By others, Digital Philosophy, Essays, Library, Uncategorized

DIGITAL BODIES

Deborah Lupton, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra This is a pre-print of a chapter to be published in Routledge Handbook of Physical Cultural Studies, edited by D. Andrews, M. Silk and H. Thorpe. London: Routledge.

 

Introduction

Human bodies have always interacted with technologies. However the nature of the technology has changed over the millennia. In the contemporary digital era, bodies are digitised as never before, both by individuals on their own behalf and by other actors and agencies seeking to portray and monitor their bodies. From Facebook status updates and images, Instagram selfies, YouTube videos and tweets to exergames, sophisticated digital medical imaging technologies and the ceaseless generation of data from sensor-based devices and environments, human bodies now emit vast quantities of digital data. A major change in digitised embodiment is the ways in which detailed data are now generated on the geolocation, movements, appearance, behaviours and functions of bodies and the uses to which these data are put as part of the digital data knowledge economy. The cyborg body has transformed into the digital body, whose data outputs possess commercial, managerial and research as well as personal value and status to a range of actors and agencies beyond the individual.

In this chapter I examine the ways in which human bodies interact with and are configured by digital technologies and how these technologies generate new knowledges and practices in relation to bodies. I use infants and young children as a case study to explain these aspects. From before they are even born, children’s bodies are now frequently represented and monitored by digital technologies, including medical imaging and monitoring devices as well as social media sites, surveillance and self-tracking technologies. In my discussion I draw on literature from sociocultural theorising of the body, childhood, digital technologies and big data, particularly that by scholars adopting the sociomaterial perspective. The chapter is divided into two main parts. The first presents a general overview of theoretical approaches to conceptualising the interactions between bodies and technologies, while the second part is devoted to outlining the ways in which infants’ and young children’s bodies are digitised.

 

Theorising digital bodies

Scholars in the sociology of the body and technocultures developed an interest in the entanglements of human bodies with computerised technologies following the advent of personal computing in the mid-1980s. The terms ‘cyborg’ and ‘cyberspace’ (among many other ‘cyber’ neologisms) were adopted to discuss the ways in which computer users interacted with their PCs and with each other online. Donna Haraway’s work on the political implications of the cyborg as a heterogeneous, ambiguous and hybrid entity has been particularly important in drawing attention to the fluidities of embodiment and selfhood (Haraway 1991, 1997). Many other social researchers into the 1990s and early 2000s seized on the concept of the cyborg to investigate the forms of embodiment that are generated or mediated by digital technologies across a range of contexts: including, for example, computer users, IVF embryos, menopausal women, athletes and older people (Buse 2010, Franklin 2006, Leng 1996, Lupton 1995, Rayvon 2012)

Cyber terminology is not as often employed in discussions of the social, cultural and political dimensions of computer technology use now that academic terminology has moved more to a focus on the ‘digital’ (Lupton 2015b). However the important work of Haraway and others writing on cyborg bodies developed an argument that acknowledges the complexity of relationships between human and nonhuman actors and calls into question ideas about the fixed nature of identity and embodiment (Lupton 2015c). Such a perspective is now often referred to as ‘sociomaterialism’. It recognises that subject and object co-configure each other as part of a relationship. Objects are viewed as participating in specific sets of relations, including those with other artefacts as well as with people (Fenwick and Landri 2012, Latour 2005, Law 2008, Law and Hassard 1999). The term ‘assemblage’ is often used to capture these entanglements. Assemblages of human flesh and nonhuman actors are constantly configured and reconfigured. They facilitate modes of knowing and living the body.

