Although this short documentary (full transcript here) feels more like a glorified advertisement for the video game “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” it does raise some interesting issues we deal with regularly on this blog.First, we revisit Rob Spence, the human cyborg (or Eyeborg as he prefers to call himself). I have written about him once before on this blog, and he has been a documenting his technological cyborg transformation extensively through video clips on his blog (and his newer blog project). He himself personifies the (new) cyborg body.
But it is important to also mention that the cyborg body is more than technology-meets-the-flesh. It is also all those little gizmos and gadgets that improve the biological human body, from sunglasses, clothing, and footwear to digital wristwatches, mobile phones, and pacemakers. “Unlike you humans, I can continue to upgrade,” Spence has stated. “Yes, I’m a cyborg. But I think that any technology — even clothing — makes people cyborgs.” And this brings up some of the issues we speak of on this blog.
The interviews contained in the documentary discuss everything from augmented reality–in the case of “terminator vision” and the new firefighter facemasks being produced in the private sector–to prosthetic hands, arms, and hydraulic legs. These technologies are drastically improving and superseding the limits imposed by the biological human body. So is the sky the limit?
In the words of David Jonsson, “I mean who says that a normal human [appendage] is the optimal thing for you? I mean the [human] species has evolved to dislike what we have now but who says that’s the end of the line?” This brings up the notion of transhumanism.
As a whole, the Eyeborg documentary and the transhumanist movement epitomize a sense of nostalgia for the future. As FM-2030 himself once stated, “I am a 21st century person who was accidentally launched in the 20th. I have a deep nostalgia for the future.”
What does the future hold for the cyborg body? Only our imagination can tell.
I have been really enjoying the Google Correlate function lately. I think it is a very powerful tool for examining popular topics because more and more people are going online to look for information. More specifically, Google Correlate allows you to see the correlations between search terms, allowing you to see what other search terms are associated with one another. In some sense then, it provides a “window” into the Internet user’s mind. I took this as an opportunity to do a little investigating about the popularization of tattoos and tattooing. What I found is striking.
This first screen shot allows you to see some of the top results I got for the search term “tattoo.” As you can see, people who Googled (is that a verb now?) “tattoo” also tended to Google things like “flower tattoos,” “small tattoos,” “ring tattoos,” and “bird tattoos.” These just happen to be some of the most popular tattoo designs right now, especially as more middle and upper class individuals begin getting tattooed to commemorate personal events (like marriages-in the form of “ring tattoos”). It also makes sense that “small tattoos” would be a popular search term, as many consumers are now approaching tattooing for the very first time and may be wary of large pieces. Flower tattoos, on the other hand, tend to be popular with both sexes, but I imagine the majority of the people Googling “flower tattoos” are female (I imagine many first time tattoo clients that are male may shy away from the “girly” stuff). And bird tattoos? I don’t really understand that one. But I myself have at least 4 birds tattooed on me.
Lets take a look at this screen shot.
This second screen shot reveals an increasingly robust correlation between the search terms “tattoo” and “flower tattoo” since about this time 2003. From the line graph you can see a upward trend (albeit a very “hilly” upward trend). I presume this has something to do with the increasing visibility of tattooing in popular media. After all, the first tattoo reality television shows emerged in July 2005 with A&E’s “Inked” and TLC’s “Miami Ink,” both of which focused on the exploits of professional tattoo artists in their respective shops.
More specifically, I would argue that as more consumers are confronted with images of contemporary tattooing through the media, it becomes a permissible practice, something that comes to be seen as within the realm of possibility. Rather than a dingy derelict practice reserved for the social underclass, tattooing has been successfully reframed into a “minor art world” (Sanders and Vail 2008), largely through the help of the mass media.
In a sense, the tattoo becomes a viable practice for identity work (Atkinson 2002); it becomes part of the contemporary consumer habitus (Bourdieu 1986). And as a result, more and more people are searching online for tattoo information and images for inspiration. And this helps fuel consumer demand, where more and more people are choosing to express themselves through tattooing.
