Temporal Brushstrokes on the Corporeal Canvas
In the public imaginary shaped by the discursive temporalities of history, a mysticism seems to shroud new digital media and technology. In one perspective of this mysticism, new forms of media symbolize a celebratory mark of progress and advancement; while on the other hand, these technological developments represent the emergence of a dystopian narrative—even with a cursory glance into popular culture, one could see this in the science fiction genre, which recycles the classic storyline of a media-induced apocalypse where robots or some foreign more advanced lifeforms from some distant planet take over. In either case, the utopian optimists and the dystopian skeptics more or less mirror the magic and liquidity of late modernity and the Information Age, a novel phase in which the conditions of globalization are unevenly intensified, fragmentarily accelerated and more abstractly disoriented. Further as the digitally-afforded forms of circulations intensify the ambivalent and mystic conditions of globalization, the circulation of things like commodities, money, and information begin to move at more variegated velocities, scales and scopes and these shifting circuits are growing more and more incompatible with the lethargic apparatuses of the national project (Appadurai 2006, 2010). Thus, we must reassess the relationship between the nation and the digital phase of globalization because the suffused spilling of cultural circuits across the canvas of national boundaries—even if in a stippling effect—instantiate this incompatibility by pointing to the nation’s philosophical incoherence and maintenance of subjective ideological temporalities that render it in a primordial veracity of antiquity. In fact, the growing resuscitation of xenophobic anxieties associated with territorial ideologies—whether we look at the case of Trump’s cathexis on building a border or the fortress metaphor that Europe has been defined with in the wake of alarming spikes of refugees seeking asylum in the past several years—indubitably illustrates a need to examine these spectacularly-mediated tensions between the nation and the global in the Information Age.
The Vanishing Point and the Body as Geography
Appadurai has also gathered that “globalization, in creating the conditions for the movement of finance, images, and information,” invites the increase in global migrations across and within national boundaries, which unsettles the “glue” that affixes people to territorial identities” (Appadurai 2006: 35-7). While these global forces are trekking the terrestrial landscape of our planet and as the inadequacies of the nation are blamed upon the migrant who embodies the unsettling disjunctures of our current self-induced temporalities, we need to investigate the role of the body. Further, if we think through Benedict Anderson’s concept of the imagined community, then we might be able to frame geographies, not as a primordial pre-existing space so that people could act in or with them, but as socially-constructed through history, discourse and meaning making. Sustained by various historical agents, institutions, actors and powers, “histories produce geographies,” which are mapped through the human labor of imagination in order to “extend their chances of survival, improve their horizons of possibility, and increase their health and security” (Appadurai 2010: 9). Since the inception of the nation, the body has been the adhesive medium that ties together the national project’s ideologies to a body of people to be governed and a body of land. Thus, this paper firstly explores the vanishing point at which these histories have merged and been fashioned into the aesthetic project of the nation. Like Appadurai who argues that histories produce geographies, this paper demonstrates how the digitally-intensified global pressures on the nation disrupt the story constructed around the body, but argues that the body nevertheless continues to be the glue that can creates a vanishing point between the nation’s temporalities—the national citizenry or the body-of-people and the body-of-land that it territorially deems as inside its walls of limited sovereignty. Consequently, the competing temporal imaginations of the global that transform our senses of belonging do so by attempting to unsettle the territorial topographies mapped onto the corporeal canvas of the body. To demonstrate these cultural transformations of the body, I embark on a circuit through various works that examines how the body is transformed into data, commodified by the neoliberal capitalism agenda, sacrificially weaponized, fragmented within the digital landscape and instrumentalized to instigate activism, reproduce hegemonic ideologies and forge new political identities.
