Aesthetic Excess: Ballard and Stelarc

On December 14, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Radical art defies and transforms collective modes of understanding. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” segues between classical harmony, late romanticism and twentieth century atonality due to its ambiguous relationship to its tonal context. The aesthetic value of Xenakis’ Concret Ph lies partly in the technological potentials realized subsequently in granular synthesis techniques which employ global statistical parameters to control flocks of auditory events. Such sensations are, in Brian Massumi words, “in excess over experience” – suspending practices and meanings in ways that catalyse deterritorializing movement towards non-actual futures (Massumi 2005: 136). The aesthetics of excess provides a limit case of the reflective creation of value that occurs when we modify existing modes of sense-making or embodiment. It also provides a window upon the posthuman as potentiality shadowing our interactions with technological environments.

This contingency is amplified in another radical art work,  J G Ballard’s novel Crash. As I wrote back in 1999:

In Crash the technology of the car has become the adjunct to a violent sexuality.  Its erotic focus and ideologue, Vaughan, is an ambulance chasing ex-TV presenter whose career as a glamorous ‘hoodlum scientist’ has been cut short by his disfigurement in a motorcycling accident.  Marking the parameters of vehicle collisions and casual sexual encounters with Polaroid and cine camera, Vaughan is a social being of sorts, assembling around him a crew of co-experimenters whose sexuality has been activated by ‘the perverse eroticisms of the car-crash’.  The novel’s narrator ‘James Ballard’ recounts his induction into the crashpack; first through a motorway accident, then via a succession of techno-erotic duels and excursions, culminating in Vaughan’s attempted ‘seduction’ of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the environs of London Airport . .

It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus. . .  These impersonal ‘equations’ mediate every affective relationship between the characters and Crash’s residual city of multi-storey car parks, airport termini, hermetic suburbs and motorway slip roads. They are expressed in a language of excremental objects – ‘aluminium ribbons’, Gabrielle’s thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipples, torn fenders, scars, etc. – whose very lack of quotidian function commends them as arbitrary tokens in the symbolic algebra (Roden 2002).

Crash thus construct an internally referential system of desire around sites, surfaces and interstices of late twentieth century technological landscapes (Roden 2002). But despite its contemporary setting, the novel does not describe this world: it potentiates it. Crash exhibits the contingency of human subjectivity and social relationships given its irrevocably technological condition.

 

A similar claim is made about the work of the Australian performance artist Stelarc in Massumi’s “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason”. Massumi argues that the content of Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values is interrupted. Of the compound eye goggles that Stelarc created for his work Helmet no. 3: put on and walk 1970 he writes: “They extended no-need into no-utility. And they extended no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131).

Stelarc’s somewhat elliptical rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. His performances decouple the body from its functions and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolesce:

The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain subpopulation feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility (151-2).

These performances embody a potential that is “unthinkable” because aesthetically disjoined from our phenomenology and world. But, as Claire Colebrook suggests, we have been incipiently “off world” since the dawn of the industrial era:

We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics (Colebrook 2012: 38).

The counter-final nature of modern technique means that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. Posthumanity would be only the most extreme consequence of this ramifying technics. An ethics  bounded by the human world thus ignores its already excessive character (32).

References:

Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.

Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc.” In Stelarc: The Monograph, Marquand Smith (ed). MIT Press: 125-192.

Roden, DAvid 2003. “Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-destruction of Metaphor.” In Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds). Intellect Books: 91–102.

Colebrook, Claire 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.

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Braidotti’s Vital Posthumanism

On October 21, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Bt-toxin-crystalsCritical Posthumanists argue that the idea of a universal human nature has lost its capacity to support our moral and epistemological commitments. The sources of this loss of foundational status are multiple according to writers like Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles (1999), Neil Badmington (2003), Claire Colebrook and Rosi Braidotti. They include post-Darwinian naturalizations of life and mind that theoretically level differences between living and machinic systems and the more intimate ways of enmeshing living entities in systems of control and exploitation that flow from the new life and cognitive sciences. Latterly, writers such as Braidotti and Colebrook have argued that a politics oriented purely towards the rights and welfare of humans is incapable of addressing issues such as climate change or ecological depletion in the anthropocene era in which humans “have become a geological force capable of affecting all life on this planet” (Braidotti 2013: 66).

On the surface, this seems like a hyperbolic claim. If current global problems are a consequence of human regulation or mismanagement, then their solution will surely require human political and technological agency and institutions.

