Steve Barnes (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Sun, 11 May 1997 22:49:48 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> As Above, [So Below] - Critical Art Ensemble

As Above, [So Below]

                                Faith Wilding


I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste
him to the full. I desired that his Humanity should to the fullest extent be
one in fruition with my humanity, and that mine then should hold its stand
and be strong enough to enter into perfection until I content him, who is
perfection itself....To that end I wished he might content me interiorly
with his Godhead, in one spirit, without withholding anything from me....
For that is the most perfect satisfaction: to grow up in order to be God
with God.... In this sense I desired that God give himself to me, so that I
might content him....Then it was to me as if we were one without difference.
So can the Beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in all
full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one
in the other. After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that
I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself;
and I was changed and taken up in the spirit.

(Hadewijch of Brabant, "Visions," c. l200s)

The Paradox of Creation: Temptation and Salvation

Medieval body maps reflect Christian beliefs about the human body as a
microcosm of the macrocosm-the attunement of each organ to a heavenly body,
of each bodily fluid to an earthly element. Medieval medical practice was
largely based on the idea of homeopathy, that like cures like, and of
correspondences: As above, so below. Though much homeopathic practice was
based on ancient (pagan) sources of herbal knowledge, it was adapted to a
Christian belief system that placed the (souled) human being at the center
of God's great world plan, and at the center of the cosmos.

Medieval theology had to grapple with paradoxical conceptions of sexuality,
reproduction, and the relationship between body and soul. On one hand, the
body was regarded as a necessary evil which housed the soul during its
sojourn on earth. In this view, the lapsed body inherited from Adam's fall
is a site of temptation and sin; flesh is imperfect and decaying, and must
be constantly monitored, controlled, and punished into submission and
obedience. On the other hand, the human body was regarded as the pinnacle of
God's creation; the body was a means of access to the divine and a means of
salvation. As such, it exhibited the Creator's gifts to Adam and Eve-beauty,
the senses, and the marvelous powers of generation. These paradoxical
readings of the body had to be continually negotiated by the Church which
sought to control both the believer's body and soul, and to control human
sexual relations through the sacrament of reproductive, heterosexual

The contradictory medieval conceptions of the body became particularly
charged when they were applied to theories and images of sexuality and
reproduction. Caroline Walker Bynum has pointed out that medieval body
images exhibit a preoccupation with fertility and decay. The Church fathers
needed to naturalize the idea of sexuality for reproductive purposes only,
and to reinforce motherhood as a redemptive state for women. The figure of
Mary was constructed to support this ideology. Modeled partly after
desirable characteristics of local pagan goddesses, and partly constructed
to accord with programs of religious body control, the image of Mary
represents paradoxical and miraculous qualities. She is a virgin, yet
fertile; mother of a divine son with whom she is also joined in mystic
marriage; and she is an intercessor between heaven and earth. Mary was
associated with mother, vessel, and willing womb-characteristics and
qualities that all women of the time were expected to emulate. According to
Catholic dogma, as a reward for her virtue, Mary was never subject to decay
and she was physically taken into heaven. Thus Mary was reconfigured to fit
the Church's strategy to control the female reproductive process, while
preserving the idea of the body as the site of purity and salvation.

The figure of Mary was always contrasted with the figure of Eve, who
represented the body as a site of temptation and sexual pleasure. God
punished Eve's sexual pleasure by afflicting women with painful childbirth,
and by subjugating women to their husband's will in all matters. A woman
could redeem her flesh only by becoming a mother in Church-sanctioned
heterosexual marriage, or through celibate asceticism, in which the body was
renounced with the exception of its use to perform good works. The reward
for bringing the flesh into spiritual submission was salvation in a heavenly
life hereafter. It took rigorous institutional discipline and the creation
of a mythology of self-sacrifice to naturalize the idea of separating sexual
pleasure from reproduction.