Body as statistic
The first stop on this circuit is the body perceived as a statistic. In Appadurai’s book Fear of Small Numbers, he astutely examines a historical rupture in which economic globalization in the Information Age has etched an abstract instability of the nation into the public imaginary, through which he argues that the national project’s anxiety of incompleteness seems to be the fundamental basis for the violence again minorities. By drawing on psychoanalytic themes and affect theory, Appadurai seems to foresee today’s digital “datafication” of the body through his analysis of our modern reliance on statistics. Built upon the Manichaean-fashioned majority/minority divide, the minority body becomes the undesirable number preventing the national project’s ultimate goal for coherence and purity. Using the example of the Nazi party targeting Jewish people through population statistics, Appadurai illustrates how minorities are flashpoint metaphors of the betrayal of the classical national project; a reminder which is rooted in the failure of the nation-state to preserve the promise of being the guarantor of national sovereignty (2006: 43). While the migrant body absorbs the blame for the nation’s shortcomings, the rising fear, anxieties and narcissistic qualities is evident of the body as statistic by telling a story through numbers. But even statistics are a form of technology, especially amplified in the realm of data, algorithms and programming, and because of this automation, the statistical narrative is often engraved in assuming an impartiality in the quantitative. Still, as the migrant blurs the boundaries between “us and them, here and there, in and out, healthy and unhealthy, loyal and disloyal, [and] needed but unwelcome,” they embody the core problem of globalization for many nation-states: the necessary or unavoidability of global forces (Appadurai 2006: 44). Further, aggravated by the inability of states to assure national economic sovereignty, the ambiguity symbolized through minority bodies—that resist the nation’s “suppression of the memories of plurality” for a sense of people hood—can translate into a lack of tolerance for any collective stranger because of their distortion of quantitative veracity (Appadurai 2006: 45).
Body as commodity
While Appadurai shows how the body is mediated through statistical datafication, Decker, in his book Commodified Bodies: Organ Transplantation and the Organ Trade, picks up on Appadurai’s analysis of the pressures that economic globalization infringe on the national format. Through a historical reconstruction of connecting the treatment of bodies in modern medicine to religion, Decker reveals how the neoliberal-oriented logics of privatization have inserted marketplace vernacular into the way that we govern our bodies. By referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the habitus—the ingrained physical habits and inclined mental dispositions that constitute the build of a body—Decker modifies competing theories of fetishism to illustrate how the connection to religious themes of sacrifice and salvation unveil the neoliberal perversions of the habitus of the body. Further, Decker strategically depicts how deprave forces of the market colonize the body—especially those bodies in subjected to socioeconomic poverty or corrupted violence—as a medium for trade, transactions, profit and the production of value. Whether we look toward the corrupted formation of illegal markets selling body parts from murdered victims or from the frame guised within a liberal invocation of donation and altruism, the organ market exemplifies how the body is literally modularized and fragmented into sellable, sacrificial parts—as if the body is a work of art to be perfected. Because the system of medicine and healthcare draws on the religious theme of salvation, Decker’s work seemingly attributes the utopian dependence on technological progress—as our ticket to extending and preserving life—and the neoliberal market governability to take advantage of the religious theme of sacrifice, as a conceptual logic that allows for a biopolitical governance, in which the market can advertise, buy, sell, barter, steal, remove, and penetrate the cellular reduction of the body into parts. However in our case, Decker’s unveiling of this omitted connection—or the vanishing point in the discourse of organ transplantation—to religious sacrifice and salvation epitomizes an illusory normalcy in the relationship between the market, the body and the nation. In an effort to perfect one somatic masterpiece, the organ market conceals its reliance on a hierarchy of that relegates those in poor socioeconomic conditions to a position of precarity through the digitally-mystified acceleration of financial circuits—from contracts and financial compensation to unethical black markets and illegal trading. Additionally, considering the role that advanced capitalist ideologies have in shaping the nation, as the body remains vital to connecting the nation to its people and soil, the neoliberal capitalist transformation of the body illustrates how the national project is in a parlous tension between marketplace logics, technological determinism, and the aspiration for bodily coherence in its imagined community.
