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Me, Myself, I

In this essay, I reflect further on narcissism from the perspective of the anxious, technologised body. I discuss how performance and body art has used narcissism as a positive tool to investigate and explore a new understanding of body and self.

Identification conventionally depends on distance – we seek out others distant from us physically and measure ourselves against them, in order to shape the self. As technology collapses time and space, this reduction of distance between selves dissolves the idea of the finite individual. Identification in this virtual age now becomes more readily understood through the trope of oral incorporation, precisely because technology induces in us ‘a more than closeness’. Incorporation as bringing inside the body of something outside is a manifestation of the erotic drive. Indeed, new technologies are enhancing our incorporative urges. We have embraced technology’s incursion into the body and our bodies are increasingly augmented by prosthetics. Even so, the relationship of the body to the machine remains ambiguous – the emergence of machinic desire seems to give rise to body loathing with new media. When we create avatars or alter egos and other fantasy or virtual characters, it is not that we are simply extending the idea of ourselves in the form of an ideal. In these constructions we reveal a desire to be a subject who is not inextricably bound by the flesh. This is a double-headed desire. As cultural theorist Margaret Morse 1 argues, not only are we subject to the desire for incorporation by the machine, but we are also subject to the desire to bring the machine into the body. [Morse, 1998, Cyborgs] Paradoxically and confusingly, even though this desire emanates from our erotic drives, it seems at times to disavow the body.

The desire to create a virtual being or self is not a new phenomenon. In ‘What do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society’ Margaret Morse points to alchemical experiments aimed at the creation of the homunculus, a being created in a bell jar with a separate (and artificial) intelligence as signalling the desire to immerse or dissolve in an ocean. [Morse, 1998, Cyborgs, 130] 2 For Morse this is both a death wish (the desire to be absorbed) and an erotic desire to fuse with the idea of nature itself, to force the unnatural upon nature in an unholy coupling. It can be understood as analogous to a contemporary desire to become immersed in the vastness and the ‘undifferentiated space of a digital sea.’ [Morse, 1998, Cyborgs, 130] Her assertion is in accord with McLuhan’s concept that electrical circuitry ‘orientalizes’ the western legacy of the contained, the distinct and the separate, replacing it with the flow, the unified, and the fused. 3 Both positions however retain the concept of bodily transcendence. As Morse points out, ‘... the virtual realm is tied symbolically to immersion and all its attendant hopes for transcendence and, in this case, inorganic birth.’ [Morse, 1998, Cyborgs, 130] But is the desire to immerse oneself always only about the desire to escape the body? Or can we understand it as a drive towards enhanced physical experience? After all fantasy exerts a powerful influence upon our bodies.

A consideration of immersion of the self, in the self, to the point of annihilation, again provokes the issue of narcissism. Narcissism is not just self-obsession – drawing on a tradition of studies by anthropologists, sociologists and psychoanalysts, Christopher Lasch, in his seminal book The Culture of Narcissism, posits narcissism as a specific condition of modern life. [Lasch, 1991] Classic neuroses have increasingly given way to narcissistic personality disorders. More than just a renaming of neuroses or modification of theory, Lasch traces a trajectory through education, sport, literature and technology to make the point that narcissism is symptomatic of an attempt to bridge, or repair, or alleviate the solipsistic condition, with all its attendant anxieties, that dominates modern culture. He unpacks the Freudian concept (of narcissism) and identifies, through an analysis of primary and secondary narcissism, two different concepts. Briefly, Freud proposed a libidinal economy in which narcissism takes two main forms – primary and secondary. The primary form is normal in the processes of identification and is noticeable especially in children (autoeroticism). In ‘normal’ healthy subjects the libido evolves from an autoerotic state into an ‘object-libido’ in which desire is directed out onto (ideally) another person. The ability to fall in love with another person is seen as evidence of a healthy object-libido. The secondary form of narcissism is considered to be unhealthy and abnormal and arises in the pathological states of megalomania and schizophrenia. This is where the libido is withdrawn from the external world and instead desire is directed inwards, at the subject’s ego. Superimposed over primary narcissism it is the condition in which object libido becomes ego-libido and in its extreme form is manifest as paranoid schizophrenia. [Freud, 2001 (1915)]

