lotu5 on Mon, 14 Jul 2008 00:45:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Dreaming of Molly Millions, the Panther Moderns and Body Hacking

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"It was the style that mattered and the style was the same. The Moderns 
were mercenaries, practical jokers and nihilistic technofetishists.

The one who showed up at the loft door with a box of diskettes from the 
Finn was a soft-voiced boy called Angelo. his face was a simple graft 
grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and 
hideous. It was one of the nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had 
ever seen. When Angelo smiled, revealing the razor-sharp canines of some 
large animal, Case was actually relieved. Toothbud transplants. He'd 
seen that before.

- William Gibson, Neuromancer



//Then See this real neko interviewed in the trailer for the film Flesh 
and Blood [1], about suspension and new forms of body modification.//

Looking back at William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I wonder, why has so much 
geek energy and time gone into creating one aspect of his vision in the 
book, cyberspace, and not others, like body hacking? Yes, I know that 
Vernor Vinge came up with the concept of Cyberspace before Gibson, but 
Gibson’s book is the one most often cited as the huge cultural influence 
at the root of contemporary cyberculture. I recently read the phrase 
“the Gibson generation”, and I think I’m not part of it. Sure, I read 
Gibson, but I dislike these generational names, as if there was a clear 
marker, and if anything, I hope I’m part of the generation after the 
Gibson generation, but the quote above about the Panther Moderns gives 
me pause.

Biotechnology, as it exists today, is still surely limited, and often 
makes claims much greater than it can actually achieve, such as feeding 
and feuling the world. The food riots around the world should attest to 
this fact. Changing global economic policies and encouraging local 
sustainable food production instead of structural adjustment policies 
which promote export crops is much more likely to solve the world’s 
hunger problem than rice which has been genetically engineered to have 
more nutrients and terminator seeds that farmers have to pay for every year.

Still, there are major advances in biotechnology that are undeniable. 
Today we have face transplants [2], cybernetic limbs that move at will 
[3] and manufactured organisms like Synthia [4]. So, why are these 
advances only happening in multimillion dollar laboratories? Where is 
our Apple Is of biology? And, our garage hackers aren’t using HP 
calculators, but quad processor machines with 2 gigs of memory, so what 
else might come out of a garage? [5]

The term body hacking [6] seems to have been coined by Quinn Norton, to 
describe low cost, DIY approaches to body modifying medical procedures. 
While some have taken her claims to mean that there might be a “second 
enlightenment”[7], I think that the first one did enough damage to our 
relationships with our bodies, thank you. I’d prefer to hope that more 
widespread body hacking might lead to new genders, new forms of 
expression, new ways of being and new relationships with our bodies that 
can slip out of the grip of biopower by not registering in the protocols 
of control that biopower works through.

Where can we see body hacking today? There are lots of examples that 
have been around for a long time of DIY body modification, like 
tattooing, scarification and piercing. But I would argue that hacking is 
often engaged with exploring technology and its potentials and 
ramifications, so we might see contemporary body hacking as novel or 
unexpected uses of technologies which modify the body. One example of 
this are the botox parties [8] that the media is fond of talking about 
where people inject their friends with botox at parties to remove 
wrinkles. This is perhaps not a very liberatory use of body hacking, as 
it seems concerned with meeting the demands of biopower, of common 
beauty standards, at the risk of personal danger. Yet perhaps we can 
think of prolonging the beauty of youth as fundamentally changing the 
conditions of culture? I’m avoiding the use of the term “human 
condition” here intentionally, since it is my hope that body hacking 
might broaden the notion of what we think human is. Too often the word 
human, as in human rights, leaves out marginalized groups, often in the 
service of the economy. Who is human today? Who was yesterday? Still, 
I’m not sure about botox. I think there is a lot to be said about the 
ethical differences between cosmetic treatments like botox and surgical 
procedures that transgender people get and other forms of body 
modification, and the role of agency, oppression and biopolitical norms.

Perhaps we might see a merging of body hacking and computer hacking 
practices emerge. In Neuromancer, they seem to both be equally common. 
Molly injects herself with “endorphin analog” whenever she needs some. 
Today, the military is experimenting with using fear reducing drugs [9] 
in conjunction with virtual reality as a treatment for PTSD, but this is 
not an everyday application. With today’s virtual reality technology, it 
seems like Dramamine will be a lot more common than endorphin inhibitors 
as a treatment for Simulator Sickness. [10]

So, what is preventing a broader body hacking practice from developing? 
The technology is cheaply available. [11] I found lots of medical 
supplies at an educational store in San Diego. Surely artists [12] are 
paving the way [13] in this kind of experimentation [14]. Yet why aren’t 
there more body hackers? Why does saying to someone “i’m a body hacker” 
seem to imply more that you’re a psychopathic killer than that you’re 
part of an emerging culture of knowledge exploration, challenging the 
limits and definition of knowledge itself?

