Thanks for your comments. There are other write-ups of Johansson disturbingly akin to Lane’s in tone and approach (they all seem to emphasize the peculiar blankness of Johansson’s affect), and yes, I do think that’s a key point when considering these recent films, since her body and its performance across these films both departs from and reacts against that “blankness.”
My thinking about corporeality and superficiality emerges out of some recent concerns: with architectural projection mapping on the one hand, and with contemporary French “cinéma du corps” on the other. I actually do think that the surface of media is in need of serious thinking—Giuliana Bruno’s recent book, “Surface,” begins exactly this project. Interestingly, your conflation (“body/screen/skin”) is something I’m working on in a separate project that has to do with architectural projection mapping, where the surface façade of architectural structures is treated as a fabric of sorts. There seems to be a slippage between fabric/screen/skin/surface that I’m not sure our current vocabulary can grasp. I think animation studies might also have something to say (think of motion capture systems that track sensors attached to the surface of the actor’s body, for example).
Edmond you raised really salient, critical questions, and think you’re spot on in your reference to the central polemic Dibbell brings up in his ethnography. I think too it is important to parse out how, within the universe of Her, bodies are related not only to sex (because certainly, you can have sex without bodies and the couple is shown doing so) but to a level of intimacy that is sexual and something more. This is the vector (call it romance perhaps?) that for me the film seems to render familiar, and depict in ways that are accessible to a contemporary audience, namely that love necessitates a certain cohesion of mind and body. Good food for thought!
Hey Swagato. Exciting to read your take on these films and Johansson, and to know that there are people coming together to talk about them. I really like the way you draw attention to the work Lane’s profile does in capturing a particular mode of seeing Scarlett Johansson. This is definitely a reference I had in mind when thinking about “narrativising abstraction” in my post. These films know whose body they are working with and—especially in Under the Skin—put the process into play. Your question about corporeality and superficiality is really provocative: what do you think? Is there an emergent representational mode of body/skin/screen happening here?
Hi Swagato— thanks! I have just read your entry. I’ll post a comment there too. In answer to why the emphasis on the face. I feel uneasy about having made this cut — separating the face from the body — but am interested in how this way of seeing the face as separate is an everyday event of digital culture. Although Johansson’s “blankness” is described as part of her “appeal”, this is (as you suggest) complicated by her specificity, her recognisability, her celebrity. I wanted to think about how this might also be the ambiguity of the face that is anonymously, blankly captured as big data (by surveillance cameras), but is always in a condition of awaiting recognition (by software, or by selfie).
I have not (yet) seen Her, but I think the questions and problems you raise echo what I thought when I first saw the trailers. I wonder, though, given my limited knowledge of the film whether or not it is actually trying to divorce the mind from the body or the mind from the *right* body. I wonder too if Samantha’s surrogate were designed by Theo or by Samantha herself (or virtual a la a holodeck) if there would be said failure of intimacy. The surrogate body is clearly not the right body for Theo (and do you even need a body to have “sex”). Just thinking along here. It reminds me of Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace” and of the fraught relationship between our conceptions of mind/body.
A very interesting week with some really great posts and provocations. I wonder about how far the idea of “radical” + posthuman + woman is taken by the texts this week (and how far we are willing to take things). I would say that the problem with most imaginings of the “post” often gets recuperated in order to protect and privilege a legible human (and in our case woman). In other words, I am interested in the posthuman that might get read as nonhuman and what is useful about that radicality, queerness, nonnormativity.
So many interesting points here, Jason. My comments:
1. You make a great point about LUCY’s titular character representing the far end of post-humanization. Indeed, I can’t really see an alternative interpretation, since Lucy does literally disintegrate and take up a new form of existence as something omnipresent, perhaps even omniscient. However, and following from this in fact, I’m not sure why we should insist that the process of post-humanization, or “becoming post-human,” should continually seek new *physical* medium(s). Is it not, instead, that we’re striving to shrug off the impairments of physical existence? Should we not read Lucy’s disintegration as a gesture that underscores the very limitations of her human body? I guess what I’m saying is that I have trouble seeing why physicality is a necessity.
2. I think your point about representations of this process resembling depictions of madness is an excellent one. WJT Mitchell at the University of Chicago offered a course not too long ago, titled “Seeing Madness,” which explored historical representations of madness. And there is of course a long history of madness as simply a marker of (extreme) Otherness. Often, such radically Other bodies were imbued with superhuman qualities. They were also considered to be capable of communing with the divine, or with devils. The character of Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes to mind.
So, to sum up: On the one hand, I think it’s a useful idea to consider insanity and sanity as existing along a spectrum rather than as an opposed pair (in fact, much recent work in psychology also tends toward such thinking). In this context, we might consider a more positive inflection to representations of madness. On the other hand, I wonder how far we can reasonably push this line of thinking. Reconfiguration must operate within certain stable parameters, or else it simply leads to chaos. If we understand madness, transports of passion, and other such tropes to capably represent the process of becoming post-human, how do we take care that it doesn’t confuse itself with the non-human? Or, ultimately, is one identical to the other?
This is fascinating, Zara. My own contribution this week (to show up Thursday) looks at the surface of Johansson’s body as it figures across these recent films. That makes me wonder what you make of your post’s emphasis on her face. In other words, how does the (rest of her) body figure into your consideration of her face? Or, let’s say, of sur-faciality. I also wonder whether Balazs may have anything to contribute to this conversation. Finally, what of Johansson’s position in the popular imaginary? Her alleged blankness of (facial) affect has long been identified as somehow crucial to her sexual appeal. Is that included in how you take these films to “narrativise abstraction”?
Thanks for great first post! I like the doubleness of the words ‘exposure’ and ‘medium’ in your description— the relationship between technological artefacts and technologies of expression (something spectral here?). I think this usefully complicates any sense of before/after binary in terms of making a posthuman visible. These technologies do not show us what is a priori posthuman; they are an enabling aspect of Hayles’ ‘process’. And this seems a way of thinking of both the image and the fervour/madness.
Thanks Jason! I think your suggestions to both look to the “birth” of posthuman transformation and to link said transformation to depictions of madness are quite powerful. For me, the later in particular brings up salient thoughts on both what posthumanism might do as a theorietical impulse. At best, poshumanist theorization has allowed for critical new connections to be fostered between ourselves and other objects/spaces/configurations that force us to recognize relationality beyond the material confines of human bodies. In this way, it has worked to decenter the anthropocentric model of existence that has ruled for so long and wrought so much havoc on the environment in particular. At worst, posthumanism and related strains of vital materialisms can slip into a mode of imagining that risks diminishing the bodily stakes of existence (in particular, raced and gendered violence) through (following Rosenberg). rendering the “molecule as metaphor”. Your call to read depictions of madness as depictions of posthuman transformation, I think, works to remind us that even in thinking “beyond” the (myth of the) bounded human body, posthumanism should centralize the stakes of life and death (of human and machine, of the environment, of empathic connection alike) it is grappling with.