Getting Under the Skin
The body as an object of critical study dominates disciplines across the humanities to such an extent that a new discipline has emerged: body criticism. In Getting Under the Skin, Bernadette Wegenstein traces contemporary body discourse in philosophy and cultural studies to its roots in twentieth-century thought—showing how psychoanalysis, phenomenology, cognitive science, and feminist theory contributed to a new body concept—and studies the millennial body in performance art, popular culture, new media arts, and architecture.
Wegenstein shows how the concept of bodily fragmentation has been in circulation since the sixteenth century's investigation of anatomy. The history of the body-in-pieces, she argues, is a history of a struggling relationship between two concepts of the body—as fragmented and as holistic. Wegenstein shows that by the twentieth century these two apparently contradictory movements were integrated; both fragmentation and holism, she argues, are indispensable modes of imagining and configuring the body. The history of the body, therefore, is a history of mediation; but it was not until the turn of the twenty-first century and the digital revolution that the body was best able to show its mediality.
After examining key concepts in body criticism, Wegenstein looks at the body as "raw material" in twentieth-century performance art, medical techniques for visualizing the human body, and strategies in popular culture for "getting under the skin" with images of freely floating body parts. Her analysis of current trends in architecture and new media art demonstrates the deep connection of body criticism to media criticism. In this approach to body criticism, the body no longer stands in for something else—the medium has become the body.
About the Author
Bernadette Wegenstein is Research Professor in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University, where she also directs the Center for Advanced Media Studies. The author of Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory (MIT Press, 2006), she is also a documentary filmmaker.
"Getting Under the Skin is a major contribution to the debate over the relation of new media to the human body. Wegenstein argues convincingly against both the humanist defense of the body against the 'abstractions' of mediated communication and against those who would 'upload' their consciousness and leave their 'meat' behind. Instead, she invents a third path that sees the body as always already mediated. With great theoretical subtlety she explores the dialectic of the body and media from the Surrealists and Situationists, installation art, and experimental body performances to new media artists and architects. Wegenstein sheds striking new light on the all-important question of the relation of humans to information machines."
—Mark Poster, University of California, Irvine
"Getting Under the Skin breaks the impasse over embodiment and disembodiment haunting recent studies in new media through a brilliant critical engagement with the traditions of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and corporeal feminism. Arguing that our notions and experiences of embodiment are enmeshed in a dialectical tension of fragmentation/holism framed by media, Wegenstein draws on various sources of popular culture to demonstrate that at the turn of the millennium, the body has turned into an 'organ without a body' or, better, into an 'organ instead of a body.' Her timely reconceptualization of the body as the basis for media offers new direction for thinking about the body and human agency in an era of nanoscale fragmentation and rapidly blurring distinctions between hardware and life."
—Tim Lenoir, Kimberly Jenkins Chair for New Technologies in Society, Duke University