Boyan Manchev

The Disfigured Body and the Fetish of the Inorganic

The Disfigured Body and the Fetish of the Inorganic
title: The Disfigured Body and the Fetish of the Inorganic
year: 2006
editor(s): Alexander Kiossev
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Boyan Manchev
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

Notes by a contemporary flâneur from Sofia1


The inorganic is a rupture in the decaying tissue of the mortal. It does not decompose, it is resistant. It is infinite. The inorganic is the new transcendence of modernity. The inorganic – the artificial, the plastic, the synthetic object, virtual reality, cosmetics, plastic surgery, digital cameras, electronic music, biotechnologies, cloning, the images of advertising, of the poster and the billboard, the face and body on the screen, they all possess a new aura that replaces the aura of the past, which is sublated, the divine sacred is ousted. The new sacredness isn't transcendent, it is immanent, it is here and now. Or, more precisely, it is trans-immanent, it is the transcendent in the immanent. This contemporary trans-immanence constructs its ethereal, sacred body, the body of the trans-immanent presence – in other words, it is a presence offering models as the authentic, as a body of the truth here-and-now. This ideal body is the inorganic fetish.

Think of the images from the screens, from magazines and billboards: they encircle their sacred transcendence above the profane, the obscene, the ugly, the dirty, the rejected body – above the organics of the city. Like Manet's “idol” Olympia (“Olympia is a scandal, and idol”, Paul Valéry writes), they are indifferent, entirely absorbed by their synthetic flesh: here are the Sisley girls absorbed by one another, by the bloody synthetic flesh of their lips, here are the sado-masochistic females of Xtasy Vodka, caught in the ecstatic moment of their voyeuristic- exhibitionist pleasure, here is the impersonal flesh in the advertisement of Flirt Vodka. In fact, those appealing advertising bodies aren't appealing for or against anything; their link with any object of reference is radically broken. But their power – a sacred power – lies precisely in this radical break which is apparently supposed to signify their sacredness, their transcendence in the immanent. They are radically separated from the mortal bodies below them, from the dust and petrol vapors, from the exhausted, withered bodies, from the commodified bodies, unsatisfied bodies, bodies in need, bodies in pain, desperate bodies, sweltering bodies, human bodies and inhuman bodies, bodies of insufficient air, of claustrophobia, of inertia, of shivering activity, of indifference, of care, of sloth, of apathy, of passion, of joy, of life and death. In the sacred space of the billboard there is no room for bodies striving for senseless and fascinated imitation of the fetish beyond reach, bound by its uni-forms. The inorganic fetish is indifferent to the profane crowds milling down below.

Indifferent and separated, yet also a model, the inorganic fetish imposes a norm, it fascinates; the norm is followed blindly as in a trance: the bodies go out of themselves in order to surrender to the sacredness which will guarantee them in their terrifying and base finitude, which will give them the form of immortality here and now. But this norm is restrictive, repressive in its action. Therefore, the fetish is scandalous not only because of its transgressiveness but much more because of its normativity, its cruel and inevitable uniformity which offers and imposes. Abandoned to the endless and endearing hell of cosmetics and the maddening ecstatic of diets and bodybuilding – fixations reinforcing the sublimate aura of the fetish – these bodies scrape off themselves the saw-dust, the imperfections of organics, the flesh of the living.

* * *

Why do we talk about an inorganic fetish? Is this not an invasion of the body, an ecstatic “fleshening” of the world after an age-long subordination to the logos, to Spirit, to language, to ideas?

Nowadays we all are, at least to some extent, tired of the neo-liberal rhetoric about the globalization of the world, about the fluidity of commodities, symbols, capitals and values – a rhetoric which creates the sense that we are living in a technically universalized, global world. At the same time, we can see that this world is becoming more and more fragmentary, disintegrating into small pieces that are less and less compatible with one another, and it is quite obvious that not only do different codes and languages operate in them, but even, I would say, different rudiments of languages, rudiments of cultural codes, which often combine to form monstrous amalgams. From this perspective, it seems that the only common denominator left – a global common denominator – is the body and, first and foremost, the human body. It seems that the body is intuitively assumed to be or proposed as a possible, accessible and common cultural denominator in a presumably glob-
alised world.

