Faculty of Art & Design: Monash University. ISBN: 0-7326-2154-2.
After obsolescence, what comes next?
Much recent work on the Australian artist Stelarc expounds the idea that through technology we, human post-humans, become who we are (Zylinska, 2002). We can thank technology for the opportunity of being able to think ourselves. In philosophy-speak, there is a technological a priori conditioning the human. As it stands, this idea nevertheless suffers from abstract generality. Having stated it, what comes next? Over the last two decades, as they shifted emphasis from forces of gravity to electrical fields and networked digital communication, Stelarc’s works have coupled a concrete recoding of techno-corporeal materialisations with free-floating, quasi-manifesto style speculations on technology. But do they help us go beyond the generality of deconstructive technological supplementarity or posthuman machinism?
While each essay in Alternate Interfaces has complex theoretical and political agendas attached to it, in this short review I am going to ask: what do these essays say about obsolescence, and about the question of ‘what next?’. ‘Obsolescence’, a term that Stelarc uses a lot, provides a thread that links his work to other scenes where technology and culture are being thought through. The problem is that ‘obsolescence’ is difficult to define cleanly. While Stelarc has often said things like: ‘In the terrain of cyber complexity that we now inhabit the inadequacy and the obsolescence of the ego-agent driven biological body cannot be more apparent’ (Alternate Interfaces, 59), he also recently warned: ‘I suspect we make very different metaphysical assumptions as to what we mean by the obsolete body. The body is obsolete in form and function. But we cannot operate disembodied’ (Zylinska and Hall, 2002: 121). The critical essays of Alternate Interfaces: Stelarc offer three takes on the shifting senses of obsolescence in Stelarc’s body of work over the last two decades, and, more specifically, on what is at stake in obsolete body form and function.
The three ‘interfaces’
Marina Grzinic’s ‘Politics of the Body’ sets up Stelarc’s work as a circuit-breaker on discourses of simulation (especially those associated with the ‘first generation’ cyberculture writing, in which virtual realities were seen as somehow separate from other realities). ‘Instead of the simulated body we produce the politics of the body. This means establishing in the cyber-universe the process of the re-articulation of its hidden materiality supporters [sic] – which the physical body and technology are’ (Alternate Interfaces, 13). Drawing on theories of corporeality and materiality, Grzinic argues that Stelarc’s work re-articulates politics with technology. That is, it is not just a political position or act within a given field of political-cultural contestation. It is an event that makes a difference to how we collectively relate to each in the ‘cyber-universe’ (a term that rings a little hollow post-dotcom crash and ‘techwreck’ of 2001). This difference means ‘articulating’ the materiality of bodies enmeshed in technologies as political, i.e., as collectively contested, not just given once and for all.
Brian Massumi’s ‘The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason’ draws on Deleuze’s concepts of virtuality and the event. It regards Stelarc’s work as a ‘materially self-referential’ form of thought, or as ‘operative reason’ (Alternate Interfaces, 32). In a different manner from critical or reflective thought which presumes the possibility of some distance in order to stand back from its object, Stelarc is engaged in posing and reposing the problem of ’embodied human possibility’: ‘The answer to the question of what is being suspended [in Stelarc’s work]: embodied human possibility. Each suspension in the series was not a possible answer, but a re-posing of a problem that stubbornly remains a problem from end to end of its serial unfolding’ (26). Here Stelarc’s work re-poses a problem, the problem of the singularity of a body rather than the generality of ‘the body’.
Timothy Murray’s ‘Coda of the Paradox of Shed Skin: Stelarc ET the Philosophical Ping’ understands Stelarc’s work as a philosophical investigation of skin, surface and touch: ‘It is Stelarc’s deep technical and performative engagement with the morphing of touch that has led to his most philosophically important interventions on the techno-ecosystem of the digital age’ (Alternate Interfaces, 51). Murray asks why ‘the body’ is traumatically and compulsively re-inscribed in all Stelarc’s work. The ‘paradox of shed skin’, it turns out, arises because Stelarc’s work is ‘deeply wired within the philosophical’ (53).
In sum, in the book we have a constellation containing three theoretical positions concerning the generality of ‘the body’ and technology today: Grzinic’s on re-articulating the politics of ‘hidden materiality supporters [sic]’, Massumi’s on re-posing the problem of ’embodied human possibility’, and Murray’s on the implication of Stelarc’s work with and for philosophy.
At the end of Alternate Interfaces appears Stelarc’s self-deprecating ‘poetic speculation’ on what ‘cannot be more apparent’, the obsolescence of the ‘ego-agent driven biological body’. Obsolescence of ‘the body’ is the most visible stumbling block around Stelarc’s work. Given the intense focus on embodiment in cultural, feminist, social and political thought over the last few decades, to speak of ‘obsolescence of the body‘ seems to strike a very jarring note – politically, affectively, and conceptually. Need it be said that much critical work (Butler, Grosz, Haraway, etc.) has headed in the opposite direction? Bodies seem more and more relevant as an operator of and for thought.
