The Film Effect III

Notes on Electrified Bodies: Animal Flow from Mesmer to Michael Jackson

Éclat and élan derive from éclater ‘burst out’ and é- ‘out’ + lancer ‘to throw’. These words help align energy with electricity, both being forces that move swiftly, vigorously, like a spark. Energy can be the positive flow corresponding to Franz Mesmer’s theories of healing power, or else, an abusive and overwhelming force. Mesmer’s style of healing was akin to reiki (in Japanese, literally ‘universal life energy’), his patients – often females suffering from hysterical disorders – were stimulated and soothed by flows of holistic energy channelled by him. This type of flow is considered natural: humans, animals, and even rocks emit energy. Shortly after the advent of a new form of technology such as x-ray, radio, television or Internet, there is often a sense of fear that coexists with one of excitement. Technological energy is frequently distinguished from flows emitted from the body or landscape, and implied to be potentially harmful. Yet technological flow frequently enters the body: electric shock therapy, x-ray and radiotherapy are used medically, and today, a constant charge from mobile phones, laptops and ipods is carried by us in our pockets.

The subject of flow is often dealt with in films from eras when the latest technology is felt as a threat. The 1980s. Television sets become common in every living room. Feeling the powerful electrical and social force of television infiltrating the home, flow is both coveted and treated with suspicion. The television box makes the home unhomely, unheimlich, radiated by its omnipresent energy. Television is an alien arrival into the domestic structure, and it is in its role as Other that it is aligned with anything occult, animalistic or outside of rational, enlightenment thinking. In Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1981), a ghost uses a television set as a portal through which a family can be haunted (and eventually, its youngest girl abducted). The girl is drawn into the television set as by a current, and becomes converted into a flow of anxious energy, incarcerated and invisible in the house. We learn that the house was built upon a graveyard, a capitalist expansion that vexed those buried beneath it. The television – a still unfamiliar interloper in the home – becomes a ghostly tool. It connects a time before rational explanations of flow and before capitalist expansion to a present time whose flows of energy are too new, too technological, and too quickly growing to be understood yet. We do not know how to explain intuitive animal senses nor brand new technologies in their entirety, and instead have to encounter them more instinctively; in Poltergeist, the unknown is sensed as being ‘electrical. You can smell the charge’[1]

An inability to comprehend the more animalistic and technological ends of the spectrum is also demonstrated by the type of characters in Poltergeist who relate to the invisible energy: while the father cannot control the television set nor liaise with the ghost because he is a normative white male, his wife and daughter are far more attuned to it, being female and child (embodiments of the Other). Even more explicitly, when the family employs an exorcist team, that team comprises further variations of the Other: an elderly woman, and a black man who takes on the role of shaman. The family dog also reacts to the poltergeist. All these figures are paranormal, in the sense that they exist alongside but separate from the normative, and can thus relate more to energy that is paranormal too. 
Poltergeist demonstrates a strong relationship between the mother and daughter in the family, this – as with the invisible energy – being something inaccessible to the father. Beyond explaining the role of a cathode tube and mains electrical power supply, the ubiquitous and powerful influence on us by television evades easy summary. Likewise, the deep maternal bond between mother and daughter that eventually sees the mother enter the invisible and haunted ‘inner’ of the house and be delivered with her daughter (they are reborn into normality, both covered in red slime) does not include the father, who remains all the while in the visible, rational house. Similarly, in Matilda (1996 dir. Danny DeVito) it is the female child, alienated by her parents’, older brother and head-teacher, who is able to discover and subsequently channel her energy, which, like a poltergeist’s, moves furniture and disorders the home. Only Miss Honey, a bullied teacher and orphan who lives in an isolated cottage – again, an outsider – understands her. In her split screen film projection, Psi Girls (1999), Susan Hiller features Matilda and two other films in which female protagonists use telekinetic power to subvert their normative and oppressive surroundings. If Mesmer was accused of molesting his patients, and Freud of patronising his, then Hiller addresses this difference between oppressive male ‘specialist’ and the intuitive female who poses a challenge for him.

Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist

In the context of the 1980s in which Poltergeist was made, the Cold War had resurfaced due to Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defence programme, yet the Soviet project was fast dissolving, so the West’s reliable enemy threatened to disappear. Capitalism was expanding exponentially; the economy could soar – or freefall into recession – in speculative monstrosity. Colonial times had gone, leaving a power structure that was far harder to see: in the more virtual environment that was emerging, there was no direct rule, but instead a ghostly flow of power that no one knew how to view or control.
In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), Mark Fisher writes that today’s flow is uncontrollable in its subtle dispersal of risk, credit, and economic ideology. Even more that the television set, wireless Internet and a glut of broadcasting screens in public as well as at home make it impossible to operate without its infiltration. On an illustrative level, by now we look at objects while already imagining them photographed and uploaded onto our facebook or youtube accounts, utterances become tweets, and hand gestures bare a startling resemblance to typing, clicking or scrolling movements. In this way, we are experiencing the same anxiety and excitement at new flows of technology as were affected by the television set in the early 1980s. And a recent intrigue in more natural forms of connectivity, as well as excited anxiety over radiation and invasion of privacy, recall similar feelings to that era too.

Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist

In personifying incomprehensible natural and technological energy as ghosts, animals and marginalised figures, generally of good or evil disposition, we try to objectify and understand what is not intelligible. The flow is sublime; in Kant’s definition, creating in us both pleasure in trying to comprehend it, and terror at our inability to do so fully. We try desperately to translate it into something familiar. An example occurs in a video work from 1973 by Vito Acconci. Acconci stares into the camera that is positioned close to his face as he lies on the floor. The set up emphasises the perspectival matrix, a classic and seductive scenario – especially as Acconci speaks with an intimately low voice as he draws on a cigarette. He plays a cassette tape and sings along: ‘there’s gotta be somebody out there’, projecting a message into an unknown flow of camera electricity. He continues: ‘there’s gotta be somebody watching me… I don’t know if there’s anybody out there… look into my eyes… I’m all alone’, his utterances oscillating between a monologue and a set of imperatives addressed to a second ‘person’. In The Language of the Self, Lacan writes that the patient undergoing analysis projects a monologue at the void that is the silent analyst (or camera/ audience in Acconci’s case). The patient becomes frustrated, in part by the refusal of the analyst to reply, but more so at his growing sense of dispossession: ‘he ends up by recognising that [his own] being has never been anything more than his construct’:[2] Acconci is right in saying he is ‘all alone’.

Susan Hiller

Lacan’s concept of the theatre of the gaze, in which a look is always reciprocated, is questioned: while we do indeed return Acconci’s gaze as viewers, the medium of electrical flow connecting Acconci to us eludes him. In refusing to answer his utterances, the camera simply acts like a mirror for Acconci, and he is Narcissus, seducing himself. Rosalind Krauss says video is a narcissistic medium because it can be looped infinitely, feeding us an image over and over, and in videoing oneself, one can watch oneself in the monitor as with a mirror.[3] It is this that arouses Acconci; his long looks directed into the camera suggest he wants to pull himself into it, or pull us through it and to him, like Spielberg’s poltergeist does to the little girl. There is excitement, desire, but also anxiety; whatever Acconci tries to do, he cannot be satisfied.

If Acconci is trying to seduce himself, the camera, and us, then Michael Jackson takes an even more direct approach and becomes ‘machine’ himself, in Stranger in Moscow (1996). Jackson wears a gold metallic suit and dances as lithely as a snake, yet seems artificial too, embodying both the animalistic and technological. The song’s title, Stranger in Moscow, captures a feeling of alienation – both as a result of the Cold War, and from a Western society revolving around abstract and powerful flows of capitalism. We wonder in which way Jackson is a spy or stranger: as the machine, imitating the animal, or as a natural being that is being corrupted and metamorphosed into artifice. In truth, he is neither, but more like a Cyborg whose origin is an indeterminate mixture of animal and machine. To quote Baudrillard, here we see ‘bodies and technology combined, seduced, inextricable’.[4] Jackson’s black identity is important here, and returns us to the issue of marginalisation.
One of the most famous Cyborg figures around is Grace Jones, not only a black but also female singer. Historically, black American women have been objectified and marginalised as hybrids. To some extent, all people are schizophrenic, comprising masks that they assume and inherit from interaction with others. Jones easily reconciles the animal and machine because she recognises that our identities are always and already composites. It is understandable that we are frightened by encounters with exterior alien forces (animals sensing flows of energy we cannot see, machines radiating equally invisible charges), however, Jones calls to attention the fact that these ‘alien’ forces exist inside ourselves anyway. Thinking of ourselves as part machine is a recognition of this. As Donna Haraway says in A Cyborg Manifesto, ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’,[5] meaning that our identities are more affected by technology than we think, and that the distinction between technology and what we consider ‘natural’ is increasingly blurred.

Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow

In the music video for Corporate Cannibal (2008), Jones appears like a waveform on a computer graph or as when an image is modulated into signal. The effect recalls Pipi Lotti Rist’s 1986 Not a Girl in which electrical interference on the video turns Rist’s figure into a hysterical flow of anxious lines. Being modulated by electricity might suggest that the medium is controlling Jones, but as we know, the medium is inside her as well as external, and she is empowered because she is intensifying it herself. ‘Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate… I consume my consumers’ she snarls, drawing attention to a voracious Cyborg appetite for power.

