Bask In It: An Image-Manifesto

Jennifer Boyd

Response To:

Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame & Life on the Actually Existing Internet

A. Girl. At the end of a wooden plank. In. The. Middle of a white room. Strip, lights. No, she’s sat on an office chair. Just @home. Alone. Goosebumps prick, in white panties and a white vest.[1] Her arms hug her body: they make a cross, marking, her, chest. On her forearms, every single hair, stands on end. In these closely drawn quarters, in two pink lungs, a sharp inhale. This is the reality of the virtual.[2]

She holds out. A. Single. Finger. No Esc. In suspen-, hesitat-, uncert-, a Stop. Click. No Alt. Post. No Ctrl. What will they make of me? Will they think I am pretty or ugly?[3] Out there, her image is her ‘virtually living currency’.[4] She’s a, ‘frantic fiscality’ (sic). Her image is her: up for grabs.[5] Her skin shivers. She waits on ‘tenderhooks’. 2 b on tenterhooks is 2 b in an anxious state, waiting for something, uncertain to happen. On ‘tenderhooks’, she hangs tender. The top layer, of her girlish skin, peeled back: it glistens. As well as relating to skin, tender is also a term for money.

For years, I was the girl who was just too much.[6] What is defined as an excessive body? Those belonging to women, queers, people of colour, those with mental and physical disabilities or disfigurements, teens, girls, those who externalise what is deemed intimate. Bodies which talk too much, both through their marks and with their mouths. An excessive body is one perceived as ‘acting out’, a denigration commonly used to dismiss the unruly adolescent. These are bodies whose signs exceed their skin, and as a result are believed to be ‘asking for it’. If you own a body like this, always-already exposed IRL*, it can be difficult to willfully commit ‘double exposure’ by broadcasting it virtually.[7]

Inhale. In a split second her nude tendons are pulled back sharp her ribs mouth eyes stick in the air they follow quick stretch snap dragged up in to a grey swarm data code pictures pixels all breath is knocked up and out of her at a break neck speed and her grip of her is lost passed mentioned cut sliced re-imaged re-written re-touched a quintillion bytes are taken and spat back words smack on her skin. The violence of this velocity is matched by the violence of the glare trained to watch the girl. In shame, her body inverts, and wishes to be nothing. A naked singularity. Ripped to pieces.[8] It is too bright out here: it burns.

Girl B basks in crystalline shallows. She lazes in the shimmering haze. Her closed eyes drink in the heat. She basks in the face of the infinite. Next, she’s in a darkened bedroom. Green, blue, yellow and white particles quiver headily in the air. This cyber-light washes over her face: a strange serenity, a ‘techno-bliss’. Day is no longer day, it is artificial light. She basks in the arcane jar of the bedroom and she smiles. She basks in the glow of the screen.

In “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, artist and theorist on new media Hito Steyerl contends that the mechanic nobody imaged in online spam, rather than a sign of our commercial indoctrination, can instead be viewed as a potential substitute for the human body within online representation.[9] In Steyerl’s conception, it is the quantity of spam which in part allows this interchange to take place; spam now outnumbering the human population to form a “silent majority”.[10] Spam therefore provides a cover through a redistribution of attention, which allows the IRL* human to withdraw. Steyerl makes a case for total human extraction, in the belief that the hyperactive violence of online representation is now too much for the body to withstand.[11] By acting as a stand-in, spam, Steyerl writes, allows humans to go offline, “off record”, and slowly regroup, the mechanic nobodies instead absorbing the flak of the limelight, acting as a record of human refusal to partake.[12]

Moving from Steyerl’s framework we may question: is it possible that as the volume (both the size and the vocal noise) of unofficial information increases online - specifically the self-directed narratives on social media - that instead of a sign of submission to capitalist technology, this information may instead generate cover? Rather than allowing for a complete withdrawal from representation, could this self-made cover instead enable more subjects to speak? The realm of social media content expands without a collective logical destination by the second, made present through live updates, ‘streams’, ‘feeds’, and the propensity for ‘scrolling’. Photo trends also highlight the volume of this network, in which amateur images of the same scene are replicated in hundreds of geographical locations. Arguably, when an entity is large enough it becomes incomprehensible, meaning that instead of hundreds of highlighted singularities it appears as a fizzing mass made up of these 1’s. Is it possible that as this domain of the personal expands online, it might become the majority, corroding ratios so that the chances of spotlit martyrdom decrease? The effect of mass imagery, or mass repetition, can of course be damaging – particularly in the realm of the pornographic. However, in terms of making the personal public, can the effect of neutralisation be used to positive effect? The more we share, the less intimacies will be considered shocking; a collective increase of speed encouraging emancipation. Can we find a safety in numbers?

At a recent colloquium on ‘the eerie’ at The Showroom, London, Elizabeth Walling (aka avant-garde electronic musician Gazelle Twin) spoke about watching iSpy, a mobile phone app which allows viewers to access closed circuit television cameras or webcams in realtime worldwide.[13] Walling found iSpy whilst trying to sleep late at night, and was subsequently drawn to parallel nighttime spaces, cameras left on in ubiquitous settings: warehouses, supermarkets, factories. Walling states: “Having this unusual perspective, seeing these spaces drenched in shadows and strange, pixelated light (the nature of mobile streaming), I became transfixed by the atmosphere they seemed to embody. Pregnant with potential.”[14] For Walling, this potential related readily to horror imagery. In relation to the designated use of the app there is also the irrefutable issue of voyeurism at stake (an acceleration perhaps of the ‘JenniCam’). However, in being compelled to similar nighttime habitats, the image of Walling engaging with the screen, arguably may also be imagined as entering this dark network of unregulated content. The image of this girl, basking in pixels, is solidified as one acting within this mass, as another potent scene.

