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The Coming of Age of the Flesh Machine

This article was originally published in Electronic Culture, Tim Druckrey, ed., New York: Aperture, 1996.

On-line version:

Over the past century, the two machines that comprise the general state apparatus have reached a level of sophistication which neither is likely to transcend. These complex mechanisms, the war machine and the sight machine, will go through many generations of refinement in the years to come; for the time being, however, the boundaries of their influence have stabilized.

The war machine is the apparatus of violence engineered to maintain the social, political, and economic relationships that support its continued existence in the world. The war machine consumes the assets of the world in classified rituals of uselessness (for example, missile systems that are designed never to be used, but rather to pull competing systems of violence into high-velocity cycles of war-tech production) and in spectacles of hopeless massacre (such as the Persian Gulf war). The history of the war machine has generally been perceived in the West as history itself (although some resistance to this belief began during the 19th century), and while the war machine has not followed a unilinear course of progress, due to disruptions by moments of inertia caused by natural disasters or cultural exhaustion, its engines have continued to creep toward realizing the historical construction of becoming the totality of social existence. Now it has reached an unsurpassable peak–a violence of such intensity that species annihilation is not only possible, but probable. Under these militarized conditions, the human condition becomes one of continuous alarm and preparation for the final moment of collective mortality.

The well-known counterpart of the war machine is the sight machine. It has two purposes: to mark the space of violent spectacle and sacrifice, and to control the symbolic order. The first task is accomplished through surveying and mapping all varieties of space, from the geographic to the social. Through the development of satellite-based imaging technologies, in combination with computer networks capable of sorting, storing, and retrieving vast amounts of visual information, a wholistic representation has been constructed of the social, political, economic, and geographical landscape(s) that allows for near-perfect surveillance of all areas, from the micro to the macro. Through such visualization techniques, any situation or population deemed unsuitable for perpetuating the war machine can be targeted for sacrifice or for containment.

The second function of the sight machine, to control the symbolic order, means that the sight machine must generate representations that normalize the state of war in everyday life, and which socialize new generations of individuals into their machinic roles and identities. These representations are produced using all types of imaging technologies, from those as low-tech as a paint brush to ones as high-tech as supercomputers. The images are then distributed through the mass media in a ceaseless barrage of visual stimulation. To make sure that an individual cannot escape the imperatives of the sight machine for a single waking moment, ideological signatures are also deployed through the design and engineering of all artifacts and architectures. This latter strategy is ancient in its origins, but combined with the mass media’s velocity and its absence of spatial restrictions, the sight machine now has the power to systematically encompass the globe in its spectacle. This is not to say that the world will be homogenized in any specific sense. The machinic sensibility understands that differentiation is both useful and necessary. However, the world will be homogenized in a general sense. Now that the machines are globally and specifically interlinked with the ideology and practices of pancapitalism, we can be certain that a hyper-rationalized cycle of production and consumption, under the authority of nomadic corporate-military control, will become the guiding dynamic of the day. How a given population or territory arrives at this principle is open to negotiation, and is measured by the extent to which profit (tribute paid to the war machine) increases within a given area or among a given population.

In spite of the great maturity of these machines, a necessary element still seems to be missing. While representation has been globally and rationally encoded with the imperatives of pancapitalism, the flesh upon which these codings are further inscribed has been left to reproduce and develop in a less than instrumental manner. To be sure, the flesh machine has intersected both the sight and war machines since ancient times, but comparatively speaking, the flesh machine is truly the slowest to develop. This is particularly true in the West, where practices in health and medicine, genetic engineering, or recombinant organisms have thoroughly intersected nonrational practices (particularly those of the spirit). Even when they were secularized after the Renaissance, these practices have consistently been less successful, when compared to their counterparts, in insuring the continuance of a given regime of state power. Unlike the war machine and the sight machine, which have accomplished their supreme tasks–the potential for species annihilation for the former, and global mapping and mass distribution of ideologically coded representation for the latter–the flesh machine has utterly failed to concretize its imagined world of global eugenics.