The term ‘obsolescence’, moreover, seems technocratic and normative. Work in critical theory and the cultural studies of technology beginning with Walter Benjamin would lead us to think that obsolescence is not a neutrally descriptive term. Things become obsolete within a certain nexus of capital, technology and labour. Obsolescence carries strong resonances of corporate-State-driven strategies to gain control over technological invention. Within the constant upgrade cycles of advanced technology economies, obsolescence is a critical risk to be managed and controlled. At least within the frame of cultural and media theory, the obsolete may be just as relevant as cutting-edge novelty since it is only through obsolete things — trash, kitsch, souvenirs – that the potentialities of past futures perdure.
We could defend Stelarc by saying that he only speaks, writes and performs particular types of obsolescence: ‘as interface, the skin is obsolete’ (58), ‘the obsolescence of the ego-agent driven biological body could not be more apparent’ (59). In an interview with Joanna Zylinska and Gary Hall, Stelarc clarifies what he means by obsolete body as follows: ‘When I talk about the obsolete body I don’t mean that we should discard bodies altogether, but rather that a body with this form and these functions cannot operate effectively in the technological terrain that it has created’ (2002: 122). Hence we could say that obsolescence needs to be read in its specificity. While it is difficult to know what significance to attribute to Stelarc’s statements (since he says they are ‘poetic speculations’ and therefore have to be read as part of his work), there are problems here as to which body he means, and as to what he understands by body form and function.
Corporal counter-obsolescence 1: from automation to autonomy
Let’s leave all that aside, not because it is irrelevant to try to explain why Stelarc is not totally locked into a discourse of cyber-transcendance. Rather than trying to say ‘no’ to obsolescence, the question I want to ask now is: are there any tactics of counter-obsolescence available in Alternate Interfaces? Each of the essays included here submits specific responses to the difficulties around obsolescence, technology and corporeality. At times, the essays stick to the generality that I mentioned earlier. For instance, Grzinic writes that the political stake of Stelarc’s Stomach Sculpture concerns ‘new forms of resistance within the body’ (14). His ‘alternate interfaces’ with technology ‘teach us a little bit more about empathy, political consensus … and how to overcome racial discrimination’ (17). But there is no more detailed specification than that. At other moments, a finer-grained analysis comes on-line. Grzinic locates Stelarc’s more recent work within the industrialisation of vision: ‘After the automatisation of production and the revolution in the field of transmission, we found ourselves on the threshold of the automatisation of seeing the world’ (Alternate Interfaces, 16). In this context, seeing and spectating turn around: being seen no longer correlates solely with the gaze of another living body, and more likely, at least on the streets of large cities, coincides with semi-automatic visual surveillance of some kind. As seeing is automated, the potential obsolescence of spectatorship becomes palpable. In response, Grzinic reconfigures the status of the art work itself, no longer dependent on the artist’s will: ‘today it is possible to identify in bio-mechanical-genetic art works, an auto-generative component that is inherent in the work of art; it allows the defining of such a work as an auto-regenerative/auto-functioning art system. At the foundation of such art is the idea that the programmer of the art work is the art work itself’ (Alternate Interfaces, 13; also 19).
The source of this auto-generativity is precisely the incorporation of ‘the public and technology’ within the work itself. Many of Stelarc’s works enrol devices (exoskeletons, transducers, networks, etc.) and the public — or at least, audiences — together within the staging of the work itself. Rather than the public or technology being external supports, they begin to form the substance of the artwork. In this sense, the works ‘re-articulate our relation with the world’ (20). Against the automatisation of vision which tends to render a seeing, spectating body obsolete, some of Stelarc’s work instantiate an autonomisation of vision. Rather than a discourse of obsolescence, such works ‘exhibit’ counter-obsoleting tactics. By constituting autonomous collective bodies in the face of automation, they convert one specific form of corporeal obsolescence to a more radical mode of collective production. Or at least they indicate the possibility of such a transformation. As a first take on counter-obsolescence, is this a viable reading of the status of obsolescence in Stelarc’s work?
Counter-obsolescence 2: trauma and return of philosophy
What is obsolescence? It describes the state of technical objects and operations that have fallen into disuse. Obsolete things may still work, but their ‘work’ no longer produces enough – economically, culturally. The state of being obsolete relates to a framing context supplied by economy, technologies, culture, politics, the arts, language, thought, etc. Nothing is obsolete in itself, only in relation to other things that are felt not to be obsolete. Certain modes of masculinity could, for instance, be obsolete in the contemporary workplace because they cannot cope with changes in the position of women. But in relation to what is a body literally obsolete? If Stelarc’s work concerns the obsolescence of the body in relation to high-tech, advanced-capitalist economy technology, then how does it treat those interlinked adjacent domains? Although not framed in this way, this question is lodged in the kernel of Murray’s essay: ‘how and why do representations and metaphors of the body (not of the cyborg, but of the body) remain so central to even his experiments with the most virtual of digital interfaces? How is that the surface of the redesigned body itself carries the energetics of the distraught affect of trauma?’ (Alternate Interfaces, 49).
