Post Human? All Too Human
“Could it happen that the next generation will be our last generation of real humans?” Jeffrey Deitch thinks so. In the books and shows he has edited and curated, teasingly titled Artificial Nature and Post Human, Deitch takes the fashions for cosmetic surgery and body-building as pointers to “a growing sense that we should take control over our bodies and our social circumstances rather than just accepting what we inherited.” This means “the matter of fact acceptance of one’s ‘natural’ looks and one’s ‘natural’ personality is being replaced by by a growing sense that it is normal to reinvent oneself.” The radical flights into unknown transformation of self in the posthuman will make the postmodern look like a mere departure lounge.
This refiguring of the figure takes place against the background of a new landscape. “More and more people are becoming comfortable in the artificial world than the natural one.” Somewhat inconsistently, he adds: “The natural world was never before overrun with the kind of artifice that now permeates it, but one’s conception of it has always been a man-made construct.” If nature was always a cultural construct, then how and why can it be said to have disappeared? What exactly is lost? The poverty of this notion of nature is a very central difficulty with Deitch’s pronouncements, as we shall see.
The post human and artificial nature are juxtaposed in Deitch’s writings as figure to ground: “A new post-human organisation of personality will develop that reflects people’s adaption to this new technology and its socio-economic effects.” The only thing which appears to mediate their relation to each other is art and science, where both take on an idealised aura: “Future genetic manipulation may spawn a race of post-humans who are outwardly perfect but whose inner neuroses and instincts may not be so easily controlled. Artists are sensitive to this murky underside of displaced urges which not be quite so easy to remold as a pair of flabby thighs.”
Everything changes form in Deitch’s future – except art. That art might also be subjected to radical pressures for change is noted, but marginalised. “Nature has traditionally been the ultimate inspiration and challenge for the artist who, depending on his or her orientation, sought to imitate it, improve upon it or interpret it.” The artists simply shifts focus from nature to artificial nature without the category of art being challenged. Art “… will have to help provide the inspiration for what our bodies should look like and what our minds should be doing.” Should? A moral imperative creeps in here, unannounced. Deitch believes as strongly in the continuity and viability of the arts as he does in discontinuity and change in the people and the environment. On both counts, Deitch’s enthusiasms seem both usefully provocative and fundamentally flawed.
The problem of the relationship of nature to culture has a history. The Enlightenment thinkers separated body from soul, instinct from reason, and hence nature from culture. They prized above all the faculty of reason and its ability to objectify nature, to treat it as a domain of measurable and manipulable things. The Romantics tried in many ways to reunite body and soul, reason and feeling, nature and culture. Since Kant we have had to deal with sophisticated arguments about the difference between nature and culture, and the struggle that reason must put up to free itself from blind natural urges.
Schiller tried to unite nature and culture, form and process, in an ideal of the aesthetic. Deitch seems to revive this notion of an aesthetic play which mediates between the will to free self expression of the individual and the blind necessities of an environment beyond one’s control. I think he has stumbled onto something here. With a bit of rejigging it might prove more useful than a fashionable conceit to dress up art for a season in the threads of groovy sounding ideas. The threads of these ideas tie us also to some fundamental problems in the history of thinking about art, and in art which proposes singular solutions to the pressing problems of today.
We live in contradictory times. On the one hand, the ruling intellectual fashion is (still!) for difference, disagregation, suspicion of all attempts to abstract from particulars. One is supposed to subvert totalities, metanarratives, identities, and so on and so on until now there is nothing left to subvert except subversion itself. This is a conceptual formation now in a perpetual state of boredom with itself and the world.
On the other hand, the whole problem of destiny and totality creeps back on to the agenda precisely where one would expect it: the problem of nature and human nature, but in the new colours of the Green movement. For the Green critique is nothing less and perhaps nothing more than our old friends totality and history, presented in the urgent form of the greenhouse effect and the countdown to global warming. Here is the one image of the post human which is the bad conscience of all the others: the extinct human. The self-extinguishing human. Death made absolute.
