Body criticism, pure mind and the real thing

Hans Ulrich Reck's contribution to the symposium "Body in Ruin" at the "V2_ Manifestation for the Unstable Media" in 's-Hertogenbosch, October 9th, 1993.

1. The discourse on the body is an old European accomplishment. It has always aimed at the ethos of a good form of life: having a place and position in the environment, in nature, under the sun, which conforms to the human character: this is the ethos conceived entirely from the point of view of the body. This body measure is the paragon and the symbol of metaphysical mathematics, aesthetic proportion, artistic harmony and, all in all, of the cosmic structure of the world, of its orderliness. It still appears in Le Corbusier's famous definition of architecture -- "architecture is the artistic, faithful, and magnificent play of the bodies of a building gathered under the light" -- and, in fact, in every kind of renaissance and classicism referring to the practical meaning of applied knowledge. World harmony, the sound of the cosmos of the Pythagoreans, first formulated the still more or less directly effective model of the metaphor of the body as well-proportionedness, as meaning of measure, number and weight, concord, unison, and material beauty, sensory appearance of the idea. In antique culture, the physique as the fullness of senses centered in the virtue of moderateness, a proportional life avoiding excesses, is placed above the mere mind. Life is praxis, not poesis. The art of living becomes measure of practice. The body is both allurement and phenomenon, seducer and motivation. Concern for the body is part of concern for the self. The corporeality of nature is always an ethical notion, too.

2. Christianity breaks with materiality and self-sufficient semblance. Man is disfigured for the sake of transcendency. The body is regarded as a prison, an impediment, a mere contingency, a transitional medium. The sacral standard discordantly disfigures the aesthetics of the proportional. Number and measure are disengaged from the expanse of nature. Nature becomes object, the subject becomes the decisive point of reference of transcendency. Self-procreation of the mind and hostility against the body constitute the poles of transcending the earthly. The body becomes pure mind: discourse.

3. Secularization and industrialization are triumphs of the mind: the body is disciplined, excluded, depraved, depreciated. It degenerates into working power. Its desires and longings are driven out. Dionysian excess is replaced by the self-assertion of the tamed transcendent as a large machinery. All things become vehicles of mystifications. It is the beginning of the cult of the true thing, which is actually a cult of imitations. The splendor of matter, the atomization of man, the cult of the individual are showing: the American mass-culture reigning the world is the radicalized successor of Europe, a Cartesian totalitarianism unifying science and phantasmagory, autonomy and hallucination.

4. At present, the consequences of the autonomous subject are being carried to the extreme: the scientist-god is at last recreating, improving, perhaps eventually even perfecting, Creation. Marvin Minsky and the basics researchers of the MIT regard themselves as gods. In their opinion, man is degenerating into the last defective mind machine, a piece of capricious, erroneous brain meat. The mind has detached itself from the body. Aversion against the body becomes the program of this transcendentalism, which focuses on the cult of boundless individuality and the plasticity of signs and languages.

5. The power-political implementation of the American project began with the liquidation of a corporeality intending to resist its grip: with the extermination of the Indians. Along the lines of these historical trails of violence, US culture has always been one of traveling, enforced mobility, logo techniques, the semblance of super-signs, transition, change of place and temporality. This is manifested by the triumphs of consumerism and Hollywood. Delusions of immortality and exclusively individual power have become universal incentive. Auto-suggestiveness and the will to believe inspire the individual. Culture is becoming hieroglyphic. Both the masquerading techniques of the stars and the culture of everyday life bear witness to this: the omnipresent consumer protection can be interpreted as a juridical protective cover for a sensorially insensitive, abandoned, and insecure body. The devastation of the body becomes manifest in people's illusions of beauty and their willingness to practice selfdressage. Cosmetic surgery and jogging are the reverse to this detachment from the body, which comes to light in the crude feeding habits and in a self-induced power-absolutism construing the world as an indifferent outside, and history as a religion.

