The near-constant refrain at the heart of anti-hegemonic conceptualizations has been the body; as we move from book to book, tome to tome, we can see again and again the resurgence of this discourse: the Cartesian mind-body dualism, Spinoza’s eternal question on the potentialities of the body, Foucault’s analysis of the plays of power upon the body, Deleuze and Guattari’s complementary diatribes against normalized and regulated bodies, the circulations of the body and its imagery through pages of affect theory. The social is visualized as a body, and the military too. Works that we create are referred, in retrospect, as bodies. We joyously affirm the existence the body through the celebration of birth, and we revel in its deconstruction through horror cinema. The Dadaists made the body broken by the bullets and shells of World War 1 exemplars of absurd existence, a scream of rage against a renegade symbolic order; while Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, the Situationists, and the New Left of the 1960s put their demand for the fulfillment of bodily pleasures on equal footing with the class struggle, and as a rejoinder, some of the most divisive political struggles today concern themselves with ‘rights of the body’, be they over the question of homosexuality or abortion. The body itself is the physical mechanism of revolt: how many times have we heard the term “bodies in the streets” as a reference to the mobilization of the multitude? Recent critics of accelerating technology, such as Bifo, bemoan the “disappearance of the body” into the swarming void of digital abstraction, yet certain extreme forms of resistance – self-immolation or suicide bombing – almost position themselves directly against this postmodern crisis (or is it in confirmation with this crisis?).
How does the entity that we refer to as the body, and the subjectivity that exists both within and adjacent to it, construct itself? In the introduction to his Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi draws on Deleuze and Guattari and makes reference to “coding.” The implication is a process of top-down transformation and writing; when we speak of coding in computer vernacular, it is the series of sequences generated by an outside actor or force that becomes unified image. This is the construction of software; programming – the process through which machines are made to operate in the way that is intended for them. For Massumi, coding itself refers to a deeper function, which he discusses “in terms of positioning on a grid.”1 In this grid system, boxes are divided up according to a signification that is generated in the exterior cultural sphere: complementary boxes for male and female, white and black, gay and straight, so on an so forth. The body is then constructed as a ‘geographical’ entity by their correspondence to a ‘site’ on the grid, with the site itself being overlapping terms from each pair. Thus, the grid system is combinatorial, composed of different interlocking parts; yet these combinations operate along binary vectors, dividing differentials into homogenous wholes.
We could speak of the body built on the grid as the “modeled body,” something constructed not by individual volition but under the gaze of the social other. As a modeled body, it comes built in with pre-existent expectations and roles to fulfill: stereotyped racial roles, gender roles, sexual roles are not scientifically determined roles, but ones that themselves are built along a myriad of different socio-cultural passageways that forms a hegemonic blanket. We find the submissive wife, the bread-winning husband, etc. These predicated social functions, while maintaining a running logic of domination and exploitation, are at their point of expression linguistic functions; the modeled body, then, can be seen as a body bracketed by the conjunction of binary signifiers that assume themselves to be scientifically justifiable. But underneath this pseudo-scientism we find lurking the gears of power, spinning a web of discourse that does nothing more than assume and perpetuate its own existence. Foucault spoke of the “rule of insistence” in regards to sexual discourse (something that must always be considered when the question of the body is raised). Sex under power, he charges, is placed within its own binary grid system, providing an order to what exactly constitutes the notion of ‘sex.’ Here too he finds the important role of the dominant linguistic structures operating as the despotic ‘invisible hand’: “power’s hold on sex is maintained through language, or rather through the discourse that it creates…”2
This gridwork permeates itself throughout the entirety of theoretical structuralism’s ambitions. Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic work finds language established through the model of a two-dimensional grid, linking together the signifier with its signified. Drawing on this work and the extensive research into the possibilities unlocked by post-World War 2 era cybernetic research, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the grid into his own anthropological work in an attempt to unlock universalities in the thought-forms of so-called primitive societies. Jacques Lacan, on the other hand, amalgamated all three of these approaches and transposed them into a psychoanalytical clinical framework; this time, a grid was drawn up that allowed the analyst to produce a diagnosis, assuming that the symptoms present followed a universal system of coding. It is no mistake that the ideology of structuralism emerged in lockstep with the height of Foucault’s Disciplinary Society – here, he found, was the body made docile and productive for the sake of capital accumulation. These bodies toiled inside disciplinary institutions such as the factory, the barracks, the school; each functions as a space of enclosure, insulating the body from outside forces that could alter the nature of its programming. Likewise, a modeled body inhabiting sites along the grid is existing within its own enclosed space, the outside factors that could disturb this homeostasis kept far out of mind. Therefore, the language of the modeled body is also a language of exclusion: “you are this and this, not that or that.” This is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to in Anti-Oedipus as the ‘disjunctive synthesis’, wherein Oedipus “imposes the ideal of a certain restrictive or exclusive use…’either… or… or…’”.3
To tackle what is being excluded here, which goes beyond the simple differences in linguistic significations, we must understand that the body positioned upon the grid results in (at least on an ideological level, though reality is never so reductionist) a predetermined subjectivity, a static figure whose movement through life is directed by what he or she is supposed to be and supposed to do. This static figure is the being; a construct of repetition, the external face of its subjectivity is never in doubt, its allegiance to the symbolic order that fostered it never faced with major forms of resistant behavior. The being has two births: yes, there is the biological birth, generated by the conjoining of the mother and father, but there is also the birth of the subjectivity from the womb of power. Power doesn’t know the presubjective, nor does it care to know it, for the presubjective must be excluded from the equation if the subjective is to be maintained. There is little doubt what this excluded presubjective agency is: the affect, the intensity of a sensation as it plays out on and within the body.
