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Nathan Blake

Graduate Student, Visual Studies Program, UC Irvine

Nathan Blake
Nathan Blake is a doctoral student in Visual Studies at UC Irvine. He received a master’s degree in Media Studies from The New School, writing a thesis on sensation, proprioception, and neuroaesthetics in relation to video. His areas of interest include televisual and cinematic crises and atrocity, apocalyptic imagery, combat tactical displays and video games, wound culture, intercorporeality, haptic vision and space, sensory substitution, mirror neurons, phantom limbs, somatophrenia, and posthuman ethics. He is cofounder and coeditor of the Visual Studies Journal, Octopus.

Links: Octopus Journal | UC irvine Visual Studies Graduate Students Page

Research Sample:

The ancient Greek examination of the self required a turning in, a meditation, taking stock of oneself, a self-mastery and purification [1]. This figure was cultivated through an examination of one’s self-consciousness, a subjecting of the self to one’s own signifying practices. While this constitution required a symbolic discourse through which one could be examined, this ultimately remained an internalized dialog with a self-reflexive subject. This is not to say that this being was ever centered in a stable consciousness, but the interactions through which one was shaped remained relatively subjective.

The primary concern of Christian (or at least Catholic) morality, however, appears to be not so much a matter of purification, but of salvation, the key to which remains confession. As an obligation to disclose oneself, confession compels one to renounce the self before–and through–the power of the church. This is not simply an oppression or suppression by an external system from above, however; subjectivation is a constant process of creation and transformation through various encounters between signifying structures and the resilient flesh imbued with unspeakable sensations, desires, affections. But in this exchange, whatever could not be extirpated by the codes of the church was/is considered dangerous, indeed, evil, intensifying the drive to bring all manifestations of inner alterity to light. As evil thoughts could not be expressed, the inexpressible was/is stained with this unspeakable darkness. Michel Foucault refers to John Cassian, an ascetic writer born in Provence circa 360, who gives an account of a monk who stole bread, revealing the struggle and compulsion to speak what is determined to be an internal work of the devil: “At first he can’t tell. The difference between good and evil thoughts is that evil thoughts can’t be expressed without difficulty, for evil is hidden and unstated.” [2]

This profound drive–and apparent resistance–to bring forth alterity through the confession is revealed not simply through the difficulty in such verbalization, but is also evident in visceral rejections of these compulsions to discourse. In the lectures collected in Abnormal, Foucault cites two distinct instantiations of evil in the pre-modern era: the witch of the 15th and 16th centuries, determined as a distinct, external resistance to the church, and the possessed of the 16th and 17th centuries, embodying “an element that will have a fundamental importance in Western medical and religious history: the convulsion.”[3] While the body of the witch is bound through a symbolic contract with, and granted powers through, the devil, the possessed, signifying the fragmentation of the witch’s body, [4] is held in the grips of an internal rupturing, a convulsive expression full of sound and fury, yet incoherent.

The body of the possessed, for Foucault, constitutes “a kind of physiological-theological theater” that both swallows and spits out, absorbs and rejects. [5] “The convulsive flesh is the body penetrated by the right of examination and subject to the obligation [6] of exhaustive confession and the body that bristles against this right and against this obligation.” Oversaturated with the signifying forces of the church, this convulsive body, unsurprisingly often female, erupts at the excessive examination as if counterbalancing the powerful insistence of sanctioned meaning. In the 18th century, the convulsion becomes the privileged object of medicine, a prototype for madness: nervous illness, the vapors, crises, etc.; this possessed penitent transforms into the subject of neuropathology. [7] Thus, we see a shift from the witch, who willfully and contractually hands over her soul to the devil, to the possessed, who, thorough no fault of her own, is seized internally by an unspeakable evil that must be purged through verbal confessions and renunciations, and finally, to the mentally disturbed, who must be examined through the cool, analytic gaze. Each figure signifies an increased personalization of the abnormality as well as a greater emphasis on the technologies of power that may judge, save, or normalize.

