j_spot the Journal of Social and Political

Volume One, No. 2 | June 2000

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842

Orlan and The Limits of Materialization

Jasmine Rault

Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought 
York University 

    Can depths, the interior, the subjective, and the private instead be seen in terms of surfaces, bodies and material relations?  
    — Elizabeth Grosz1

    Since 1987, performance artist Orlan has completed nine of her ten planned operations in a series of videotaped surgical performances collectively entitled La Re-incarnation de Sainte-Orlan.  She invites international audiences to watch as a surgeon splits the skin of her face and artfully manipulates the bloody, swelling, tissue to synthesize with the hybrid computer image that Orlan has created, looming on the TV screen above the operating table.  She incorporates chemical supplements, surgical technology, theoretical text, and corporeal signifiers of white femininity from various historical moments into her flesh, and, in so doing, she denaturalizes the supposedly fixed, fleshy boundaries of the body.  That is, by opening her body up to the world, incorporating some parts while denying others, and also by giving it back to the world, spreading images of her variously dismembered/disorganized body over it, Orlan dramatizes the volatility of all bodies.  

    In this paper, I argue that she is doing nothing new—she is simply exaggerating the processes by which bodies materialize as knowable subjects.  Judith Butler argues that this materialization is achieved through a process of simultaneous repetition and disavowal.  Sexed subjects are materialized not only by reiterating the norms of sex, but also by disavowing their connections to the abject of sex.  She writes, "the materialization of a given sex will centrally concern the regulation of identificatory practices such that the identification with the abjection of sex will be persistently disavowed."2  The abjection of sex designates those bodies and desires which are excessive, ambiguous, inviable: "those 'unlivable' and 'uninhabitable' zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject."3 We can, then, read Orlan's work as an effort to represent those identifications and connectings to the abject that we must constantly deny—with every utterance and gesture.  Moreover, an analysis of Orlan's work suggests that our connectings to the abject of sex are not the only ones that we must disavow in order to count as viable bodies and subjects.  Orlan's art points, additionally, to the fact that every body is in the process of becoming something more and other.  Every social body is made from a process of transgressions and illicit connections, but subjectivity depends on the disavowal of these always broken boundaries.  In the spirit of feminist epistemological efforts, this paper is about "a better account of the world" of bodies and signification.4  This piece ultimately argues that Orlan's work gives us a better account—that her performances dramatize the multiple connectings that constitute corporeality and subjectivity. 

    Initially, I read Orlan's performances alongside Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of grotesque realism,5 in order to argue the social significance of her work.  I then discuss some of the implications that disorganizing the body can have for subjectivity.  I argue with Elizabeth Grosz that bodies are constituted through multiple linkages and boundary-crossing flows, and with Judith Butler that these transgressive linkages have the potential (with every gesture and utterance) to radically destabilize subjectivity and corporeality.  

    The concept of grotesque performativity that I am introducing in this paper is a hybrid theory; it is a combination of the theory of grotesque realism that Bakhtin discusses in Rabelais and His World, and the theory of performativity that Butler develops in Bodies That Matter.  The aspects of grotesque realism that are significant to my project are (1) Bakhtin's emphasis on multiply connecting, active, partially uncontrollable bodies, and (2) the social, revolutionary potential that he sees in them.  

    The two aspects of Butler's theory of performativity which are most crucial to my argument are 
    (1) her insistence that in repeating social norms we have the potential to rearticulate them, and our bodies, differently, and (2) that this potent repetition is a constant, everyday act.  

    I am suggesting that just as Butler's performativity is about the daily reproduction of sex—reiterated in every gesture and utterance—grotesque performativity is about the daily reproduction of subjects that are not only sexed, but also raced and classed.  We are produced not only by reiterating our dis-identification and dis-connection with other sexes, but by disavowing our linkages with other material altogether—including sexed, raced, classed, technological, mechanical, animal, architectural others. 

