Those who are close to me know that I have an – some of them might say unhealthy – obsession with robots, artificial intelligence, cyborgs and prosthetics. My love for robots stems from the 80s cartoon Transformers, which I used to watch obsessively every single weekend on Fun Factory. I had (and still have) a religious fascination with the concept of transformation. As a kid I regularly dreamed of being someone else; I often fantasized about what it would’ve been like if my parents had decided to stay in Curaçao. Would I have been the same person? Pretty deep stuff for a kid, I know, but I was a “Black” kid – in a predominantly “White” society – who was struggling with nascent homosexual feelings (and I was fully aware that those feelings made me different) while growing up in a trans-cultural setting with strict heteronormative rules. If you add the buoyant ingredient religion to that heady mix it is not strange that I wanted to be, occasionally, someone else.
I blame the film Crash – the one based on the novel by J.G. Ballard and directed by David Cronenberg, the master of Body Horror – and The Bionic Woman for my fascination with prosthetics. Jaime Sommers’ superhuman abilities (amplified hearing – albeit only in her right ear, a greatly strengthened right arm, and enhanced legs which enabled her to run really fast) were akin to the abilities of BraveStarr (though his were of a mystical instead of a technological order). Both characters spoke intensely to my active imagination. I, too, wanted enhanced abilities – be it through mystical or technological means. The film Crash managed to stir my imagination in a completely different manner. I saw Crash when I was in my late teens, and it had a significant impact on me. It would probably be wide off the mark to brand the film Crash as sexy (a film in which disconnectedness, and the abstraction of sex and the human body are major themes), however, to my late-teen imagination it was sexy in a darkly twisted way. My “homosexuality” was at that time, more or less, as abstract as the stylized sexual encounters between the oddly disengaged main characters in the film. Perhaps, my “homosexuality” was even more abstract: I often seemed disconnected from it, and it from me. It was not yet real since I had not yet acted on my desires. As a concrete concept “homosexuality” existed extraneous to me; I knew of the existence of other gay men through books and TV programmes – unfortunately, all these “homosexuals” were “White” men who could never come close to representing the embodied experiences of a “homosexual” person of colour. For the longest time I experienced my sexuality as an abstract concept, and felt utterly disconnected from the people around me because of my sexuality, which I had come to view as “wrong”. I was consistently told through cultural representations, religious ideology, patriarchy that I was “damaged”, “deviant”, “possessed”, “filthy”, “not a real man”. My sexuality became a wound that would not heal – that other people wouldn’t allow to heal. I would never be seen as “normal”. Amidst this sea of noise Crash spoke to me – on a tropological level – because the characters, however “damaged” or traumatized, celebrated (and even took pleasure in) their scars, the diverse contours of various wounds, victims, and victim-positions. These “deformaties”, deviations from the “normal” were considered points of entry to explore different sexualities.
“Trying to exhaust himself, Vaughan devised an endless almanac of terrifying wounds and insane collisions: The lungs of elderly men punctured by door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse.”
“Each of her deformities became a potent metaphor for the excitements of a new violence. Her body with its angular contours its unexpected junctions of mucus membrane and hairline detrusor muscle and erectile tissue was a ripening anthology of perverse possibilities.” – text taken from Crash, J.G. Ballard
I read the book about three years ago, and I liked the book very much – even though, as the above quotations show, it is very graphic. The book details the transformation of human psychology by modern technology: after a car accident the fictional James Ballard goes on a journey of sexual discovery in which he explores his sexuality through technology. Technology mediates his sexual encounters. If you think that’s perverse you should keep in mind that the dildo is also a technique, a technology, that mediates sex. The book also criticizes consumer culture’s fascination with celebrities, technological commodities and the marriage of these two: the human body as commodity. Even though, I am fascinated with cyborgs (the union of flesh and technologies) I am reluctant and averse to likening the human body to a machine. Likening the human body to a machine raises all sorts of complicated ethical, ontological, epistemological, phenomenological questions. One needs to ask oneself, what is a “machine” and how did the notion of the mechanical evolve alongside definitions of the “human body”? And if “machines” were ever to develop a consciousness could they be considered “human” – if “humans” are considered to be “machines”? And how do notions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class fit into this ideology of the “human body as machine”?
Technology has already radically altered the relationships people have with their bodies (from glasses to hearing aids to cosmetic surgery), and how people perceive their bodies in time and space (from photography to video recordings to mobile forms of communication to the Internet). Consciousness, and by extension the body, is distributed across time and space with the aid of technology. In addition, modern technologies have altered the way we interact with other bodies (Grindr, webcam sex). People exchange messages with presence information, request others to perform certain acts, etc. In Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life Mizuko Ito et al. have called this mode of text sharing “ambient virtual co-presence”. Mobile forms of communication, like the mobile phone, opened the door to a portable “virtual” private space. This “gesture of opening” (which is sometimes quite literal, as is the case with the so-called clamshell phones) effectively produces a copulative circumferential private space (albeit an illusory private space) in public spaces (copulative because it links the “private”and “public” in significance). By leaving the door open (one is always available) mobile phones have established the “virtual” private space as a pervasive presence in public spaces. The manipulation of a mobile phone in public spaces can thus be viewed as a gesture that disrupts public spaces.
