Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Cyborg Culture and the Politics of Visual Transgression.

James Sey & Kathryn Smith

This paper will focus on the problem of transgression from the twin perspective of psychoanalysis and the history of science, using as evidence for its arguments various examples from the plastic arts and film. I will argue that transgression - defined as the deliberate flouting of a socially normative distinction between normality, abnormality and pathology - has become a central preoccupation of aesthetic representation, particularly since the early part of the twentieth century. I argue that this has to do partly with a wish to maintain aesthetic representation as a special category of human activity outside of the subjection of such activity to a post-industrial technological order which encourages a view of humanity as thoroughly imbricated - even at the psychological level - with its technology. As a counter to this contemporary version of the identification of the human and the machine - the age of the cyborg, we might say - art (and, indeed, popular culture in some instances) has produced counter discourses and images, such as those of Sherman, Witkin, Hirst and popular science fiction, which raise the possibility of extreme representations of the body as a 'pathological' or transgressive form of the reaffirmation of human agency. I conclude with a closer look at the undermining of the very category of transgression, and thus its 'avant-garde' appeal for representation, by globalised and mass media versions of transgressive practices, a strategy predicted by postmodernist thought thirty years ago.

1. Posthumans/Humans/Machines.

The idea has taken hold in recent times, in both academic and popular contexts, that human beings are in the process of somehow losing control of their own culture, that the functions and parameters of society, far from being an expression of subjective individual or collective concerns, are in fact being given to us by the various forms of information technologies that have proliferated over the last thirty years, most emblematically in the shape of the home computer. From this picture of an information-saturated, thoroughly mediated and technologised planet, it is a short step to the bleak and millennial idea that history is moving, as Foucault famously predicted (1970), towards an era where the figure of man will be washed from the sands of history by the waves of a self-regulating technoculture. Machines, after all, particularly those circulating information in abstract forms, are not prone to the ills of the flesh - sickness, fatigue, mortality, contingency and unreliability. In the human and social sciences this type of apocalyptic pronouncement of an imminent posthuman culture has become a growth industry.

In this paper I would like to revisit some of the antecedents and epistemological underpinnings of these claims for contemporary technoculture. I will be concerned to take issue with an overly enthusiastic heralding of a posthuman technocratic social order, and will present a partial and contingent alternative argument asserting a different trajectory for technology, and information technology in particular, in human culture. Central to the arguments that follow will be an understanding of human subjectivity, especially in our technological modernity, as a partial, polymorphous and adaptable phenomenon. Such an understanding is inseparable from a consideration of the forms of embodiment of the human relation to technology - the relationship, in short, between bodies and machines. Correlatively, the argument will turn to the ways in which the category of the aesthetic remains somewhat of an ambivalent one for the naturalization of the concept of a technological culture, or, in the useful phrase of Mark Seltzer, a 'body-machine complex'. Along the way, changes in the form and function of technology will be briefly considered, primarily the move from earlier, 'modernist' industrial technologies of production, where the body is a crucial component of machine culture's productivity, to the contemporary 'postmodernist' digital technologies of consumption, where a cultural and political economy of image-based representations apparently liberates the body from a subservient relation to technological systems.

1. Industrial Technology and Life.

The fascination with the relationship of humans to technology might be characterised as ontological, since it so fundamentally reflects our general ambivalence emerging from the sense (given shape by psychoanalysis and ethnology) of a negotiation between natural versus cultural elements, our instinctual life versus our 'civilization'. The prehistory of this fascination need not concern us here, but with the rise of industrial culture in the West in the nineteenth century, an important inflection is given to the relationship between the human and the technological which receives its apotheosis by the principles of 'scientific management' of F.W.Taylor which revolutionised industrial production in the early twentieth century. As Georges Canguilhem (1992:63) points out, Taylorism established a mode of working life premissed on the subjection of the body to the order of industrial machinery:

With Frederick Taylor and the first technicians to make scientific studies of work-task movements, the human body was measured as if it functioned like a machine. If we see their aim as the elimination of all unnecessary movement and their view of output as...mathematically determined factors, then rationalization was...a mechanization of the body. But the realization that technologically superfluous movements were biologically necessary movements was the first stumbling block to be encountered by those who insisted on viewing the problem of the human-body-as-machine in exclusively technological terms.

