THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE

John Calcutt

is an art.historian,critic and writer. He is Lecturer in Historical and Critical Studies at Glasgow School of Art.

On-line and off-centre, each of us a desiring machine, a disorderly system flowing through language and representation. A machine " functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. [...] Everywhere it is machines - .. machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. " 1 We plug in, and are plugged into. Mouths, breasts, eyes, penises, tongues, vaginas. Body and mind. The unimaginably complex network of electronic connections with its promise of infinity and omnipresence is a delirious, fantastical externalisation of our neural system, a digital parody of human consciousness, an unfinished map of our desires. Switch on and interface.

We have become mechanical. It is already a truism to talk about contact lenses and walkmans as prostheses that we have assimilated into our bodies. [...] The new virtual reality kits project tiny laser images directly into your retinas, a perfect 3D illusion. With the aid of a small, head-mounted camera, you can have the illusion of being exactly where you are. 2

A new economy of body and desire is with us. Body as terminal, body as screen, desire re-routed. If pushed to name the pulse coursing through Stephen Partridge's recent work, I would offer desire: desire in the viewer, desire in the viewed, desire in the system of representation.

Notoriously abstract, impossible to define or precisely locate, desire is the fuel of the unconscious, of language and of representation. Desire to know, desire to invade, desire to possess, desire to complete. Desire cannot tolerate incompleteness. It wants to commandeer that which is unattainable, to incorporate that which is other, to restore that which is lacking; and yet it is condemned to failure and thus to futile repetition . This thwarted movement of desire towards its object is similar to that incomplete movement from sign to meaning within language. In fact, according to Lacan's formulation, the unconscious is structured like a language. Language, the unconscious and desire: an inseparable trinity.

Take a sentence. Any sentence. This is a sentence, for example. Its ability to signify anything beyond its sheer material presence as black marks on a white ground involves a dynamic of both delays and projections. Obviously, the sentence projects forward in time; we have to follow its linear sequentiality from opening capital letter to closing full stop. But as the sentence progresses, so it is also engaged in acts of relay and recollection. The full resonance - the 'correct' meaning - of each individual word is dependent upon the ghostly traces it harbours of those which have preceded it. By the same token, this semantic process involves anticipation. "I went to the bar ..." The precise meaning of "bar" is suspended (an iron bar? a court room? a high jump bar? the hotel bar?), only to be revealed in retrospect.("to bend it", "to plead my case", "to jump it", "to have a drink"). "Bar" is heavy with an anticipation which is only articulated retrospectively by "drink". "Drink", on the other hand, is pregnant with the precipitation of "bar" - the chances are it will be alcoholic.

This temporal, sequential aspect of the sentence's component elements (sometimes called their syntagmatic relation) is crucial. (Try changing the word order of any sentence and see how easily it collapses into unintelligibility.) There is, however another movement which operates alongside the syntagmatic. The syntagmatic structure of a sentence provides, in fact, the framework for a host of possible paradigmatic selections and permutations within its individual units (e.g. subject/verb/object): "Jim likes running," "Anne hates running," Anne likes swimming," "Jim hates Anne," and so on. In fact, the network of implications opened up here is potentially infinite:

Certain forces of association unite...the words 'actually present' in a discourse with all the other words in the lexical system, whether or not they appear as 'words'. 3

Language's excessive, unruly proliferation is equally characteristic of desire, and both are marked by loss, by incompletion:

The disastrous separation of desire from its objects has already occured. Such is the price that human beings unwittingly pay for their admission to language [...]. A wish can be fulfilled; desire cannot: it is insatiable, and its objects are perpetually in flight. 4

Now Stephen Partridge's work isn't, of course, in the business of providing academic demonstrations of structural linguistics or psychoanalytic theory. Nevertheless, spend some time exploring the labyrinthine passages of This Is A Sentence (his interactive CD ROM, produced in collaboration with the artist/composer David Cunningham) and all of the above lie quietly in wait. The chase is on, each successive click opening a new field of possibilities; but there is no final destination. Not only do the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations of the written word slip out of control in this electronic maze, but seemingly endless sequences of unpredictable paradigmatic connections between the written and spoken word, visual imagery and music intensify the blind thrill of the desire-driven search. The effect is like that of the tumultuous cascade of delirious images released by the unconscious of the dreamer. Again the mouse is clicked. And again. The more desire urges us on, the more elusive its quarry becomes.

"Words and rocks", said Robert Smithson, "contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void." 5

My preceding account of language is now revealed as itself lacking. The underlying principle of language - and any other signifying system - is, in fact, radical difference and the "splits and ruptures" which this entails. The crucial aspect of the sign is not its inherent properties, but its capacity to differentiate itself at every level of its structure from all other signs. Language is thus an anti-architecture of spaces, gaps, distances, voids. Absence, not presence, is its fissured field.

