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Public Bodies, Private Spaces

From the Analogue to the Digital:

Canadian communication philosopher and leading prophet of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan 1 understood the mechanical age as being defined through fragmentation. To paraphrase, the machine is a congregation of discrete parts and functions. Accordingly, fragmentation is a consequence of the alphabet and print technology, one that fosters a process of specialisation and detachment. Like literature, the machine operates on the principle of a linear sequence or series of fragmented parts. One word follows another, just as one process follows another. However, there is ‘no principle of causality in a mere sequence’ even if we assume it so.

For McLuhan, the advent of electricity irrevocably altered the association of sequence with causality because it made things instant. The radio, the telegraph, the telephone and then television gave us communication and information in an instant. Just as the digital world has flooded into our personal spaces, we have become exposed to and implicated in the lives of others in a way that, for McLuhan (writing in the 1960’s), was akin to that of tribal societies.

Do we identify now, in the 21st century, as being predominantly part of digital tribes rather than nations or local groups? Is the autonomous individual under threat of extinction? Ironically, it might be that excessive narcissism is at the root of that threat.

If the Renaissance gave us the detached observer and mechanisation emphasised individual self-contained components functioning separately, the electrical age reversed the effect and what was once private became public. In a digital world, there are no separate, private, self-contained individuals or systems existing independently. The electrical, and by extension, the digital world is instant, connected and as a result everything is now exposed or exposable.

As McLuhan points out, we still try to make the new media work according to older ways of thinking, ways that cannot account for change. This poses for us a serious dilemma – consider contemporary concerns about surveillance for example. We have to balance our claims to privacy against society’s need to know and governmental demands for ever greater security. Increasingly we encourage each other to be fearful. Our traditional ideas about private thoughts, movements and transactions are ‘very seriously threatened’ by systems of surveillance and immediate electronic access to personal information. In a modern city like London, even before I leave home my whereabouts can be traced via my mobile phone or if I use the Internet. The moment I leave my house, I am tracked and potentially watched. On a typical day, in theory, all of my movements, transactions, personal thoughts as expressed in emails or by phone, can be monitored. I am overlooked constantly, I can feel electronic eyes upon me at all times and it makes me feel self-conscious. It is as if the point of view has been reversed – the screens are now watching me. If we take up McLuhan’s point that our nervous system now extends in a global embrace, then it is no wonder that we feel so exposed. No wonder that we feel vulnerable and anxious.

‘This is the Age of Anxiety for the reason of the electric implosion that compels commitment and participation, quite regardless of any ‘point of view’. The partial and specialized character of the viewpoint, however noble, will not serve at all in the electric age.’ [Mcluhan, 1964, 5]

The erosion of private spaces is nothing new, but in the fifty years since McLuhan’s book was written his arguments about surveillance have been vindicated. It is now the case that privacy has, in effect, been abolished. The satellites in the skies above our heads have effectively seen to that. Someone is always watching you and we are constantly watching ourselves. The system by which we have traditionally – mechanically and systematically – ordered the relation of private thoughts and communication with others is vanishing. The diminishing phenomenon of the hand-written letter is symptomatic of this change. When time and physicality are effaced, when meetings between people are virtual, it is hard to know where ‘I’ end and where ‘you’ begin. Another person’s thoughts and feelings can be communicated instantly, flickering before our eyes on tiny screens in the shape of words or images. Likewise, my consciousness can be represented or simulated in a physical space distant to my body.

Considering the mass of information pumped at us daily through our TV sets, newspapers, the Internet, advertising hoarding and 24 hour news, informational noise becomes cacophonous and stressful. Its effect is cumulative – I have no need or want for all that information but all the same it gets in my eyes, in my head, and becomes part of me whether I like or not. Constant monitoring and increasing noise are features of our contemporary world, as are the contraction of time and space. Through electricity, through electronic media, our world has evolved from a system of separate and uninvolved entities connected by mechanical sequences into a place where connectivity itself and inter-relativity are now the dominant principles. Even if I accept that this is symptomatic of a fundamental change in human relations and that it is part of a new way of thinking about myself and my relation with others in the world, I am aware of a deep-seated anxiety. This anxiety, in part, arises from the question of how we reconcile our traditional ideas of homogeneity, a mechanised culture comprised of separate autonomous components, with heterogeneity, the world experienced immediately as flow, as non-sequential, as parallel processes. Loss of sovereignty is a real and palpable experience because I am no longer sure where the boundaries of self and body are. I can no longer be sure that I am in control of myself.

