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.
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 Living Doll
The image of Aimee Mullins I want to discuss here was presented in The Guardian, August 29th 1998, and also in that year’s September issue of the magazine Dazed and Confused.(1) It was part of a fashion shoot executed by photographer Nick Knight for Alexander McQueen, in which a range of disabled people appeared as models.
The large colour photo presents Mullins sittting on the floor, her head in her hand in a defeated or melancholic position. She appears squeezed into the frame, contained by the photo’s borders. The colours of the image are brown and beige, earthy, taking up the blond of Mullins’ wild hair and echoed in the make-up. Mullins is wearing various stiff items of clothing, all of which extend out of the photo frame. The clothes are referenced in the accompanying text, in accordance with the generic conventions of fashion photography. The comprise of: a calico-coloured skirt skeleton reminiscent of whalebone crinoline underskirts (crinolin [sic] frame, for hire from Angels and Bermans) and a textured close-fitting top (suede T-Shirt by Alexander McQueen) to which shoulder ornaments are attached that look like wooden filigree Japanese or Spanish fans (wooden fan jacket, by Givenchy Haute Couture). She is also wearing artificial ‘mannequin’ lower legs (not referenced as ‘model’s own’ in the picture blurb, but extensively discussed in the Press). The legs look old and stained, and while one foot with coloured toenails is visible in the frame, the other reaches out to frame-left.
The image immediately connotes to me Romantic dolls and artificial ladies on the borderline of life and death – Hoffmann’s Olimpia or Eichendorff’s marble Venus (see Hoffmann, 1990 and Eichendorff, 1986).
In illustrations to E. Th. A. Hoffmann’s late-romantic short story The Sandman, the mechanical Ersatz woman Olimpia is often wearing just such a crinoline as she turns her mechanical waltzes and bewitches Nathanael’s eyes. She enchants Nathanael – as a doll, she is the perfect screen for the projection of his own narcissistic desires which imbue her with tenuous life.
In Joseph von Eichendorff’s short story The Marble Image a marble Venus in a beautiful, mysterious garden similarly becomes a crystallisation point for male desire. As she is brought to life through their wishes, her identity is made up out of thousand images glimpsed or dreamt off by the male hero, Florio. Olimipa’s and the marble Venus’ status half-way between agency and passivity marks them as the focal points of romantic narratives, but disrobes them of their mystery as living women.
Once the spell is broken, and the male heroes emerge from their delusions, Olimpia becomes an assemblage of limbs and mechanisms, and Venus nothing but cold marble. Life is only present in its projection.
This placement of the romantic Ersatz women brings up interesting questions in relation to the contemporary image. How much is Mullins’ presentation as an image of femininity created out of the wishes and dreams of our culture, and how much is she performing that image, alive and active in the donning of the veils of imagery?
My own reading of the Mullins image as a beautiful doll now discarded and stuffed awkwardly into a loft or the corner of an empty house is supported by the readings of other viewers. Susannah Frankel in The Guardian underlines the relationship between the artificial legs and the doll:
[Mullins] is very proud of her pretty legs. She will later be photographed in them, styled, with her full co-operation, to look like a Victorian doll: a decidedly dilapidated Victorian doll – for this picture, Mullins put the glue on her legs herself (1998: 15).
It is interesting to note that the legs have become a fashion item – Mullins is seen ‘in’ them, rather than ‘wearing them’. This interpretation is also supported by Mullins herself, who campaigns for more desirable prostheses to become available in the US.
In the Mullins photo, the drained colour scheme, bedraggled hair, the exotic connotations of the fans and the historic allusions of the skirt all create this image of a doll, as does the visible seams between Mullins’ real and her artificial legs, which look like the joint of Barbie dolls with bendable knees. Even her ‘real’ flesh looks stiff: her gaze is fixed, staring downwards, and both her hands, one underneath her head, one on her knee, are open with fixed, spread fingers.
The cyborgian quality of Mullins's body as a mixture of the natural and the artificial is negated by the image of the doll: here, her body is wholly artificial.
In her stiffness, dirt and melancholia, the image can be read as the death pallor of femininity, this construction of female identity that underlies much romantic gender imagery. Lethargy, consumption, beauty most beautiful in its moment of non-selfpresence: Mullins’ pose echoes the dead and near-dead ladies depicted and analysed in Bram Dijkstra’s art historic study Idols of Perversity under the headings of ‘The Cult of Invalidism’, ‘The Collapsing Woman’ or ‘The Nymph with the Broken Back’. Dijkstra charts how conflicting fantasies of female masochism, ultimate submission into death, as well as ambivalent feelings about a threateningly active female sexuality, merged into artistic representations of women at the turn of the last century which favoured the woman on the borderline of death and life.
But the cyborgian qualities of Mullins as mixture of living flesh and artificial matter is reintroduced in the image’s generic affiliation. This image is not a sketch, connoting only the living hand of the painter. Mullins’ image is a photograph, indexing a ‘real woman’, not a painting of an allegory, a fantasy or a myth.