All “affects,” we read in A Thousand Plateaus, “are becomings.”4 This is because the affect triggers a transition or change in the subject that it encounters; in response to external stimuli, our bodies will respond in ways unnoticeable or undetectable by the conscious mind. For Deleuze and Guattari, affects are particles, molecular bits from an outside that swarm or team, molecules that come together in aggregates that build themselves in greater wholes that retain their heterogeneous multiplicity. This is the “connective synthesis” discussed in Anti-Oedipus; they utilize what Massumi would later illustrate as a grid to show this point: “We are statistically or molarly heterosexual, but personally homosexual, without knowing it or being fully aware of it and finally we are transexual in an elemental, molecular sense.”5 This circulation of affects and its relationship to the molecular assemblage that constitutes the subjectivity of one’s body is recast in A Thousand Plateaus in the famous rhizome, and again we can find the same dichotomy: “The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and… and… and…’”.6 The tree, the hierarchy, can theoretically be “uprooted” by these rhizomatics; thus the logic of the rhizome, the affective registers and their capability in unlocking becomings that unfix the being that emerges on the grid, must be suppressed if the hierarchy is to continue unabated.
But we must ask: is this line of attack still a method for attack with clear, liberatory potential? This question implies the larger question, is the body still constructed along the grid?
The initial answer is yes, given there has been a major explosion in traditionalist and even fascistic political platforms and religious fundamentalism, ranging from evangelical Christianity to fundamentalist Islam, each attempting to situate the body and the possibilities of what it can do or be into predetermined, essentialist enclosures. At the same time, however, it is prudent to consider that these reactionary forces are part of a broken or fragmented lineage, that their linkages to their progenitors is indirect and not expressive of a direct continuity. Christian or Islamic fundamentalism is a distinctively postmodern phenomena; it reacts to the present because it exists within the present, and thus its divergences against the present order can only be situated upon those grounds.7 Likewise, Europe’s fascist resurgence bears little continuity with the massive mobilizations of fascism during the Second World War; instead, it is a curious – yet disturbing and dangerous – byproduct of the forces of globalization. If the grid exists today, it is only because it is within and against the postmodern conditions of Empire.
Frederic Jameson argued that the quintessential hallmark of the postmodern was the decline or waning of the affect; he poses this argument through an analysis of art. On hand, he depicts Edward Munch’s painting of The Scream as an icon of modernism: fear, alienation, horror at the impending fragmentation of the body and its subjective reality are, in Jameson’s eyes, all part of a potent affective soup.8 On the other hand is the nebulous arena of postmodern art which has already passed to the otherside, Munch’s screaming body now completely dissipated and made empty. Jameson, in lines similar to Deleuze and Guattari, finds that what he calls Late Capitalism (the underlying structure of postmodernism) to exhibit schizophrenic traits – drawing on Lacan, he understands the clinical situation of schizophrenia as a “breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers that constitute an utterance or a meaning.”9 Returning to our earlier topic of discussion, we could see how this would indicate a breakdown of the grid system, perhaps to the point that the post-social and presubjective processes, whose functions have been obscured, are revealed. Hence the rationale behind a key insistence that Massumi makes in Parables for the Virtual: “Frederic Jameson notwithstanding, belief has waned for many, but not affect. If anything, our condition is characterized by a surfeit of it.”10 The dynamic energy of The Scream may very well not be one of lost affect, but the loss of the body’s dominant subjectivity, the loss of its signifying coding; if we are to pose a counterpoint to The Scream, what about a piece by Rothko? Though he emerges from the modernist era, though his work, in my opinion, transcended modernism confines and pointed the way directly to the postmodern sublime. In his works, the body is gone; we’re left with a colorful ocean that communicates itself to the viewer not in images that conjure forth semiotic chains, but trends towards a molecular communication utilizing emotion and pre-emotive affects (and yet, has there not always been a counter-modernity to authoritarian modernism, such as Antonin Artaud, that look towards disembodiment as a line of flight?). Simply put, it escapes language, and thus the modernism domination of grid coding. Beneath the body, the flows, and if the body is disappearing in the postmodern moment, it is because of the unified subjectivity has largely disintegrated, having been replaced by the constant presubjective exchange of affect circulation.
