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Broadcast Bodies – Freya Olafson’s AVATAR
[…] the individual himself is divided up, and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail operation, thus realizing the absurd fable of Menenius Agrippa, which presents man as a mere fragment of his own body.
– Marx, Capital, Vol 1, 481
The fable of Menenius Agrippa: in which the patrician defends patrician rule by according himself the status of the stomach and the ruled that of the limb, such that as the limb must feed the stomach in order to receive the nutrition it requires, so the plebian must support the patrician.
This fable makes use of an analogy between the organization of state and of body, while Marx indicates how this analogy shapes bodies, shattering a presumed integrity. In the light of this fable, and its consequence for corporeality, Marx accounts for the worker under capital as “a crippled monstrosity”: the procedures of manufacture “mutilates the worker, turning him into a fragment of himself” (481-2). This mutilation operates on a number of levels. On the level of the body as a physiological or medical object, Marx notes the profusion of occupational diseases unique to industrial labour. As to the workers’ being in terms of their productive capacities, Marx identifies the need to sell one’s labour as inhibiting, even crippling, all such capacities except that which can be sold. How does the worker’s body appear, on the level of (re)presentation?
Marx indicates that this body appears as a fragment of itself, an appendage. This appendage belongs to a body that does not belong to the worker, for the worker appears as an appendage of a machine, of capital and the means of production. As in the fable, capital organ-izes the worker as though her being is part of a body, a body like her own might have been prior to being organized by capital. This body is its own fragment and its own fragmentation: it is the embodiment of dispossession, as a body which you do not own and which deprives you of your own body is the body of alienation. The fable of Menenius Agrippa, which Marx calls ‘absurd’, is nonetheless found to be a useful representation of a crippling and mutilating reality. It is surely not the only one.
Where Marx addressed a society that “appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’” (Capital, 124), Guy Debord saw a capitalist society that appeared as an immense and ongoing circulation of images:
The previous phase of the economy’s domination over social life had brought about, in all human affairs, a hollowing out and degradation of being into having. The current phase, in which social life is completely occupied by the accumulations of the economy’s output, has passed through a general shift from having to appearing, such that “having” actually draws its immediate value and final purpose from appearance. At the same time, all individual reality has become social, and directly dependent on social power to shape it. It is only insofar as individuality is negated that it is permitted to appear.
(Debord, Society of the Spectacle, thesis 17)1
When Debord named the spectacle, he aimed to identify and injure an intensification and extension of capitalism. He held that this continued accumulation exceeded the ideology of ‘having’ and drew it towards a regime organized by appearance: social relations mediated by commodities now supplanted by a society mediated by images, where individuality returns as its own negation.
This return draws on György Lukács’ concepts of first and second nature, found in his 1914 Theory of the Novel. Lukács’ ‘second nature’ is the outcome of the present circumstances of alienated life, it is the “nature of man-made structures”, “which has become rigid and strange, and which no longer awakens interiority” (63-4). In contrast, ‘first nature’, “the modern sentimental attitude to nature, is only a projection of man’s experience of his self-made environment as a prison instead of as a parental home” (64). Crucially, Lukács’ emphasizes that the first nature is produced by the second, as it emerges retrospectively from the distress of second nature.
In Debord’s account, as the dominant object-form of capitalist society shifts from commodity into image, the individuality that was fractured in Marx’s account no longer appears as a historical possibility: individuality in the society of the spectacle is a nostalgic product of the procedures of the spectacle. How does this alienating individuality configure corporeality and its representations?
While Debord does not greatly concern himself with bodies, he does identify the celebrity “as the spectacular representation of a living human” (thesis 60):
The agent of the spectacle, placed on stage as a celebrity, is the opposite of an individual and, of course, the enemy of the individual in himself as in others. Passing into the spectacle as a model for identification, one renounces all aspects of autonomy in order to identify with the general law of obedience to the way of things. (thesis 61)
Debord presents the celebrity as a ‘model of identification’, specifically “an identification with a shallow semblance of life, one that compensates for the fragmentation of actually lived productive specializations”, an alienated and alienating balm meant to ‘compensate’ for the fragmentation Marx spoke of (thesis 60). In his time, Debord saw two species of celebrity, one of luxury and consumption, the other of state power, yet today the potential to be ‘internet famous’, to place oneself on a spectacular stage, is no less democratized than the market for cell phones.
