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Corpus Mysticum Digitale (Mystical Body Digital)? : On the Concept of Two Bodies ...


The purpose of this paper is to analyze the theoretical connotation of the idea of our digital body surviving the death of our natural body, advocated by such evangelists of digital afterlife as Bell and Gemmel. For this purpose, I will explore the seminal notion of ‘two bodies in one’ first minutely analyzed by Ernst Kantorowicz in his The King’s Two Bodies, which details the emergence of the legal concept by which the king has both a natural body and a mystical body (corpus mysticum) understood as the everlasting polity.

To explore the possibility of applying this notion to ideas concerning the body in the digital era, I will elaborate on two additional concepts, namely, the concept of diarchy in traditional authority, as proposed by Rodney Needham, and Toyo Ito’s concept of the natural and digital body originating from his peculiar view of contemporary architecture. Through the method of abductive comparison, I will discuss the limitation of Bell and Gemmel’s concept of an everlasting digital body. I will discuss the intrinsic lack of institutionality upon which the very notion of the two bodies of the king relies. I will introduce the concepts of the corpus mysticum digitale, a figure which, in the time of the decline of the power of ritual, legitimizes the dead as the collective entity that lives eternally but also anonymously.

keywords: two bodies, ritual, Kantorowicz, virtual body, mystical body


Man is born, lives his life and dies, ‘being old and full of days’ (Job, 42:17, King James Version). Except for those deeply indoctrinated by a powerful ideology against it, ritual has been an almost universal way of dealing with the unavoidable arrival of death and the stark reality of our finite lives (Hicks, 2001; Stewart & Strathern, 2010). It is hardly worth mentioning that a large chunk of classical anthropology has documented the vast variety of ideas – given shape by such ritual practices – about entities that survive our physical bodies (Metcalf and Hunchington, 1979; Ahern, 1981, inter alia). Nevertheless, the body has not been considered as merely a vehicle for the life-essence, but also as a basis for creating new meaning, including that of society, out of its existence (Douglas, 1973; Lakoff and Johnson,1980; Merleau-Ponty, 1962) . In this paper, I will pursue this line of thought in a slightly peculiar way – by focusing on the notion that two bodies exist, united in one. This rather puzzling idea received its first thorough analysis, at least in the context of Western historiography, from Ernst Kantorowicz in his magnum opus, The King’s Two Bodies, which centred on the legal theory of the Tudor era in the United Kingdom (Kantorowicz, 1957)(1). The details of his analysis will be outlined later in this paper; it suffices at present to suggest the immense theoretical implications and potential, yet so far less explored, for theoretical development even beyond the context of emerging political theology in the transition to modernity in Britain. Kantorowicz identifies a web-like relationship imbricating the problems of religious and political authority, ritual, personhood, institutionality, and life and death.

Using this concept of two bodies in one, this paper examines the validity and potential of a set of recent arguments about on-line memory, digital afterlife and virtual immortality. I will take up a seminal argument by Bell and Gemmel about ‘total recall’, the recording of every life event as a lifelog and the creation of a new type of body, so to speak, in the form of digital immortality (Bell & Gemmel, 2009), as somewhat representative of a variety of proponents of such a claim.

To bridge the seemingly impassable gap between these two distant thoughts, this paper provides two additional lines of reflection: first Rodney Needham’s anthropological argument on the general tendency toward dualism of authority and its relation to ritual practice (Needham, 1980); second the case of another thought on two bodies in one, between natural and digital body, proposed by Toyo Ito, one of the most influential architects in Japan (Ito, 2000a, 2000b). Needham’s argument is required to point up the striking aspects of Kantorowicz’s claim vis-à-vis the more commonplace understanding of the relation between, body, ritual and authority in anthropology, while Ito is called upon to prove that there has been a different attempt to think of the body’s dual aspect in terms of the contrast between its natural and digital phase, exhibiting a strikingly different conception of temporality from that of Kantorowicz.

This rather reckless attempt to compare such distant authors may easily lose credibility without proper theoretical justification. One such justification is the use of what I call ‘abductive comparison’, which I claim is not based upon the pre-determined comparability of elements, but upon the effectiveness of the concepts created by such comparison itself. A comparison of a glass, a football and an iron bar may appear meaningless until this act eventually is proved to be part of the topological procedure based upon the same ‘properties that are preserved under continuous deformations including stretching and bending, but not tearing or gluing’(2). In such context, even the surrealistic dépaysement, ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’ (de Lautreamont, 2011), is legitimized if any abductive concept is created through it.

In this paper, the targeted concept expected to be created through such procedure is the corpus mysticum digitale (mystical digital body) – a digitalized version of the original corpus mysticum, a Chiristological concept quintessential to Kantorowicz’s thesis and the passionate focus of a variety of contemporary thinkers, such as de Certeau, Schmitt and Agamben(3) . The invention of such a seemingly bizarre concept is to cultivate a new, if narrow, pathway to bridge these diverse realms of thought – from ritual, authority and political theology to the contemporary issues of the digital body and immortality. To avoid the lengthy and multiple annotations required for such an exploration, I have put them in the notes, while the main text is confined first to focusing on the core elements of each of three scholars to examine their mutual conceptual relations until they are boiled down to the target concept of the corpus mysticum digitale. The latter part of this paper tries to assess recent claims about digital death, the afterlife and immortality through the lens of this concept to discuss what has been missing in the previous arguments on this issue while suggesting the possibility of situating the subject of digitality in a wider theoretical scope not attempted thus far.

1. Needham: ritual and authority in dual sovereignty.

Both the universality and the distinctiveness of the notion of two bodies of the king should be illuminated through the light of a more general thesis about the relation among ritual, power and authority. In the field of classical social anthropology, authority figures in so-called traditional societies have often been conceived as belonging to two distinctive realms. Needham has collected many such cases in his anthropological work and has named it ‘dual sovereignty’ (Needham, 1980).

The introduction of his paper – the description of the windows in the old library of All Souls College, where figures of English kings are faced with archbishops of Canterbury and the four Latin Fathers (ibid, p.63) – leads to his main thesis: ‘a partition of forces to which men are subject into a diarchy defined as jural + mystical’ (Needham, 1980, pp.70-71). The evidence that Needham provides is abundant, from Dumezil’s analysis of Indo-European myths to the secular power of the brother and the mystical power of the sister in Japan’s islands (ibid, pp.73-88). Despite the well-known limitation of such a structuralist approach, his proposal of an ‘elementary classification of powers’ (Needham, 1980, p.88) is also attractive in distinguishing his king from that of Kantorowicz, which follows.

Interestingly, Needham hinted that this tendency for bifurcation might be attributable to the dual functions of our brains; to do credit to this universal claim of the bifurcation of the jural and the mystical, historical sociology may show that this tendency multiplies itself. Max Weber’s exegesis (1978) of the further division of the authorities of both church and kingship, the former being divided between its legalistic bureaucracy and the countering monasticism, the latter being bifurcated between political machinery and charismatic divination, can be regarded as an interesting corroboration of such a universalist claim.

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