Blog Post

SECT - TechnoSpecies

TechnoSpecies: Artificial/Human/Animal/Posthuman

I've been eagerly awaiting this morning, and have volunteered to blog the event, since my interests in science fiction intersect very well with the themes. First, Anne Balsamo talked about Beatriz de Costa's Pigeon Blog, a pigeon release slated for this afternoon, not this evening as at first suggested since it's easier for homing pigeons to find their way home during the day. Now, for Judith Halberstam and Lynn Hershman.

Lynn Hershman has worked for 30 years in photography, interactive video, and interactive installation, won an award alongside Jean Baudrillard and Peter Greenaway (I chuckle out loud and get looks), and just last week got the first ISEA life-long award.

Judith Halberstam is a professor at USC in English, and director for Center for Feminist Research. (HistCon would have loved to see her hired at UCSC, but Women's Studies apparently had trouble with her focus on masculinity.) Female Masculinity (1998), In a Queer Time and Place (forthcoming?).

First Lynn will present, applause! Lynn wishes she had the time to be here for the whole seminar, says she's jealous. Today we're dealing with the contemporary creation of self-generated technobodies, objects reincarnated into subjects and the obsolescence of the corporeal body through "enhancement". This process involves the creation of "anti-bodies", including AIs and other databodies. There are several people in the U.S. named Lynn Hershman, living all around. She recently hired a P.I. to investigate her data history, to see if a "private eye" actually existed. He quickly gleaned all kinds of statistics including incomes of her neighbors, her divorce record, and a general picture that amounts to a dangerous illusion of presence. There is a symbiotic relationship between simulations of the various bots and our own corporeal forms. Lynn first describes a spectrum of virtual and artificial entities drawn from her own work. In the 1950s, Lynn's first virtual persona: the creation of three virtual art critics to write about her work, write reviews and argue so as to get her first show based on this virtual validation. In the 1970s, Lynn lived as Roberta Breitmore, a fictional person compiled from biographical data and could get credit cards while Lynn could not. She placed ads in the paper, and had a number of adventures meeting up with people with her own (blond) hair, her own stance and her own handwriting. In the last year of her life, she multiplied herself into four and was having many negative experiences until eventually she was exorcised. What is it like as an individual to be ensconced in this datasphere, to be literally created by the datasphere? (Screening of Roberta's comic book.) In 1995, Tillie the Telerobotic Doll with camera eyes could be manipulated through the web, a doll surveillance system becoming a waldo for web-users, transforming them into cyborgs. Synthia Stock Ticker is a virtual creature - based on video of a human woman ? who keeps track of the stock market in real time, and reacts emotionally and physically to the rising and falling of the stock market. Synthia and Technolust (afternoon screening) were precursurs to the bot Agent Ruby, who talks to users on the web, has moods and the like. Similarly, there is the AI "Dina", whose slogan is "artificial intelligence is better than no intelligence".

While Lynn suggests that these are "bodiless" creatures, brains with no bodies, I find this idea dangerous. This notion plays into the same tradition of "disembodiment" that has dominated digital culture and digital media for too long. Don't believe the hype: embodiment is a word that can only make sense in the context of a pre-existing distinction between information and matter or mind and body. Literally the putting or going into a body, embodiment implies a "container body" into which self, mind, or information is inserted. Oddly enough, embodiment has acquired a utopian aspect in digital media studies and film studies, coming to mean the fusion of two distinct ontological entities. As theory, embodiment gets its potential energy from this duality; as academic work, it surfs the standing wave created around such dualities in U.S. American "culture". I wonder if there's not a better word, some neologism perhaps, which could express what many theorists mean when they say "embodiment" without using this dubious metaphor of a container body?

During a pause between speakers, my neighbor Annalisa suggests a "monotasking" revolution, since I'm multitasking wildly this morning, demonstrating Linda Stone's "continuous partial attention", which Scott Fisher mentioned on Monday morning.
Judith is talking not on animation (her recent work) but on the representation of reproduction, suggesting two parts: (1) on "transbiology", Sarah Franklin's borrowing from Donna Haraway, and (2) a reading of March of the Penguins