In the context of art history, Elisabeth Bronfen discussed how the representation of the ‘real-life’ dying woman simultaneously references reality and consigns femininity to the quotable canon. She shows the destabilizing effects of the literal and the figural in the paintings made by Ferdinand Hodler of Valentine Godé-Darel, dying of cancer, or of the images of Elizabeth Siddall, wife and muse to Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1992: 39-56,168-179). In her study, she finds interesting scenarios of complicity and agency in the relationships evidenced on the canvas and in the historic frame: no one interpretation holds, the perversely tenacious complexities of real life intrude on male fantasies.
The literal and the figural merge uneasily in the constellation of woman and death. This instability and fascinating unease is, in my opinion, also referenced in the Mullin’s photo: in the merger of flesh and photo, in the weave of living matter and the body's addenda.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’ (1996: 19) – a quotation which not only sums up femininity in the romantic sublime, but also foreshadows high fashion's fascination with death and danger. Helmut Newton was the fashion photographer who started a craze for depicting thin, pale fashion models in scenarios that echo crime scenes: post-rape, post-mortem shoots of meagre flesh. Given this history, Alexander McQueen’s choice of subject, the disabled woman, presented amongst the paraphernalia of the doll, is neither revolutionary nor new. We could easily close this discussion by delegating the image into the canon of disabling and misogynistic imagery where the disabled person is the exotic freak, and the woman is the less-than-human thing.
But I find that this closure of the photograph's narrative as politically suspect is not quite so easy for me: this is a real woman amongst the doll works. The media discourse surrounding the image stresses Mullins’ agency. Her widely publicised choice to be a fashion model (rather than being ‘picked’ by a famous designer) and her work around fashion and prosthesis become intertextualised with her success in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, her feats in sprinting and long jump. It seems important to The Guardian’s writer Susannah Frankel that Mullins is in control of how her disability is represented: ‘Mullins put the glue on her legs herself’. Can we just dismiss personal agency as ‘false consciousness’ or as media attempts at ‘political correctness’?
Elaine Scarry writes:
[t]he instability of the verbal (and visual) sign is that a representation can work in two ways; it can coax real pain into visibility or push it into further invisibility (p.3).
The instability of this photo lies for me in the tension between the heritage of imagery referenced in its mise-en-scene, which I discussed above, and the awkwardness of the living body wedged into this uncomfortable position.
For me as a feminist, the wooden fans and crinoline do not only reference the literary and art historical canon, but also the phenomenology of body discipline, of docile bodies. My own body rebels at the thought of the discomfort experienced by my fore-mothers, and my reading is driven onwards by the political desire to find images to live by.
Mullins’ pose is in tension. Her straight fingers pointing outwards do not only remind me of the doll, but also allow me a glimpse into the corporeal, kinaesthetic quality of her position. Her fingers with her strained muscles, their tension visible, show the spectator traces of the moment when she was sitting for the photographer.
The traces of her life and the specifics of her experience are not wholly erased by the discourses that frame her – she exceeds the frame, just as her stiff paraphernalia escape the photographer’s lens. The pain of representation is literally played out and acted across her photographed, imaged body as the price for feminine beauty (romantic death) can become apparent to the spectator. This cyborg/partly artificial being never becomes fully metaphor and image, but sustains its living quality. Because of this living trace it addresses me on the level of intersubjectivity, negating the 'otherness' that culture assigns to both disabled people and cyborgs.
Seeing Physically: The Different Body
This interaction between the semiotic and the personal physical, kinaesthetic connection can be seen to be even more fundamentally a part of visual perception.
For Merleau-Ponty in his last, unfinished work, visual representation, the placeholder of other cultural images, is in a productive tension with a form of tactility, the physical extension of vision. This tactility of vision is the an addendum to the visible space:
We must habituate ourselves to think that every visible is cut out in the tangible, every tactile being in some manner promised to visibility and that there is encroachment, infringement, not only between the touched and the touching, but also between the tangible and the visible, which is encrusted in it, as, conversely, the tangible itself is not a nothingness of visibility, is not without visual existence. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968:134)
This deep connection between tactility and visibility lies in the sharing of the universes charted by the two senses, by the fact that our bodies are always in movement, and that moving eyes is a tactile act:
Every experience has always been given to me within the context of the movements of the look.
…every vision takes place somewhere in the tactile space. There is a double and crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and the tangible in the visible; the two maps are complete and yet do not merge into one. The two parts are total parts and yet are not superposable (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 134)
There are potential ethical implications of this continuity between the visual and the tactile, senses often associated with distance and nearness respectively. The dynamics of understanding oneself to be physically implicated in the act of looking mean that a note of sharing can impinge on the visual act:
… since vision is a palpitation with the look, it must also be inscribed in the order of being that it discloses to us; he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 134)
This horizon of the visible in the tangible, the promise of visual closeness and the erotics of touch seem to me to be a crucial aspect of contemporary visual culture and its developments.