Canguilhem elegantly describes here the essence of the modernist order of industrial technology - that is, that human bodies must behave like machines, must identify with a machinic system. He also subtly poses the converse problem of the intransigence of the biological for the purposes of production and industrial work, one to which we shall return.

This regime of identification with technology in the industrial order imposes a fear of the prosthetic, dehumanising effects of technology which produces certain typical 'pathological' reactions, most typically a fear of work. Yet, some of the visions of the captains of Taylorist industry might themselves be viewed as pathological. In his recently published book Serial Killers, Mark Seltzer (1998:69) recounts a fantasy revealed by Henry Ford, one of the patriarchs of industrial capitalism and pioneer of the Taylorist assembly line means of production:

The production of the Model T required 7,882 distinct work operations, but, Ford observed, only twelve percent of these tasks...required 'able-bodied men'. Of the remainder - and this is clearly what Ford saw as the central achievement of his method of production - 'we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, two by armless men, 715 by one-armed men and ten by blind men'. If from one point of view such a fantasy projects a violent dismemberment of the human body and an emptying out of human agency, from another it projects a transcendence of the natural body and the extension of human agency through the forms of technology that supplement it.

Seltzer here succinctly specifies the characteristic ambivalence which lies deeply buried in the bedrock of contemporary technoculture - that regarding the nature of technological prosthesis. What he calls the 'double-logic of prosthesis' (1998:37) marks both the inseparability of human culture - and thus subjective identity - from the technologies which shape it, but also the attendant fear of human obsolescence and even destruction - often in the brutal and violent form here imagined by Ford - brought about by those same technologies.

2. Time, Motion and the 'Unknown Language' of the body.

In the nineteenth century, scientists wished to establish the working methods of the factory system in such a way that the working body would be maximally productive and minimally fatigued and thus more efficient. The problem of body fatigue for the industrial ideology of productivism rapidly became posed in materialist and thus technological terms. A vast array of machines and techniques were developed in order to elaborate a physiological technics - in Foucauldian terms a sophisticated disciplinary apparatus for productive technological bodies - which were all designed to inscribe the body in a new nexus of technographic knowledge. The most important of these new graphic technologies were developed to record previously unrecordable physical processes like heart rate, muscular contraction, and, most importantly, movement.

The motion of the body was an area of concern ostensibly to further refine techniques to combat the urgent problem of the fatigue and inefficiency of working bodies. However, we can also understand the concern of fin-de-siecle science to more closely understand human motion in terms of the 'double-logic' of technological prosthesis. That is, the invention of technologies to facilitate a closer examination and graphic recording of motion meant both a 'decomposition' of movement into its constituent elements in order to fit into an industrial technological paradigm, but also meant an understanding of the ways in which human motion and thus the human body, was uniquely non-technological, an understanding approaching metaphysics.

Anson Rabinbach, in his fascinating history of the problem of fatigue in the nineteenth century body-technology relation, The Human Motor, devotes an extensive discussion (Chapter Four) to the various physiographic technologies of the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey, whose work in inventing machines to record human physiological activity is credited with influencing such disparate figures as Marcel Duchamp, the Futurists and Eadward Muybridge. Marey is best known for his work in 'chronophotography', a technique said to have anticipated cinematography (see Doane, 1996). The technique involved the attempt to accurately record, through multiple exposure, single plate photography, a full range of human and animal motion through time. Through the use of such techniques Marey was able to discover what he called an 'unknown language' of the body; that is, the decomposition of motion revealed the 'successive instants' which made up the duration of human movements, and also the various forms of extension through space (conoid, hyperboloid, etc.), which defied euclidean geometry. It was a graphic visual technology which aspired to the ever-increasing refinement of the record of successive instants, frozen in time, rather than the recording of continuity of movement which would form the basis of cinema technology, the chief leisure technology of the twentieth century (for an account of Marey's relation to nascent cinema technologies, see Doane).

