Modes of Possession

Abou Farman

We say people have become their machines. They are their smartphones, they are their apps, their game consoles. The vectors of this becoming are not clear. Are our devices merely extensions of us, surrogate synapses? or are they reconfiguring our synaptic connections to mirror their circuits? Can machines possess us?

In her new book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle documents how by dint of playing all day with mechanical toys and robots, children have come to think of humans as machines. One child tells her that we have “hearts, lungs and a big battery inside”, the difference being that our batteries “work forever.”

Forever! Someone will have to talk to the child about that thing called death.

Death is when the body sheds the person and is finally itself - devoid of that strange quality it was possessed by for a while, the talking, decision-making, thinking, feeling part.

Whenever there is a person in a body there is possession. Personhood is basically the capacity of a body for being possessed. In the post-enlightenment West, we allow for only one kind of possession, by a unitary, unified self. If someone is not just their own self, then they are branded as crazy, they are possessed by multiple selves and that’s not considered healthy. That’s why we say of someone sane and in command of their faculties that they are self-possessed. But what’s possessing what?

A body that lacks the capacity to be possessed is often referred to as a zombie. Zombies appear in stories all over the world, nowhere as much as in Western philosophy. One wonders about this obsession with zombies in Western analytic philosophy. Could it be about a true worry about us being in some sense zombies already? Or is it merely a thought experiment? And what do we mean here by ‘merely’?

There is much to learn about these matters from anthropologist Joan Dayan’s studies of voodoo in Haiti. She talks about possession in Haiti as "that moment when the god inhabits the head of its servitor". This is not domination but the "reciprocal abiding of god and human". The gods in question are known as the loa. Everyone has the possibility to be possessed, but not everyone is possessed because not everyone is so disciplined. Discipline and training are required to be able to respond to the demands of the loa. If you are possessed but not properly initiated, you are wild; but if you have mastery of yourself, then you can become truly possessed. To Westerners of course this can seem counter-intuitive.

But what does the loa possess (or interact with)? The loa depends on the petit bon ange - a part of every person that may be glossed as personality and consciousness, the source of affect and thought. It is the interaction between petit bon ange and the loa that matters, not the domination of one by the other. It is when they are irreparably separated from each other and from the body that a person becomes zombie – a biological entity without a petit bon ange and without a loa. A body not occupied. A zombie in other words, is a person who has lost the petit bon ange and therefore the ability to be possessed. Possession is the opposite of zombification.

A zombie is a person thingified. A body robbed of its ability to be possessed by a self or two. A biological machine. An android. This is not something new. As Lewis Mumford pointed out, we have been making human machines for thousands of years. He considers the organized slave labor that made the pyramids the first machinic system. Five thousand years later, Charlie Chaplin captured the essence of this argument in Modern Times. When he walks off the assembly line, Chaplin’s body continues to carry out the repetitive motions of his labor. He is not in control, so he ends up unscrewing people’s buttons and spilling their soup. His body had fused with the machine’s.

One might be tempted to think something like, Chaplin is possessed by the machine. But he was not possessed by the machine. You can’t be possessed by a machine. Rather, you can become a machine if your body loses the ability to be possessed by persons. In other words, Chaplin had been made a zombie, a biological machine.

The historian David Noble points out that in the US, labor management starts out as an engineering problem, an extension of ideas about efficiency and cost-reduction that lead to standardization and the transfer of knowledge and skill from the worker into the machine. Frederick Taylor, after whom Taylorism is named, was an engineer.

Marxist ideas about the alienation of labor can be easily understood through zombification. Alienation of labor is thingification – the transformation of an aspect of a person into a thing which then appears as an independent entity, devoid of the social relations – the persons – that produced it, what Marx calls commodity fetishism. Capitalism is the zombification of humans as labor.

Anthropologists have noticed that when capitalist relations of production and standardized labor practices enter communities that had been previously organized through social relations and other modes of production, all sorts of events occur that people usually tend to classify under religion. Devils and demons take over the work force, new rituals and underground meetings pop up to both solicit and ward off spirits and demons, and most interestingly, fits of possession and contagious hysteria run wild on assembly lines with workers having to be removed during fits…

The mystery of these events is somewhat dispelled in light of the above. Possession as a reaction under those conditions is understandable – it is really ‘re-possession’, an attempt to have the dispossessed body repossessed – refilled with personhood – to counter the zombification brought about by the alienation of labor, the thingification of the laborer. All this might also imply that we who are unable to be truly possessed have already lost some of our petit bon ange. As unitary unified selves, we are limited, we are already part zombie.

So as we merge with our machines and try to figure out the vectors of our cyborgian becomings, it might be wise to keep some of this in mind. Turkle’s little girl intuited correctly in some measure: as machines, we won’t die. But we’d already be as good as dead. We’d already be zombies.

A true merger of machine and human, a real cyborg – as opposed to an android or zombie – would have to retain the ability to be possessed. The question would be, as it is in the realm of artificial life and artificial intelligence, whether a program is a mode of possession? Or is it just a mode of zombification?

Without justifying it here, I presume the latter. If so, we would require a new Voigt-Kampff test – the famous empathy test in Philip K Dick’s famous sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was turned into the movie Blade Runner. That test, designed to sort the machine species from the humanoid species, measured an entity’s ability to empathize. Machines, however much they looked and acted like humans, could not empathize. Only humans could. Empathy is a weak form of possession; an ability to imagine someone else as though they were you. Possession is stronger; the ‘as though’ is taken out of it.

The best test for it may be a late night session with a good voodoo mistress.

Abou Farman
Abou Farman

Abou Farman is a writer, educator, filmmaker, and artist who teaches anthropology at Bard college. He is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Canada Council for the Arts grant, Eyebeam Art + Technology Center residency award, Banff Centre literary journalism residency, and two Critic’s Desk Awards from Arc Poetry, Canada’s national poetry magazine. He is the cowriter of CUT!, a 2011 feature film that was screened at the Venice, Toronto, and Tribeca Film Festivals; other features and short films that he wrote, directed, or produced have been shown at festivals in Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, and Montreal. His written work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Anthropological Quarterly, Journal of Curatorial Studies, Anthropology Now, Utne Reader, and Best Canadian Essays 2010; and his work as part of the art duo caraballo-farman has been featured in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe, and Canada. His book of essays, Clerks of the Passage, was recently released from Linda Leith Publishing.