People domesticate technologies by bringing them into their everyday worlds, melding them to their bodies/selves and bestowing these objects with their own biographically- specific meanings. They become ‘territories of the self’, marked by individual use, and therefore redolent of personal histories (Nippert-Eng 1996). This concept of territories of the self acknowledges that bodies and selves are not contained to the fleshly envelope of the individual body, but extend beyond this into space and connect and interconnect with other bodies and objects. These processes are inevitably relational because they involve embodied interactions and affective responses (Labanyi 2010, Lupton 2015b, forthcoming). As Merleau-Ponty (1968) argues, our embodiment is always inevitably interrelational or intercorporeal. We experience the world as fleshly bodies, via the sensations and emotions configured through and by our bodies as they relate to other bodies and to material objects and spaces. We touch these others and they touch us. Our bodies are distributed throughout the spaces we inhabit, just as these spaces and the others within them inhabit. Embodiment, then, is primarily a relational assemblage. The concept of ‘the person’ (including the person’s body) becomes distributed between the interactions of heterogeneous elements (Lee 2008).

 

In the digital age, practices of embodiment are increasingly becoming enacted via digital technologies. We now no longer refer to the separate environment of ‘cyber space’ as our everyday worlds have become so thoroughly digitised. Where once the figure of the cyborg was a science-fiction creation of superhuman powers (Lupton 1995), our bodies now engage routinely with digital technologies to the extent that it is taken-for-granted. It is now frequently argued that online and offline selves cannot be distinguished from each other any longer, given the pervasiveness and ubiquity of online participation. Instead categories of flesh, identity and technology are porous and intermeshed (Elwell 2014, Hayles 2012). Our bodies are digital data assemblages (Lupton 2015c).

Digital social theorists have drawn attention to the increasingly sensor-saturated physical environments in which people move, which add to the pre-existing technologies for visually observing and documenting human movements in public spaces, such as CCTV cameras (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin and Dodge 2011, Lyon and Bauman 2013). Kitchin and Dodge (2011) use the term ‘code/space’ to describe the intersections of software coding with the spatial configurations of humans and nonhumans. They underline the power of code to shape, manage, monitor and discipline the movements of bodies in space and place, including both public and private domains. Digital representations of bodies and digital data on many aspects of embodiment are generated from the various sites, devices and spaces which with individuals interact daily: the transactional data produced via routine encounters with surveillance cameras in public spaces, sensors or online websites, platforms and search engines or from the content that people upload voluntarily to social media sites or collect on themselves using self-tracking devices. These technologies create and recreate certain types of digital data assemblages which can then be scrutinised, monitored and used for various purposes, including intervention (Elmer 2003, Haggerty and Ericson 2000, Lupton 2012b).

The collection and analysis of digitised information about people’s behaviours are now becoming increasingly advocated and implemented in many social contexts and institutions, including the workplace, education, medicine and public health, insurance, government, marketing, advertising and commerce, the military, citizen science and urban planning and management. The growing commodification and commercial value of digital data sets and their use in these domains are blurring the boundaries between small and big data, the private and the public. People are now encouraged, obliged or coerced into using digital devices for monitoring aspects of their lives to produce personal data that are employed not only for private and voluntary purposes but also for the purposes of others. These data have begun to be appropriated by a range of actors and agencies, including commercial, managerial, research and governmental (Lupton forthcoming).

 

Critical data scholars have drawn attention to the valorisation of quantifiable information in the digital data economy and the algorithmic processing of this information as part of new forms of soft power relations and the production of inequalities (Cheney-Lippold 2011, Kitchin 2014, Lupton 2015b). Digital data can have tangible material effects on people’s actions, including the ways in which their bodies are conceptualised, managed and disciplined by themselves and others. The calculations and predictions that are generated by software algorithms are beginning to shape people’s life chances and opportunities such as their access to insurance, healthcare, credit and employment and their exclusion from spaces and places, as in the identification of potential criminals and terrorists (Crawford and Schultz 2014).

It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate digital technologies from their users, as both are viewed as mutually constituted. Technologies discipline the body to better assimilate it to their requirements, their ways of seeing, monitoring and treating human flesh. Bodies about to be scanned by MRI technology, for example, must be adapted and customised to a specific physical norm: they cannot be too tall or overweight, suffer from claustrophobia, wear jewellery or spectacles or contain metallic implants, hearing aids or pacemakers. The patient must stay still and calm according to the directions of the technologies and physicians taking the scan (Burri 2007).

