Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling
In this paper, a reading of Australian artist Stelarc’s work is presented, which suggests that both his rhetoric and performance practice can be read as signs of repressed male sexuality. Taking Stelarc’s idealization of cybersex and his rhetoric of the hardened, hollowed body as a starting point, potential sexual implications of Stelarc’s theoretical and practical approach to the body as part of a cybernetic network are examined. Drawing from research on the correlation between the Freudian castration complex and actual impotence, the author proposes to connect Amelia Jones’s psychoanalytical reading of the masculinist implications of Stelarc’s rhetoric to bio-behavioural research into inhibition of male sexual response. Thus, what is examined is how Stelarc’s rhetoric can be interpreted as an expression of male fear of impotence. Subsequently, it is argued that the deliberate exposure of the male body’s weakness in Stelarc’s performance practice can be read as a sign of fear of loss of social esteem, which would follow from sexual failure. Meanwhile, it is demonstrated that these readings of rhetoric and practice both fit within a bio-behavioural model that locates the origin of inhibition of male sexual response in fear of sexual failure and its social consequences.
FEAR, IMPOTENCE and REMOTE MASTURBATION:Repression of Male Sexuality in Stelarc’s Rhetoric and Performance Practice
“What is significant is no longer male-female intercourse but human-machine inter-face.” – Stelarc(1)
In his performances, Australian artist Stelarc presents his body equipped with technological prosthetic extensions such as a mechanical extra hand (Third Hand), a computer-controlled performance harness (Movatar), and a pneumatic walking machine (Exoskeleton). Explaining the motivations for his performance practice in the essay “Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies,” Stelarc states that, in contemporary information society, the human body “is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology, and […] is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment”(2). Accordingly, the organic body has become obsolete and should be hollowed, hardened and dehydrated in order to make it more durable and less vulnerable to enable the attachment and implantation of technological prostheses(3). Thus, it should be regarded as an object within a cybernetic network, rather than a subject confined by the biological boundaries of the epidermis. As part of the process of technological “enhancement” of the body, Stelarc envisages the fertilization and nurturing of fetuses outside the womb(4), as well as cybernetic lovemaking in which a person touching her or his own body would be connected to a “sensual and sensory loop,” transmitted through the internet to evoke erotic experiences in a remote partner(5).
Cultural theorist Amelia Jones has discussed the masculinist implications of Stelarc’s rhetoric. Drawing from sociologist Klaus Theweleit’s psychoanalytic study of literature written by officers of the proto-fascist German Freikorps in the first half of the 20th century, she argues that Stelarc’s allusions to a necessity to hollow, harden and dehydrate the body should be read as a masculinist phantasy(6). In Male Fantasies, Theweleit argues that the ideal of a hardened, armoured male body, presented in the novels he examined, is driven by a felt need to reaffirm the phallic prowess of the male body under threat of femininity and the homoerotic(7). Jones stresses, though, that Stelarc’s performance practice, in which the failure of the male body
in interaction with technological devices (its “softness”) is “wilfully” exposed, contradicts the suggested implications of his rhetoric. In the remainder of her essay she therefore focuses on Stelarc’s concern with transcending the body, which is expressed by his claim that the visceral body has become obsolete, but also by his apparent preference for sex and procreation without the involvement of other bodies. The latter is illustrated by his above-mentioned visions of the technological fertilizing and nurturing of fetuses and the substitution of sexual intercourse by a kind of “remote masturbation.” After discussing the obvious masculinist connotations of Stelarc’s ideas of the transcendent body(8) and sex and procreation without having to bother with female bodies, Jones references Stelarc’s statement that with the body “redesigned in a modular fashion to facilitate the replacement of malfunctioning parts, […] TECHNICALLY THERE WOULD BE NO REASON FOR DEATH…. Death does not authenticate existence. It is an outmoded evolutionary strategy.”(9) Thus, Jones comes to what she calls the “inconclusive conclusion” that the actual issue at stake in Stelarc’s rhetoric is not a fear of femininity as such, but an attempt to escape from death. However, her indeed “inconclusive” conclusion does not address the apparent paradox between her reading of Stelarc’s rhetoric of the hard body as a reaffirmation of the male body’s phallic prowess and her account of Stelarc’s performance practice, in which the male body is deliberately presented as soft and weak in its interaction with technology.