While such discoveries were scientifically surprising, they also had important philosophical and aesthetic consequences which stemmed from their reconfiguration of the body and subjectivity. The work of Marey and others at this time was not a disinterested scientific enquiry, but was designed in the first instance to produce a more efficient relation between industrial machines and working bodies. This became the major application of industrial ergonomics, and Marey's insights were indeed applied to these and other such areas as military training. Rabinbach uses the examples of Bergson and Valery, however, to indicate the impact of these graphic technologies in aesthetic and philosophical areas. In short, the chronophotographic decomposition of human movement showed how a technological intervention might alter or add to not only a knowledge form (the 'unknown language' of the body) but also knowledge about the subject itself. That is, the graphic technologies revealed that the role of human consciousness itself, and not its technological analogues, was to perceive movement 'erroneously', that is, in a way that made it possible for cultures to exist in synchronous time. Consciousness imposed a structure of coherent perception of duration and extension on the non-euclidean trajectories of human motion.

This consequence of Marey's experiments also had the aesthetic result of providing the avant-gardes of European modernism with a scientific raison d'etre where representation could be replaced by the idea of a technology that revealed the illusion of realism at the heart of conscious perception itself. Institutional science and the aesthetic avant-gardes were thus united by a fascination with the ways in which new technologies could revise the relation of the body to the constituent conditions of its consciousness - extension and duration, space and time. At the heart of this modernist technological endeavour was the attempt to improve productivity in labour contexts, but the attempt to isolate and decompose the body's extension and duration meant the technology began to manifest itself as an attempt to reduce distance and time to the conditions of instantaneity and presence. Such aspirations inscribe technophysiographic machines like Marey's in a general logic of modernity - the beginning of the era of information overload, of 'speed and dynamism' as the Futurists had it, of our own 'cyborg culture'. This linked Marey's apparently objective, and obsessive, scientific pursuit of pure representations of human extension and duration with a far more metaphysical and aesthetic modernist zeitgeist:

Marey...diligently searched for the most...self-effacing link between the body and the recording instrument, tending ultimately to privilege air pressure. Photography was, in this respect, ideal since its means of connecting object and representation - light waves - were literally intangible and greatly reduced the potentially corruptive effects of mediation. ...Marey consistently contrasted the graphic method [i.e. his own] favorably to phonetic language and statistics, heavily mediated forms of representation that were potentially obscure...(as well as slow - instantaneity was an aspiration). (Doane, 1996:326-327)

Marey's project to isolate and objectify the extension and duration of human motion thus stands at an epistemological crossroads: on one hand he typifies the commitment of technological disciplinarity in nineteenth century science to give an objective and materialist account of the instrumentality of the human body and how it could be adapted to technicist and productivist ends; on the other, he provides us with what might be called a secret ontology of technology - that is, his techniques for the recording of human movement aspire to the extension and duration of human movement itself, to the erasure, as Doane's point implies, of the distance between the body and the technology which extends its agency, to the erasure of the trace of the technology itself. The paradox of the double register of the body-technology relation is here most evident: a technology which enables a greater knowledge of human being, which must be like air, or like light, rather than the reduction of the human to an identification with the technological state implicit in ergonomics and Taylorism. The ambivalent position of the technology in this thickening of human self-knowledge is remarked on by Benjamin, specifically referring to the quintessential modernism of photography and cinema:

...a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye - if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored... . Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. ...The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (1970:238-239)

We might distill from the exemplar of Marey's objective materialist attempts at the graphic inscription and chronophotographing of the 'unknown language' of the body the fundamental ambivalence around the possible conflicts between human and technological agencies in establishing and developing new scientific knowledge. We might also see an interesting connection between the attempt to erase the trace of technology, or, more accurately, the attempt to close the gap between instrument and object of knowledge - body and machine - and the rise of postmodernist 'invisible technologies', the digital technocultural infosphere of our contemporary fin-de-siecle.