However bodies also shape technologies. The new mobile and wearable devices are carried or worn on the body, becoming a body prosthetic, an extension of the body. When people handle or touch technologies, they may leave the marks of their bodies on the devices: body oils, sweat, skin flakes. Software is also transformed by use. Now that digital technologies are increasingly used as part of the practices of selfhood, digital archives have become important storage places for personalised bodily data. Images, descriptions and markers of users’ bodies are entered into the memories of their digital devices: photographs and videos of themselves, records of their geolocation, the detailed biometric information that is generated by self-tracking apps. Digital devices and software have become repositories of selfhood and embodiment (Lupton 2015b, forthcoming).

Young children’s embodiment and digital technologies

All human bodies are understood to be in the process of constant transformation, requiring engaging in work on the self and reflexive self-monitoring as part of performing selfhood and embodiment. Foucault refers to these ethical practices of citizenship as ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault 1986, 1988), while Beck uses the term ‘reflexive biography’ (Beck 1992, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995) to denote the ways in which people are encourage to seek knowledge and use it to improve their life chances, health and wellbeing. The idea of the unfinished body is particularly true of children’s bodies, which are viewed as requiring constant monitoring, assessment and improvement from themselves and other actors and agencies to achieve the ideal of the civilized body (Jenks 2005, Lupton 2013a, Uprichard 2008).

 

While developing in utero and following birth, children’s bodies are measured and observed for signs of ‘normal’ growth and development, and they are continually subjected to practices that seek to socialise and normalise their bodies. Children’s bodies – and especially those of the unborn, infants and the very young – are regarded as particularly precious and vulnerable, requiring the intense surveillance of their caregivers as part of efforts to protect them from risk and ensure their optimum health and development (Lupton 2013a, 2014). These efforts are now often rendered into digital forms with the use of an array of devices and software.

The sociomaterialist perspective has been taken up by several scholars writing about children’s bodies, particularly within cultural geography, but also by some sociologists and anthropologists (Horton and Kraftl 2006a, 2006b, Lee 2008, Prout 1996, Woodyer 2008). Researchers using a sociomaterialist approach have conducted studies on, for example, children’s use of asthma medication (Prout 1996), the surveillant technologies that have developed around controlling children’s body weight in schools (Rich et al. 2011), children’s sleep and the objects with which they interact (Lee 2008), the interrelationship of objects with pedagogy and classroom management of students’ bodies (Mulcahy 2012) and sociomaterial practices in classrooms that lead to the inclusion or exclusion of children with disabilities (Söderström 2014). Outside sociomaterialist studies, young children’s interactions with digital technologies have attracted extensive attention from social researchers, particularly in relation to topics such as the potential for cyber-bullying, online paedophilia and for children to become unfit and overweight due to spending too much time in front of screens (Holloway et al. 2013). However few researchers thus far have directed their attention to the types of digital technologies that visually represent children’s bodies or render their body functions, activities and behaviours into digital data; or, in other words, how children’s bodies become digital data assemblages.

From the embryonic stage of development onwards, children’s bodies are now routinely monitored and portrayed using digital technologies. A plethora of websites provide images of every stage of embryonic and foetal development, from fertilisation to birth, using a combination of digital images taken from embryo and foetus specimens and digital imaging software (Lupton 2013c). 3/4D ultrasounds have become commodified, used for ‘social’ or ‘bonding’ purposes instead of the traditional medical diagnostic and screening scan. Many companies offering 3/D ultrasounds now come to people’s homes, allowing expectant parents to invite family and friends and turn a viewing of the foetus into a party event. This sometimes involves a ‘gender reveal’ moment, in which the sonographer demonstrates to all participants, including the parents, the sex of thefoetus . Some companies offer the service of using 3D ultrasound scan files to create life- sized printed foetus replica models for parents.

