2006-07 Pembroke Seminar

"Mediated Bodies/Bodies of Mediation"
Lynne Joyrich
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center

It is said that we live in a media-saturated world, that the media now constitute the very air we breathe. But what kind of bodies breathe this air (or airwaves), and how are they formed by media technologies and texts? How do bodies appear and disappear in media culture? What other "bodies of mediation" have existed in, for instance, oral, print, or mechanical cultures? This seminar will explore the relationships between the body and the media across histories and cultures, considering how bodies are figured in media forms, how media forms themselves are embodied, and the interrelations among these phenomena. We will ask what we mean by "media" and "body," as both are subject to historical change, technological reframing, and philosophical debate.

Media critique regarding representations of particular bodies—the female body, the diseased body, the queer body, the body of color—is pervasive. Yet there are tensions among the arguments. Critiques of women's position as mediated bodily spectacles are challenged by demands for greater visibility, even sexualization of gay men and lesbians, demands also made for the media presence of African Americans (which have sometimes led, in broadcast media, merely to the isolated development of new "bodies of programming" segregated to certain stations and times). How should we evaluate these critiques? Can they be rethought for other bodies, such as the aging, the differently abled, the nationally or culturally diverse?

Do media forms produce new bodies through new modes of access? Witness the medical gaze, found in programs ranging from plastic surgery TV to CSI-type investigations, that present new bodily relations, even as science develops micro-media sensors to inhabit viwers’ bodies. How do we distinguish between bodies and mediation in advanced technological societies where medically "bionic" bodies are common and an ever-growing reliance on technologies such as cell phones, MP3 players, and PDAs change our very ways of inhabiting our bodies? Do these changes redefine the notion of "body genres,” that is, texts that not only represent bodies in pain or pleasure but elicit bodily responses from viewers (laughter, crying, panic)? Do all media operate at the level of what has been theorized as "shock effect"? To give a disturbing example, many people have commented on their visceral responses to the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. These images are shocking not only for the bodily torture depicted but because such torture was, indeed, photographed. How did the presence of this medium at this scene not only document but actually constitute abuse? What does this example tell us about the ontological status of bodies and media forms and about the ethics and politics of the relationship between them?

Questions regarding bodies of mediation cannot be limited to "new" media practices. Modes of mediation from pre-industrial and industrial cultures, from ritual, folk, and classical arts, also represented and produced particular physicalities and sensations in ways now nostalgically valued as somehow "closer" to an "authentic" body. What is at stake in that evaluation, as well as in the corresponding notion that today's media remove us from the body? Conversely, people speak of new bodily postures, habits, and irritations that media yield (the cliché of the TV viewer "couch potato," the person with a cell phone "attached" to the ear, the internet "surfer" frustrated by waiting for a webpage to load). How have various forms of mediation historically produced certain gestures and bearings, ways of mastering or transforming bodies? Consider, for instance, the history of phonography defined in terms of capturing the voice; cinema's rise attributed to the urge to measure and exhibit bodies through a bio-mechanical eye; utopian discourses of virtual media that promise to transcend the body even as they strive to simulate its sensations.

In today's media, the body seems paradoxically to be both disavowed and a matter of obsessive concern, as demonstrated by the scandal over the "shocking" spectacle of Janet Jackson's breast in the midst of the expected bodily spectacle that typifies the Super Bowl. This case has led to new government policies for bodies in the media that themselves place the bodies of viewers under control—an instance of anxiety about mediated bodies yielding the further mediation of our bodily sensations. Or are bodies already fully mediated and media already fully embodied? Marshall McLuhan famously described media as "extensions of man," providing new sensory organs and prosthetics. Should this claim be taken seriously? Are distinct "body parts" bound to distinct media? Are media flows our own "secretions"? Are they bodily violations? How do they function in what Foucault would call a "capillary" way, touching us and inserting themselves into our daily lives as media forms both display (in their representations) and demand (in our use) new bodies and enactments? At a time when we disavow certain bodies at risk (as, for instance, war planning is increasingly reduced to a video game strategy, seemingly removed from physical pain), even as we hazard new embodiments (as micro-media technologies become our organs and skin), it seems imperative to reexamine conceptualizations, histories, and practices of mediated bodies.