Freya Olafson’s AVATAR, an intermedia performance that combines contemporary dance with consumer electronics and social media, presents an understanding of corporeality in line with this condition of social being: instead of an appendage to a machine, a body as a surface or a screen, providing a venue and support for the circulation of images.
She says: ‘I post so I am’
– Pit Schultz, The Producer as Power User, 115
Can you see me? Can you see me?
– Freya Olafson, AVATAR
Pit Schultz’s “The Producer as Power User” reworks Walter Benjamin’s The Author as Producer, and is reworked in turn by Olafson. AVATAR, first produced in 2009, stages and theatricalizes elements from Schultz’s account of the power user. For example, where Schultz observes that “[t]he order which controls the life of the power user derives from a computerised form of self-discipline”, Olafson takes the activity involved in establishing and practicing this species of ‘self-discipline’ as her subject.(114) When Schultz enumerates the tasks attending the ‘power user’s’ “ego design process”, “the reconfigurations, explorations and improvements”, alongside “administration and maintaining, self-employment and constant re-education, configuring and repairing, testing and improving”, these practices inflect a moment-to-moment undercurrent in Olafson’s performance, an account of what she is doing even as she is doing something else.(116)
In 2009, AVATAR was produced at Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers with lighting and projection design by Hugh Conacher, receiving its fullest mounting to date. Here, the stage is set with a small computer cart and stool, covered with Olafson’s equipment, primarily a laptop and video camera. The arrangement of the open laptop is mirrored on stage by a large screen and matching white flooring.
As Olafson sits before her screen, we sit before a grand projection of her perspective, seeing as she sees and is seen by her array of devices.
The first movement of AVATAR might be characterized as experiment and failure, initial forays into the narcissism and isolation of a digital life. Olafson draws monologues from found video on YouTube to produce almost all the text and spoken material in AVATAR, and in this moment, this produces an awkward, confessional ‘first post’, testifying to frustrated desires and discomfort in being, both on- and off-line. Developing towards catastrophe, the not-yet-power-user is driven out by malware and ‘desktop strippers’. A system crash inevitably results.
The second phase of AVATAR enacts the process of revision, reconfiguring and optimization Schultz describes, but it is not the consumer electronics or software being optimized. Instead, Olafson’s body and activity, along with the physical circumstances on stage, are submitted to review and expert advice. Narrated by the instructions from a blog video outlining how best to produce blog videos, Olafson follows point ‘number three’, to use a ‘solid colored backdrop’.
Crucially, the color of blue Olafson uses for a solid color background is set as a chromakey on her laptop, such that it acts a bluescreen when captured on camera and projected onto the larger screen. As Olafson paints, the projected image takes on a visual depth, revealing a series of images of bathrooms. Here, Olafson sits and with deliberate mistiming, lip-(de)synchs to the audio from another instructional video, this one on ‘how to get my look’. In particular, Olafson applies makeup over her eyelids to form new, sightless eyes, and conducts the remainder of the performance with her eyes mostly closed. Just as with the blue background, the application of a layer (or layers) of color takes on a different valence when projected on the screen. Olafson adds a short blonde wig and, again following instructions, uses makeup to add a ‘natural’, enthusiastic smile.
Thus remade and ready, Olafson returns to an online space, advertising as 1-800-AVA-STAR. This leads to a disturbing encounter in the segment “A/S/L”, where a cacophony of phone calls leads to Olafson awkwardly stripping down to her underwear, while the screen projects a binocular view, two fisheye ‘peep hole’ lens. (Since AVATAR’s premiere, Olafson has adapted this portion of the piece into a live duet with ChatRoulette)
The final phase of AVATAR begins with a renewed round of reconfigurations of Olafson’s body, following the audio of a video whose author asks her friends’ advice and support as she plans a weight loss program to be documented on YouTube: ‘you’re going to watch me shrink’. Olafson draws lines on her body with a wax pencil, as if preparing for (radical) cosmetic surgery, and then undertakes that surgery in a cosmetic fashion, through the application of the chromakey blue paint. Having trimmed her waist, she proceeds to give herself a six-pack of abs, then an exaggerated heart-shaped heart, before removing her collar bone and leaving her floating head. The background shifts to a YouTube page, and the fully emerged Avatar greets the audience and takes their questions.