Secondary narcissism negates the intersubjective dynamic whereas primary narcissism is relational and this distinction is significant. In attempting to articulate how a subject negotiates the issue of self in performance I have found that narcissism sits at the heart of the question. Body/performance artists often utilise narcissism as a strategy to negotiate and trouble conventional understandings of self and body. In so doing, this strategy frequently offers up a simultaneous embodiment of both forms of narcissism (relational and non-relational). On the one hand is a fully rounded intersubjective and interobjective relationality, corresponding with Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmic intertwining. On the other, is the utterly isolated and distinct individual, corresponding, in the extreme with de Sade’s performances of non-relationality, of autistic cruelty. This offers up an uncomfortable paradox in which discomfort and pleasure are different notes on the same scale. Lasch emphasises the connection of narcissism to the Nirvana principle (itself a derivation of the Pleasure Principle) when he states:

‘Except that it is not an instinct and that it seeks not death but everlasting life, primary narcissism conforms quite closely to Freud’s description of the death instinct as a longing for the complete cessation of tension, which seems to operate independently of the ‘pleasure principle’ and follows a ‘backward path that leads to complete satisfaction.’ [Lasch, 1991, 240-1]

Narcissism is thus a desire to be free from desire, a longing for need to be obliterated. Further it aspires to spiritual perfection (absolute peace) and disavows materiality (in the form of the body) in particular. In this way, we can distinguish narcissism from ordinary egoism and the survival instinct.

‘The awareness of death and the determination to stay alive presupposes an awareness of objects distinct from the self. Since narcissism does not acknowledge the separate existence of the self, it has no fear of death. Narcissus drowns in his own reflection, never understanding that it is a reflection. The point of the story is not that Narcissus falls in love with himself but, since he fails to recognise his own reflection, that he lacks any conception of the difference between himself and his surroundings.’ [Lasch, 1991, 241]

Although in Lasch’s reading of narcissism there is a desire to end desire and a disavowal of the body, the narcissist of the 21st century still yearns to return to the body – to the maternal body and to one’s own body in the shape of the ‘omnipotent foetus’. If primary narcissism is the condition of the human infant it ‘makes us see the pain of separation, which begins at birth, as the original source of the human malaise.’ [Lasch, 1991, 240-1] He also underlines the paradoxes inherent in the condition of narcissism. On the one hand is a desire for union and on the other the ‘fact’ of separation that seemingly offer only a stark binary choice – either (in fantasy) one regresses to a time before birth, or one denies the need for others, fabricating a ‘solipsistic illusion of omnipotence’. [Lasch, 1991, 242]

In the spirit of disavowing binary choices, a different reading of the relationship of the self to the world is found in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the chiasma that posits the recognition of others in the world as conjoined to the self. Narcissus neither recognised his reflection nor did he distinguish between himself and his surroundings. Rather than self-love, his rapture is caused by his inability to distinguish the (actual) world from the virtual world of reflection. Captivated at the edge of his pool, Narcissus plunges to his doom in his attempt to be as one with his reflection, to touch the body of an illusion.

French artist Orlan has operated in an overtly narcissistic way throughout her career, transforming and mutating not just her imagery but her body too. She says that ‘Being a narcissist isn’t easy when the question is not of loving your own image, but of re-creating the self through deliberate acts of alienation.’ [Rose, 1993, 83] She is firmly advocating narcissism as a transformative strategy, at the same time she acknowledges the complexity that such alienation introduces. In the famous surgery project, one could read her work as an enactment of female submission, akin to female mutilation. However, as Barbara Rose points out ‘...actually she aims to exorcise society’s program to deprive women of aggressive instincts of any kind. During the process of planning, enacting and documenting the surgical steps of her transformation, Orlan remains in control of her own destiny.’ [Rose, 1993, 125] Orlan’s practice is an enacted embodiment of the mortal and finite self, mediated through bio and communication technologies. Her body/self is socially engaged and enacted always in relation to others and the work challenges normal or conventional criteria that define beauty and, by implication, femininity. Her position is that our bodies have long been alienated by the patriarchal conventions of the church and state and by contemporary culture in the shape of sport and fashion. According to Orlan, cosmetic surgery is evidence of the power of man over woman, but in her surgeries she is in control. She is not playing the victim, rather she is intentionally transforming herself into a not-normal being, through technology. 4