Contemporary cultural images in the West seem to move away from a purely visual and distanced relationship to representation - instead, a lot of contemporary representations reference and play with the physical, the kinaesthetic, the 'structure of feeling' of specific kinds of embodiment. In particular, contemporary digital art work is able to manipulate points of view in a manner not easily emulated by the physical camera apparatus. Thus, the long breathtaking opening sweep through the winterly pleasure park in Batman II which swooped through keyholes into wide open spaces is by now a commonplace in visual culture. Digital viewpoints attempt to viscerally recreate the experience of ‘surfing the web’. Computer games become ever more adept at creating the gravitational experience of driving on a race circuit. In these instances, the tactility of viewing, that is, the location of the eyes in relation to space, time and weight, are manipulated.
The second text that I want to look at is more firmly anchored in the time and space structures of physical performance. In this television commercial for the Internet provider freeserve, screened on the 24.4.2000, Aimee Mullins's body and her status as a carrier of female connoted metaphors and discourses are once again crucial to the functioning of the ad. At the same time, her exoticism is mediated through a highly charged, visceral audience address - an echo of embodiment reaches beyond the purely visual.
In the ad, a child’s voice leads us into an experience – ‘What do I like about Aimee?'. A relationship of desire is set up as a quick montage of shots introduce the spectator to a high octane, youth dominated and sexy version of the world of the fashion catwalk.
The beginning of the video sets up the fashion context through a montage of relatively stable shots of a head, made-up in wild colours, hair sticking out - a mannequin on a catwalk. But this stiffness of pose, still photo and lacquered paint is disrupted by the montage of these images together with shots that show Mullins in interaction. First, the head shots are intercut with her playing with the child, whose voice ' Let's see - we have a lot in common. She likes to run, like me…' links the first images together. In these images, Mullins is a young model - nothing connotes her difference, and the only 'addenda' that we see are false eyelashes, lots of colour, hairdresses and fashion extensions in the head shots. Mullins' artificial legs are introduced later in the commercial, cut into shots of a spontaneous party, which puts the model into a 'real' social situation, and shows her laughing amongst a bunch of people. The legs that Mullins is using here are not the same as in the Doll shot discussed above: they are steel springs which do not attempt to emulate a human lower leg. Metallic, alien, vaguely insect like in their back- rather than front-bending, these legs open up a different semiotic register from the glue-covered doll's legs.
These spring legs come into closer view as a cut from a laughing face ambles over to the mechanics of the legs, and their trainer-like, commonplace anchorage to Mullins' knees. The placing of this shot amongst hand-held, fast moving, 'atmosphere' shots emphasises the relative normality of the situation to the stage workers and models involved. The shot travels from her legs up her body to her laughing face, and down again. Her hands move down her body and clasp the spring legs as she doubles over with laughter - a gesture kinesthetically familiar to a person with flesh legs. These legs are not shot here as the exotic stills of Mullins' model stage persona, but as part of her social and everyday life.
From this party scene, having brought us from Mullins the exotic model to Mullins the right-on girl, the spectator hears Mullins' voice, addressing us, with her face looking straight at us. The snatches addressed to us remain vague: '… the one cheetah just stared, just stared…', 'you gotta run with the cheetahs and the antelopes…' 'it’s a total feeling of accomplishment.'. These comments are intercut - the relatively naturalistic spatial stability of the catwalk/pre- and post-show parties locales are disrupted with a cheetah's head, turning from side to side, and shots of Mullins' running on the catwalk in a 'animal' outfit with whipping feathers, including close-ups of the spring legs. I want to argue that in this part of the commercial it is not the child's voice and presence, the familiar exoticism of model's make-up, or the party atmosphere that bind the spectator to the image, but a kinaesthetic, tactile engagement of visuality. As the animal narrative begins, we see Mullins' torso, moving in a slow, steady step, which is taken up by the turning of the cheetah's head in the intercuts. The cheetah is tracking something with its eyes - and the movement of vision is captured in the image. The timing of the steps/swings/paces steps up slowly, as we see the metal legs lift up from the floor, and Mullins' feather headgear bouncing in the rhythm. This visual rhythm culminates in a sprint. In the climax of the commercial, and the implied climax of the couture show, Mullins runs down the catwalk, and the run is captured in close detail, bringing together the exoticism of the animal spirit and the technology of camera and high tech spring legs. Narrative and format mesh together to draw the spectator into the embodied experience of Mullins - the film stresses her understanding of herself, and the freedom of her legs, and her fascination with speed. This message is the one aimed at by the advertisers - 'be free' becomes 'be freeserve' on the screen.
The lush surfaces and textures of these images, and the speed of cutting invite a tactile engagement in the visual engagement- and therefore disrupts for me any placement of Aimee as purely 'other' (purely visual spectacle, purely construct, purely exotic, animalistic stranger). The animal imagery stands in counter-point to the glinting metal spring legs. At the same time, the strange is placed into familiarity through the sensual appeal of the fast sequence, aligning me as spectator to the 'freedom' (of freeserve) and to a (potential) echo of the speed of Aimee's cyborg body.
The addenda of the visible, the tactile, puts under erasure the addenda of the body, the cyborgian supplements, and on a trajectory towards unified engagement with a lived experience, my own and, potentially, Aimee Mullins'.
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.
1. Part of this textual analysis of the photo has been published in Kuppers, 1999.
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