Articulating the hyperreal body: bio-power, “science”, and the propositional human

Considering:

Mona Hatoum's Deep Throat

The biological-interior

De-subjectification via hyperreality

The experiment

Cosmetic surgery as reclaiming

Discussing:

Mona Hatoum’s Deep Throat (1996)

Balsamo, Anne, “On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic Surgery and New Imaging Technologies” in Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. pp. 56-79. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Kathy Davis, “‘My body is my Art’: Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?” In Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (eds.) Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. pp. 454-465. New York: Routledge,1999.

Latour, Bruno “How to Talk about the Body? The Normative Dimensions of Science Studies” in Body and Society 10(2-3): 205-229. 2004.

Shohat, Ella “‘Lasers for Ladies’: Endo Discourse and the Inscription of Science” in Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. pp. 139-165. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Mona Hatoum’s Deep Throat (1996) is a work that is wonderfully demonstrative of the strangeness that emerges when a body is de-subjectified. When contrasted to overt objectification of a psycho-sexualized body, and as distinct from what Max Liljefors calls “a plurality of culturally and historically specific subjectivities; gendered, raced, socially defined, and always embodied” (Liljefors, 169), de-subjectification has the opposite impact than what we might expect. Instead of a body lacking in agency, the stripping away of the veils of perception can leave a vitalized corporeality alive in its own unique shapes and movements; active in its own “new and subversive energy” (170). That is to say, it can... where the conditions are present for it's recognition. More on that later.

For a quick trip into the biological-interior... click these links:

Laparoscopic Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass - Live Surgery

Facelift Endoscopic Plastic Surgery

Hatoum, who created a video shot by inserting an endoscopic camera into her own esophagus—presented it as part of an installation where she built-in the screen showing the video as the base of a dinner plate. Situated between a cutlery set of fork, knife, spoon, and on a table complete with table-cloth and chair, the medicalized endoscopic video is somewhat sublimated and we are on common-ground… set in this context of food, of ingestion, digestion, i.e. the human space of eating functions as a point of entry to the work (pun intended). More so however, and as Ella Shohat writes in “Lasers for Ladies”, the “imaging of the pathological interior body (…) is a prerequisite for reclaiming the body from the monopoly of scientific disciplining and for democratizing access to the medicalized body” (Shohat, 162).

For contrast: the installation works of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto which use soft fabrics and woven materials to drape and hang in spaces create an unaffected illusion of the biological-interior.

In her article “’My body is my Art’: Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?”, Kathy Davis argues for “viewing cosmetic surgery as a complex dilemma: problem and solution, symptom of oppression and act of empowerment, all in one” (Davis, 455). Commenting primarily on the work of French-artist Orlan “as feminist critique of cosmetic surgery - that is, as a revisioning of a future where women reappropriate cosmetic surgery own ends” (456), Davis considers whether body-interventions could constitute a form of utopic vision. Her argument is twisted by a requirement that it engage with the question of cosmetic surgery by first building in a foundation that women are victims that must rise up against the oppression (of image, of man, of technology) and reappropriate their own subjugation by seizing the means for themselves.

There are problems here, which Davis recognizes, and they touch on terms that Anne Balsamo sees as well. In her article “On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic Surgery and New Imaging Technologies”, Balsamo points to the importance of understanding what sort of state “the adjective ‘natural’ describes” (Balsamo, 62) in the context of a human body, inside or outside. Such questions of language and definition so pervade the arguments of theorists Balsamo and Davis, that it seems somewhat beset that before we can decide whether the means of suppression can be flipped into the hands of the oppressed without furthering or deepening any destructive impact, we need to better understand what feeds the approach.

In his rolling ambulation, Bruno Latour seems at first to be on to something regarding terminologies in his article “How to Talk About the Body? The Normative Dimension of Science Studies”. He speaks of a ‘political epistemology’ that uses “propositions (which are articulate or inarticulate) instead of statements (which are true or false)” (Latour, 206) to engage in ‘body-talk’. His preliminary premise is that as there is “an intermediary, meaning a language, that establishes connections between the world and the subject” (208) than if we harness that power of defining the body’s dynamic in-there/out-there relationship with the world, then essentially we can do whatever we want to ourselves. Huh… that's my conclusion of Latour... but you see, I'm laying bear my bias.