6. Cyberspace is therefore typically a US product. It only pretends to be an artistic or technological endeavor. What it is really about is the power of a phantasm. There are two aspects to this: unlimited enhancement of individual possibilities of development and creation of homogeneity of environments and stimulation of the self. Simulated sensuality in an individual, isolated space of power is a totally boundless dream of creating infinite hallucinations, in such a way that they are experienced as reality. The body is only the concrete material required for this, and otherwise without function or meaning. We can shape it as we like. The glamour cult of the stars, the surgical manipulation of the body, and cyberspace are three coins with the same reverse. Each celebrates the impotence of the subject, in that its power of decision-making is assumed to be absolute. Therefore, every technologically advanced experiment becomes compulsive matter. What is possible must be treated as a reality. There is no break between sign and signification. What could be must become real. The experiment, particularly the artistic one, immediately turns into merciless conformism, behavior becomes a hieroglyph, nature is simply a landscape, culture an arsenal of super-sign strategies. The fetishist character of things becomes the real thing, nature is mind. Everything is a hieroglyph: a metaphorical language as a configuration of signs beyond nature. Anything physical means resistance, which has to be broken. The suggestion that signs form an immediate unity with what they stand for, explains why this culture down to Jeff Koons -- has always been a mass-media consumer culture full of the euphoria of signs. However, signs always have to be explained, while orientation solely comes about through the systems of the visual itself. This is the aesthetic precondition of the prevailing TV nation, not the other way around, the effect of a technology. Technologies cyberspace, too -- are always metaphors going back to a hieroglyphic culture. Therefore, all experience is ritual, is formed by the systems of appeal, glamour and star cult. The individual is the material for an enactment, the staging of its sign-determining luster. Technical achievements are being used as magical happenings. In cyberspace, all promises must be fulfilled word-for-word, and without delay. In the perceptive space of such techno-machines, it becomes impossible to distinguish between religious, technological and psychedelic experiences. Precisely this is the historical basis of cyberspace: a kind of LSD-trip. The only thing that matters here is the creation of impact and effect. Mediamechanisms only function when concealed. They are made obscure. With the imagination forced into a tumultuous prison of ceaselessly flowing image suggestions, the impact of the powerful individual experience forms a symbiosis with the technology used. The Canadian MacLuhan used to refer to the media as 'extensions of man', extensions of synaesthetically connected, corporally comprehensive senses. Up until now, US culture is drawing the most radical conclusions from the anthropological axiom that there is no such thing as a strictly defined human "being", nor unconditional morals, and that it has always been within man's reach to do the unthinkable with himself.

7. Europe's body semantics are based on a stronger control of power:

the individual is not regarded as an isolated subject of absolute authority, but rather as a part of the social body. Individualism is a concept of social relationships. In US culture, individualism is unlimited: not only as a legal body, as the director of its own appeal, but also as the technician behind its own powerful development, the 'I' more and more exclusively refers to ITS SELF. Questions about the sense of things do not exist. Body aversion and transcendentalist selfrevelling dominate life. Whatever may increase the fullness, the wealth, of experience of an individual also increases his power and is evidently not only legitimate but also a must. The US body cult is completely dictated by the compulsion to realize all possibilities of intensification. There are no limits.

8. More recent technologies -- from the universal calculator computer to the biochip and the universal hallucinogen 'Cyberspace' -- cannot be adequately understood without an analysis of the mentality and the habitus of their inventors. Especially worthy of consideration is the phenomenon of the self-reveling communities which, after a long time of prominence among producers of meaning in the 'soft' arts, are now effectively infiltrating and seducing the ranks of the 'science school'. The 'data glove' is science-fictional hallucination and hard science at the same time. By now, the subculture of 'cyberpunk' and the delirious novels of William Gibson also rank among the essential references of serious research programs in the high-tech field. And so, with the key word 'immateriality' being claimed everywhere as a new cultural model, the question must be asked: who will develop at least apparently useful images and metaphors for modern society, to replace the vanished comprehensive symbolizations? Does art still have the power to develop images of such relevance or will the symbolizations originate either directly from the techno-civilizational sciences or from mass-culture, with which it has long been symbiotically merged? The US variety, highly prominent in the cultural and theoretical evaluation of the new technologies, should be analyzed against the background of William James' "The will to belief": the creation of consent and appeal is the important key to far-reaching mediatization of all effects aimed at society.

9. Virtual realities and victory over the body, the dream of the bodiless self-creation of the mind (the final triumph of the bachelor machines: god-like immaculate conception, pure mind) are therefore not technologies for the remodeling of nature, but proofs of the rhetoric of the phantasmagory: the exaggerated self-realization of the segregated mind (triumph of computer intelligence, of surgery, simulation of visual semblance, of the craving for amalgamation with the simulacra of the hieroglyphic) turns out not to be technology, but metaphorism. In the form of a dream of the absolute, following a linear conception of technology and sciences, it sheds an intense light on the contradictions of European culture. This is pretending to be God. The devastation of the physique is proof of this illusion, which displays a phantasmagoric power: an illusion with the power to change reality. However, it will never come to a triumph. Now that we are faced with the catastrophic manipulation of a senseless body, which, abandoned and mutilated, is dismissed by an arrogant technology, it seems time to develop a culture of returning the senses to the body, to correct the supremacy of the visual and to create a rhetoric of body criticism against the delusion of the absolutism of the pure mind. To oppose technofetishism and behaviorism, we will have to return to Nietzsche & Schopenhauer and to the esthetics of the body as a radical skepticism against any kind of metaphysics.

Hans Ulrich Reck, September 1993

Contribution to the symposium Body in Ruin at the V2 Manifestation for the Unstable Media in 's-Hertogenbosch, October 9th, 1993.

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