Perhaps it is a question of “critical mass”, that people need to just 
start doing it, if they’re interested, to create a culture of body 
hacking. Synthetic biologist Drew Endy at MIT thinks that what we need 
is a biohacker culture, [15] using freely available software and protein 
and genome databases to imagine new lifeforms and new biological 
possibilities. The scifi blog io9.com [16] even recently announced a 
contest using the Biobricks platform to design a new lifeform, nudging 
this emerging area along.

Culture was definitely a major part of how I got into hacking. I 
remember sharing a deep friendship with my buddy who I used to dumpster 
dive for passwords with and try out phracking software late at night at 
payphones around Miami. 2600 magazine was a very functional part of the 
culture and starting the Miami 2600 meeting was such an exciting part of 
“being a hacker” for me. I think that wanting to “be a hacker”, a major 
part of why I went into computer science, was tied up with my identity 
and my conception of myself and having that conception reinforced 
socially. Note the large number of geek joke t-shirts that I still own, 
like the 8008135 calculator and the “there are only 10 types of people 
in the world: those who know binary and those who don’t”. Yes, those 
shirts both have a hugely different meaning for me today, but geek 
t-shirts do attest to the cultural currency of geekness and hacking. 
Even Kevin Mitnick, who is one of the most well known crackers, admits 
that much of what he did was social engineering, impersonating IT people 
over the phone. When I read John Markoff's book Cyberpunk as a young 
aspiring hacker, one of my favorite stories was of the woman in one of 
the hacker groups described in the book who would sleep with members of 
the air force to rifle through their wallets for passwords while they 
slept. I don't remember the exact group name, but the story is of 
questionable truth value.

Libidinal economies must have a large role in body modifications, as 
well. There are cultural refrences for what tattoos and piercings mean, 
including sexual attitudes. But how does a cat person fit into the 
libidinal economy? There must be a point at which it goes beyond novelty 
and people decide on their sexual relation to these new kinds of bodily 
expression. Queer and transgender communities are a place where one can 
clearly see this at work. Often one chooses a particular gender 
expression to attract a particular person, but in queer communities, one 
can see clearly the shifting of these choices and the multiple 
intersections of gender and sexuality at play, with shifting 
intensities, in any given room, say at an event at the Rubber Rose in 
San Diego. This kind of sexual economy can act as a limiting factor on 
new forms of gender and bodily expression if one finds it hard to find 
those who are attracted to a particular expression. Yet it can also be a 
driving factor when one encounters a community rich with a diversity of 
expressions and possibilities.

Another place we can see body hacking today, that has been around for a 
long time, is in the transsexual community. While some argue as to 
whether or not transsexual body modification is just meeting the demands 
of patriarchy and western beauty standards, I personally think it is a 
form of resistance to them. A major part of biopower, in my view, is to 
ensure that you are limited to the body that you’re given, and so 
changing it disrupts the way biopower functions. If “women” and “people 
of color” are more exploited in contemporary society, which I definitely 
believe they are, then how does biopower continue to function if anyone 
can change their gender or skin color on a daily basis? Transgender 
people have been hacking psychiatric and medical systems for years. It 
is widely known that psychiatric tests of transgender people that have 
been required are ineffective because transgender people know what 
answers to give to get what they want. Similarly, transgender people are 
often known to get hormones outside of the medical establishment, even 
though this may be dangerous. How does this kind of hacking arise? From 
social exchanges within the transgender community, from people sharing 
knowledge of how to beat an oppressive system which takes away their 
agency over their bodies. Hopefuly, as body hacking culture emerges and 
grows, we will see a day in the future where people have more freedom 
and control over their bodies. If people want to spend their days as 
Nekos or Orcs or fantasize about having cybernetic eye implants to 
improve their vision, [17] how long will it be before people start doing it?

Another factor here is our attitudes towards health care, which I think 
are totally broken. The current models of health care at work in the 
United States promote a model where the doctor is the only person with 
valid medical knowledge and the patient should just take their pills and 
shut up. Clearly, this is impossible, since the patient knows best about 
their own lives and bodies and the doctor can only ask questions. This 
is exactly what Guattari was writing about with the concept of 
transversality, the relationship of the psychoanalyst to the patient. 
Guattari proposes in the essay “Transversality”, which he describes as:

“opposed to:

(a) verticality, as described in the organogramme of a pyramidal 
structure (leaders, assistants, etc);
(b) horizontality, as it exists in the disturbed wards of a hospital, or 
even more, in the senlie wards; in other words a state of affairs in 
which things and people fit in as best they can within the situation in 
which they find themselves.

