An Essay by Harold Jaffe
It works better than a straight jacket. Restrains the wrists and ankles. Then straps across the genitals. Five-point restraints.
Well, the eyes are unbound.
What do they see?
They see the screen.
If a hermit thrush warbles its flute-like song in the Magnolia tree outside his window, he glares at his screen.
If a "terrorist" is lynched from the same Magnolia, he glares at his screen.
"Having been first mobile, then motorized, man will thus become motile, deliberately limiting his body's area of influence to a few gestures, a few impulses, like channel-surfing," permitting himself only the most restricted of views. (Paul Virilio, Open Sky, Verso, 1997, 17).
Virilio calls it the "industrialization of vision," and wonders, rhetorically, to what purpose. "Is it about improving the perception of reality or is it about refining reflex conditioning, to the point where even our grasp of how our perception of appearance works comes 'under the influence'"? (94)
The restrained male at the screen is Australian, the technoartist Stelarc, born Arcadiou Stelios, known for his attempts to reconfigure the body, "not in genetic memory but in electronic circuitry." Stelarc would reply that what Virilio refers to as "reality" is outmoded, as is his unmediated "nature" with its warbling hermit thrushes in their Magnolia trees. We are at an unique juncture in civilized history, in which the technosphere has gained precedence over the biosphere.
"Technology," Stelarc declares, "has stuck to us like glue. It's about to become a component of our bodies . . . [which] represents the end of Darwinian evolution as some organic development. Now, with nanotech-nology, man can swallow technology . . . It is only by modifying the body's architecture that we'll be able to reshape our consciousness of the world." (quoted in Virilio's Art of the Motor, University of Minnesota, 1995, 111)
Virilio, formerly an urban planner, persists with his interrogation of virtual space: "If the possibility of acting instantaneously without having to move about physically to open the blinds, switch on the light, or adjust the heating has partly removed the practical value of space and time intervals to the sole benefit of the speed interval of remote control, what will happen when this capacity for . . . instantaneous interaction migrates from the thickness of the walls or floors of the wired apartment and settles not on, but inside, the body of the inhabitants, introducing itself, lodging itself inside their bodies, in the closed circuits of their vital systems?" (Open Sky, 54-55)
Another contentedly restrained technoartist, William J. Mitchell, has addressed that crucial question and is exhilarated by its "solution."
That the "surviving intelligent life form on earth will be silicon-based not carbon-based," is a prospect that evidently has enraptured a virtual generation of technical-minded younger people, artists included. (Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species, Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, MIT, 2000, 159)
In Donna Haraway's now famous, but initially astonishing, feminist validation of technology, she writes that "Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of supersavers on the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." ("Cyborg Manifesto," quoted in Information Arts: Intersections of Arts, Science, and Technology, MIT, 2002, by Stephen Wilson, 81-82)
Many of those working with advanced technology who are less than enraptured with a "silicon-based" future nonetheless think that it is irresistible. Techno-experimenter Kevin Warwick, of the University of Reading, is representative; he estimates that interfacing humans and machines is an "endgame," but "that is the way we are going . . . [hence] the destruction of the human race as we know it seems inevitable." (Robo Sapiens, 32)
In his encyclopedic compilation, Information Arts: Intersections of Arts, Science, and Technology, Stephen Wilson cites dozens of progressive minded technoartists, among them Andreas Boekman and Timothy Drukrey, who profess to be unsatisfied with the current state of advanced technology. Wilson summarizes their argument that "artists must analyze the media ecology and find places to intervene in those structures. They must nurture disruption and heterogenesis . . . [Instead] of getting caught in the search for technological progress" and becoming hypnotized by the technological innovations. (652-653)
A warning immediately follows: "This interrogation of our tools should not lead into a new form of Luddism. It is up to the 'media tacticians,'" Drukrey insists, to see the "symbolic and political implications of certain technologies" in order to identify "the cracks in the system." (653)
Presumably, social theorists like Virilio, Guy Debord, and E.F. Schumacher are to be included among the Luddites. For Schumacher, earth was a "living creature in an organic universe," and advanced technology did not mean fabricating what hasn't yet been fabricated irrespective of its potential application. Rather technology advanced only as far as benefitted our bedevilled earth and its inhabitants. Schumacher called this "intermediate technology."