In this paper, I shall present a reading of Stelarc’s rhetoric and practice that aims to dissolve this problematic paradox. Central to my approach will be the connection of Jones’s psychoanalytical reading of Stelarc’s rhetoric to bio-behavioral research into inhibition of male sexual response. This connection between psychoanalytical concepts and actual erectile dysfunction will be supported by a theory of social scientist Lewis W. Brandt. Thus, rather than only concentrating on Stelarc’s apparent fascination with cybernetic sexual interaction facilitated through the internet, I shall also examine potential sexual implications of his more general approach to the body as part of cybernetic networks. In my argument, I shall first examine Theweleit’s analyses of the idealization of the hard body more closely and suggest that Stelarc’s rhetoric can be interpreted as an expression of male fear of impotence. Subsequently, I shall argue that the deliberate exposure of the weakness of the male body in Stelarc’s performance practice may very well be a sign of fear of loss of social esteem, which would follow from sexual failure. Meanwhile, I shall demonstrate that these readings of Stelarc’s rhetoric and practice fit within a bio-behavioral model based on the complementation of two inhibition factors affecting male sexual response. Thus, I shall argue that both Stelarc’s cybernetic rhetoric and practice can be read as signs of repressed male sexuality, induced by the fear of impotence.
Fear of Medusa (Stelarc’s rhetoric)
In her essay, Amelia Jones draws from Klaus Theweleit’s theory that the ideology of the hardened male body is rooted in a fear of femininity and the homoerotic. However, she does not elaborate further on the origins of this fear. Discussing possible motivations for this fear, Theweleit refers to Freud’s interpretation of the Medusa myth:
The sight of Medusa’s head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him into stone. Observe that we have here once again the same origin from the castration complex and the same transformation of affect! For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of this fact. (10)
Theweleit applies Freud’s analysis not only to situations in which immediate reactions to encounters with “femininity” occur, but also to preventative defensive behavior shown in the absence of the imagined threat, such as the stiff way of posing in military photographs and literary descriptions of the hardness and stiffness of male bodies when encountering women, who function as signifiers of femininity in the novels discussed. (11) Accordingly, I suggest that, if we accept Jones’s mapping of Theweleit’s theory on Stelarc’s rhetoric, it is plausible to believe that Stelarc’s rhetoric concerning his hard, hollow and dehydrated body is actually a manifestation of the castration complex.
In his essay “Castration: Fantasy and Reality,” Lewis W. Brandt points out that, in addition to its cultural connotations, the psychoanalytical concept of castration has a reality aspect concerning the sexual capability of the subject. Arguing that the penis should be considered as two separate organs, a “urination” organ and a “copulation” organ, Brandt suggests that after ejaculation a man temporarily loses his copulation organ and is actually castrated. (12) Thus, apart from its metaphorical implications, substantiated in a fear of femininity, the castration complex evidences a fear of real impotence. Accordingly, it is conceivable that Stelarc’s rhetoric may be read as an expression of this fear.
Having demonstrated how the castration complex, which is manifested in Stelarc’s rhetoric, may be brought in connection with an actual fear of erectile dysfunction, I shall, in the remainder of this paper, discuss both Stelarc’s rhetoric and performance practice from the perspective of bio-behavioral research into male fear of sexual failure. In their dual model of male sexual response, bio-behavioral scientists John Bancroft and Erick Jannsen argue that repression of male sexual response may result from the interaction of two inhibitory factors(13): “fear of performance failure,” which refers to fear related to the possible failure of the actual, physical sexual performance, and “fear of performance consequences,” which is concerned with a fear of loss of esteem from a sex partner or other people who might observe the sexual act, which would follow performance failure. I suggest that the fear of impotence, which is, as I have argued above, expressed in Stelarc’s rhetoric, can be read as the “fear of performance failure” Bancroft and Jannsen describe. In the following paragraph, I shall suggest how Stelarc’s performance practice can be read as a response to “fear of performance consequences.”
Fear of Spectators (Stelarc’s practice)
Amelia Jones describes how, in his performances, Stelarc’s body is “wilfully […] punctured and […] compromised”(14) by the technological prostheses attached to it; Stelarc appears to deliberately present his body in situations where it is violated by machines.
Psychologists Phillip Sarrel and William Masters have discussed the urban myth of male impotence in situations of discomfort. They note that the common belief that a man cannot have an erection whilst he is under threat of physical violence or being physically attacked, has contributed to cases of male victims of sexual assault not having been identified. (15) Taking this myth into account in the analysis of Stelarc’s deliberate presentation of his (male) body under physical distress, I suggest that his performance practice can be read as a purposeful staging of the body in such way that spectators would generally believe it not to be capable of having an erection. In other words, Stelarc chooses to present his body in conditions where there is no risk of spectators expecting a demonstration of his phallic prowess by means of sexual response.