One could mention at this point, if it wasn’t so banal, a tendency called ‘Green art’. Here one returns to a strategy tried and abandoned by German romanticism 200 year ago: submerging the impulse to human autonomy and self development, abandoning the cool artifice of civility in a return to submission to the necessities of nature. In a sense too, this is a spectre of the post human. It means abandoning the human as aspiration in order to drown it in the swamp of mere survival. Symptomatic is Heathcote Williams’ conversion from the espousal of radical freedom to radical naturalism, leading to his marvellous poetic photo-essay book Autogeddon.
The problem of a reconciliation with nature was postponed with the postmodern abandonment of the temporary solutions offered by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche. How can one be free from the necessities nature imposes upon us, the necessities of work and suffering, and yet not violate nature? The question sounds very contemporary, but that is pretty much the way it appears to Schiller in the 1790s. His answer was art. Art is where nature and culture, the sensuous and the ideal, urge and form – combine. But Schiller, like Deitch, generalises individual solutions as social solutions by simple analogy. The force of the Green critique is that the individual pursuit of freedom from necessity is the stuff that adds up to an unsustainable violation of the laws of nature. What is self-development for me or you is the production of the greenhouse effect for all.
Following Winkelman’s enthusiasms, Schiller saw ancient Greece as the ideal model of the unity of the human and the natural. This was not nostalgia. The development of more complex cultures and the consequent alienation of the human from the natural was a necessary stage for it created the possibility of individual self development and freedom. The trick was to look back at the Greek past for clues as to how to put nature and culture back together again at a ‘higher’ level of development. There is another ideal model of nature and culture around today, one that is sometimes coloured by nostalgia, but which also has a more environmental aspect. It too, has a lot to do with an aesthetic rediscovery like that of Winkelman. I’m thinking of the fashion for indigenous art which has prompted a reconsideration of the culture of ‘first peoples’.
In Australia this occurs very forcefully through the revaluing of Aboriginal cultures. In the art of the desert painters one can see a complex and secret code at work, regulating the relation of the human to the natural. In the work of an artist like Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri one sees a relation of art to people and land which is intimate and abstract, productive yet promising to avert exploitation. Tim Rowse, in his book After Mabo cautions against a nostalgic or romantic view of Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal culture sometimes survived best in cattle country, where it adapted and adopted quite exploitative relations to nature. Nevertheless, one can understand the strong attraction of the desert paintings for a western audience. They offer an image of something to be recovered or more precisely reinvented: a productive yet non-destructive interchange between the human and the natural, both at an individual and social level.
Deitch doesn’t mention indigenous art and culture. This is not surprising, for it conflicts with his notion of ‘nature’. Deitch confuses nature and landscape. He thinks of it as an ideal or an image which humans confront individually when they contemplate it. He does not think about nature as a process, out of which the ‘human’ emerges via a collective struggle of self-creation, in its difference from nature, yet dependent on it.
The Aboriginal desert painters depict a different landscape. They paint a relation between natural and human processes. As Eric Rolls stresses in his extraordinary essays From Forest to Sea, Aboriginal culture actively managed and changed the land long before the white invasion. There is an understanding of a possible relation to nature yet to be found here. It will be as distinct from the city Greenie’s notion of ‘wilderness’, unspoilt by human intervention as it will be from Ruskin’s idea of natural ‘beauty’ as an expression of the bountiful good will of God.
We can make a start on a new conception of this nature/culture problem by picking up Schiller’s thread, the idea that art can indeed creative an image of the interplay of nature and culture. Hegel also picked up this thread, and he too can help us. What he was looking for was a path to reconciliation between the process of nature and the process of human development, which emerges out of it.