It is a peculiarly modern(ist) idea that sight and language are utterly distinct. In fact, the linguistic inhabits the visual, just as imagery pervades the fabric of language. Furthermore, sight, in common with language, is driven by desire; sight, to take this further, is saturated with language and desire. The senses are not pure and innocent.Describing the child's difficult journey into adult sexual life, [Freud] would take as his model little scenarios, or the staging of events, which demonstrated the complexity of an essentially visual space, moments in which perception founders (the boy child refuses to believe the anatomical difference that he sees) or in which pleasure in looking tips over into the register of excess [...] Each time the stress falls on a problem of seeing. The sexuality lies less in the content of what is seen than in the subjectivity of the viewer, in the relationship between what is looked at and the developing sexual knowledge... The relationship between viewer and scene is always one of fracture, partial identification, pleasure and distrust. [...] [O]ur sexual identities as male or female, our confidence in language as true or false, and our security in the image we judge as perfect or flawed, are fantasies. 6

A great deal of Partridge's recent work deals with issues of sexuality and representation, but my aim here is not an extensive analysis of these pieces, rather to offer some general observations in their direction. My purpose is to suggest that they each, in their own way, deal with many of the issues outline above.

above intangible bodies - shemilt/partridge 1999

The centrality accorded by Freud to the role of "little scenarios, or the staging of events" in the development of sexuality has already been noted, and it is precisely such "scenarios" and "stagings" of sexuality which feature prominently in Intangible Bodies (a collaboration with artist and printmaker Elaine Shemilt). Slices of manicured nature (soft focus or finely detailed) and exquisitely lit interiors (grandiose or intimate - but always highly tasteful, highly "desirable") provide the fantasy-laden sets for Partridge's series of digitally manipulated photographic images. Within these time-locked scenarios the intricate sculptural forms of women's garments float shadowlessly, like the recently abandoned shells of some exotic species. The original source images were intended for a Japanese market, and the structures of desire and sexuality exposed by their "grammar" is revealing of the culture-specific aspects of fantasised sexuality. Ultimately, however, the series seems to be a morbid reflection upon absence, upon loss and, paradoxically perhaps, upon the very impossibility of the male's access to his sexualised fantasy object. The disappearance of the women's bodies - their removal from the field of sight - recalls the anxiety noted by Freud in relation to the boy's visual registering of sexual difference - the female's supposed "lack". The erotic impulse to see, to reveal, is matched by the horror of revealed nothingness and a consequent desire to conceal. Frequently the inability to deal satisfactorily with the perceived sexual difference of the female may divert the male's sexual drive into an attachment to an object - garments in these instances - which has a tangential (paradigmatic, perhaps) relation to the female body. Fragments, incompleteness and gaps are the mechanisms of desire here.

 

 

above intangible bodies - shemilt/partridge 1999

"Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes ? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no 'erogenous zones"...; it is intermittence...which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing...;it is this flash which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance." 7

But the body in pornography is reduced to a commodity, and the commodity conceals a void at its heart, an inability, as Frederic Jameson observed, to act as a conductor of psychic power. Gratification of the male's sexual desire is further hindered by the very medium Partridge uses:

Caressing the screen with the cursor, touching its nodes with the tip of its pointer, clicking its pixels into close-up, the mouse is a fleshless finger touching a glass boy without orifices. Leaving the wet chemistry of the darkroom as it forsakes the moist entrances of a permeable body, digital manipulation is dry. [...] The digital image, locked away in its paradise of numbers, has learnt to escape the life and death of images by remaining untouchable... The most valuable part of a silicon photograph is the glass, the severe and impenetrable barrier.... 8

It is in this context that Shemilt's delicate series of etchings become so effective. By offering a pictorial contradiction to Partridge's manipulated images (they dispense with "staging", they are monochromatic, the images have been impressed into an absorbent substrate, the process of image generation is additive rather than subtractive, they retain evidence of the artist's hand, etc.) they draw our attention to the inadequacy and sheer relativity of the male discourse on female sexuality.

below - sample of Intangible bodies - Etching by Elaine Shemilt on the left and digital print on right