 

The posting to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube of the foetus ultrasound image has become a rite of passage for many new parents and often a way of announcing the pregnancy. Using widgets such as ‘Baby Gaga’, expectant parents can upload regular status updates to their social media feeds automatically that provide news on the foetus’s development. While a woman is pregnant, she can use a range of digital devices to monitor her foetus. Hundreds of pregnancy apps are currently on the market, including not only those that provide information but those that invite users to upload personal information about their bodies and the development of their foetus (Tripp et al. 2014). Some apps offer a personalised foetal development overview or provide the opportunity for the woman to record the size of her pregnant abdomen week by week, eventually creating a time-lapse video. Other apps involve women tracking foetal movements or heart beat. Bella Beat is a smartphone attachment and app that allows the pregnant women to hear and record the foetal heart beat whenever she likes and to upload the audio file to her social media accounts.

YouTube has become a predominant medium for the representation of the unborn entity in the form of ultrasound images and of the moment of birth. Almost 100,000 videos showing live childbirth, including both vaginal and Caesarean births, are available for viewing on that site, allowing the entry into the world of these infants to be viewed by thousands and, in the case of some popular videos, even millions of viewers. Some women even choose to live-stream the birth so that audiences can watch the delivery in real time. Following the birth, there are similar opportunities for proud parents to share images of their infant online on social media platforms. In addition to these are the growing number of devices on the market for parents to monitor the health, development and wellbeing of their infants and young children. Apps are available to monitor such aspects as infants’ feeding and sleeping patterns, their weight and height and their development and achievements towards milestones. Sensor- embedded baby clothing, wrist or ankle bands and toys can be purchased that monitor infants’ heart rate, body temperature and breathing, producing data that are transmitted to the parents’ devices. Smartphones can be turned into baby monitors with the use of apps that record the sound levels of the infant.

As children grow, their geolocation, educational progress and physical fitness can be tracked by their parents using apps, other software and wearable devices. As children themselves begin to use digital technologies for their own purposes, they start to configure their own digital assemblages that represent and track their bodies. With the advent of touchscreen mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, even very young children are now able to use social media sites and the thousands of apps that have been designed especially for their use (Holloway et al. 2013). Some such technologies encourage young children to learn about the anatomy of human bodies or about nutrition, exercise and physical fitness, calculate their body mass index, collect information about their bodies or represent their bodies in certain ways (such as manipulating photographic images of themselves). These technologies typically employ gamification strategies to provide interest and motivation for use. Some involve combining competition or games with self-tracking using wearable devices. One example is the Leapfrog Leapband, a digital wristband connected to an app which encourages children to be physically active in return for providing them with the opportunity to care for virtual pets. Another is the Sqord interactive online platform with associated digital wristband and app. Children who sign up can make an avatar of themselves and use the wristband to track their physical activity. Users compete with other users by gaining points for moving their bodies as often and as fast as possible.

 

In the formal educational system there are still more opportunities for children’s bodies to be monitored measured and evaluated and rendered into digitised assemblages. Programmable ‘smart schools’ are becoming viewed as part of the ‘smart city’, an urban environment in which sensors that can watch and collect digital data on citizens are ubiquitous (Williamson 2014). The monitoring of children’s educational progress and outcomes using software is now routinely undertaken in many schools, as are their movements around the school. In countries such as the USA and the UK, the majority of schools have CCTV cameras that track students, and many use biometric tracking technologies such as RFID chips in badges or school uniforms and fingerprints to identify children and monitor their movements and their purchases at school canteens (Selwyn 2014, Taylor 2013). A growing number of schools are beginning to use wearable devices, apps and other software for health and physical education lessons, such as coaching apps that record children’s sporting performances and digital heart rate monitors that track their physical exertions (Lupton 2015a).

