Moving Towards the Post-Human: Why George Is the Way He Is

In The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems, Bill Nichols revisits Benjamin's seminal article Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (to which Nightingale alludes in mentioning the concept of "aura"). Nichols argues that the cybernetic system is the defining template for contemporary identity.

In early capitalism, the human was defined in relation to an animal world that evoked fascination and attraction, repulsion and resentment. The human animal was similar to but different from all other animals. In monopoly capitalism, the human was defined in relation to a machine world that evoked its own distinctive blend of ambivalence. The human machine was similar but different from all other machines. In postindustrial capitalism, the human is defined in relation to cybernetic systems...The human cyborg is similar but different from all other cyborgs (28).

As a person is defined by her relationship to the machine or more specifically as a human becomes more like the machine, the computer, Nichols describes the consequences.

The simulation displaces any antecedent reality, any aura, any referent to history. Frames collapse. What had been fixed comes unhinged. New identities, ambivalently adopted, prevail....in cybernetic systems, the concept of 'text' itself undergoes substantial slippage. (Nichols 25-6)

George travels in the commerce of the unhinged, the ahistorical. As a cyberart collector, he attempts to "fix" any number of texts, to archive them as closed and set works, working against the tendency of the medium. But he attempts to reconfigure the text as a commodity, thereby removing it from its original articulation as a work of art.

Nichols goes on to assert that in the digital era, the representation displaces the referent. George's obsession with the image of an object takes precedence over any direct relationship with the real object itself. In Nichols' terms, George is a fetishist. There is an inherent tension between his desire to possess the object and the object's reproducible and representational iteration. The sense of the original is lost or has transformed into many originals. George's attempt to hold the work in a fixed state is in a way an act that nostalgically references the other collector in the theaterwork, the Emperor. But the Emperor faced problems that were considerably simpler. The Emperor's move to control and possess sets him in conflict with the autonomy, agency, and unpredictability of the living, of Nature. In his world, though, the representation of the object was not of great concern.

Advancing Nichols' claim, Vivian Sobchack also argues that it is the relationship between the real and the referent that is at issue, that the digital is, in a way, cut off from that which it represents. Her discussion of the "electronic metaworld" sheds some light on why George is the way he is:

The electronic is phenomenologically experienced...as a simultaneous, dispersed, and insubstantial transmission across a network or web that is constituted spatially more as a materially flimsy latticework of nodal points than as the stable ground of embodied experience [these italics are mine]....the electronic constructs a metaworld where aesthetic value and ethical investment tend to be located in representation-in-itself. That is, the electronic semiotically-and significantly-constitutes a system of simulation, a system that constitutes copies that seem lacking an original ground. ...Living in such a formally schematized and intertextual metaworld unprecedented in its degree of remove from the materiality of the real world has a significant tendency to liberate the engaged spectator/user from the pull of what might be termed moral and physical gravity—and, at least in the euphoria of the moment, the weight of its real world consequences. (Sobchack 154)

It is any surprise that a user like George drifts weightless, becoming no-body, perhaps more comfortable about his relationship with the electronic than with Marta?

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