Men Resemble Their Times More Than Their Fathers
Debord quotes this fourteenth century Arab proverb in his bleak analysis of culturally enforced amnesia. (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, 1988), 20.
On the same subject, but without Debord's politics, Stanley Fish provides a useful summary of the historical tension between two opposing world views: Homo seriosus and Homo rhetoricus.
The serious man "possesses a central self, an irreducible identity. These selves combine into a single, homogeneously real society which constitutes a referent reality for the men living in it. This referent society is in turn contained in a physical nature itself referential, standing 'out there' independent of man."
The rhetorical man "is an actor; his reality public, dramatic . . . He is committed to no single construction of the world [but] to prevailing in the game at hand . . . Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it. Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful." ("Rhetoric," in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentriccia, University of Chicago, 1987, 208)
The guiding principle among progressive technoartists like Drukrey and Boekman is in efffect to combine homo seriosus and homo rhetoricus, that is, to combat technoculture's rhetoric while employing its syntax. But to what extent is that possible? Is their agony with technoculture while fastened to the screen a public service, or is it, despite their intentions, a form of servitude to technoculture?
At least one technoartist-theorist argues for occasionally separating from the screen and contemplating the suburbs. Adrienne Gagnon, also included in the catalog to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's exhibition: 010101: Art in Technological Times, reminds us that
The technological "innovation" that Gagnon cites Debord previously identified as a functionally redundant but nonetheless cardinal principle of the "integrated" or metastasized spectacle. "Every new instrument must be employed, whatever the cost. New machinery everywhere becomes the goal and the driving force of the system . . .When an instrument has been perfected it must be used, and its use will [thus] reinforce the very conditions that favor this use." (79-80)
In The Unabomber Manifesto, Kaczynksi alerts us to the fact that "technological control" will not be imposed by fiat. Rather it will be introduced through "a long sequence of small 'innovations'" to preempt public resistance. "Each new step in the assertion of control over the human mind will be taken as a [seeming] rational response to a problem that faces society, such as curing alcoholism, reducing the crime rate [or] inducing young people to study science and engineering."
But what about the people? Historically, even the most servile-seeming populaces have been known to resist . . .
Kaczynksi is shaking his head no. Although "formerly the limits of human endurance have imposed limits on the development of societies, industrial-technological society will be able to pass those limits by modifying human beings, whether by psychological or biological methods or both. In the future, social systems will not be adjusted to suit the needs of human beings. Instead, human beings will be adjusted to suit the needs of the system." (Jolly Roger Press, 1995, 50, 51)
Still, many of these industrial advances will be initiated by science, which is not the same as technology. Does not technology "focus on specific utilitarian goals . . . [whereas] scientists search for something more abstract, knowledge?" (Wilson, 15-16, my italics)
No again, according to Virilio: "Science, after having been carried along for almost half a century in the arms race of the East-West deterrence era, has developed solely with a view to the pursuit of limit-performances, to the detriment of any effort to discover a coherent truth useful to humanity. In fact, modern science has progressively become techno-science-—the product of the fatal confusion between the operational instrument and exploratory research." (The Information Bomb, Verso, 2000, 1)
Alienation is No Longer Possible
What role, then, can the progressive technoartist play? Adrienne Gagnon: "What I long to see more of, and what I believe may become essential to our existence in a world moving increasingly beyond our control, is art that recognizes the forced adaptations we make daily and strives to provide us with counter-adaptations. Artists could help us look realistically at the rapid changes and far-reaching consequences wrought by technology and provide us with the tools to assimilate them without losing our autonomy. I envision artwork that would expand the boundaries of our sensory and social capabilities, enabling us to better navigate the barrage of information we confront on a daily basis, and perhaps easing the alienation and malaise [my italics] bred by the encroachment of the datascape." (126-127)
Re "Alienation and malaise": Debord's bleak observation is that "when the spectacle was concentrated, the greater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part." (9) The spectacle has now colonized every wilderness, exterior and interior. Hence alienation, or contemplation from the outside, essential to modernist art and discourse, is no longer available.