‘Orlan’s medium, finally, is media. If that sounds redundant, she means it to be. Her critical method is based on a sophisticated feedback system, a vicious circle of echoing and self-generating images, spawning a progeny of hybrid media reproductions.’ [Rose, 1993, 125]

She overloads us with the viscerality of the images and videos and gains the distance necessary for interpretation as beauty is transformed into the grotesque. Furthermore in this action, she denounces traditions that uphold the body as sacred and wilfully breaks the taboo against mutilation of that body. She uses narcissism as a strategy and while her work is often considered as extreme or excessive, she demonstrates that an ‘excessive’ response to narcissism can be productive. In Orlan’s work one can, by equal measure, read the work as being concerned with an attempt to transcend the image/s of femininity and as being imbricated within abnormal self-involvement. The technological mediation and intervention that her practice and her body are subjected to underline the paradox. Filmed and recorded, edited and webcast, the action as a proliferation of images of a woman immersed in images of herself speaks of a deep narcissistic impulse, looking in, disconnecting even. Yet, in offering them up confessional style, she initiates a relation. She is conscious during the surgery, quoting poetry and answering questions, but as she smiles at us, her poor lovely face is subject to a terrible act of (self-inflicted) violence. It is sliced open, peeled back, lopped off and stitched up, in the name of art, in response to the idea of beauty. She performs what to many of us seems like a disturbing act of self-mutilation but in some of us, she incites a strong sense of empathy.5 When we engage in this way, this relationality is intersubjective. This is the point when our own narcissism meets hers and exchanges a glance of recognition, the point when preconceptions about the body and its image (in this case Orlan’s actual body and feminine representation) become undone. Orlan is a neo-narcissist – in contrast to Norma Desmond, she is not a victim of narcissism. Norma is driven inside herself and ultimately can only respond to herself as fantasy. Orlan uses narcissism to provoke a discourse, of which she, as subject, is co-respondent with the viewer.

Orlan’s practice may be transgressive but it situates the self as in and of the flesh. Moreover, if we accept Merleau Ponty’s reading of the world as flesh then there is no tenable finite boundary between the world and the body, rather an organic interconnection and relation. Contained by the skin, a porous membrane that continually sheds and reconstitutes itself, the flesh is enveloped both metaphorically and materially, but it is not sealed off from the world. The skin is the site of the joining of the flesh of the individual and the flesh of the world. It is also the site of desire. So, while Orlan may aim for transcendence from the images of femininity, she repeatedly underlines our fleshly immanence.

By colliding the orthodoxies of psychoanalysis (Freudian concepts of narcissism) and phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of a chiasmic intertwining), we can provoke a reading of narcissism that is creative and in constant interrogation of the limits of the self, in relation to the world and to others. Deliberately activated narcissism recognises our desire for and dependence upon others, but it also recognises that others, like the self, are shaped into discrete psychic entities. Deliberate acts of narcissism like Orlan’s acknowledge the limits of the body and exhibit the desire to exceed them. By setting up a dynamic between primary and secondary narcissism one creates excess. This excess can be manifest as a shiver, tic or tremor or it can be dramatic, as in the slicing of skin or cutting of the body. In the action of constantly approaching the contingent and subjective limits of self and body, the body/performance artist inhabits and performs a desire in the knowledge that it cannot be satisfied. Furthermore, this understanding of excess (in performance) accords with Bataille’s model. Conventional (homogenous) consensus about what a body can or should do, about where we draw the limits of a body, are undone entirely by excessive performance actions like Orlan’s and also in the excessive displays of artists like Hannah Wilke and others. Such actions, as acts of art, challenge where we draw the line between art and life, between what is accepted and what is not.

