an essential perversion or deviation from the Idea. If copies, according to Deleuze, are well-grounded claimants to the transcendent idea of Models then there is no hierarchy, there is no distinction. Simulacra, on the other hand, are false claimants, not wholly representative of a copy. I should point out here that Deleuze’s philosophy emphasizes difference and becoming rather than fixed identities or essences. In this sense, he does not believe in the existence of fixed models or copies but rather sees reality as a constantly changing process of becoming.
An example we can use of the simulacrum is the theme park Disneyland. Deleuze argues that Disneyland is a simulacrum because it presents a sanitized and idealized version of reality that is disconnected from the real world. It creates a hyperreal environment that mimics reality but does not actually represent it. In other words, Disneyland is not a copy of any particular place or time, but rather an artificial environment that creates its own reality. Deleuze sees this as an example of how simulacra can be used to control and manipulate people’s perceptions of reality. By presenting an idealized version of reality, Disneyland creates a sense of nostalgia and longing for a past that never existed. This can be seen as a way of controlling people’s desires and shaping their perceptions of the world around them.
In a very literal sense, there are parallels here with the concept of body-as-machine as a simulacrum of the human. It is an alternative version of a reality that is disconnected from what the human body actually is. It takes a very crude method of understanding the body but does not actually represent it. The body-as-machine is an artificial reality, vacant and empty, nothing more than an object that can be repaired or replaced (Leder, 1992, 2016).
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but the argument and belief of “fixing the body” is etched within the very fabric of healthcare and society to this day. I ponder on whether there is anyway of reconciling it because of the social and societal understanding. I attempt to explore this reconciliation with the body-as-machine in part 2.
Thanks for having a read.
TNP as Curiouser
Fox, N. J. (2012). The Body: Key Themes in Health and Social Care. Polity Press.
Leder, D. (1992). A Tale of Two Bodies: The Cartesian Corpse and the Lived Body. In D. Leder (Ed.), The Body in Medical Thought and Practice (pp. 17–35). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-015-7924-7_2
Leder, D. (2016). The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing. University of Chicago Press.
Nicholls, D. A. (2017). The end of physiotherapy. In The End of Physiotherapy. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315561868
Nicholls, D. A., & Gibson, B. E. (2010). The body and physiotherapy. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 26(8), 497–509. https://doi.org/10.3109/09593981003710316
Smith, D. W. (2006). The concept of the simulacrum: Deleuze and the overturning of Platonism. In Continental Philosophy Review (Vol. 38, Issues 1–2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-006-3305-8
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