I am still amazed when complete strangers come up to me on the street and tell me that they want to get a tattoo, but they cannot think of what they want to get because they “want it to mean something special.” I am even more amazed when people approach me on the street and try to tell me all the tattoo ideas they have, explaining in meticulous detail what each part symbolizes. This is part of the mass media discourse on tattooing, transmitted through television shows and largely divorced from actual tattoo practices. Although much of the public presumes that tattoos must be highly symbolic, in actual practice they needn’t be. It is not that tattoos aren’t supposed to mean anything, it’s just that the meaning you ascribe to them isn’t the most important part. Tattooing has always been as much aesthetic as it is symbolic (Lodder 2010).
Recently I stumbled across this interview with Jacqui Moore, a rather well-known and visible member of the body modification community for her extensive black and grey full body suit. Bearing the rather exploitative tagline (which states “A respectable mother celebrated her divorce by asking her new boyfriend to cover her entire body – with a single TATTOO”), which makes her sound not only impulsive but pathological, what does this case reveal about contemporary body modification practices? What is the relationship between gender, patriarchy, and body modification? And what are the costs of using indigenous iconography and rituals in one’s body modification practices?
Much has been written about body modification as a form of self empowerment for women (Atkinson 2004; Braunberger 2001; Pitts 1999; 2003). For instance, Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (1997) argues that women’s role in the tattooing coincides directly with the three waves of feminism. She draws parallels between the First Wave and tattooed women of the carnival circuit, the Second Wave and female tattoo artists of the Tattoo Renaissance (60s and 70s), and the Third Wave and the contemporary proliferation of tattooed female bodies (many with widely different political agendas).
In a similar vein, Michael Atkinson (2004) argues that tattooing allows individuals to express emotions that would normally be displaced, subverted, and pushed away from public view. In this way, individuals can confront their fears, their worries, their hopes, and their dreams. The result is that they can avoid the potentially negative psychological costs of keeping these sorts of stressors inside them. Atkinson argues that by publicly confronting especially negative emotions, tattooing acts as a cathartic valve that prevents more self-destructive or harmful behaviors.
So whereas one might interpret Jacqui Moore’s dramatic post-divorce body modification as a sign of mental pathology or instability, we might also interpret her behavior as a rational attempt at self-empowerment, self-actualization, and change. She states, “I went to get a new tattoo to symbolise [sic] my freedom and the new chapter in my life.” And later, “I love seeing my body change every time Curly tattoos me…It’s an incredible journey of self-discovery.”
Victoria Pitts (2003) has also argued that body modification serves as a means of stress management for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the subordinated. Her interviews with members of the LGBT community, working class tattoo enthusiasts, female tattoo collectors, and “modern primitives” reveal that each of these groups uses body modification as a means of coping with stress resulting from various forms of oppression (gender, sexuality, race, class, etc). Whether it’s a desire for self-affirmation, the need to overcome personal tragedy, battling with poverty, or finding voice in a hostile society, these individuals all find solace in the act of modifying their bodies.
For instance, many of Pitts’ interviewees were women who had been sexually abused at one point in their lives. The tattooing ritual helped them to overcome these traumatic experiences and locate their bodies once again.
“I can’t believe it, even now when I’m sitting here talking to you [about being raped]. I was out of my body for almost two years. I can’t really find any other way of explaining this to you than by saying I felt numb. I tried not to think about my body because I felt dirty, ashamed, and like, you know, I wanted to crawl out of myself… I thought a tattoo might help me re-claim my body, bring it back to my control, you know. I lost my body, I was a stranger in my own skin. I cried the whole time I was being tattooed, all the fear, and hate, and sorrow came to the surface, and every time the needles struck me I relived the pain of the rape. I don’t think any amount of talk, with whoever, could have forced me to get in back in touch with my body like that… I consider that day my second birthday, the day I really started to move on with my life.” (Jenny, 24)
Moore’s extensive black and grey tattoos borrow heavily from the iconography of non-Western cultures. Therefore, it becomes necessary to analyze the relationships of power that undergird these liberatory body modification practices of affluent, white westerners. For instance, what does it mean for a middle-class white woman to appropriate the symbols of ancient Tibetan monks? Does the self-empowerment that body modification provides come at the cost of indigenous cultural forms?
