Critical Art Ensemble VIPER Lecture
in the Age of Pancapitalism
Critical Art Ensemble
For the first time in history there is one globally dominant political-economy, that of capitalism. Under this regime, individuals of various social groups and classes will be forced to submit their bodies for reconfiguration so they can function more efficiently under the obsessively rational imperatives of pancapitalism (production, consumption, and order). One means of reconfiguration is the blending of the organic and electro-mechanical. Potentially, this process could produce a new living entity distinct from its predecessors. This process, now termed posthuman development, is in its experimental stages, which in turn has lead to speculations and theories on what form this new being will take and on its probable functions. The two entities of posthuman existence most commonly postulated are the cyborg and downloaded virtual consciousness. While robots, androids, and artificially intelligent machines are also generally considered part of the posthuman family, they do not emerge directly out of human organics, and hence constitute a different line of development. Cyborgs and virtual consciousness, on the other hand, are dependent upon human individuals who desire or are condemned to interface with the machine. The cyborg is a being which typically has an organic platform integrated with a complex technological superstructure; virtual consciousness is the transference of being into digitized form so that it may exist in immersive informational landscapes.
The posthuman condition is still only a potential, since fully integrated, first-order cyborgs (the organic platform and technological superstructure are completely interdependent) are still on the cultural horizon, and virtual consciousness is at best an entertaining speculation. Yet, both of these posthuman possibilities are already having a dramatic social impact. While virtual consciousness acts as a mythic validation of the Age of Reason, second-order cyborgs (organic infrastructures with removable, integrated technological systems) are a common actuality. This situation often leads to the conjecture that the cyborg will be the step inbetween organic life and virtual life. However, when posthuman manifestations are taken out of the context of sci-fi speculation, and placed within the specific social and economic context of pancapitalism, a much different scenario emerges. While cyborg research is moving at top velocity, research into virtual reality (VR) is moving very slowly by comparison, and the research that is being done does not aim to develop a posthuman environment, nor to create a posthuman entity; rather, this work is to fortify the pancapitalist dynasty in physical space by serving both spectacular and military apparatuses. The current functions of VR, as well as the limited research into its varied potentials, are indications that virtual consciousness is not a desirable posthuman condition from the perspective of primary power vectors of the current political economy.
VR as a liberating future habitat for humanity seems quite unlikely. In fact, VR seems to be used for every imaging purpose except as a liberating habitat. Its use in the spectacle is minimal, as no investing agency seems able to conceive of a useful (instrumental) application for it. Currently, VR takes a very secondary position to older nonimmersive screenal systems. While the World Wide Web, the Internet, and cable television seem to be exploding with new possibilities (both compelling and loathsome), VR is beginning to stagnate. Its position is limited to arcade entertainment and to secondary-display technology that can help boost consumption. One example of this latter variety of application is the use of VR in some department and furniture stores in Japan. A shopper can enter a virtual environment and (within the limits of the product line) render a desired domestic environment to see if it meets with he/r expectations before purchasing the needed merchandise. If he/r virtual vision does not meet he/r expectations, s/he can redesign the space until it does. The buyer is thus given extra assurance that s/he will get what s/he wants. Obviously, a system like this functions only when there is a variety of purchasing options, when the object of consumption cannot be physically displayed, and when the purchase is costly. Hence this application has very limited spectacular use. Further, this application is only one small step beyond the use of X-ray machines in shoe stores back in the 30s and 40s. The shopper could X-ray he/r foot to make sure the shoes about to be purchased were a perfect fit. In terms of the spectacle of consumption, the real problem for VR is that there are very few occasions when the institutions selling the products want to give even the smallest amount of authentic choice to the consumer.
The infinite choice and total control promised by VR are precisely the type of options that investment institutions want to avoid, and hence, they are not going to pursue VR technology with any vigor until someone is able to negate its liberating logic. This is also why investment capital is flowing overwhelmingly in the direction of screenal technology, such as the World Wide Web. (The rocketing prices of shares of companies like Netscape and Yahoo when they went public clearly indicate the flow of capital). On the Web, the producer of the page controls the rendering process. While this element of Web production seems to favor the cyber-individual, and accounts for much of the celebration of the Web, corporate institutions are aware that those with the greatest amount of capital can use the latest software and state-of-the-art trained labor to achieve maximum novelty and aesthetic seduction, can overwhelm competitors for visibility by additional advertising of the page on the Web and in other media, and can offer additional incentives (usually chances at prizes or free merchandise) for using the page. If the lure is carefully constructed, the professional advertisers can expect to monopolize a Web consumer's time. Interactivity in this case means the ability of the consumer to view a product, purchase it, and/or move onto other purchasing opportunities in the given product line. This is the kind of spectacular technology that pancapitalism will support, not just with investment, but also with legislative and regulatory support. Technologies which truly offer emergent choice and devalue centralized economic control are not worth an investment. Currently, the posthuman has no place in VR, and VR has a very small place in the spectacle.
