Monday, August 27, 2012

Tentative Abstract for the International Conference on Body and Technology: Instruments of Somaesthetics

 Title: Body as Interface: The Posthuman Performative Somaesthetics of Stelarc

  In his disciplinary proposal for somaesthetics, Richard Shusterman distinguishes among three modes: experiential, representational, and performative. However, insofar as performative practices are either for representational display or cultivation of the experience of one’s own body, he argues that we could subsume these practices primarily under representational or experiential modes--even if many practices participate in both modes.  I will argue that some performance art that uses the body as a medium should rightfully be characterized as a performative somaesthetics. Unlike Shusterman’s pragmatic orientation toward self-melioration in which we aim for a healthy dose of self-knowledge, Australian performance/Bioartist Stelarc orients his work outward towards a transformation of the self through technological prostheses that has little to do with knowledge of an already constituted self. Rather than asking what we are and thus how we fit in with the environment, Stelarc asks what can we become given the conditions of environment. Akin to Shusterman’s call for a practical philosophy, for Stelarc, this question cannot be answered merely by theoretical speculation; rather, he claims that his ideas are authenticated only by actions. However, Stelarc probes the very “limit experiences” that Shusterman argues may risk “destroying the self.”  I will argue that it is precisely these intense limit experiences that Bioart/performance art engage as a performative somaesthetics, not in order to perfect the individual self or to prescribe beneficial bodily practices, but to creatively explore contestable ways the body may interface with technology. The body as Shusterman understands it is “obsolete” (in Stelarc’s terms) because the body and the “self” that Shusterman posits has become fractilized and distributed across network media. This is not to say that voluntary human action is absolutely eliminated, but rather that it becomes one among many other agencies. The human body, rather than our instrument for life, becomes raw material for the network of which we are only a node.  As Stelarc puts it, “certainly what becomes important is not the body’s identity, but its connectivity; not its mobility or location, but its interface.” 


  1. Given the conference's focus on somaesthetics, my response might not be relevant to your purpose, but here it goes anyway:

    I wonder if there is a way of discussing the body's "interface" and "connectivity" with the world, terms you cite from Stelarc, outside of an exclusive focus on contemporary technology. Put a different way, is there a way the end of the abstract can broaden the discussion to position the body's technological connectivity, the body's new status of as a "node" within a "network," as a part of a larger "ecological" conception of the body and that cuts across various theoretical and political orientations. Two quick examples might be how a digital metaphor ("plugging in") functions simultaneously as an ecological metaphor (we are connected with the environment) in the film _Avatar_, where the Na'vi uplink with other creatures. A very different example might be Judith Butler's emphasis on the "constitutive sociality of the self" in her essay on "The Limits of Sexual Autonomy." In other words, for her the self, and the body and how we experience our individual embodiments, are wrapped up in a social network that we inherit whether we want to or not.

    Another interesting idea is how the body is an "interface" for various pathogens, viruses, bacteria, chemicals and industrial bi-products, etc. that we accumulate within our tissues as a result of simply going about living. To live as a body is also to exist in an ecological relationship with other bodies and materials within the world that we use to sustain ourselves. In a certain sense then the body is already a "node" within a particular "network" even before its placement within what we today recognize as "the network."

    Anyway, there might be a deeper significance to your idea that you could develop toward the end of the abstract. Perhaps the only sentence I'd suggest revisiting is the one that reads "The human body... becomes raw material for the network of which we are only a node." It wasn't clear to me whether this was in fact a desirable conception of the body, or whether it was something to be avoided: "raw material for the network" doesn't sound like a particularly good fate for the body. Also, how much are ideas about the body's "connectivity" and functionality as an "interface" metaphors derived from the current technological regime? If they are metaphors, are they the best metaphors? Do they relate to other (or earlier) metaphors?

  2. Joe,

    Thank you so much for your comments! I'm drawing the metaphors of network and node from Brian Massumi's article on Stelarc called The Alchemy of Reason, but I think your point about technological and ecological is well taken. As I was reading your response I was thinking about whether or not we would consider "viruses, pathogens, viruses, bacteria, chemicals" *as* technology or if this would be a completely inappropriate designation. I think this is what you are getting at when you ask whether we can think of the body as interface in connection with the world "outside" of an exclusive focus on contemporary technology.

    I also draw "raw material for the network" from Massumi, but I might want to look back at the context and why he puts it that way. I agree with you that this could "objectify" the body in a way that makes it seem like the body is dead meat rather than living flesh.

    Although Shusterman doesn't use the word "network" and "connectivity" he does talk about the body as an interface. I think that interface is a really powerful word because it implies for me the designation of an access point to something, but which is not merely instrumental to a "user," but rather, it structures how a user can interact. "The body" is a malleable interface (to a certain degree) to the world and through technological manipulation or implantation we can change how we interface with it.

    "Interface" has multiple meanings, but one of the meanings preserved from 1882 up to the present (cf. OED) is that the interface is related to the "common boundary" -- again, an access point, a meeting point.

    A more recent definition I think can be used to understand why interface is a powerful way to describe our connection to the world: "An apparatus designed to connect two scientific instruments, devices, etc. so that they can be operated jointly."

    Excepting the emphasis on "scientific instruments" I think about the interface as something that joins "us" with the world -- something that allows us to operate with the world (rather than on it).

    I dunno, just some thoughts. Thanks for getting me thinking about this again!