Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bernadette Wegenstein, Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory, Meredith Jones


Cambridge and London: MIT Press. ISBN 0262232472.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (1964) that 'the medium is the message', meaning not only that subject matter and technical form are intrinsically tied together but that, crucially, the mode of delivery has more importance than its content. Later he amended his famous sound bite to 'the medium is the massage', a variation that has been interpreted in many ways but is perhaps most interestingly understood as a distinctly corporeal notion about the ways bodies are touched and affected by media. Bernadette Wegenstein takes this relationship between media and bodies and expands it within her thesis that bodies and media are so profoundly interlinked in the contemporary world that they are interchangeable. The final chapter of her excellent book Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory is simply titled 'The Medium is the Body' -- by this stage of the argument an almost superfluous statement. She poses her key line of reasoning pace Merleau-Ponty, who declares that 'the medium that signifies the body, its representation, no longer is any different from the "raw material" of the body itself' (32). So the body is mediation, and mediation is the body.

Starting with this idea, the book works through a series of popular and philosophical understandings of the body that, at least since the sixteenth century, have swung between holism and fragmentation. By holism, Wegenstein means notions that see the body as a whole, as a system of inter-related psychic and physical parts that become less meaningful if separated. By fragmentation, she refers to the idea of the body-in-pieces, an anatomised and objectified body understood as a set of individual components. This fragmented body idea came to the fore in high modernity and maintains force in contemporary self-care practices such as exercise, dieting and cosmetic surgery, which posit the body as a controllable, owned project of which each part needs to be individually managed. And of course, women's bodies are understood far more in this fragmented context than men's bodies. Wegenstein notes, however, how notions of women's bodies have developed and morphed, and how female bodies in particular are currently multiple sites of potentiality, and essentially unstable, largely because they come into being with media:

No longer a place of exclusion and sexualization, female bodies (and I emphasize the plural) can now be described as the accumulation of different layers of media. In this model of subjectivity, identity is a process that never comes to a halt, as bodily layers can be taken off one by one and rearranged anew. (21)

Wegenstein carefully navigates between holism and fragmentation, suggesting that the body is not an intermediary or translator between world and subject, but rather something that unifies subjective wholeness and objective fragmentation. Thus, she claims that the history of the body needs to be understood as 'a gradual "unconcealment" -- to speak Heideggerese -- or revealing of the body as mediation' (35, italics in original). Part of this mediation is a continuing and irresolvable oscillation or dialogue between fragmentation and holism, which she argues are twinned both in history and in contemporary understandings of the body.

Chapter one, 'Making Room for the Body' offers a very thorough theoretical and historical review of relevant literature, covering image theory, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, corporeal feminism, and media theory. Wegenstein argues that the disciplines of media criticism and body criticism are inextricably linked, and supports her assertion by deploying analyses of new media art. The example-laden approach that she takes throughout the book implicitly backs up one of her arguments, which is that postmodern or posthuman bodies can only be understood if we ask 'concrete questions concerning concrete bodies' (17). These 'concrete questions' are ones that address the coevolution humans share with technologies. They are questions such as, 'What is physical?', 'What is digital?', 'How do these two concepts intersect in our media-saturated world, especially when that world is bulging with images of human bodies and body parts?', and 'Has the body itself become a medium, or was it always one?'. The idea that our 'meat' may eventually be left behind as we upload our consciousnesses is carefully dismissed, as are humanist notions that are suspicious of new communication technologies because of their disembodying capabilities. Wegenstein argues instead that in a postmodern environment where bodies continually 'enter' flat screens and where subjects invest deeply in surfaces, 'body and medium reemerge as one flesh' (148, italics in original).

Chapter two, 'Body Performances from 1960s Wounds to 1990s Extensions' focuses on performance art, and traces this form through its collapse into the body to its extension of the body. For example, the artist G√ľnter Brus declared in 1965 that he was 'no longer content to paint on canvas and thus lays hands on himself. So he besmears himself, simultaneously hinting at self-mutilation. . .' (39). This sometimes-abusive turning-in on the body by avant garde artists gradually gave way to 1990s performance art that extended into the digital realm. In this art, real bodies were substitutes for -- or subsumed by -- their digital representations, and Wegenstein suggests that Australian performance artist Stelarc, who began in the 1960s with hook-and-skin suspensions, demonstrates this development perfectly. Stelarc now merges his body with technology: his art is often controlled by internet-facilitated activities. Rather than bringing art into the body, as the 1960s wound artists did, 1990s extension artists such as Stelarc flatten their bodies, dispersing them into the digital realm or extending them with a range of prosthetics. Wegenstein argues that through the latter part of the twentieth century artists gradually became more aware of processes of mediation and hence began to conflate environment, materiality and content in their works. Importantly, in both 'wound' and 'extension' art forms the human body became a canvas itself, rather than that which is merely represented. What she traces in this chapter is the ways in which the body, in body or performance art, moved from being artistic raw material to being something understandable mainly through media technologies. She thus argues that 'corporeality and mediality have not only been staged together, but have revealed themselves as indistinguishable' (64).

