Continuum: London and New York. ISBN 0-8264-5884-X.
Is Physiognomy Humorous?
Even before turning the first page, Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed speaks volumes. The cover imagery is super-sexy — an organic stew of nerves, synapses and cellular structures awash with a green glow. This microscopic illumination of biological circuitry divulges a tangled network of complex processes — the rhizomatic links between organic components as well as the discourses, institutions and narratives which construct particular kinds of engagements between the human and the non-human. Indeed, it is this messy, middle space between self and Other, organic and technological, that Mackenzie seeks to reclaim.
Like its cover illustration, Transductions occupies an in-between site. Eschewing an overly utopian construction of technology as the solution to social inequity and the limitations of the corporeal body (Gates, 1995; Rheingold, 1991), or a dystopian harbinger of humanity’s demise (Rozak, 1970), the author negotiates the tension between these two approaches. This position in itself is not particularly novel, as Mackenzie acknowledges, citing the likes of Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour and Martin Heidegger as his predecessors along this well-traversed terrain. What Mackenzie brings to this debate is a dynamic and fresh reworking of the engagements between technology and society.
The abundance of style displayed by the book’s cover is, fortunately, accompanied by a thesis of considerable substance. Mackenzie articulates a theory of technological mediation that revises traditional models of techno-social relations, arguing instead for an indeterminate and fluid conception of the role of technology within our collectives.
It is through the notion of transduction that Mackenzie reformulates the long-standing conception of technology as a violation of humanity, or its promise. Mackenzie draws the concept of transduction from the writings of Gideon Simondon, adopting its principles in order to occasion an alternative understanding of our relationships with technology. Transduction, as Mackenzie explains, offers a way of thinking about technical mediations as radically contingent. Against the modernist characteristics of identity, essence and origins, transduction favors points of engagement, interplay and linkages between divergent realities. It is about a network of relations, a way of articulating the self in the world that is dynamic, in process and always becoming. Mackenzie writes: ‘Transductive processes occur at the interface between technical and non-technical, human and non-human, living and non-living’ (2002: 52).
While contesting the boundaries of self and Other, a focus upon lived collectivity is the key element to Mackenzie’s rereading of technology. He endeavors to take into account ‘that zone of our collective which is actively engaged, or . . . transduced in technical mediations’ (Mackenzie, 2002: xi). The transductive process is typified by the interweaving of divergent realities, living and non-living, that, when articulated together, enable various interconnections and possibilities to emerge within collective life. Such an approach differs radically from an interpretation of techno-human relations that upholds the distinction between the organic and the machinic. One such example is Marshall McLuhan’s formulation of media technology as a prosthetic extension of man’s senses (1964). In this schema, the distinction between human and non-human components is maintained by an electronic media deemed to augment, rather than dissolve, the natural and fixed body. In contrast, a notion of transduction disables the boundary distinction between living and non-living by situating the techno-human engagement in the context of a ‘radically contingent collective entwining’ of once oppositional forms (Mackenzie, 2002: 172). By focusing on individuation, transduction brings into relief the web of connections that constitute collectives. Technical and living forms are always entwined, folding together in specific topological and temporal moments, exploding the construction of the human and non-human as separate and autonomous entities.
In his attempt to formulate a transductive approach to technical mediations, Mackenzie begins with theories of corporeality to call into question the notion of technology as a homogenizing force. Chapter One draws on the anti-essentialist feminist theory of Judith Butler and the writings of Gideon Simondon to postulate a new articulation of the relationship between organic and machinic, living and non-living. Against the concept of technology as universal, inert and disembodied, Mackenzie argues for technologization as contingent. To do so, he deploys a corporeal feminist approach to figuring subjecthood that acknowledges difference without recourse to universal notions such as ‘nature’ or ‘culture’. In this schema, corporeal materiality is articulated as a shifting and unstable formation that occupies the interface between nature and culture. In Mackenzie’s terms it is ‘a transductive field in which psychical, physical, technical and affective realities precipitate’ (2002: 35). In particular, it is the process of iterative materialization put forth by Butler that motivates Mackenzie’s transductive account of technologies. For Mackenzie embodiment is technical. It is through a transductive approach that interprets the materialization of the body as a process that traditional formulations of technology and contingency as incompatible are rearticulated.