Let us turn to warfare, where this “disappearance of the body” can be found most strongly. Without too much elaboration, we can see that the postmodernization of warfare through the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA), hailed as a new, ‘mature’ form of combat, has led to significant reduce in the bodies directly involved and situated within the theater of war. Armies and combat units no longer can be thought of as the large-scale monoliths advancing across territories; today we have seen this model rejected for smaller, more mobile and flexible units that operate in perpetual uplink with digital information technologies which can allow them to operate in decentralized swarm tactics. This transformation to smaller units (less bodies) is complimented by forms of combat that are completely bodyless: smart missiles, cyberwarfare, drone warfare, robotics, etc. To quote Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri,
Increasingly, U.S. Leaders seem to believe that the vast superiority of its firepower, the sophistication of its technology, and the precision of its weapons allow the U.S. military to attack its enemies from a safe distance in a precise and definitive way, surgically removing them like so many cancerous tumors from the global social body, with minimal side effects. War thus becomes virtual from the technological point of view and bodyless from the military point of view….11
Another form of this “bodyless” warfare would be the increasing interest by the military in sonic warfare. Steve Goodman has written extensively on this topic, noting how the history of sound-based weaponry has moved to higher and higher stages of abstraction alongside accelerating technology. Early research and development in sonic warfare during the two World Wars concerned themselves with outright destruction – massive blasts of sound that, theoretically, could blow the wings off airplanes. By the Vietnam War, however, interest in the destructive capabilities of sonic warfare had become replaced by programs such as the U.S. military’s “Wandering Soul”: “haunting sounds said to represent souls of the dead were played in order to perturb the superstitious snipers, who, while recognizing the artificial source of the wailing voices, could not help but dread that what they were hearing was a premonition of their own postdeath dislocated souls.”12 Fast-forward to more contemporary combat theaters, like the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, where “sound bombs” are deployed against slumbering populations. Here, “high-volume, deep frequency” sonic explosions that lack any centralizing object (such as the utilization of religious superstition in Wandering Soul) are used to create nothing other than a direct climate of fear, where “the threat becomes autonomous from the need to back it up.”13 Looking at these developments and an array of others, Goodman propositions that this new type of warfare is not only one of disembodiment, but a warfare that taps into the presubjective circuitry of the affect. He is worth quoting at length:
In the onset of the event, the body-environment acts as one, with an immediate continuity of the extensive movement of the body and the intensive affect of fear. The vector of the event, in its unfolding, passes down the line of flight, pulling the environment into its slipstream. The event bifurcates. The action ceases, its movement dissipated. The vortical blur of fearful movement congeals into the stasis of segmented, objective space, scanned for potential weapons or retrospectively attribute causes to effects. What happened? Meanwhile the affect continues to unravel further, becoming distinct, finally as a feeling of fear.14
All of this begs the question, however, as to what constitutes the body in the affective, post-grid environment? For all this language of the disappearance, of floating schizophrenia, it is clear that at the same time the body has not disappeared on a physical level. No, postmodernism can be seen in anyways as a culture emerged in the cult of the body. Yet these bodies themselves are not real: they are airbrushed, digitally altered, made glossy for magazine spreads and bikini commercials. The result is a body that is perpetually in movement, a body endlessly striving for its ideal, borderline Platonic form. The body can always be buffer, tougher, leaner, bustier, more toned, perfected – even if this perfection is impossible. The body in movement is a body submersed in a machinic environment: catalyzed by media machines, it turns to workout machines, pharmacology, collagen injections, posthuman alterations through becoming-plastic, becoming-enhanced. This body in movement is an augmented body. Then, when placed into the context of the even greater networkings of the cybernetic mechanosphere, we achieve what Donna Haraway has called the theory-fiction of “cyborg body.” This state has been achieved, she claims, through the postmodern condition in which we have “become chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.”15 Like the schizophrenic and Deleuze and Guattari’s connective synthesis, the cyborg is free from Oedipal triangulation; it is post-gender, post-racial, and, therefore, it is post-grid. Instead of constructing itself through processions of binary stratifications that harkens back to Hegelian metaphysics, it constructs itself through free-form augmentation, and while these augmentations could be indicative of the hegemony of the Society of the Spectacle, they could also be an expression of the body acting, for the first time, as an autonomous agent. In short, in the void of the grid exists hybridity.
