Anne Balsamo’s “Forms of Technological Embodiment”

In this reading, I’ll be looking at Anne Balsamo’s article where discusses her take on the gendered body and its lack of agency in a technologically driven world.

The ‘cyborg’ – the technological-human – has become a familiar figuration of the subject of postmodernity […] this merger relies on a reconceptualization of the human body as a boundary figure belonging simultaneously to at least two previously incompatible systems of meaning – ‘the organic/natural’ and the ‘technological/cultural’  (215).

Balsamo argues that the body and technology are joined in a literal sense, where machines assume organic functions and the body is materially redesigned through the use of corporeality. The “natural” body has been refashioned since the 1980s, where the idea of the merging of the biological with the technological became prevalent in Western thought.

 These devices function as a set of visualization techniques that contribute to the fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids, and bodily states which in turn promote a self-conscious surveillance whereby the body becomes an object (216).

 By using technologies such as electronic scales, blood pressure machines and diabetes tests, we can monitor our consumption of various food groups and thus be able to compartmentalize our bodies into individual parts such as organs and fluids. This argument resonates with Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the body image, which he uses to explain the wholeness of the bodily experience, rather than the body as a sum of its parts. For Merleau-Ponty, if the body is looked at as a collection of organs that occupy different spaces, it is reduced and thus defined by the tasks these parts perform.

Techno-bodies are healthy, enhanced and fully functional – more real than real […] in our hyper-mediated techno-culture, body awareness is amplified such that we can technologically witness, if not yet manage, the molecular functioning of bodily processes.

While Merleau-Ponty sees fragmentation as a weakening of the body image and a vulnerability, Balsamo’s position at first seems a bit muddled, as she initially seems in favor of biotechnologies, or at least believes that techno-bodies are “more real than real.” She then argues that this self-surveillance objectifies the body and commodifies it so that it can be studied and improved.

This know-your-body-obsession manifests itself in different ways […] fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the construction of cultural identities […] so that as the target subjects of a technologically enhanced, disembodied gaze, our bodies betray us (216).

It seems that this “betrayal” has to do with Balsamo’s examples of surveillance devices such as blood tests, finger-printing, drug urine tests, etc. The disembodied gaze seems to imply a lack of control of how our bodies are seen by others, and how imprints on our bodies and our biological and physical make up are things we cannot control. This is something that Pramod Nayar brings up as well, when he talks about the body of the minority (the queer, the differently-abled) for whom the rights and privileges depend on the material body. There are certain corporeal markers of identity that are inescapable, thus a reconfiguration of the body is necessary.

When the human body is fractured into functional parts and molecular codes, where is gender located? (216)

Balsamo discusses the cultural embodiment of gender assignment and how gender is a concept that creates a boundary between the human body (the natural) and the body’s cultural context when interfaced with technology. Nayar also discusses the implications of the fractured body that is interfaced with machines –he calls this the “cyber” or “techno-body,” and juxtaposes this with Donna Haraway’s argument that the cyborg serves to break taxonomic barriers between the organic human body (natural) and the machine (cultural). In doing so, the cyborg body can be freed from its pre-meditated constraints of identity such as woman, black, heterosexual, etc.

The widespread technological refashioning of the ‘natural’ human body suggests that gender, too, would be ripe for reconstruction […] My intent for this project is to contribute to the development of a ‘thick perception’ of the body in contemporary culture from a feminist standpoint (217).

“Thick perception” is a term used by Foucault for understanding the ways in which the body is conceptualized. If the body is not a natural object, but a social construction, how is it produced? Can cyberspace be, as Haraway puts it, a realm that allows the body to resist totalization that is predicated on fixed racial and gendered identities?

 ‘The body’ is a social, cultural, and historical production: ‘production’ here means both product and process […] I argue that when starting with the assumption that bodies are alway

s gendered and marked by race it becomes clear that there are multiple forms of technological embodiment that must be attended to (218).

 By saying that the body is a ‘product,’ it seems that Balsamo is referring to the physical embodiment of one’s race, gender, ethnicity, etc., and the personal identity that they produce for themselves. The ‘process’ is how one makes their way in the world, and how one marks themselves. Balsamo’s intent is to read the body in order to make a discourse that is an active practice of perception, that is, to break down the cultural construction of the gendered body and of the body in postmodernity or hyper-modernity. She cites Arthur Kroker in the following passage:

[…] the body in postmodernity […] has been ‘unplugged from the planet’; accordingly, the signal form of the postmodern body is the disappearing body – a notion that the natural body has no ontological status separate from the proliferation of rhetorics that now invest the body with simulated meaning (218).

 Here, Kroker is talking about the vulnerability of the body in the face of various devices of power. The more technology is interlaced with human development, the more body is not self-defined and is written onto by culture: The hyper-modern body is now the panic body (218).

The above statement suggests that because the modern body is subordinated, only once it becomes post-modern or hyper-modern does it begin to react: ‘Panic bodies: an inscribed surface onto which are projected all the grisly symptoms of culture burnout as the high five-sign of the late 1980s […] functional only as a passive screen for the hystericizations of panic mythologies of the (disappearing) public realm‘ (219).

