Velvet Exoskeleton

May 16, 2011

In Huysman’s A rebours, the decadent aesthete Des Esseintes, after dallying in an interest in paper and wax flowers, decides to push his  sensual experiment further, and  purchases a variety of live flora which are perversely chosen for their artificial appearance. Des Esseintes watches with satisfaction as a scabrous decoupage of blossoms and leafy things is unloaded onto his doorstep and notes, “[I]t is true that, for most of the time, Nature is herself incapable of producing species so moribid and perverse; she supplies the raw material, the germ and the soil, the procreative womb and the elements of the plant, which mankind rears, models, paints, carves afterwards to suit his caprice.” 1

To collect his leprous garden Des Essenties had to make visits to various greenhouses, for many of the blossoms– deriving from climates whose atmosphere is vastly different than that of France– required special care. That is, a technical architectural apparatus must first be developed that transposes the necessary environmental conditions of one space into another. The greenhouse, in the time in which Des Esseintes was supposed to have lived, had just begun inspiring theories of the environment that were to have a wide ranging impact on modern philosophy. The contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdjik examines these concepts in relationship to Heidegger’s notions of being and technology:

Among the first to respond to the provocation innate in the concept of the environment was Martin Heidegger, who as early as the mid-1920s grasped the ontological implications of the new biology.  […] When Heidegger speaks of the Geworfenheit (“throwness”) of being, this expression brings to mind the risk of a sudden dis-alignment of organism and environment, such as  a palm tree of African origin faces if it were to unfortunately find itself in England prior to the invention of the greenhouse. […] Whereas for the organism the meaning of the “en” in environment or the “sur” in surrounding consists of the perfectly calibrated dependence on the original stimuli, in the case of existence in the world they signify an abyss above which one hangs, or a transcendence into which one is suspended. 2

To continue in this vein, it is the very transcendental conditions in which our world is organized that makes our being possible. In science this is known as the anthropic principle, or, that were the universe constructed otherwise it would not follow the conditions necessary to support intelligent life. Even within this cosmic transcendental condition, however, the range of our environments immediately available to the human organism is limited to a specific set of conditions pre-determined by physiology. One cannot, for instance, survive at certain depths of the ocean without the support of some technical prosthesis.

It also means that in order to have experience, or even knowledge, of the conditions outside of our natural environment, it is absolutely necessary to develop technical apparatuses which can extend the perspective of the human beyond the meager line of sight gifted to us. This of course means not only physical techne, but that in conceptualizing the environmental conditions outside of our immediate operative sphere, we must make recourse to a set of tools that may have a disorientating effect upon our casual construction of reality:

If superstring theory is of profound philosophical significance it is because it achieves a univocally consistent physical monism by revealing all scalar incommensurability across the material universe, such as that which apparently separates the realm of quarks and neutrinos from that of galaxies and nebulae, to be the result of a four-dimensional abstraction; a perspectival  ‘illusion’ engendered by assumptions about physical space that are ultimately rooted in the limited parameters of phenomenological perception. 3

In our world today the consequences of the technical expansion of human sight have resulted in the so-called condition of groundless, in which the human organism is no longer capable of synthesizing through direct experience the broad consequences of the empirical data available from the expanded environment. The philosopher and artist Hito Steyerl diagnoses this as a condition of “free fall”, and asks why is that we don’t seem to be aware of the consequences of this condition?

Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating—or not even moving at all. Falling is relational—if there is nothing to fall toward, you may not even be aware that you’re falling. If there is no ground, gravity might be low and you’ll feel weightless. Objects will stay suspended if you let go of them. Whole societies around you may be falling just as you are. And it may actually feel like perfect stasis—as if history and time have ended and you can’t even remember that time ever moved forward. 4

One of the most spectacular technical achievements of the last century was the development of space travel. The journey to the moon required the recreation of many of the natural conditions of the earth bound environment in the hostile reaches of space. Integral to this mission was the creation of the ultimate clothing: the spacesuit. In a recent interview regarding his  book examining of the development of the spacesuit, the architect and historian Nicholas de Monchaux points out:

For instance, the word cyborg originated in the Apollo program, in a proposal by a psycho-pharmacologist and a cybernetic mathematician who conceived of this notion that the body itself could be, in their words, reengineered for space. They regarded the prospect of taking an earthly atmosphere with you into space, inside a capsule or a spacesuit, as very cumbersome and not befitting what they called the evolutionary progress of our triumphal entry into the inhospitable realm of outer space. The idea of the cyborg, then, is the apotheosis of certain utopian and dystopian ideas about the body and its transformation by technology, and it has its origins very much in the Apollo program. 5

It is no accident that Playtex, the bra company, defeated numerous defense and military contractors for the right to build the suits for the Apollo mission for NASA. 6 The spacesuit exists at the uncomfortable interstice between the human and the machinic, protecting the fragile organism in its core, but also intimately connected with those biologic necessities of consumption and negentropy. It is precisely the organic construction of a technical knowledge, arrived at through the laborious crafting of materials, that was able to process these mortal needs. The spacesuit opened a new frontier to man, who was now free to have a new experience and knowledge of the universe beyond his earthly confines.

To re-orient ourselves within the conditions of free fall, it may be necessary to develop the proper technics, a new spacesuit, or even– more boldly- a new spaceman, to navigate the increasingly fractured environment. However, as the technological/utopic vision of re-engineering the human is coming ever more into focus, and our operational ability to redeploy materials on a genetic and molecular level becomes increasingly refined, the question remains, as Alain Badiou asks, “What is to be done about this fact: that science knows how to make a new man?’ And since there is no project, or as long as there is no project, everyone knows there is only one answer: profit will tell us what to do.” 7

The technical solution to the technical problem of synthesizing knowledge seems to be stuck in an ever evolving feedback loop. Like the Navigators addicted to the powerful and mind altering spice in Frank Herberts popular science fiction series Dune— who are mutated by the very fuel that allows them travel– the products of our technical expansion, driven by the engine of capital, deliquesce ever outward into new and strangely hybrid forms.

1 Huysmans, J.K. Against the Grain.
2 Sloterdjik, Peter. Atmospheric Politics.
3 Brassier, Ray. Alien Theory.
4 Steyerl, Hito. In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, E-Flux Journal. 24.
5 de Monchaux, Nicholas. Spacesuit: An Interview with Nicholas de Monchaux, BLBLG.
6 ibid.
7 Badiou, Alain. The Century.