Cyborgian Transgressions and Tentacular Horizons
A lack of boundaries and generative refusal may devolve a user’s experience into David Cronenburg’s 1983 body horror, Videodrome. Cronenburg’s dark satire depicts media technology as a hallucinatory maze wherein our so-called unparalleled interconnectivity is a convenient guise for the faceless and morally dubious powers-that-be. In the film, Max Renn is the owner of a sensationalistic programming station and who, while searching for content, intercepts a broadcast from an unauthorized satellite dish that causes him to develop a brain tumor. Renn begins to have violent and pornographic hallucinations that blur and eventually coalesce with his “real” life. The Videodrome guides Renn deeper into its matrix, and he eventually submits to its ultimate control. The masterminds behind the malicious broadcast, O’Blivion and his daughter Biana, dream of a reality that is supplanted by television. In the hallucinatory state, Renn’s body develops a vaginal slot in the center of his chest where animate VHS tapes are inserted. Like metastasis, these tapes transport him to new stages of technological rapture and mirror the unraveling of his former self as he transforms into a chimeric body dictated by the broadcast.
In Videodrome, technology is fleshy, inhabited by a sentient force and absorbs, devours, and metabolizes its subject. The plot anticipates a future of technology as outgrowths and appendages, organically entwined with bodies and built environments, carcinogenic in its proliferation, further delineating us from a symbiotic reality and instead intended for our own self-destruction. Certainly in the steady accrual and dispersion of personal information into the hands of private business, not only identity, but memory is called into question. Simpson’s description of a map of loss suggests that one’s values and institutions—and therefore ways of remembering—are obliterated from the built environment. Memory is transactive online, which means it is shared and shareable. Memory is likewise transactive in Videodrome, since it is disrupted or altered through a roaming broadcast; however, rather than a means to enhance performance and provide information sharing, the Videodrome system itself encodes, stores, and retrieves memory from the subject as capital and as a means of procedurally augmenting reality until the total obliteration of consciousness. This is applicable to the “extended mind theory” coined by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who—in response to the question “where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”—advocate for “active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.”
Essentially, Clark and Chalmers illustrate thinking as scaffolded—or as developing through repeated, externalized interactions—within a given environment. This means the mind extends outside the brain. The most important implication of this theory, in my opinion, is outlined in a New Yorker feature on Andy Clark. Clark noticed that, “By emphasizing how thoroughly everyone was dependent on the structure of his or her world, it showed how disabled people who were dependent on things like ramps were no different from anybody else.” In the built environment, the physically disabled individual is interpellated through barriers to access, and subsequent explanation of themselves and their needs. However, implementing assistive technology in populated areas may normalize types of aid, which is already employed by the majority of the population—whether through providing ease of access to medications, the recent additions of accessibility information in Google Maps, or apps that help individuals with chronic illness monitor their vitals and track symptoms. Adapting the built environment for the accessibility of non-abled persons would be one way in which individuals who identify as “crip” might challenge notions of dependency and practice resurgence politics. However, this provokes us to consider our involvement with our surroundings alongside the systems we build to mediate and extend our abilities within it. Clark and Chalmers ask,
If [active externalism] is accepted, how far should we go? […] Does the information in my [personal storage system] count as part of my memory? If [it] has been tampered with, do [we] believe the newly-installed information? Do I believe the contents of the page in front of me before I read it? Is my cognitive state somehow spread across the Internet?
So, it must be true that while our cognitive state is spread across the Internet, our memories, identities, and bodies are partly constituted by the technologies that mediate our access. A transgressive twin to Donna Haraway’s cyborg and the theories of Clark and Chambers, Renn forgoes abjection and surrenders to the hallucinations as they progress. His hand reconfigures its skeletal and muscular structure until permanently transmogrified into the handle of a gun, ominously resembling our use of smartphones. His gun emits bullets, and later, carcinogenic rays that decimate his victim. Technology itself turns a spectator into a victim or purveyor of violence. Renn is the example of what not to do. Renn has reached the aforementioned point of saturation, and, fully absorbed into Videodrome, Renn becomes an extension of the broadcast; in this inversion, rather than technology as prosthesis, a human becomes prosthetic to technology—manipulated actants (or reconsolidated memories) in a system that routes and maps every input and output.
What does this mean for those who remain addicted to—or financially or medically dependent on—social media platforms? Or for those of us who rely on the Internet not only for information, but interpersonal connection? Especially in our current moment, when contact with the “outside world” and with one another is limited mainly to screen-time, lines between the real and virtual can blur until we are precariously integrated into the tools themselves. The moment to clearly define the terms of our collective use is here. Doing so will, in turn, affect the structures of our built environment and cognition.
