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FLESH MACHINE

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Critical Art Ensemble
Autonomedia, 1998

Critical Art Ensemble’s first two volumes, The Electronic Disturbance and Electronic Civil Disobedience, established that they’re among the few people saying something coherent about ‘nomadic power’, and even more unusually, proposing an organizational model for resistance. Flesh Machine promises to extend their critique of techno-politics to cover bodily experience and the role of health administration.

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The book begins by denouncing the dead end of ‘virtual’ utopias, then moves on to an equally welcome argument against the nihilistic tendency to set up ‘nature’ as a paradigm for explaining social, historical phenomena. Subsequent chapters raise important questions to do with medical imaging, pharmacology, sexual reproduction, work and eugenics. References to particular cases are insightful throughout: for instance, the authors point out that a medical map allowing the still incurable Alzheimer’s disease to be detected 10 years early is of value only to the future victim’s insurer and employer. Collecting this kind of information is an overlooked function of random drug tests on employees.
Unfortunately. CAE’s sharp observations are often held together by weak concepts. Cases are effectively isolated by a simplistic image of causality that survives any number of references to Nietzsche, Althusser and Baudrillard. This inclination is most evident in a syntax recalling the quantitative, neologism-laden language of empirical science or business reports.
Medical practices have consistently been less sucessful, when compared to their counterparts, in insuring the continuance of a given regime of state power, we read in Chapter 3. Unlike the war machine and the sight machine, which have accomplished their supreme tasks…the flesh machine has utterly failed to concretize its imagined world of global eugenics.
At this point, the teleological limit of CAE’s insight is abruptly exposed. An early footnote apologises for ‘vague terminology’, the necessary use of abstractions to avoid wrongly attributing subjects and objects to complex series’ of events. But historical phenomena are described exactly as if they were the result of someone’s explicit plan to achieve particular ends. The only thing missing is the names of the conspirators, replaced with terms like ‘power vectors’. (1.) Failure to shake off teleological thinking undermines what has always been CAE’s greatest conceptual strength: their attention to ‘nomadic power’ as an effect that can’t be reduced to an instrument deliberately wielded by self-conscious ‘oppressors’. In fact this advantage is abandoned (along with their admirable work on ‘technologies of uselessness’ and American sacrifice) from the first pages of Flesh Machine, when ‘increased rationalization’ is identified as the essence of ‘pancapitalism’, with respectful thanks to Max Weber.
Thus, the highly entertaining chapter on pharmacology reiterates the crucial point (already stated in the essay on addiction in Electronic Civil Disobedience) that ‘health’ is an endlessly receding goal, pursuit of which amounts to voluntary servitude. But the ‘purpose’ of the Flesh Machine has already been identified as the establishment of ‘global eugenics’: the pharmaceutical industry is only ‘buying time’ while its masters plan this final coup. As the aim of ‘the new eugenic consciousness’ is presumed to be the production of a kind of obedience appropriate to a militarized, Fordist model of industry, drugs must be intended to ‘neutralize’ or ‘stabilize’ intrinsically subversive emotions. Thus the question of the spectacular production of emotion and the effect of obligatory self-expression is avoided altogether.
Insistence on ‘global eugenics’ as its ultimate model keeps CAE from recognising the ‘flesh machine’ at work in factories, armies, hospitals and schools since the 17th century. As a consequence, although they raise it implicitly, they can’t address the ‘machine’s’ changing role in the transition from ‘the societies of discipline to the societies of control’.

(1.) Confusion is sadly evident in the misuse of Deleuze and Guattari’s term ‘machinic’, which describes disjunctive encounters between material flows without reference to organic wholes or subjective intentions, as an equivalent of ‘mechanistic’, which merely suggests that something can be understood through the vague analogy of ‘a machine’.