Interview with Vivian Sobchack

 

 
 
 
 

This morning I had a look at all the cosmetic products on my bathroom shelves, and I noticed something very interesting. In the marketing of these products there seems to be a conflation of a very technological discourse with a natural biological one.
VS: There is indeed this conflation of the technological and the natural; the sense that you can repair everything through technology, but that ultimately it's coming from nature. In a way it's the conflation with the New-Age herbal movement with the high-tech.

It is as if you are NOT reversing/cheating on natural chronology by using these technological products.
VS: Yes. That's the total paradox. Moreover, there's no discussion at all about what cosmetics are really made of, and what you're putting on your skin. There was a brief period about a decade ago - the intense moments of what was our small green movement, compared to Europe - where a few cosmetic firms came out with natural ingredients…but that disappeared very quickly. Whereas the ecological concern with the exterior, such as the environmet, has remained, the debate around the cosmetic issue has disappeared completely. In so far as body enhancements are concerned - where there is real physical danger, as with breast implants, or massive scale law suits - there's been a lot of discussion of course. But what cosmetics are concerned, no.

In your paper "The Morphological Imagination" you point out the cultural silence - if not disavowment - imbued in the labour of cosmetic surgery. Only the results are visible. It is striking, in that respect, that in a culture obsessed with the demarcations of what constitutes a healthy and able body, bodily alterations achieved by different technologies such as sports, fitness and body-building are very much visible. I am only thinking about the plethora of Jane Fonda and Cindy Crawford videos. Why do you think that technologies of sports are perceived as legitimate and natural, while cosmetic surgery is constructed as artificial, and has to be hidden?
VS: That's it! It's naturalised, just as with the cosmetics. One the one hand there's this whole discourse about staying fit and healthy - which is not a bad thing. But the kinds of mechanisms, and the fact that technology is entailed to do it are obliterated. I lost my leg 4 years ago from cancer, and I had several operations. I've had to become a jock as a result. You know, if I fall I have to push myself up and so on. So I go to the gym frequently and end up 'doing machines'; I am in a very small facility with a very mixed crowd of people, because it is also a rehabilitation facility So there are athletes there who have sprained something and need to work their way back, and there are therapists as well. Now that's very different from the main gym at my university, where people come who are already fit. You know, you would never come if you were a slob to get fit, because you would be this great embarrassement! People DO talk about going to the gym, it's not hidden in that sense; surgery itself is also talked about. But not in terms of cosmetic surgery for women anyway. So here you have the extrusion and the extraversion of the whole discourse at the same time. In fact, I think the increasing computergraphical imagination - or what I call the morphological imagination - comes with the imersion in certain forms of technologies that can transform seemingly without too much effort. People no longer start associating self-transformation with things like vanity. So wanting to do it isn't conceived anymore like a moral failing.

So you think that actually the vanity of desiring this beautiful Cindy Crawford-like body is covered up with the excuse of having a healthy body?
VS: Yes. Or, that vanity doesn't exist anymore in the way it used to exist as a moral category. Maybe if you can wishfulfill every desire because you want your object of desire, and your tongue is panting and it just goes across the table. How then can you talk about ego and super-ego, when all you've got is id? Similarly, how can you talk about depth of character, or strength of moral character, and all those things that depend in a way on time and development at a certain moment in time. You know, I don't want to sound retro-grade either, but there's got to be another way! Everything gets extruded and becomes an outside, so that vanity as a moral category disappears. Even narcissism isn't so bad because of the way it gets articulated: it's all about 'taking care' of your outside. That's efficient. I am editing this book called Meta-morphing Visual Transformations in the Culture of Quick Change, and what I was interested in was very specifically 'morphing' as a digital practice: the figure of the morph is disappearing, but still there [the morph as a digital practise is a computergraphic operation that links areas of similarity between two images and then digitally warps the differences of the first into similarity with the other; the morph also exists as a digital figuration that functions as a perceived special effect in a narrative]. And meta-morphosis as a cultural imaginary that has always been there, but has taken a special form from the end of the 19th century with the invention of new technologies. The first essay in the book is actually about quick-change artists at the turn of the century. They form a precursor to this notion of quick transformation. What I was pointing out in the piece I was writing for this book, was something that morphing signalled, but that the computer-graphic, and the digital in general have brought even further along. Namely, at one point we thought of character building as the BildungsRoman. Now what all these technologies, and the milieu that they have created have done, is that they have taken the 'Bildung' out of the BildungsRoman. So that what you simply have is transformation without necessarily the notion of development - good or bad. That is what I would call the 'Morphological Imagination': the elision of the pain, labour and cost and time invested in 'building' that particular body.