The surplus light from the screen which exceeds into domestic territory can be understood as a metaphor for the cover provided by personal, emotional, affective or nonsensical realtime information as it increases online. It is in this light that the subject can bask and recline, refusing the velocity of the glare. The basking body can power up in the face of this surplus: a digi-osmosis in which they are suffused with the power of the social volume.

In Bubbles: Microspherology, philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk writes that the contemporary condition of the human is a shellessness: “the peeled human”.[15] Sloterdijk argues that in this era we now lack the security previously brought by the celestial domes of theological belief; to this end Sloterdijk asks, “who [now] could have the power to create prosthetic husks around those who have been exposed?”[16] Sloterdijk responds, arguing in this shelless time we seek an imaginary spheric security in networks, insurance policies, and telecommunication: “The body of humanity seeks to create a new immune constitution in an electronic medial skin.”[17]

The glow of the screen which the girl basks in, may be thought of as this “electronic medial skin”. As the glow suffuses into the darkened air of the bedroom, it encapsulates the excessive body: a luminescent cocoon. The girl is no longer peeled, left tender and susceptible to fragmentation. Instead, within this cocoon her excessive body becomes a ‘charged’ body. She retains her excesses under one skin, preserving her many fractions, giving them an environment in which to amplify. By the nature of the cocoon, the excessive body is now self-transformative. It whirs furtively under cover, under this phosphorescent skin. A cocoon implies one day you will break out, more powerful than before.

In this electronic cocoon the basking girl expands kaleidoscopically, building her own agency. Basking as a tactic therefore allows the subject to undertake a “self-authoring”, a concept discussed by Rózsa Farkas in “Exhibitionism, or Perhaps Rejection”.[18] In her slideshow Farkas refers to video and new media artist Jennifer Chan, who on Twitter provides a continuous stream of affectual one-liners. This self-authored multifarious approach to identity allowed in the Twitter format, stands in opposition to the cold contact of the single video and comment feed of Youtube. It should be noted that Chan’s own Twitter avatar is an electronic basker: a blue computerised female silhouette against a turquoise background, overlain with a gif of rippling sun through sea water.

In her essay, “Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame & Life on the Actually Existing Internet”, Theresa M. Senft advocates responding to shame not through silence, but through an acceleration of speech, visibility and action. In the body of the basking girl, we find a subject going so fast she achieves a stasis. This basking body revels in both the speed of the expansion of the personal online, and subsequently her own allowance for excess, speed and speech enabled by the provision of an electronic skin.

How do you approach being too much? Bask in it.

*In Real Life

With thanks to Alex Borkowski and Melanie Kress for all our conversations about feeling tender, and Elizabeth Walling (aka Gazelle Twin).

Footnotes

  1. White panties and a white vest is the outfit worn by Miley Cyrus in the music video for her 2013 single, “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”, Bangerz, New York: NY, 2013). back
  2. For Slavoj Žižek the reality of the virtual is effects produced by something which does not yet fully exist, as opposed to virtual reality which is merely the replication of a subject’s experience of reality in a virtual form (Slavoj Žižek, “The Reality of the Virtual”, filmed lecture, London: UK, 2003). back
  3. “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” is a YouTube video trend. In these self-made videos teenage girls ask a public audience this question, requesting they post feedback in the comment box below. Currently on Youtube there are almost 600,000 hits for this search (October 2013). back
  4. “Living Currency” refers to the subject body as an object of value existing within a system of desire and exchange; this is the lived condition of all subject bodies under contemporary commodity capitalism (Pierre Klossowski, Living Currency, New York: NY, Reena Spaulings (trans.), 2013). back
  5. Italicised quote taken from the text under response (Theresa M. Senft, “Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame & Life on the Actually Existing Internet”, Either/And, London:UK, 2013) back
  6. Italicised quote taken from the text under response (Theresa M. Senft, “Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame & Life on the Actually Existing Internet”, Either/And, London:UK, 2013) back
  7. In photography, an exposure refers to the cycle of the camera shutter which determines the quantity of light the photographic film is exposed to (the quantity of light that this device will use to expose the subject). Double exposure is when the same negative is exposed twice to two different scenes which subsequently appear overlain in a single image when processed. back
  8. In “In Defense of the Poor Image”, Hito Steyerl proposes a notion of the 'Poor Image', an image entered online which as it accelerates it deteriorates, by being compressed, reproduced and ripped. For Steyerl theoretically this is a form of anti-communication. However, in actuality if an image of the subject endures this process, the idea is complicated through the involvement of the intimate and personal, and thus this can perhaps no longer be called purely a positive gesture of the anti-logical (Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”, The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin, 2012). back
  9. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin, 2012, 165 back
  10. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, 161 back
  11. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, 169 back
  12. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, 173 back
  13. All information cited in this text about this project is taken from email correspondence with Elizabeth Walling (20 - 30 October 2013). The information was initially presented at The Showroom, London (2013). back
  14. This quote was extracted from email correspondence with Elizabeth Walling (20 - 30 October 2013). The information was initially presented at The Showroom, London (2013). back
  15. Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Microspherology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: USA, 2011, Spheres 1, 24 back
  16. Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Microspherology, 24 back
  17. Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Microspherology, 25 back
  18. In this text, Farkas discusses individuals with online identities that place the personal into the public sphere, advocating identity formation through a new form of exhibitionism. Pertinently, these are bodies which speak (Rózsa Farkas, “Exhibitionism, or Perhaps Rejection”, Either/And, London:UK, 2013). back

Contribute