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domingo, 28 de febrero de 2010

Stelarc and the Chimera: Kant's critique of prosthetic judgment.

Stelarc and the Chimera: Kant's critique of prosthetic judgment.
(Aesthetics and the Body Politic) 

Art Journal, March 22, 1997 
Caygill, Howard

The organ must be a tool producing other organs - each consequently reciprocally producing the others. No artificial tool can answer to this description, but only that tool from whose resources the materials for all the other tools (including artificial ones) are drawn. And only then and in this way can such a product be designated an organized and self-organizing being.
- Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1790

Tools have always been considered outside of the body. They have extended perception, enlarged the vision, and generated other models for the world. Today technology is no longer exploding out from the body, in an external fashion, but is imploding and sticking to the skin. It is imploding and entering into the interior of the body.
- Stelarc, interview in L'Autre Journal, 1992

Kant's Critique of Judgment remains a text that seems incapable of exhausting its futures.(1) Since its hasty composition and publication in 1790 it has been used to theorize an extraordinary range of artistic practices ranging from romanticism to historicism, from the formalism of Abstract Expressionism to the sublime materiality of l'informe. In their turn each practice has transformed the theoretical text, bringing to the foreground aspects and turns of argument that previously were overlooked or excluded from consideration. The Critique has consequently become a locus of the very aesthetic reflective judgment that it theorized, one whose criteria of aesthetic judgment are themselves transformed in the event of judging a practice. Yet in spite of this history of constant transformation, the text remains enigmatic and still gives the sense of having barely been read.

The capacity of Kant's text to transform itself before a seemingly alien practice may be exemplified by confronting it with the practice of the Australian performance artist Stelarc. In the face of this artist's performances - explorations of the limits of the body and its potential invasion and transformation by technology - the Critique would seem finally to have reached its limit. How could this text, with its dissection of aesthetic judgments, its censure of young rogues imitating birdsong, and its praise of ornate wallpaper, help us understand a performance by Stelarc? It does so by virtue of the transformation it undergoes in the face of Stelarc's professedly anti-philosophical, "physiological" practice. In this encounter of artistic practice and theoretical text, the Critique is wrenched out of its accustomed circuits of interpretation and left strangely changed, reorganized, with some of its more enigmatic passages clarified and some of the violent exclusions of its reception hitherto redressed.

The customary reading of the Critique of Judgment (or Judgment-Power) begins and usually ends with part 1 of the text, which focuses on the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment." For generations of readers it is the analysis of the judgments of the beautiful and sublime that is the proper object of Kant's aesthetics, to the exclusion of the analysis of teleological judgment in part 2 of the book and the extensive "First Introduction," where Kant frames the Critique in terms of the relations among technics, life, organization, and matter. Since Schiller's Aesthetic Education,(2) most readings of the Critique have assumed that the text is concerned with the beautiful and sublime and with the aesthetic judgment as the mediator between the realms of intelligible freedom and natural necessity. In this light, the third Critique would not seem the obvious choice for reading before attending a Stelarc performance. However, when read in the light of Stelarc's concerns with technology and the body, the Critique undergoes a sea change and ceases to be just a critique of aesthetic, but also a proleptic critique of prosthetic judgment.

Stelarc's performances have moved from the theatrical, skin-hooked body suspensions of the 1960s and body imaging of the 1970s to an exploration of the relationship between the body and technology in the prosthetic work of the 1980s and 1990s. The latter performances trace two linked trajectories: the first, conservative direction involves the augmentation of the body's natural powers through the resources of technology, while the second, more radical direction proposes the thoroughgoing technological reorganization of the body.

