Friday, August 17, 2012

Somaesthetics, Posthumanism, and BioArt: Tentative Thoughts Toward an Abstract

Having studied posthumanism and BioArt for my thesis for about a year now, I went in search for a conference CFP that would allow me to adapt some of ideas to aim at a particular target. I found this:, "Body and Technology: The Instruments of Somaesthetics."

Richard Shusterman, who coined the term "somaesthetics," argues in his "disciplinary proposal" that for too long philosophy has neglected the aesthetics of the body as a practical discipline. Although this is true for the history of philosophy, as a pragmatist philosopher, Shusterman is primarily speaking to this camp. Somaesthetics is a theoretical, pragmatic, and practical philosophy of self-fashioning, a kind of material/fleshy version of Stanley Cavell.

Shusterman defines Somaesthetics provisionally as "the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one's body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It is therefore also devoted to the knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or improve it" (Shusterman 1999). Thus, aesthetics here is not limited to the fine arts, but rather many practices of every day life, including breathing and movement.

Shusterman goes on to create distinctions among the various components and modes of Somaesthetics. For my purposes, the distinction he makes between representational and experiential somaesthetics will be the most relevant. Representational SA deal with external appearances and experiential, the "inner." Of course, Shusterman recognizes that many "inner" somaesthetics are facilitated by external practices and movements (i.e. yoga, tai chi, martial arts) and that external somaesthetics may be an attempt to represent to the outside world and inner state. Nor is this an attempt to reinscribe a Cartesian mind/body split. The body is not treated as an object for study, as when we speak of musico-aesthetics, but rather "a crucial sensory medium for enhancing our dealings with all other aesthetic objects and also with matters not standardly aesthetic."

Certain Bioartists stand at the threshold of bodily aesthetic practices and what one might call "the fine arts." Bioart is art that uses life as its medium, whether that life is tissue culture, other non-human animals, or the artist's own body. Both Bioart and somaesthetics focus on creative self-fashioning. Furthermore, Bioart is a theoretical practice -- that is -- its theory must be put into practice so that it be undergone and experienced rather than theorized about as an object. Thus, Bioart may be considered to be what Shusterman calls a "performative somaesthetic," which may not be easily reduced to either a representational or experiential somaesthetic, since it is the bioartists job to create an affective experience for the audience (sometimes inviting participation) while at the same time using the power of representative or performative art -- the experience of bioart is transformative for both the artist, the audience, and potentially the artwork (even if it is not the artist).

While somaesthetics in Shusterman's text seems to focus on self-fashioning, discipline, and control, Bioartists, as much as they strive to control their projects, focus on the contingent external forces of life and the materials used to sustain it. As a theoretical-practice-art that questions easy distinctions between the living and the nonliving and the human and the nonhuman, Bioart asks questions about not only the aesthetic of the human body, but the aesthetics and affects of a plurality of bodies. In other words, Bioart may lead us to consider what a posthuman somaesthetics might look like.

Of course, as is usually the case, someone has already investigated the question of posthuman somaesthetics. In his essay "Pragmatism, Artificial Intelligence, and Posthuman Bioethics: Shusterman, Rorty, Foucault," J.J. Abrams argues that the posthuman could be considered the radical extreme of creative self-fashioning.

However, Abrams' understanding of the posthuman is primarily drawn from extropian and transhumanist sources such as Francis Fukuyama, Hans Moravec, and Ray Kurzweil. Abrams understands the posthuman as simply the next step in human evolution, taking for granted that Kurzweil's predictions will come true. Abrams looks to science fiction as a guide for studying "how the body may be refashioned here on earth and in the vicinity" (Abrams 2004). But the science fiction visions that Abrams draws upon are the predictions of Kurweil and Co., a particular strand of posthumanism that would never claim. along with  N. Katherine Hayles, that perhaps we have "always already been posthuman. (Hayles 1999). Indeed, Abrams does not take into account the critical posthumanism that was beginning to develop through the work of Hayles, Cary Wolfe, Neil Badmington, etc. Abrams does take Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" into account, but misses her point by reading her through his  transhumanist and popular posthumanist (Fukuyama) sources, claiming that, "Haraway's own vision is to live out one's time on earth--which may, in fact, be unlimited [?] -- as actual living cyborgs. This would certainly involve transformations of the mind, as articulated in Kurzweil's nano-technological brain engineering" (Abrams 2004).

Basically, I propose to put Shusterman's Somaesthetics into conversation with critical posthumanist thought via a consideration of three Bioartists (although, potentially, I will only discuss Stelarc). I hope to point toward a critical posthumanist Somaesthetics while also taking into account some of the limits of somaesthetics scope through attempting to understand Bioart through that lens.