In a culture wherein many critics argue that the body could become obsolete, you have on the other hand a movement of 'Modern Primitives' who highlight the body. How do you see this phenomenon?
VS: Well, I actually wrote about this in an article in a book called The Materialities of Communication. I was trying to make some distinctions of kind - not just of degree - between the photographic, the cinematic and the electronic, and that the latter designated radical breaks in spatial, temporal and perceptual technologies. I wrote this in the mid-80's talking about the disembodying qualities of the electronic, and mentioned that there was a simultaneous rise of all of the fitness issues at the same time. Here's this disembodying technology… I use the term hysteria… the body is hysterically trying to reassert itself as it is being undone on the other side. This 'Modern Primitives' thing is a bit lost on me: it seems important in Europe, but maybe it is here in the US and I'm just out of the loop. Nonetheless, it seems again the hysterical reassertion of the body and of sensation - pain being the mode which most localises sensation in the 'self'.

It is striking that lots of these "Modern Primitives" are actually hackers.
VS: It's a very contradictory phenomenon. I come from a more phenomenological perspective, like Merleau-Ponty. What he did was reinsert the body into phenomenology, which makes it grounded in history and culture, and also in a incredibly rich, rather than reduced, materialism in commerce with the world and other people. Part of my project is, indeed, this kind of critique of this technophilia, that forgets where the imagination of the technophilia comes from. You know, all the extreme talk of 'downloading' consciousness (like Hans Moravec) and getting rid of 'the meat and 'the wetware' now changed to 'uploading' consciousness, which I think is very funny. Now this may have to do quite practically with computers, because at one point the notion of 'downloading' meant importing a file into your computer, whereas uploading is getting on the net. But the rhetoric has changed from downloading to uploading; it's a hierarchical and transcendental move. It's the meta-physical. It starts playing with meta-phor, meta-morphing. I see the morph as this ideal object, which takes change…as a non-value. But my agenda essentially, is to keep reminding people that even the most extreme imagination of disembodiment is coming from a consciousness that's embodied. Sometimes I am looked upon as a privileged figure to a certain extent, because I am really a cyborg. And I have to remind people that when I go to bed at night my leg doesn't go off dancing; it's just in the corner, a thing. I am the one who animates it, and it needs the body to move it! So part of my mission is to constantly keep reminding people that whatever the fantasies… they are ultimately grounded in the transparency, in what becomes one's zero degree visiblity, of one's own physical existence. But that is the grounding, and it gets forgotten.

I think that people who call themselves 'Modern Primitives' would exactly argue that they were embodying - incarnating, so to speak - the transcendental. The meta-physical becomes as it were inscribed onto the physical. How would you comment for example on the work of performance artists such as Franco B and Ron Athy?
VS: I am not sure I buy into the shamanistic euphoria bit, or the transcendental dimensions here. It's one thing for someone who's been in a lot of pain all his/her life to transcend it in existence by turning it into art…and transcendence here is not equivalent to the transcendental. Now, the commodification of pain through a privileging of masochism as a performative mode, or a wallow in abjection - almost all done ironically by the way - is quite another thing. But that's about all I can say here, since I'm not really familiar with the discourse or the performance artists you mention.