We can see in the use of digital technologies to monitor and represent the bodies of children a range of forms of embodiment. Digitised data assemblages of children’s bodies are generated from before birth via a combination of devices that seek to achieve medical- or health-related or social and affective objectives. These assemblages may move between different domains: when, for example, a digitised ultrasound image that was generated for medical purposes becomes repurposed by expectant parents as a social media artefact, a way of announcing the pregnancy, establishing their foetus as new person and establishing its social relationships. Parents’ digital devices, and later those of educational institutions and those of children themselves when they begin to use digital devices, potentially become personalised repositories for a vast amount of unique digital assemblages on the individual child, from images of them to descriptions of their growth, development, mental and physical health and wellbeing, movements in space, achievements and learning outcomes. These data assemblages, containing as they do granular details about children, offer unprecedented potential to configure knowledges about individual children and also large groups of children (as represented in aggregated big data sets).

Conclusion

As I have shown in this chapter, new forms of bodies are being configured via contemporary digital technologies. Devices that are able to monitor, portray, measure and compare bodies generate unceasing flows of data about individuals which then move into the digital data economy and are repurposed by a range of actors and agencies. I have employed the example of young children’s bodies to demonstrate the manifold ways in which such digitised bodily assemblages are created and the uses to which they are put. Digital data are forms of ‘lively capital’ in three major ways. First they are generated from life itself, in terms of documenting humans’ bodies and selves. Second, as digital data they are labile and fluid as they are generated and circulate in the digital data economy. And third, because with the advent of interconnected smart objects, aggregated data sets and predictive analytics , personal digital data have potential effects on the conduct of life and life opportunities (Lupton forthcoming).

In this age of unceasing collection of often very intimate and personal information about people via digital technologies, questions of data security and data privacy have become paramount. Once personal digital data enter the computing cloud, people lose control over how they are protected and controlled. Recent scandals and controversies, such as the former CIA and the US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s release of documents that demonstrate how national security agencies in western countries are conducting surveillance on citizens’ online interactions and various events of hacking into personal data databases have revealed the precariousness of personal data security and privacy.

Thus far we know very little about how people are engaging with the digital data assemblages that are generated on them, how they contribute to, manage, manipulate and make sense of these assemblages and what impacts they have on people’s sense of selfhood and embodiment. This is a particularly pressing issue for individuals such as the current generation of children whose lives and bodies have been so thoroughly digitally documented. As humans are entering into technological entanglements that are able to document their lives from pre-birth to death in ever-finer detail, many issues and implications remain to be explored. These include who has the right to collect data on people, who controls and has access to the repositories of personal data that are now configured on individuals, how these data are used by those who do have access and what happens to people’s data assemblages after death.

Digital data assemblages are always mutable, dynamic and responsive to new inputs. A recursive feedback loop is established in which information is generated from digital technologies which then are used by the individual to assess her or his activities and behaviour and modify them accordingly, which then configure a renewed data assemblage – and on the cycle goes (Lupton 2012a, 2013b, forthcoming). Indeed one major novel aspect of people’s encounters with digital technologies is the ways in which these technologies are now often designed to ‘nudge’ users into taking up certain practices. Instead of merely providing information, as in older forms of internet engagement, software is coded to algorithmically manipulate users’ personal data and send them ‘push’ notifications to encourage them to purchase more goods and services or change their behaviour to optimise their health, wellbeing or productivity. More and more, our digital machines are taking on the role of managers, task-masters or disciplinarians of our bodies. Commentators are now beginning to envisage a world in which interconnected smart devices, as part of the Internet of Things, interact with the personalised data that each generate to provide advice to users. Thus, for example, the wearable body tracker can interact with smart objects in the user’s home (such as the smart fridge, smart thermostat, smart television and smart bed) to determine what kind of food users should consume, what types of television programs they should watch, what temperature level their home should be set at and for how long and what time they should go to sleep and wake up, based on such features as their mood, body weight, calories burnt and physical activity data.

