This collection of thought-provoking essays is an example of the periodical-as-book: it also acts as a double issue of the interdisciplinary journal Body & Society, which is co-edited by Mike Featherstone, a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. Most of the 16 contributors are British, American or Australian sociologists teaching in higher education. In addition, there is a paper by the Australian artist Stelarc and two interviews: one with Stelarc and the other with Orlan, a French performance artist. There are a few rather grey illustrations.
The book is not an easy read, but this is a subject everyone can relate to - we all alter our bodies and appearance, if only through the clothes we wear and the grooming and exercise we perform. Our bodies are a source of both pleasure and anxiety because they are so closely linked to our sense of self.
Contributors discuss body building and piercing, plastic surgery, prosthetics, self-mutilation and tattooing. One contributor, Margrit Shildrick, also reflects on those cases in which the natural body is modified to normalise it; for example, the “monstrous corporality” of conjoined twins. But while genetic engineering, which is likely to result in the most significant transformation of the human body, is touched on, it is not fully addressed.
Thinkers whose theories are drawn on to illuminate body modification practices include: Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu, Freud, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Paul Virilio. A recurring question is whether the increasing popularity of body modification is an example of modern primitivism - a return to traditional tribal ways of inscribing identity - or an example of cosmetic and decorative alterations signifying temporary or transferable loyalties.
Reading these essays makes one hyperconscious of one’s own body - into which of the categories postulated by the writers does it fall? the metastatic body, the terminal body, the posthuman body, the postmodern techno-body or the technoscientific body? The essays are peppered with such jargon.
Readers interested in the visual arts will be fascinated by the material on Stelarc and Orlan. Stelarc is a performance artist and cyborg philosopher who has explored his body’s relationship to technology for decades by means of biocompatible inventions and multimedia events and by allowing others to control it via the internet. He believes that the human body is obsolete and that we have to redesign ourselves to merge with technology to defeat death and undertake long-distance space travel. Stelarc’s performances breach the limits of the body and subvert the concept of individuality.
Orlan, in contrast, uses technology but is not overly impressed by it. She is famous for employing the widespread custom of cosmetic surgery to achieve dramatic modifications of her body. For example, she has had two “demon bumps” implanted in her forehead. Orlan’s work opposes the beauty and fashion industries, which encourage people to alter themselves to conform to dominant stereotypes.
Aesthetic issues also arise in Lee Monaghan’s ethnographic study of male body building - an art, sport and subculture - in Wales. Practitioners “sculpt” their bodies via exercise and steroids but, as Monaghan points out, there are several ideal body types to which they aspire. Furthermore, the standard of beauty insiders may respect in gyms and competitions often differs from that of outsiders, particularly women, who think men with excessive musculature look like “freaks”.
The grotesque things some humans do to “improve” their bodies in the name of art or vanity staggers the imagination. However interesting the speculations of academics and science - fiction writers regarding the future of the body, the work of the artists is more noteworthy because they are willing to test ideas, to experiment on their own bodies, in full public gaze. Orlan’s surgical operations, for example, were videoed and images relayed to art galleries via satellites.
For centuries, humans have been contributing to the evolutionary process.
Regarding the choice we face in respect of melding our bodies and minds with technology, Stelarc has remarked: “Perhaps what it means to be human is about not retaining our humanity.” The future prospects for the human body are both exhilarating and terrifying.
John A. Walker is a freelance art critic and historian.
Editor - Mike Featherstone
ISBN - 0 761 96795 8 and 96796 6
Publisher - Sage
Price - £55.00 and £18.99
Pages - 352