First, on transbiology. Sarah Franklin, doing ethnographic work in bio labs, reverses the notion of "trans" as a rogue element, suggesting that transbiology is now the norm, not the exception. Transbiology suggests hybrid states of being that reveal shifts in our notion of bodies ? e.g. the female cyborg, tamagotchi, Oncomouse(tm!). All of these shift the boundaries, but, Judith suggests, in a different way from what was first suggested by Haraway. New forms are evolving outside of reproductive dynamics and logics, suggesting interdependence of reproductive and non-reproductive forms. Judith suggests we drop the dichotomy of hetero/homo in favor of the queer. Let us turn to "penguin porn", "March of the Penguins" produced through years in the Antarctic filming reproductive and life cycle of penguins. The voice over insists on a narrative that doesn't, Judith suggests, match what the film is actually showing. The anthropomorphized penguins march 70 miles to the breeding ground and the penguins exchange the eggs while males and females march back and forth to eat. The process is harder on the males, so there are many more females then males, despite the heteronormative gist of VO and the focus on specific monogamous "families". Indeed, Judith jokes that the difficulty of this penguin reproductive process is an argument against intelligent design: no one would design it this way if they wanted it to work, since the slightest error kills at least one of the three entitites in question. The VO melds the reproductive narrative to the story of the "family", and the film has been used by the Christian right to emphasize sacrifice for family and monogamy ? neither of which hold true to the reality. Watching the film with the sound off offers a perverse narrative, not the outmoded model it claims: love, loss, family, monogamy. Why are all the other penguins there? This is a question the film never addresses.
Judith turns to Joan Roughgarden (author of Evolution's Rainbow), who transes Darwin and critiques the capitalist rhetoric of Origin of Species, suggesting alternatives to Darwin's economic reasoning emphasizing collectivity and cooperation. Citing transex fish, hermaphrodite hyenas, and various queer critters, she suggests that non-reproductive entities are part and parcel of the existence of these species, not, as per heteronormative narratives, just useless appendages. [Parenthetically, Judith points out that Finding Nemo is in fact a trans narrative, since male clownfish transform into female clownfish on the death of their mate.] Looking through a different lens, we see very different animal communities; a focus on collectivity and cooperation which is vital here precisely because capitalism is NOT the relevant mode for animal communities. We must look to penguin logic, not "reproductive knowledge".
Judith contrasts the March of the Penguins VO with the film images. The VO imposes the stigma and envy of those who can't reproduce, a protestant work ethic, and a capitalist reproductive family instead of focussing on the necessary collectivity of the larger penguin group. The non-reproductive penguins offer warmth, go get food, and are absolutely necessary to the survival of the eggs. Parents feed their babies but do nothing to protect them from predators; baby penguins luckily have five years of cavorting before they undertake the Long March.
The role of the VO is to obscure the unimaginable and unnatural: on that note, Judith turns from this high-cultural penguin text to "Seed of Chucky", tracing transbiology to animated horror. Boundary blurring is now everywhere in our cultures, between humans and other animals, between animals and machines ? but, asks Judith, do we understand weird relationship between human and human??
Horror films demonstrate fears and misgivings about posthuman, human, non-human forms, and show us what happens when we blow up these normal narratives, bodies coming undone. Teaser trailer for "Seed of Chucky", a fetal narrative about "making the world a better place... to kill... Deliver us some evil." In this context, Judith cites Lee Edelman's No Future, an argument "against the future", suggesting a queer obligation to be against the child and the metaphor of the child as symbol of hope for a better tomorrow. Indeed, Franklin's work on the legacy and future of transbiology displaces this hope into the contemporary reorganization of living matter, cloning, artificial insemination, regeneration, embryology, IVF, and stem-cell technologies, exploring the biosociality (Paul Rabinow's term) of the laboratory and donors, the movement between "clean" and "dirty" spaces, between "life" and "death". In IVF, for example, donated eggs and sperm are transubstantiated, not just into the hope for donors of being able to have a baby, but also into excess cells for stem-cell research for capital accumulation in private databases. Countering this "hope" in the child, Judith turns instead to the unthinkable, the irresponsible, the inhumane, following Edelman's focus on the death-drive as a counter to this hope, as important to the transbiological imaginary as the supposed "altruism" of IVF technology. Once a hopeful queer entity, the cyborg embryo today merely extends the naturalness of family and reproduction.
Chucky, suggests Judith, is today's Frankenstein, thematizing the same concerns with reproduction that Mary Shelley foregrounded almost two years ago. Following on "Bride of Chucky", "Seed of Chucky" presents an intersex doll with a made-in-japan stamp on his wrist. He finds his parents, re-animates them, and they ask if he is a boy or a girl: when they see his smooth crotch, each parent claims their "seed" for their own sex: It's a boy! It's a girl! As Judith concludes, spoofing the Cyborg Manifesto, "I'd rather be a supernaturally-possessed doll: it's less complicated."
As a final comment, I'd like to add a reference to Zoe Sofia's "sexo-semiotics of technology", detailed in her 1984 Diacritics piece on "Exterminating Fetuses". An important element of Sofia's argument is that *all* technologies are reproductive technologies: Judith seems to suggest this (e.g. the penguin collective of unattached females as reproductive players in their own right), although she starts with an equivocation about a focus on "non-reproductive" modes.
I won't be doing the Q&A, because my interface is wearing away at my hands and wrists ? hope you've found this little account interesting!


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