VR's primary value to spectacle is not as a technology at all, but as a myth. VR functions as a technology that is out on the horizon, promising that one day members of the public will be empowered by rendering capabilities which will allow them to create multisensual experiences to satisfy their own particular desires. The uncanny aura constructed around this technology associates it with the exotic, the erotic, and potentially, with the mystical. By perpetuating the myth of a wish machine that is always about to arrive, pancapitalism builds in the population a desire to be close to complex technology, to own it. Unfortunately, most technology is being designed for a purpose precisely the opposite of a wish machine, that is, to make possible better control of the material world and its populations. This combination of myth and hardware is setting the foundation for the material posthuman world of the cyborg.
Pancapitalist institutions of violence are proceeding along a different route. All the potentials of VR are being used to create more accurate simulators. However, the core of this immersive technology is based on recording, and not rendering as in the spectacle. Usually, the technological environment which the VR system is designed to simulate has already been built, or, at the very least, is under construction. In this case, the virtual image has a very clear material referent. For example, a fighter jet simulator attempts to replicate the interior technological environment as accurately as possible. The quality of the replication is judged practically by how well a pilot trained in a simulator does in the actual cockpit. The exterior virtual environment in which the simulated technology functions makes use of both recording and rendering. However, recording is still dominant, as the trainers attempt to place the trainees in specific rather than in general environments. Returning to the example of the jet fighter simulator, the pilot is placed in an environment closely resembling the one in which s/he will be flying. The ground, anti-aircraft batteries, and enemy planes are rendered as accurately and as specifically as possible based on recorded photographic images, whereas more random variables, such as atmospheric conditions, will be rendered in accordance with generalized configurations.
As with the imaging systems used for spectacular production, the goal is not to prepare a person for life in the virtual, but to specify, regulate, and habituate he/r role in the material world. Virtuality in no way has an independent primary function in the production of violence; rather, it has a dependent secondary support function. What is really odd about this situation is that the mythic gift of VR--complete control of the image--is negated. The virtual images are completely overdetermined by specific configurations in the material world. The limited evidence available to the public indicates that no preparations are being made for immersive virtual information warfare. This possibility seems limited to the screenal economy of cyberspace. However, since these activities are classified, plenty of room exists for conspiracy theorists to speculate. At the same time, given current trends in investment, research and development, combined with the very clear imperatives of pancapitalism, such speculations have only a very modest amount of credibility.
If the habitat of VR and the virtual entity are eliminated as practical categories of the posthuman, the only possibility left is the cyborg. In terms of social perception in technologically saturated economic systems, being a first-order cyborg covers a broad range of possibilities, ranging from a desirable empowering condition to an undesirable, dehumanizing one. However, there is plenty of time for spectacle to sort out differing perceptions of the first-order cyborg. Cyborg development is moving at a pace which allows adequate time for adjustment to the techno-human synthesis. Currently, the process is in very different stages in specific institutions. For example, the military has advanced furthest, and has developed a fully integrated second-order cyborg, while corporate and bureaucratic institutions are meeting with reasonable success in their attempts to convince workers of the need to meld body and technology.
Within many civilian social institutions, cyborg development is progressing cautiously enough that members have a difficult time knowing what a cyborg is, perceiving one, or realizing that they could be being transformed into one. Is a cyborg any person who has a technological body part? Does having an artificial limb or even contact lenses place one in the category of cyborg? In a sense, the answer is yes, as these pieces of technology are integrated with the body, and the individual is relatively dependent upon them. However, in terms of posthuman discourse, the answer is probably no, as there is little or no engineered interface between the technological and the organic. The posthuman model that seems to be developing is McLuhanesque--that is, the techno-organic interface should enhance the body from the fluctuating degree zero of everyday normalization. What is spoken about in the case of artificial limbs or contact lenses is the means to make the body conform, to the greatest extent possible, to "accepted" social standards. What is interesting about precyborgian technological additions to the body is that one key ideological imperative having a direct affect on posthuman development begins to show itself--body-tech is valued as means to better integrate oneself into the social.
Another common question is whether radical technological body intervention, such as gender reassignment, makes one a cyborg. Obviously, since such procedures are primarily organic recombinations void of technology, they fail to create a cyborg class being. However, these interventions do play a role in cyborg development, because they continue to prepare specific publics to perceive these operations as normal and even desirable. This is particularly true of medical interventions done solely for aesthetic purposes. The social "abnormality" of organic decay acts as an ideological sign that channels people toward the consumption of services for body reconfiguration, to enable them to best fulfill the social imperatives of body presentation in pancapitalist society. What is truly important about this development is that technological intervention disconnected from issues of sickness and/or death is being normalized. Extreme body invasion as a socially accepted practice is a key step in cyborg development.
There is no need to dwell on the development of a second-order military cyborg. The only surprise here is that took so long to happen. From the common grunt to the heroic jet fighter pilot, the military conversion of humans to cyborgs has become a necessity. The Hughes Corporation has successfully developed a custom-fitted techno-organic interface for the infantry which offers an integrated system of vision, communication, and firepower. Soldiers are no longer soldiers; as the military says, now they are "weapons systems." The posthuman has announced itself in a happy moment of military efficiency. However, the "weapons system," while actual and functioning, is a minor interface when compared to the developing "Pilot's Associate" (McDonnell-Douglas). In addition to having a state-of-the-art interdependent pilot/machine interface (unless the machine thinks that the organics are failing, and it must take over the mission), the "Pilot's Associate" offers AI support analysis in mission planning, tactics, system status, and situation assessment. Here we find a clear indication of what body "enhancement" is going to mean in the age of the posthuman. Body enhancement will be specific to goal-oriented tasks. These tasks will be dictated by the pancapitalist division of labor, and technology for body modification will only allow for the more efficient service of a particular institution.