‘To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it...It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves.’ [Mcluhan, 1964, 50]

Written fifty years ago, McLuhan’s remarkably prescient argument pre-dates personal computer use and the advent of the Internet by two decades, yet his argument is still both provocative and relevant. Two things in particular strike me when thinking about McLuhan’s theories. The first is his position that anxiety is the symptom of this radical shift in understanding identity and consciousness – this accords with an understanding of body/performance art as symptomatic of a contemporary crisis of identity and body, played out publicly and anxiously. Secondly, his concept of narcissism, described as a ‘narcosis’, a condition that he argues we must escape from or snap out of, has been contested through examining the positive aspects of a deliberate act of narcissism (as in certain practices within body/performance art). However, in a world where tsunami of selfies is the norm, McLuhan’s warning seems apt. We might do well to remember the myth of Narcissus. Look at me, look at me, look at me – does this speak of anxiety if repeated enough times?

‘After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as the planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses our nerves by the various media... Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.’ [Mcluhan, 1964, 3]

My body, our bodies have become more exposed, more extended and more augmented than ever before. The burgeoning visibility of the body is eroding the idea of privacy and the private is increasingly becoming public. Privacy is not something that has always been with us; privacy as a concept and reality has evolved over the past four and a half centuries. For McLuhan, this evolution has been occurring since Socrates warned of the dangers of writing things down (and Plato ignored him), but the key evolutionary ‘leap’ came with the Renaissance. The way that we saw the world and the way we communicated with each other changed fundamentally during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Renaissance was the defining period wherein visibility fractured – rather than the visible being all-that-there-is-to-be-seen it became solely defined by the point of view of the detached observer. The Renaissance legacy here is the vanishing point, at which point the self is effaced from the scene and placed outside of the frame. From this point on everything is determined visibly and through the eye of the beholder. McLuhan writes:

‘Art, or the graphic translation of a culture, is shaped by the way space is perceived. Since the Renaissance...this conception of space was in terms of a perspective projection upon a plane surface consisting of formal units of measurement...’ [Mcluhan, 2001,]

The separation of the viewer from the scene thus engenders the idea of privacy through the act of seeing but not being seen. The reproduction of actuality, through perspective, also gives rise to the idea of forgery or the counterfeit. Thus the concepts of the false and the natural are born of the Renaissance and the idea of a natural point of view is established. 2 In Britain, ideas about public and private spaces began to change due to the influence of the Italian renaissance, which permeated English culture during the sixteenth century. The ‘Elizabethan Style’ in architecture was the transitional stage of the English Renaissance, retaining some characteristics from the Tudor style but tending towards symmetry, in the classic style.3 Buildings, once communal spaces were now divided up into separate (enclosed) rooms. As the living space of the Elizabethans began to change so too did attitudes about the bodies that inhabited them. Frances Barker, in The Tremulous Private Body, makes the argument that the body first enters the realm of privacy during the Elizabethan age, but was only later demonstrated by the publication, sixty years later, of diaries by Samuel Pepys. 4

‘The enclosure of the Pepysian moment is its decisive quality. The text itself rehearses the situation it discloses as it inlays seclusion within seclusion. The very writing, which as its epistemological principle grasps the outer world as an accessible transparency, recedes from that world towards an inner location where the soul – or as modern terminology has it, positionality in discourse – apparently comes to fill the space of meaning and desire.’ [Barker, 1984, 9]

Writing, as an expression of ‘inner space’ first becomes apparent during the 17th and 18th centuries. In his diaries, Pepys speaks at some length of his torment with regards to his body but his situation is not unique. It articulates a social condition that had hitherto not been spoken of before (in print at least).

