In my opinion, “Can Thought go on without a Body?” was one of the hardest things I have ever read. As it usually goes, the more things you read something completely confusing to you, the more confused you get! It wasn’t until the 3rd time through that I finally found something to write about.
In the beginning of Lyotard’s essay, he talks about how the sun is already halfway through its expected lifetime. He makes the argument that with the death of the sun, everyone’s questions, thoughts, memories, etc. will all be gone. No one will be present to remember them except for perhaps matter itself, which is nonliving and does not have any concerns for us, human beings. It simply “ignores us” (Lyotard 11).
Therefore, Lyotard argues that we as people naturally then “try to anticipate the disaster and fend it off . . . [we] decide to accept the challenge of the extremely likely annihilation of a solar order and an order of [our] own thought” (Lyotard 12). He states that we will try to “simulate conditions of life and thought” and attempt to remain remembered as long as possible (materially) even after the explosion of the sun. It is interesting that Lyotard is so fixed upon worrying about this catastrophic event, even though it is not due for at least 2 billion more years and that it is more likely that the earth will be destroyed by some other means such as a nuclear war among the nations of the world, for example. He continues to emphasize that for many people, their occupations are aimed towards being remembered after this disaster:
“This and this alone is what’s at stake today in technical and scientific research in every field from dietetics, neurophysiology, genetics and tissue synthesis to particle physics, astrophysics, electronics, information science and nuclear physics. Whatever the immediate stakes might appear to be: health, war, production, communication. For the benefit of humankind, as the saying goes.” (Lyotard 12)
To me, this is the most compelling idea in the essay because it seems so obvious, yet it has never crossed my mind in the past. Many people do their jobs for the benefit of humankind, which will never change. However, it is quite interesting to think about the cynical position Lyotard is taking, thinking that people are only having the façade of working and researching for the benefit of humankind, when in reality they are doing it in attempts to be remembered for the rest of time.
This now brings me to Mark Twain and Hank Morgan. As we all can agree on, Hank Morgan has a very big advantage over his 6th century acquaintances. His knowledge in technology and science is unparalleled in that time of history, and he is even seen as a sorcerer of some sort. No doubt, Hank Morgan in the story has changed life for many people with his various inventions.
However, after reading the previously outline section in Lyotard’s essay, I began to wonder what Hank Morgan’s real motives were. Even though Hank says he is purely a practical person and “nearly barren of sentiment,” he in my opinion (and as we established in class 2 weeks ago), is obviously not (Twain 36). In the beginning of Hank Morgan’s dominance in the 6th century, he makes it obvious that he thinks very highly of himself and is very quick to label the general public ignorant many times throughout the story:
“I was pretty well satisfied with what I had already accomplished. In various quiet nooks and corners I had the beginnings of all sorts of industries under way – nuclei of future vast factories the iron and steel missionaries of my future civilization . . . I was training a crowd of ignorant folks into experts . . . “(Twain 101).
And to think that Hank stated himself as purely a practical person after he says something like that! His real personality really shines through in this passage when he calls the civilization his (“my”), and only gives himself credit for everything that has been done even though most likely the crowd of “ignorant folk” turned experts did the bulk of the work.
Before reading Lyotard, it never really crossed my mind what Hank was up to. I assumed that it was how it seemed, that he really wanted to benefit humankind with his advanced knowledge in technology. However, after reading “Can Thought go on without a Body,” I began to question Hank’s motives. He knew there was not going to be any disaster happening soon that would destroy the earth and everything with it. This fact is obvious, as he is from the 19th century. Knowing that alone, why did Hank have the desire to spread technology the way he has done in the novel?
In my opinion, even though Hank stated himself as a purely practical person and nothing more, he saw the opportunity arise and he took it – the opportunity to become, or attempt to be, remembered forever throughout time. He was doing exactly what Lyotard says humans do with today’s technology – attempt to become forever etched into time even after the earth and all matter is destroyed. Hank was already a very well respected and rich person in the novel, yet he continued to have the desire to spread the technology that he did not even discover. He could have just enjoyed the rest of his life in luxury instead of risking his life (and reputation as a sorcerer) throughout the whole book.
Lyotard’s work was an obstacle for me to read. Only after many attempts could I find something that I could understand and find compelling that made me see Hank Morgan in a completely different light. In my opinion, at least in the aspect of Hank’s motives in the novel, his actions can and should be read much differently than before after reading Lyotard.