“My aim then is to trace the history of this reconfiguration of the body through scientific techniques of motion recording and analysis—techniques that were used to put forth a model of the body as a dynamic, distinctly living and moving, system.”
Lisa Cartwright, 4
One of the themes emergent in Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture is the way in which the ideas of Science, the cinematic, and Life are intertwined. Reading through Cartwright, I found myself continually referring back to a core set of questions: How is life represented visually? By whom and why? How does the visual construction of life go on to influence popular understandings of the concept?
Although Cartwright decides to focus on the cinematic—a term that has less to do with actual film than a mode of seeing, observing, and projecting—I found myself thinking through how similar functions are performed by science/speculative fiction, natural history museums, and science journalism as interfaces between scientific communities and the public. For me, the power of these spaces is very much tied to the way in which they allow Life to be visualized and, in so doing, influence the way(s) in which Life can be imagined.
Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes or comprises “life” at any given moment in history—which, I would venture, is not quite the same thing as the notion of being “alive”—has long been tied to what Science has been able to see. In an article for the digital magazine Aeon, Phillip Ball wrote the following about the impact of the microscope in early modern culture:
The 17th-century philosopher Robert Hooke echoed [Aristotole’s] wonder at nature’s invisible intricacy. It was his book, Micrographia (1665), that put microscopy on the map. Crucially, Hooke’s volume was not merely descriptive: it included large, gorgeous engravings of what he saw through the lens, skilfully prepared by his own hand. The power of these illustrations was impossible to resist. Here were fantastical gardens discovered in mould, snowflakes like fronds of living ice and, most shockingly, insects such as fleas got up in articulated armour like lobsters, and a fly that gazes into the lens with 14,000 little eyes, arranged in perfect order on two hemispheres.
Although Hooke is a fascinating figure, Ball’s anecdote gestures toward the way in which the visual representation of life forms a key link between the observations of the scientist and the communication of those ideas to others.
Extending Cartwright’s analysis of graphic representations of life, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture has elected to represent life in visual media. One branch, I think, is aligned with immersive media and the trend for medical visualizations to become increasingly interactive. Recalling the ways in which the moving image challenged thinking based on microscopy and photography, it seems prudent to consider whether understandings of life will again be reconfigured in the age of 3-D and real-time.
For me, however, it is another form of life’s visual representation that presents a more pervasive and potentially insidious change: linked with the rise in the “quantified self” that has been mentioned in class, concepts of Life have come to be increasingly characterized, not in terms of motion, but in terms of data streams.
IBM’s “Data Baby” (2010)
Sprint’s “I Am Unlimited” (2012)
I will admit to being particularly upset at the way in which the Sprint ad suggests that “the human experience” can be fully represented by pixels but I do think that it makes a rather interesting visual connection between essences of life and data. On one level, the commercial is fairly upfront about its message to sell consumers on a “truly” unlimited data plan but, watching the ad, I couldn’t help but think about Kara Keeling’s invocation of Deleuze in The Witch’s Flight. Here Deleuze speaks to an analytical framework that attempts to identify the dual manifestations of illusion within the cinematic.
The political challenge for filmmakers, according to Deleuze’s analysis, is to reveal that which has been hidden in the image by rediscovering “everything that has been removed to make [the image] interesting” or by “suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything.” (18)
There is a certainly a reductive quality in the Sprint ad that simplifies the ambiguous concept of Life down into (less vague?) data. If we ascribe to Deleuze, this process of removal is a restrictive political act that, I think, ultimately constricts the way in which concepts of life can be imagined. Yet, instead of immediately blaming the practice—which seems analogous to the illustrations used in texts like Gray’s Anatomy to help young medical students learn about the body—it seems far more sensible to interrogate why we choose to augment or depress the representation of life in the first place.
It would have been difficult for [Joseph] Priestly, contemplating that tenacious sprig of mint in the lab on Bansinghall Street, to perceive that a Kuhnian revolution was at hand, not just because the concept didn’t exist yet, but more important because there was no ‘dominant paradigm’ for him to overturn. The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff—people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint—and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff
—Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, 66
Derrida, J. (1968). Différance. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Philosophie, 73-101.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was the founder of “deconstruction,” a way of criticizing not only both literary and philosophical texts but also political institutions. Derrida entered college (École Normale) at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age: Deleuze, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, Barthes, and Marin. Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Ricœur, Blanchot, and Levinas were also still alive. Derrida was largely influenced by Nietzche, Hidegger, and Saussure and, in turn, influenced Irigaray, Cixous, Deleuze, and Lyotard.