Compulsory motherhood as a means of salvation, and as the only sanctioned
way to experience sexuality, went hand in hand with a profound change in the
development of medical practice in the Middle Ages. From the 5th to the 13th
century, the Church consistently scorned secular intervention in bodily
processes; during that time the peasant classes were often treated by women
lay healers, herbalists, and midwives, while priests ministered to royalty
and the aristocracy. In the l3th century-just as the cult of the Virgin Mary
was reaching its zenith-university-trained male doctors began to turn
medicine into a quasi-scientific profession from which women were completely
banned, causing the loss of their extensive practical experience with and
knowledge of the body. Though women still continued to act as midwives and
herbalists for centuries thereafter, they were often condemned as witches
and put to death for doing so. Thus dual controls, religious and secular,
were put in place to ensure that like Mary, women would remain passive and
compliant in their relationship to the body.

Even so, compulsory marriage and motherhood seemed a less desirable choice
for a minority of women. This was especially true of literate women from the
upper echelon of society who entered celibate female communities such as
convents or Beguinages. These communities were open to all, so on rare
occasions, women of the peasant classes were also accepted into the
communities. Some of the women, who practiced extreme voluntary asceticism,
holy fasting, and mortification of the flesh as a means to resist compulsory
motherhood, presented the Church fathers with a dilemma. On the one hand, in
acquiescence to Church dogma, holy women renounced secular human sexual
experience as the Church required of those who desired to save themselves
from the sins of Eve. On the other hand, these women escaped the
instrumentality of reproduction and used their bodies as a means to
individual sovereignty and social power. In a truly homeopathic reversal,
the body was reformatted as a site for autonomy. The flesh was explored as a
means to freedom through sensual presence-female mystics physically embraced
God in the ensouled flesh of His decaying creations by tasting the wounds of
lepers and the vomit of the sick, and in feeling the pain of their own
emaciated bodies. Decaying flesh was transubstantiated in the holy fire of
the mystic's desire to independently commune with God. These powerful
(albeit rare) acts of spiritual rebellion were a theological knot that the
Church patriarchy was at a loss to untie.

Flesh Redeemed: Separating Sin and Creation

In separating sexual pleasure (sin) from reproductive creation, the
relationship of matter and spirit (body and soul) had to be articulated, and
a means of mediating the two orders had to be created. In order to redeem
sinful flesh, Christ had to become flesh in a redemptive act of creation-a
homeopathic strategy. In a structure of correspondence, he became the new
Adam and perfected human matter through his birth, death, and resurrection.
Mary, as the reprogrammed Eve-the pure vessel, fruitful though not tainted
by human fertilization-had the special task of redeeming female bodies,
especially the organs of sexual reproduction (materia mater). Christ was a
virtually conceived embryo that became both human and immortal (resurrected)
flesh. Mary was the ethereal flesh machine (the hardware), who interfaced
with God (the programmer) through the disembodied Word transmitted by the
bodiless angel Gabriel (software). In terms of a reproductive narrative,
this is an example of the creation of perfect flesh produced with perfect
efficiency: no wasted sperm, no ovulation problems, no failed implantations
or blocked fallopian tubes, and no repeated attempts at conception. As noted
above, after incorporating and giving birth to divinity, Mary's body too
became metaflesh which did not die or decay as sinful flesh does, and was
taken into heaven for eternity.

The Church understood the need for providing inspirational and concrete
representations of the mysteries of divine creation. The narrative of Mary's
miraculous conception and virgin birth was encoded in increasingly
hyperbolic and beautiful images which served as exemplary and devotional
guides for an illiterate lay population. In particular, the great medieval
cathedrals dedicated to Mary-such as Chartres, Notre Dame, and
Autun-provided ecstatic sensual environments in which soaring architecture,
glowing rose windows, colored frescoes, ornate shrines bedecked with jewels
and gold leaf, and sublime music exemplified the rewards of obedience,
self-abnegation, and self-surrender.

