We live in a culture that determines a person’s eligibility for human rights according to his or her ability to function autonomously. What constitutes personhood, according to our culture, has less to do with being biologically human and more to do with performing certain skills successfully. If cognitive ability is all that is needed to constitute personhood, our bodies are disposable and can be treated with flippancy. This definition of personhood is dangerous, and it paves the way for discrimination. In the book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey details the dangers of this definition of personhood.  She warns us about the terrors of a culture that subscribes to a worldview that dismisses the body as irrelevant to personhood: human rights are determined by the state, the rich rule over the poor, and acts of violence become permissible.

These and other terrors characterize the world of the Netflix series Altered Carbon, which is grounded upon the anti-body philosophy Pearcey criticizes.  In the show, the body has become a disposable tool for humanity because life does not end when the body dies. Instead, a person’s consciousness is uploaded to a device called a “stack,” which is then implanted into a body — any body — or “sleeve.” While this kind of society may seem like an evolutionary dream to some, Altered Carbon gives an explicit and visceral look into the failures and horrors of such a society, and these failures and horrors resemble those Nancy Pearcey warns us about in Love Thy Body. As these terrors play out on screen, they reveal that Altered Carbon does not endorse the belief that the body is entirely separate from the person. Throughout the series, the heroes of the story are the poor or those victimized by the rich, and these heroes frequently display a high view of the body. Ultimately, Altered Carbon imaginatively reveals the truth of Pearcey’s claim in Love Thy Body: the body is fundamental to the definition of “person.”

Altered Carbon follows the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs, a fiercely trained mercenary, who was taught to fight alongside his fellow Envoys against their corrupt government, the Protectorate. Once he is resleeved after 200 years of being on ice,[1] Kovacs discovers he is still considered an enemy of the state, but he has the option to earn his pardon by solving the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a Meth. Meths, named after the biblical Methuselah, are a wealthy class known for their insistence on eternal life through resleeving, copying their stacks, and even cloning their original bodies. Bancroft, who had recently been awakened with his cloned stack and sleeve, realizes that someone murdered him right before his consciousness could update in Altered Carbon’s version of the cloud, and he cannot remember how he died.[2] Therefore, he has hired Takeshi Kovacs to discern who dared to threaten the immortality of a Meth.[3] Despite being a loner, Kovacs quickly assembles a team comprising a cop, a vengeful father, and an artificial intelligence modeled after Edgar Allen Poe to help him solve the case. As this motley crew discovers the twisted truth about Bancroft’s murder, they also begin to uncover the twisted terrors endorsed by the Protectorate.

In Love Thy Body, Pearcey suggests that a world which completely devalues the human body has no reason to support human rights. Recalling the words of philosopher Mortimer Adler, Pearcey notes, “Groups of superior men [will] be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden.”[4] In Altered Carbon, the poor — especially poor women — are enslaved, exploited, and killed. The most disgusting terror in this series is the business called Head in the Clouds. In it, patrons pay to physically and sexually dominate and harm others. Employees of Head in the Clouds are expected to enthusiastically offer their services to patrons, even to the point of suggesting a weapon to use for their own torture and death. These services almost always end with the employee being bludgeoned to death or cut open, but they are encouraged not to fear because Head in the Clouds’s management will just resleeve the dead. However, that never happens. Instead, every employee is quite literally disposable. Once their work is done, their bodies and stacks are destroyed. Head in the Clouds is precisely the kind of business we can expect to thrive in a world where human rights are determined without regard to the body. A world that devalues the body allows those in power to abuse the vulnerable.

Our heroes in Altered Carbon do not stand for this treatment of individuals, and they demonstrate a proper response to the strange and terrifying behaviors of a world that attempts to completely devalue the human body. Vernon Elliot, the vengeful father on Kovacs’s team, seeks to destroy Head in the Clouds, and he comforts a girl who fears the wrath of her employer. When he infiltrates Head in the Clouds, he is brought to a room with a 19-year-old girl inside. Instead of drugging her and putting her to sleep so he can carry on with his mission to bring down the organization, Vernon makes a point to show the girl that she does not have to go on living in such a way. She is quick to mention that the body Vernon sees is, indeed, hers, not a random sleeve. At that comment, Vernon’s eyes open wider, filled with greater horror. The girl then attempts to entice Vernon, opening a case and showing him a variety of weapons he can use on her, including a drill, a whip, and a knife, saying, “You can cut holes in me anywhere,” and she subsequently pretends to beg for her life.[5] Vernon, horrified, looks the girl in the eyes, gently grabs her on the shoulders, and tells her to stop. She becomes increasingly upset the longer he dismisses her efforts. Eventually, crying, she tells Vernon to go on because “it’s okay,” but Vernon tells her strongly, “No, it’s not okay.”[6]

This girl is clearly victimized, and Vernon’s response shows the viewer how we also should feel for her. We don’t simply feel sympathy or pity for her because she is about to experience temporary pain, but we, like Vernon, feel horror because she is required by her employer to allow people to abuse and destroy her body. It does not matter that the girl has the potential to have her stack placed in another sleeve. We are still horrified, despite the technological possibility.

Pearcey is right to quote Lewis as she highlights the lie beneath such technologies, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”[7] The invention of stacks is merely a way to control other humans, and we can feel confident about this conviction because we are still horrified at the thought of destroying one’s own body. This horror is evidence that we innately recognize the body’s relevance in personhood. Head in the Clouds does not simply destroy bodies. It destroys people. We cannot separate what happens to our bodies from what happens in our minds.

We must expect that our bodily experiences will have a significant impact on our mental state, so it is irrational to treat the body as anything less than fundamental to the definition of personhood. That expectation is validated as truth in the way Altered Carbon describes resleeving. The first glimpse of this truth is found in the show’s opening scenes, regarding Takeshi Kovacs. The series opens with a bleak explanation and visual depiction of the world viewers have just entered. We see the backside of a naked Kovacs’s body submerged in water as a woman explains, “Your body is not who you are. You shed it like a snake skin.”[8] From the first moment of the show, even viewers are told that our bodily experience is not only subordinate to our thoughts but irrelevant in light of them. This is the message the Protectorate has set up: our bodies are mere tools for us to use and abuse as we see fit because we can always get a new one, and nothing will change. That message is a lie. As soon as Kovacs awakens, he is mentally unstable. He asks for a mirror, but the laboratory workers refuse to give him one because they know that a person who sees themselves in a new body for the first time can “risk schism or psychotic break.”[9] If a person can be mentally damaged by a disconnect between his consciousness’s understanding of his body and what his eyes perceive as his body, the body is clearly a fundamental part of the self, inseparable from the mind.[10] Our consciousness is informed by our bodily experience. Pearcey makes a similar claim, stating, “The body is the only avenue we have for expressing our inner life or for knowing another person’s inner life. The body is the means by which the invisible is made visible.”[11] Our consciousness cannot be formed without our bodies. Because the body and mind are permanently and intrinsically connected, a change to the body is a change to the person.

As much as our culture wants to claim that our bodies do not determine our value as persons, we can’t escape the truth about our bodies — they are fundamental to the definition of personhood. As made evident by Altered Carbon, we cannot separate the body from the mind or spirit without causing harm. In fact, the series demonstrates how devaluing the body results in discrimination and domination. We, therefore, must place a high value on the body and stand in opposition to a culture that regards the body as disposable and anything less than holy. God’s narrative has always been true: the physical world is good, and we need not assign any other criteria to prove its goodness. We must seek to dismantle worldviews that assign personhood according to immeasurable levels of autonomy and uphold what we all intuitively accept: our bodies do not merely belong to us — they are us.

Citation Information

Cherish Nelson, “Personhood in Altered Carbon,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 203-212.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///personhood-in-altered-carbon-the-body-as-fundamental/


[1] “On ice” is the term used in Altered Carbon to describe when a stack is being stored in another location without a body. Interestingly, “on ice” is an intrinsically physical phrase. Bodies, body parts, or even food are put on ice to preserve them. Even stack-related language in Altered Carbon implies a oneness between body and consciousness.

[2]   In Altered Carbon, characters often distinguish between “sleeve death” and “real death.” Sleeve death is when only the body is killed but the stack is preserved, allowing the person to be “spun up” into another body. Real death is when a person’s stack is destroyed, preventing them from living again in another body. In the case of Laurens Bancroft, he was shot in the neck, resulting in real death. Again, stack-related language in the show suggests connection between the body and consciousness. The linguistic distinction between the death of the body and destruction of the consciousness is minimal.

[3] Altered Carbon. “Out of the Past.” Directed by Miguel Sapochnik. Based on the novel by Richard Morgan. Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Netflix, February 2, 2018.

[4] Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 46, digital edition.

[5] Altered Carbon. “Rage in Heaven.” Directed by Peter Hoar. Based on the novel by Richard Morgan. Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Netflix, February 2, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pearcey, LTB, 47.

[8] Altered Carbon. “Out of the Past.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Takeshi Kovacs is one of many examples of people who don’t feel whole after being resleeved. Other examples include Ava Elliot and Lizzie Elliot.

[11] Pearcey, LTB, 26.