Gilles Deleuze, reflecting upon the implications of Foucault’s understanding of power and knowledge as a pervasive field that imbues the subject, proposes a maneuver for postmodern embodiment:

If it is true that power increasingly informs our daily lives, our interiority and our individuality; if it has become individualizing; if it is true that knowledge itself has become increasingly individuated, forming the hermeneutics and codification of the desiring subject, what remains for our subjectivity? There never ‘remains’ anything of the subject, since he is to be created on each occasion, like a focal point of resistance, on the basis of the folds which subjectivize knowledge and bend each power. Perhaps modern subjectivity rediscovers the body and its pleasures, as opposed to a desire that has become too subjugated by Law? [8]

This is, however, not a simple return to the Greeks, however, for Deleuze asserts there is never a return.[9] Stressing that “there will always be a relation to oneself which resists codes and powers,[10] Deleuze claims the struggle for a modern subjectivity passes through a resistance to the two present forms of subjection, the one consisting of individualizing ourselves on the basis of constraints of power, the other of attracting each individual to a known and recognized identity, fixed once and for all. The struggle for subjectivity presents itself, therefore, as the right to difference, variation and metamorphosis. [11]

Indeed, it is through such transformations and expressions of differentiation and alterity that contemporary theorists and artists turn, not searching for a way out of subjection, but passing through spheres of power and constantly emerging as monstrous, uncontained, sensorial subjects.

The unsettling encounters between rational significations posited upon the body and convulsive ruptures in the symbolic logic reveal moments where Oedipal identity formation is inscribed or rejected within the flesh. Through such exchanges, psychoanalytic or otherwise systematic languages may be critiqued as perpetuating over-determined, abstract cultural mythologies; as privileging a specifically European, patriarchal, and bourgeois tradition; and as setting parameters upon valid modes of expression and bodily engagement. This, of course, underlies the fundamental problem in theorizing embodiment through analytic discourse. Wary of such abstractions, Nietzsche attacks the Hegelian tradition, proclaiming, “we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words!”[12] He stresses that through the discursive process itself, generations of philosophers have succeeded in only fabricating values and truths in accordance with the linguistic form:

It is we alone who have devised cause, sequence, for-each-other, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive and purpose; and when we project and mix this symbol world into things as if it existed ‘in itself,’ we act once more as we have always acted–mythologically. [13]

For Nietzsche, there has been no discovery of any transcendental truth, other than those forms that fit nicely within the analytic framework.

With such a necessary skepticism towards the perpetuation of abstract terminologies, claims, and observations, the question remains how may one speak the body, or rather, sing, dance, or play the body as a systematic challenge to ocular, phallogocentric order that maintains a degree of determinacy required for social meaning. How may one give the subject a discernible contour that is open for the participation of any body or voice? In this rearticulation of the body, do the expressions of such asymbolic depths only open the flesh to further objectifications of the subject, peel open psychic layers for the analytic gaze, or do they offer alternative modes of affective socialization somehow resilient to fascist mechanizations? What is gained and lost in the positioning of the screaming, shivering, laughing body as an object of aesthetic, political, academic discourse? What lies within the hand that is best left unscripted, the sonorous, vibrating throat that is best left unspoken?
[1] For Example, Foucault presents the Stoic spiritual notion of anachoresis: to retreat into oneself, remember rules of action; and the Stoic technique, askesis: a progressive consideration of the self, or mastery over oneself, obtained through the acquisition and assimilation of truth. Among several other examples, he also notes the Pythagorean examination of consciousness and Seneca’s appeal to take stock of and administer to oneself. See Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

[2] Foucault, Technologies of the Self, 47.

[3]Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, ed. Valerio Marchetti and Antonella
Salomoni, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003), 212.

[4] “We can say that the possessed endlessly fragments and divides the witch’s body.” See Foucault, Abnormal, 207.

[5]Foucault, Abnomal, 212.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 223-24.

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 105.

[9] Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 103.

[11]Ibid., 105-06.

[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 23.

[13] Ibid., 29.

Contributions to Transliteracies Project:
Biomorphic Type (Research Report)
Text Rain (Research Report)
Tilty Tables (Research Report)

  nblake, 12.02.05

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