By following Mary's example and becoming obedient wombs in sanctioned
marriages, women could aspire to transcendence and salvation. In essence,
women passively sacrificed their subjectivity to the church-state. In the
ecstatic surrender of self to the divine order, the excess of sinful
sexuality was transformed into the excess of instrumental reproduction. At
the same time, the saints of this order could find solace in the knowledge
that they were using their bodies to further providence, rather than
satisfying their own selfish desires. The belief that they were producing
new Christian souls (soldiers) to populate the earth and carry out God's
plan for creation functioned to help many women endure painful cycles of
endless pregnancy and childbirth.

The mediation of the Church in this process was an extremely powerful
instrument of enforcement, as well as an effective monitoring mechanism. If
a woman did not produce a child every year or so, she was answerable to her
husband, the priest, and ultimately the whole congregation. Statues and
shrines of the Virgin Mary often were covered with the offerings and the
messages of women praying for Her intervention in conception and childbirth.
In surrendering themselves to the ecstasy of divinely-mediated reproduction,
these saints were sustained by the vision of perfect flesh-the resurrected
flesh-which was from the beginning the reward promised by Christianity to
the devout. In the image of the resurrected flesh, paradoxical aspects of
the body are finally transcended and resolved. Like the ecstatic mystic
whose body does not decay after death, the resurrected mother's flesh will
be gathered up with the community of Saints to become one perfect body in
eternity. And for this ecstasy no sacrifice could be too harsh. Today, this
pervasive religious narrative of reproduction as a means of personal
salvation and transcendence still lies at the heart of the compulsion for
biological reproduction, even though the narrative has become secularized,
and the interventions of science have replaced those of divinity.

                            [As Above], So Below

                            Critical Art Ensemble


More than anything in this world, I wanted to have a child. My gynecologist
had always told me that I would never be able to conceive a child by natural
means due to blocked fallopian tubes. She suggested adoption to me, but also
suggested that if I was prepared financially, and psychologically prepared
for potential disappointment, I could possibly have my own child given
proper medical assistance. I was prepared to do anything, and I did. The
process was grueling both psychologically and physically, and the worst part
was the harvesting of my eggs and their subsequent implantation. These
procedures were as invasive as they were uncomfortable-all variety of
surgical instruments cutting, puncturing, sucking, and sliding around my
pelvic and vaginal regions. To stay sane, I just kept repeating to myself,
"You are going to have a baby." At the end of the process, I cannot describe
the excitement, pleasure, and relief when my doctor appeared before me in a
glowing white lab coat and said, "You're pregnant." Life was inside of me.

(Anonymous, c. 1990s)

The Paradox of Reproduction

Capitalism has always had an ambivalent attitude toward the process of
reproduction. On one hand, the economic system requires that labor and
market populations be consistently replenished. On the other hand, the
sexual activity associated with reproduction has been viewed as an
unfortunate evil that can detract from the overall efficiency of the
system-people engaged in sexual behaviors are neither producing nor
consuming; rather, they are exercising personal sovereignty which, ipso
facto, is counter-productive and confounds top-down hierarchies. This
situation has led to a peculiar opposition in which the product is embraced
but the process is rejected. Unfortunately, one requires the other, and the
problem is doubled because engaging the process does not necessarily yield
the product. In turn, various secular attempts have been made by power
vectors to streamline sexuality in order to limit it to activities which
have some benefit to the political economy.

The primary strategy used by institutions of authority to eliminate
sexuality beyond that needed for purposes of reproduction is to label all
other sexual practices as deviant, and thereby punishable socially and/or
legally. With one mighty blow, gay, lesbian, and all varieties of fetishist
sexualities are eliminated from "public" acceptability. While such measures
in no way stop individuals forcibly placed in these categories from secretly
or defiantly exercising their individual sovereignty, they serve as a
reminder that participation in any activity not compliant with capitalist
imperatives will bring punishment(s) from which there is no escape.