3. The Technological body in the Postindustrial Era.

Walter Benjamin's auratic theory of art in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' devolves crucially on the question of distance:

The definition of the aura as "a unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be" represents nothing but the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. Distance is the opposite of closeness. The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image. (1970:245)

We began by discussing the erasure of what appears to be a very different kind of distance, that between machines and humans, in the era of industrial ergonomics. The concept of distance invoked here by Benjamin seems to maintain a distinction between the aesthetic and the technological inasmuch as the latter, as we have seen in the case of Marey's physiological technologies, seeks to erase the distance between itself and its subject, the human body. This tendency of certain forms of technology to the state of invisibility, or 'absent prosthesis', represents a certain reversal of the trajectory of the technological imperative of the industrial era, seen in Ford's dismemberment fantasy, where the body and psyche are enjoined to become machinic, to identify with the machine in the workplace.

This apparent disappearance of technology into the landscape, into the service of the subject, has marked the technological trajectory of this century. As the base of primary industry has become eroded, and multinational corporations have replaced the national character of science and technology of the late nineteenth century, so the inversion of the body-machine relation has continued. But this apparent shift from identification with the machine in the industrial order to the rise of 'service technologies' conceals another development. Rather than a disappearance of technology in the postmodern era, as Seltzer points out, what develops is the 'naturalization of machine culture':

The incorporations of the technological process and the life process have by now become a thoroughly naturalized component of machine culture. One rediscovers here the familiar intersections between natural bodies and technologies, somatic and machinal systems of circulation... .[O]ne rediscovers...a precise co-ordination of bodies and spaces. This involves not merely the spectacle of stilled bodies in moving machines, the relentless... commuting 'homeward'... . The nominal division between public and private has in effect given way... . (1998:33)

Once more the focus here is on the distance between technology and its object, the technological erasure this time of the division between public and private, emblematized by transport systems. These come to replace private human intimacy with an abstraction of the relation with others; a deindividuation and 'hypertypicality' of experience produced by our common interaction within a large technological system, for instance, the feeling of alienating and ambivalent intimacy shared by strangers on a train or plane. Thus, with the vast proliferation of technological systems beyond the initially crucial confines of the industrial relation between body and machine, we can discern that the ostensible disappearance of technology from the body which might seem to mark a move into postmodernity in fact emerges as the disappearance of the body into technology. Technological systems, that is, have extended to form the context of our experience of time and space, duration and extension. This forms the real measure of a cyborg culture.

In postmodernity thus the distinction between the subject and its extension and duration (which implies, it goes without saying, the human relation to mortality) which so preoccupied Marey and the modernist avant-garde might itself be superseded by the relation of the subject to the telecommunicative instant, what Paul Virilio (1993) calls 'the third interval' (that is, light - the first two intervals being space and time).

Virilio presents a new model of the body-technology relation emerging from the telecommunicative instantaneity of postmodern technology:

...these...technologies (based on the digital signal, the video sigal and the radio signal) will soon overturn not only the nature of the human environment and its animal body, since the development of territorial space by means of heavy material machinery is giving way to an almost immaterial control of the environment..that is connected to the terminal body of men and women. (1993:4)

Virilio's metaphor of a 'terminal' existence in the postmodern era of telecommunicative life, that is, one with the double sense of being at an end and also connected to the computer terminal and TV screen is an increasingly common metaphor in premillennial accounts of the posthuman direction contemporary technology is leading culture. We now turn to the psychical effects of and alternatives to such a vision.