The simple explanation for the flesh machine’s startling lack of development is cultural lag. As the West shifted from a feudal to a capitalist economy, demonstrating the benefits of rationalizing production in regard to war was a relatively simple task. National wealth and border expansion were clearly marked and blended well with the trace leftovers of feudal ideology. Manifest destiny, for example, did not stand in contradiction to Christian expansionism. War, economy, politics, and ideology (the slowest of social manifestations to change) were still working toward a common end (total domination). The rationalization of the flesh, however, could not find a point of connection with theologically informed ideology. Flesh ideology could only coexist as parallel rather than as intersecting tracks. For this reason it is no surprise that one of the fathers of flesh machine ideology was a man of God. The work of Thomas Malthus represents the ideological dilemma presented to the flesh machine on the cusp of the feudal/capitalist economic shift.

Malthus argued that the flesh did not have to be rationalized through secular engineering, since it was already rationalized by the divine order of the cosmos designed by God Himself. Although the nonrational motivation of original sin would guarantee replication of the work force, God had placed "natural checks" on the population, so only those who were needed would be produced. The uncivilized lower classes could be encouraged to have as many children as possible without fear that the population would overrun those in God’s grace, because God would sort the good from the bad through famine, disease, and other natural catastrophes. For this reason, the flesh could be left to its own means, free of human intervention, and human progress could focus on fruition through economic progress. Spencerian philosophy, arriving half a century later, complemented this notion by suggesting that those fit for survival would be naturally selected in the social realm. The most skillful, intelligent, beautiful, athletic, etc., would be naturally selected by the structure of the society itself–that of "open" capitalist competition. Hence the flesh machine was still in no need of vigorous attention; however, Spencer did act as a hinge for the development of eugenic consciousness. Spencer constructed an ideological predisposition for conflating natural and social models of selection (the former arrived a decade or so after Spencer’s primary theses were published). This made it possible for genetic engineering to become a naturalized social function, intimately tied to social progress without being a perversion of nature–in fact, it was now a part of nature. At this point eugenic consciousness could continue to develop uninterrupted by feudal religious dogma until its traces evaporated out of capitalist economy, or until it could be better reconfigured to suit the needs of capitalism. While the idea of a eugenic world continued to flourish in all capitalist countries, and culminated in the Nazi flesh experiment of the 30s and early 40s, the research never materialized that would be necessary to elevate the flesh machine to a developmental level on a par with the war machine.

Perhaps there is an even simpler explanation. Machinic development can only occur at the pace of one machine at a time, since scarce resources allow for only so much indirect military research. After the war machine came to full fruition with the implementation of fully matured total war during World War II, along with the attendant economic expansion, it became possible to allocate a generous helping of excess capital for the expansion of the next machine. In this case, it was the sight machine which had proved its value during the war effort with the development of radar and sonar, and thereby jumped to the front of the line for maximum investment. It was also clearly understood at this point that global warfare required new attention to logistic organization. The road between strategic and tactical weapons and logistical needs had leveled out, and this realization also pushed the sight machine to the front of the funding line. Conversely, the need of the Allied powers to separate themselves ideologically as far as possible from Nazi ideology pushed the desired development of the flesh machine back into the realm of nonhuman intervention. Consequently, the alliance between the war machine and the sight machine continued without interruption, delivering ever-increasingly sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. It also created an ever more enveloping visual/information apparatus–most notably satellite technology, television, video, computers, and the Net.

While the war machine reached relative completion in the 60s, the sight machine did not reach relative completion until the 80s (die-hard Web-users might want to argue for the 90s). Now a third machine can claim its share of excess capital, so the funds are flowing in increasing abundance to a long deferred dream. The flesh machine is here. It has been turned on, and like its siblings, the war machine and the sight machine, it cannot be turned off. As is to be expected, the flesh machine replicates elements of the sight and war machines in its construction. It is these moments of replication which are of interest in this essay.

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