    Orlan's Grotesque Body  

    Orlan's work comes out of the performance art of the 1960s and 1970s.  Linda Kauffman describes this art as  

    interactive, inviting spectators to reconceptualize the boundaries between self and other, art and life, life and death.... By focusing on performers who consciously stage their own bodies as technological sites, one begins to see how utterly the human senses have been reoriented.  Performance exploits tactility, materiality, and immediacy.6

    Before Orlan began experimenting with plastic surgery, she performed in the streets or in public galleries, inviting direct audience involvement.  One of her more absurd feminist endeavours was to lie down in the streets of Paris and use her own body as a ruler, measuring a number of streets named for famous men.  In 1977, she presented Le Baiser de l'Artist, which featured a 

    life-size photo of her torso transformed into a slot-machine, which she labelled 'automatic kiss-vending object'.  By inserting five francs, a customer could watch the coin descend from her breasts to her crotch, whereupon she leapt from her pedestal to kiss the customer.7

    For over 20 years, Orlan's work has been about eliminating the spectator-spectacle divide, while demanding that the audience see themselves implicated in the performance.  In one performance, entitled A Documentary Study: The Head of the Medusa, she used a massive magnifying glass to display her vagina, half of her pubic hair dyed blue, during her period.  She explains,  

    a video screen showed the head of the man or woman who was about to see, another showed the head of the men and women who were looking, and at the exit, Freud's text on the head of the Medusa was distributed.  It read: 'At the sight of the vulva, the devil himself flees.'8

    Orlan argues that her art has always been about challenging and changing social norms—of the audience-art separation, of our relationship to and in public space, of feminine beauty, of the fixity of bodies.  She claims that her work is socially oriented and revolutionary: "This is a performance inscribed within the social fabric...I say: art can, art must, change the world."9 

    It is because of the social implications of Orlan's work that I think it can be read against Bakhtin's theory of grotesque realism.  Rabelais and His World is a work of political theory, nearly a revolutionary manifesto, thinly disguised as literary theory.  Therefore, any engagement with Bakhtin's grotesque realism has to be considered in the context it was imagined: in resistance to the increasingly totalitarian communist government under Stalin in post-1917 Russia.  In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin analyses the social function of carnivalesque and the role of grotesque symbolism, imagery and language in the work of the sixteenth-century writer François Rabelais.  Bakhtin develops from this sixteenth-century model a theory of grotesque realism that would have revolutionary social effects in his own time.  

    Grotesque realism is a concept associated with the Renaissance carnival—a space and time that was dedicated to politicized play.  Bakhtin describes carnivals as "ritual based on laughter...They offered a completely different, nonofficial, extraecclesiastical and extrapolitical aspect of the world of man, and of human relations; they built a second world and a second life outside officialdom."10  This second, outside world was, nonetheless, tied to that official and political world, and Bakhtin is interested in it precisely because of its power to reconfigure official, established social relations and beliefs.  In the carnivalesque the most potent site for social change is the body, and Bakhtin calls this particular attention to "images of the material bodily principle...grotesque realism."11  He explains that grotesque realism is a literary form that preserves and reflects the Renaissance 'carnival spirit'.12  It is a form centrally concerned with the body, but a concept of body that Bakhtin argues is particular to the Renaissance and in sharp contrast to concepts of body that develop later.  He explains,  

    [the body] is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all the people...this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of these words, because it is not individualized.  The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people.13

    Bakhtin argues that these de-individualized, collective bodies represent an altogether different world view, where the emphasis is shifted from the life of the individual to the life of 'the people'.  Individual bodies, then, are not representative of the accomplishments of atomized, individual subjects, but of the state of the community.  

    Orlan talks about her work with a similar spirit, emphasizing its social effects and importance and downplaying its individual significance.  She couches discussions of her art in revolutionary rhetoric, claiming that it is for 'the public', about 'the people'.  Again, she explains, "this is a performance inscribed within the social fabric...art can, art must, change the world."14  Both Bakhtin and Orlan see bodies as the most potent sites of social, collective change and resistance, and, as I explain below, Orlan performs the degrading, regenerating, grotesque body that Bakhtin describes.  