In the work pursuing the first trajectory, such as the Tokyo performance of The Third Hand of 1981 and the 1986 and 1990 Tokyo and Melbourne performances of Amplified Body, Laser Eyes, and Third Hand, Stelarc remains with the traditional logic of prosthesis, supplementing his body with the prostheses of a third arm, amplification, and laser eyes.(3) In the latter work Stelarc begins to reorganize the circuits of the human body, coupling the prosthetic eyes with his heartbeat, and thus anticipating the logic of the second trajectory, which points to a total technological reorganization of the body. This was taken further in subsequent works such as Host Body/Couple Gestures: Event for Virtual Arm, Robot Manipulator, and Third Hand of 1992, which connected the artist's stomach muscles to motor prostheses, and more recently in work with STIMBOD software, such as Fractal Flesh of 1995 which permits not only a local reorganization of the parameters of the body, but also can provide an interface with remote signals through the Internet.(4) In these works, Stelarc confronts the human body with its technological prosthesis, overcoming their antagonism by a computer-choreographed dance in which the body and technology are opposed and yet advance toward an awkward harmony. This staging of the prosthesis, with its cables twisted around the body and its flickering screens controlling the movement of body and technology, is peculiarly archaic, combining pretechnological ritual dances with intimations of the exemplarity of Christ. Stelarc's work, in other words, approaches the condition of liturgy.

In the later work, Stelarc begins seriously to explore the second trajectory of his prosthetic performances already anticipated in his theoretical reflections. In these, Stelarc speculates on the potential for the complete technological reorganization of the human body, a development that entails the redefinition of the limits of human physiology; this is a process by which the body becomes "an object for redesign." The redesign that Stelarc envisages entails a thorough reconsideration of the logic of prosthesis. Instead of regarding the prosthesis as a supplement to the human body, it is now seen as already an integral part of its organization and consequently as a site for its potential reorganization.(5) Stelarc sees his work as a contribution to the reorganization of the human body promised by technological developments, especially in the realm of nano-technology. He said in 1992: "With the micro-miniaturization of technology (nano-technology) there is the new perspective of the body perhaps colonized by synthetic micro-organisms. Perhaps to control our body, perhaps to reinforce our immune system."(6) With this development Stelarc anticipates a thorough reorganization of the body that would technologically overcome the existing logic of prosthesis and replace it with a thoroughly prosthetic body no longer subject to the limits of human life: "Thus life would no longer commence with birth and end with death! Life would become a digital experience and no longer a development, a maturation and a decline as in an analog experience." By reorganizing the body prosthetically, life becomes a process of technical obsolescence and replacement of organs, entailing a "redefinition not only of the significance of being human, but also of that which we call existence."(7) It is difficult to see how this vision could ever be staged, for it is no longer the artist's individual body that is put to art, but the body of humanity as a whole. The exemplarity of the prosthetic works is theoretically extended into a Gesamtkuntswerk involving the entire human body.

This body of work and these speculations on the limited future of the human body seem at first sight to be very far from the aesthetic judgments of taste analyzed in the third Critique. Yet when we return to Kant and read the Critique in the light of Stelarc we can discover several new dimensions to the text. If we take the trouble to read the whole text and not just its first half, the themes that unite its separate parts are precisely those of technics, life, and organization. In this respect the text suddenly seems closer to the concerns of contemporary artistic practice than may have immediately seemed to be the case. Indeed, many of the aporias of that text arise from Kant's anticipation of a radical logic of prosthesis and his eventual rejection of it as "chimerical." Not only does the discussion of the concept of "life" in part 2 of the text, under the title "Teleological Judgment," directly address the issue of prosthesis, but it also directs the concept of life back to the experience of aesthetic pleasure, which is prominent in part 1.

Once the deceptive security of the logical forms of judgment is abandoned when reading the first part of the Critique of Judgment, the question of Kant's theory of aesthetic pleasure becomes extremely difficult to place. In general terms, pleasure is always tied with its "negative quantity," displeasure, with both in their turn being related to the feeling of the furtherance and restriction of life.(8) In the Critique, the experience of the "finality without end" of the beautiful "is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life," while that of the sublime is "brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces" (sec. 23). The difficulty in determining the link between experience and life is already evident in the second paragraph of the book (part 1, sec. 1), which distinguishes between the cognitive experience of a "regular and appropriate building" and the experience of taking pleasure in the contemplation of its architecture. Since the burden of the distinction is clear, and since it would be depressing to have to stop and struggle with the text so near the beginning, most readers hurry on to the second section, ignoring the difficulties of the passage that describes the experience of pleasure in the following terms:

The representation is tied wholly to the subject, indeed to its feeling of life - under the name of the feeling of pleasure and displeasure - which founds a quite particular capacity for distinguishing and estimating which contributes nothing to knowledge, but which compares the given representation in the subject with the whole capacity for representation which the mind (Gemut) in feeling its condition, becomes conscious (sec. 1).

