RUN MOTHERFUCKER RUN The body in a posthuman ontology
Technobodies Dr. Jami Weinstein Micky van Zeijl 3207803 Utrecht University 9 April 2009 Word count: 2887 Note: visuals are all from http://www.marnixdenijs.nl/, 1
“You have left a party late at night or in the early hours of the morning and you find yourself in a transformed city. You start to run...” (De Nijs 2009, a)
While you hear the constant beat of your feet hitting the ground and the empty desolate city streets appear around you, you keep on running and running till you can’t feel your feet anymore and your heart pumps like never before. Just when you hear someone scream “RUN MOTHERFUCKER RUN” you realize that the streets, which seemed to move under your feet are actually a treadmill connected to the big screen ahead. On the screen you see the empty streets of Rotterdam where you were running just a second ago. The interactive installation Run Motherfucker Run (2001/2004) by the Dutch media artist Marnix the Nijs (2009) is an “installation whereby anyone in good physical condition may try his or her luck in a city of empty streets, disserted intersections, ominous alleyways and unexpected obstacles” (idem.) De Nijs combines in his piece Run Motherfucker Run the mixture of a (extreme) bodily experience with a simulation of reality. This makes it seem as if the spectator experiences embodiment by running on the treadmill and at the same time he or she feels disembodiment as the running actually takes place in a virtual surrounding. De Nijs uses this bodily combination in a variety of his work as we can see in Exercise in Immersion 4 (2006/2007) and Exploded Views (2008) in all his work there is a
constant interplay between embodiment and disembodiment. This interplay is not only seen between these two different bodily experiences but also between his use of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ as De Nijs places a virtual experience in the ‘real’ world and visa versa. Therefore I will use his work in combination with examples from popular culture to find out in what ways materiality is shaped and how we can (re)configure (or maintain) the material body in a posthuman ontology.
The fantasy to abandon ones body and leave it behind to visit places one can only dream about is not only an idea represented in cyberpunk novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash but these thoughts are at the same time fantasies of academics who believe that “it will soon be possible to download human consciousness into a computer” (Hayles 1999, p.1). Katherine Hayles is amazed by the amount of academics that actually believe “that mind could be separated from body” (idem.). However this idea of the body being only a replaceable shell that is needed to exist in the ‘real world’ comes back in various forms when we look at the discourses around virtual reality. As Patrice Flichy also mentions in his piece The Body and Virtual Reality: “in cyberspace, there is no need to move about in a body like the one you possess in physical reality…In cyberspace your conditioned notion of a unique and immutable body will give away to a far more liberated notion of ‘body’ as something quite disposable and, generally, limiting” (Flichy 2007, p.139). The body is a limitation and even a prison for the protagonist Case in Neuromancer while virtual reality in all its forms and names like Cyberspace, Metaverse, internet and the virtual world liberates the mind by establishing a notion of disembodiment. This makes it possible to leave the body behind in a chair in the living room while the mind is virtually cruising down a river in France, chatting with a neighbor in China or solving quests in World of Warcraft. The digital world offers a form of disembodiment that tries to get rid of all forms of materiality and makes it possible for everybody to be, go and look like what, where and whoever he or she wants. Like in Gibson’s cyberspace: “Cyberspace [is] a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...” (Gibson 1984, p. 51). 3
This concept of the Matrix and cyberspace coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer represents a cyberpunk ‘futuristic’ vision of materiality and the possibilities of the virtual world and internet. The ideas represented in Neuromancer find their origin in Science Fiction and repeats itself in a wide variety of not only cyberpunk novels like the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash but as well in movies like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and the Matrix by the Wachowski brothers, both movies evolve around the uploading of the mind into the matrix or cyberspace which gives the possibility to multiply our body. In the end it creates the possibilities to get rid of our bodies and live in a mind stimulated and simulated world. It is not only literature and popular culture that experiment with these ideas of the virtual world and virtual reality being able to create a total disembodiment. As Flichy mentions, “while virtual reality makes it possible to multiply one’s body”, some [especially nerds and young computer fanatics] believe that cyberspace enables us to do without our bodies altogether or to connect them directly to machines” (Flichy 2007, p. 140). This brings us not only to the idea of connecting the body to the machine like the experiments by Kevin Warwick a Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, who implanted chips in his arm that made it possible for him to communicate with his surrounding close by and at great distance. He could for example while sitting in a chair in the UK move a mechanic arm in the USA with his own physical arm. In addition it brings us to the downloading of the mind into computer systems, which frees oneself from one’s body as well as it involves total disembodiment. An ideal of the Extropians, an California New Age group, who want “to become more than human, superhuman, transhuman or posthuman: “suddenly technology has given us powers with which we can manipulate not only external reality – the physical world – but also, and much more portentously, ourselves. We can become whatever we want to be”” (Flichy 2007, p.141). The