    Bakhtin sees in the undisciplined bodies of 'the folk' the greatest potential for social and ideological upheaval.  He suggests that the established state order can be destabilized and reorganized by de-sacralizing the well-disciplined, law-abiding, state sanctioned individual body and revaluing the grotesque materiality of defecating, farting, reproducing, dying, living bodies.  This common grotesque body, experienced and celebrated collectively in carnival space, is centrally concerned with the regenerative process of degradation.  Unlike "the private sphere of isolated individuals [where] the images of the bodily lower stratum preserve the element of negation while losing almost entirely their positive regenerating force,"15 he explains that in the collective model of grotesque "[d]egradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerative one."16  Degradation is a positive force, bringing all that is apparently disembodied, or disconnected to corporeality, down to the 'lower bodily stratum'17 which is regenerative and (re)productive.  This "lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract"18 which is also all that is transcendent, separate and individual, is ultimately about revolution and the production of a new social and ideological order —a social and ideological order which values collectivity above individualism.  

    As Michael Holquist writes in the introduction to Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin's grotesque revolution is totally collective: "No one was allowed the luxury of a spectator's role."19  Bakhtin is adamant that the grotesque body, degradation and the experience and process of regeneration are radically opposed to individualism, separation or boundaries.  Similarly, Orlan insists that her body is not only or entirely individual.  She emphasizes the social effects and constitution of her body.  She tries to show that bodies are always transgressing the boundaries of their materiality.  She performs a body that is always spreading, moving and opening into and receiving other bodies, technologies, ideas, spaces.  She explains,  

    One can therefore say that my work is blasphemous.  It is an attempt to move the bars of the cage, a radical and uncomfortable attempt...It must upset our assumptions, overwhelm our thoughts, be outside norms and outside the law.  It should be against bourgeois art; it is not there...to give us what we already know.20

    She digs a bodily grave for the birth of a new way of knowing the body and its involvement in the social fabric.  We already know the caged, clean, complete and individual body.  Orlan's work introduces us to the uncontained, unclean, incomplete and social body.  

    The bodies Bakhtin describes are about transgressing boundaries on a number of levels: 1) They transgress class boundaries in that the degradation is initiated by the lower classes/the lower body and aimed at reducing the social strata to a common plane of materiality.  2) They transgress boundaries between bodies by replacing "divided, atomized, individualized...'private' bodies"21 with the indeterminate body.  The private body is replaced by all the bodies that are two (or more) in one: copulating bodies that are no longer clearly separate, pregnant bodies that contain more bodies, deformed/diseased bodies that appear to have foreign bodies within.  3) Grotesque bodies are centrally concerned with orifices of all sorts (not only genital openings).  Modes of exchange, where the body slips out and the world slips in, orifices, eating, defecation all come to figure prominently.  Grotesque bodies are never finished.  They are always connecting and affecting.  Bakhtin writes, "bodies could not be considered for themselves; they represented a material bodily whole and therefore transgressed the limits of their isolation."22  Like Orlan's performing body, there is no boundary between the grotesque body and the world.  

    Unlike Bakhtin's grotesque bodies, Orlan's grotesque body does not exist in the context of actual carnival, ritualized, collective movement.  Nevertheless, Orlan's work encourages the viewer to see her/himself in the performance.  She attempts to destabilize the boundary separating audience and performer, arguing that her work is in the style of the carnivalesque.23  She orchestrates a carnival-like atmosphere by surrounding herself with motion and noise during her operations.  She has male strippers dancing around her operating table.  The surgeons and nurses wear gowns designed by famous fashion designers.  During the performance, Orlan might be wearing red lipstick and make-up, a party hat and another designer operating outfit.  Beyond the immediate presence of people and appeals to glamour, she also uses interactive media technologies in an attempt to incorporate the audience into her performance and thus blur the spectacular boundary.  She projects her image via satellite, for example, into art galleries across Europe and North America, and invites those international audiences to phone, fax and email their questions, which she will address while being cut open.  However, despite her efforts, the crucial performer/audience separation might still remain, which differentiates Orlan's performance significantly from the collective performance of carnivalesque that Bakhtin describes; we do not have to see ourselves in the grotesque and open body that Orlan insists is ours.  