The paradoxical action of performing or demonstrating a desire that cannot be satisfied, or by deliberately embracing a strategy that troubles and disturbs, that is almost certainly going to be denigrated, echoes separation anxiety. It is an action that is aggressive and combative but one that is also demonstrative of anxiety and of desire for connectivity. It generates the ‘defensive’ mechanism of narcissism and can be understood as a struggle against nature – a struggle against dependency on the mother – alongside the desire to return to (her) womb and preserve the ‘natural’ state in which desire no longer has meaning. Invention of technologies is, according to Lasch, a way to deny or to circumvent our dependence on nature, a way to master nature. Or, in other words to avert entropy.

‘In psychological terms, the dream of subjugating nature is our culture’s regressive solution to the problem of narcissism – regressive because it seeks to restore the primal illusion of omnipotence and refuses to accept limits on our collective self-sufficiency. In religious terms, the revolt against nature is also the revolt against God – that is, against the reality of our dependence on forces external to ourselves.’ 6 [Lasch, 1991, 244]

Marshall McLuhan 7 is not keen on narcissists, reminding us that the root of the word comes from narcosis, meaning numbness. He reads the sense of the Narcissus myth as a blocking of perception. Narcissus didn’t love himself because (for McLuhan) he didn’t recognise his image as an extension of himself. What he was experiencing was inertia due to the shock of self-amputation. Is he speaking of boredom, of ennui, here? McLuhan may be alluding to Baudelaire’s ‘lecteur’ – the one that can watch impassively whilst the world around convulses becomes symbolic of humanity’s diseased nature.

However, the idea of disease or damage is morally pejorative and, as certain performative practices demonstrate, narcissism is not necessarily inert. In McLuhan’s terms, electrical networks are extensions of the nervous system and he warns that an overload or an overexposure to stimulation is a danger to us. He compares this to our physiological response to immediate physical danger – we go into shock, we do not feel pain (until later) because we have to numb ourselves to protect ourselves. However, while a person may withdraw into the self, in instances of feeling overwhelmed by the external world, this is not to say they inevitably become inert. A narcissistic condition is signalled by the symptoms of anxiety and for McLuhan, narcissism has an entirely negative connotation.

McLuhan reads the electrically engendered ‘Age of Anxiety’ as a period defined by the unconscious and by apathy. In comparison to Baudelaire who maintained that the dangers of over stimulation result in moral apathy and physical decline, McLuhan suggests that we respond with a strategic numbing of the senses as necessary to avert breakdown. However, consciousness of the unconscious allows us to be more fully aware of our technological extensions as bodily extensions, and of the functions they perform in lieu of the body.

Deliberate displays of narcissism speak of anxiety and body ambiguity and of previously unacknowledged desires. Importantly they test and question our ideas of where self begins and ends in relation to others; moreover, they test our assumptions about body and presence. Indeed an exuberant display of narcissism not only tests those assumptions but, shockingly, it seems to suggest that testing the limits is pleasurable. In contemporary art, this strategy has been used to good effect by Orlan and other artists such as Vito Acconci, Annie Sprinkle and Hannah Wilke. Annie Sprinkle’s public displays of self-pleasuring – come look at my cervix, watch me cum – place the issue of feminine subjecthood and overt sexuality firmly as the concern of art, without effacing its connection to pornography. Hannah Wilke used narcissism as a way to re-articulate feminine power and identity, using her (beautiful) body and face, in an ironic display that mimicked conventional imagery of women. King narcissist Vito Acconci’s display of self-involvement, as performed so dramatically in ‘Seedbed’, initiated an intersubjective relationship with members of the viewing public as he masturbated under the floorboards.

