Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rewritten on the Body

In the figures of Elvis, Liz, Michael, Oprah, Geraldo, Brando and the like, we witness and transact the bloating, slimming, wounding and general humiliation of the public body.

Michael Warner, The Mass Public and the Mass Subject .

What is most frightening about Blade Runner is that Deckard is really a replicant. What he perceives as his mission, his duty to track down ‘skin jobs’ who are loose in the community, is an insidious doubling in which he is really tracking himself. What is at stake is the existence of a difference, written on the skin’s surface (actually, the eyes), which proves that there is a distinction between humans and replicants. If you take the other approach for a moment, and consider the two the same, it leads to the conclusion that identity itself is only skin deep. And nowhere, since the twentieth century, has the fascination with surfaces, and the fashion of their refashioning, been more apparent than in Los Angeles, City of Angels.

Los Angeles papers teem with advertisements, ‘before and after’ photographs included, for those necessary surgical interventions which will definitely change your life. If you can afford it, surgery is the answer! Gone are the days when Charles Atlas needed a month, or Frank’n’furter seven days, to make you a man. And the choices are endless. You can opt for the four week ‘Quick Trim,’ the eight week ‘Lower Body Lean Out’ or the twelve week ‘Summer Solution.’ But why bother when everything that’s really important is just a surface anyway – why bother with fitness itself when its appearance should be enough? Instead, opt for electronic muscle stimulation that will cause your muscle groups to contract and relax about eight million times a minute. It doesn’t take any effort, you don’t sweat, and those washboard abs are only about – well, at least not too many sessions away, so it seems.

A few years back I spent a lazy afternoon lounging around reading the L.A. Weekly , trying to find out how I could have it all, with the least possible effort on my part. By page 18 I had learned that "the difference is ‘LIPOsuction,’ and that whatever services I received would be reasonably priced. A few years later, suction is out, sculpture is in, but the result is the same. If unsure about the likely results, I can see thousands of photographs and even speak with patients… before I decide. Another clinic offered liposuction with the anaesthesia of my choice, full finance with a major credit card, and a ‘fabulous discount program,’ which I guess meant 20% off on up to 20% off…

Also on offer were breast implants, hair rejuvenation programs, great teeth including bleaching, bonding and (surprise!) veneers, bag removal, brow lifts pectoral implants, cheek or chin implants, breast reductions, chemical face peels and nose sculpting. It’s surprising, but the possibilities really are endless. The bottom line then, as now, was the chance to ‘improve my appearance.’ Somehow, I was able to pass on the offers, as do thousands of fitness fanatics running, cycling and rollerblading down the twenty-two mile promenade from Long Beach to Malibu and beyond. Maybe some of the people at Muscle Beach had pec implants, but if they had I couldn’t tell. Still, I felt some comfort then, as I do now, in the knowledge that a series of simple procedures, easily financed, allow anyone to refashion themselves into anyone they want to be, and to be assured of a natural look.

Modern society asserts what I term the Six Million Dollar Cinderella Complex… not only is there the hope of rebuilding the body so it is bigger, stronger, and faster, but there is also the implication that this body will be more beautiful, more desirable and more successful. Gone are the days when this results in a crime-fighting machine and in are the days when it allows you to populate a futuristic modernist landscape, live in a beautiful house and be in love with Uma Thurman.

This fascination, or even fixation, leads irrevocably to a confused culture which desires beauty but cannot accept its achievement in any way but through nature. I think here particularly of Andy Warhol’s painting Nose Job , with its telltale ‘before and after’ images… sure, the latter is beautiful, but only apart from the former. Only in its absence, and not in its evidence, is it possible for this constructed image to be truly beautiful. When you come to this realisation, it is easy to understand the saga of Pamela Anderson Lee. Here, the media mapped her transition from individual to pariah to icon, all via our understandings of and apparent fascinations with the size of her breasts. Her subsequent reduction, which humourously echoed E.F. Schumacher’s pronouncements, ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘small is possible’ transformed Anderson Lee into a newer, more powerful and more formidable woman.

On the other hand, recall the performance artist Orlan. Having started down the path of surgically enhancing her body to form an aggregate of beautiful parts, and using the works of Renaissance painters as her map, Orlan highlighted the farcical belief that beauty is transferrable… One always has to wonder if her pursuit of beauty illustrates that these ideals do or don’t transfer from the canvas to the operating theatre. What transfixes viewers is the realisation that despite the horror of the situation, as we see Orlan being operate on under local anaesthetics where possible so the can narrate the process, we are mesmerised by the possibility that when she ‘comes to,’ as it were, she will be the beauty illustrated in the image before us. Given her sources, there is also the possibility, however remote, that her whole will be worth more than the sum of her parts. Finally, one must wonder about the sea of jars which Orlan uses to keep the ‘changes,’ the parts she has removed, the liposuctioned fat… as with the Warhol, how do we process these remainders? Are they signs of a past which has been left for a better future or a sign that whatever the past was, even with remembering it, time and the future will condemn us to this same fate again? using the strategies and methods of ‘enhancement’ to create the ideal body.

This leaves us in the final realm of melding man and machine… here we find Robocop, cyborgs, replicants, Steve Austin, titanium limbs and joint replacements… we also find a fetishistic fixation on surgical corsets, leg calipers and restraints, for example… but we don’t view these as ‘beautiful,’ we consider them possible supplements to beauty… here, the machine becomes beautiful… like it was in futurism. So was this a prophetic name for our contemporary, possibly pathetic times? Or is the desire to be something enhanced something one should aspire to?

We’re left in the waiting room of beauty, hoping beyond hope to embody the famous pronouncement that you can’t be too rich or too thin. I’m not sure… like Peter Carey suggests, I’m a little more intrigued by the fat man in history, myself.

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