But let’s just assume that there is something to the critical posthumanist’s deconstruction of the human subject and that, in consequence, we can no longer assume that the welfare and agency of human subjects should be the exclusive goal of politics. If this is right, then critical posthumanism needs to do more than pick over the vanishing traces of the human in philosophy, literature and art. It requires an ethics that is capable of formulating the options open to some appropriately capacious political constituency in our supposedly post-anthropocentric age.

Braidotti’s recent work The Posthuman is an attempt to formulate such an ethics. Braidotti acknowledges and accepts the levelling of the status of human subjectivity implied by developments in cognitive science and biology and the “analytic posthumanism” that falls out of this new ontological vision. However, she is impatient with what she perceives as a disabling vacillation and neutrality that easily follows from junking of human subject as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a posthuman ethics and politics need to retain the idea of political subjectivity; an agency capable of constructing new forms of ethical community and experimenting with new modes of being:

In my view, a focus on subjectivity is necessary because this notion enables us to string together issues that are currently scattered across a number of domains. For instance, issues such as norms and values, forms of community bonding and social belonging as well as questions of political governance both assume and require a notion of the subject.

However, according to Braidotti, this is no longer the classical self-legislating subject of Kantian humanism. It is vital, polyvalent connection-maker constituted “in and by multiplicity” – by “multiple belongings”:

The relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropocentric elements. Living matter – including the flesh – intelligent and self-organizing but it is precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.

‘Life’, far from being codified as the exclusive property or unalienable right of one species, the human, over all others or of being sacralised as a pre-established given, is posited as process, interactive and open ended. This vitalist approach to living matter displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe (Braidotti 2012: 60).

Thus posthuman subjectivity, for Braidotti, is not human but a tendency inherent in human and nonhuman living systems alike to affiliate with other living systems to form new functional assemblages. Clearly, not everything has the capacity to perform every function. Nonetheless, living systems can be co-opted by other systems for functions “God” never intended and Mother Nature never designed them for. As Haraway put it:  ‘No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language’ (Haraway 1989: 187). There are no natural limits or functions for bodies or their parts, merely patterns of connection and operation that do not fall apart all at once.

Zoe . . . is the transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains. Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.

Of course, if anything can be co-opted for any function that its powers can sustain, one might ask how zoe can support a critique of advanced capitalism which, as Braidotti concedes, produces a form of the “posthuman” by radically disrupting the boundaries between humans, animals, species and technique. What could be greater expression of the zoe’s transversal potential than, say, Monsanto’s transgenic cotton Bollgard II? Bollgard II contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce a toxin deadly to pests such as bollworm. Unless we believe that there is some Telos inherent to thuringiensis or to cotton that makes such transversal crossings aberrant – which Braidotti clearly does not – there appears to be no zoe-eyed perspective that could warrant her objection. Monsanto’s genetic engineers are just sensibly utilizing possibilities for connection that are already afforded by living systems but which cannot be realized without technological mediation (here via gene transfer technology). If the genes responsible for producing the toxin Bt in thuringiensis did not work in cotton and increase yields it would presumably not be the type used by the majority of farmers today (Ronald 2013).

Cognitive and biological capitalists like Google and Monsanto seem to incarnate the tendencies of zoe – conceived as a generalized possibility of connection – as much as the” not-for-profit” cyborg experimenters like Kevin Warwick or the publicly funded creators of HTML, Dolly the Sheep and Golden Rice. Doesn’t Google show us what a search engine can do?

We could object to Monsanto’s activities on the grounds that it has invidious social consequences or on the grounds that all technologies should be socially rather than corporately controlled. Neither of these arguments are obviously grounded in posthumanism or “zoe-centricism”  – Marxist humanists would presumably agree with the latter claim, for example.

However, we can find the traces of a zoe-centered argument in Deleuzean ethics explored in the essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible” (Braidotti 2006). This argues for an ethics oriented towards enabling entities to actualize their powers to their fullest “sustainable” extent. A becoming or actualization of power is sustainable if the assemblage or agency exercising it can do so without “destroying” the systems that makes its exercise possible. Thus an affirmative posthuman ethics follows Nietzsche in making it possible for subjects to exercise their powers to the edge but not beyond, where that exercise falters or where the system exercising it falls apart.

To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are in-built in the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life” as zoe. The ethical subject is one that can bear this confrontation, cracking up a bit but without having its physical or affective intensity destroyed by it. Ethics consists in re-working the pain into threshold of sustainability, when and if possible: cracking, but holding it, still.