Where Latour is quickly encouraging me to jump ship is in the means by which he argues we should achieve this power to qualify the body: by adopting science and scientific methodology in order to generate an authoritarian power needed to explain “a multiverse of articulated propositions” (214) of the body. With an entire sections entitled ‘Scientific Means Interesting’ and ‘Scientific Means Risky’, Latour goes so far as to suggest that the qualities of good science need only be adopted for their ‘fecundity, productivity, richness, originality’ to be a “good articulation”. It all rings false as appropriation that is spiritually bankrupt… furthered by Latour’s own vilification of phenomenology as a shackles—“If we modify the conception of science and take seriously the articulating role of disciplines, it becomes impossible to believe in the dualism of a physiological body pitted against a phenomenological one” (224).

So, perhaps somewhere in here we’ve uncovered an important disconnect. In her endoscopic video-installation, what Mona Hatoum shows to us is not factual, not "scientific" in that she is not presenting a controlled form experiment of medical or biological exploration with a guiding hypothesis that generates a repeatable result that can be confirmed via testing. That’s the meaning of the word ‘experiment’, which belongs to science, and I take issue with the notion that art must be allowed to share in a freeform use of that term. As what Hatoum is doing is performing a proposition, a representation of the biological-interior, and as such I think there is capacity for dialogue.

In part, Hatoum is a bio-tourist on vacation from subjectification of her self-soul and objectification of her sexualized and gendered physicality. Yet, she is also playing with the hyperreal by providing images that simulate reality in that they could never be seen by the human eye without technological intervention, but that still function as a physical Über-real indistinguishable as a virtual representation. The results of works such as Hatoum’s is an enhanced awareness of “one’s own bodily fragility” (181), but also, I think, through this recognition of vulnerability… a liberation.

I’m going to leave it there, that there are more than two general ways of methodologically engaging with the body, but that our knowledge frameworks have been tailored as 'looking from outside' and 'looking from inside'. Science exists to perform systematic attempts at becoming a perfect objective expression; Art exists to try and bring you into the inside via expression. These arguments are not new, have grown more nuanced since the times of their philosophical origins, but have failed to overcome the duality they present. The ambiguious nature of power manifests in our expereince, as in, our body/perception is the site where control of force move on our expression of liberty and freedom. Latour proposes appropriation of science frameworks as a means to bridge the divide, however his language fails to engage a propulsion but is interested on framing the conditions.

As two sides of this coin, here are two quotes which frame the general engagement as it has stood for centuries:

“There remains simple experience; which, if taken as it comes, is called accident, if sought for, experiment. The true method of experience first lights the candle [hypothesis], and then by means of the candle shows the way [arranges and delimits the experiment]; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it deducing axioms [theories], and from established axioms again new experiments.”

— Francis Bacon. Novum Organum. 1620

"The perception of this class of truths (why humans are allured by nature) makes the attraction which draws (us) to science, but the end is lost sight of in attention to the means. In view of this half-sight of science, we accept the sentence of Plato, that "poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history." Every surmise and vaticination of the mind is entitled to a certain respect, and we learn to prefer imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of truth, to digested systems which have no one valuable suggestion. A wise writer will feel that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit"

— Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. 1836

Cited:

Liljefors, Max “Bodies Against Meaning De-Subjectification in Body Art and Bioart” in The Body as Gift, Resource, and Commodity Exchanging Organs,Tissues, and Cells in the 21st Century. eds. Martin Gunnarson and Fredrik Svenaeus. pp. 169-203. Stockholm: E-Print, 2012.

Emerson, Ralph W. “Nature” in The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings Ralph Waldo Emerson. Robinson, David M. (ed.). pp. 21-62. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.

Bacon, Francis “Novum Organum” (1620) in The Works, 3 vols. Montague, Basil (ed. and trans). pp. 343-71. Philadelphia: Parry & MacMillan, 1854.

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