Body as sacrifice
As part of militant Islam’s universal claims to moral values and human rights, Devji traces a third circuit: the abstracted irrelevance of responsibility in the institution-less vacuum of the global arena. Because of this fragmentary and relativistic plurality of defining the aesthetic sensibilities of universal humanitarianism, Devji exemplifies this claim through al-Qaeda suicide bombers, who have gruesomely splattered their own bodies across other bodies in the banal spaces of everyday civilian life while simultaneously making individual claims of responsibility through mediated audiovisual content and relinquishing themselves of any punishment (Devji 2008: 58). As the suicide bomber’s individual body is sacrificed, the body of the suicide bomber is invasively splashed across the geographical oeuvre of the nation with the purpose of defending an imagined universal humanity and while accepting responsibility through digital audiovisual media, the suicide bomber through self-decimation simultaneously clears any somatic punishment for the homicidal actions committed. Vividly illustrated by the fragmented mixing of bodily remains, the suicide bomber—with a sanguine palette of crimsons, scarlets and reds—aesthetically smears the abstractions of globalization in the name of a global humanity until the smearing blurs the vanishing point between the Western national imagination of inside and outside. The suicide bomber uncovers the philosophical incoherence of the nation, while also disturbing the internal particularity that the nation tries so hard to construct (Anderson 1983). While al-Qaeda’s militants who are driven to become historical actors on the global stage to vocalize how victimized Muslims represent humanity’s struggle for legitimacy and agency, Devji compares al-Qaeda’s intention behind their acts of terror to Mahatma Gandhi who was an advocate of sacrifice, also in the pursuit of universal humanitarian objectives (Devji 2008: 217-8). While fasting, celibacy, and passive resistance were core elements of Gandhi’s principles, he also the believed in the idea of courting death not as a way of ensuring the survival of some greater cause, but instead with the goal at inviting one’s enemies into different paths of action. In this comparison, Devji shows that while the hegemonic sense of humanitarianism seeks to preserve life, Gandhi’s theme of sacrifice as the ultimate courage—as potentially intended by extremist jihadists—exemplifies the lack of authority in the pluralist relativity of global morality. Subsequently, though the traditional notions of humanity—as solely defined by the security of life—are becoming meaningless in the global arena where the humanist subject is replaced by statistical aggregates and a post-human politics, I argue that the body remains as a visceral medium through which al-Qaeda’s humanitarian motivations are funneled through. While Devji deems radical jihadist actions as post-human by way of human beings taking on animalistic forms and freeing themselves from life-oriented humanist subjectivity, I argue we are not in a post-human state because the term seems to suggest the category of human no longer exists. Rather, while humanist ideologies are limited, we are still deeply-connected to the body, especially as rightwing reterritorializing nationalist ideologies surface. Alongside the digitally-inflected temporalities of sustaining our memories and histories in record, the body is still central. Whether in the case of the suicide bomber’s body being extended through prerecorded videos uploaded to the digital cloud or in Decker’s analysis of the organ market where bodies are fragmented into sellable parts, the body is still an an integral form of disrupting territorial boundaries in the digital conditions of globalization by creating the vanishing points between the stories, imaginations, speculations and aspirations that globally circulate.