In this way, the body also becomes a global commodity. But is the image that has been incorporated into the excessive symbolic exchange of capital, a body? Indeed, today's technological capitalism is creating and selling a particular idea and image of a body: the image of the inorganic body, a body which is increasingly breaking away from organics and is increasingly related to some kind of “prostheses” – be they medical, cosmetic, technological, social, or “prostheses” for everyday use. It is as if body is becoming a number of practices for reducing organics, for producing an inorganic body. One may say that these images of the inorganic body, the bodiless aura of the inorganic, are becoming the main commodity of the new “fluid” capitalism of today (sometimes I also call it “perverted” capitalism). Indeed, commodity isn't the best term: these images are the magic bodiless presence through which the matter-“commodity” appears as a form of life. In the city of Sofia we are surrounded by the images of these synthetic bodies: here are the enormous billboards, which are everywhere, filling the air of the city and transforming its living environment in a giant screen, a screen that emits their sacred aura.

Ultimately, the inorganic fetish isn't an image of a body: it is precisely a fetish, a sacred
presence that doesn't signify an absence. It is a self-sufficient availability, an epiphany
of itself.

* * *

Recently, Patrick Le Lay, the director of the French TV channel TF 1, stated that “Our programmes aim at making the brain more accessible (...) What we sell to Coca Cola is the time when the human brain is accessible.”2 Later, in the context of the last public debate organised by the Visual Seminar in November 2004, the media theorist Georgi Lozanov compared the visual environment of the city with a media, with a television in some sense. Regardless of whether I agree or not, I cannot but admit that both statements are insightful with regard to the radical and in a sense substantial transformation of the public space that we are witnessing. It seems to me that their insight is especially poignant if we project them onto each other and as a result we get the statement “The urban space nowadays is turning into (or tends to turn into) a space that ensures a (total?) accessibility to the “conscience” of its inhabitants”. I would not want this statement to produce cheap propaganda against the aggression of contemporary “technological” capitalism, although a resistance against its proteic forms is more and more necessary. I would rather use it as a point of departure for a critical analysis with which I would try to shed some light on the above radical transformation, which concerns the very structure of the public space and therefore the space of the city; let me describe it as the turning of the public space in a new media space, in a giant media screen.

The new media space provides (or masks) the public space as availability, as availablity that could be appropriated or absorbed, in other words as a private space – a space which is subjected to the control of the privilieged private access. From this perspective the new media space apparently materialises and localises the global public space and reproduces the network of the potential links that construct it. In actual fact its “virtual” space undoubtedly modifies the structure of public space as one of its important elements which at the same time offers an essentially transformed version of public space as a whole. Firstly, the new media space makes the universal network of public space superficial, reducing it to an accessible, neutral, efficient and reactive surface. From the perspective of the philosopher Mario Perniola's concept of the sex appeal of the inorganic3, which fits in with Benjamin's line of discussion and at the same time offers a vantage point for considering contemporary situation as a situation of an essential transformation of the cultural-anthropological dimensions of the western socium and subject, the superficial active model of public space, named the new media space, could be described as a super-eroticised surface offering pure access to the neutral sexuality of the inorganic. According to Perniola, the neutral inorganic sexuality functions as a privileged name for the transformed situation of social existence today. The peculiar formula “neutral sexuality” is an intensive designation of the cultural space in which the dispositions of the subject and the object in their classical dimensions are suspended, and in which an infinite exchange and functional efficiency of impersonal agents takes place, which, unlike the deterministic and finite framework of the organic, is endlessly reversible and in this sense it is essentially non-
hierarchised, superficial.

One of the characteristic features of the new media space is the immediate access to the target, the distance is reduced as much as possible, reduced to a point-instant, between the initial impulse and the final effect. It could be said that the constitutive horizon of the new media space is the absolute accessibility. It is a surface of the infinite spreading of efficiency. Accesisbility takes the place of contact (as though replacing also its always obstructed tactileness). Virtuality is a total and neutral sensitive thing (neutral in an ontological sense) – and it is in this sense the thing of fetishism (and not an essence, object, structure: categories which are ontologically loaded). As it has been pointed out, the new media space is a super-eroticised surface, a designation pointing to its super-reactivity and efficiency: touching this surface brings about an instant effect, a non-explosive, “non-classical” but a sinusoidal orgasm. The neutral and inorganic space of pure sexuality means achieving maximum effect after a minimal contact confirming Benjamin's argument that “in comparison to the inorganic, the potential of the organic as an instrument, is very limited”.

