Thinking the body aloud

Jane Goodall

Adrian Mackenzie, Transductions, Bodies & Machines at Speed

Adrian Mackenzie, Transductions, Bodies & Machines at Speed

Adrian Mackenzie
Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed
Continuum, New York/London, 2002
ISBN: 0826458831

Zylinska ed, The Cyborg Experiments

Zylinska ed, The Cyborg Experiments

Joanna Zylinska ed.
The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age
Continuum, New York/London, 2002
ISBN: 0826459021

It’s at least 20 years since Stelarc first claimed the body obsolete. The phrase belongs to an ongoing experiment in discourse, a way of writing that is actually the transcription of the artist’s talk, a form of thinking aloud. As an accompaniment to his performance work, Stelarc has produced a running commentary, a spontaneous poetics of remarkably succinct and cogent sound bytes. Somehow, though, amid all the improvisatory richness of Stelarc’s talk, this phrase about the obsolete body has stuck, like some misaligned spool in the machine of cultural conversation, so that every track gets fed back through it, including those he continues to introduce himself.

Adrian Mackenzie takes this phrase from the 1997 CD on which Stelarc’s Ping Body performance is archived, and takes it as a warning light in his approach to the analysis of that work. Mackenzie, author of Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed is especially interested in the temporal aspects of the work. The term “transductions” is taken from French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, for whom it denotes a process of emergence and propagation. Thus, writes Mackenzie, a transductive approach in criticism promises “a more nuanced grasp of how living and non-living processes differentiate and develop.”

Ping Body (“ping” being a measure of the time it takes for a message on the net to reach its destination and return) provides a focus for considering the relative speeds and delays in a process of human-technical involvement whose complexity is belied by the collapsing of bios and technos. This is a subtle and potentially revealing way to approach Stelarc’s work, but Mackenzie puts his own commentary under stress by taking the obsolete body dictum as a summary of what Stelarc sets out to demonstrate, thus assuming a need to write in defence of the body. Mackenzie takes elaborate routes through the arguments of Heidegger and Virilio to circumvent the traps of simplification and flatness in our understanding of human-technological relations. A better acquaintance with Stelarc’s work and the talk that accompanies it might have helped dispel the anxiety about such traps, and enabled the discussion to take new directions, over less embroiled terrain.

Certainly Stelarc likes to issue dicta, and he has been entirely unapologetic about his most controversial statement. But in the context of an extensive oeuvre, unfolding over 2 and a half decades, he’s maintained an edge of provocation that never settles into dogma, even though some of his statements may sound like it. It is important to remember that his commentary is also a performance, and that he is prone to making statements like, “the more and more performances I do, the less and less I think I have a mind of my own—nor any mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense.” Stelarc says this in an interview with Joanna Zylinska and Gary Hall for The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. Edited by Zylinska, this collection of writings focuses on the work of Stelarc and Orlan [the French performance artist who has undergone a series of cosmetic surgery procedures referencing classic figures of female beauty. Eds]. In conversation, Stelarc tends to move away from the topic of technology, turning direct questions about it around to discuss specific technical difficulties, such as how it’s possible to grow muscle cells in a laboratory but not muscle fibre.

If Stelarc’s work remains relevant as a cultural practice, this is because it can help move us away from the rather obsessive and now stale dialogues about technology in the abstract that were so fashionable in the early 90s. Surely all this talk about obsolete bodies is becoming obsolete. It is not a conversation likely to produce useful insights at a time when we are being taken to war, not steered by abstract technology but via the good old traditional route of the propaganda campaign, in which twisted arguments and spun rhetorics are deployed as the first weapons of mass destruction. When “the question concerning technology” is whether the water supply is going to be restored, or how you are going to be able to rebuild your house from a heap of rubble, the discussion needs to be on a different footing. The most resonant questions raised in Stelarc’s work are those concerning the human being and its communicative operations.

Contributor Edward Scheer places himself in dialogue with Stelarc in his essay “Stelarc’s E-motions.” Scheer pushes the exploration of how emotion functions interactively and what this has to do with motion. “What moves us?” asks Scheer. He considers Stelarc’s interactions with the unmotivated choreography of the avatar in relation to Karen Finley’s overtly abreactive performances. Both, he writes, “are driven to perform rituals that transcribe the crisis of time, embody it and make it liveable.” In this process, the avatar will have to learn from its human models, drawing from the modelling work on emotion performed by 19th century researchers like Darwin, Delsarte and Duchenne de Boulogne.

Another refreshing shift from the habitual focus on the future-orientation of Stelarc’s work is provided by contributors Meredith Jones and Zoë Sofia, who are interested in “the varied ways in which people of European cultures have inhabited and owned bodies” from the Middle Ages to the present. Stelarc and Orlan, they emphasise, are engaged in carnal practices that necessarily involve the witnessing of pain, but this need not imply masochism. It may be more relevant to see their performances in relation to medieval views about the relationship between extreme carnal practices and the embodiment of higher values. These “higher values” have to do with ways of challenging incarnation itself, as a moribund condition, and with the revelation of the body as at once “cavernous and infinitely extended.”

Zylinska offers a complementary account of the 2 artists’ work as an opening up of the body that raises “issues of hospitality and welcome, of embracing incalculable difference.” The prosthetic relationship can thus be seen as a radical negotiation between self and other, that requires “otherwise complacent selves” to face up to the unspeakable and be challenged in their self-knowledge and self-sufficiency. This makes particular sense in terms of Stelarc’s ironic references to the imagery and terminology of paranoia. (Increasingly, he talks tongue-in-cheek about aliens, parasites and doubles.) In these times of paranoid nationalism, the urgent ground for investigation lies here, surely, in questions about boundaries—corporeal, metaphysical and political—and strategies for avoiding violently hysterical measures of self protection.

Adrian Mackenzie is a Researcher in Information Cultures, Department of Computing, Lancaster University. Joanna Zylinska is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, University of Surrey Roehampton, and author of On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: the Feminine and the Sublime.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 10

© Jane Goodall; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 April 2003