To intensify the situation, even straight heterosexuality is in a continuous
process of streamlining. The methods employed by the capitalist power
vectors against individuals vary in accordance with the person's class
position. These methods are most visible in the US-the avant-garde culture
of pancapitalist authoritarianism. For the underclass, punishment is aimed
almost exclusively at women. The domestic labor required to produce a work
force socially engineered to maintain a population intended for low-end
service work and/or as a reserve labor army is not considered labor that
should be rewarded; rather, population production is punished in part due to
its association with sexuality. In spite of the fact that having sex can
yield a functional product, underclass women in the US are now increasingly
being denied government subsidies for the necessary population production
they contribute to the economy. Sexual pleasure is covertly taxed, and
underclass women pay the tax by giving their domestic labor to the state
free of charge. The current welfare reform acts intensify the situation by
doubling the labor demands on underclass women. Not only must they pay their
sexuality tax, but typically, they must also work in the service economy at
jobs that pay wages below what is necessary to maintain the domestic labor
space in which they are enslaved.

For the middle class, the situation is very different since wages are
generally high enough to subsidize household maintenance. Middle class
individuals in the US (whatever their sexual preferences) are threatened by
civil law. For example, sexual harassment initiatives in the work place are
a tremendous aid to capitalist institutions in eliminating disruptive sexual
expressions in the space of production. Since any unwanted sexual expression
could be grounds for a civil suit that could cost the perpetrator he/r job
and potentially all the wealth s/he has accumulated over he/r years of work,
the only survival technique open to individuals is to repress themselves and
behave as asexually as possible. To be sure, for capitalist agencies the
sexual harassment initiative is a gift from heaven that helps to insure that
all employees will engage only in rational and instrumental activity
throughout the working day. This situation is doubled with the emergence of
victim-driven harassment policies. Here, any sexual behavior an individual
witnesses that could be construed as "offensive" must be reported to
harassment investigators (literally, bureaucratic sex police) on the
premises. Failure to report what could be construed as an act of harassment
leaves one potentially liable in the event of a civil lawsuit. In this case,
one does not have to be the "victim" or the "perpetrator," s/he only has to
witness a sexual expression to be involved in the legal process. This way
all employees in institutions with a victim-driven policy are coerced into
becoming sex police.

Where then is sexual expression acceptable? It is alive and well in the
spectacle. An individual can watch all the Hollywood passion s/he wants, or
s/he can have all the cybersex s/he desires. As long as sex is out of the
material world, and safely on the screen where it becomes an object of
consumption or an object to motivate consumption, it generally stays within
the bounds of public acceptability. Sex must not be an act of direct
participation; it can only be passively witnessed during leisure hours, if
an individual wishes to escape punishment. Hence, individuals of the middle
class are caught between spectacular sexuality or state-sanctioned
monogamous heterosexuality. By accepting the latter option, individuals are
rewarded with relative tolerance of their private, useless sexuality. For
the underclass, the situation is worse, as members of this class are limited
to spectacular sexuality, because engaging heterosexuality only serves to
increase the probability of enslavement to the forces and spaces of

Flesh Redeemed:

Separating Sexuality and Reproduction

While pancapitalism's Orwellian anti-sex campaign is certainly a success, it
can always be improved. Improvement is partly measured by the degree to
which sexuality and reproduction are separated. Once separation becomes a
legitimized and accepted element of everyday life, totalized intolerance of
sexuality can be initiated in the middle class. The first experiments in the
practical separation of sexuality and reproduction are currently underway.
(Sexuality and reproduction have long since been separated symbolically by
the division between psychology and biology). By obtaining volunteers for
this flesh experiment from pools of individuals intent on having children of
their own, but who are unable to do so without medical intervention, medical
science hopes to demonstrate that a "better baby" (one better adapted to the
imperatives of pancapitalism) can be produced through rationalized
intervention. Once such a demonstration occurs, there are empirical grounds
for the argument that medical mediation of the total process of reproduction
is both desirable and necessary. The promise of a "fitter" child can act as
a spectacular resource to convince those members of the middle class not in
need of medical intervention to reproduce that separating sexuality from
reproduction is beneficial to both parents and offspring. Rather than
letting nature take its course in reproduction, representatives of medical
science are inserted as mediating efficiency experts. Hence, not only are
sexuality and reproduction practically separated, but so are the parents.
This way, reproduction better conforms to the capitalist necessity of
efficiency: No useless activity occurs in the reproductive process, and less
genetic material is wasted. Excess genetic material is reconfigured into a
substance for commodified process, as opposed to becoming one of nonrational
potential. In this manner, the reproductive process becomes practically
reclassified as a purely medical process.