Returning to Bancroft and Jannsen’s model of dual control of male sexual response, I suggest that Stelarc’s way of presenting his body can be read as a sign of “fear of performance consequences;” his avoidance of conditions in which spectators would expect a male body to be able to be sexually responsive may well be motivated by a fear of loss of esteem from the audience, which would follow the occurrence of impotence if his body were not to be physically compromised. Thus, rather than preparing the body for survival in an “extraterrestial environment”(16), I suggest that the technological prostheses attached to Stelarc’s body function as a means to bring his body into a condition where there is not need to fear “performance consequences.”
Notably, the suggested relevance of “fear of performance consequences” in Stelarc’s work is further supported by his fascination with the “remote masturbation” idea introduced in the beginning of this paper. Here, successful sexual performance can be achieved without anybody else physically present, thus avoiding the possibility of a partner observing and judging a man’s sexual virility.
Repression in Word and Deed (a conclusion)
In this paper, I have suggested that both Stelarc’s performance practice and his rhetoric can be read in the frame of Bancroft and Jannsen’s model of dual control of male sexual response. Stelarc’s ideal of a hardened body can be read as a sign of “fear of performance failure,” whereas the deliberate presentation of his body in conditions where impotence is expected and accepted can be considered a response to “fear of performance consequences.”
In Bancroft’s and Jannsen’s model, these two factors are interrelated in their effect on male sexual response. Accordingly, I argue that, rather than being considered a paradox, Stelarc’s rhetoric and practice should be regarded as an interrelated process, rooted in a fear of sexual failure.
As I discussed earlier in this paper, Brandt has suggested that the castration complex maymanifest itself in both socio-cultural behavior and actual sexual performance. Drawing from this notion of the likely correlation between more metaphorical modes of expression and actual sexual performance, I suggest that, in Stelarc’s rhetoric and practice, the sexual repression following fear of performance failure and performance consequences is not manifested in actual erectile dysfunction, as is the case with the subjects in Bancroft and Janssen’s research, but in the nature of his (artistic) words and deeds.
Stelarc’s attitude towards his body, in both his practice and rhetoric, has troubled Amelia Jones and several other critics. (17) Rather than intending to present a definitive reading of this aspect of Stelarc’s work, I am hoping that this paper has demonstrated that it is plausible to assume that the troubling attitudes these critics have described are, at least to an extent, induced by the repression of male sexuality, manifested in both Stelarc’s practical and rhetorical approach to technology in connection with his cybernetic approach to the human body.
1. Stelarc, “Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies”, Leonardo, Vol 24, no. 5 (1991), p. 593.
2. Ibid., p. 591.
3. Ibid., p. 592.
4. Ibid., p. 593.
5. Stelarc in Amelia Jones, “Stelarc’s technological ‘transcendence’/Stelarc’s wet body” in Marquard Smith (ed.), Stelarc, the Monograph (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005), p. 115.
6. Amelia Jones, “Stelarc’s technological ‘transcendence’/Stelarc’s wet body”, p. 89.
7. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: Polity Press, 1989)
8. Jones refers to Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of the alignment of transcendence and masculinity in patriarchy in: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H.M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1953).
9. Stelarc in Amelia Jones, “Stelarc’s technological ‘transcendence’/Stelarc’s wet body”, p. 116.
10. Freud in Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Vol 1, pp 197-198.
11. Theweleit, Male Fantasies , Vol. 1, pp. 198-201.
12. Lewis W. Brandt, “Castration: Fantasy and Reality”, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1966), p. 85.
13. John Bancroft and Erick Jannsen, “The dual control of male sexual response: a theoretical approach to centrally mediated erectile dysfunction”, Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 24 (2000), p. 573.
14. Amelia Jones, “Stelarc’s technological ‘transcendence’/Stelarc’s wet body”, p. 89.
15. Phillip M. Sarrel and William H. Masters, “Sexual Molestation of Men by Women”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1982, p. 118.
16. Stelarc, “Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies”, p. 591.
17. Janet Koplos, “Stelarc at The Kitchen,” Art in America 81, no. 12 (1993).
Timothy Murray, “Coda of the Paradox of Shed Skin: Stelarc ‘and’ the Philosophical Ping,” in Marina Grznic (ed.), Stelarc: Political Prosthesis and Knowledge of the Body (Ljublijana, Slovenia: Maska, 2002), pp. 81-93.
Daniël Ploeger is a doctoral candidate in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. After initial training as a musician, he is now primarily working as a performance and installation artist and researcher. His research is focused on digital performance, sound art and media theory.