Rather than simply progressing beyond obsolescence towards an acceptably advanced state of technological kit-out for human bodies, Stelarc’s work constitutes for Murray a relay system constantly cycling back through philosophical concerns and ‘paradigms imagined by the likes of Merleau-Ponty and even Heidegger before him’ (49). The Stelarc relay system provides ‘helpful material and mechanistic models’ for the problems of understanding transformations in embodiment, skin and touch. If Grzinic’s formulation saw Stelarc re-articulating a politics of the body and technology as collective, auto-generative installation, Murray’s regards Stelarc as vocalised or haunted by the legacy of flesh ‘like a conceptual prosthesis that won’t shut down’ (48, emphasis added). Stelarc’s work from beginning to end ‘pulls the skin to stretch the terms of subjectivity itself’ (52). Yet in trying to break free from subjectivity’s ‘anchorage in individuation’ (here understood individualization), Stelarc thinks philosophically, perhaps even critically, despite himself.
The paradox Murray grapples with would be that Stelarc repeatedly inserts his own body into cutting-edge technical arrangements which look like replacing it, but that insertion only ever highlights its ongoing relevance. I am not sure that Murray offers any way of turning this paradox from a ‘distraught affect’ into something to think with. If, as he writes, Stelarc is ‘wired into the philosophical mainframe of Deleuze’ (53), why not access the mainframe directly and begin hacking there rather than tinkering with an interface that is harder to work with, the artwork? The question remains: what, if anything, is the specificity of Stelarc’s work as a ‘stretching’ of subjectivity’s limits?
The most radical implication of the paradox formulated by Murray might be that we need to ask how something exists despite, even as, its own obsolescence. How does something exist as obsolete?
Counter-obsolescence 3: from generality to singularity
Massumi’s essay provides one way to hash the paradox differently. His take is that Stelarc’s work renders a living body existing in the mode of obsolescence: ‘In a very real sense the body is always already obsolete, has been obsolete an infinity of times and will be obsolete countless more — as many times as there are adaptations and inventions’ (Alternate Interfaces, 31). Rather than rejecting obsolescence, Massumi’s essay identifies in embodiment a site of obsolescence so radical that it is not immediately amenable to management or scheduled upgrade. He inverts or perhaps introverts customary understandings of obsolescence by asking how a body can be transformed through ‘extension’ so that its obsolescence is produced rather than suffered. Why do that, produce obsolescence? In producing obsolescence, Stelarc would be adducing the ‘vitality’ of a body. In order to produce an obsolescent body, what must be done?
Massumi concentrates on reading Stelarc’s work as a gradually varying series of pragmatic operations in which operative reason rather than critical, reflexive reason is deployed in specific ways. He asks: ‘How can extensive movements turn intensive, and contribute to a transformation of the very nature of the body, as opposed simply to adding permutations on its actions as the object it already is, with the organs it already has?’ (30).
I’m not going to go through the rest of the skillfully woven argument and its engagement with Stelarc’s works. The crux is that the obsolescence of ‘form and function of a body’ Stelarc speaks of is not given. Form and function are symptoms of generality: ‘Stelarc’s project is to use particular bodily conjunctions to counteract generality in order to pack the body’s singularity into sensation. That singularity is experience falling out of the particular moment, but not into a generality (27)’. When body movements are planned and organized in extension, and affects are channeled within interiority, they are generalized. A body form or function becomes general when it is reduced to a context where actions are governed by norms. The difficult, elusive and sometime torturous pathways mapped out by sensation in Stelarc’s work produce obsolescence in order to counteract the ‘generality’ of which the given form and function are symptoms. The upshot is that obsolescence figures neither as remainder nor trauma but as excess or byproduct. In Massumi’s essay, we reach a point where the whole apparatus of obsolescence has been turned around. Rather than going beyond an obsolete body, the obsolescence of the body in Stelarc’s work seeks, on Massumi’s reading, to provide an experience of something the forms and functions of which are ultimately reducible to contextually ordered generalities.
Conclusion: what this book adds
Not only technocratic strategy, but cultural theory, the humanities and social sciences operate with their own discourses of obsolescence. If there was something to be learned from Alternate Interfaces beyond three sophisticated interpretations of Stelarc’s work, perhaps it would consist in tactics of counter-obsolescence. According to the tactics sketched above, a counter-obsolescing mode of thought would look for things existing in and through their own obsolescence. In this mode of existence, things repeatedly, intermittently, periodically become obsolete in ways that relate to given forms and functions, but are not replaced by something else. They ‘obsolesce’ in specific ways that are in fact linked to inventions, adaptations and transformations in which bodies always exceed their containment or limitation by a given context. Such obsolescence would be of a different order and significance than the governing logic of obsolescence.
Zylinska, J. & Hall, G. (2002) ‘Probings: An Interview with Stelarc’, in J. Zylinska (ed.) The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. London and New York: Continuum.
Adrian Mackenzie works in the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University, UK, on culture, media and technology. His publications include Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed (Continuum, 2002). He is currently researching cultures of code and the politics of infrastructure.