Since the market for rationalized reproduction had already been structurally
established before the necessary methods and technologies became available,
the initial volunteers for the rationalized reproductive experiments serve
also to fund further investigation (as well as providing products for
spectacularization). Here, research actually generates profits, but the
essential element in this experiment is currently not so much profits as
market share. With "nature" functioning as a prime competitor, seducing
people away from constructions of natural reproduction will be difficult.
This is why the product itself and its spectacularization are currently more
important than profits. If the middle class is not persuaded to accept
interventionist practices, the experiment will stagnate, and the desired
practical separation of reproduction and sexuality will not be fully

Should the reproductive research wing of the flesh machine fail in its
project, the loss to pancapitalism as a whole will be tremendous. The long
desired production of a person who uses he/r body solely for purposes of
production and consumption (and who is thereby perfectly orderly) will never
occur. From the perspective of pancapitalism, nothing less than production
of capitalist saints will do. The new Saints of the Pancapitalist Order will
be those of perfect flesh. From their genetic code to their cultural code,
they will reflect capitalist order and follow its commandments. They will
sacrifice their minds and bodies to improve and refine the pancapitalist
order. The Saints of the Pancapitalist Order will know a different kind of
excess-not one emerging from convivial sociability or erotic, convulsive
pleasure, but one dictated by communion with the means of production and by
localized proximity to the commodity. The life of a Saint will be one of
duty and service to the bureaucratic and the technocratic agencies from
which one has received he/r genetic and cultural design. To act against
these agencies will be to turn against the Creator-a lost cause suited only
for the unfit. All of this the Saints of the Pancapitalist Order will do,
and they will do it even if denied a reasonable share in the profits of
their production. The reward for their holiness is a higher probability of
genetic survival-a promise of life everlasting in which their redeemed flesh
conquers the limits of mortality by spreading its canonized code across
space and time.


The mythic structure separating sexuality from reproduction/creation has
been fairly constant in the development of Western culture. The one major
disruption is a directional shift in the ultimate purpose. Currently, the
dynamic of this separation is moving toward the material rather than the
ethereal, toward the rational rather than the nonrational, and toward the
visible rather than the invisible. However, what is truly interesting is not
so much the dynamics of the situation, but the manner in which contingent
elements are replaced within the general mythic structure. The medieval
vision of human corruption in need of intervention has remained. The
contingent elements-the institution of intervention and the process by which
successful intervention is obtained-have been transformed. Rather than the
Church, with its connection to angelic saviors, acting as the institution of
redemption in regard to the sin of sexuality and the finitude of the flesh,
the scientific/medical establishment, with its connection to nature's Code,
has become the institution of mediation for those who hope to achieve the
grace of peaceful immortality. If maximum access to the secrets and
mysteries of the Code is desirable, more is needed than faith in its
omnipresent being. Devotees must also complete the expected round of works
required of each individual. Works are no longer those of rigorous prayer,
engaging the sacraments, pilgrimages to sacred sites, self-flagellation, and
asceticism; rather, they have become repetitive work, power breakfasts,
daily commutes (physical or electronic), fitness training, and sexual
self-suppression. The drive toward immortality through successful
reproduction of perfect offspring requires eternal vigilance and constant
institutional and self-surveillance. While diligently engaging in daily
works in no way guarantees access to the Code, it is the only chance for
grace. Yet those who are fruitful in their endeavors and collect the
necessary assets can buy the desired access to the Code; this in turn, will
assure their immortality. In spite of Luther's reformation, indulgences are
still the primary currency of salvation.

[for zkp4]

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: