IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies


The End of the Transgressive Body
Interview with Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

By Krešimir Purgar

• In this conversation I would like you to comment on your thesis expressed now almost twenty years ago in a book that you have edited under the title Body Invaders – Panic Sex in America. But first, let’s start with one generic dilemma: what happens with the language of art and the social relationships in our technologically accelerating society? Is our knowledge of the world equally accelerating or are we already in a state of cognitive aretration?

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker— Technologically accelerating at the speed of light, social reality is itself in the process of being consumed by the paradoxes of light-space and light-time. Social history is now astrophysics, which implies that a culture moving at light-speed is not exempt from the perturbations of space travel with its black holes, warp jumps, and unexpected ripples in the spacetime fabric. Like the violent rip in the cultural fabric which occurred post-9/11 in which the universe, while continuing to accelerate technologically, began to curve back to its primal origins in anxiety, distrust, and panic. This explains why we can live simultaneously in the much-trumpeted "flat world" of global cybernetic development, while embroiled simultaneously in the most recidivist of fundamentalist religious passions.

Literally, the body of flesh and blood has split in two—part/flesh, part/machine—with no easy reconciliation on the horizon. Cognitively, we may be the first generation to exist as Judith Butler has said "between living and dying," already aware that even the language of the "prohibited" is a constitutive condition for the affirmation of power. Ironically, the theses of Body Invaders have been realized in every detail, with the melancholic result that we live now not so much within bodies which have been invaded, but within the violent social and political membrane of body invasion itself.

If there is such a proliferation of body rhetorics, might not this, too, mean that, like sex before it, the body has now undergone twofold death: the death of the natural body (with a birth of the languages of the social and, before them, the Foucauldian verdict of the "soul as the prison of the body"); and the death of the discursive body (with the disappearance of the body into Bataille’s general economy of excess)? This would mean that we have entered the scene of panic bodies for the fin-de-millenium. Panic bodies living on (their own) borrowed power; violent, and alternating scenes of surplus energy and perfect inertness; existing psychologically on the edge of fantasy and psychosis; floating sign-systems of the body reexperienced in the form of its own second order simulacra.

• I think that the debate on natural and discursive body can still be considered active, even though I would argue that their death is not a permanent state, rather a recurring event. Therefore, isn’t this floating sign-system of the body more appropriate perspective for the insecurity and instability of contemporary body then its linguistically attractive but socially unacceptable death?

— As Nietzsche meditated in On the Genealogy of Morals, the debate on the natural and discursive body is a purely ‘perspectival’ event, an enigmatic mirror hiding from view the incorporation of the body by the languages of reification, alienation, simulation, and the virtual. The hint of death is everywhere, animated and seductive, but for all that only a resurrection-effect of a culture which only now begins to live. Oscillating wildly between hyper-aesthetics and excremental culture, the body desperately clings to any floating sign: the signs of death, the signs of insecurity and instability, but perhaps also, the signs of a new multiplicity which is struggling to be born, exist, and thrive.

Women’s bodies have always been postmodern because they have always been targets of a power which, inscribing the text of the flesh, seeks to make a feminine identity something interpellated by ideology, constituted by language and the site of a "dissociated ego". Thus, if Woodman’s photographic practice is prophetic of the fact that, when power speaks in the language of the body invader, then the ruins within are also made complicit with the end of the emancipatory project, this may issue from her insight that women’s bodies have always been forced to dwell in the dark infinity of the limit and transgression as serial signs: exchangeable and reversible poles in a power field that can be hyper-subjective because it is also hyper-simulational. Women’s bodies are an inscribed text, this time in skin, not philosophy, a preface to (the impossibility of) transgression.

• If we consider modern project as the last common social and artistic norm, then women’s body, being always postmodern, has been avoiding, "by norm", any normative discourse and placement. Is it possible today to determine the fate of the body, be it male, female, homo or heterosexual, in terms of transgression, sexual or social normativity, when we are witnessing every day (as you also try to envision in parenthesis) transgressive mind melting with the mainstream or former "deviations" to be considered perfectly normal? Doesn’t the main character from the very recent movie Transamerica announce the definitive end of the transgressive body, be it male or female?

— The end of the transgressive body? Definitely. The act of bodily transgression has been appropriated now by power, first as the prohibition necessary to confirm its ineluctability, but also as the dangerous exclusion the presence of which lends seduction to a rhetoric of power which is always threatened with a fatal loss of energy by mass disinterest in its games. Consequently, whether as the prohibition which confirms or the forbidden charm which reanimates the fatal boredom at the centre of power, the transgressive body is the resurgent cynical sign of a power which is dying of its own cynicism. Which can only mean that what’s dangerous today are not bodies staged under the sign of transgression, but bodies living in a condition of complexity. Complex bodies are the diffraction which interrupts the flow of power, the intermediation which makes (corporeal) exclusion part of the language of affirmation, the singularity of a body which struggles, as Luce Irigaray has said, "to be two," and, I would add, to be multiple.

For Stelarc, like Nietzsche before him, the body may be a bridge over the abyss, but where Nietzsche, the last and the best of all the modernists, turned back to a tragic meditation on the death of God, Stelarc makes of his own body its own horizon of the sometimes repulsive, sometimes fascinating, possibilities.

• Here your were referring to Stelarc’s use of technology to overcome the limitations of the body or to artistically complicate what is usually taken for granted, but which profoundly shapes and determines our existence. Do you think that art can make us aware of the limits of technology or should art be used precisely to challenge existing barriers in our technological envisioning of the world?

— Stelarc is the artist par excellence of complexity theory, making of his body a site for the study of what Katherine Hayles has described as "chaos and non-order." Refusing to be inscribed in the written word, Stelarc has written the language of complexity into the body itself, with its intermediations, diffractions, extrusions, and interruptions. Here finally, is a body, a body of complexity, which has artistically made of itself an unexpected ‘curve’ in the otherwise straight world of binary codes. With Stelarc, art is extruded consciousness which in its intensity challenges technology to reveal its hidden possibilities of creative complexity.

The nomination of the body as a crisis-centre, fit for immediate entry of the therapeutic agencies of the state and vulnerable to a moral wash of the guilt and repentance, is the trompe-l’oeil necessary to disguise and repress, the fact of the "disappearing body" as the faith of the late modernity. And the return of hyper-subjectivity is only a certain indication of the presence now of body invaders – from the fashion scene and panic viruses to the proliferating signs of consumer culture – as the language of postmodern power.

• Can we now, in the "late postmodernity" (as opposed to the late modernity of twenty years ago), still expect from the hyper-subjectivity to continue to emancipate and protect the integrity of our bodies and minds in front of the proliferating signs of consumer culture? Should it be a viable choice for all of us to transfer what you have called hyper-subjectivity into a certain kind of hyper-individuality, an anti-totalizing strategies for the third millenium?

— Or why not a more paradoxical strategy, one which simultaneously relishes the ethical singularity of the individual human life while seeking some excessive totalizations of its own—a totalization of social reciprocity, of mutual respect, of political peace? As the philosopher, George Grant, once said, we live now with a "patina of hectic subjectivity" in an increasingly sterile technological environment. Even the concept of totalization has been reduced in meaning to the imperial projection of economic and military interests by the powerful, with no sustaining value except abuse value. In this sense, "an anti-totalizing strategy for the third milenium" is a wonderful possibility, but shouldn’t the possibilities of totalization be recuperated for a proliferating new world of substantive human values? To do this would be to turn the enigma of technology with its doubled possibilities for despotism and creativity in an new epochal direction. In other words, why should we not finally invade the body invaders?