In the video installation Chimera Partridge and Shemilt offer yet another deconstruction of male desire as it manifests itself in the representation of the female. The structure of the installation, in terms of both its individual elements and their relation to each other, might be thought of as embodying a linguistic model of the kind considered earlier. Each of the projected images, for example, extends syntagmatically through time, and their refusal of narrative resolution parallels the infinite deferral of meaning in language. Certain of the images - waves on the pebbly beach, say - could almost seem to suggest the repetitive, frustrated surge of desire through language and vision. Alongside the mechanisms of anticipation, recollection and repetition which these anti-narrative elements employ, there are further dimensions of recollection and repetition at play: many of the images are themselves a "reworking" of Shemilt's earlier work. (A similar retrospective element occurs in the CD ROM This Is A Sentence.) Equally, the relation of these constituent elements to each other - to the overall ensemble of the work - could be thought of as paradigmatic (they present themselves simultaneously, rather than sequentially, as options). The principles of montage and juxtaposition which inform the installation (images abutting on a physically split screen; the relations between the various images on the different screens) might also be read figuratively as symptomatic of the cuts and gaps through which language and desire erupt. "Pleasure," claimed Roland Barthes, "is always achieved by cutting. What pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss." 9 Uniting this economy of discontinuities is a continuous voice-over, a screen of language through which all the visual projections are filtered. Whispered and withdrawn, the female voice utters fragments (again, fragments) from a range of disparate discourses - sociological, poetic, philosophical, psychoanalytic, medical - but one phrase repeats: "The body of a woman is colonised, appropriated, mystified, defined by male fantasy." Chimera, however, works to undercut the ambitions of this fantasy. If the female body was absented, cancelled in Intangible Bodies - returned to the digital ether of cyberspace - here it is everywhere, before and around us - and yet by its polymorphous presence (pregnant, naked, clothed, symbolised, speaking) it remains largely elusive, refusing to be an "it", a singular vessel onto/into which the male can project his possessive desires. This refusal operates not only on the level of the ensemble, but also within some of the individual images, especially those which are hard to decode, difficult to "read". Once recognised, however,the fetishistic aspect of these images kicks in as they magnetise sexual desire in the same gesture which displaces and deflects it.

We are desiring machines whose every gesture is wired-in to those integrated circuits of language, vision and desire. Thus a smile is both a statement in body language and a remote control interface with another desiring machine. But smiles, like gifts, often conceal a darker intent - they imply a subtle aggression, an unspoken demand that they be returned. They put the recipient in a position of obligation. There is desire in the language of a smile: there is also power. With this in mind it is apparent how ...for one of your smiles is aligned with Partridge's recurrent concerns. Two images, each projected onto facing walls, two images of mouths (one male, the other female) slowly breaking into smiles against David Cunningham's droning soundtrack. The resonance of the mouth as an erotic site needs no explanation (a primary inlet for the desiring machine), but its ambiguous, ambivalent relation to the interiority and exteriority of the body should not be overlooked (both inlet and outlet for the desiring machine, it refuses the finality of either/or distinctions), nor its fundamental relation to speech - often thought of as so material that profane or obscene speech could actually contaminate the mouth ("now wash your mouth out ...").

The seductive smiling images of ...for one of your smiles share these ambiguities. Analyse them in enough detail and, like Smithson's rocks and words, they disintegrate into atomic complexity. The technology which allows these images to be slowed down is based upon pixellation, the mapping and re-mapping of those bits of electronic information concerning the abstract values of hue and illumination. And the pixels themselves are promiscuous; they carry no commitment or responsibility to the image they are called on to produce. By reorganising the bit-map, pixels can be made to shift willingly and effortlessly from one frame base to another, from one moment in the image-generation process to another. Beneath the smooth flow of the mounting smiles lie the pixels' own busy micro-systems of repetition and combination, of multi-directional time, "a terrain of particles each containing its own void."

Wired-up and plugged-in, we are desiring machines, switching points in the circuits of language, desire and visual representation. There is no beyond to these circuits, no escape. We are all connected in, coupled. Walk over to Slap Movie. Bend down so that you can see the screen - so that the eye of your desiring machine can plug in to its screen. Take the rubber bulb in your hand. Does it feel at all familiar? More sensual than a button or a switch? Now squeeze it. The moment is abrupt and unexpected, but in that momentary flash the circuits of the desiring machine are opened. Squeeze it again, just to make sure.

Footnotes

1 G Deleuze & F Guattari, Anti-Oedipus. Athlone Press,1984, p.1.
2 S Cubbitt, "Photography and the sin of Onan", in A.Angus (ed) (Re)visions of Sex, Fotofeis ltd, Edinburgh 1997, p53.
3 J.Derrida, "Dissemination", Athlone Press. 1981. p.129-130
4 M.Bowie, "Lacan", Fontana, 1991, p.10
5 R.Smithson, 'A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects", (ed) N.Holt, "The Writings of Robert Smithson", New York University Press, 1979, p.87
6 J.Rose, "Sexuality in the Field of Vision", Verso, 1989, p.227
7 R.Barthes, "The Pleasure of Text", Blackwell, 19990, p.9-10
8 S.Cubbitt, op- cit, p.51-2
9 R.Barthes, op- cit, p.7

John Calcutt. February 1999.

More Biographical

List of Works

Exhibitions

Research Grants

Awards and Bursaries

TV Cable & Broadcast

Curatorial

Works in Collections

Articles/Writings

Home

 

Home