Unfortunately for the multinationals, the development of the civilian cyborg has not moved along as quickly. Since the civilian sector does not have the advantage of telling its forces that being-as-cyborg will prolong one's life in the field, corporate power vectors are still deploying ideological campaigns to convince civilians of the bureaucratic and technocratic classes that they want to be cyborgs. The spectacle of the civilian cyborg moves in two opposing directions. The first is the utopian spectacle. The usual promises of convenience, access to knowledge and free speech, entertainment, and communication are being trotted about the usual media systems with varying degrees of success; but anyone who has paid attention to strategies of manufacturing desire for new technologies can read right through the surface of these codes. Convenience is supposed to mean that work becomes easier, and is accomplished faster; in turn this means that individuals work less and have more free time because they work more efficiently. What this code actually means is that the workload can be intensified because the worker is producing more efficiently. Entertainment and information access are codes of seduction that really mean that individuals will have greater access to consumer markets of manufactured desire. Better communication is supposed to mean greater access to those with whom an individual wants to communicate. The actuality is that agencies of production and consumption have greater surveillance power over the individual.
In contrast to utopian spectacle is the spectacle of anxiety. The gist of this campaign is to threaten individuals with the claim that if a person falls behind in the technological revolution, s/he will be trampled under the feet of those who use the advantages of technology. This campaign recalls the social-economic bloodbath of the ideology of Social Darwinism. The consumer must either adapt or die. From the perspective of pancapitalism, this campaign system is quite brilliant, because unlike the military (where the soldier is supplied with technology to transform he/rself into a weapons system), the civilian force will buy the technology of their enslavement, thereby underwriting a healthy portion of the cost of cyborg development as well as the cost of its spectacularization.
The current spectacle of technology is having an effect on the civilian population of the appropriate classes. Cyborg development here is a little more subtle than in the military. Most people have seen the first phases of the civilian cyborg, which is typically an information cyborg. They are usually equipped with lap-top computers and cellular phones. Everywhere they go, their technology goes with them. They are always prepared to work, and even in their leisure hours they can be activated for duty. Basically, these beings are intelligent, autonomous workstations that are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and at the same time can be transformed into electronic consumers, whenever necessary.
In this phase of posthuman development, the will to purity, explicit in the spectacle of anxiety, manifests itself in two significant forms: First is the purification of the pancapitalist cycle of waking everyday life. Cyborgs are reduced to acting out rational, pragmatic, instrumental behaviors, and in so doing, the cycles of production (work) and consumption (leisure) are purified of those elements deemed nonrational and useless (by the pancapitalist system). It seems reasonable to expect that attempts will be made to reduce or eliminate regenerative, nonproductive processes like sleeping through the use of both technological and biological enhancement. The second is a manifestation of ideological purity in which the cyborg is persuaded to overwhelmingly value that which perpetuates and maintains the system, and to act accordingly. The prime disrupter of this manifestation of purity is the body itself with its endless disruptive physical functions, and the libidinal motivations inherent in the body's psychological structure. Hence technological advancement alone will not create the best posthuman; it must be supported by developments in rationalized body design.
The military has long understood that the body must be trained to meet the demands of its technology. Consequently, it puts its organic units through very rigorous mental and physical training, but in the end, it is clear that this training is not enough. Training can only take a body to the limits of its predisposition. Pancapitalism has realized that the body must be designed for specific, goal-oriented tasks that better complement its interface with technology in the space of production. Human characteristics must also be rationally designed and engineered in order to eliminate body functions and psychological characteristics that refuse ideological inscription. To accomplish this goal, a heavily funded complex of institutions has emerged with knowledge specializations in genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, embryology, neurology, pharmacology, and so on. Together they form what CAE calls the "flesh machine." Its mandate is a complete invasion of the flesh, with vision and mapping technologies that will begin the process of total body control from its wholistic, exterior configuration to its microscopic constellations, as well as development of the new market frontier of flesh products and services.
The mature appearance of the flesh machine is perhaps the greatest indication that the magical data dump of consciousness into VR is not being seriously considered. If it were, why invest so heavily in body products and services? In addition, why should capital refuse an opportunity that appears to be the greatest market bonanza since colonization? Digital flesh is significant in mapping the body, but its value depends upon the practical applications that are derived from it; these in turn, can be looped back into the material world. The body is here to stay. Unfortunately, the body of the future will not be the liquid, free-forming body which yields to individual desire; rather, it will be a solid entity whose behaviors are fortified by task-oriented technological armor interfacing with ideologically engineered flesh. Little evidence is available to indicate that liquescence will be different in postmodernity from what it was in modernity--the privilege of capital-saturated power vectors.