CACS Case studies: Body

Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.



Critical theory’s interest in the body (usually, though not exclusively, taken to mean the human body) is quite diverse and dates back to French philosopher René Descartes’ s famous splitting of the mind from the body. With the exception of Baruch de Spinoza, who vigorously decried philosophy’s ignorance of what the body can do, philosophy has tended to treat the body with mistrust as the site of uncontrollable impulses and instincts. This only began to change in the early 20th century with the advent of phenomenology, especially the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was probably the first philosopher to attempt a genuine philosophy of the body. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, it is feminism in all its forms that has given the greatest attention to the body. On a philosophical level, French feminist philosophers, starting with Simone de Beauvoir, have shown that philosophy’s neglect of the body is at one with its neglect of the issue of sexual difference. The body, in this regard, is the site of an almost essential form of sexual difference, which has in turn led to the formation of a sex/gender binary. But as Judith Butler has pointed out, it is fallacious to think that there is a natural body that is distinct from a cultural body, so to correlate sex with biology and gender with culture is similarly mistaken. Along the same lines, Donna Haraway has challenged the formal boundaries of the body in two ways: on the one hand, she has shown that the distinction between animal and human is difficult to sustain in any absolute sense (not only are we genetically alike, we also depend on animals in a range of different ways), while on the other hand, she has argued that the human body itself has become a cyborg because of its integration with machines. On a political level, using the slogan ‘body politics’, feminism has confronted issues such as prostitution, pornography, rape, contraception, abortion, and other concerns which directly involve the body both physically and symbolically such as anorexia, bulimia, and self-harm. As a lateral extension of this kind of work cultural studies has examined the way the body has become an object of cultural concern, even panic, by exploring its representation in the media and the corresponding attempts by people to imitate these images. Here the work of Michel Foucault, particularly his concepts of biopower and discipline, has been crucial.

(Buchanan 2010, 64-5).



A form of political power that revolves around populations (humans as a species or as productive capacity) rather than individuals (humans as subjects or citizens). The focus of much of his late work, biopower was conceived by Michel Foucault as a distinctively new form of political rationality. Traditionally, according to Foucault’s own schematization, western political thought was primarily concerned with the twofold problem of what constitutes the just and good life and how can men (in the period in question, from the time of Aristotle until the early Renaissance, women were excluded from politics) be persuaded to adhere to it. As an art, politics was supposed to serve a higher goal, namely God’s purpose. Then, from the early 1500s, a less spiritually virtuous and more politically calculating way of thinking emerged, for which the name Machiavelli is a universally recognized shorthand. Now, political thought focused on the practicalities of obtaining, maintaining and extending the power of the prince, ignoring the freedom and virtue of the citizens. Beginning at the same time as Machiavelli, but only rising to prominence much later, still another form of thinking about power began to be formulated by the nameless bureaucrats and policy-makers who actually run governments, which had no other concern than the power of the state. It viewed the population of the state as a resource and developed knowledge about its people accordingly: on the one hand, it wanted to learn about humans as a species and come to know their biological secrets, and on the other hand, it wanted to develop the capacity of humans as machines by disciplining their bodies. Foucault termed this new kind of political rationality biopower because it concerned itself with every aspect of life, right down to its most minute parts, though only in the abstract. It was interested in the health of the people in statistical terms, not existential terms—it cared about how people live and die, but not who lives and dies. For the first time in history, Foucault argues, biological existence was reflected in political existence, and in consequence the very existence of the species itself was wagered on political questions. Giorgio Agamben’s theory of bare life originates in this thesis as does Hardt and Negri‘s concepts of Empire and multitude.

(Buchanan 2010, 59-60).


A term used in contemporary Postcolonial Studies to theorize and to a certain degree celebrate a global state of mixedness—a mixedness of cultures, races, ethnicities, nations, and so on. The term is drawn from biology, where it is used to describe the intermingling of different strains or species of plants and animals to produce ‘new’ species (the mule, which is the offspring of a donkey and horse, is a perfect example of a hybrid). Interestingly, in colonial and imperial discourse of the 19th century, the term hybridity carried negative connotations and was used primarily to signal what the ‘white’ races had to fear if miscegenation was left unchecked. Its meaning has effectively been reversed. In part, this is because an alternative affirmative use of the term is available in the work of Russian literary critic and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who uses it in the development of his key concepts of the carnivalesque and dialogism. Today, the term is probably most closely associated with Homi Bhabha, who uses the term to stress the interdependence of colonizer and colonized, and to therefore argue that one cannot claim a ‘purity’ of racial or national identity. All identity, he maintains, is produced in a kind of third space, which is ‘in between’ the subject and their idealized other. The term is not without its critics, however, even from within Postcolonial Studies: Aijaz Ahmad, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Benita Parry have all offered critiques of the term on the grounds that it is idealist and doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground (in other words it doesn’t pass what Toni Morrison has wittily described as the ‘taxi test’, i.e. a hybrid identity might be fine in theory but will a taxi still stop for you?). These critics rightly point out that hybridity is too often used simply to uncritically describe a state of being, rather than analyse it. However, Nestor Garcia Canclini also offers a utopian account of this term, which suggests a far greater depth than Ahmad, Parry, and Mohanty are prepared to credit.

