the Virtual and the Body
The Jacquard loom is arguably the ancestor of the modern computer, which functions on the same basic principles of binary (zero or one, hole or no hole) and backing (memory). From this proposition, I now wish to begin connecting the tactile and the “virtual” realm of the Internet. How virtual is this realm really? Digital excesses provide locations where the physical body is implicated in online experience. “Virtual reality (V.R.), cyberspace, and all aspects of digital machines are still said to promise […] a realm of the mind – seemingly abstract, cool, clean, and bloodless, idealistic, pure, perhaps part of the spirit, that can leave behind the messy, troublesome body and the ruined material world.”
Despite spending more and more of our time in front of a screen, navigating the Internet, we still make distinctions between that experience and real life. Walking around, meeting people face to face, making physical art objects, we distinguish from clicking links, chatting online, and designing artworks on-screen. But are these activities not embodied? When scrolling through blogs, sitting back to stream a movie, ordering items online, or masturbating to porn, we are using our bodies and moving objects around the world. We are using our muscles in new ways, specific to the new types of media that we are required to use and enjoy using. Time spent on computers or smartphones takes its toll on our bodies with aches, pains, carpal tunnel or saucy titillation. Put differently,
“[computational] processes do not directly come into contact with the human senses (we cannot always see, hear, touch, taste, or indeed smell an algorithmic procedure) and there is consequently a deficit in our cognitive and conceptual grasping of software objects and processes, as such. Yet despite the abstract nature of mathematical media, these processes are completely real and demand attention.”
Some contemporary thinkers have analyzed how discourse has disembodied the digital experience. In the wonderfully titled The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture, editors Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson examine the slippages between digital and physical through the former’s more distasteful products. On a similar mission, Hito Steyerl asserts that “[d]ata, sounds and images are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter. They surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially. They incarnate as riots or products, as lens flares, high-rises or pixelated tanks. Images become unplugged and unhinged and start crowding off-screen space.”
This is an interesting new turn away from Anni Albers’ concern that “we are apt today to overcharge our gray matter with words and pictures, that is with material already transposed into a certain key, preformulated material.” To Albers, thinking only in terms of the mind, words and pictures could lead to forgetting our sensual, material impulses. This seems to be what’s happened to online experience as well. The digital has always been physical, and it is the tendency to deny this, to create a dichotomy between body and mind, that creates a lack in our understanding of digital culture.
What starts out online can have enormous material impact on our lives and the structures of power in our societies. “All new media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, have an extraordinary ability to rewire the people who are using them and the cultures in which they circulate.” Expanding on this well-known theory in a more contemporary context, media scholar Finn Brunton says:
“technologies are never merely passive vessels for holding ideas and ideologies but active things in the world that open new possibilities and capacities. They change the communities that created them and those that take them up. […] More important, however, is that the values embedded in the technology, intentionally or unintentionally, become dominant. Those values reflect an arrangement of power, control, and prestige that the design constituency would like to see in the world, whether centralized and privatized, open and egalitarian, or otherwise.”
Creating a theoretical disconnect between our bodies and what we do online is part of a larger problem in Western thought, one which actually takes us back to weaving:
“The zeros and ones of machine code seem to offer themselves as perfect symbols of the orders of Western reality, the ancient logical codes which make the difference between on and off, right and left, light and dark, form and matter, mind and body, white and black, good and evil, right and wrong, life and death, something and nothing, this and that, here and there, inside and outside, active and passive, true and false, yes and no, sanity and madness, health and sickness, West and East, North and South. And they make a lovely couple when it came to sex. Man and woman, male and female, masculine and feminine: one and zero looked just right, made for each other: 1, the definite, upright line; and 0, the diagram of nothing at all: penis and vagina, thing and hole… […] It takes two to make a binary, but all these pairs are two of a kind, and the kind is always a kind of one.”
The “overwhelming, bedazzling” spread of computer-usage and the Internet, though it shook up so much so fast, also served to reinforce imperialist, class-based, and gendered hierarchies of control. Yet the Internet is such an unstable platform that it offers unprecedented means to subvert these structures. “There is always a point at which technologies geared towards regulation, containment, command, and control, can turn out to be feeding into the collapse of everything they once supported.” Email experienced such a turning point the moment the first spam message was sent out on ARPAnet in 1978. Rigidly controlled newsletter chains were hijacked for a commercial purpose, destabilizing the contained system of trust that was the first Internet.
To Plant, such a turning point is achieved through a connection at the fingertips to “all the zeros and ones of machine code, the switches of electric circuitry, fluctuating waves of neurochemical activity, hormonal energy, thoughts, desires…” The body’s urges become intertwined with keystrokes, networks, and eventually wind up as data. Dougal Phillips posits that, as online sharing platforms (and, I would add, social media platforms in general), “develop their own logic of energy and social exchange, we glimpse the very powerful economy of ‘libidinal’ energy.” Humans crave tactile experience, and though we might try “to escape from ‘the meat’” into Cyberspace, our Internet use all too often comes back to the embarrassing or distasteful, albeit primary, demands of the body.
In her foreword to The Spam Book, Sadie Plant sums up this argument and leads us neatly into the next section:
“On and off the Internet, certain ways of dealing with information and doing business tend to attract certain kinds of service and commodity. And all the temptations of money and porn that fill the inboxes of the world, the promises of better financial or sexual performance, penises, partners, or porn, are reminders that digital networks do not stand alone, but are always intimately implicated with their users and all the plays of power and desire in which they are involved.”
12. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 180.
13. Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson, “Introduction,” in The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture (Cresskill: Hampton Press, Inc. 2009), 17.
14. Hito Steyerl, Too Much World: the Films of Hito Steyerl, (New York: Sternberg Press, 2014), 30.
15. Albers, On Weaving, 62.
16. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 144.
17. Finn Brunton, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013), xvii.
18. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 34-35.
19. Steyerl, Too Much World, 30.
20. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 143.
21. Ibid., 144.
22. Dougal Phillips, “Can Desire Go On Without a Body? Pornographic Exchange as Orbital Anomaly,” in The Spam Book, 196.
23. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 180.
24. Sadie Plant, “Foreword,” in The Spam Book, viii.
Spam message shared with me by a friend
The same message, coded as a weave structure
The same message, coded as a weave structure