Pitts (2003) advocates for a body politics informed by history and critical of power. As such, she sees the rise of tattooing and body modification amongst white westerners as “identity tourism,” where Cyberpunks, neo-tribalists, Goths, and others appropriate the cultural practices and corporeal rituals of non-western Others (Pitts 2003). Although these individuals may be well intentioned in their desire to frame “traitorous identities” in solidarity with non-western cultures, they nonetheless reify the very modern-primitive divide they seek to displace. Rather than an act of subversion, the tattooed body (and other modifications like stretched lobes, scarifications, brandings, etc.) represents the privilege of white westerners to name and claim the cultural Other as their own.
A couple weeks ago I stumbled across this image of a “Where’s Waldo?” backpiece, and it got me to thinking about body modification, the cyborg body, and postmodern theories of the sign (Baudrillard 1972; Turner 1999) as they relate to contemporary tattooing.
The contemporary tattoooed body, which I often refer to as the cyborg body, is at a crisis. That is, we do not have a uniform means of interpreting and displaying these signs to others. What’s more, the content of tattoos varies significantly, from direct referents and iconography to indirect, playful and self-referent images.
In the (admittedly jargon-rich) words Bryan Turner, contemporary tattoo practice is characterized like this:
“…the postemotional actor is a member of the airport departure lounge, in the sense that she is blase, indifferent to traditional signs of commitment and remote from the conventional signs of caring. Her tattoos are surface indicators of identity and attachment. Furthermore, the modern tattoo is merely a cliche, borrowing from and adapting Polynesian patterns, Japanese motifs and Chinese military emblems. The aesthetic and sexual tattoo of the middle classes is a product of thin/cool relationships of a postmodern culture in which there is an exhaustion of idiom. In such a culture, primitiveness must necessarily be simulated and ironic. It is doubtful that being a serious primitive is possible, because committed primitivism is no longer a feasible option” (2000:49).
Turner uses the “airport departure lounge” as a metaphor for describing the loose membership practices of contemporary identity groups (what some have called “scenes” (Straw 1991), others have called “taste cultures” (Turner 1996), and still others have called “lifestyle tribes” (Maffesoli 1996)). We delineate the bounds of membership to such communities through various forms of cultural capital, including fashion and self-presentation, and through our consumption practices (what Featherstone calls “lifestyle consumption” ).
Turner characterizes contemporary tattoo communities in the West as “thin/cool” due to their voluntary, ephemeral, and seemingly facile character. He contrasts them to more traditional uses of the tattoo in non-Western cultures, which were based on “thick/warm” loyalties to clan or tribe. In these indigenous cultures, the tattoo served to communicate one’s social relationships with others, in effect, serving a “pro-social” function. That is, tattoos served to bring people together and create group solidarity. But contemporary tattooing is characterized by far too many tribal loyalties. How are we to read them?
I believe we are at a semiotic crisis of representation (Ebert 1986). The tattoo has become polyphonic. Two such interpretations of the contemporary tattoo include what I am calling the “traditionalist” and what I am calling the “narrative” style. The former belongs to the interpretive practices of traditional (largely Americana and Japanese) tattooers; the latter refers to the forms of tattooing contained in spectacular representations of tattooing in the mass media and popular culture (particularly in the tattoo television dramas like LA Ink or NY Ink).
More specifically, I want to problematize the narrative image of tattooing that is presented in popular culture (particularly in the tattoo television dramas like LA Ink or NY Ink). Following arguments made by Lodder (2010), I believe we are now seeing a crisis of representation surrounding the tattoo as commodity-sign. The mass public, particularly those who engage with the contemporary tattoo community through mass-mediated representations alone (watching LA Ink or NY Ink in isolation, without further contact into the tattoo community), has a widely different interpretive frame than most tattoo artists themselves. Lodder (2011) has taken issue with the narrative style of reality television, which drastically overemphasizing the meaning-making process behind tattoo art.