    Film theorist Kaja Silverman's distinction between the look and the gaze is useful here: "unlike the gaze, the look foregrounds the desiring subjectivity of the figure from whom it issues, a subjectivity which pivots upon lack, whether or not that lack is acknowledged."24  In Bakhtin's carnivalesque, there is no room for the gaze.  Everyone is an equally implicated, actively desiring subject—openly demonstrating that lack which produces a desiring identification with the performers.  In the carnival there are no inactive spectators, so that those looking must see themselves in the spectacle being watched.  However, the anonymous gaze can still operate in Orlan's performances.  Unlike the carnival spaces that Bakhtin describes, Orlan's performances allow a space where audiences can gaze in specular safety, complacent in their separation from the disturbing image on the screen.  They have the opportunity to deny their fascination/horror.  They can walk away, claiming her performance has nothing to do with their individual bodies.  However, Orlan directly addresses her audiences when she is performing, drawing attention to their desire to see, and thereby drawing attention to their implication in, and partial responsibility for, her performance.  The other people in her room, the people sending in questions, and her insistence on talking directly to the audience can have the effect of turning the stage lights off and the house lights on.25  In this way her performances do threaten the solidity of that boundary between audience and performer.26 

    Orlan tries to show that bodies are always transgressing the limits of their materiality, always connecting and incorporating.  She has incorporated signifiers of white feminine beauty from different historical periods with various aesthetic norms.  She has the nose of Diana, goddess of the hunt.  She has the mouth of Gustave Moreau's "'Europa' because she is part of an unfinished painting."27   From Botticelli's Venus, she has taken the chin.  She has the eyes of Francois Pascal Simon Gerard's Psyche.  Perhaps most striking and exaggerated of all, she has taken the forehead of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, chosen "because she is not beautiful according to present standards of beauty, because there is some 'man' under this woman."28  The forehead is constructed from substances used normally for cheek bone and chin implants, purposely creating horn-like protrusions above her eyebrows.  She explains,  

    My work is not intended to be against plastic surgery, but rather against the norms of beauty and the dictates of the dominant ideology which is becoming more and more deeply embedded in female...as well as masculine...flesh.29

    Orlan uses what is arguably this century's most radical tool for enabling and enforcing contemporary beauty norms—plastic surgery—to show that bodies and beauty are never natural, that bodies are always being fashioned, whether with these tools or others, according to historical and cultural context.  

    Orlan's body can be read, then, as a dramatization, or denaturalization of what Donna Haraway calls the cyborg body.  Haraway argues, famously, that we are all cyborg bodies, the 'illegitimate offspring' of boundary-crossing couplings.30  We are "a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction."31  Orlan's work shows us that bodies are made and remade through their couplings with various organic and inorganic inscriptive mechanisms, not just clothing.  Haraway's cyborg is not only the fusion of human body and machine.  It is the partial and particular materialization of the social context in which it lives.  She writes,  

    my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities....[A] cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.32

    Orlan presents, in a dramatic and, therefore, contrived way, the potent fusions and inscriptive procedures which produce every intelligible body.  By incorporating medical technologies into her flesh, she dramatizes the processes of the body's becoming-cyborg.  The role that technological advances have in the production of bodies is graphically revealed in Orlan's work.  She refuses to participate in the illusion that science and technology operate outside our lives, or outside our bodies.  