(Buchanan 2010, 237-8).






Mary Shelley 1818, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, London.

Because Frankenstein is so familiar as a popular cultural reference this lecture will step away from the book and films to examine the technological body in the 21st century, and introduce new concepts for describing the relationships between bodies, technologies and nature. How has the concept of body changed and transformed over the past 200 years? Are all bodies the same? Are all bodies equal?


Elaine Radigue 1996 [1974], Biogenesis, Metamkine.


Biogenisis is experimental electronic music, created by recording the heartbeats of Elaine Radigue’s son, daughter and unborn grandchild, mixed with a synthesiser. This is music which celebrates the corporeal, and was a divergence from Radigue’s previous and following styles. Experiementing with hybridity and the ‘mixidness’ of the biological and technological/mechanical, Radigue finds a new story in one of the oldest sounds known to humans. Listen to a segment of the recording here (you will need headphones):

Watch this documentary to see Radigue at work on her synth and get some insights into how she layers her sounds:

Force Majeure 2015, Nothing to Lose, Dir. Kate Champion, Chor. Ghenoa Gela,  Commissioned by Sydney Festival and Carriageworks.


This dance performance celebrates one of the last great taboos, the ‘fat body’. In a piece that blatantly challenges conceptions of the ‘normal’, Kate Champion directs a piece which questions aesthetic norms, conceptions of beauty and challenges stereotypes. Created in collaboration with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, this piece allows what Drinkwater calls the ‘nuanced experiences’ of living in a bigger body to happen. In a world where the body is theorised, shaped and controlled, this work asks us to open up the space for a more open debate about the body and its place on stage. Watch Champion and Drinkwater discuss the performance here:

Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe 1963-4, Robot K-456, 20-channel radio controlled anthropomorphic robot, not on display.


Nam June Paik was an artist known for humanising technology in his explorations of the interconnections between technology and the body. In this early collaboration with engineer Shuya Abe, he collected household goods, toys and electronics parts to create a robot roughly modelled on the human figure which could move, walk, talk and perform rudimentary functions (including defecating white beans). The robot performed in the 1964 Robot Opera where it spoke with the recorded voice of John F. Kennedy.

Use your online research skills to find some examples of Robot K-456 in action and some other examples of Paik’s work (particularly his video installations), think about what it means to recreate the body in this mechanical but playful way.

Sasha Waltz 2012, KÖRPER / S / NOBODY, 2000-2002, Schaubühne, Berlin.

This three-piece choreographic cycle focuses intensively on the human body, relating the human figure to architecture, science and history. In what has been called “extraordinary research” (, Sasha Waltz created a trilogy of dance pieces that engage human bodies to explore technological themes. These dances question the meaning of the human body and ask what it means to have a body, how we exist within our flesh and which parts of us, if any, are immortal. This production filmed by Eve Sussman, who brought us the 89 Seconds at Alcazar video in week 5.

Watch this trailer for the DVD (nudity warning) and compare the questions asked of the bodies here with those in the Force Majeure performance. What does it mean to ask the body to represent the technological?

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr 2004, Victimless Leather, biodegradable polymer, mouse cells and human cells, not on display.


“Leather” Oran Catts says, “is such an abstraction of the life form from which it originated that in the eyes of many people in modern, urban, western societies don’t make the link” ( In this work, Catts attempts to make that link very explicit. As an exploration of bodies beyond the human, Catts’ leather jacket is grown from mouse and human cells mounted onto a biodegradable polymer framework and then nurtured in a bioreactor. This work explores the hybrid organic/technological in way that is designed to make the audience squirm.

Read this interview with Catts and think about how you might extend your own artistic practice if you had access to the artistic labs at SymbioticA (

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