“It is true that subsections of the tattooed population—gangs, sailors, prisoners—have certainly long made use of tattoos to express specific concepts or to signify group membership, but this has never been true of tattoos in general. Tattooing has forever been decorative as much as it has been simply narrative, with many tattoos lacking a specifically expressive story-telling component to the design. Nevertheless, tattoo TV both depends on and reinforces the preconception that the skin is a screen for its generic formula. For so ingrained is the connection between tattoos and stories that without the traumatic sob-stories of death and loss attached to almost every tattoo, the shows would feature little more than shots of the tattooers high-fiving one another” (2011:5).
Television shows like LA Ink fail to capture the prevailing “art for art’s sake” mentality that permeates traditional tattooing. In short, the habitus of traditional tattoo artists and collectors is seemingly erased in the media images of tattooing, which largely present tattooing through middle-class notions of symbolism and identity-work (Bourdieu 1984). The result is that this deeply-symbolic model of tattoo acquisition becomes further normalized and “tattooed people feel obliged to justify precisely what their tattoo means” (Lodder 2010:5).
In conclusion, the wide variety of social groups that now get tattooed has made it increasingly difficult to “read” tattoos as stable or direct referents. While traditional tattooers approach their work as art and adopt an “art for art’s sake” mentality that privileges aesthetics over the meaning-making process, the majority of the public, emboldened by spectacular representations of tattooing in popular culture, approach tattoos as highly-narrative symbols. This makes it challenging for individuals to interpret tattoo signs, especially if they are unfamiliar with the particular iconography of the various “scenes” (Straw 1991) or “neo-tribes” (Maffesoli 1996) that employ them.
David Banks and David Strohecker on September 2, 2011
Lisa Wade over at our sister blog Sociological Images sent us an email from one of her readers, Steve Grimes, who shared this image and some interesting thoughts about how Quick Response codes or, QR codes can contribute to inequality. That is, QR codes such as these serve to make certain content and information “exclusive” to those who have smartphones. He states,
There is a general thinking that technology can create a level playing field (an example of this is can be seen with the popular feelings about the internet). However, technology also has a great ability to create and widen gaps of inequality.
In a practical sense the company may be looking for students who are tech savvy. They may also want to save on ink toner (might be a stretch). So using the matrix barcode may serve that purpose. However, the ad also shows how technology can exclude individuals; primarily in this case, students without smart phones. One may think that being on a college campus every student would have a smart phone. However, when you look at the prices of most smart phones along with the prices for the plans of a carrier (usually somewhere $75-150 per month) one can see that not every student may have one. Especially considering the other things that they may have to pay for that are a bit pressing to their environment (books, food, etc).
And just on a common sense level the ad says “Need a Job”. For students who need work they may not be the population of individuals who have the money to afford a smart phone to read the ad.
Grimes’ thoughts are judicious, and reveal the inherent structural difficulties in alleviating inequality. However, rather than revisit arguments on the digital divide, I believe it would be more effective to think about QR codes as one form of “digital exclusivity.” I am using the term to refer to the tendency of technology to re-entrench (mostly) class disparities in access to information. Those who cannot afford smartphones or who do not wish to pay for one are essentially excluded from being able to access this information. True, they may be able to access the information later when they have access to a computer, but that requires a much greater interest in the content than the person who casually scans the QR code. The person who has the smartphone is certainly living in a much more augmented world than the person without.
Eschewing the high popularity and price-tag of smartphones and the data plans they require, smartphone adoption does not guarantee the use of QR codes. Both of the authors of this article rarely use QR codes, despite the capacity to read them. Hamilton Chan, CEO and Founder of Paperlinks wrote an Op-Ed in Mashable where he lamented America’s dysfunctional relationship with QR codes:
Observing QR code adoption by mainstream America is sometimes like watching Charlie Brown set up to kick a football: The moment always seems so promising, but in the end, the effort comes up empty.
