Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art
Editor: Caroline A. Jones
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: November 2008
Kathleen O'Riordan's review made me think, in a rather old-fashioned (and neither fully virtual nor fully embodied) way. But coming to the heart of her lucid argument does bring back the body, via Foucault. Of course I would agree that this philosopher of the subject par excellence offers us "a poetics of the sensorium," delicious in its evocation of glances, shoulders, costumes, crypts, tattoos, and touches. Yet I would disagree that Foucault somehow "disrupts" the chronology of my argument. As a member of the generation of '68 (even if corps utopique predates the annus mirabilis of global student uprising by two years), Foucault was decisively critical of the existentialist bath of "individuality" that had long masked the routinization of subjects characteristic of modernity's march. His fealty went instead to the post-Satrean French generation, mirroring the U.S. anti-Greenbergian one that saw the likes of Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy, the unruly happening that was, after all, performed in '64 as part of the French "Festival de la Libre expression" -- an apparently bacchanalian affair. What is perfect about O'Riordan's identification of Foucault's essay as the very "centerpiece" of the Abecedarius -- and what I appreciate most about her thoughtfulness in regard to it -- is the way her attention calls up for us the necessary transgression via mediation of the long-dead body of Foucault. Transgressed, but how utopian is this virtual body! Created on the page by abstract markings we understand as text, coding for (and translating) a spoken language, itself uttered in a voice once necessarily embodied but recorded at the speed of sound by magnetic particles later digitized on a CD that can now be ordered online and channeled into our own bodies, through those holes we call ears.
O'Riordan's engaging reading of the "idealised inside/outside structure" of the book shows its contradictions (if we "think with the body" how can we be "outside" it to think its effects?) -- but it is exactly this contradiction that motivates the work of Foucault. (Although it is near the end of its pages, O'Riordan's positioning of Foucault as "central" figuratively gives it space internal to the "spine" of the anthropomorphic book form.) Foucault (and readings of Foucault by Deleuze) positioned philosophy's task as that of "thinking the unthought," not from a "view from nowhere" bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, but from the embedded, visceral, fleshy circuitry of death and desire -- namely, the body. And it is in this way that Descartes' "cogito" becomes the "cavern" of a skull imprisoning Foucault's consciousness -- a cavern he must think as perforated with two "windows" since his proprioception continuously naturalizes that material reality into the realm of the unthought. And in the most astonishing part of this very early Foucault, the conclusion to corps utopique, he reveals how far we have come from the dry dust of Kant's transcendental reason. For Foucault, the potential for utopia lies not in our much-vaunted transcendence of the body and its desires. Rather, utopia is that which is called into being over the extensive, lateral surface of the skin, under the hands of the lover.
Finally, it is not surprising that O'Riordan celebrates Bassett, for both of them are part of the new team busy theorizing the emerging technobodies of our time at the Centre for Material Digital Culture in Sussex. Their students examine cell phone sound art, look at the impact of remote sensing on the sociology of surveillance, and generally probe what is old, and what is new, in our mediated sensorium. We should watch that space, and this one, to see (as O'Riordan has me questioning), what "fulcrum" of change will alter us next.
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