Machinic

From Rosi Braidotti‘s essay “Affirming the Affirmative: On Nomadic Affectivity“:

In this respect, both the figuration of the cyborg and the cyber-imaginary that supports it can be seen and, to a certain extent, dismissed today as dominant modes of representation. They are powerfully active throughout the social fabric and in all the modes of cultural representation prompted by our culture at present. […] The cyborg as a technologically-enhanced body-machine is the dominant social and discursive figuration for the interaction between the human and the technological in post-industrial societies. It is also a living or active, materially embedded cartography of the kind of power-relations that are operative in the post-industrial social sphere. Bukatman argues that this projection of the physical self into an artificial environment feeds into a dream of terminal identity outside the body, a sort of ‘cybersubject’ (Bukatman, 1993) that feeds into the new age fantasies of cosmic redemption via technology. New age spirituality or techno-mysticism forms part of this trend (Bryld and Lykke, 1999).

I find that a rather complex kind of relationship has emerged in the cyber universe which we inhabit, one in which the link between the flesh and the machine is symbiotic and therefore can best be described as a bond of mutual dependence. This engenders some significant paradoxes, especially when it comes to the human body. The corporeal site of subjectivity is simultaneously denied, in a fantasy of escape, and strengthened or re-enforced. Balsamo stresses the paradoxical concomitance of effects surrounding the new posthuman bodies: “even as techno-science provides the realistic possibility of replacement body parts, its also enables a fantastic dream of immortality and control over life and death. And yet, such beliefs about the technological future ‘life’ of the body are complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body-threats: antibiotic-resistant viruses, random contamination, flesh-eating bacteria” (Balsamo 1996: 1-2).

It’s the themes in the second paragraph that David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ concerns itself with: symbiosis and mutual dependence between machines and flesh, the ambiguous position occupied by the human body, the constant threat posed by foreign organisms (biological and social). For Cronenberg as for Braidotti (channelling Deleuze and Guattari), the human-machine relationship is not one of simple transposition or projecting one onto the other but of a true coexistence; indeed, in eXistenZ the machines are made of flesh and skin, while the human bodies contain machinery and wiring. For some, fans and critics of Cronenberg alike, this indicates that the movie aims to critique a society and its subjects that can no longer find, maintain, and enforce the line both between the machinic and the organic and between reality and fantasy. But this analysis is complicated by the movie’s complete refusal to reprivilege the human body, to, in Braidotti’s terms, either deny or strengthen human corporeality, as Cronenberg never elevates or celebrates human logic or subjectivity and very specifically averts his gaze from the machines, the diseased, the foreign.

No, eXistenZ‘s problematic lies elsewhere, with the dictates of the video-game industry. The entire movie takes place within a focus-group session for the game eXistenZ, and this framing in a movie made in the late 90s is no coincidence. The capitalist hope of that time was that the Internet and video games, in short the “virtual” industries specifically, and the “information” industries more generally, would find new modes of capturing the surplus created by difference and heterogeneity. Braidotti spots this and contrasts it with a Delezuean (and, it could be said, a Cronenbergian) machinic philosophy of relations, which

has nothing in common with the fantasies of cybernetic omnipotence that dominate the popular imaginary about body-machines today (Braidotti, 2002). The ideology of those who desire to be wired and who see the Internet as the experimental grounds for allegedly heterogeneous experiments with alternative subject-positions is integral to the political economy of bio-technological capitalism…. [T]he political economy of global capitalism consists in multiplying and distributing differences for the sake of profit.

But for me, this recognition, and her cautions about “overoptimism,” too frequently gets overwhelmed by her sometimes breathless expositions of radical immanence, nomadic affectivity, and the like. Which is to say, she seems not to appreciate enough capital’s ability to regroup and find new, more effective techniques, new apparatuses of capture. Perhaps the book that this essay is excerpted from, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics, contains more of this, because I’d like to hear more about, to put in Braidotti’s preferred Deleuzeoguattarian idiom, how to avoid machinic enslavement and social subjection.

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