‘...In [the Pepysian condition] a complex of over-determined relations coalesce, governing bourgeois subjectivity at its founding moment. By no means the tortured predicament of a single, aberrant individual – even its individuation is historically produced – this situation is the result of the revolutionary process that preceded the space of a relatively few years, a new set of relations between state and citizen, body and soul, language and meaning was fashioned. The older sovereignty of the Elizabethan period was disassembled and in its place was established a conjunction of novel social spaces and activities, bound together by transformed lines of ideological and physical force, among which new images of the body and its passions were a crucial, if increasingly occluded element.’ [Barker, 1984, 10]

‘Crucial yet increasingly occluded’ is the significant phrase for me here. Over the proceeding years individuals have learnt to navigate the necessary yet denied body through a series of strategies. It was in the 17th century that attitudes to the body, to secrecy, began to change.5 By the time the Victorian era arrived two hundred years later, sexuality was being confined to the brothel or home, hidden behind the closed doors the bedroom. The whore and the wife occupied distinctly separate situations – pleasure was divorced from procreation. Homosexuality was criminalised and, according to (Victorian) Royal decree, lesbians simply did not exist. It is now generally accepted that by the mid 20th century this era of repression was beginning to reverse and although we are still haunted by our (relatively) recent Victorian past, sexuality ‘far from undergoing a process of restriction, on the contrary has been subjected to a mechanism of increasing incitement.’ [Foucault, 1990, 3] In these early days of the 21st century, we sit astride a new dilemma, that of the newly revealed body. This is a body that is inundated with information, a body always watched, a body whose limits are no longer determined by the skin that covers it, a body whose sexuality is no longer solely defined through procreation or gender stereotypes but through pleasure.

‘Unlike the secret half-life to which the Pepysian corporeality has been assigned, but from which it continues nevertheless to agitate the newly sovereign speech of a disembodied and Cartesian subjectivity, this early body lies athwart that divide between subject and object, discourse and world, that characterizes the later dispensation.’ [Barker, 1984, 24]

Our 21st century bodies, now unsupported by the ‘deleterious separations’ upon which modernity was erected, are vulnerable. Successive innovations in technology, and in particular the shift from mechanical to digital, have peeled back our skins and exposed us. The body is now a host for both object and subject and is laid open to a relentless struggle for sovereignty. Historically and culturally constructed, today’s body is in dispute with the unrealistic limits that define it. The idea of ‘body’ is becoming more and more illusory – body can now only be defined as this body in (temporary) relation to that body. We no longer lie ‘athwart’ the divide between subject and object (as Pepys did), there is no longer a clear divide. The relation between subject and object is of the body, it has collapsed into the body, and attendant on this vulnerable and exposed body is a deep and abiding anxiety. For Barker, the modern body is ‘forced down’ in the face of discourse because unlike the older body, it can no longer bear the central signification that we demand of the body, as flesh. The body as self-centre, as unity, as truth, has become indiscreet and public. Private spaces are disappearing and now the body as the ultimate private space is under threat. Meanings in this new age are changed but the body is also being transformed and relocated. Prior to this change, the body was the measure by which we understood immediacy and the unmediated; it was both the site of desire and of penalty.

‘The carnality of the body has been dissolved and dissipated until it can become reconstituted in writing at a distance from the flesh has become de-realized, representation which becomes at last representational is separated from it and puts in train a mode of signification for which, to borrow a word from Derrida, the body has become supplementary. Neither wholly present, nor wholly absent, the body is confined, ignored, exscribed from discourse, and yet remains at the edge of visibility, troubling the space from which it has been banished.’ [Barker, 1984, 64]

Although Barker’s analysis focuses on text and the impact of writing on ideas of individuality, her words are apt if we understand our bodies to have been inexorably approaching a vanishing point. However, contrary to disappearing we have never been more visibly represented. Indeed, we seem to have multiplied –more levels of simultaneous presence are now available to us. More than this, the contemporary and supplemental body is now hypersensitive, subject to more sensory input than ever before. It is more tangibly present, yet more noticeably absent, through the various forms of telepresence, than the older bodies of modernity and of the Renaissance. Troubled and troubling, this contemporary body no longer fits with existing assumptions about presence.

Alluquere Rosanne Stone, in her influential work The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age makes the case that the ‘virtual age’ offers something new in terms of communication and presence. The shifts in the relationship of body and self, and of self and the world, call into question the location of agency and in doing so, reveal that ‘the accustomed grounding of social interaction in the physical facticity of human bodies is changing.’ [Stone, 1995, 17]

We now communicate according to the principles of parallel processing – we network and we do it virtually. This immateriality feels strange – it feels as if we have become unanchored but always when the connection is broken, we snap back into ‘reality’, we are slapped back into the flesh. It’s a tiny shock, a lurch back into viscerality that provokes uncertainty about my body’s relation to the virtual encounter. At moments I can no longer say for sure where I am in the world – it seems that I am constantly redrawing my relation with the world with increasing acceleration.

