Wednesday, February 13, 2008

How pop culture can consume the disabled body in motion: a montage


This paper is fascinated by the play with the caught body. The living body in the frame of the lens, the gaze and the screen opens up a core issue of performance and representational media: the relationship between the visual and the tactile, the surface and the visceral, and the visual tactility/tactile visuality discussed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968). The caught body stands in an interesting relationship to ‘touch’, to a touching both in its sensual and its metaphorical sense. This paper will trace these issues in contemporary representations in popular visual culture. At the heart of these issues of representation and touching is the quest for new forms of political engagement across the boundaries of difference.
In this paper, the difference under discussion is disability and its placement in the popular imagination. I want to argue that the sensationalised ‘addenda’ of disabled people – such as high tech prostheses – can be seen to have a dual function in a range of contemporary visual work. They act both as markers of difference, but also as seductive invitations into a different form of embodiment. This dance of duality has long been played out in the much publicised accounts of amputee fetishism – a subculture emerging around the sensualised and sexualised absence/presence of a limb. In these pages, I want to show how the aesthetics of presentation engender an ambivalence towards the ‘addenda’ of disabled people.
The frame for this understanding of the ambivalence of disabled people’s ‘difference’ rests in the audience address of visual work, and its ability to connote and cite physical reaction and kinaesthetic experience.
Disabled Cyborgs
In the history of the popular imagination, which spans such works as Metropolis and Bladerunner, from Frankenstein to William Gibson’s novels, the cyborg is the other - it is one of the metaphors of otherness that we are employing in our cultural legends. This otherness is always hysterically policed: it is always just enough self to threaten the imaginary unity of self, or the imagined community. The cyborg is a person with addenda - something strange, foreign, other is added to the basic ingredients which denote ‘human’.
Some historical origins of the popular cyborg discourse lie in the Greek creature Pandora, a being on the limit between created machine of the Gods and human woman, or in Frankenstein’s monster, with his liminal place between life and death.
In contemporary culture, the cyborg has a greater presence than ever, and new forms of boundaries and breakages emerge from its diffuse forms. One form of cyborg, of metaphorised physical difference, can be found in the popular images of some disabled people. The contemporary cyborgs here include Christopher Reeves, who went from fictional ‘enhanced being’ to a star persona in a high tech wheelchair, and the number of bionically enhanced people who parade on television channels, and who demonstrate how they can stand again due to implants and electronic impulses. Both Reeves and the men and women hoping for small wonders are part of a disability discourse of tragedy and medical redemption. But not all disability cyborg discourses focus on the potentiality of extension, and the medical wonders of cyborgism. Some other discourses show a fascination with the sensual experience of ‘being-added-to’, of extending beyond the ‘human’.

The discourses surrounding some representations of disability allow us to see changing attitudes to extended bodies. In particular, some of these discourses which find expression in popular visual material seem to focus on lived experience and the corporealisation of the cyborg. This paper therefore wants to offer the thesis that contemporary culture seems to become fascinated with structures of feeling for non-traditional embodiments, and that contemporary visual technology allows us to indulge that fascination.
One example of this fascination with non-traditional embodiment, is Aimee Mullins, a disabled fashion model. She embodies both the fascination of the ‘other’ – the exotic, strange and different, and at the same time, her representations seem for me to hover on the edge of inviting me into her living experience. She does not remain ‘other’, but comes closer. In the following textual analyses of a photo and a TV commercial, I am stressing the ruptures and tensions between the image of Mullins, and the phenomenologically accessible performance of that image.
The essay concludes as follows. To read the full text, click on the title.
In the visual works discussed in these pages, I traced the engagement of the physical and kinesthetical in interaction with semiotic layers. Merleau-Ponty's words point the way to an understanding of visual engagement as a political, ethical act - what is seen and the seer are part of a life world, of an extended physical reality beyond the boundaries of an individual body. The images discussed here can be seen in this light - referencing sharing through the connotations of embodied experience. Through opening up these registers of continuity, the works can also be seen to play on the boundaries of the flesh/artifice/cyborg, both in their audience address as artefacts echoing physical experience, and as depictions of human 'addendas' which become part of different forms of embodiment.
In the contemporary representational field, the political ambivalences of semiotic registers do not vanish, but take on an additional charge as bodied experience seems to become the target of ever more involved technical extensions of perception and visuality. The search for new forms of visual excitement and stimulation leads to interesting avenues for physicality and difference. Hopefully, exciting bodies can emerge out of popular culture's desire for new forms of embodiment.

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