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  • Of Aids, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions: Resurfacing the Body in the Postmodern
  • Allison Fraiberg

We live in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. . . . today, there is a whole pornography of information.

—Jean Baudrillard

[T]here has been a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject; we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace . . .

—Fredric Jameson

[W]e are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics.

—Donna Haraway

Predominant in postmodern theories of representation are approaches and practices that locate “the body” within systematized networks and circuits. Theorists who are representative of very different theoretical positions—such as Jean Baudrillard, whose “ecstasy of communication” describes a breakdown between public and private, Fredric Jameson, whose “hyperspace” reflects a continuous sense of the present in a world of transnational capital, and Donna Haraway, whose “cyborg ontology” reads the disintegration of distinctions between organisms and machines—nonetheless concur in presenting scenarios in which traditional tropes of discreteness, of discretion, dissolve and the focus shifts to formulations of connectedness. Subjected to these discursive frameworks or grounding ontologies, the body, as a clearly delineated unit, blurs into negotiated relatedness and postmodern systematicity ushers in a contemporary meltdown of the discrete body. In other words, it would seem, at best, difficult to try to discuss “the body” with distinct boundaries, whereas referring to the bounded body— bounded to and within integrated networks—can emerge as a reflective postmodern image.

This networking of bodies has been prominent in the representations of and discourse about AIDS in the U.S. As I will show, mainstream media constructions of AIDS project and feed off a fear of, among other things, circuited sexuality. On the other hand, critics of mainstream AIDS representations work to break down the rhetorical constructions and effects of discrete categories, an obvious example being that of “general public” or “at risk groups.” In this paper, I will first resituate familiar discussions of the body in AIDS commentary, both popular and critical, by employing what Donna Haraway calls a “cyborg ontology.” I will then move on to suggest that, in terms of AIDS discourses, the body begins to resurface from within the networks defined, urging a very different kind of discreteness, and consequently a revised type of agency, into a postmodern context.

Wiring the Postmodern

When Baudrillard defines the “ecstasy of communication,” he grounds its images in screens and networks. Certain that “[s]omething has changed,” he laments the recognition of an “era of networks . . . contact, contiguity, feedback and generalized interface” (127). Communication, for Baudrillard, invokes a “relational decor,” a “fluidity,” “polyvalence” in “pure circulation” (130–31). Baudrillard anxiously describes these networks as “pornographic” and “obscene” since he sees in them the loss of the body and its familiar figurations: the “subject” and the always tenuous public/private dichotomy. Because of its fusing into the network, the body loses its discretionary status and, for Baudrillard, the “obscenity” lies in the dissolution of the private where “secrets, spaces and scenes [are] abolished in a single dimension of information” (131); Baudrillard’s “pornographic” develops out of the inability to produce “proper” limits and he invokes the schizophrenic for tropic legitimation:

with the immanent promiscuity of all these networks, with their continual connections, we are now in a new form of schizophrenia . . . too great a proximity of everything, the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him anymore. . . . He can no longer produce the limits of his own being. . . . He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence.


What is so remarkable about Baudrillard’s casting of the discussion in these terms is that, with the substitution of a noun or two, one could easily transpose this rhetoric into a “pro-family” position on AIDS that strains to keep the “halos” on, the “unclean” out, and the private crucially “protected.” In both scenarios there is a sense of inevitable fusion of the...

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