In Steven Shaviro’s essay on Grace Jones’ Corporate Cannibal video, electrical modulation is considered both to be a reflection of a Post-Fordist model of flexibility and adaptability,[6] and a revolt from conventional consumerist aestheticisation: Jones often looks deformed, frightening and thoroughly unfeminine; it is difficult to liken her to an existing image because she is in constant flux from animal to machine, to signal.[7]

Returning to A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway talks of ‘scary new networks’ based on simulation, surface ‘masks’ of identity, cybernetic systems, artificial intelligence and ‘Star Wars’. These systems, like Grace Jones, are frightening because we cannot trace all the originals they have come from. Employing satellite navigation, space and cyber warfare is more accurate than physical-mechanical warfare, however, it feels less physical – radiation replaces bullets, and is infinitely more frightening because of its invisibility. The Cyborg is allied with this sublime aspect that does not let itself be traced, comprehended or homogenised. Grace Jones is the only substance visible in Corporate Cannibal, for the background is just a screen of white, yet she is modulated by digital technology to such an extreme– her body warping into lines and swirls – that the hope of tracing a human referent in the image is futile. The only elements we can extract from Jones are light and sound, and this new, stark representation may as well be as ‘authentic’ as any other, because the original referent is non-existent.

While refusing homogenisation, the Cyborg’s intelligent body undermines the Cartesian division of mind and body: ‘mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms’.[8] Haraway calls for the encouragement, construction and enjoyment of confused boundaries, at a time when theory surrounding gender, race and ontology had become very structural, and when taxonomic strategies to induce affinity threatened to impoverish identity. It also acknowledges that the Cyborg’s father (an important gender distinction) is Capitalist: the machine part of its identity, as with Grace Jones’ Corporate Cannibal one, is exactly that against which it rebels. But the rebellion here is not through negation, but intensification: Grace Jones embodies the oppressing corporation to such an extent that she makes it explicitly, frighteningly alien. Rather than being ‘unfaithful to their origins’, the Grace Jones model of Cyborg is so faithful that it makes it origin at once entirely itself and entirely alien. Indeed, it becomes difficult to trace the original in the Cyborg: it is a copy without an original; an example of what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal.[9]

Following Baudrillard, we can say that Jones does not exactly embody and intensify her corporate medium, but is already indistinguishable from it: it is diffused and intangible in her, as in an ‘indiscernible chemical solution’.[10] This is often our experience of technology: we interact with computers in trance-like states, numbed like Narcissus gazing into a reflective screen. Technology is part of us, the machine an extension of the body that both excites and frightens us. Like re-grown limbs, they can be ‘monstrous, duplicated, potent’[11], reflecting the Other and its unfamiliar flows of energy that are within and around all of us. Perhaps Shaviro exaggerates the extent to which Grace Jones is alien, in his drive to hybridise her as an absolute Other, neglecting the fact that we all contain elements of incomprehensible Otherness: a predatory snarl and mechanical twitch. In his approach, Shaviro is not alone; indeed, Jones has become a simulacrum in that even her former husband admits that he fell for the stage Grace Jones and did not know – or perhaps even believe in the existence of – any ‘real’ Jones.[12] Celebrities and icons frequently encounter their audience’s confusion and fetishisation of them. Part of celebrities’ allure is in their refusal to give over a fixed identity: like electric flows, they alternate, ebb and flow, evade comprehension yet seem ubiquitous. 
In performing this role so explicitly, Jones evokes larger flows, financial and political, which affect their audience ‘while at the same time eluding any sort of subjective grasp’: ‘Jones’ image is unstable and in flux; nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds’.[13] Jones becomes a signal, and thus slips into a coded digital existence in which ‘we cannot meaningfully distinguish between ‘reality’ and its multiple simulations; they are all woven together’[14] and any ‘reality’ is homogenised into digital oblivion. When we look at Jones, we are in fact rather like Acconci performing a frustrated monologue; in never being able to grasp her more than partially, all we can do is project our own ideas onto her image. 
Moreover, in viewing Jones as the Other, we recognise more and more elements of the Other in ourselves. Thus we are, in a sense, looking into a mirror. In such a digitalised society, Jones’ slick body that modulates between tangibility and abstract signal performs what we might be anxiously experiencing everyday: the union of our bodies and technology, animal with machine. Because we cannot quite keep up with the rate and method of this union, it feels sublime: alluring and terrifying, like Corporate Cannibal.

Grace Jones in Corporate Cannibal

[1] Spielberg, S dir. (1981) Poltergeist
[2] Lacan in Krauss, R (1978) Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism
[3] Ibid.
[4] Baudrillard, J (1981) Simulacra and Simulation p.111
[5] Haraway, D (1991) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of Nature
[6] ‘In the post-Fordist information economy, forms can be changed at will to meet the needs of the immediate situation. The only fixed requirement is precisely to maintain an underlying flexibility’. Shaviro, S (2010) Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales
[7] Ibid.
[8] Haraway. Op. cit.
[9] Baudrillard. Op. cit. p.2
[10] Ibid. p.32
[11] Haraway, Op. cit.
[12] Shaviro. Op. cit.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

with thanks to Maxa Zoller.