Globally, the adoption of QR codes do not seem to map on to cell phone adoption rates. When one compares the list of mobile phone penetration rates to QR code usage, there does not seem to be a lot of correlation. Japan, where QR codes are most popular (a Toyota subsidiary invented QR codes) actually has a cell phone adoption rate of only 84.1%. Compare that with countries that are not well-known for their use of mobile technology- Bulgaria (140.2%) Poland (123.48%), Chile (122.9%) and Brazil (111.6%). In Ghana, David Banks and Dr. Audrey Bennett found that while cell phone adoption rate is high (about the same as Japan) and many of those phones are smartphones capable of reading QR codes, not a single person recognized the black and white symbol.Grimes’ understandable frustration with feeling a digital divide, combined with the uneven usage of QR codes among mobile phone-using countries, leads us to believe that those black and white squares do more to instill a feeling of digital exclusivity than anything else.
Just a quick link I came across over the weekend before the hurricane knocked out my power. In the video below, we see Chloe Holmes displaying her new prosthetic hand, a $62,000 piece of technology that allows her to move each digit independently of one another through sensors embedded in the sleeve. Chloe lost her fingers at age 3 as a result of septicemia, a complication from chicken pox.
On Wednesday August 24, Alice Newstead performed a live human suspension inside of LUSH cosmetics, where she used to work. Human suspension is an increasingly popular form of body modification where participants are carefully hung or swung from metal hooks inserted through the body. Commonly seen at tattoo conventions, fetish balls, and carnival sideshows, the practice is gaining increased visibility as the subculture becomes more popular.
Newstead is hanging herself from shark hooks in order to “shed light on the plight of sharks and how their future is literally hanging in the balance.” With her body painted an aquatic blue-grey and her legs bound in the form of a textile shark fin, she does appear somewhat like a shark hanging for slaughter.
Such a dramatic act of protest shows the import of the body in politics, and is reminiscent of self-immolation as a form of protest. In my opinion, we can see this act as an example of revolutionary practice becoming an embodied practice, something Marxists label “revolutionary praxis” (Hardt and Negri 2000; Fanon 2001). But how effective are such public spectacles? Does piercing yourself and swinging form meat hooks insure sensitivity to the cause? Or does it serve to marginalize the movement as quirky, radical, and fringe (for example, see longstanding criticisms of PETA)?
In my opinion, the body is the last resource of the disenfranchised, which is what makes cases of self-immolation and martyrdom so compelling in the study of social movement activity. But as far as I can tell, Newstead is attempting to gain attention to the practice, not become a martyr. There are severe differences between the Buddhist monk who commits suicide by self-immolation and a relatively privileged westerner who publicly pierces her skin to protest a cultural practice. Perhaps I am being to harsh, but it becomes increasingly difficult to politicize such behavior when we are surrounded with similar spectacles as part of our consumer landscape. Whereas activist groups regularly rely on spectacles such as these to politicize certain items and behaviors, the tourist industry has long relied on similar techniques to attract consumers, resulting in what some have called a “society of the spectacle” (Debord 1967; Gotham 2005). It is certainly too early to judge the reception of her work, but who is to say that passers-by won’t simply shrug Newstead off as another struggling performance artist? Any thoughts?
I have written before about the (new) cyborg body, mostly in the form of tattoos and body modification, but new technologies are pushing this trend further in the form of epidermal electronics. John Rogers and his research colleagues, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne have developed rubbery sheets of “elastometer” that mimic the mechanical properties of the human skin. This allows them to embed circuits and semiconductors into the material and apply it to the human skin much like one applies a temporary tattoo. Jon Cartwright reports that this material
“mimics the mass, thickness, and elasticity of the skin. Like an extra-clingy plastic wrap, the elastomer sticks to the skin naturally, using only the weak, short-range, attractive forces that always exist between neighboring molecules for adhesion. It can stay attached for over 24 hours almost anywhere on the body.”
This technology may replace more invasive technologies for monitoring heart, brain, and muscle activity. In recent lab tests, the material was able to successfully monitor a human heart rate on par with an electrocardiogram. When placed on the throat, it can also detect voice commands. Test subjects were able to operate a voice-operated videogame with 90 percent accuracy.
Indicative of the growing prevalence of biotechnology in our daily lives, developments like these may make our wildest science fiction dreams (and nightmares) a reality. The upcoming sci-fi action film In Time (2011) deals with some of these very issues, where the rich are able to maintain their youth through new technologies not offered to the poor. The characters in the film even appear to have similar technology embedded permanently in their forearms, reminiscent of the tattooing of concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. Since I know nothing about the movie, I will simply embed the trailer below and let you decide for yourself.