Olafson stages a critical encounter with a society mediated by images, in which persons transfer their social activity to images and images engage in social activity on behalf of persons, in a Brechtian fashion.
Brecht wrote: “The actor must show his subject, and he must show himself. [...] Although the two coincide, they must not coincide in such a way that the difference between the two tasks disappears.” In other words: an actor should reserve for himself the possibility of stepping out of character artistically. At the proper moment, he should insist on portraying a man who reflects about his part.
– Walter Benjamin, “What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations, 153.
Benjamin’s observation on Brecht’s technique, the ‘step-out-of-character’ in which the performer’s self and subject must be made to reflect upon one another, is re-visioned here for a later phase of capitalist alienation, as Olafson’s ‘step-into-character’, the emergence of the Avatar, is displayed before us. Through the interplay of her activity on the small screen in front of her and the larger one behind, Olafson forces the images of her body to reflect on one another. The corporeality engaged with here is unlike that of the industrial worker reduced to the fragment of their own body, and appears instead as the accumulation (and removal) of surfaces in order to better support the ‘free play’ of images. Even as the Avatar emerges onscreen, Olafson is submerged under the layers of color that permit her accession to a spectacular celebrity, even as she struggles to attain a social and ontological transparency not unlike that of the screens she labours over and under.
And yet, the danger of a Brechtian practice under the domination of the spectacle is that the images produced in performance cannot escape the spectacular circulation of appearances. How might the possibility of a critical performance under the spectacle be understood?
Although gender is not the primary focus of AVATAR, the performance nevertheless makes clear that spectacular celebrity is subject to heteronormative regulation and production: particularly in the A/S/L scene, something of Laura Mulvey’s notion of the ‘male gaze’ is unmistakably present, as is the sense of producing gendered images exemplifying what Mulvey called “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 33). Yet the emergence of the avatar, and the sense of a spectacular corporeality, revises this familiar formulation.
What Schultz calls the “ego design process” no doubt involves the possibilities and limitations of a subject’s self-objectification, as the power user internalizes and adopts a male gaze in order to look upon and reform herself (Power User as Producer, 116). When Schultz writes of her myriad activities, her “administration and maintaining, self-employment and constant re-education, configuring and repairing, testing and improving”, there is no question of any aspect of this process escaping gendered becoming and being. Yet the aim of this type of power user, the manifestation of an avatar, looks towards an idealized body-objectification which supports the circulation of images and signs, one that does not intrude on this process any more than the screen in a movie theatre or a laptop. The emergence of the avatar, and subsequent interaction with the audience collapses the shifting in time and place offered by YouTube (and by all such recorded objects), such that Olafson is able to present the nonsynchronus temporalities of production, transmission and reception of the avatar within the time of performance. In part, this permits the performance to depart from the psychological sphere of consumption in which one’s choices in producing an avatar might be mistaken for expressions of ones interiority or ‘essential being’. Instead, Olafson directs us to consider the spectacular conditions of production that make such choices possible, the labours that are otherwise erased in preparing a menu of gendered objects.
The research that has led me here is inspired, to a great extent, by Judith Butler’s understanding of bodies, and I find it productive to offer my own understanding in contrast to hers, keeping in mind both my desire to be in alliance with her goals, as well as her own recognition that gender performativity is not meant to be a universalizing discourse (see, for example, her caution against naively applying performativity to ethnicity or race).
