Flickering Signifiers & Cyborgs

What’s a cyborg? Both Katherine Hayles (“Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”) and Donna Harroway (“A Cyborg Manifesto”) write about them; this blog post is an attempt to work out their ideas in relation to the boundaries (or, rather, lack of boundaries) existing between human and machine. (Disclaimer: I’m still working out these connections for myself!).

Harroway immediately draws attention to the centrality of boundaries: “This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (Harroway 292). Harroway notes three specific boundary breakdowns—that between human and animal, organism and machine, and also between physical and nonphysical (Harroway 293-4). These three boundaries are interrelated and collectively suggest that we—as human—may not be as different from both the non-human animals and technologies with which we are surrounded. A “cyborg world,” as Harroway conceives of it, is one that “might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Harroway 295). An awareness of “partial” identities ultimately clears the way for coalitional politics and is also reflected in writing (Harroway 295-6). In writing, the boundaries between organism and machine can be lessened and exploited for their potential power.

According to Harroway, writing is the “technology of cyborgs” (Harroway 312). She writes:

Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of ‘Western’ identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. ‘We’ did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of ‘texts.’ (Harroway 312)

Cyborg writing embraces the “illegitimate fusions” of organism and machine; it is through this embrace that the phallogocentric origin myths that abound can be refocused. This writing is possible specifically because the human is fused to the machine, because the human’s “sense of connection to our tools is heightened” (Harroway 313).

It seems to me that it’s possible to draw a connection here to Katherine Hayles’s work on flickering signification, which “brings together language with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman” (Hayles 33). Ina potentially posthuman world, writing—and reading—is necessarily mediated by one’s relationship with technology. This relationship is so important because the boundaries between human organism and technology have become increasingly difficult to discern. Thus, reading is akin to decoding:

What binds the decoder to the system is not the stability of being a member of an interpretive community or the intense pleasure of physically possessing the book, a pleasure that all bibliophiles know. Rather, it is the decoder’s construction as a cyborg, the impression that his or her physicality is also data made flesh, another flickering signifier in a chain of signification that extends through many levels, from the DNA that in-formats the decoder’s body to the binary code that is the computer’s first language. (Hayles 47)

Reading is, for Hayles, an embodied experience: we read to decode because we have been accustomed to be more familiar with the flickering nature of signification. Reading is therefore no longer related to the idea of community, but rather to the close relationship between the codes of language and the physical body. Just as Harroway’s cyborg is a mixture of human and machine, Hayles conceives of readers who are capable of decoding messages as if by muscle memory. While meaning cannot be entire, it is—both Hayles and Harroway agree—capable of superseding the materiality of text itself. Reading is no longer neccessarily the experience of holding the physical text in one’s hand; it is, with increasingly frequency, the experience of decoding messages that indicate the lack of boundaries between human and computer.

Overall, what I take away from Hayles and Harroway is the potentiality inherent in the interrelationship between human/machine. Through this melding of flesh and technology, humans are capable of writing new narratives and interacting with information in more intimate ways.

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Remediation and Photorealistic Painting

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin suggest that when we encounter digital technologies, we desire immediacy; that is, we want to encounter digital reality without being hindered by the interface of the digital medium through which it is experienced (318). Ideally, a medium’s interface would be “transparent” to the viewer insofar as it offers an unmediated experience of the technology (318). This desire for transparency has a long history: Bolter and Grusin trace the extent to which other mediums, most notably painting and photography, preceded digital immediacy (318). Painters used linear perspective and erasure to minimize the appearance of brush strokes while photographers created chemical images that similarly attempted to “conceal both the process and the artist” (319).

Ultimately, Bolter and Grusin describe a theory of remediation–the “borrowing” of an older medium to be reused in a new and different one (339). However, it goes both ways: users of older mediums such as film can incorporate newer mediums into their work (342). An example of this can be found, I think, in contemporary photorealistic painting.

Lee Price, an American figurative realist painter, has been recognized primarily for her hyperrealistic paintings of women with food.

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Lee Price, Cherry Cheesecake

Price paints these images from photographs she takes from a vantage point. In all but a couple of portraits–one featuring her friend, another featuring her mother–Price herself is the subject of the painting.

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Lee Price

The photorealistic style of Price’s paintings make it slightly difficult for a viewer to immediately recognize the image as an oil painting; rather, the image appears very much like a photograph. The paintings are thus remediated by the art of photography; the hyperealism is, I think, the means through which the viewer can more directly engage with the image. Just as digital hypermedia “seek the real by multiplying mediation so as to create a feeling of fullness” that “can be taken as reality,” Price’s paintings draw attention to the photographic nature of the image in order to create a sense of immediacy (343). This sense of immediacy is meant, it seems to me, to make the viewer forget that they are looking at a painting. Through emphasizing the photograph within the painting, I think Price’s paintings ultimately force the viewer to engage more closely with the subject of her artwork–the subject being most often herself, and always a female body. Ultimately, the viewer is forced to consider the relationship of the female body to food in relation to its place within a public gaze.

The first time I saw these paintings was on Tumblr. When they first appeared on my dashboard in a relatively small image format, I did immediately think that they were photographs. It was only when I looked closer that I realized they were actually paintings. This double-take–first thinking that I was looking at a relatively unmediated photograph, and ultimately realizing I was looking at a painting of a photograph–captured my attention.

To me, the immediacy of the paintings is most apparent given the intimate subject matter of the images. Photorealism allows the closest thing available to an unmediated look at the artist’s relationship with her body. Or at least, that’s how I’ve interpreted it!

Also, you can see some more examples of photorealistic painting here.

 

Sources:

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations 4.3 (1996): 311-358. Web.

Lee Price. Lee Price Studio. Web. 3 February 2016.

Greetings!

Hello and welcome!  My name is Jordan and I’m currently in my second year of the English PhD program where I’ve been focusing on the Victorian novel. I taught my first class last semester, a section of WRT 101, and since then I’ve been increasingly interested in composition (especially how to teach it!). I’m hoping that this class will allow me to learn from everyone about how best to incorporate digital writing into the classroom.

While I’m not currently very active on social media–just not my thing!–I definitely used the Internet quite a bit growing up. I remember learning how to type my essays for school, chatting with friends on AIM, and messing around with my MySpace layout (this list could go on!). Something that I’m still interested in now as much as I was then is just reading around online, particularly blogs. There’s a lot of great writing out there.

Also, it’s always great to come across stuff like this:

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And, on that note, looking forward to a great class!