material body becomes in this scenario thus an interchangeable fashion artifact that can be used whenever needed but most of the time it’s left behind. This idea of the body is based upon a Cartesian dualism that consists of a split between the body and the mind which assumes that it is even possible to remove the mind from its body and therewith its bodily experience. However as Hayles (1999) mentions, the body is “the ground of being” (ibid. p. 5). The disembodied existence in cyberspace therefore raises questions about our materiality in the postmodern world. However artists like Marnix de Nijs show us how virtual worlds can actually also involve an embodied experience as we can see in his interactive installations Run Motherfucker Run (2001/2004) and Exploded Views (2008). The spectator, in
both pieces, interacts with the installation through bodily exercise namely running on a treadmill. This triggers the visuals on the screen: “The distance you run on the conveyor belt is the same distance you will cover in the virtual city in front of you. By quickening your pace, the acceleration of the belt as well as the speed of the image increases and depending on your running behaviour and the directional choices you make, the progress of the film is determined” (De Nijs 2009, a). These virtual worlds seem to be more embodied because of the running. The participants navigate through the virtual world with their body and while they do this they are fully experiencing being embodied, as they get sweaty and tired. However why is this experience more embodying than pressing the left and right keys on the keyboard when we would be able to navigate through the same images while sitting behind a computer? Is it the running, feeling your heart pump and the sweat on your back that makes in this case the small difference between being embodied or disembodied?
Clockwise: Run Motherfuck Run (2001/2004), Exercise in Immersion 4 (2006/2007) top and bottom, Exploded Views (2008).
In his other piece Exercise in Immersion 4 (2006/2007) De Nijs also combines an embodied experience with the virtual world. It is a pacmen like game played in an industrial warehouse while wearing “a specially designed crash-suit fitted with headset… Once the headset is placed in position, the participant is introduced to a combined reality: a cinema-graphic, parallel world where the partition between the real and the surreal is interrelated with the progress of the game itself. Reality will gradually disappear in the ‘pakhuis’ warehouse, but if you crash into one of the pillars, for example, then you will be cast abruptly backwards in the game and towards reality” (De Nijs 2009, b). The difference of this piece with his ‘running’ pieces is that in this case the participant is wearing a suit while experiencing the interactive installation. His or her body is extended with a crash suit which prevents being black and blue after playing the game and a headset which makes it possible to project the visuals in the real world. This piece shows, as well as his others, that being disembodied does involves a form of embodiment, whether it is running, sitting behind a computer or walking around in an 6
old industrial warehouse our material body is embodied while navigating trough the virtual. Just as much as cycling trough Utrecht can be a disembodied experience when one suddenly realizes that he or she is already on the other side of town without remembering having cycled the whole street as thoughts wonder off to nice dreams, especially during springtime. The concepts of embodiment and disembodiment evolve around the extension of our body by technology not only by external apparatus, like wearing the crash-suit with headset, but also around the extension in the form of the integration of technology in our body like the chip implants of Kevin Warwick. It re-directs us to the material body and raises questions about what to do with it in a postmodern, posthuman world where our body is placed in a constant feedback loop being reconstructed either digitally or materially. This loop evolves as well around the concepts of being disembodied or embodied. However, what does it actually mean to be disembodied or even what does it mean to be embodied? These questions essentially lead back to our perspective of the body as it involves a way of thinking about the body and materiality in a posthuman ontological perspective. We should leave behind our exciting dualistic ideas of our body with a mind as being an organism of flesh of blood since it has becomes (or actually always was) fluid and multiple. It is not only about the embodied experience of flesh but “the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (Hayles 1999, p. 3). Thus our perspective of and about our body is constant under construction and consists of a variety of parts. It’s a social construction constant being reconfigured in multiple disciplines like psychology, biology, physics, literature, media studies and so on. It’s about, with reference to Foucault, the discursive practices of the body in each discipline that creates another understanding of the body. It is the mixture of everything 7