Medical technology has always been very important for the conceptions of gender and sex. In the past one distinguished boys from girls just by the visible: looking at the genitals, while now they look at your chromosomes. How do you see that medical and other technologies influence our conceptions of gender and sex today?
VS: I don't think there have been radical changes in terms of popular culture. Transsexuals are still seen as strange or odd, although there's great curiosity. Similarly, protruding breasts or dangling gentitals still remain the markers, no matter what your chromosomes are. Visibility is in fact the watchword of our culture. To me this is very impoverishing. I am a film scholar, but I talk about the other senses and how they inform vision, and how we don't just see movies, but feel them and how that might work. So the kind of vision I am interested in, is vision as a part of a whole system of bodily perception, as opposed to some abstraction. There's an urge for - and response to it as well - immersive experience: theme parks, thrill-ride movies, fantasies of VR, interactive games, etc…but what does this suggest about our (in-)ability to immerse ourselves in events with real consequences? Real meant in the terms of politics, social goods, and so on. So when I refer to the impoverishment of our visual culture, I mean it as a critique on the reduction of vision to the merely visible, rather than a critique on the new ways of how we can get involved in perception and its objects. We have been looking more at what is 'seeing', not recognising that vision is also the visible, in the sense of body image. I don't think as far as sex/gender issues go that there has been massive change. What I do think is that technology has allowed certain kinds of transformations to take place, but as part of a larger whole in the culture. There's this notion of everything as being a visible thing that you can play with as a marker and move around.

That would be more in the Butlerian sense of performativity, then.
VS: Yes. So in that sense there has been a kind of opening up of allowance of difference. Wherein I think that medical technology has made the largest inroads, and it has to do again with the desire to reshape the body. For example in critical studies the word 'prosthetic' is used more significantly. Some people use it almost synonymous with the cyborg. It strikes me that when considering this notion of the prosthetic, one could make a useful distinction between cyborgism in the early Donna Haraway, and the fantasy of cyborgism as it is celebrated now; as separating on the one hand 'the becoming' the machine or the artifact, from a more reasoned sense of the prosthetic as a bodily extension. The former wants to rid us of our 'meat', while the latter wants to extend the meat's perceptual apparatus and power.

Would that be more what Stelarc is trying to do?
VS: I think so. Although, ultimately as a woman I am not into abjection, you know. We've all been there, done that. That's too easy! It may be novel for men... But anyway, the prosthetic is a functional extension of the body and can in fact enhance your perception, but you lose certain things by using it and gain other things. For example glasses or a microscope make you see better, but at the same time you're dealing with the defraction of lenses and certain kinds of distortions of the "natural". Now when I say "natural" I simply mean the body one is born into before one starts adding these things. So I think it's the medical interventions and advancements, relative to prosthetic devices has acquired a great deal of interest in the general public as this wonderous kind of thing. It can be anything from some kind of strange contraption you strap on to make your golfswing better, to a prosthetic leg. I think this is in many ways healthier, than placing your agency in the machine itself. But there's reciprocal process going on, anyway.

Women have throughout the ages been contained, as it were, in their bodies by cosmetic technologies.
VS: Yes. Except during the Rubensque period wherin you are dealing with plumpness as a sign of affluence.

Still, there seems to be this fear of the female body, dilating, digressing and spilling over.
VS: Well, it changes here and there, certainly in terms of temporal and cultural specificity. If you think about Germany in the Weimar period and the States in the 1920's, where women were esentially much more liberated from the home with increasing urbanisation. There the women looked like boys, coz boys had all this freedom. So along with smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and staying up all night, they got rid of the long dresses…the irony was that it was seen as liberating to bind your breasts. Now note the difference in the 50's and 60's, where you get people like Brigitte Bardot or Anita Eckberg as these monstrous objects of desirethe Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield figure, women who were spilling over. Yet at the same time they were seen in a strange way like pathetic and comic…dumb blonds. Very often they would be depicted with their heads tilted back, as if the heads had nothing to do with the bodies…anything could be done to that body. Those bodies were allowed to hang out.

Still, this happened in a very much constrained way: no sagging tits!
VS: That's right. Or the slightly sagging, lush body suggests a moral sag, moral laxity. The relaxation is a moral one as well, which allows the fantasy to play itself out. Of course the sagging is not disgusting as in the culture of aging, that would impair the fantasy.