Jacques Ranciere- Presentation of the New Modern Body at Senate House, London 9/3/12


Ranciere stumbles onto the stage and begins talking as if mid-sentence. Appearance-wise, he is the very image of A.C. Grayling made French: triangular hair, bird-of-prey look. A strangled cork of a voice. He talks to us of modernity, and other things. He asks us what modernity, if anything, is. He makes veiled references to dark experiments in scientific aesthetics conducted by Schiller and Winkelmann in the 18th century. He asks us to imagine that modernity involves the creation of a new sort of body. He intimates that he has discovered that body.

The Soviets, he says, were concerned to create this body. Following the young Marx (whose manuscripts Lenin discovered in a locked vault whilst in exile in Paris in the early 1900s), they realised that in order to counter the dehumanising effects of capitalism (which emerged itself with modernity, which in fact is modernity) they would need to create a new sort of body that was immune to its effects: precisely against the bourgeois subject.

After some struggle with his laptop, Ranciere managed to show to us two images, blueprints of Soviet designs for this new body. The first design was based off of Charlie Chaplin, and was able to extend its legs under doors. The second was based off of an American flapper, and was completely fragmented and designed to fall off towers.

The point of the new body was to avoid Time, which, as Ranciere holds, is the essence of dehumanisation in modernity. The processes of modernity (industrial processes) speed up time: this is what modernity is, in comparison to pre-modernity. With this new sort of time, we are turned into wage-slaves who cannot stop, even in our leisure. Our subjectivity is a sick curse, only allowing us to experience our own enslavement as species-machines. The new body is therefore completely static: its limbs are detached, it has no muscles. It does not conduct electricity. It is completely blind. It is a machine, but an ecstatic-holistic machine.

The body can therefore best expressed in photographs, which are themselves crystallisations of detached limb-parts. This is why the body was designed as first a movie star, then as a flapper: these are human beings, but they cannot exist without photographs (they are thus camera-men; the new body is properly speaking a ‘camera-man’). Echoes of the ‘Dandiacal Body’ of Diogenes Teufelsdrock: Isodora Duncan visiting the Soviet Union in jeans and triggering waves of radical feminist protest amongst peasant communities.

Winkelmann and Schiller both experimented with a new form of Body in the classical era, but they lacked the technology. Classicism is a form of modernity. Anecdote of Schiller stealing a statue from Winkelmann’s lawn and snapping the limbs off, then presenting it to him the next day. The ruin (as limbless torso) is precisely in the attitude of resisting time (it is already a response to modernity). Schiller got furthest with creating the new body, however it remained at the level of the statue. Specifically the technology that was lacked (it would be anachronistic to call this a ‘lack’ in the Lack Canian sense) was photography. But Schiller’s movements towards this new body inspired Marx.

A film was shown demonstrating Soviet attempts to create the new form of body, intercut with footage of applauding masses. First attempt: a walking tripod. Second attempt: added camera (eyes). Third attempt: Removed eyes. Taught to dance. Assumed form of dancing woman, but with three legs (allowed for six extra directions dance could take, thus six extra dimensions in which it could move to run away from time). Fourth attempt: Aeroplanes. Fifth attempt: sidecars. By the sixth attempt, the body had been trained to work at a loom. By the seventh, it was typing. By the eighth, it was able to experience the pleasures of leisure. However after this progress stalled, and it became increasingly clear that the body was just as motivated by the time-pressures of modernity as the soft, weak human bodies it was designed to replace. The seventeenth version of the body believed it had an Essential Self, and the nineteenth insisted on always keeping its limbs constituted in the same subjectivity. The project finally ended when the twenty-first attempt at the body defected to the United States.

The Soviets ultimately failed to create this body because they were unable to properly clothe it. What was required was a new form of fabric that was made out of time. The body was completely spatial, and static. It needed a clothing that lacked geometrical extension, and was always moving. The body would thus be forced to move, but only by a different time that was actually cloaking it, thus protecting it from the time imposed by capital. Ranciere announced that he had actually managed to invent this fabric, and he showed us a suit made of it as proof.

At this point there was a great gasp from the audience, everyone in the theatre was transfixed with awe at the uncanny beauty of the suit that Ranciere held up beside him. It had a clear, purple sheen. It was completely flat, but it was disturbing the light. It did not have a shape, at least in any traditional sense: the cut of the suit was very daring and involved either several conflicting geometries, or none at all.

Ranciere said that anyone who wore this suit would be able to exist on the new plane of anti-modern time. He said that he was going to put it on himself. It could be worn over his usual clothes: he would not need to undress. We all looked on anxiously he somehow sorted through the multiple arm-, head-, leg-, finger-, kidney-, lung-, liver-, stomach-, gullet-holes (etc) and pulled it on. Ranciere started to shimmer, oddly. But nothing else seemed to be happening.

He explained that he had immunised his own body against the effects of the fabric because of the difficulties of testing it otherwise. He explained this was a necessary sacrifice: he would always be a bourgeois subject now, irrevocably time-bound, but he would be able to share the gift of liberation with others.

Case studies were presented to tell the story of the invention of the fabric. Case study 1: boy of 5, an orphan. Was made to wear prototype of fabric for a year, from his fifth birthday onwards. Previously boy had presented with some symptoms of mental retardation. After 2 months, began speaking with voice of Denis Diderot. At 8 months, began writing the Encyclopedie with his own voice, unravelling it in croaked, garbled bursts. Showed signs of decreptitude, the boy unexpectedly went through puberty mid-way through the ninth month and begun visiting prostitutes. Contracted syphillis, which rapidly progressed, accelerated in part due to mercury tablets the Diderot-child prescribed himself. At 11 months, died following a holy vision.

Case study 2: girl, 2, also an orphan. Wore suit for a planned period of ten years, taking her up to (normal) puberty. Attempt was made to convince girl that she was Genghis Khan. Success was exhibited when girl began talking in 12th-century Mongolian dialect. Age 3: began displaying mounting behaviour towards other girls in experiment. Age 4: fully developed phallus. Age 5: skilful at shooting bow from horse. Age 6: died convinced her armies had conquered Europe.

Suggestion that the problem was that the suit was only disturbing time in the past direction, leading to premature death. Suit must be extended into the future. A more holistic philosophy of time needed. This was discovered through a reading of Husserl. Suit now tested to be safe. Several children raised on it, many now on art foundation courses.

Ranciere asked for a volunteer from the audience. Hands were at first shy. Eventually a fashionably-dressed lad with an air of pretentious enthusiasm and a thick northern accent was ushered up to the stage. Ranciere eased off the suit and handed it to the volunteer. He smiled broadly, gawkily, as he tried to figure out how to put it on. Ranciere scrutinised him in a professorial way. The suit was put on. Suddenly a change in the volunteer, and not just in terms of the light.

The volunteer’s limbs detached and begun operating as a tripod. His face was broken up like parts of a smashed plate. He begun talking, and was everywhere and nowhere at once. He begun falling, and never stopped. He spoke at incomprehensible pace, in the voice of everyone in history (taken as a totality, including the future). Immediately the volunteer quit his job, and produced a very impressive work of modern art. When the suit was removed, the volunteer gasped an astonished testimony as to its effects. The crowd broke into spontaneous and prolonged applause.

Ranciere announced that the suit retailed at £799.99, and that he had only 400 presently manufactured. Wallets were thrust aloft, as the crowd mobbed the stage, ready to buy.

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