together that creates our understanding and perception of our material body. Thus especially in a postmodern world the body is a social construct that does not stop at the skin or ‘the flesh’ as Rosi Banditti (2002) also mentions “the human organism is neither wholly human, nor just an organism. It is an abstract machines, which captures, transforms and produces interconnections” (Braidotti 2002, p. 226). This blurs the boundaries between the different categorical divisions of the self and its relation to others. This mixture is a sort of “heteroglossia of the species, a colossal hybridization. Technology is at the heart of this process which combines monsters, insects and machines into a powerfully post-human approach to what we used to call ‘the body’” (ibid., p. 214). This idea of the body refers to Donna Haraway’s (2000/2003) cyborg, as well as to her later work of companion species, which is about “the implosion of nature and culture in the relentlessly historically specific, joint lives dogs and people, who are bonded in significant otherness” (Haraway 2003, p.16). These perceptions of the body within the posthuman ontology of theorist like Haraway, Braidotti and Hayles involves multiple, complex and multi-layered selves that exists in a constant symbiotic relationship between humans and machines. It actually involves a form of, as Braidotti (2002) calls it, becoming-cyborgs. However it seems like Braidotti as well as Hayles still have difficulties to leave the idea of material grounded enfleshment behind as Braidotti enthusiastically notes: “I want to re-assert my bodily brand of materialism and remain to the end proud to be flesh!” (Banditti 2002, p. 257) or Hayles who is convinced that “human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (Hayles 1999, p. 5). Does this bring us back to materiality as being ‘flesh and blood’? Not necessarily as Braidotti herself mentions: “we need to learn to think differently” (Braidotti 2002, p.257). By thinking differently it brings us back to another idea of ‘flesh and blood’ as we start to reconfigure the discursive practice around materiality in its ‘fleshy’ appearance. 8
This requires as Barad (2003) notes “an understanding of the nature of the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena“ (ibid., p.810). The way we speak about the body is coined in how we perceive it and the way we perceive our body depends on how we talk about it “as long as we stick to things and words we can believe that we are speaking of what we see, and that we are speaking of, and that the two are linked” (Deleuze 1988 cited in Barad 2003, p. 811). We can therefore expand the existing discursive practices around and about the material body and create new perspectives and bodily experiences. As we can see in the artwork of Marnix de Nijs the discourse around embodiment and our perspective of our body is based upon our ideas of the real and the virtual. Both words embodied and disembodied already include the word body, which would mean that the body is already in some form included in both. What than makes the difference between the two? It is about the being “in the real world” which refers to being embodied versus “being in the virtual world” which refers to disembodiment. The real and virtual are still often seen as two different entities however in a postmodern perspective it is not about the one or the other but about the amalgamation of the two. The real is as much constructed out of social discourse, signs and simulations, as is the virtual. Therefore we are talking about two modes of simulation, just like embodiment and disembodiment are two modes of simulation as well. With a reference to Deleuze and Guatarri the material in a posthuman ontology is a process of double becoming: “There are always at least two terms swept up in a fabulous process that transforms the both” (Massumi 1987, p.93). We reconfigure our material body as complex, multi-layered and constructed in a constant state of becoming that includes both embodiment and disembodiment at the same time and mixes the real with the virtual. Like we can see in the work of Marnix de Nijs as we start to run…
Bibliography Rosi Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”. In Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28.3., 2003, pp. 801-831. Braidotti, “Meta(l)morphoses: The Becoming-Machine”, in Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, pp. 212-263. Patrice Flichy, “ The Body and Virtual Reality”, in The Internet Imaginaire, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, pp. 129-154. William Gibson, “Neuromancer”, Ace Science Fiction Books, 1984 Donna J. Haraway “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” Gill Kirkup, Linda Janes, Kath Woodward & Fiona Hovenden, eds., The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp.50-57. Donna J. Haraway, The Comapnion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, pp.6-39. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Brian massumi “Realer than real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari”, in Copyright, no. 1, 1987, pp.90-97 Artworks Marnix de Nijs (a), http://www.runmotherfuckerrun.nl/index.htm, viewed 08-04-2009 Marnix de Nijs (b) http://www.marnixdenijs.nl/, viewed 08-04-2009 Run Motherfucker Run (2001/2004) Exercise in Immersion 4 (2006/2007) Exploded Views (2008)