    Recent anaesthetic techniques allow Orlan to remain conscious, watching herself being opened along with the audience.  After a few well-placed shots from the surgeon's frantic probing needle, Orlan's speaking voice and Orlan's bleeding body are no longer in direct communication.  Her flesh is rearranged, taken from her legs, grafted to her chin, her face flipped up, separated from its bone, blood, tissue foundation, then artfully reunited.  She wears specialized chemical supplements under her skin, above her eyebrows, protruding like horns.  In some performances, half the hair on her head is chemically altered blue to match her two-tone pubic hair.  

    By inviting audiences to see themselves involved in the performance, Orlan suggests that her reconfiguration is not an individual or unique phenomenon—that corporeal reconstruction happens, in varying degrees, to all of us, as a result of our (less dramatic and contrived) interactions with people, spaces and things.  Grosz, in her chapter entitled "The Body as Inscriptive Surface," argues is that subjects are marked and produced as knowable through their corporeal experience of time and space.  She writes,  

    The naked European/American/African/Asian/Australian body...is still marked by its disciplinary history, by its habitual patterns of movement, by the corporeal commitments it had undertaken in day-to-day life...through negotiating its environment whether this be rural or urban.33 

    Orlan's work similarly suggests that bodies are marked as knowable not only through their couplings with dress, but through all of their mundane corporeal commitments.  Because Orlan denaturalizes social space and interaction by working it into her performance, she draws our attention to our corporeal experience of day-to-day social space, and the ways in which the details of that space contribute to the production of our corporeality.  Her open body is connected to the performers and props in the operating room, but she emphasizes that her open body is connected to the audience, too, and that connection is technologically mediated.  In this way, she denaturalizes our relationship to mundane technology.  By bringing social interaction, as well as fax, telephone, television and email into her performance she is also bringing them into the (re)production of her corporeality.  Orlan exaggerates the everyday, presents it as hyper-real, and challenges her audiences to rethink the effects of their mundane corporeal commitments and engagements.  

    Orlan's work is not aimed to criticize plastic surgery, but to criticize an aesthetic system that naturalizes the always-being-made body, to demystify all the processes that go into producing fashionable, beautiful bodies, of which plastic surgery is simply the most overt.  Her performances remind us that bodies are always being forcibly produced, but the force is always being hidden, obscured, forgotten.  She intends "to show that which is usually kept secret and to establish a comparison between the self-portrait done by the computer-machine and the self-portrait done by the body-machine."34  In a post-operative installation piece, for example, Orlan juxtaposes pictures of her bloody, swollen, bruised, healing face against pictures of the computer synthesized amalgam face that she created.  The contrast between the real and the imaginary ideal is striking and deliberate.  She draws our attention to our bodies' independent, trickster natures, and to the impossibility of entirely controlling or recreating them. 

    Moreover, by juxtaposing her bruised, bloody, healing images to her computer formulated ideal images, she shows that her skin never does exactly what she wants.  Through careful, meticulous manipulation of her appearance, Orlan demonstrates, then, that she is paradoxically never entirely in control of her body.  The doctor never does exactly what she wants.  She writes, "I was not able to obtain from male surgeons what I was able to achieve with a female surgeon, for I believe they wanted to keep me 'cute'."35  

    Describing her work as a "radical performance for [her]self and beyond [her]self,"36 Orlan reminds us of our bodies' social interactivity; by inviting the world in to her performance and the (re)construction of her body (internet, video, fax) she demands that the audience see itself implicated in the processes of her production.  The spectator is asked to scrutinize her/himself and her/his expectations of corporeal control and autonomy.  She is inviting the aesthetic, technological and social world into her body, as well as reminding us that her individual, discreet, aesthetic, technological and social activities have widespread repercussions.  She invites the world inside to show that parts of it will come in anyway, and she offers herself around to show that parts of her will inevitably spread.  She shows us that a body can never be fully closed or controlled.  However, Orlan is neither in control of what the audience reads, nor is she in control of how exactly the audience is implicated in her body or her performance.  