“Conceptualizing forms of digitally mediated communication as gestures of a networked “I” may help us to ground studies of new media in the body rather than in the toys, in the embodied interactions mediated by technology rather than in the technologies themselves, in the distributed self rather than in disembodied, technologically consequent and dependent, and ultimately empty, cyberspaces.” – New Media Gestures, Michael Schandorf
Modern technologies have made it easier for people to destabilize the notion of bodily integrity whether in pursuit of a better physical appearance, through the removal of a benign, or malicious, growth, or through social media networks that house a disembodied self. Social networking sites function as spaces where people create a personal topography, i.e. a catalogue of their experiences. “Memory spaces”, i.e. personal topographies that map out memories, ideas, feelings, thoughts, expressions, experiences, have become critical social spaces that add a cachet to someone’s “real” existence. Memory spaces are essentially spaces in which one’s scripted online self can be performed, in which one curates oneself, in which one can engage a conversation with one’s “virtual” self. Photographs, items, notes, links, blog entries (or other personal imagery that contain memories, or meaning), that chronicle one’s evolution as a person, are posted and people are invited (one can even say expected) to comment on, or share, these memes of the self. The boundary between public and private spaces has become, through the various uses of modern technologies, very porous. The distance between one’s real body, one’s memory space (one’s distributed body), and the audience is nominal. This raises yet another interesting question:
In what ways have our conceptions of the body changed now that we have transformed ourselves into spaces that can be explored?
Yesterday I came across an article ‘Deadly Monopolies’? Patenting the Human Body which is at once interesting and unsettling. Harriet Washington states in the article that, “[i]n the past 30 years, more than 40,000 patents have been granted on genes alone”. I was shocked and abhorred to read that pharmaceutical companies can patent genes – the building blocks of life. Pharmaceutical companies taking out patents for genes is the colonization and the commodification of the “human body” in a very literal and alarming way. The article reminded me of the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken and used in various experiments without her doctor ever having informed her. The “deaccession” and commodification of human tissue illustrates the major problem I have with likening the “body” to a “machine”. If the “body” is indeed a “machine” then it can be broken down to its constituent parts; non-functioning parts can be reproduced (manufactured) and replaced; it becomes subject to technical rules. Richard Stivers argues that a technique is “a logical procedure whose sole purpose is efficiency”. Technical rules annihilate choice since effective procedures do not permit choices. Techniques also destroy symbolic meaning (which is deemed inefficient); their meaning is straightforward and completely rational. Another major problem I have with the “body as machine” ideology is that it advances the idea that not only is it possible to subject the “body” constantly to cost-benefit analyses, it is also advantageous to manage the “body” like one does a “machine” if one wants to live a happy and successful life. So, if one is “ugly” – which is inefficient since it thwarts one’s path to “happiness” - one owes it to oneself to nip, tuck, pluck one’s “body” into perfection. This way of looking at the “body” opens the door to all sorts of sketchiness that has led the California Supreme Court to rule that “[Moore] had no right to any share of the profits obtained from anything developed from his discarded body parts”. This gives rise to a whole new set of questions:
What is to be done with discarded body parts (the no longer useful, or desirable, parts of your “body”, like cancer cells)? Are they still part of your “body”, or are they simply “waste”?
This ideology also makes it OK to control bodies that are deemed “deviant” – either because they do not conform to some technical rule, or because they are not normative. This is salient as regards marginalized bodies, i.e. the bodies of undocumented immigrants, people of colour, transgendered or intersexed people, poor people, etc. (these categories often intersect). It is not only OK to control these bodies but also to subject them to abuses. These bodies are viewed as the discarded parts of the body politic. At the heart of the discourse on marginalized bodies is the discourse on the usefulness of these bodies. And the principle of usefulness is structured on the ideology of efficiency. Marginalized bodies are only useful when there’s a profit to be made. As is the case in certain parts of Africa where access to medical care in poverty-stricken areas is contingent on the mandatory use of drugs pimped out by pharmaceutical companies; if you don’t agree to take these drugs, you’re not given medical care. HOW FUCKED UP IS THAT? These drugs have proven to increase the risk of contracting HIV and the pharmaceutical company who pimped out this drug is not even batting an eyelid – as a concerned women living with HIV in South Africa reported:
“We have cases of forced contraception in women living with HIV. Sometimes, acceptance of Depo-provera is a condition to access treatment (a dark side of integrating HIV services with family planning services disguised as SRHR services). I am concerned and angry about this news because scientists knew this a long time ago. There was always a link between STIs, diabetes, and Depo-provera because it affects the vaginal lining. Depo-provera’s risks have been on the radar since I got involved with AIDS in 2000, but we were always cautioned to speak softly for fear of upsetting the family planning lobby.”
Marginalized bodies are perceived to create havoc for “the rest of us” (read: legitimate bodies). Moreover, as societies become more heavily technologized each remaining “inefficiency” becomes more problematic. And what is more “inefficient” for technologically advanced Western countries than undocumented immigrants. The “virtual” border that we have set up between the private space of nation-states and the public spaces of the world is not intended to keep people out, but to differentiate movement and access. “Official documents” are techniques that are used to control and confer privilege on those bodies that are deemed legitimate. And in pursuit of this organizational efficiency morality is thrown overboard. As Flavia Dzodan pointed out in her article In the name of safety: the multi-national anti immigration industry and their billionaire profits:
“[Meanwhile], mainstream media continues pushing the “immigrant menace” and uncritically disseminating the figure of the immigrant as a criminal, a non person, an illegal. This dissemination, in turn, allows for the abuses to continue unchecked, with a population that has become desensitized to the injustices perpetrated over the bodies of “non people”, the illegals.”
We – as the body politic – must ask ourselves which of our needs are being satisfied because of the existence of marginalized bodies.