  1. I think you’ve got a point with BioArt as not being a representational somaesthetic. BioArt seems to do something more than situate itself as representation, due in most part, I think, to the ways in which Catts and Zurr, Kac, and Stelac use performance and disruption of creator/observer, artist/audience boundaries. Although, I wonder if the BioArtists’ work does cause the audience to re-represent themselves after their experience with the work. Yes, the BioArtists’ work is not representational, but does represent function differently, or located elsewhere, with their work? (How) does the audience’s body (imagined and physical) change at the moment of being inscribed by the work, as well as days, months and years after the experience? And this is where I wonder if BioArt would also be part of experiential soaesthetics, although a different kind of experiential somaesthetics (I don’t know enough about it, but I’m assuming that experiential is based on experience) from Shusterman’s. There’s some kind of experiential dimension to BioArtists’ “work” (I use quotes here because I think they have numerous functions operating during the creation and destruction). A bioartist’s body is experiencing another object, the audience is experiencing the bioartist’s creation/body, and the bioartist is experiencing the audience’s body. However, I should ask first how does Shusterman define experiential somaesthetics.

    When you say that Shusterman remarks "a crucial sensory medium for enhancing our dealings with all other aesthetic objects and also with matters not standardly aesthetic,” I thought about how the body is still being set aside (and I’m thinking about language here too and its relationship to truth(s)) as a truth and simply thinking of the body as an access to truth. This idea led me to consider if/how truth(s) function in BioArtists’ work? I know you don’t explore this idea per se in your thesis, and possibly it would be, I think, trivial since BioArtists aren’t concerned specifically with articulating truths, but I saw Shusterman’s concern with the body as analogous to the treatment of language “pre-twentieth century/pre-Nietzsche” by philosophers. Of course, this would totally change how you’d approach your thesis and the conference, but just an idea.

    I do think you’ve got a great idea with BioArt and critical posthumanism challenging definitions of somaesthetics. I’m curious to see how it goes.

  2. You are absolutely right that BioArtists engage in representation in other media, such as pictures documenting the exhibits, academic/scholarly articles, and, in Kac's case, artworks in more "Traditional" media that serve to, at one and the same time, complexify the 'message' or 'affect' of the initial piece as well as unify the exhibition as a fully fledged idea. That said, Catts has explicitly said that they tried to simply "represent" the living works and it does not have the same effect, because the work cannot then change in an unpredictable manner. And yet, the documentation of these unpredictable occurences are also essential for the artwork to take effect on the many people (such as myself) who have never experienced the artwork 'firsthand'.

    Shusterman defines experiential somaesthetics as a complement to representational somaesthetics more concerned with the "inner" experience, but artists like Stelarc are challenging whether we can separate this "inner" experience from an "outer" experience -- not in the sense of separating representational and experiential, but rather in Mcluhan's sense that our nervous system is expanding across a great network -- that we ourselves are distributed and that our bodies become interfaces rather than a unified organism. I need to read more about Somaesthetics, but it seems to take these extensions and modifications of the body as secondary to a kind of natural organic being (the "human") rather than thinking of the human being, or any living tissue, as a malleable medium. As I said, I think I need to look a bit more at Somaesthetics before really trying to figure out how posthumanism, bioart, and somaesthetics come together, but I know these topics must be engaged due to the ignoring of critical posthumanism in favor of the extropian/transhumanists such as Kurzweil and Moravec and the neo-con quasi-essentialist humanism (fearful of the coming 'posthuman') of Fukuyama.

  3. Yeah, creating the dichotomy of “inner” and “outer” experience seems to work off the Decartes’ paradigm. But what interested me is when you remarked, “we ourselves are distributed and that our bodies become interfaces rather than a unified organism,” it did make me think about the article I just read by DeLuca and Peeples where the authors discuss image events and the “public screen” (a term they use to not necessarily replace the “public sphere,” but to extend the discussion of visual rhetoric and communications with participatory politics). They suggest that image events that filter through the public screen require hypermediacy and remediation: hypermediacy produces heterogeneous spaces and provides representations of other representations or media. Remediation functions similarly in that representation of a medium is represented in another medium (e.g. websites that remediate television or USA Today remediates both television and Windows layout of computer screens). Basically, DeLuca and Peeples are interested in dissemination rather than dialogue as a way for democratic participation.

    So, it made me wonder how dissemination would function with BioArtists or factor into critical posthumanism (which you . I think this dissemination is what, and you mention it too, Sterlac is trying to do with his “ear on arm”: to disseminate sound in a much more complex network (possibly paralleling how telecommunications (could) function). But have any BioArtists ever tried to disseminate materially their actual project? Obviously, yes in terms of documentation and distribution, but for example, in a project like Catts and Zurr because the audience kills the artwork through tactile engagement, can the materiality of the project be “owned” by audience experience and either preserved through care outside the artwork’s original presentational context or disseminated materially to others and other contexts? I mean, I guess we sort of see this in medical transplants, but does it happen for “aesthetic” purposes with the human body?