The ever-expanding processes of human culture don’t just do violence to natural processes, they also create vast and expansive environments which build up, layer on layer, over nature itself. Nature is forced to adjust to a second nature of human artifice. Contemporary western artists don’t mediate between natural processes and cultural processes, the way Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri does, but between the processes of second nature and the cultural processes which grow out of our antagonistic relation to this world of our own collective making.
Stelarc and Orlan are two contemporary artists who operate on this terrain. They challenge us to think about a reaching beyond the limits of the self, but also to a rethinking of the relationship of the subjectivities or figures they create to the environment or ground which produces them and against which they struggle to create themselves, and to struggle to create art in the process.
Stelarc gave bravura performances of his radical assaults on the status quo of the body at both the Second and the Third International Symposia on Electronic Art. His ‘third arm’ work is well known, but is now incorporated – literally – into a whole series of prosthetic devices which he manipulates with his body in performance – or which manipulate him. He may control the movements of the third arm with muscles in his stomach, but the wild movements of one of his original arms results from an electric charge to the muscles which he does not control and which he reports are quite painful.
Whenever I see Stelarc perform, a fit, stocky, balding middle-aged man with all manner of wires and hardware connected to his body, I find the spectacle both moving and terrifying. Certainly, when he performed in Gröningen, blasting provincial Dutch burgers out of their chairs with the ear-splitting sound of amplified muscle and body electricity, it was an exhilarating feeling. The pathos stems from the performance of a struggle between the human and the non-human, between the disciplinary and technical constraint and determination of the body, against which the body wrestles and contorts, with all its native cunning. One feels one is present at a transubstantiation of terms: what was human becomes animal and what was natural becomes technical.
Stelarc’s project is very much an overcoming of the limits of the body necessitated by the very environment the body now finds all around it. We have out-evolved the usefulness of certain corporeal limitations, Stelarc claims. But how does the body come to discover itself surrounded by so many human-made products? How does it come to produce an environment which on the one hand was supposed to free the human body from the necessities of life and yet which exposes on a cruel way the very limitations of that same body?
Stelarc’s work is not about our relation to nature, but to second nature. Second nature is the ground on which Stelarc stages his act, and which reaches into the very recesses of his body. It is a machine made, machine run environment of concrete and steel and hardwiring. On the one hand, it threatens to undermine the body, insinuate itself into the body. Stelarc all wired up is a nightmare image of this aspect of second nature, a ‘man made’ (or what is the same thing degendered, ‘socially constructed’) nature, wrested out of the raw material of nature itself. On the other hand, Stelarc is interested in the struggle to overcome this insidious influence, but in an ironic way. Stelarc’s art embodies a process of using the tools of second nature, the process of remaking the environment, to remake the body itself in the image of second nature. Where, for example, the Archigram architects proposed a biomorphic architecture to accommodate the body, Stelarc proposes a mechanised body to accommodate second nature. He would heal the rift between second nature and the residual traces of nature in the body by eliminating – with the famous laugh of his – the archaic traces of nature in the body.
Whether one agrees with Stelarc’s vision of a body remade in the image of second nature, it is a useful vision because it focuses on process. The same can be said of Orlan. Since 1990 this French performance artist has staged a series of cosmetic surgeries, each designed to transform her likeness into that of carefully selected renaissance and post-renaissance art works. So far she has the forehead of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the eyes of Gérome’s Psyche, the mouth of Boucher’s Europa, while her nose became ‘school of Fountaineau’. When she completes a series of seven such operations, she will commission an advertising agency to create her new name. In the meantime, she markets videos and photographs of her changing form to finance the transformation.
Stelarc thinks of the body’s relation to ground in terms of its relation to the machines which produce and reproduce its functioning in contemporary, postindustrial society. His interest is very much in the technical and scientific production of the new. He must be the only artist who’s statements come with a battery of references to obscure technical works in robotics! Orlan, on the other hand, is practicing self-realisation in relation to a quite different landscape. Hers is the landscape J. G. Ballard eulogised 20 years ago in his preface to Crash, the “overlit realm” presided over by advertising and television, where our “most real and tender pleasures” are a mingling of “excitement and mutilation”, where we have the “moral freedom to pursue our pyscho-pathology as a game”, in a world made safe for all the “veronicas of our own perversions.”