But such technology leads one to wonder what the potential downsides might be. I am thinking specifically of dystopian tropes where technology becomes a form of domination and control. Think The Matrix (1999) or Gattaca (1997). What possibilities does this technology offer for mass surveillance, data mining, and the panoptic principle (Foucault 1995) described by theorists of social control? Will implants and “epidermal electronics” become the new arm of the State, the prison system, or private corporations? Will these technologies be used to track and trace individual activity and behavior? Or worse, will they be integrated with a centralized computer grid that allows others to access our bodies remotely?I draw your attention to the upcoming videogame sequel Dues Ex: Human Revolution(expected release date of Sept 2011), which is orchestrated around these very questions. I have also embedded a trailer for this game below. Enjoy!
Nonetheless, the viral video itself made its way around the Internet, serving as but another case of tattoos as advertising. Much has been written on the topic already (Bengsston et. al 2005; McKelvey 1999; Kosut 2005), but I want to theorize further the use of tattooing in marketing as it relates to the phenomena of brand tattoos and lifestyle consumption and the repercussions these trends have for understandings of consumer culture.
Brand tattoos are a distinct type of tattoos that utilize corporate logos and brand labels in their iconography. In my work, I have come across two broad types of brand tattoos. The first are brand tattoos that directly reflect the logos they are supposed to represent, often invoking the images as a marker of one’s taste or lifestyle. These tattoos play directly into the phenomenon of lifestyle consumption (Featherstone 1990) in that the bearer’s seek to proclaim their investment in the brand (or in this case, their commitment to a particular social networking community) as a source of distinction (Bourdieu 1984). Examples include Pabst Blue Ribbon tattoos, Nike swoosh tattoos, and even the iconic Black Flag logo.
The second type of brand tattoos are those that deliberately seek to modify the original brand label in some way, in order to make a statement that is playful, biting, or ironic. While it is hard to draw the line between the two types of brand tattoos (because it is difficult for us to measure intentionality), the latter often incorporate the brand logo in juxtaposition with other signs. For example, the use of the Apple logo emblazoned with the text “Think Different” underneath.
Both types of brand tattoos play into what some have called “expressive individualism” (Sweetman 1999). Rather than serving as traditional markers of working class masculinity or alignment with a subcultural group, brand tattoos like these serve as expressions of one’s tastes (an indirect sign reflecting commitment to a lifestyle or consumer market). As a relatively permanent commodity that resists the “throwaway culture” of consumer capitalism (Kosut 2005), the brand tattoo becomes a corporeal expression of one’s commitment to a given brand or lifestyle tribe (Maffesoli 1996), and hence, a source of distinction for the bearer. In this sense, it serves as a sign of “anti-fashion,” or one’s lifelong commitment to a particular brand or community that transcends the ebbs and flows of the marketplace. The problem is that such tattoos are essentially permanent, but the cycles of fashion are continually changing. But I digress…
The Facebook profile picture sleeve, as a exemplary case of viral marketing, utilizes a subcultural marker of identity in an attempt to create a buzz about the company’s products. This trend is not new, as Kosut (2005) has shown. Companies have been using the tattooed body as a billboard for quite some time, taking the concept of “billboard advertising” to a whole new level. Companies who want to appear cutting edge, youthful, or innovative often use tattoos, tattoo iconography, and tattooed bodies in their advertisements. In an attempt to attract the consumer dollar, such marketing techniques serve to illustrate the concept of “brand management” (Arvidsson 2005). Companies are even attempting to “buy” ad space on the bodies or professional athletes in order to capitalize on the visibility of such sports athletes as popular celebrities.
While some lament these trends as invasive attempts to commodify the body, I see brand tattoos indicative of the changing semiotics surrounding the tattoo. No longer a practice reserved for carnival workers, sailors, and exotic dancers, tattoos have now successfully become a part of the “supermarket of style” (Polhemus 1997) that many individuals and corporations alike both draw from to collectively construct their identities.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.