Contemporary theorists' definitions of alienation would seem at variance with Debord's. Having been nurtured on technology and corporate intrusion, it is likely that youthful technoartists are less exacting than the master Situationist regarding the modernist conceit of alienation.
Debord himself committed suicide without fuss in 1994, evidently concluding that, as the fated Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth put it: "The World worth living in was doomed. The world that would follow it deserved no decent inhabitants."
Beyond the Techno-Cave: Thirteen Million Homeless in the US
How easy it is to forget that advanced electronic technology is primarily restricted to the so-called First World. Beyond the horizon-less screen live and starve and die Somalia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Indonesia, and the estimated thirteen million homeless in the United States. Beyond the techno-cave pulses the largest expanse of nature preserve on the North American continent, the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, under full-scale assault by the US government and its industrial partners.
To criticize technoculture's excesses, or to produce art beyond the electronic screen, does not constitute Luddism, which in any case is not such an opprobrious term as has been made out. In the US especially we seem to have slid rapidly and mostly unconsciously "from pure technology to techno-culture to the dogmatism of a totalitarian techno-cult in which everyone is caught in the trap not of a society and its moral, social or cultural laws and prohibitions, but of what these centuries of progress have made of us and of our own bodies." (The Information Bomb, 39)
To label non-techno art-making "essentialist" wrongly suggests that it is outmoded, resistant to what is vitally new, when it is, we must remind ourselves, the faux new that mostly encompasses us, functioning like a virus, inhabiting technosouls, deadening them to affect.
Like sexual practice, like socialism, like capitalism for that matter, art is an elastic medium, a praxis that alters shape and purpose according to the conditions. That the conditions in 2002 for art-making are grave in unprecedented ways, most artists, technoartists included, would agree. Technoartists themselves can loosely be classified according to two approaches: those who go with the flow, making use of technological "innovations" without critiquing them, contentedly "under the influence," as Virilio puts; and those who use the latest technology to disrupt, the boldest disruptions of which are designed to interrogate, and in rare instances to destabilize, techno-excesses by employing the self-same technology.
Destabilization in this sense has two meanings: empowering readers/viewers/listeners to see through the infoculture's rhetoric and blandishments, and/or disrupting the system itself.
Writers of hypertext, for example, have established an ongoing intervention with the object of revalidating the writer's agency while restructuring, even eroticizing, virtual space-time. Composers and musicians have of course made imaginative use of technology; in the "classical" field, names like Stockhausen, Glass, and Xenakis come readily to mind. Among contemporary visual artists, it is probable that most of them create at least a portion of their art electronically.
The Greek-American Diamanda Galas is a model of a performance artist who usurps technological means to undermine Techno-ideology. Specifically, she employs advanced sound systems to distort her supple voice which then delivers potently impious images of institutional violence against women and against subaltern nations such as Lebanon and Iraq.
San Francisco-based Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Lab rig up "maniac machines with personalities, then turn them loose on people in public sites amidst dynamite detonations, spurting blood, rockets on cables, dead animal-robot mutations, mechanical flipping men, huge blowers, [and] giant paintings of public figures being mercilessly mocked . . ." ReSearch: Industrial Culture Handbook, 1983, 23)
Wodiczko's interventionist projections onto public buildings represent a novel intrusion into official space. As the art critic Peter Boswell describes it: "By projecting his images on the facades of . . . [public] buildings, which are already projecting an image through their architecture and decoration, Wodiczko seeks to unmask the buildings' existing rhetoric, which more often than not is accepted uncritically." (Public Address, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1993, 16).
French performance artist Orlan employs medical technology on her own body to advance a progressive feminist counter-ideology. She videos cosmetic surgery procedures even as they are recasting her face and body, such that it (the video) reflects critically on the dominant culture's objectifications of women.
The techno-interrogations detailed above, and others, are ingenious, a vital counter-thrust; but humanizing, eroticizing, estheticizing the technoculture is going to be a long, hard struggle, and so these art practices can only be seen as a beginning.