Butler presents the significance of bodies as arising from being organized by their reliance and return to elements present in an explicitly gendered performative matrix. This reliance and return, the compulsion, iterability and regulation of the performative, all these present bodies as ongoing contestations of signs. However, I mark a number of differences with her account of performativity in the specific case of the power user as a spectacular celebrity, where bodies that matter do so because they come to act as screens or surfaces:
Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance.(Bodies That Matter, 95)
Butler’s frequently brackets out theatre or theatricality in her early work on gender performativity. For example, her 1988 “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, first published in Theatre Journal, describes the theatrical conventions that “derealize” the act, such that:
[…] gender performances in non-theatrical contexts are governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory social conventions. Indeed, the sight of a transvestite onstage can compel pleasure and applause while the sight of the same transvestite on the seat next to us on the bus can compel fear, rage, even violence. (527)
The advent of social media provides a venue in which to trouble further what Butler advanced as a “tentative distinction” (527). The style of ‘public video diary’ that AVATAR engages with involves a deliberate production of a representation, and is perhaps hence subject to association with the conventions of ‘un-reality’. Certainly, the source material Olafson draws from YouTube is marked with a theatrical quality.
On the one hand, our knowledge of cyber-bullying alone can clarify social media as being a venue “governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory social conventions” (527). And on the other hand, perhaps this is not a matter of classification, but of a more radical difference: as with other technologies characteristic of other eras in industrialized life, social media and other agents of the spectacle reconfigure our understandings of privacy, identity and corporeality precisely insofar as they come to dominate an alienated society’s object-form. The precise danger and terror of the spectacle is that the alienation of human life comes to mask itself as ‘un-real’ as our politics and thoughts become aestheticizied. In the case of social media, the problem is not that its evident theatricality threatens its significance, but rather that no significance can be had without submission to the representational conventions demanded by the spectacle. Following Debord, in a world made image, the reality of the individual only appears insofar as it is negated.
To return to matter requires that we return to matter as a sign which in its redoublings and contradictions enacts an incohate drama of sexual difference. (Bodies that Matter , 49)
I mark a difference here in my understanding of matter, materiality, materialism. The sense of these terms, highly contested in the course of the twentieth century, has encompassed both empirical ‘hard science’ on the one hand, and speculative idealism on the other. They also retain a particular privilege in discussions of bodies. The understanding present in Butler’s Bodies that Matter is that arriving from a tradition of semiotic or grammatological sources: this is the materiality of the Saussurean sign, the precise sense of which is ably traced by Vicki Kirby in her Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal.
In contradistinction, my commitments lead me towards a historical materialist tendency, to
reconnect and revise the abstractions of thought with the conditions of actually lived circumstances. In this regard, I agree with the sense in Butler’s work that bodies come to matter from their social organization, while differing on the sense of what it is that organizes society.
[...] this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject.
(Bodies That Matter, 95)
As part of her post-structuralist commitments, Butler insists that there is no subject prior to gender, explicitly identifying the emergence and condition of subjectivity through gender performativity. Yet AVATAR explicitly stages the activity of a subject, one no doubt having undergone the process Butler describes. Perhaps something of this difference might be accounted for in my identification of a Brechtian practice, which requires a form of subjective self-awareness that emerges from an imminent critique of the subjective condition that Butler describes. And yet, as my departure from Marx and Debord turns on the process of adaptation to productive specializations in industrialized life, I find the emergence of the avatar does not involve the emergence of a subject because it is the outcome of a subject that desires to become a particular object.
This understanding, one that explicitly poses the interaction of subject and object as a dialectic mediated by social objects in their production and circulation, along side the sense of subjective desire, points the way to what is perhaps a root difference with Butler’s gender performativity: her theorization relies on a post-structuralist feminist uptake of the ideas of fetish and fetishism.
A brief sketch of this psychological, and later psychoanalytic, sense of fetishism might take as its starting point Alfred Binet’s discovery of a sexual disorder he believed to be unique to men. This disorder, named ‘erotic’ or ‘sexual’ fetishism in Binet’s 1887 essay “Le Fétichisme dans l’Amour”, was then included in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualisim an entry which closely followed Binet’s formulation: an exclusively male difficulty in which sexual attention did not alight upon the female, but upon an object.