The term deconstruction signifies certain strategies for reading and writing texts. The term was introduced into philosophical literature in 1967, with the publication of three texts by Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology (1974), Writing and Difference (1978), and Speech and Phenomena (1973). Derrida and deconstruction are routinely associated with postmodernism, although like Deleuze and Foucault, he does not use the term and would resist affiliation with “-isms” of any sort. Of the three books from 1967, Of Grammatology is the more comprehensive in laying out the background for deconstruction as a way of reading modern theories of language, especially structuralism, and Heidegger’s meditations on the non-presence of being. It also sets out Derrida’s difference with Heidegger over Nietzsche.
Just as in the essay “On the Question of Being” (Heidegger 1998, 291-322) Heidegger sees fit to cross out the word “being,” leaving it visible, nevertheless, under the mark, Derrida takes the closure of metaphysics to be its “erasure,” where it does not entirely disappear, but remains inscribed as one side of a difference, and where the mark of deletion is itself a trace of the difference that joins and separates this mark and what it crosses out. Derrida calls this joining and separating of signs différance (Derrida 1974, 23), a device that can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French. The “a” is a written mark that differentiates independently of the voice, the privileged medium of metaphysics. In this sense, différance as the spacing of difference, as archi-writing, would be the gram of grammatology. However, as Derrida remarks: “There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin” (Derrida 1974, 63). Instead, there is only the marking of the trace of difference, that is, deconstruction.
For Derrida, written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions. As Derrida famously remarks, “there is no outside-text” (Derrida 1974, 158), that is, the text includes the difference between any “inside” or “outside.” A text, then, is not a book, and does not, strictly speaking, have an author. On the contrary, the name of the author is a signifier linked with others, and there is no master signifier (such as the phallus in Lacan) present or even absent in a text. This goes for the term “différance” as well, which can only serve as a supplement for the productive spacing between signs. Therefore, Derrida insists that “différance is literally neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982, 3). Instead, it can only be marked as a wandering play of differences that is both a spacing of signifiers in relation to one another and a deferral of meaning or presence when they are read.
Derrida illustrates one key concept of différance by drawing the reader’s attention to the word itself. Juxtaposing the French word différer (“to differ”) with the Greek word diapherein, Derrida reinforces the dual nature of différance as noted earlier in “Différance.” Diapherein, Derrida writes, refers to the common meaning of difference, indicating that two things are dissimilar; this form of difference for Derrida can be conceptualized as a sort of horizontal/spatial relationship as two things must necessarily exist simultaneously (albeit in different spaces). To this Derrida adds in a dimension of time through his reading of différance as a verb that can also indicate a deferral—on the most basic level, this implies a single thing at two points in time.
Difference, for Derrida, does not imply “separate,” however as différance speaks to a way in which difference contains an element of sameness: in order to compare things (a necessary positioning that must occur before difference can be established), there must be a dimension on which they are comparable. As example, the American expression “It’s like comparing apples to oranges” is often used to suggest widely disparate elements but Derrida might point out that both objects belong to a number of similar categories (e.g., fruit, round, edible, etc.) and thus the very establishment of difference in one respect serves to reinforce sameness in another.
Abstracting the apple and orange example, Derrida referred to the system of connections between objects of difference as an assemblage. It is important to note that Derrida did not view this construction as a static system but rather, in a nod to Saussure and the infinite chain of meanings formed as signs became signifiers for other signs, urged readers to consider that the configuration of the assemblage was always in flux. Derrida cites Saussure on page 285 of Literary Theory to put forth the idea that “in language there are only differences” but, perhaps more significant, is Saussure’s reminder that “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither idea nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.”
Drawing upon Hegel, différance, then, is what makes presentation (i.e., distinction) possible for Derrida, as things are only brought into being through difference and, as such, identity is always based in a thing’s relationship to other things and concepts like authenticity do not apply. To help clarify this concept we can return to the apple and orange example noted earlier: in order for an “apple” and an “orange” to exist, Derrida argues that we must first determine that a difference exists between that which we would then call an apple or an orange. This difference does not merely refer to the creation of separate words but instead that these two things are in fact different enough to be separated from each other. As suggested by the epigraph to this summary, difference/différance is an inherent part of classification/order and stands in contrast to nothingness.
Finally, one conclusion draws from Saussure is that “the signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself” (285). Consequentially, although it might be difficult to grasp initially, Derrida also argues that différance is not a concept or a word that itself exists inside of the assemblage.