Placed in the context of discourses of technology, Butler’s notion of iterative materialization broadens our perception of what materiality, matter and being human entails. Calling into question the limits of the body and identity enables a negotiation of the techno-human relation that maintains differences and singularities. Supplementing Butler’s account of materiality as radical contingent is Simondon’s reworking of the narrative that constructs the information code as universal. His interpretation favors an understanding of information as an unresolved state that may elicit a variety of forms. These two approaches form the basis for Mackenzie’s subsequent analysis of technical practices and collective life. Having established a transductive framework through which to approach technical/corporeal formations, the following chapters further develop the key themes that underwrite the book — corporeality, speed and time – through the discussion of various informatic ensembles.
Each chapter takes a different example — the primitive hand-axe and thermonuclear weapon in Chapter Two; the pendulum clock and GPS system in Chapter Three; Stelarc’s Ping Body performance in Chapter Four; computer games in Chapter Five; and biotechnological processes in Chapter Six — to explore the linking of divergent realities in the constitution of informatic ensembles and lived collectivity. Through his analysis, Mackenzie shows us how these ensembles ‘materialize at specific junctures where temporal and topological reorganizations of collective life occur’ (2002: 217). What connects each text is a confusion between the orders of organic and machinic, self and Other, living and non-living. Each of these objects simultaneously secures and disables the limits of human life. It is from this tension that Transductions encourages us to productively rethink our engagements with technology beyond identification or resistance.
Of each of the ensembles discussed, it is the analysis of Australian artist Stelarc’s Ping Body performance in Chapter Four that best brings together Mackenzie’s concern with bodies, speed and time. First performed in 1996, Ping Body sees Stelarc wired up to the Internet, his near-naked body encased in circuitry. This external nervous system functions in a feedback loop with his biological mechanisms. Internet noise, in the form of network delays, pulses through the wires connecting the Internet to Stelarc, and registers as involuntary movements through his body. Central to Mackenzie’s reading of Ping Body is the question of ‘who or what experiences technology?’ (2002: 117). His response seeks to challenge traditional understandings of how technology is lived, experienced and perceived. In particular, Mackenzie takes issue with Paul Virilio’s vision of the subject as displaced by the speed of contemporary technology. According to Virilio, speed triumphs over both spatial and temporal modalities to obliterate delay. The intensive acceleration of electronic communications limits humanity’s response properties, so that we can no longer sustain a sufficient real-time dialogue with the information relayed by electronic media. Ultimately, Virilio considers the transition to speed, networks and information as a violation of the subject.
Reading against the concept of information networks as precipitating the erasure, or disappearance, of the body, Mackenzie suggests that Stelarc’s performances present us with a different experience of speed. As the data stream stimulates Stelarc, speed and delay are made visible through the body, revealing that the delay of technical networks is not ‘outside of’ embodiment’. Concurrently, Stelarc’s response gestures toward the ‘possibility of there being an outside, of there being time or others’ (Mackenzie, 2002: 137). In this transductive process, the physical parameters of corporeality are reconfigured through the interplay and interconnection of divergent realities, between the human body and the flows of the data stream, across temporal and spatial scales.
In Mackenzie’s interpretation, Ping Body is emblematic of a transindividual experience of technology, which he describes in the following manner:
The transindividual refers to a relation to others which is not determined by a constituted subject position, but by pre-individuated potentials only experienced as affect. Speaking transductively, the transindividual structures itself by resolving certain incompatibilities through the collective (2002: 117).
By figuring the experience of technology as transindividual, Mackenzie highlights the necessity to envision our relationships to technology within the framework of collective life. Indeed, it is his focus upon the webs of relation that connect societies, cultures and technologies across diverse temporal and corporeal moments that differentiates Mackenzie from other theorists of technology. Transductions encourages a reappraisal of techno-social relations, highlighting that the range and limits of what constitute these engagements are in always in process. The significance of Mackenzie’s contribution to an analysis of technical practices resides in his ability to read such practices alongside their cultural representations. In doing so, he exposes the moments of rupture in the signifying process through which new means of understanding our relationships to technology may emerge.
Gates, B. (1995) The Road Ahead. New York and London: Viking Penguin.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: Extensions of Man. London: Sphere.
Rheingold, H. (1991) Virtual Reality. New York and London: Summit.
Rozak, T. (1970) The Making of a Counter Culture. London: Faber and Faber.
Kim Toffoletti is an honorary junior research associate in the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University, Australia. Her Ph.D. thesis, ‘Transformations: Feminism and the Posthuman’, is currently under examination.