Chapter three, 'How Faces Have become Obsolete' was the most interesting chapter for me, tracing, pace Deleuze & Guattari, how faces are no longer the 'window to the soul'. She shows how faces have been replaced by any number of other body parts, each of which may become a free-floating indicator of essential being: 'any body part, big or small, interior or exterior, can attain dominance over the rest of the body with fluidity characteristic of the synecdoche' (85). This is demonstrated through close readings of several contemporary print advertisements: a health insurance company uses a breast to represent 'fertility, nurturing, reliability' and a cosmetics firm uses a headless body to sell a skin product. They both support Wegenstein's thesis that we have moved into a representational paradigm in which 'it is not necessarily behind faces that we expect the person to be revealed. Faces are becoming obsolete' (89). Even parts of the internal body -- blood, tissue, organs, and DNA -- once hidden and mysterious, now indicate identity, a concept explored through analyses of the Visible Human Project, the Human Genome Project, and the plasticated body work of anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Any body part can now operate as a signifier of the whole body, which is why we so rarely see classical facial portrait-style images in contemporary advertising. And further, in a brilliant insight, she notes that when the head and face are featured in popular culture, they are often figured much like accessories: one German fashion advertisement even has its model declaring that her head is her 'favourite fashion accessory' (93). This indicates what Wegenstein calls the 'postfacial' era, in which heads and faces crown bodies only as chosen or modified extras because the self is expressed so easily via any body part.

While the face may have become obsolete as a signifier of the self, if any organ can be said to dominate representations of bodies in popular culture, it is surely the skin. There is an intriguing section in this chapter called 'Sur-face', which shows that 'skin can now cover anything of importance' (97). Wegenstein points out that a generation brought up on movies featuring serial killers making 'skin-suits' from their victims is readily positioned to accept the notion that skin can be 'separated from its natural body-environment, that is, from its function of surfacing a body' (104). The argument is strongly supported by reference to advertisements, contemporary art and speculative architecture. She shows just how extensive skin has become: indeed, by noting how each of her examples works with skin and its literal or metaphorical connections to non-skin (watches, sculpture, room interiors), she demonstrates how skin is no longer seen as a barrier between inner and outer body, but is now a connection between self and other: 'the surface of the skin is both endogenous and exogenous' (97). One memorably spooky example comes from new media artists Aziz + Cucher. Their 'Interior Study #3' is a digital room with geometric surfaces made of what looks like living human skin, pores and all. This work perhaps most succinctly supports Wegenstein's argument that the ways we engage with skin in contemporary culture indicate that interiority and exteriority have merged. One of the main strengths of this book is the abundance of ingenious and fascinating examples to back up what could otherwise be rather esoteric claims.

In chapter four, 'The Medium Is the Body', Wegenstein argues that body criticism must be part of media criticism because of the 'mutual dependence upon and influence of body and mediation' (121). This notion is supported by numerous examples from contemporary architectural practice, after first tracing a history of the relation between inside and outside through twentieth century architecture. In modernity, buildings actively considered the outside environment in order to inform the inside; in postmodernity, distinctions between outside and inside were famously described by Jameson as lost, causing spatial bewilderment. But Wegenstein suggests that contemporary cutting edge architectures 'propose something even beyond the collapse of inside and outside' (130). Buildings have become bodies, and inside and outside are symbiotically merged, or folded together. A striking example is Diller + Scofidio's Blur Building, demonstrating what she calls 'deep surface architecture'. This 'building' is a body of mist hovering above a lake, approached by a bridge -- exactly when one has entered it isn't clear, and its borders and density are constantly changing, according to current weather conditions. As an immersive, living, wet atmosphere this architecture is as organic as its human inhabitants, and body and medium have merged. Architecture here is conceived as 'a continued or extended embodiment. . .as primordial mediation' (160).

Wegenstein's textual analysis of images and objects is refreshing in a field that is so often full of general statements sitting peacefully unbothered by meaningful examples. Although many of her arguments are very broad, indeed paradigmatic, each point is backed up with an interesting illustration from the real world, analysed and examined in line with her arguments. This is a dense book, packed with theoretical references and ideas-within-ideas. Sometimes the prose is hard to read -- this writing style would be a challenge for undergraduates -- but it is well worth persevering with. There is plenty of clarification, and various theories are very well explained, particularly in the first chapter. The argument that discussions and histories of the body are only meaningful in context of analyses of the media that comprise embodiment -- in other words, that media theory and theories of the body must work together -- could (and should) have a powerful ripple effect in academia where these two disciplines are still very often separated.

Relations between real and virtual have been utterly problematised, and boundaries between digital and physical are increasingly hazy. This book is a real attempt to explain how these arenas intersect, and indeed how they create each other. This first chapter is an essential addition to corporeal feminism, although I was disappointed that the focus on women's bodies wasn't returned to in the conclusion. Perhaps other writers will be inspired to fill that gap. Each of the other chapters works well by itself and could be set for a variety of graduate classes examining media and embodiment. Finally, this book indeed got under my skin, clarifying for me the knowledge that body theory and media theory must become linked, because embodiment is always experienced through media, and the body itself is a medium. The skin doesn't just act as a barrier but extends into the world, connecting our bodies to the bodies of others and to the multitude of screens and various other environments we are one with.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M., and Fiore, Q. with Agel, J. (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.

Meredith Jones is a lecturer in digital media and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. Her book, Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, will be published by Berg in February 2008. She is currently working on a book about Container Technologies.

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