What is this realm that Ballard detected, that Orlan embraces? I call it third nature. Out of the collective struggle to wrest freedom from necessity, human cultures built second nature, which in its modern, industrial form is now paving the way for the remaking of the entire surface of the globe. But as Stelarc’s art demonstrates, second nature doesn’t just wrest freedom from necessity, it create new necessities, new tyrannies. The tyranny of brute concrete over flesh. The process of making nature over into second nature alienated human culture from nature, which appears now as a resource to manipulate, or nostalgically as a lost green world. Nature’s dangers are long forgotten. Yet second nature also appears as an alienated landscape, human made to be sure but not made for me or by me. Not made to make my self-realisation possible. Second nature exists only to make more second nature, and to make me a happy slave to the process of making more second nature: happy worker ant, happy consumer ant. Happy no more now that this very process threatens to concrete the whole planet out of existence.
But there is another avenue open besides the longing for a return to nature. As modern artists and writers documented so well, second nature alienates, making us long for a terrain of self realisation beyond. That terrain is third nature, a landscape made not of concrete but of images; not of relations of production and consumption but of communication and interpretation. This third nature grows out of the insoluble complexities and left over longings of second nature. What mere things cannot deliver, a flow of images covering the sores of second nature offers instead.
Orlan’s process of self-realisation partakes of this terrain of telesthesia, of perception at a distance. Hers is a wilful gathering of images from the data-banks of third nature, one of which is art. It is a remaking of the body in those images, freely chosen, to the extent that any action can be considered free. The process has its necessities too. Of necessity, Orlan sells images of herself to pay for further steps in the recreation of the body in freely chosen images.
But it is not just Orlan that is transformed here. Also transformed is art itself. Art becomes another ‘reservoir of poses’ to borrow a phrase from Barbara Kruger. Art becomes a means for the self transformation of the self, not vice versa. Critics like José Luis Brea would like to see art as a kind of ‘Native Reserve’ where a certain practice of self realisation can still take place, free from the totalising pulverisation of culture into flows of communication that takes place in third nature (see Flash Art October 1993). Unfortunately nothing is more in danger of continuous transformation into flows and stockpiles of images, ever more abstracted from particular bodies and cultures, places and times than art. By prizing the idea of abstraction, art becomes a sturdy vehicle for the abstraction made concrete of third nature, as Guy Debord so presciently saw.
If we were to arrive at a useful conception of the post human it would have to be something quite beyond what Deitch offers, which is still trapped irrevocably in a humanist framework. For Deitch the human appears in a simple opposition to nature, which is in turn a ‘man-made’ conception. The reciprocal movement, where we think of the human in turn as a product of nature, is quite absent. Deitch has not sloughed off the Enlightenment’s arrogance, he has merely transferred it from reason to art. His post humans are still human, all too human – dreaming of the will to transform their outer and inner selves in their own self image. Deitch acknowledges that self images may be pathological, but there is no conception of the social production of pathological images – the key question for our times about the third nature of saturated media infoscapes.
The limitations of Deitch’s thinking comes through in some throw-away lines about two much talked-about artists. “Kiki Smith’s flayed bodies, dripping with excretions, bear witness to the emotional wreckage that festers below the plastic surface.” Perhaps, but surely we also need to see Smith’s figures, like the famous sculpture of the woman on all fours trailing shit in broader terms than this individualistic psychology. Smith’s traumatised bodies are powerful talismans of the disciplinary dimension of second nature: the ‘management’ of bad and battered bodies by medical and psychiatric institutions, not to mention the violence of urban spaces, which as Ballard noted produce an historically unique aesthetics of bodily damage.