What is strange about this passage is not only its series of identifications, such as the feeling of life with that of pleasure and displeasure, or the genealogy of a noncognitive capacity of estimative judgment, but also the cryptic allusion to the mind's capacity for representation becoming conscious of "feeling its condition." The question arises as to what it means to "feel a condition" and how this relates to the "feeling of life."

Kant does not directly address an answer to this question, allowing some readers (including myself in Art of Judgement) to relate the affective "capacity of representation" to the question of representation as a whole. The latter is described aporetically by Kant in the following terms: "How does it come about that to that which is but a product of our self-isolated mind (Gemut) there correspond objects and that these objects are subject to those laws which we prescribe to them." However, it might be more appropriate to read this passage in the light of another passage from later in the Critique (sec. 29), which discusses the same themes of life and the consciousness of the condition of existence. Here, in a reflection on Epicurus, Kant wrote:

Life without a feeling of bodily organs would be merely a consciousness of existence, without any feeling of pleasure or its opposite, i.e. the furthering or checking of the vital forces. For, of itself alone, the mind (Gemut) is all life (the life principle itself), and hindrance or furtherance has to be sought outside it, and yet in the human itself, consequently in connection with the body.

Here, as in the passage from section 1, pleasure is seen to follow from an augmentation of the vital force, or life, that is to say, from the mind (Gemut) feeling its own condition. But the experience of pleasure or displeasure is described more extensively as both outside the mind (Gemut) and yet inside the "human itself," standing in some kind of unspecified connection with the body. The ambiguous site of this experience, both internal and external to mind and body, is perfectly described by the kind of technological prosthesis explored by Stelarc. Life, defined by Kant as the organization of matter, can thus be defined prosthetically as the technical organization of matter, one whose source is both within and without the body.

In the second part of the Critique, which is dedicated to the teleological judgment, Kant explores at length the concept of life as the organization of matter. Although he will eventually recoil from a radical logic of prosthesis, largely because of the historical limitations to his concept of technology, he nevertheless pushes the concept to its chimerical limit of a "formative power," which anticipates Stelarc's technological reorganization of the body. With the concept of life as a formative power, Kant tries to account for the existence of organized matter or life itself. The organization of matter has to be "both cause and effect of itself" (sec. 64); living or organized matter "is not a mere machine, for that has merely motive power, but possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them" (sec. 65). Kant is perplexed about the source of this organization; it cannot have arisen by chance nor can it be said to be the product of an external, "supersensible" agency. When he describes the work of the formative power he clearly points to a prosthetic negotiation between the inside and the outside of an organism, but one that Kant at once denies to art and technology. Organization consists in the organism's "separation and recombination" of matter, a process whose complexity is "beyond the reach of art" (sec. 64), while remaining only comprehensible as a product of art.

In section 65 Kant reflects on the "inscrutable property" of the formative power through its analogies to art and to life. He rejects the former analogy as supposing an "artificer" external to organized matter who gives it form, recognizing that the formative power is self-organizing. He considers the second analogy more extensively, but also finds it problematic: to account for the organization of matter it is necessary either to give it an intrinsic property of organization (hylozoism) or to locate the source of organization outside of matter in a "soul," thus returning to the notion of an artist outside of nature. Neither analogy is satisfactory, and Kant concludes that "the organization of nature has indeed nothing in it analogous to any causality we know" (sec. 65). This unsatisfactory conclusion is largely the outcome of a restricted conception of technology and its prosthetic potential, one that Kant was trying unsuccessfully to supersede at the level of theory. Technology for him is still considered externally, as something that has motive but not formative power. Artificial tools and machines are not self-organizing, but can only be organized; they cannot produce, but can only be produced. In this view, technology is a supplement to nature and not its formative principle.