So Capitalism can be criticized from the zoe-centric position if it constrains powers that could be more fully realized in a different system of social organization. For Braidotti, the capitalist posthuman is constrained by the demands of possessive individualism and accumulation.

The perversity of advanced capitalism, and its undeniable success, consists in reattaching the potential for experimentation with new subject formations back to an overinflated notion of possessive individualism . . ., tied  to the profit principle. This is precisely the opposite direction from the non-profit experimentations with intensity, which I defend in my theory of posthuman subjectivity. The opportunistic political economy of bio-genetic capitalism turns Life/zoe – that is to say human and non-human intelligent matter – into a commodity for trade and profit (Braidotti 2013: 60-61).

Thus she supports “non-profit” experiments with contemporary subjectivity that show what “contemporary, biotechnologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” while resisting the neo-liberal appropriation of living entities as tradable commodities.

Whether the constraint claim is true depends on whether an independent non-capitalist posthuman (in Braidotti’s sense of the term) is possible or whether significant posthuman experimentation – particularly those involving sophisticated technologies like AI or Brain Computer Interfaces – will depend on the continued existence of a global capitalist technical system to support it. I admit to being agnostic about this. While modern technologies such as gene transfer do not seem essentially capitalist, there is little evidence to date that a noncapitalist system could develop them or their concomitant forms of hybridized “posthuman” more prolifically.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a significant ethical claim at issue here that can be used independently of its applicability to the critique of contemporary capitalism.

For example, I have recently argued for an overlap or convergence between critical posthumanism and Speculative Posthumanism: the claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical augmentation (SP). Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability is pertinent here because SP in its strong form is also post-anthropocentric – it denies that posthuman possibility is structured a priori by human modes of thought or discourse – and because it defines the posthuman in terms of its power to escape from a socio-technical system organized around human-dependent ends (Roden 2012). The technological offspring described by SP will need to be functionally autonomous insofar as they will have to develop their own ends or modes of existence outside or beyond the human space of ends. Reaching “posthuman escape velocity” will require the cultivation and expression of powers in ways that are sustainable for such entities. This presupposes, of course, that we can have a conception of a subject or agent that is grounded in their embodied capacities or powers rather than general principles applicable to human agency. Understanding its ethical valence thus requires an affirmative conception of these powers that is not dependent on overhanging  anthropocentric ideas such as moral autonomy. Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability thus suggests some potentially viable terms of reference for formulating an ethics of becoming posthuman in the speculative sense.

References

Badmington, N. (2003) ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique 53 (Winter): 10-27.

Braidotti, R (2006), ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 133-159.

Braidotti, R (2013), The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Colebrook, Claire 2012a.), “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.

Colebrook, Claire (2012b.), “Not Symbiosis, Not Now: Why Anthropogenic Change Is Not Really Human.” Oxford Lit Review 34 (2): 185–209.

Haraway, Donna (1989), ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’. Coming to Terms, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), London: Routledge, 173-204.

Hayles, K. N. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roden, D. (2010). ‘Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism’. The Journal of Evolution & Technology, 21(1), 27-36.

Roden, D. (2012). ‘The Disconnection Thesis’. In Singularity Hypotheses (pp. 281-298). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Roden, D. (2013). ‘Nature’s Dark domain: an argument for a naturalized phenomenology’. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 169-188.

Roden, R (2014). Posthuman Life: philosophy at the edge of the human. Acumen Publishing.

 

London “Singularity Hypothesis” Event

On May 12, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

Video footage of the Singularity Hypothesis event in London yesterday.

The Extended Mind Works!

On May 10, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Deep into the morning procrastination ritual – reading two or more blogs and FB instead of the chapter I’m meant to be finishing – I realized that I had forgotten what I had been reading a minute ago. So I let my mouse hover over the IE icon on my task bar and hey presto! I saw a “mouse over” preview of the Discover Post on identical twins I had been perusing. Moral: the extended mind works, but it needs metacognition to patch its resources together.

Distracted from distraction by distraction T S Eliot, Burnt Norton

The Condition of the Digital Image

On April 12, 2013, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

There’s a very interesting and instructive conversation between Daniel Rourke and new media artist Hito Steyerl at Rhizome. Reading Steyerl’s remarks on Renais’ and Marker’s migration from Celluloid to Web I imagined them  evoking perplexity and amusement in cold degenerate matter storage long after the death of our sun.