Freud’s extensive writing on this species of fetish included a psychoanalytic mechanism: the boy’s terror of maternal castration causes him to recoil from women, but upon his sexual maturity, erotic attachments to the female are to be established through socialization. Failures or interruptions in this realignment are likely to leave the young man’s sexual attentions astray and result in an erotic fetish.
Jacques Lacan, in his 1972 seminar on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, offers the possibility of thinking a sexual fetish not restricted to the male psyche. It is this understanding that Butler revises and reworks, for example, in “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary”, which affirms the subversive political significance of a female fetish.
Yet this is not the understanding of fetish or fetishism that informs my project, nor, I believe that which animates AVATAR. The Marxist understanding of fetishism, specifically commodity fetishism, is a process in which producers, who are alienated from one another as well as from the products of their labour, attach their social activity to the objects they produce. This is the key distinction in Marx between a product of labour and a commodity: both are objects, but only the latter is sent out into the marketplace to engage in social activities on behalf of those who made it. This is the mediation of a society by objects-with-subjective-qualities, such that subjectivity comes to depend on commodity fetishism and to being cut to the measure of the commodity form.
Commodity fetishism also involves a very different understanding of desire than that that of psycho-sexual fetishism. Instead of the mis- or dis-placement of sexual or other carnal desire, commodity fetishism involves desire in a Hegelian sense, desire for recognition, to recognize oneself as a subject and be recognized by others as such. Commodity fetishism is the outcome of this desire where alienated industrialization holds sway, and the transfer of subjective activity to produced objects is not a mis- or dis-placement, but part of a false compensation for the loss of social being.
In the further accumulation and intensification of alienation that Debord identifies as the spectacle, commodity fetishism comes to involve the production and circulation of images as the dominant object-form, and it is the Marxist fetishism Debord addresses when he speaks of the celebrity aiming to create “an identification with a shallow semblance of life, one that compensates for the fragmentation of actually lived productive specializations” (thesis 60). The ‘shallow semblance of life’ is the alienated world of Marxist fetishism, and AVATAR stages the negations of individuality required to participate in this false world which offers an illusory individuality, an image of being served up to pacify the desire for subjective recognition.
In aiming at an accession to a world of social media and its circulation of images-with-subjective properties, AVATAR demonstrates a particular deployment of gendered fetishism in its approach to the idealized world of commodity fetishism. Olafson’s goal of recognition becomes ever clearer as the avatar forms, as she cries into the camera “Can you see me? Can you see me?” in concern over a technical failure in the circulation she aims to participate in. Yet the final forming of the avatar involves a variety of gendered signs and performances that, unlike those of A/S/L, break with an easy heteronormative gendering. In another production, the avatar might be more straightforwardly identified as queer or perhaps a queering, and the husky modification of Olafson’s voice certainly trades on conventions of GLBTQ* performance.
And here I am struck by Butler’s account of drag in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”:
Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. (378)
If an avatar is a form of drag in this sense, a ‘mundane theatricalization’ of gendered images, then could the activity of AVATAR be a drag performance of spectacular celebrity? Where the desire for recognition leads to a subjectivity that recognizes itself in gendered images that are impersonations and approximations of persons could an avatar-as-drag offer a critical performance of spectacular society?
1: Here, I follow the tradition of quoting Debord by thesis, rather than by page number. Translation are my own. French text from:
Debord, Guy. La Société du Spectacle. 1967. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard, 3e édition 1992. Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Les sciences sociales contemporaines, web. April 1, 2014.
Benjamin, Walter. “What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zhon. New York:Schocken, 1968. Print.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter . New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”. Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. Eds. Ann Garry, Marilyn Pearsall. Routledge, 1996. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”. Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-31. Print.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone, 1995. Print.
Lukács, György. The Theory of the Novel. Trans. Anna Bostock. London: Merlin Press, 1971. Print.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Vol. 1. London: Penguin, 1990. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Midland, 1991. Print.
Schultz, Pit. “The Producer as Poweruser”. Engineering Culture. Eds. Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa. New York: Autonomedia, 2005. Print