In postcolonial theory as articulated by Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, this notion of hybridity is infused with both macropolitical and micropolitical agency. Under the yoke of colonial imperialism, binary dualisms became the justification for Europe’s capital-driven march across the globe: civilization/uncivilized, enlightenment/savagery, First World/Third World, self/other, etc. Just as de Saussure attempted to ‘pin-down’ the orders of signifier and signified and Levi-Strauss scouted for universal structures in ‘primitive societies’, Bhabha sees the colonial discourse as one that approaches the Other, the outside, and attempts to apply rigorous categorization to heterogenous space; the bracketing of this space universal signifiers and discourses, language games usually cobbled together from ethnic or racial stereotypes. These binary essentialism can be combatted, he claims, through the use of hybridity: “Hybridity is the name of this displacement of value from symbol to sign that causes the dominant discourse to split along the axis of its power to be representative, authoritative… Hybridity has no such perspective of depth or truth to provide: it is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures… in a dialectical play of ‘recognition.’”16 At the same time, however, there is a truism that binary oppositions, no matter how absolute or totalizing power makes them appear to be, have always operated alongside hybridity; a zero-point field of cultural isolation has never been a reality. There has always been cracks to slip through, seepages, heterogeneous forces always threatening the black of homogenization. Bhabha’s attack, then, is an attack on the discourse of power itself. But what of this power? By the time his critique emerged, colonialism and imperialism was on the decline, a master narrative of modernism that is repeatedly misapplied today to the transnational police action that Empire depicts as protectionism of a globalized peace.
Hardt and Negri take Bhabha to task for just this point. “Power is assumed to operate exclusively through a dialectical and binary structure. The only forms of domination Bhabha recognizes, in other words, is that of modern sovereignty.”17 They continue:
Perhaps the discourses themselves[postmodernism and postcolonialism] are possible only when the regimes of modern sovereignty are already on the wane. Like postmodernists too, however, postcolonialist theorists in general give a very confused view of this passage because they remain fixated on attacking an old form of power and propose a strategy of liberation that could be effective only on that old terrain. The postcolonialist perspective remains primarily concerned with colonial sovereignty. As Gyan Prakash says, “The postcolonial exists as an aftermath, as an after – after being worked over by colonialism.”18
With this in mind, should we consider, then, that the discourse of the body has become irrelevant, with the decline of binary grid-thought? Has affect theory been scrubbed of any political agency, either macropolitical or micropolitical, through its integration into really-existing postmodern subjectivity and its integration into the neoliberal war machine? Is the rhizome, the and…and… and…, still relevant? Or are we at a point, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, where we have not gone far enough into the decoding, into the celebration of hybrid forms that still need to be detached from power discourses? Have we seen anything yet?
1Brian Massumi Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation Duke University Press, 1992, pg. 2
2Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 Vintage, 1990, pg. 83
3Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin Books, 2009 (reprint edition) pgs. 75-76
4Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pg. 256
5Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus pg.70
6Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus pg. 25
7For a treatment on how contemporary American traditionalism is largely a postmodern manifestation, see Stephanie Coontz The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap Basic Books, 1992; as for the relationship between fundamentalist Islam and the postmodern phenomena of globalization, one excellent source is Olivier Roy Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah Columbia University Press, 2004
8Frederic Jameson Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Duke University Press, 1990, pg. 11
9Ibid, pg. 26
10Massumi Parables for the Virtual, pg. 27
11Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin Books, 2005, pg. 44
12Steve Goodman Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear MIT Press, 2012, pgs. 19-20
13Ibid, pg. xiv
14Ibid, pg. 72
15Donna Haraway Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Free Association Books, 1996, pg. 148
16Homi K. Bhabha The Location of Culture Routeledge, 2004
17Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pg. 145
18Ibid, pgs. 145-146