Dotted Lines and Recursive Fountains in Descartes's Treatise on Man (accepted for publication)

After many years of working on this paper on and off, I'm thrilled to soon see it published in Mosaic, an interdisciplinary journal of literary and critical theory. Originally, it was part of a dissertation chapter focused on Descartes. I was later inspired to weave in a more contemporary critical analysis, this after the opportunity of working with an international group of artists and thinkers drawn to the theory and practice of emerging art creations. I realized that this was, in part, what I was getting at in this paper. But it took another several years, a sabbatical, and the very helpful reviewers' comments to tighten my thesis.

What do you think of when someone mentions the name "René Descartes"? You might know he's a 17th century French philosopher; you might even be able to quote his famous "I think, therefore I am"; and you might even know that the quote illustrates a very watered down version of his thought, the mind-body duality. For many, Descartes seems to reference just that: he has gone down in the history of philosophy as the "father" of mind-body dualism. By association, "Cartesian," seems to imply everything that is wrong with our world, with our thinking: overly rational, overly logical, with no room for maneuver, no room for hybridity, no room for becoming. We are just atomic fixed identities bouncing off of each other.

But when I read Descartes, admittedly, very closely, I find fault lines in the text that confront such easy clichéd accounts of Descartes. Adding to a body of work that revisits the outdated idea of Cartesian dualism, in this close, I would say, very close reading of brain illustrations and Descartes's description of the fountain automata in his Treatise on Man, II show that we are not so different than Descartes. Whether early modern or contemporary,  we resort to similar metaphors to describe a changing, hybrid, identity, one that emerges, not in the vacuum of self, but in a community of others.


Early in the first volume of his Treatise on Man (1664), and alluding to a tradition dating back to Plato, Descartes imagines man to be like a fountain, its soul the engineer stationed at the valves, opening and closing them at will; its body the various tubes and levers through which water flows, imitating the fluids of humors and spirits coursing through our veins and arteries. With this powerful image of a hydraulic fountain automaton, Descartes illustrates the dualism between soul and body that informs much of his works, a seemingly radical binary that has become the most recognizable aspect of Descartes’s thought to scholars outside the field. His text continues to frustrate our post-humanist efforts to find alternatives to such radical binaries: mind-body, self-other, subject-object, and so on. Today, we try to remap the subject and confront such strong binaries. As Brian Massumi writes in Parables for the Virtual, we favor “theories privileging notions of hybridity, bordering and border culture, and queering attempt [to valorize] the in-between” (69). We want new maps to replace the old. In that process either we are post-humanists, and somehow better for it; or we are not, we are Cartesian.

In this essay, I return to Descartes’s description of this mind-body mechanism. My methodology is diagrammatic: I am interpreting early modern and contemporary diagrams. For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a diagram functions like several “superimposed maps” (44), providing many levels of internal coherence that may not all be read at once, and might even represent “a real that is yet to come” (142). Thus a diagram anticipates, beyond or beneath, another viewpoint, and possibly many viewpoints. In Treatise on Man, I am pointing to illustrations that left an indelible imprint on the very fabric of his text. I am also reading his descriptions of fountains that became metaphors to understand the mechanism of man. Visual illustrations and metaphors all function as diagrams: they hide, perhaps in plain sight, theoretical potentials yet to come. What emerges in my close readings are fault lines in the binary model, further adding to a body of scholarship that began with John Cottingham’s argument for Descartes’s trialism. I will revisit moments where Descartes reveals, most likely in spite of himself, a hybrid ontological map. But I am also reading across diagrams: then and now. In the final analysis, I find diagrams of identity, whether imagined in Descartes’s time or today, draw from the same language.



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