Body as media
Like we can see with the aforementioned examples, Kraidy also contends that the body still contains a visceral affect necessary for mobilization. Therefore by visiting this final circuit in which bodies are central in the mobilization of activism and the forging of new political identities, this essay looks at Kraidy’s book, The Naked Blogger of Cairo. As digital landscape intensifies the abstract disorienting of global flows, Kraidy demonstrates how the body remains central to political struggle within the digital realm and how bodies are abstracted and fragmented by competing ideological forces that attempt to revise history. Seeing the body at the heart of forging new political identities, he suggests that bodies are enabled as tools, media, symbols and metaphors that are wielded through the process of creative insurgency, which he defines as a mixture of activism and artistry characteristic of revolutionary expression (2016: 5). With the human body as an organizing principle to understand his notion of creative insurgency, Kraidy takes his reader on a review of the epistemological usage of corporeality to illustrate our changes from a body of the sovereign to a new body politic (Kraidy 2016: 20). And with this historical backdrop of corporeality, Kraidy offers a spectrum of cases during the Arab Springs that exemplify the embodiment of his notion creative insurgency, but two cases are particularly interesting to note here. Firstly, the title of his book is framed upon Alia al-Mahdy, the “Naked Blogger” of Cairo, who tweeted a link to her blog in mid-November of 2011, where she politically instrumentalized her own body’s sexuality as an affective medium against racist and sexual violence and ignited extreme backlash from nearly every political group in Egypt (Kraidy 2016: 159). As another instance of globalization’s temporal storytelling woven onto the body, Kraidy argues that the body constructs a vernacular of corporeal symbolism and body politic (Kraidy 2016: 12). Illustrating this through the way her body is extended and fragmented as a medium for constructing discourse across digital flows and networks, al-Mahdy was condemned on moral grounds for the digital dissemination of images that depicted her nude body, which resembled a shift of our understanding of the body in the global landscape of the Information Age. Severed from the complex intentions of her blog post and atomized to fit into louder ideologies virally flowing of through the digital landscape, al-Mahdy’s body was no longer her platform to mediate her message. Rather, while al-Mahdy attempted to politicize her sexuality within the climate of the Arab uprisings, the political message that she adhered to the digital representation of her body was reduced to a violation of the perceived order of gender and the Egyptian body politic, while simultaneously ripped apart by a multidirectional abuse of condemnation and defamation through speeches, sermons and social media. Secondly, through the virality of mediated images of suffering, Kraidy also explores how Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation served as a sacrificial catalyst for mobilizing the Arab Spring movements against the national autocratic regimes in the Middle East that have sustained a hierarchal “inequality in distribution of symbolic capital,” where the construction of political and social precarity “fuels a culture of martyrdom” (Kraidy 2016: 27). Similarly to Devji’s analysis of the suicide bomber, Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation seems to wield the body as a sacrifice. However while Devji argues through the suicide bomber that responsibility is siphoned into the vanishing point of the political institution-less global arena, in Bouazizi’s case, the moral-driven responsibility of preventing bodily infliction is placed on limitations of a nation’s autocratic sovereignty. As shown in this case, Kraidy illustrates that the body can be decimated through the social coercion of hegemonic ideologies, but can also be a mobilizing force of free will and a nexus for creative insurgency (Kraidy 2016: 25). More saliently, Kraidy’s examples demonstrate how the body remains a pivotal medium through which we construct and reconstruct language and meaning, even in the midst of digital transformations of globalization. Thus from the fragmented condemnations of al-Mahdy’s nude portrait across the digital landscape to the viral dissemination of acts of self-immolation in Tunisia, the hegemonic sensibilities of the body perpetuate the vital role of the body as the glue required for constructing the illusionary vanishing point, the fabricated narrative obscuring the inadequacies and weaknesses of fixated identities, territorial ideologies, and the national project.
While these global forces are trekking the terrestrial landscape of our planet, the question this paper explored how the body has become a canvas, a geography and a medium on which various historical agents, institutions, actors and powers, produce histories, social meaning, and topographies through the human labor of imagination. Because the body has been the glue that ties together the national project’s ideologies to a body of people to be governed and a body of land, this paper names the disjunctures that the national project covers up with this somatic glue as the vanishing point; the point at which these seemingly parallel temporalities have converged into the aesthetic sensibility of the nation. Subsequently, the imagined temporalities of the global that emerge from the increasing circulation and movement of capital, images, information, technology and people transform our senses of belonging by unsettling the territorial topographies mapped onto the corporeal canvas of the body. At the vanishing point between converging narratives that sustain the national project, the body is the viscous medium on to which these temporal brushstrokes are imagined and embodied. These tensions between the body, the national and the global have been conveyed through a circuit of several works that examines how the body is transformed into statistical numbers, commodified and privatized by the neoliberal capitalism ideologies, sacrificially weaponized with the intention of protecting a universal humanitarian principle, fragmented through the digital space, and instrumentalized to instigate activism, reproduce hegemonic ideologies and forge new political identities.
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