The Cyborg Future of Enjoyment Part 4/5

(Written 2008)

The Body – A Private Satisfaction Machine

Sally Hacker in her 1989 paper The Eye of the Beholder: An Essay on Technology and Eroticism suggests the term ‘pornotechnics’ as a reference to perverse power relations in the artefactual body, as Donna Haraway notes in her The Promise of Monsters (fn. 2), at “the heart of pornotechnics is the military as an institution, with deep roots and wide reach into science, technology, and erotica.” A product of militarism, the cyborg, as Haraway points out, has an oppositional root and is imbued with the drive to deviate from its ontological foundations. As it is suggested in the cyborg manifesto the cyborg “is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries”, that is to say there is a satisfaction to be gained by de-ontologicizing. And is this not the very foundations of jouissance; the satisfaction or drive to enter out of the vicious realm decreed by the pleasure principle, or rather by phallocratic reality. To be sure the cyborg is founded on a level of erotica.

The notion of the struggle to define a cyborg amounting to a border war here needs its full ontological weight. At an elementary level we may understand this to mean the fragmentation of where organism ends and machine begins. But further to this, on advent of the cyborg, our ontology’s are not limited to our bodily capacities; our ontology’s can be driven further, qualifying Lacan’s own admission Encore!

To further my point I will use a filmic example; Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher: Erika, played by Isabelle Huppert is a piano teacher who becomes rather obsessed with a student of hers Walter (Benoît Magimel). Aside from her very astute professional manner, Erika participates in a whole manner of sexual plights which include sadomasochism, micturition, and the use of pornography booths. She goes to some lengths to keep her Mother innocent from her various exploits. A relationship is forged between her and Walter, during which a written document is produced by Erika detailing her innermost desires. Walter finds himself unable to satisfy Erika’s wildest fantasies that only serves to alienate Erika herself. At the end of the film this estrangement reaches such a stage that Erika stabs herself in the shoulder out of frustration. The importance of the character Erika is that it portrays the possibility of there being at the surface of every person – even one as conformist, middle-class, and stiff, one who appears to take heed of societal expectations of a “lady” – a deep longing for the underbelly of sexual activity, the need to get off, so to speak. Furthermore, Erika finds sexual activity with Walter ineffective, he cannot make her lose herself, or de-ontologicize, that is to say, experience jouissance. Erika realises enjoyment of this kind as self-enclosed, as those things that deviate from the “normal” phallocentric heterosexual union, in acts such as genital slicing (perceived perhaps as actually manipulating her own visual signification), orgasmic urination at an open-top cinema, and smelling used tissues whilst watching pornography.

On the one hand Erika is shown not to be comfortable with herself when she behaves as she is expected to be, when one considers her professional capacity and ontological constitution. On the other hand she is shown to be properly excited and blissful when engaging in activities that drive beyond these principles, when she is experiencing jouissance. Is this not the reality of the cyborg, not being ontologically defined by its visual signification and experiencing bliss as a by-product of this. Erika here is precisely a cyborg – positively because she is subverting the harsh guidelines by which the symbolic order is a by-product of (a curtailing of Woman’s blissful experience), and negatively because, as Robert W. Anderson puts it in his Butler-esque titled Body Parts that Matter: Frankenstein, or The Modern Cyborg, the cyborg is the place “on to which the anxieties of the “normal” are displaced.” (para. 42, my italics)

As The Piano Teacher aims to highlight it is not ‘normal’ in our harsh reality for Woman’s body to be a private satisfaction machine like Erika’s is. Donna Haraway herself expresses concern with the current sexual climate when saying

“the close ties of sexuality and instrumentality, of views of the body as a kind of private satisfaction – and utility-maximizing machine, are described nicely in sociobiological origin stories that stress a calculus and explain the inevitable dialectic of domination of male and female gender roles” (169).

The sociobiological accounts appear at first glance to be positive but insightful of the inevitable domination – we may view the symbolic order as such, as a guarantee of sanity but the key to the inevitability of inequality. The Piano Teacher summarizes Haraway’s own anxiety that Erika is able to experience satisfaction in the style of a cybernetic machine (again, in the words of Grosz, “the circuit of a perfectly self-enclosed auto-eroticism”) but that it eventually leads to dissatisfaction in the (hetero-)sexual domain that is not devious and thus explains the inevitable dialectic of (Man’s) domination.

Part 5 tomorrow