“The recreation of the self through an embrace of fantasy and fiction is embodied in the life and work of Jeff Koons. In the course of a two-year period, Koons transformed his body and his life through his courtship and marriage with Cicciolina.” Transformed his body? He looks the same skinny wasp he always was! That he attempted to transform art might be more to the point. Koons realises, far more than Deitch, that the development of third nature radically transforms the practice of art. Its separation from other communication media is an artifact of class snobbery and little else.
“My work has no aesthetic value, other than the aesthetics of communication,” says Koons in one of the one-liners conveniently collected in The Jeff Koons Handbook. Koons turns art inside out in the expanding context of third nature. It is the audience, connected to the image of the artwork via the global vectors of the media, who are the readymade. “Embrace your past,” he says, meaning that you should respond to your own experience of the connection between the banal and the eternal in everyday objects, where the flow of images of third nature and the production of functional things of second nature intersect. Like Kiki Smith, consideration of Jeff Koons takes us beyond the constraints of the merely human.
The post human is, as Nietzsche was well aware, a problem for brave souls. The value of art is not as an exemplary moral discourse, a how-to guide for post human living. Its value lies rather in its dissonant assemblages of nature, second nature and third nature. These are the collevtive processes that govern the disposition of bodies, from which we try to wrest a certain freedom from necessity. But we do so today in the shadow of a growing awareness of an abstract and global constraint to free creativity. The free creation of the self runs up against the limit of nature itself.
At the end of The Order of Things, Foucault wrote, “As an archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearinng its end.” Nobody did more than Foucault to show how the techniques and instituions of second nature became a laboratory for examining, monitoring and modifying the body. The age of humanism, ironically enough, seized upon the body as a sacred emblem of freedom at just the moment when the techniques it let loose on the body would take that freedom away from it.
A lot of ‘politically correct’ art today is nothing more than a closet humanism. Unable and unwilling to sustain the fiction of ‘man’, it breaks this category down by type. If the correct proportion of types of human who are the victims of the organised tecchniques of second nature are ‘represented’, and represent themselves, then somehow, magically, one produces a collective representation which is more true and more free. But it exists only in the white space of the museum.
Terms like the ‘subject’ and ‘the body’ slip quietly back towards a humanism of ‘protest’ and indeed resentment against second nature’s disciplining of the body and third nature’s stripping of the images of the body from the body, broadcasting them over any and every surface. The limitations of an artist like Karen Finlay lie here: in a defiant and ultimately nostalgic assertion of a body’s right to itself. A rage against the machine, an oedipal shriek against daddy is not the same thing as a figuring and a figuring out of the patriarchal structures of second nature. It is, once again, a self-ghettoisation within art as a romantic refuge. The refuge late 19th century romantics sought in framing landscape on the wall, late 20th century romantics seek in performing the body in the gallery. Like the owl of Minerva, romanticism once again offers too little, too late. Art becomes in this nothing more than a refuge from forces it refuses to comprehend under any heading other than moral distaste, thus guarranteeing its irrelevance in the face of ever more subtle, ever more silent techniques for the management of what Foucault chillingly called ‘biopower’.
‘Man’ might be as dead as God, but similarly lives on covertly in a feminism and a multiculturalism which refuse to relinquish a quaint liberal notion of a free self-production of the self. Even Deitch can’t let go of this notion – its the residual faith of modernity. Both art and theory have forgotten their own itinerary. And then there is nature: that foundational term in western aesthetics which now draws our attention back to its whole history. No longer benign, it reappears in a more ancient form, as a zone of terror. Foucault wrote of the dissolution of humanism in the social sciences: “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.” Only now one would caution that one ought not to get too close to that sea – its probably toxic!
McKenzie Wark is Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Lang College, New School University. He is the author of several books, most recently Dispositions and: A Hacker Manifesto.