 

Such entanglements of human bodies with technological devices potentially represent further major changes to concepts and practices of embodiment. For the field of physical cultural studies, they constitute a new and important element of understanding how knowledges, practices, objects, emotion, discourse, data and humans intertwine.

 

 

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Essays, Writing

On Superheroes and Science fiction

You know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.

Take one of my favorite superheroes, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward.

Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Superheroes have not only the ability, but also a great tendency, or propensity to do that, as does, I believe, a lot of great literature, science fiction being my particular favourite. I find the idea very exciting that stories and narrative are unfolding in time ranging from alternate past and parallel present to uncertain futures; that seemingly unreal technology is commonplace. But more importantly it’s the excitement of possibilities, of complex hypothetical worlds full of possibilities. But at the same time, what remains consistent is the human condition. The genre of science fiction allows for generating a kind of distance in time and space to allow us room for examining our Human Condition, a kind of a wide angle lens to examine our own anxieties and exhilarations, our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments. Shakespeare did something quite similar…

If our culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. Superhuman cyborgs, we plug into cell phones connecting us to one another and to a constantly updated planetary database, an exo-memory that allows us to fit our complete cultural archive into a jacket pocket. We have camera eyes that speed up, slow down, and even reverse the flow of time, allowing us to see what no one prior to the twentieth century had ever seen — the thermodynamic miracle of broken shards and a puddle gathering themselves up from the floor to assemble a half-full wineglass. We are the hands and eyes and ears, the sensitive probing feelers through which the emergent, intelligent universe comes to know its own form and purpose. We bring the thunderbolt of meaning and significance to unconscious matter, blank paper, the night sky. We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in — and we made Superman, after all. All it takes is that one magic word.”

In the world of the superheroes, everything had value, potential, mystery. Any person, thing, or object could be drafted into service in the struggle against darkness and evil. We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.”

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.”

Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.

 

– Ali Akbar Mehta

Mumbai

September 2013

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Artist Statement, Essays, Library, Writing

Not on Noah’s Ark, but on the Raft of the Medusa:

Recent Works by Ali Akbar Mehta

 

Normality is the somewhat misleading name that many of us give to the present. It is often the only means of remaining sane while enduring the abrupt horrors and dehumanising provocations that surround us. The artist, however, is not obliged either to neutralise himself to these horrors and provocations; nor is he afraid of exploring the regimes of consciousness that lie beneath the sanctioned threshold of sanity.

And so the jesters, harlequins, cerecloth-swaddled zombies and explosion- flayed refugees who populate Ali Akbar Mehta’s paintings and digital works are not strangers. Not at all, for we know them intimately well, these figures who dominate the 1983-born Mehta’s first solo exhibition: they are ourselves an hour from now, a decade from now, in the near future, or at any moment. Allegories of the present, veiled thinly as a post apocalyptic future, Mehta’s works alternate, tonally, between melancholia and the ludic, between Lent and Carnival. They emerge from a long tradition of critique-through-image that turns our conventions of time, space, gravity and propriety topsy-turvy: a tradition that counts, among its major exponents, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.

On the testimony of these works, produced between 2006 and 2011, Mehta is an explorer charting a demon-haunted world that balances precariously between compassion and oppression, instability and militarisation; the mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation is always billowing on its horizon.

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Mehta is a member of what has been called the generation of ‘digital natives’, who grew up with personal computers, wireless telephony, and electronic retrieval systems of every size and scale. The translation of substance into immaterial form is a basic parameter of the lifeworld he inhabits; with it comes the understanding that data flows rather than being confined, and that images and episodes too are part of ongoing, vast narratives rather than remaining in guarded pools.

Having been exposed to animation as a creative form in his parents’ animation studio, Mehta also embraces comic books, graphic novels, manga and anime as cultural resources.

