The Actual(ized) Aesthetic of the Body

In many ways, Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake seems to invite analyses that will explore the dichotomous relations between science and the humanities, religion and modernity, and commodification and aesthetics.  In such a reading, we could find the humanistic word-smith Jimmy opposed to the rationally scientific Crake in any number of mutually-constitutive pairings: Jimmy could embody the creative expression that is definitively displaced from Crake’s rationalized techno-culture (an argument that could easily be cast in moralistic terms); or Jimmy could represent the excess that either humanity itself or the arts evidence in the face of potential commodification, avoiding as they do any strict quantitative value; or the Jimmy/Crake dichotomy could show how these two poles constantly bleed into each other via such exemplary moments in the text as Crake’s naming of both the Extinctathon species and his own engineered species (linguistic creation).  However, a more productive line of inquiry may be instead to ask, in light of the dwindling of the soul and the diminishment of “Thought” (in the abstract) to just another bodily process under this avid scientific culture, what reconfigurations art experiences in terms of function and content.  For Jimmy/Snowman (it is uncertain who is narrating at the moment) the answer is a bodily aesthetic that eschews “sublimation” in favor of “its own cultural forms,” execution and pornography.  While this perspective neatly accords with the rampant commodification of the human body that Atwood presents, as well as indulges in common (parental) anxieties over desensitizing violence, the novel also exhibits a countercurrent that takes Jimmy/Snowman’s claims entirely seriously and tries to envision an art form completely immanent to the body itself.  Take for example the game Blood and Roses: the exchange rates that the players establish between great works of art and human atrocities on the one hand commodifies those “transcendent” acts of culture, but the reciprocity between the two also suggests that some of the aesthetic merit attached to the artworks is in some way equivalent or transferable to these atrocities.  This aestheticization of large-scale human death is further reinforced by Jimmy and Crake’s many after school activities: war games, executions, and forced child pornography all enact a similarly extreme penetration or dismemberment of the body in return for viewerly appreciation.

The fact that death and sex are intimate bodily processes explains to a certain degree why these would become the privileged moments of bodily aestheticization in the HelthWyzer compound (“Sex is real,” as Oryx insists), but there are infinite other bodily functions that do not appear to gain this sort of “currency”: eating, digestion, giving birth, growing hair, etc.  I would like to propose that the reason behind this is that death and sex come to function as emblematic indicators that stand in for the totality of all bodily processes.  Death, as the end of all bodily processes, and sex, as the urge to create more bodily processes in another body (even against one’s own best interests, as Crake points out), manage to suggest the unity of these bodily functions within a single coherent “human” being.  This is even more important given the scientific manipulation that enters into minute parts of the body through transplants (from genetically engineered animals, no less) and which creates a “virtual” reproduction of human bodily processes.  In other words, since any single bodily function may be as much “virtual” human as “real” human, death and sex take added meaning as the irreducible indicators of human actuality.  We have, then, two distinct forms of virtuality that this bodily aesthetic guards against: first, there is the transcendent trappings of the soul and mind that would remove art from its bodily environment; second, there is the virtual simulation of human organs that takes place in Oryx and Crake’s transplant-production scenario.

In this respect, art serves here to actualize the human being, to insist on its literal existence above and beyond either of these virtualities.  At the same time, though, Atwood’s novel shows the degree to which this actualization of the human is a created cultural artifact and not the revelation of an a priori existence.  For starters, both the child pornography and the executions show instances of sex and death that have what we might call improper objects: girls who cannot yet reproduce and artificially-induced deaths that are emphatically premature.  Each of these discrete events introduces an element of virtuality/artificiality to the process, as does the theatricality that Jimmy notes in both scenes (the condemned’s antics and the multi-layered desire/fear on the young girls’ faces).  This is not to simply say that Atwood’s text demystifies the cult of the human being, or any other such ideology; instead, what we see is that the human being is cast as actual precisely at those sites where these two virtualities (aesthetic and scientific) overlap.  Thus the child pornography functions as aesthetically pleasing to Jimmy, Crake, and the other implied viewers not because it enacts some “real” scene of rape and/or seduction that reveals fundamental human impulses, but rather insofar as it combines a “virtual” body – both as an undeveloped potential woman and as one that relies on prosthetic props like the ever-present “pink ribbon” – with the theatrical presentation of emotional response (“I want to, I want not to, I want to”).  The (presented/virtual) emotional response confirms that this is in fact Oryx’s (or some other young girl’s) body and lays a claim to its possession, while the forced sex designates the functioning unity of that body, its ability to be induced to pain.  This may in fact account for the somewhat sensationalistic and moralizing tone that Atwood’s book at times seem to take: given that the book is, in Atwood’s words, “speculative fiction,” an instantiation of virtualities inherent in present-day society, she must actualize those possibilities before us in order to confirm their virtual existence in our own time.  Just like the human body for Jimmy and Crake, Atwood can only insist upon the existence of these potentialities by providing us a voyeuristic glimpse into their actualization, in essence daring us to recognize present-day anxieties and moralizing within the novel’s content.

Matt Eatough


~ by matteatough on February 18, 2009.

One Response to “The Actual(ized) Aesthetic of the Body”

  1. I think this is a great reading of the novel in general, and your insistence on embodiment makes me wonder how different this novel is from right now and how much the novel requires the current moment. Often I found myself laughing at the mimesis of the work – it IS now, only by different names. “Pleeblands” instead of “projects” or “ghettos” or “suburban sprawl.” “Compounds” instead of “gated communities.” I wonder if this will be intelligible even in 10 years.

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