    Grotesque Performativity  

    In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that opening and disorganizing the body is not exclusively a physical act.  It has internal, psychic repercussions for subjectivity.  Their essay, "How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?" is a sort of tool kit, with directions on how and why to disorganize or destratify the body.  They assume that the organization of the body is simultaneously the organization of the subject.  They translate the normative processes of subjectification thus:  

    You will be organized, you will be an organism, you will articulate your body—otherwise you're just depraved.  You will be signifier and signified, interpreter and interpreted—otherwise you're just a deviant.  You will be a subject, nailed down as one, a subject of the enunciation recoiled into a subject of the statement—otherwise you're just a tramp.37

    However, Deleuze and Guattari see a way out of this prescriptive system that they mimic here.  They argue that corporeality is our key to subverting the organization, signification and subjectification of the body-subject.  They write,  

    What does it mean to disarticulate, to cease to be an organism?  How can we convey how easy it is, and the extent to which we do it every day?...Dismantling the organism has never meant killing yourself, but rather opening the body to connections that presuppose an entire assemblage, circuits, conjunctions, levels and thresholds, passages and distributions of intensity.38

    According to Deleuze and Guattari, the internal psychic realm of subjectivity is produced corporeally, and the only way of "tearing the conscious away from the subject in order to make it means of exploration"39 is to disorganize at the level of materiality.  Orlan attempts this radical 'opening'.  She courts connections, assemblages, circuits and conjunctions.  She takes in aesthetic norms and becomes uncomfortably anti-fashionable to demonstrate that every body takes in aesthetic norms and is just-as-uncomfortably stylized to a fashion.  Her body lets in technologies to remind us that we can not help it; technologies are what ensure that our bodies become at all—sexed, raced, fashionable, intelligible.  And, finally, in her most revolutionary move—wherein lies the most real potential for a radical politic of practice—Orlan will not agree to the fixed boundary of her flesh.  She insists that those aesthetics and those technologies, and those theories and ideas, are always shaping, stylizing, organizing her body.  They cannot be separated from (her) body, but neither can (her) body be separated from the social world and the politics of production implicated in any aesthetic or technological invention.  Orlan draws attention to the connectings that are always making her.  

    One might argue, of course, that only a subject who has enjoyed the race and class privilege of a history of bodily autonomy would glamorize dematerialization.  Flouting boundaries, courting multiple connectings, inviting the world in to one's body and offering one's body out to the world are dreams of particular privilege.  Connectings are not so revolutionary, after all, when boundaries are transgressed against your will and you lack the power to enforce them.  In The Alchemy Of Race and Rights, Patricia Williams describes the different attitudes that she and her white male colleague have towards legal rights discourse.  For her, boundaries are a right, and their rejection can only come from a position of privilege.  For her colleague, "the logical ways of establishing some measure of trust between strangers were an avoidance of power and a preference for informal processes generally."40  Williams' relationships, however, must be negotiated with different concerns in mind.  She explains,  

    On the other hand, I was raised to be acutely conscious of the likelihood that no matter what degree of professional I am, people will greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational, and probably destitute...So it helps me to clarify boundary.41

    However, it is important to note, here, that boundaries are never natural.  They are always a political project.  As Karen Barad argues, "boundaries are interested instances of power, specific constructions, with real material consequences."42 

    This point recalls Butler.  The promise of Butler's performativity is in its exaggeration and incorporation of the other/outside.  If the subject is stabilized and naturalized through the repetitive performance of gender norms, there is always the possibility of disruption—the possibility of repetition with a difference.  If the boundary between subject and abject is reinstated with every gesture, it can also be blurred by making its constructedness explicit.  The sexed body is constituted through a repetitive disavowal of its inadequately, incompletely or incoherently sexed other.  Performativity is about drawing attention to, destabilizing and denaturalizing the boundary between sexed bodies and those ambiguous and incoherently sexed others.  "This instability is the deconstituting possibility in the very process of repetition, the power that undoes the very effects by which 'sex' is stabilized, the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of 'sex' into potentially productive crisis."43  If bodies are materialized as sexed through the process of reiterating gender norms, and performativity promises to put the consolidation of the norms of sex into crisis, then does performativity not promise to put the materiality of the body itself into crisis?  That is, if performativity can blur the boundary between sexed subject and ambiguously sexed abject, then can it not also blur those boundaries that make the materialization of the body possible?  Can it denaturalize the boundaries of the body altogether?  