4. Abjection and the Posthuman.

We remarked earlier that the psychological consequences of the identification of the human with the machinic tends to be posed in symptomatic or psychopathological terms. Such states escape or refuse the ideological consequences of the technocultural regime so that the technological order must continue to develop and refine techniques for the recuperation of the unruly psychological subject into a normative, non-transgressive position. There seems to be a productive avenue of enquiry, however, in reviewing these different responses to the 'pathologizing' of the human body and psyche. The picture painted by both the utopian and dystopian versions of a cyborg culture are in any case reminiscent of the Fordist dismemberment fantasy, and thus fail to move the understanding of the body-psyche-technology relation out of the modernist paradigm into the postmodern one it espouses. We should in this regard recall the foundational ambivalence of this relation and accept, as Seltzer does, the a priori status of a completely imbricated human and technological culture. Certainly this is not to deny that there are ethical and ideological responses to our contemporary technoculture which must be made, but what form can these take?

It is possible to delineate an aesthetic version of a transgressive reaffirmation of the corporeal, contra the technological, but, as I have implied, still imbricated with it, in the recent proliferation of representations of the abject and extreme limits of corporeality. Such a reaffirmation might be read as a set of cultural symptoms against the backdrop of the dominant discourses of either technophilia about the digital era, the 'second industrial revolution', or a reactive apocalyptic technophobia. They are thus responses both to the notion of a cyborg culture itself, and a cautionary note sounded against the overly hasty historicization, or writing out of history of, the idea of the human.

In the recent renewal of interest in forms of physical and psychological abjection abounding in sociopsychological forms in everything from body modification, alternative sexuality and serial killing to popular cultural forms like so-called 'scuzz cinema' (Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting) and the corporeal art of Damien Hirst, Joel-Peter Witkin, Cindy Sherman or Andres Serrano, we can continue to see how the body provides the limit not only to experience, but to knowledge and power also.

Following from this discussion, we will take a cursory look at some arguments which could account for current visual art practices which deal with the 'excessive body', and look at images from Kathryn Smith's own series of photographs, Still Lives (1997).

In her essay 'Reviewing Modernist Criticism' (1984), Mary Kelly traces artistic subjectivity, and thus agency, through the notion of 'gesture' as a "residue of figuration" (1984:90). This notion of the 'artistic gesture' was highly valorised in modernist art criticism and contained by the idea of 'self-reflexivity' which, through abstraction, allowed the liberation of 'gesture' from iconographic representation. This apparent 'trace of the artist' resulted in a validated aesthetic experience of an 'authentic' object which was seen as transcendental.

With the advent of Duchamp's ready-mades, the 'authenticating mark' and thus artistic subjectivity, was threatened. Minimalism carried this even further to the point that an artistic subject had to be created to uphold the 'authorial status' of the artwork. In the '60s and '70s, performance art took the relation between work and artist to its logical conclusion - the body of the artist as the work itself, existing in a particular spatial and temporal dimension and dealing with actual experience and lived reality on the part of both artist and spectator.

Both performance and minimalism were reliant on photographic documentation due to their specific spatio-temporal demands. The unity and homogeneity valorised by modernism was disrupted. The signifying systems of creative labour altered - materiality, colour, gesture were replaced by the figure, or physical body, of the artist. Photography's relationship to the aesthetic is historically problematic, due to the apparent 'absence of creative labour' (read 'gesture') in a photograph as a mechanically-produced image. (Kelly 1984:92) This foregrounds photography's undeniable yet obviously problematic relationship with notions of truth and 'reality'. In Greenbergian modernist terms, one cannot insist on its 'materiality' or 'flatness' as it would undermine its essential illusionistic function. However, photography as a mode of visual production is becoming increasingly commonplace and the human subject or image in an iconographical sense, is more frequently seen. Duchampian use of the devices of art alone to critique artistic production are confronted with an alternative in postmodernism which foregrounds, amongst other things, various fields of bodily experience, which saw their beginnings in this brief trace of the shifting of artistic subjectivity. The apparent 'liberation' of the body (and thus subjectivity as adaptable and contingent) offered by postmodernism has met with some opposition in contemporary visual art practices.