Ongoing Vigil, Lightning Response, Unceasing Revolt
The "prescription" which follows is eclectic, combining the modernism of Brecht and Debord's Situationism with activist components of Conceptual Art and contemporary theory. The object is not to enunciate a new artistic credo but to rearticulate certain art practices which have been unjustly abandoned. What is called for, then, is a--
Crisis art: Directed rather than disinterested, it accepts the finiteness of art without the fetishization of the art image or the artist who produced it, recognizing that judgments about what constitutes so-called great art are made by "networks of falsification" (Debord). Though uncommitted to virtual time and the computer screen, crisis art is able to locate the seams in the techno-system in which to plant its counter-ideological mines. These seams are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interlocking ideology which prevent us from being ourselves.
The mines, which issue from the artist's fundamentally revolutionary imagination, can include countering the official validation of the technosphere and its network of experts; countering repression and the displacement of desire; countering the calculated distortions of historical memory; countering the systematic unmooring of verbal signifiers; the list goes on.
How does the "guerrilla" artist lay these counter-ideological mines? She looks for a juncture or seam that is relatively unguarded, or less rigorously policed, she plants the mine and scuttles away.
Are there fewer seams in the technoculture network than previously? Yes.
But mining an individual seam can have much wider reverberations.
Crisis art's credo is ongoing vigil, lightning response, unceasing revolt. Hence it is proactive and reactive, responsive to government-industrial assault, and rapidly crafted, as in Heartfield's anti-fascist photomontages, or the guerrilla affiches of Spring '68 in Paris, or the Act-Up and Gran Fury posters, or Jenny Holzer's psychologically seditious billboards, or Wodiczko's terrorist projections onto institutional buildings.
Process art: Non-auratic, as Benjamin phrases it ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). Enacted in communities rather than displayed in galleries. Less concerned with objets-d'art than in generating independent thought. Uses public space innovatively, deliberately sparking controversy, and is up to the task of articulating its position in the resulting debate about both the generative issues and the art. (Robert L. Pincus, "The Invisible Town Square," in But is it Art?, ed., Nina Felshin, Bay Press, 1995, 34). Process art eludes the question of "Did it succeed," recognizing that certain successes cannot be quantified and may have to do with objectives as seemingly modest as planting an image or encouraging dialogue.
About the process-oriented collective Group Material, art historian Jan Avkikos writes: "Here was art that did not announce itself as art, that exploited the accessibility of the media to communicate ideas radically different from those that motivate advertising campaigns. Before the public could mount its accustomed resistance to contemporary art (It's alienating! It speaks a language I don't understand! It's not for me!), it had been afforded an art experience and, more important, a perspective on social issues that otherwise might receive very little play in the course of daily life. The art spoke of alienation from the workplace, urban fear, public education . . . independence for Puerto Rico." ("Group Material Timeline: Activism as a Work of Art," in But is it Art?, 103, 104).
Dialogic art: The familiar Bakhtinian notion but worth revitalizing. The idea is not that the artist stands above the fray paring his fingernails, bemusedly observing his creations. Dialogic instead articulates the more humbling notion that the artist interacts with the community on a largely equal basis, each affecting and being affected. In this regard art-making resembles educating, according to the liberationist model, as articulated by Paul Freire, Ivan Ilitch, Ira Schor, and others.
Dialectic art: At every turn in real and virtual time we feel compelled to roar No! in thunder to this or the other outrage, and, ideally, to follow with appropriate action, artistically speaking. Nihilism has its niche, surely. And Debord's ultimate denial--his suicide--was honorable. But the dialectical No is not nihilistic; it is a no to injustice and oppression, techno- and otherwise. Hence it is a yes to freedom of body and mind; to community; to whatever remains of wilderness both external and within.
However bleak the prospects for art-making in this degraded period, it is energizing to remember Antonio Gramsci, the brilliant Marxist theoretician imprisoned by Mussolini, surviving in prison for eleven years, writing his treatises and books there, counseling his family by letter, dying in prison at age 46. When, at the end of his life, he was asked to describe himself, Gramsci said he was—-or tried to be--"a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will."