Conventional understanding of the limits of the body is tested and ultimately belied by the excesses of the body. Those excesses are enacted both by the body (in the form of pleasure and waste) and upon the body (in the shape of information and visibility). The concept of normality relies on the assumption of an inviolable homogenous system, of self-contained and distinct psyches (following on from the assumption of the body as similarly contained and separate). Today we have reached a point where ideas of normality have come undone and the system by which we organise our societies is heterogeneous in nature. Our overloaded bodies are now subject to a breathtaking amount of information, every pleasure imaginable is available to us, but all of this is at a price (indeed, as the children of Capitalism, we are accustomed to paying for things). The perceived price is loss of sovereignty, the loss of a means to shape a definitive idea of self – as Bataille argues, in a homogenous world pleasure is something only available to ‘sovereign man’.

We are anxious – the dismantling of deletorius or binary separations in post-modernity has left us with no concrete and permanent markers by which to calibrate the self. Further, science and psychoanalysis have shown us that surface is not necessarily a finite boundary and that psyche and self are shaped through and by relation to others in the world. We now know courtesy of quantum physics, that observation can change the outcome of an event and even effect physical change.

Technology watches over us, invades our every moment and shrinks time and space, it even takes over the work of the body and identifies us through an apparently irrefutable genetic code. We have been uncovered, codified and made public by new technologies, our nervous systems extended beyond our physical reach, we know we no longer can say where or what our limits are and it is gradually dawning on us that there is no centre, there is no definitive point at which I can locate Me.

Is the concept of a Skin Ego a response to the erosion of personal space? The need for the society of others, the desire to merge with the crowd constantly fights with the need for personal private space. The body that was hidden in the in the shadows of the bedchamber for the past 450 years has now been forced out into the open by the convulsive impetus of electric and subsequently electronic technologies. The fact of today’s body is now different, it is no longer universalised and objective and with the relation between subject and object collapsing into that body, we are at a point where we have to reassess how we constitute the self. ‘I’ am constituted through desire – if we trace the paths of desire then perhaps we can negotiate new strategies for understanding the formation of self. viii

Nearly all cultures retain the ideal/desire for transcendence of the body, through religious and ritualistic practices and beliefs. These beliefs are echoed within the seemingly secular world of new technologies. However, along with an increasing understanding that immanence is not just the condition of women and slaves, we are beginning to realise that it is no longer possible to assign sovereignty, truth or presence in the same way that we have historically. Indeed, it may be that it is no longer possible to assign sovereignty at all – this is our nightmare. While technology offers us ways to extend, enhance and stimulate the body it overloads us with possibilities. The implications of which, combined with a deep unease about the way that subjectivity seems to have turned itself inside out, have shocked us into a fascinated inertia.

Now that we have encountered our reflections, now that we have been fixated by them, in order to make sense of what subjectivity means in the age of the virtual, we must first examine those anxieties that keep us looking only at the surface of things. To a certain extent, this is the job of the work of art in the 21st century. In body/performance art, an intentional strategy of intense self-reflection recognises narcissism as a creative field in which to explore these issues – it produces the conditions for a creative discourse on the issues of body, self and representation. Such strategies are facilitated (if not demanded) by a practical engagement with the technologies for recording and communication.

Likewise, immersion can be understood positively. It does not have to mean the loss of self or the distancing of the psyche from body – immersion can also be understood as additive, a condition of more-than-self. Through narcissism and immersion we can point up that immanence does not have to be understood as a condition to which we are all condemned, rather it is an active and creative condition/space that tests our understanding of the body’s limits and at times exceeds them.

I began this series of essays with a discussion about cannibalism to explore how the fantasy of oral incorporation operates at its fictional and factual extremes. In the cannibal’s objectification of the victim is an absolute refusal of relationality or of reciprocity. The victim’s status is reduced to the lowest level, that of merely dinner. Something to be eaten and turned into shit, made into waste. In it’s fictional aspect an extreme performance of non-relationality reinforces, or better, proclaims the dichotomy between object and subject, between master and slave and between good and evil. However, it does so with an elaborate perversity, with such violence and with such excess that it allows us to see its close relation to waste. As Bataille pointed out, if one considers waste and excess through a concept of heterogeneity then these dichotomies can be undone. Waste can now been understood as a kind of creative debris and by extension, anxiety and/or eroticism can be seen as a manifestation of the excess of the intersubjective relation between subjects, between us. Moreover anxiety and jouissance are closely linked and easily fold back into each other. Appropriation and consumption as incorporative tropes necessitate waste – for example, incorporative looking produces something more than just a look. It generates a dynamic that is felt erotically or anxiously because it is directed by desire and because this dynamic is the excess of the look.

Excessive consideration of self (narcissism) and the literal excess of selves (multiple representations, avatars etc.) facilitated by new technologies, reveal the distinctly marked oral logic that drives the subject’s relation to technology as a form of neo- narcissism. Exposed by surveillance and extended through instant communications the 21st century subject experiences an amplified self-consciousness, but this self-conscious narcissistic state does not just begin and end in the self.

Our sense of privacy is changing but we have a choice – we can use our narcissism and anxiety positively, as a vehicle for provoking new readings of the self and the body as existentially contingent and for questioning existing preconceptions of the limits of the flesh. Alternatively, we can choose to confirm our isolation, to fear incursions of our personal spaces and to attempt to hold onto the idea of a homogenous ideology to describe our experience of the world. However, this position is becoming increasingly anachronistic. Our skins, as we now know, are permeable surfaces. Enabled by machines that can manufacture our virtual doubles, that can clone presence (or so it would seem), our sense of self is not just invaded – in turn it invades the world. Whether we like it or not this is a realm of reversibility and reversibility indicates heterogeneity. Digital technology and computers seem to promise a solution to the problem of entropy – by implication they offer the possibility of extending consciousness beyond the confines of the flesh – but they are all too easily seen as a means to confirm transcendence, without the inconvenience of a God. These infernal desire machines confuse our sensibilities – their promise of everlasting life and vigour and of all the pleasures that we can stand, literally at our fingertips, is at odds with the body stuck at the console, trying to penetrate the screen. We can choose to be like Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur, condemned by our excessive desires and pleasures, or we can choose to consider the excessive and the unspeakable in fantasy as a means to extend our understanding of subjectivity. Only by doing this can we begin to understand our anxious relation to an increasingly technologised world and only then can we realise a new understanding of the body.

1 American feminist and cultural theorist Margaret Morse is Professor of Film & Digital Media at the University of Santa Cruz, USA.
2 She understands this a ‘pure realm clearly indicative of the feminine body’ because, in the attempted creation of the homunculus, the (always male) alchemist reveals a desire to not only become mother but also to return to the womb. The ‘foetus’ becomes an extension of himself. [Morse, 1998, 130]
3 ‘Electric circuitry is orientalizing the West. The contained, the distinct, the separate – our Western legacy – are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fluid.’ [McLuhan, 2001 (1967)]
4 Orlan in conversation with Lesley Aiello at the Ego Symposium, held in the Old Operating Theatre, London, 08.05.01
5 Orlan is firm in saying that her work is definitely not mutilation. See for her thoughts on ‘Carnal Art’ and details about her practice [date accessed: 29.08.05]
6 Our dependence on nature thus renounced means that we look to technology to provide the ways and means to be independent of it. But in our attempts to master nature we damage the very thing on which our species depends for survival. The invention of the car, the plane, the rocket and the nuclear bomb may, through pollution, accident or aggression become the things that may annihilate us. Concomitant to the desire to master nature through technology is the revival of interest in ancient superstitions and Gnostic belief systems. As Lasch puts it, ‘the anxieties peculiar to the modern world seem to have intensified old mechanisms of denial’. These revived beliefs reject the body and deny the flesh, turning always towards spirit, unable to reconcile it with matter. [Lasch, 1991, 245]
7 Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was an educator and philosopher of communication theory. His work shaped and still influences media theory today.
8 That desire is what constitutes the self is a Hegelian premise. Hegel reads the ‘I’ as being shaped through desire. ‘The conscious Desire of a being is what constitutes that being as I and reveals it as such by moving it to say I...It is in and by – or better still, as – ‘his’ Desire that man is formed and is revealed – to himself and to others – as an I, as the I that is essentially different from, and radically opposed to, the non-I. The (human) I is the I of a Desire or of Desire.’ [Hegel/Kojeve 1980 (1947), 3]