I am not advocating for John Perry Barlow’s idea of the Internet as the “new home of Mind,” but rather for new narratives of resilience. I am inspired by the experimental webpage “GET WELL SOON” as a response and critique of systemic failure. In this project, artists Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain created an archive of well wishes from GoFundMe medical fundraisers with a preface by writer Johanna Hedva. The preface floats atop a seemingly endless bank of platitudes organized by similarity. As Lavigne and Brain state, “It is an archive that shouldn’t have to exist.” Hedva correlates illness with revolution, because both exist in the continual present—the threshold between what has been and what will be—where language is stripped to its essential parts. The platitudes form a chorus, and each is a stand-in for an amount of money donated for someone’s relief. In the preface, Hedva writes:
What we’re watching happen with COVID-19 is what happens when care insists on itself, when the care of others becomes mandatory, when it takes up space and money and labor and energy. See how hard it is to do? The world isn’t built to give care freely and abundantly. It’s trying now, but look at how alien a concept this is, how hard it is to make happen. It will take all of us—it will take all of us operating on the principle that if only some of us are well, none of us are. And that’s exactly why it’s revolutionary. Because care demands that we live as though we are all interconnected—which we are—it invalidates the myth of the individual’s autonomy.
The question of how to reckon with the world, as Jennifer Scappettone mentions (see the first segment of this essay), is what builds relations. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, “How we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation. How molds and then gives birth to the present. The how changes us. How is the theoretical intervention.” In thinking through the “how,” I briefly consider the metaphysics of shared space. An affective relationship refers to an emotionally-charged, often socially determined, mood. German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin was interested in rich, affective experiences. He claims that “experiences of affective attachment are interesting because they put us—precisely at those moments when we care most, when we feel the value of something—‘outside of ourselves.’”
Despite its co-optation by corporate and federal influencers, it is true that going online has allowed us to consider space differently, i.e. through layers of facilitated and meaningful connections. To be “thinking in formation or thinking with” is in itself a mobile, fluid practice. It prioritizes the haptic over the visual, empathy and connection over our perceived difference. As Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “Why not […] the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?” Self-scrutiny probes inwards before it reaches out. Or as Judith Butler elaborates, “An address, indeed, a touch, that is facilitated by the body, a body that, for complex reasons, commits itself to regard each and every consciousness as an open door.” Yet a touch online is substituted by gaze, and the attempt to explain or the act of explaining is met too often by a “like,” which is a far cry than to think in formation with; and it is rare that I will post online and feel heard, understood, and connected with my peers. Maybe there is a generative aspect to the subsequent self-scrutiny or a sense of release and camaraderie in performed blasphemy. Perhaps to be full of gazes, multiples, instances outside of our own, and to absorb them almost instantly is a means of facilitating Butler’s description of “every consciousness as an open door.” Yet our presentation and portrayal of ourselves online are vastly different than sharing physical space and energy with one another. There are ways the body senses, sensorial and gestural communication, is made irrelevant online. In lieu of this, we portray ourselves in the light we imagine ourselves occupying. In doing so, we become somewhat estranged from ourselves, perceivable from a curated exterior. We can more clearly see our impulses, beliefs, aesthetic concerns and social preoccupations. Loosened from an insular relationship with ourselves, and visible in a warped reflection offered by social media as a mirror, we can (maybe) more easily feel into other ways of being.
Through the active shifting of perspective and position we can, as Hedva writes, know our limits: “They are the places where we meet each other. My limit is where you meet me, yours is where I find you, and, at this meeting place, we are linked.” This link of solidarity allows us to communicate individual acts of reinvention to larger networks. Simpson writes, “coded communication and articulation are important because they protect the network from co-option, exploitation, and manipulation, and the sovereignty of the network remains in the hands of its […] makers.” Coded communication and articulation may be presented in policing viewership on our own terms, as Layla Saad demonstrates, seeking agency through objectification as Molly Soda (see the second segment of this essay) embodies, deconstructing and reconfiguring the heteropatriarchal text/spatial presentation of information as Long Soldier performs, or as Fanon speaks for, to become increasingly supple and sympathetic to other ways of being. Perhaps, oppositional consciousness is visible online not through otherness but instead the blasphemous representation of a non-commodifiable, defiant self.
Here, I am reminded again of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and her description of “a powerful infidel heteroglossia,” which means “both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, spaces, stories.” Perhaps it means recognizing the slipperiness of experience and the risk of self-identifying with shared content, finding creative means for shared memory or data, unearthing digital graveyards or no-longer-relevant news stories, disseminating queer, crip, and POC scholarship and critical theory, and moving beyond connectivity to accountability online.
You can view a Works Cited page for the full essay here.
Featured image: “Untitled” by Taylor Partee. This image has been modified (mirrored) by Adroit for our use with this essay.