 For Kroker, the body in contemporary culture is constantly invaded and inscribed onto, and Balsamo uses this argument to suggest that the invasion and overwriting of the body is demonstrative of postmodern institutions of power. Thus, the disappearing body in Balsamo’s feminist terms implies that women’s bodies have always been postmodern since they are constantly being invaded by cultural rhetoric of the media, such as beauty controlled by body image.

In [Arthur Frank]’s account of the ‘communicative body’, he identifies elements I assign to both the ‘laboring body’ and the ‘marked body’. The communicative body […] is an expressive realization of itself, ‘no longer appropriated by institutions and discourses, but by the body’s own life’ (224).

 Balsamo uses Frank’s communicative body to outline how it differs from her understanding of the marked body: I see the marked body as bearing the signs of culture, even when these signs are appropriated by the body in question (224). Here, she is tying her marked body to its lack of agency – the marked body has been written on by culture.

The quality of corporeal expression that Frank rightly emphasizes is one that I assign to the laboring body – both as it is based in the facticity of reproduction and, reflecting a Marxist influence, in the conditions of productive labor (224).

 Balsamo’s use of the word “reproduction” is intriguing, as it is with reference to the “laboring” body, which I originally took to mean a body that produces goods, in a Marxist context. While she does reference a Marxist influence above, she doesn’t explain until later in the article how the laboring or reproductive body is different from the body that is marked by culture.

The marked body signals the fact that bodies are eminently cultural signs, bearing the traces of ritual and mythic identities  (225).

 In this section of the article, Balsamo delves into her talk about how the fashion and advertising industries have capitalized on the body in what she calls “identity semiosis,” which is what happens when the body is defined by a commodified, marketable identity. Nayar talks about this as well when he refers to the body being located within certain social systems and discourses such as the fashion industry, the medical industry, and the industrial industry, all of which define the body based on their own methods of improving and controlling it.

Bodies that labor include a full range of working bodies as well as maternal bodies […] involved in continuation of the human race in its multiple material incarnations. Such bodies are often invisible in postmodern discourse […] both in its science fictional and science factual form as ‘container’ for the fetus, and in its role as the object of technological manipulation in the service of human reproduction (227).

 It seems that the maternal body as “invisible” has to do with Balsamo’s discussion of the gendered body, which does not seem all too different from the marked body. With the laboring body, she claims that since they are involved in reproduction they are treated as a technological body.

Balsamo’s take on the maternal body suggests that technology is being used in the service of surveillance to watch pregnant women, invading their privacy for the “greater good.” I’m not entirely sure that I buy into this rhetoric, but it does bring to mind Foucault’s writings on the body-subject and body-power, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s discussion on inscription and control of the body/agency. Nayar talks about this as well, but from the standpoint of molecular biology, which treats the body itself as a technological apparatus that labors. In this case, the body is economic property believed to posses “biomaterial labor” (Nayar, 72).

In the development of virtual reality applications and hardware, the body is redefined as a machine interface. In the efforts to colonize the electronic frontier – called cyberspace or the information matrix – the material body is divorced from the locus of knowledge (228).

I am really interested in what Balsamo means here by “locus of knowledge” – it seems that there is an illusion of control when the body has entered a virtual realm, because even though the virtual body is responding to the physical body and moving with it (more or less), the person in cyberspace is not really in control because the apparatus is mediating the experience.

There is little coincidence that VR emerged in the 1980s, during a decade when the body was understood to be increasingly vulnerable […] At the heart of the media promotions of virtual reality is a vision of a body-free universe […] the possibility of transcendence (229).

 This passage calls forth some issues brought up by Mark Hansen in Bodies in Code, particularly his discussion surrounding the marketing of virtual reality as the disappearance of the body as one enters a virtual, disembodied realm. The “transcendence” mentioned here is rejected by Hansen, who suggests that the body is not experiencing a loss of corporeality, but is capable, through virtual reality, of entering into the third realm of mixed reality that involves a reclaiming of the body in an overlap of the physical and the virtual.


Some other passages to think about:

At the point at which the body is reconceptualized not as a fixed part of nature, but as a boundary concept […] establishes a hierarchical relationship between culture and nature […] to reassure a technologically over-stimulated imagination that culture/man will prevail in his encounters with nature (215).

 This repression of the body is technologically naturalized in part because we have internalized the technological gaze to such an extent that ‘perspective’ is a naturalized organizing locus of sense knowledge (229).

 This is to argue that, although the body may disappear representationally in the virtual worlds of cyberspace and, indeed, we may go to great lengths to repress it and erase its referential traces, it does not disappear materially in the interface with the VR apparatus (229).

 Of all the forms of technological embodiment, the disappearing body is the one that promises most insistently the final erasure of gender and race as culturally organized systems of differentiation. Bio-engineered body components are designed to duplicate the function of material body parts (230).

 In offering the matrix forms of technological embodiment, I argue that the material body cannot be bracketed or ‘factored out’ of postmodern body theory (233).

Works Cited:

Balsamo, Anne. “Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture.” Body & Society. 

Hansen, Mark. “Introduction: From the Image to the Power of Imaging: Virtual Reality and the Originary Specularity of Embodiment.” Bodies in Code. 1-23.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty.. “The Spatiality of One’s own Body and Motility.” The Phenomenology of Perception. 112-170.

Nayar, Pramod. “Bodies.” An Introdution to New Media and Cybercultures. 61-86.


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