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© copyright Kellie Greene

Technological Interventions

Nicole Anderson and Nikki Sullivan

This special issue of Scan is founded on the premise that the task of cultural criticism is less an outright refusal or naïve celebration of ‘Technology’, and more an ongoing detailed and nuanced analysis of what Anna Munster has described as ‘the difficult territories of compromise and ambivalence’ associated with the use, appropriation, extension, and/or subversion of specific practices and procedures in specific historical, cultural, and political contexts.

In this issue of Scan we are interested in interrogating the various modes of intervention that take place in and through technology (in the broadest possible sense). While the papers in this issue take varying methodological approaches to the issue of technology (ranging from philosophical, textual analysis, to ethnographic), and the contributors range from academics to medical, artistic and performance practitioners, what all the papers have in common is that they engage with both active political, social, ethical, cultural and historical interventions with technologies of various kinds, and the ways in which technologies configure, affect, mediate and/or embody social relations. In other words, by bringing different approaches and methodologies together what this issue of Scan hopes to demonstrate, or more aptly, enact, is the notion that technologies are thoroughly embedded in contextually specific cultural processes: the varying philosophical, literary, artistic, medical, gendered, embodied, classed issues and social and cultural practices these papers address are evident of this contextually. Indeed, the papers themselves could be said to constitute a form of technological intervention, which in itself is productive, generative, and interventionist, and affects both selves and the technologies to which we are inextricably bound, in significant ways.

Nikki Sullivan interrogates the various ‘myths’ surrounding and informing ‘technology’, and turns to the ‘promise of monsters’ articulated by Donna Haraway, Mary Shelley, Angela Carter and Shelley Jackson in order to reconceive the boundaries and connections between technologies (in the broadest possible sense of the term) and selves.

Anne Cranny-Francis’ concern is the semiotic and cultural history of the cyborg, a hybrid figure that finds one of its earliest and, for western societies, most profound manifestations in the tortured, perforated and bleeding body of the crucified Christ. This hybrid – God and man – is interrogated in order to explain the ability of such figures to articulate a range of experiences and understandings of embodiment, and to reveal the mechanisms and possibilities of our engagements with technology.

Cynthia Townley and Mitch Parsell argue that the internet is a forum for the creation of virtual communities that develop their own norms of behaviour and sanctions for misbehaviour and, as such, it possesses the necessary resources to ground the type of protest Gandhi advocated. In order to substantiate this thesis, Townley and Parsell examine three recent cyberspace incidents: (1) proposed changes to the working of the Wikipedia; (2) Google’s decision to provide a censored Chinese search service, and; (3) the use of denial of service style attacks on peer-to-peer service provides by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Nick Mansfield argues against the commonly held assumption that whilst fundamentalism may appropriate technology and turn it against the modern world, it nevertheless remains alien to the cultural logic that allows technology to develop. Drawing on Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity, and his reading of the opposition between faith and knowledge Mansfield argues that fundamentalism relies on a pre-existing rationalism, just as tele-technoscience assumes a certain logic of faith; that ultimately, both sides of this imagined divide encourage and facilitate, while resisting one another. Mansfield’s intervention thereby reveals the autoimmune logic that structures the conventional oppositions between fundamentalism and technology, religion and reason, faith and knowledge, and ultimately dogmatism and democracy.

Nicole Anderson’s paper revolves around the following question: what is the relation between technology and the subject, and what might this mean for any attempt to write the discourse of the subject itself? In the course of her discussion, Anderson suggests that Derrida’s arguments on the frame and photography (imaging technologies) represent a sophisticated means by which to think the subject, not as separate from but as technology. She argues that the subject-object dichotomy (and its accompanying ‘instrumental’ ontology) remains the default position for accounts of the relation between ‘man’ as organism and the artefacts and practices of technology. But, as Anderson shows, this assumption simply replays the humanist account of the subject in its instrumental relation to the phenomenal universe ‘outside’: with ‘technology’ cast in the guise of ‘other’. Using Derrida’s critique of Kant on the frame (the parergonal) she deconstructs the dichotomy inside/outside, working across a series of analogies between the subject as presence/absence and the frame as a limit defined by its instability. Looked at from this perspective, boundaries between the inside and outside, the organismic and the technological, like those between the frame and what it separates, inevitably blur. The subject, by analogy, looses its outline, becomes indistinct: it is now simply an artefact of the scale at which phenomena are theorized. Subject must therefore be rethought: it can now be understood not simply as presence, but as presence-in-absence in alterity: as a dispersion or deferral across an array of systems - social, biological and material - within which and through which it is (re)constituted. By rethinking the subject in this way, we must inevitably rethink technology (and not just in its instrumentality: in its very ontology): in this rethinking, subject and technology become mutually constitutive. Given this, Anderson’s paper attempts to raise some searching questions about the problematic boundary between soma and techne, subject and other.

Sara Davidmann’s paper is the result of a four-year photography and interview collaborative study undertaken with transsexual people that extends conventional photo-elicitation methods. Davidmann explores the intervention of technology in transsexual experiences from two different perspectives. First, the physical changes transsexual people undergo is examined through the accounts of two transsexual people who self-identify beyond the binary categories. Second, Davidmann considers the potential for photography to constitute a critical/technological intervention that facilitates a questioning of pre-conceptions of gender and the body, contests the boundaries of the binaries, and presents a challenge to the dominant gender system.

Norman Cherry interrogates, from his position as a practitioner and educator in the Visual Arts, the possibly productive ways in which tissue engineering might be employed by, or is likely to play a part in, what we might think of as ‘non-mainstream’ body modification practices of the future. Of particular interest to Cherry is the production of a three dimensional culture of one’s own cells which it may soon be possible to have inserted under one’s skin: cells which will grow into bone, cartilage, or other soft tissue.  What Cherry shows in and through this exploration of angiogenetic body adornment is that technologies intended to alleviate suffering and misery can be, and in fact are, commonly employed to other, sometimes ‘subversive’ ends.

Mark Seton’s paper considers the theatrical written text as a technology that, in practice through performance, shapes embodied experience. He argues that the theatre text is not taken seriously as a technology that indiscriminately affects, mediates and embodies social relationships. From a phenomenological perspective, words actually express meaning in the way that the body expresses intentions by concurrently symbolising and realising them. This phenomenological understanding of the written word, as a technological intervention, has ethical and practical implications for the many human agents – actors, directors, stage crew and audiences - engaged in the performing arts.