Think of a field with a fence around it in which there are horses with 
adjustable blinkers: the adjustment of the blinkers is the ‘coefficient 
of transversality’. If they are adjusted as to make the horses totally 
blind, then presumably a certain traumatic form of encounter will take 
place. Gradually, as the flaps are opened, one can envisage them moving 
about more easily.”

Guattari goes on to explain the notion as an attempt to get out of 
established roles like patient and doctor and to facilitate 
communication across all levels of a group, resulting in more, better 
information. I think that this describes the situation within 
cyberculture or network culture well, where the myth of the Apple garage 
is well known and it is expected that anyone can come up with a good 
idea and radically change the industry. While that myth may not be 
applicable in this well developed stage of the internet economy, 
examples like GNU/Linux continue to prove it’s value. Today, one can see 
this kind of deterritorialized knowledge production emerging in biology 
with body hacking, biohacking and even undergraduate students forming 
new biological fields like comparative proteogenomics. [18]

The subrosa cyberfeminist collective [19] have discussed how early witch 
hunting [20] was closely related to the establishment of medical 
institutions of power and had the stated goal of stopping women from 
spreading their medical and sexual knowledge. subrosa’s book states that 
“The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was the manual for 
witch-hunters. As defined in this book the crimes of the witches were: 
religious heresy, being sexually active, organizing women, having 
magical powers of healing and hurting, possessing medical and 
obstetrical skills and knowledge.” Many contemporary moves toward DIY 
health care and holistic medicine aim at recovering these lost pathways 
to knowledge. As we rethink the meaning of scientific knowledge in our 
contemporary art and acivist practices, we can rethink who is and isn’t 
a scientist, as subrosa’s book goes on, “the witch was the scientist of 
her time, while the Church still believed in the mumbo-jumbo of prayer… 
The banishing of common (and female and people’s) knwoledge gained from 
centuries of inquiry, experimentation, and practice, represents one of 
the greatest losses to the medical and scientific world in Western history.”

“‘There is always a point at which the terrorist ceases to manipulate 
the media gestalt. A point at which the violence may well escalate, but 
beyond which the terrorist has become symptomatic of the media gestalt 
itself. Terrorism as we ordinarily understand it is innately 
media-related. The Panther Moderns differ from other terrorists 
precisely in their degree of self-consciousness, in their awareness of 
the extent to which media divorce the act of terrorism from the original 
sociopolitical intent…’

‘Skip it,’ Case Said…” - Neuromancer, William Gibson

It’s very interesting that Gibson makes the Panther Moderns, one of the 
most overtly political characters in the novel, some of the most 
biologically modded characters as well. Surely the situation with 
biology today is ripe for hacking. With the human genome sequenced and 
many more genomes being sequenced every week and massive computing power 
cheaply available, there is a massive opportunity for people to explore 
the possibilities of biotechnology and of their own bodies. While so 
much remains unknown, like the way that proteins unfold and act 
independently of genetic determinations, I’m personally still hoping for 
the garage body hackers to radically change the potential of what we can 
physically “be”, and not just hoping, but working on it myself...

Body Modification artist Steve Haworth says, “If they come after me, I’m 
gonna fight em, tooth and nail. I’m an artist.” While the potential is 
still scary to people, much of that fear is rooted in ideas of the 
sanctity of the flesh, ultimately rooted in religious beliefs that are 
totally insignificant to many of us. Given the way that the body is seen 
as an “emerging market area” and the law enforcement applications of 
bioinformatics, the contemporary power structure will definitely find 
this new kind of hacking scary and discourage it. But hasn’t that always 
been an important part of the role of the hacker? To challenge power?

1. http://www.fleshandbloodmovie.com/
2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4484728.stm
3. http://io9.com/391064/where-are-my-cybernetic-implants
4. http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9333408
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primer_(film)
6. http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2007/01/quinn-norton-on.php
7. http://blog.wired.com/business/2008/03/etech-second-en.html
9. http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002578.html
11. http://www.seeinc.com/
12. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/xdesign/biotechhobbyist/
13. http://orlan.net/
14. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/
17. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Millions
19. http://cyberfeminism.net/
20. http://www.refugia.net/yes/yes_06useless.pdf


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