    Central to Butler's theory of performativity are notions of social norms, regulation and compulsion.  We are compelled to reiterate the social norms specific to our sex, race and class, and these reiterations are highly regulated.  Contrary to potential misreadings of the theory, subjects are not simply free to put on whatever social identity they choose that morning.44  So, if I am using Butler as a way to understand Orlan's work and the implications her work has for the production of coherent corporeality and subjectivity, then I must account for the ways that regulatory social norms affect Orlan.  While plastic surgery might, on the surface, seem to promise her the freedom to create herself anew with every operation, she is, of course, operating within the unshakable norms of gender and race.  Her connectings and openings are circumscribed by the boundaries of 'woman' and 'white'.  While her exaggerated, unreal whiteness (powdered face, platinum blonde hair) and campy femininity (she has, problematically, called herself a 'woman-to-woman transsexual')45 might suggest a challenge, she never explicitly addresses these issues.  It seems that sex and race are boundaries that she cannot easily cross. 

    Elizabeth Grosz argues that Deleuze and Guattari develop helpful tools for feminists to think through sexed, raced, classed specificity.46  In their formulation, recall that the body is not produced by denying connections with other bodies or by strictly excluding the abject.  Rather, the body is prodcued through various linkages, movements, intensities and flows between things, ideas.  In her discussion of Deleuze and Guattari's 'assemblages', Grosz notes,  

    They are composed of lines, of movements, speeds, and intensities, rather than of things and their relations.  Assemblages or multiplicities, then, because they are essentially in movement, in action, are always made, not found.47

    Bodies, then, are always in the process of materializing—insistently, simultaneously materializing and dematerializing, never finally made and always being built, from something.  Bodies are constantly being made, from movements and intensities and lines of connection, which are also, strictly speaking, 'things and their relations.'  That is, if bodies are materializations, of movements, intensities, lines of connection, then they must also exist in the realm of 'things'—but 'things' significantly reconceptualized as always materialized and never found.  

    Matter is never simply inert—it is infused with all the same forces and activities as consciousness.  Physical matter is not very different from psychical matter, and neither formulation is extra-social.  Lines, movements, connections, intensities, flows are organized into matter, objects, things, ideas, consciousness, ideology, 'the state,' economic relations.  Grosz explains,  

    This means that individuals, subjects, microintensities, blend with, connect to, neighborhood, local, regional, social, cultural, aesthetic, and economic relations directly, not through mediation of systems of ideology or representation, not through the central organization of an apparatus like the state or the economic order, but directly....Questions related to subjectivity, interiority, female sexual specificity, are thus not symptoms of a patriarchal culture, not simply products or effects of it, but are forces, intensities, requiring codifications or territorializations.48

    Therefore, a move to destratification, deterritorialization, even dematerialization is not about returning to some idealized, holistic state of oneness.  This is about recognizing that the subjection of bodies is constant but not necessary; that the strict stratification and materialization of bodies is not 'natural'; that bodies 'naturally' transgress the ostensible boundaries of flesh.  Grotesque performativity draws attention not only to the artificial boundary between binarily sexed and ambiguously sexed bodies, but also to that which separates the individual material body from the material context in which it lives.  