* * *

The billboard is a media screen that irradiates us. The highway type of billboards that has invaded the urban space of Sofia is not only a monstrous contamination. It is also an embryo – or rather, a symptom – of the giant screen of superflat architecture. Apparently, the biggest screen in the world – Viva Vision, longer than five football pitches, appeared on Fremont Street in Las Vegas on 15 June 2004. But is Las Vegas a city at all? It seems to me that a more appropriate example would be the Qfront project, part of which is the largest open air screen in Japan. The project is carried out in 1999 in Tokyo, one of the world's most “mediatized” cities. Qfront is located at the exit of the Shibuya station, an intersection of five major railway and metro lines, and where 500,000 people and 90,000 cars pass by every day4. Qfront is in fact the home of the central Tsutaya shop that sells CDs, DVDs, video games, manga, books, etc. Designed as a “shopping centre disseminating information”, Qfront is simultaneously an interior and exterior media space symptomatic of what Igarashi Taro calls superflat urbanism. The enormous central screen called Q's eye (23.5m high and 19m wide) shows clips, commercials and messages to the unceasing flow of people underneath. Does it also count on consciousness free for access like the TV screen? And is it accidental that the screen is called eye? We do not watch the fetish. It watches us.

* * *

Perhaps it seems that when scrutinizing, in a sense succumbing to the fascination of the sacred fetishes of the inorganic in whose aura the city turns into a screen, we distance ourselves from and ignore – that we suppress – the ugly organics of the city, in order to reflect on the ruptures of inorganic sacredness in its tissue. But the paradox lies in that it is in this tissue that the “purest”, “full” accessibility opens up, it is precisely here that the flesh of the city concerns us in a tactile way, the fetishist aura is “materialised”, “ontologised” to the most extreme degree. In this sense this space, or rather, this transformation of the urban space should be conceived of not so much as a “deviation” with regard to the archetypal ideal model of the city, but as subordinate to the logic of the symptom. The deviation of the city space of Sofia allows the symptom to appear in a pure form: the transformation of the city space in a neutral new media space. The manifestation of the symptom allows reflecting on the complex structure of this transformation in whose basis lies the paradoxical double bind of the organic and the inorganic, of the sacred fetish and its organic “waste”, its radical otherness in which, simultaneously, it sprouts.

* * *

The organics of the city is contagious, tactile. Its new subjects – clearly outlined bodies of oppressors and bodies of victims, the newly produced during the period of the “transition” poverty and wealth (it was a transition to democracy as much as it was a transition to dishonesty) – have a markedly physical presence. The space of the city gasps for breath at the increasingly expanding business centres, luxury residential buildings and private houses, the jeeps which are unmanageable for a middle-sized European city and which are filled with criminal bodies of adequate size, and next to these, against these – Roma people in carts pulled by malnourished horses surfacing as though from a chthonic past that have flooded the city in recent years (and whose presence does not seem to bother anyone, it only offers visual entertainment for tourists and foreign TV crews that pass through the city of wisdom), malnourished old people who often, and as if by accident, poke in the dustbins – a sight whose affliction seems to fade in its terrifying repetition, just as the terror of violence and disembodied corpses fades away in the endless momentum of the media. This is also the city of the new media space, the screen-city.

Media space constantly produces the image of “primary” organics within itself. In post-communist space in particular the media drown us in hideous, shapeless images of dead bodies, of disembodied corpses. This undoubtedly compensatory parading is an attempt at representation not of the body itself, but of the excess of violence that decomposes the social tissue. It seeks to unleash the pressure of the insoluble sacrificial crisis which broke out at the constitutive moment of the new political order i.e. new mode of political representation5. The obscene, exposed body of the corpse is the other side of the inorganic body of the billboard, of the ideal bodies of cosmetics and bodybuilding.

What there is no room for between these two bodies, between the body of the inorganic fetish and the shapeless dehumanized body, what remains forbidden and impossible to be represented, an unthinkable and inconceivable body, is precisely the body, the body which is everywhere around us, the body of the presence and of the inexpressible difference, difference with the other, difference with the self, the body exposed to the exterior, to the gaze, to the light and the blows of the world, the living, breathing body, the body that experiences pain, pleasure, heat and cold... – it is the body for which there is no gaze and therefore no mercy.

* * *

The body of the fetish tends to be acephalic; its face is erased, the head – cut off (here is one of the advertisements of the Flirt Vodka, here are the lips without eyes of one of the Sisley girls, here are the sado-masochistic ladies in the advertisement of the Xtasy Vodka with masks on their faces; and on the other side – the pictures of disembodied corpses, also faceless. The exposure of flesh from no distance, without a gaze, is the fetish – a terrifying sacred presence without any difference within it. Being identical to oneself. The fetish is a super-determined representation – the opposite of what Deleuze calls “meat” in his book on Bacon, and which leaves the senses in the experience about everything that the fetish erases, which is exposed to the risk of the unimaginable, of the collapse of representation, silently caressing that for which no mercy will be found, for the unhealing wound of the flesh. The acephalic, faceless Christ of Bacon yells suffering as the immanence of the flesh; his suffering is a truth only without the hope for salvation and without the eternal resource-guarantee of the spirit, of eternal life.