Ali Akbar Mehta_Harlequin Series; To Glory in Self, like some kind of New Monster, 2010, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 182 x 121 cm

Naturally, then, Mehta is fascinated by the figure of the superhero: who is supremely powerful yet deeply vulnerable, benevolent yet sinister, weighed down by the knowledge of humankind’s ultimate fate yet aware of his role as a guardian of hope and renewal. If the archetype of the great hero enshrines the spirit of indomitable resilience, it also incarnates all the freight of fear and paralysing anguish to which humankind is heir. In many of Mehta’s figures, the ligaments are stretched, the bone is set at breaking point. Indeed, in Mehta’s handing, the body is often an unsettling hybrid of muscular presence and spectral apparition: it is made, seemingly, of ectoplasm or pulp that has momentarily assumed a shape which it may lose without notice.

In Mehta’s imagery of the suffering yet defiant body, we may detect an act of homage to his grandfather, the legendary artist Tyeb Mehta. We find this especially in the trussed figure, suspended from ropes, more prisoner than marionette and hung above the abyss, in ‘The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture’(2010). That homage also animates the figure that has been twisted, knotted, folded double in ‘Triptych’ (2007) and jammed into the cage formed by the frame of the canvas.

Ali Akbar Mehta_The Identity of Violence Series; Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm

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Mehta’s preparatory process involves a theatre-like ‘characterisation’ of his protagonists: a detailed imagining of their ‘inner lives’, a fleshing-out of their ‘back stories’, a calibration of their emotional temperature based on episodes deemed to have taken place in the past of their fictive present scenarios. As in theatre, this characterisation is not made wholly explicit in the articulated form of the work; nor is it meant to be. Rather, it serves the artist as the substance that confers reality upon his characters, and is the continuing material substrate from which his images and the narratives that concern them will be conjured.

Mehta delights in portraying quixotic figures of unpredictable motivation as they move through the columned halls and terraces of normality, replacing these with the weaving shapes of hallucination and phantasmagoria.

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Among his protagonists are the jester and the harlequin: the first permitted to speak truth to power, although in politically sanctioned satire and allegory; the second a shape-shifting trickster who celebrates all that is chaotic and out of joint. Accordingly, the artist favours a pictorial space that is psychedelic, its emphasis laid on the play of strange lights and pulsating auras. Indeed, to this observer, his canvases articulate the ominous psychological freight of Bikash Bhattacharya’s paintings of the 1970s.

Humankind lurches from one crisis to the next in Mehta’s post-apocalyptic ecologies, with little chance of redemption. We find predators and victims, survivors and demons, all conjoined in a common destiny, all adrift: not on a Noachic Ark so much as on a Gericauldian Raft of the Medusa. In the painting that gives this exhibition its title, ‘The Ballad of The War That Never Was’ (2010), one of the key figures is modelled on the Deposition, the enduring moment when the crucified Christ is taken down from the cross, except that this figure has no hope of resurrection; another figure in this tableau is based on Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, except that the banner is fraying, torn to pieces by the wind.

Ballad of The War That Never Was, 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 152 x 198 cm

 

Or, as with the close-packed figures in ‘War’ (2011), screaming as they flail, wrestle and fall together in a grand tapestry of the damned, Mehta’s figures strike us as a contemporary version of Dante’s eternally condemned figures in the Inferno or Michelangelo’s in the Sistine ‘Last Judgement’. The mode of the history painting manifests itself again and again in Mehta’s work, through allusion and citation. But the inspired certitudes of history painting and its heroic belief in the ability of the human will to dominate all circumstance have yielded, in Mehta’s paintings, before a more tragic awareness of human fragility. This artist does indeed take man as the measure of all things, in the classical humanist formulation; but man is here a strained measure, bent under pressure. Precisely for this reason, Mehta’s protagonists speak to us of our own anxieties and exhilarations, sing to us of our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments.

 

Ranjit Hoskote

Mumbai

2011

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