‘One factor that bears importantly on the emergence of virtual systems is a change in the character of public space and the development and articulation of particular kinds of private space.’ [Stone, 1995, 18] 6

For the early Elizabethans, the emergence of privacy came with the development of separate interiors within small dwellings. Four and a half centuries later, privacy has begun a rapid disintegration through the development of technology. This occurs clearly with surveillance, and in the increasing control that governments exert over their citizens’ bodies. Covertly and indirectly it occurs in the dissolution of the idea of the individual. We have within us a powerful need for connectivity, for communication and company, not to mention physical contact, but this is always tempered by anxiety about the loss of self/loss of sovereignty. Connectivity can be understood as systemic – as affecting the bodies of those who connect.

French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of connectivity between subjects speaks of it in terms of the Chiasm, but he does not fully account for the anxiety and resistance attendant in giving oneself ‘over to the flow’. The fear of losing a sense of oneself originates in the belief that beings are separate and discontinuous (to use Georges Bataille’s term). The affect of connectivity on the subject, on the subject’s body, can then feel like a loss of control because the body responds reflexively. The sensation of a loss of sovereignty can be experienced as loss and anxiety, it can also be experienced as jouissance – the breathless pleasure of losing oneself in another accompanies trepidation at the thought of losing one’s autonomy.

This contemporary identity crisis, whether we consider it to be engendered by the industrial revolution and modernity, or by the advent of the electrical age and new technologies, has evolved into a crisis of the body. Not only are we anxious because we are unclear as to where the divide between subject and object occurs, but we are anxious also because we are no longer know what the limits of the body are. I can effect an immediate presence in another part of the world without leaving my chair but the implication of this reaches much further than the odd experience of online communication. We must rethink what we mean by the limits of the body, and if we take McLuhan’s line that we are in the final stages of the extensions of humanity, we have to consider if the body any longer has any quantifiable limit. 7

1 For more information on McLuhan, go to
2 I am drawing on Jean Baudrillard here: ‘It is in the Renaissance that the false is born along with the natural. From the fake shirt in front to the use of the fork, as artificial prosthesis, to the stucco interiors and the great baroque theatrical machinery.’ [Baudrillard, 1983, 83]
3 Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) greatly influenced subsequent English architecture. The term Palladin derives from his work.
4 The reigns of James 1st and Charles 1st precipitated the English Civil War (1642-51), which effectively stopped the English renaissance in its tracks. It wasn’t until the Restoration, under Charles 2nd, that renaissance influenced ideas and trajectories resurfaced in British culture.
5 As Michel Foucault points out ‘At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century. It was a time of direct gestures, shameless discourse, and open transgressions, when anatomies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when bodies ‘made a display’ of themselves.’ [Foucault, 1990, 3]
6 She takes this further: ‘The development of a palpable awareness of the self can be followed through the changes by means of which it is produced, beginning in the Middle Ages when information begins to accumulate – the increasing number of family and self portraits; the increasing popularity of mirrors; the development of autobiographical elements in literature; the evolution of seating from benches to chairs; the concept of a child as a stage in development; the ramifications of multiple rooms in small dwellings; the elaboration of a theater of interiority in drama and the arts; and most recently, psychoanalysis.’ [Stone, 1995, 19]
7 The Internet throws up many questions about morality. If we look for long enough on the Internet we can find examples of the most extreme physical behaviour (usually in full colour with animation). Whilst writing this I was making some enquiries into serial killers and the camera. What I wanted to know was if they took photographs/filmed their actions and how significant the camera was to their fantasy. It took me three hits to get from a Google page about Jeffrey Dahmer to colour photographs of his victims in situ. What I found was that the camera was not especially significant to him, but what I have in my mind now is a gruesome array of dismembered corpses, something that I could well do without. For Armin Meiwes (an actual cannibal, who did film his action), his fantasy was facilitated almost entirely by the Internet. And as Mcluhan asserts it is not what we do with the medium but the medium itself that is the message, what we can draw from this is that on the internet, morality has no place. Some Internet users find it hard to distinguish between fantasy and actuality, and not only do some people perpetrate the most atrocious crimes against others, many of us have the appetite to consume images of these acts. For more information on Miewes see