    Orlan's full, flowing and multiply connecting body dramatically performs, then, the grotesque cyborg that we are always becoming.  This hybrid political/technological/organic body is 100% recycled material; it is the materialization of its context.  However, it is not fixed in that form.  It is never finally determined.  If bodies are materialized into organisms by compulsively reiterating their boundaries, then the possibility of disruption remains.  If body boundaries are not 'naturally' fixed or static, and their solidity has to be constantly reinvented, we have the potential, with every gesture or utterance, to destabilize that separation.  This is not about naively ignoring the specificity of your body but of recognizing that specificity is produced as the result of indeterminable transgenetic connectings: corporeal subjectivity constituted through inter-sexed, raced, classed, technological and environmental connectings.  


    1.  Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards A Corporeal Feminism. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 168.   back to text 

    2.  Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of "Sex". (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3.   back to text 

    3.  Butler, Bodies That Matter, 3.   back to text 

    4.  Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," in Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. (London: Free Press Association Books, 1991), 187.   back to text 

    5.  Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. trans. by Helen Iswolsky. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).   back to text 

    6.  Linda Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture. (London: University of California Press, 1998), 11-12.   back to text 

    7.  Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys, 68-9.   back to text 

    8.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," in Women's Art. 6. 
    back to text 

    9.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 10, 7.   back to text 

    10.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 5-6.  back to text 

    11.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 18.  back to text 

    12.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 23.  back to text 

    13.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 19.  back to text 

    14.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 10.  back to text 

    15.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 23.  back to text 

    16.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 21.  back to text 

    17.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 23.  back to text 

    18.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 19.  back to text 

    19.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, xivback to text 

    20.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 10, 7.  back to text 

    21.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 23.  back to text 

    22.  Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 23.  back to text 

    23.  Orlan writes, "each operation has its own particular style, from the carnivalesque." From Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 8.  back to text 

    24.  Kaja Silverman, as quoted in Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque. (bib info), 121.   back to text 

    25.  For example, she begins each performance by apologizing to her audience for causing them pain: "Sorry to have made you suffer, but know that I do not suffer, unlike you..." An excerpt from her pre-performance speech in Amsterdam, 1995.   back to text 

    26.  This threatened boundary, or distance that is broken down between performer and audience, might contribute to producing the extreme responses that audiences have to her performances. While watching Orlan, people are irritated, angry, nervous, nauseous, faint. See Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan,"; and Orlan, "Carnal Art," trans. by Tanya Augsberg and Michel A. Moos. in Orlan: Ceci est mon corps...Ceci est mon logiciel/This is my body...This is my software. In my experience of presenting Orlan's work, audience reactions have ranged from hilarity to outrage.   back to text 

    27.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 8.  back to text 

    28.  She refers, here, to rumours that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo in drag. Orlan, "Carnal Art," trans. by Tanya Augsberg and Michel A. Moos, in Orlan: Ceci est mon corps... Ceci est mon logiciel/ This is my body... This is my software, 84.   back to text 

    29.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 9.   back to text 

    30.  Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 151.   back to text 

    31.  Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," 149.   back to text 

    32.  Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," 154.   back to text 

    33.  Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 142.   back to text 

    34.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 9.   back to text 

    35.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 7.   back to text 

    36.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 9.   back to text 

    37.  Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. trans. by Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 159.   back to text 

    38.  Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 160.   back to text 

    39.  Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 160.   back to text 

    40.  Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 147.   back to text 

    41.  Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, 147.   back to text 

    42.  Karen Barad, "Meeting The Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Contructivism Without Contradiction," in Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science, 182.   back to text 

    43.  Butler, Bodies That Matter, 10.   back to text 

    44.  A reading that can lead to thinking of gender, race and class as an outfit we are free either put on or take off—like slipping on a man's sweater, or black pants.   back to text 

    45.  Orlan, "'I Do Not Want To Look Like...' Orlan On Becoming-Orlan," 8.   back to text 

    46.  Grosz, "Intensities and Flows," in Volatile Bodies.   back to text 

    47.  Grosz, "Intensities and Flows," 168.   back to text 

    48.  Grosz, "Intensities and Flows," 180.   back to text 

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