* * *

The “body itself”, underneath, in forsaken immanence continues to be that whose representation is forbidden. If the body has always been – in the powerful grip of Platonic philosophy and Christianity – the waste of representation, now it is still that to which divine light does not extend. Fallen at the time of the fall of sin, it is the unsaved, decaying organics whose infinity is interrupted by the indecomposable synthetics. If in an anthropological perspective we have to search for the beginning of representation in the ritual of the burial, in other words in the concealment of the dead body, then obviously today too the sick, old, tormented and finite body, the body close to suffering and death, is forbidden for representation (the scandal with Rodin's work Celle qui fut la belle Heaulmière (The Old Courtesan) does not lie in the withered body of the old woman but in the sinister Pl‡tonic-Jesuit instructiveness, taken up by Rodin as a variation of a theme by the medieval scandal-maker François Villon exposing the old body only as the waste of the archetypal, healthy, beautiful body, the body that has no essence in itself). The image of the old body tormented by age on the billboard would no doubt cause a scandal incompatible with the one caused by the image of whores with whips in their hands. The latter concern a residual, unarticulated communal and personal morality that has lost substance; the former would concern the unrationalized and absolutely present synthetic religion of today, it would be a sacrilege against the sublime space of the sacredness of the idol.

* * *

Therefore, in a gesture of an ugly deformation of Freud, we should consider the fetish on the billboard as a sublimation of the collective unconscious, as a sublimate projection of frustrated and suppressed desires. However, this is the simpler explanation. In Freud and in psychoanalysis at large we find an outdated idea about nature as a resource, as a foundation, as a source: the libido, the organic in the depths of the subject. Shaking off any theological legacy, we can reflect on the natural with regard to the human being in its initial insufficiency.

Man is a biologically insufficient creature: a creature whose deficiency of adaptation to environment impels the development of its morphology, it articulates a hand, the hand takes hold of a stone, hits with a stone, drops the stone, i.e. it creates an instrument, i.e. man is separated from the immediate, i.e. a distance emerges, i.e. a prosthesis is created, i.e. a subject is taking place: the initial rupture, in which the being with which the inorganic enters the world appears. Homo sapiens is an essentially technical being. Tekhnè essentially complements physis: the anthropological is, essentially, techno-logical. The prosthesis is the non-substantial substance of man and the inorganic is nothing more than the contemporary mode of the prosthesis of the organic. It is the freezing in a transcendent mask of the inorganic organics of the human body woven out of the finitude of the natural and of the synthetic time of artificiality. The fetish is the fixed image of the spreading,
unimaginable body of the inorganic imagining organics as an endless exceeding of itself. It is only an evanescent sticker imagining a value in the speechlessness of its daily, ridiculous and vapid presence somewhere around us, and which is – still – stretched by the invisible, strained, tough, dirty hands of workers.

Actually, does anyone raise his or her head at all?

It seems to me that for the first time I saw images of billboards reproduced on the pages of a magazine.

1. In this text have been used parts of several publications and interviews, which are related to or have been inspired by the work of the Visual Seminar (the article titled in the same way in Literaturen vestnik, March 2004; “Proteus and the Prostheses” in Sociologicheski pregled, Winter, 2004; Roland Schenke, “Body Politics – Postkommunistische Ästhetik des Politischen. Ein interview mit dem bulgarischen Kulturtheoretiker Boyan Manchev”. Springerin, 1, 2004). I am freely using a concept that Walter Benjamin introduced in the period between the two World Wars in his famous essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” The term inorganic appears in the context of the discussion of fetishism, which had a central place in Benjaminian analysis of culture.
2. Announced by the France Press news agency (AFP) on 9 July 2004, commented on by Libération (10-11/07/04): “Patrick Le Lay: the Brainwasher” (“Patrick Le Lay, décerveleur”).
3. See Mario Perniola. Il Sex appeal dell'inorganico. Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1994.
4. All the data about Qfront, trans lat ed from the Japanese web-site of the project, I take from Marc Steinberg's arti cle “Building Perceptions: Media Architecture and the Hypersurface Experience”, Parachute 113, 2003.
5. See the section “Representing violence, violating representation” of my work “Der Totale Körper der Lust”, in Zurück aus der Zukunft. Osteuropäische Kulturen im Zeitaler des Postcommunismus. Ed. by Boris Groys, Anne von der Heiden and Peter Weibel, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005.

Published in Articles
Read 327 times
Last modified on Feb 10, 2021

Tagged under

Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme