The body and its performance are not owned by nature, nor by culture. The leaching of hormones, the stereotypical messengers of sex and gender, mimics the desire for sexed realities and their disruption.
Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston claim in Posthuman Bodies that “the body in culture is always a viral body, a time bomb of symptoms.” 01 Examples of bodies rendered, replicated and accelerated on and off screen by technology, pop culture, pharmaceutical industries and corporate concepts on the market, update the body and its symptoms and thereby either renegotiate or solidify gender relations. So far the ideological basis of gender relations lived through the body seems to be extremely contradicting.
The body touches down on the battleground of biological determinism, facing its counterpart – deconstruction. On the biological determined side, the body is interpreted as a charged container consisting of binary coding of chromosomes and hormones. Biological features explaining a potent duality in all species and cementing a traditional image of female and male. A sexed nature, in which the coded bodies adopt specific characteristics and areas of operation. On the side of deconstruction, the body is performing a manifold interpreted and discursive element following its principle of “individual” choice. The body of flux, socialization and observation refreshing the skin constantly. This body isn’t thinkable without the glassholes of culture, which dissolve the features given by nature. On both sides, bodies appear that reveal the causes and effects of power and pleasure.
Str8 data bodies, risk-free virtual bodies, smart corporate bodies and promised flexible bodies emerge on the battleground, revealing the symptoms of determinism and deconstruction.
Conventionally, cameras are installed in shops to prevent crime. Nowadays cameras are also embedded to identify customers and gather information. Almax SpA, an Italian company and international leading brand for the production of mannequins and display items, introduced a $5130 EyeSee Mannequin, which detects the sex and age of passers-by in shopping malls. These smart display dummies equipped with a complex biometrical facial analysis system behind their eyes accurately measure in real time the age range, gender, ethnicity and volume of people facing their products for analytics business, calculated by IBM Cognos software. The biometrical analysis system guesses gender, based on specific facial attributes of the jawline, cheekbones, nose and eyes. The images of the customers aren’t traceable, due to the combination of hardware and software which processes the biometric data without recording images.
Interactive advertising also makes use of facial recognition technology for customer-specific targeting. Depending on the targeted faces and bodies the data would create a different output: to establish a pattern of specific customers and to “tailor” content based on gender, age, time and location. Plan UK, a children’s charity, installed such an advertisement for the first time in the UK at a bus stop on Oxford Street in Central London. The interactive ad campaign promotes education for girls, who are considered to not have a choice in their life, due to poverty and discrimination. Faces determined as female will see a 40-second video explaining the perspective of 13-years-old girls from Thailand, Mali and the UK. Male detected faces will see a cut-down version without the video, just presenting statistics and will be directed to the charity’s website to find more information. Executive Marie Stauton stated: “We’re not giving men and boys the choice to see the full ad on this occasion – so they get a glimpse of what it’s like to have basic choice taken away.”02 This is a project that rather plays with new technology to replicate inverted normative structures.
A YouTube video uploaded in 2009 showed two co-workers trying out an HP webcam with motion-tracking and facial recognition software.03 The camera failed to work when a non-standard-white face appeared in the frame. HP stated: “the camera might have difficulty seeing contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.”04
Bodies become a matter for detection, to track the distance of facial features and the facial contrast to succeed in predictive marketing by new information technologies. Human-made algorithms performing the heterosexual norms, to address men and women in their traditional roles as consumers. The palette of diverse self-expression is denied by basic binary categories of being either male or female — a technical process of normalization that allows a certain target group to access a predetermined choice. Technology so far cannot take into effective consideration a body that sticks out from the standard algorithms. The body and its features are pressured to conform to or be excluded from the system, which uses outdated “traditional” patterns from which the models take their shape. As soon as human expression becomes quantifiable, it will be recorded and optimized for any economic, bureaucratic or ideological purpose.
Connecting to ImagiNation05 ... online back in the ‘90s, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This adage, which began as a cartoon published by The New Yorker in 1993 marks the moment when the Internet became a subject of general discussion. A moment when Internet protocols did not force users to identify themselves or when this wasn’t part of the Internet transaction itself. Internet privacy was understood as communicating in general anonymity. “Gender, race, age, looks, or even ‘dogness’ are potentially absent or alternatively fabricated or exaggerated with unchecked creative license for a multitude of purposes both legal and illegal,” as Tim Jordan noted in 1999.06
Physical bodies perform virtual computer crossdressing, gender swapping and identity theft. The experience of the virtual body as constructed and deconstructed surface – circulating, probed, stolen, recombined – influences the lived experience of the body in IRL. Gaming and social networking communities provide access to act within a set of multiple personalities and in disembodied environments. LambdaMoo07, a text-based multi-user dungeon, included the following presets: neuter, male, female, either, Spivak, splat, plural, egotistical, royal and 2nd-person. Especially text-based computer-mediated communication played a central role in early research about gender bending as an environment in which gender can be disconnected from one’s physical body.08 A risk-free environment to invent, imitate and become intimate in a new undefined format; to think more openly about constructed gender roles. These bodies don’t have to conform to the accepted biological binaries of the material body.
However, gender swapping turned out to be a flat two-sided image. Adopting a sexy moniker of a blond female avatar almost instantly draws reactions in noisy online environments. These 80×80 pixel feminized avatars receive assistance to progress faster. Or to become less vulnerable, to avoid hostility and harassment by reinforcing vice versa gender binaries – 80×80 pixel simulating maleness. Research has shown dominance is violently repeated online. Compared to the ‘90s, creating diverse identities online is now less possible and often less desirable. Since web 2.0 and social networking, the laboratory for risk-free bodies has fallen into oblivion. It has been replaced by “real” and “authentic” databases of virtual bodies logging in and scrolling for everyday real-time affirmation and digital voyeurism. Future smartphones equipped with depth sensors will complete the third dimension for infinite profile realities.
The mainstream media celebrates the perfect image of a new feminist leader: Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook Chief Operating Officer since 2008. She is just one powerful model showing equality has reached its goals. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead09 is promoted as the new feminist bestseller encouraging young women to not doubt their ability to climb the corporate ladder, to become an executive leadership body and to combine work and family as long as they try hard to adapt. Sheryl Sandberg, the flexible multi-kit for a social media sideshow, found the routine to play out both cards. There’s no excuse left to be overburdened.
Feminist demands for breaking up the prevailing dominance of patriarchy are transformed into corporate concepts. Women’s liberation turned into a story of individual success of free-market societies. A sex-and-the-city generation celebrates corporate equality and the attractive tenders of neoliberalism. Western companies balance their gender ratio by placing well educated women in high positions, while the rest on the labour market is taken over by a female reserve army for cheap labour and part time jobs. Determinism is the explanatory model for underpaid labour and nest-building, as well as for the pedagogic and custodial interest of women. Retail sales, food service and home health care are some of the fastest-growing fields in the economy, all underpaid female-dominated sectors. Moreover women in full-time employment still earn a lower salary.10
The free-market society profits from the ideals pioneered by feminists. The roots of inequality end at the individual level of the choices bodies make, trying to fit into wage hierarchies. To fail means to fail individually and social solidarity retreats into the background. The body is a flexible home-office for self-improvement. Smart corporate concepts reboot a productive potential in all bodies, especially in those which were previously excluded and repressed.
Come on, vogue
Let your body go with the flow (go with the flow)
You know you can do it
It makes no difference if you're black or white
If you're a boy or a girl
If the music's pumping it will give you new life
You're a superstar, yes, that's what you are, you know it
In 1990 Madonna released the dance-pop song Vogue11. She was inspired by the underground queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American ballroom community and decontextualized the concept of Vogueing with her lyrics. Jenny Livingston’s film, Paris Is Burning, chronicles the ballroom community of New York City, mid-to-late ‘80s and gives a non-conformist history of bodies, gender and performances. In a ball as Pepper Labeija remarks, “Gay people, men, gather together under one roof and decide to have a competition amongst themselves.”12 ”Walk a ball” is a form of street-fighting in very specific categories or themes like Butch, Femme, Queens, Realness, Banji Girl and Boy, Bizarre, European Runway etc. For a moment, the ballroom allows them to leave the economic and social forms of oppression they are facing. Each of them represents a different House (in reference to House of Chanel, Saint-Laurent, etc.), which assembles a model of self-chosen family and for most of them probably the only family.13
Over the last years Lady Gaga has appropriated queer symbolics and integrated it into the mainstream. She presents herself as a transparent calculated pop commodity, working on the manufacturing of a star. Every released album reveals the operating mode of the pop business. Gaga is a projection screen, one that joins Dadaism and Andy Warhol to carry a permanent interchangeable masquerade around. She is the accelerated version of Madonna, offering a disrupted surface in whatever form of realness to fend off the private and the vulnerability of public perception. Gaga manages to refresh her skin, whenever her identity becomes too fixed and determined.
In June 2010, Wired14 published a chat by Chelsea Manning in excerpts, beginning in May.
(1:54:14 pm) Lamo: is that how you got the cables out?
(1:54:42 pm) Manning: i would come in with music on a CD-RW
(1:55:21 pm) Manning: labelled with something like Lady Gaga … erase the music… then write a compressed split file
(2:14:21 pm) Manning: listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltratrating [sic] possibly the largest data spillage in american history
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (born Bradley Edward Manning, in 1987) leaked the largest set of classified materials in US via Wikileaks, when she was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2010. She identifies herself as a transgender woman.
(1:13:10 pm) Manning: I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy…
Wired15 published the full chat logs in 2011, in which Manning talks about transitioning treatment and about being discharged with adjustment disorder rather than gender identification disorder under Don’t ask, don’t tell16. Mainstream media and supporters continued to refer to her as male. After being sentenced in August 2013, Manning stated in a press release that she would like to be known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and be referred to by female pronouns. Nevertheless numerous editors in the German Wikipedia continued to prevent the editing of her name.17
What kind of proof is needed to self-identify? Non-normative sexual identities and behaviours have to come up with strategies to exist in straight societies, to become legal and to become mainstream. So far the concept of deconstruction to adopt any body stays an unrealized promise, even though the body in pop is less fixed and static.
Str8 data bodies and smart corporate bodies reveal the concept of a determined interpreted nature. Western technology predicts subjects on a data image and trains a heterosexual and normative outcome that impacts the socialization of all bodies. The smart corporate body conceals an inequality of bodies in terms of class, race and gender in favour of liberal individualism. The risk-free virtual body and the promised flexible body overcome biological essentialism to a certain level and drift slowly towards a deconstruction of a static discourse. Gender and its performance are lived through the body, but they are neither just owned by the fate of a binary sexed nature, nor dissolving in multiplicity given by culture. They are set and constructed in specific places, at a specific time. Both of these concepts are mutually dependent and shaped on a desired stable ground. Technology, virtual spaces, pop culture, labour, pharmacies and synthetic solids are achievements for human liberation and pleasure, as well as fields of dominations and utilization. Tech-grid costumes norm str8 data predicted bodies. A risk-free body in a constantly refreshed skin of ImagiNation might prefer to stay in the ‘90s. Smart corporate bodies hold on to the neoliberal individualism and underpaid wage conditions, while promised flexible bodies are sideshows in pop columns, which have to come up with strategies to exist in determined societies. Power structures engage with both of these concepts and affect embodiments and lives.
The body is an inevitable projection surface for race, class and gender. Hormones, compared to the body, are less visible. Nevertheless these infinitesimal quantities demonstrate the similar causes and effects of power and pleasure. Hormones, the stereotypical messengers of sex, mimic the desire for sexed realities and their disruption.
The term hormones was coined by Ernest Starling in 1905, from Greek ὁρμή, impetus. The definition, which is still present in mainstream understanding, describes hormones as a body’s substance: which secretes from the endocrine glands to message within a sealed self-regulated system to maintain a “balanced”, “healthy” and reproductive body. Next to chromosomes, which code maleness and femaleness, hormones are also interpreted to produce something known. In the 20th and 21st centuries hormones are understood as the message of sex. They are interpreted as chemicals that determine a heterosexual norm. They serve as an explanation for male and female specific characteristics and their different areas of operation. They are expected to produce sexed bodies, brains and behaviours. Hormone-based medication is common in treating fertility, infertility and ageing.
HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is promoted by pharmaceutical companies to artificially boost hormone levels. In the ‘60s menopause was reported to be an estrogen deficiency disease, which was cured with hormones. Premarin, an estrogen drug derived from the urine of pregnant mares and manufactured by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, became America’s fifth largest prescription order in the following years. The sales of Premarin peaked at about $2 billion in 2001 and declined to just over $1 billion in 2006. A study found that long-term use of the drug caused increases in breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots.18
Bodies around their fifties do not become invisible or dead pixels. Instead they become profitable targets for pharmaceutical industries to maintain sexed doped bodies that would age slower.
Next to bodies, hormones matter also on a different scale. They message not only in bodies but also outside them. Especially endocrine disruptors urged the discourse and have become a key insight. Endocrine disrupting chemicals such as xenoestrogenes (acts like estrogen), alkylphenols and bisphenol A “interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body”.19 They mimic and/or block sex hormones, leaching from plastics and phthalates (chemicals added to increase the flexibility of plastics, transparency, durability), pesticides, heavy metals, perfumes, cleaning products, industrial chemicals and by-products.
DDT, a colourless, crystalline, tasteless and almost odourless organochloride is one of those substances. It became known for its insecticidal action by the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller in 1939. DDT was common in use during World War II to control typhus-carrying lice, sprayed aerially to eliminate malaria and was made available to farmers as an agricultural insecticide. Since the 1970s and ‘80s most Western countries have banned this pesticide. DDT and its breakdown products and metabolites, DDE and DDD, became known for their persistence in the ecosystem, taking decades to break down. DDT is an endocrine disruptor, its metabolite DDE acts as an antiandrogen. Nowadays controversial discussion about DDT concerns its effectiveness in combatting malaria and, conversely, its potential links to breast cancer and diabetes.
Scientists and clinicians have difficulties in grasping hormonal action, measuring hormonal responses and defining them and their effects. Hormones provoke or block actions in all kinds of bodies as endogenous chemicals, medications and environmental toxins. Hormones are invisible entities that message globally, cause transgenerational effects and deconstruct sexed codes.20
To whom do I owe my body? The body is a scripted surface, which demonstrates refreshed limitations by mimicking and replicating the same symptoms that have wounded the body already in the past. The heterosexual training of society proven by biological determinism as well as the deconstruction of the body are frameworks in which the causes and effects of power inhere. The cementation of sexual, racial, economic, social and cultural classification and the imperialist wrecking-ball of globalization continue to enact dominance on all bodies on and off screen.
Hormonal flows like bodies show the desire for binary sexed realities and their disruption by human-made products, in which the message is not predetermined. Donna Haraway said: “Biology is a discourse, not the living world itself.”21 Dualisms of nature and culture, determinism and deconstruction; the understanding of biological sexes interprets physical facts and provides access for discourse, but can be never taken for granted.