Our acceptance of the aesthetic image as representation seems questioned when faced with an image of the abject body, especially if photographic, as it plays off both sides of the real vs simulacrum binary. In the postmodern culture of consumption and appropriation, the body reasserts itself as the 'ground zero of experience', the 'site of the real' (Bryson 1993: 221) which confounds constructionist views of everything-as-discourse. As the Enlightenment favoured intellect and knowledge over the physical so we seek to reinstate the corporeal.

Norman Bryson asks: "What is the nature of the transition, in the postmodern image universe, that seems to go in one move from everything-is-representation to body-as-horror?" (1993:218). The abject body, theorised most succinctly by Julia Kristeva (1982), is inherently transgressive as it deals with the violation of socially accepted boundaries, premised on the binary of inside vs outside. It specifically speaks about bodily fluids and wastes which although essential for life, become unspeakable when expelled. It thus defies normativity and threatens social and aesthetic stability. It speaks to rationalist notions of the 'civilised body' as opposed to that which is instinctual or emotive. A current debate with regards to representations of the abject body is that of the artist as pathological, likened to mental patients who compulsively produce visual imagery, yet the issue of 'critical distance' is crucial in the case of the former. A companion to, and component of the abject body is the fragmented body, the 'body-in-pieces' - since everything-is-discourse, so the coherence of the body is shattered.

Gregory Whitehead (1993:229) tellingly renames this 'the postmortem condition'. Instead of accepting potentially serene states of virtual reality (all the while being exposed to and consuming innumerable images of violence in popular culture), we become hypersensitive to images of the 'extreme body' when they occur in the realm of the 'real'.

In the series Still Lives, Kathryn Smith has taken police forensic images of violent death and projected them onto her own body, then rephotographed the composite image. The presence of her own body is crucial, as it allows her to shift her own subjectivity in particularly violent ways through representation, yet maintaining the basic knowledge that it is her own body as she experiences it, regardless of how technologically-mediated it can become. The fact that she has willingly 'done this to herself' is often met with revulsion, highlighted by the

fact that they are large format, colour photographs. The presence of a photograph, even ones as mediated as these, often presupposes a kind of 'documentation' which in itself seems almost more problematic than the images themselves.

This desire to create new forms could also be seen as a reaction against the kinds of power and legitimation afforded major art movements of the first half of this century, which for the most part, tended to overlook issues of gender and race, amongst others. A reaffirmation and imaging of the body could provide possible alternatives, although this has been contested. The increasing obsession with the abject body does however seem to highlight anxiety around 'cyborg culture', as if we need to irrefutably state our presence as opposed to, yet undeniably affected by, the ever-increasing power of technology, in order to be.


Benjamin, W. 1970. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations (pp.219-253). London: Fontana.

Bryson, N. 1993. House of Wax in Cindy Sherman 1975-1993, text by Rosalind E. Krauss, pp 217-224. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

Canguilhem, G. 1992. Machine and Organism. In J.Crary and S. Kwinter (eds.) Incorporations (pp.45-69). New York: Zone Press.

Doane, M. 1996. Temporality, Storage, Legibility: Freud, Marey and the Cinema. Critical Inquiry (22), Winter (pp.313-343).

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things. London: Tavistock.

Kelly, M. 1984. Re-viewing Modernist Criticism in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis, pp 87-103. Boston: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kristeva, J. 1982. Translated by Leo S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rabinbach, A. 1992. The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Seltzer, M. 1998. Serial Killers. London; Routledge.

Virilio, P. 1993. The Third Interval: A Critical Transition. In V.A.Conley (ed.) Rethinking Technologies (pp.3-12). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Whitehead, G. 1993. The Forensic Theatre: Memory Plays for the Postmortem Condition in The Politics of Everyday Fear. Edited by Brian Massumi, pp 229-241. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

James Sey

Senior Lecturer

Department of English

Vista University (Soweto Campus)

P.Bag X09, Bertsham 2013

Gauteng, South Africa.

tel: +27+11 938-1701

fax: +27+11 938-1490.

Kathryn Smith


Department of Fine Arts

University of the Witwatersrand

Private Bag 3

WITS 2050

Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa
critical methods society - - [email protected]