Yet even at the moment of abandoning the analogies of art and life as chimerical fancies, Kant entertains another analogy for the formative power, that of the auto-constitution of a people into a state. In this process the people give themselves an organization, a structure of institutions of which they are in a sense both producers and product. It is the institutions or the laws that are both inside and outside the people, and that serve as a technology for the reproduction of the state.(9) Kant retreats even from this analogy and resorts to an extremely limited conception of the technic of nature as a regulative idea, one that is inseparable from the postulate of a supersensible artist of nature who is responsible for its organization. However, this not only leaves the source of organization or life inscrutable, but also renders unknowable the source of pleasure that arises from the feeling of the condition of the mind (Gemut) ambiguously placed within and without the organism. When faced with the choice of "the chimeras of unthinkable natural faculties" and a visionary "teleological mode of explanation" (sec. 78), Kant ultimately rejects the chimera for the supersensible.

Faced with the chimerical work of Stelarc, perhaps it is time to reconsider the "unthinkable natural faculties" and rediscover them as all too thinkable technological faculties. The organization of the body in Kant's Critique is already considered in terms of prosthesis or source of organization that is both inside and outside the body. The uncanny source of organization was invisible to Kant because of his historically limited conception of technology; while considering the concept of the technic of judgment as a source of organization, he was not able to align this with existing technology. The technic of nature thus remained a subjective, regulative idea for interpreting appearances. As a result Kant considered the choice remaining to him as one between a totally immanent conception of organization (the analogy of life) or one that was totally exterior (the analogy of art). Nevertheless his work contains intimations of another understanding of the body and technology in terms of technics, but one that was for him literally unthinkable. This inscrutability had ramifications throughout his aesthetics, most obviously in the difficult and circular discussions of the source of pleasure in the beautiful. This arose from the feeling of life, from the body being both within and outside of nature, but this prosthetic location could only be understood by Kant in terms of a schizophrenic bifurcation of the human into an object of natural necessity and the subject of a transcendent freedom.

While Kant could entertain the fantasy of chimeras, he could not foresee that they would one day exist as objects of experience. Stelarc's work underlines and extends the prosthetic character of the human body, throwing into question the philosophical distinctions in which it has traditionally been thought. By emphasizing the view of the body as technologically organized matter, Stelarc performs an alignment of matter and form that would avoid any metaphysical opposition. In some ways the logic of his work can be seen to have been anticipated by Kant's text, even if Kant was eventually unable to sustain the thought of the technological chimera.

To the extent that Stelarc's practice both releases elements of Kant's text that were previously unrecognizable and marks its limits, so too does this theoretical text anticipate the limits of Stelarc's practice. This is evident above all in the religious pathos of Stelarc's performances and reflections, something that Kant recognized as accompanying the uncanny thought of a technic of nature. Even when the technic of nature is revealed as the technological organization of the body, it still retains an intimation of the absolute. This is evident both in the liturgical character of Stelarc's performances and in his view that technology will overcome evolution, and ultimately even the physical death of the body.

With the inauguration of these new absolutes, the chimera ceases to be chimerical; it surrenders its uncanny place between the human and technology and instead becomes a new supersensible. The retrieval of the absolute or "machine-in-itself" follows the two trajectories of prosthesis identified in Stelarc's work: in the one case technology becomes an external source of organization to whose prostheses the human is subjected, while in the other it becomes an immanent technological "formative activity" of which the human is but the educt. Kant's performance in the Critique of Judgment touched the limits of these and other options, and so while it is changed by the encounter with Stelarc's work, it still retains the potential to question and to subject it to critique.

1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (1790; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973). Citations in the text are from this edition.
2. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (1796; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
 3. See Rachel Armstrong, Totally Wired: Science, Technology and the Human Form (London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996), 24-27.
4. A software system for the actuation of remote bodies, STIMBOD controls the relationship between body and prosthesis.
5. A philosophical reflection on the logics of prosthesis has been undertaken by Bernard Stiegler in La technique et le temps, 2 vols. (Paris: Galilee, 1994-96), and developed by the writers associated with the journal Tekhnema: Journal of Philosophy and Technology (Paris, 1994-).
6. Stelarc, interview in L'Autre Journal 27 (September 1992): 29.
7. Ibid.
8. For a more detailed textual discussion, see my Art of Judgement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 314-20.
9. This thought had been anticipated by Rousseau in the paradox of the legislator described in the Social Contract of 1762.

Caygill, Howard. "Stelarc and the Chimera: Kant's critique of prosthetic judgment.(Aesthetics and the Body Politic)." Art Journal. 1997. 

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