- Toward a History of the Medial RegimeForce, Representation, and the Female Body
In February 2014, Sports Illustrated celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the swimsuit issue by photographing Kate Upton in a zero-gravity chamber. A modified Boeing 727 was enlisted to execute seventeen parabolas, which subjected the model/actress's body to a series of oscillating forces. On the downswing of the trajectory, the considerable g-force of the climb gave way to thirteen zero-gravity scenarios and four lunar-gravity events, prompting Upton to float majestically before the camera. For even the most casual art historian, there was something undeniably familiar about the female form that these free falls produced. The inflated cellular structure, free-floating extremities, and sinuous silhouette of this body reproduced the inventory of "extra vertebrae, … boneless feet, … helium-filled arms, and … malleable throats" that populate Baroque fantasies of the female body (Betzer, 12–13). Even the aeronautical mise-en-scène that inscribed this tentative, uncertain body seemed to resuscitate what Aby Warburg famously described as the anti-equilibrium of the Renaissance in which the human form is "caught up in a play of overwhelming forces … hair flowing, and garments blown back through exertion or by wind" (Michaud, 28).
The uncanny nature of this elaborate restaging of historical codes of desirability relies upon transformations of the body that extend beyond the manipulation of the image or the intervention of the medium of photography. Clearly, the image has been "retouched" and the camera and its codes of looking continue to structure the scene, but if these were ends in themselves, a conventional "green screen" would have sufficed in the place of an actual zero-g flight. Instead, the shoot went to great lengths to engage the body in the image's coming into being. As the flesh becomes a medium for the processes of making visible, [End Page 130] the conventions of the history of art collapse with the natural functions of the body, producing a circular dynamic in which the female form is both the site for semiotic inscription and the seemingly autonomous origin of such signs. This corporeal enfolding is symptomatic of an enduring visual regime, which overwhelms the body's motor capacities with force (variously defined as intoxication, possession, unconscious drives, and mechanical energy) so as to prompt the flesh to produce recognizable signs of desirability. Targeting the automatic and nonintentional relations of the body, such scenarios posit the female body as both interface (a Platonic surface that opens onto an ideal signified) and medium (the means by which such a translation becomes possible), both object and instrument of desire.
These relations constitute the recurring logic of what I will call the medial body, a dispositif whose extensive history stretches well beyond the sophisticated aeronautics of the Upton shoot or even the machines of the Industrial Revolution. Drawing upon a joint deployment of discourse and force, it appears in the rapture of the Renaissance nude and the throes of demonic possession during Romanticism before being recast in the nineteenth century in terms of the mechanical, electrical, and luminous energy that animated bodies at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. Most recently, it surfaces in the online sphere, where postindustrial formations of labor effectively transform the overtaken body into a medium for the production of surplus value. As individual instantiations of this regime interfuse processes of enfolding with histories of representation, the evolution the medial body charts less a developmental or progressivist narrative than a series of archeological knots in which the past circulates in the present as conditions of possibility. Accordingly, its mode of sign production is historical in a dual sense in that not only does the medial regime persist across a diverse set of contexts, but so do singular instances within this archive recirculate atavistic genres, narratives, and subject relations in order to facilitate the imaginary consumption of otherwise unavailable female bodies.
Despite the familiarity of the images it produces, this automated body maintains something of an ambiguous relationship to contemporary theory. On one hand, the process of enfolding that undergirds the medial regime reiterates the rejection of Cartesian dualisms performed by prevailing theories of the...