As genetic engineering creates hybrid forms, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve speculates on post-human art and what it means for the Freudian unconscious
Mariko Mori: Miko no inori (Link of the Moon): 1996: digital film, 61 x 71 cm
“I demand that he who still refuses… to see a horse galloping on a tomato should be looked upon as a cretin” – André Breton
Two peculiar forms of exploration narrative concerned with determining what makes us human came into being int he beginning of the 20th century. Both claimed territory that was terrestrial but not earthy; embodied but not visible to the naked eye. In 1900, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, a book he described as containing “the most valuable of all the discoveries it is my good fortune to make” (1). The Interpretation of Dreams was not only key to Freud’s entire oeuvre but to the identity of the 20th century itself, revolutionising and determining how human beings would approach the production of meaning, symbolisation, and psychic life from that point on. In other words, the wild symbolisations of humans – not just hysterics (Freud’s object of study in the 1890s) – were now interpretable through science, not just myth and poetry (although the ‘science’ of psychoanalysis has been called into question in the latter half of the century returning Freud’s contribution to the realm of art) (2). This newly charted area was a privileged zone, one that only humans were capable of possessing, not birds, boxes, or plants. “I’m only human” infers error, ambivalence, the unpredictability of the unconscious erupting at any given time. This is precisely what signified HAL’s dip over the edge from predictable computerdom in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He started to err; to engage in irrational conduct, even to act out an Oedipal relation to his mentor. In other words, HAL was a computer that had developed an unconscious (and hence had to be terminated).
In 1900, another key system for delimiting the contingent ingredients of the human came into being, one that would rise along with psychoanalysis (and in opposition to it) to become the primary science for understanding the individual and “life itself” (3). Genetics, like Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, was actually a rediscovery of the 19th century gardner-monk Johann Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance formulated from observing wrinkled versus smooth skin passed from generation to generation of the pea plant. In 1900, Mendel’s laws were rediscovered, setting in motion modern genetics. (The word ‘gene’ was used for the first time in 1909) (4). Since that time, genetics has passed from through its own history, spanning the eugenics-based studies of racial purity and inheritance of the early 20th century to the hybridised model of seeds and animals of mid-century to the polyorganic transgenic fusions between plant and animal to the late 20th century (5).
It is this recent stage – from the mid-70s to the present – where as suggestive reanimation of one of psychoanalysis’s most loyal movements seems to be occurring. Transgenics, more commonly known as genetic engineering, involves the cross-fertilisation of genes from once distinct and unrelated organisms resulting in hybrid beings on the molecular level that were impossible to imagine as ‘real’ before 20th-century genetics. Surrealism meets hard science in descriptions such as the following: “I find myself especially drawn by such engaging new beings as the tomato with a gene from a cold-sea-bottom-living flounder”, says Donna Haraway in her book Modest_Witness, “which codes for a protein that slows freezing, and the potato with a gene from the giant silk moth, which increases disease resistance. DNA Plant Technology in Oakland, California started testing the tomato-fish antifreeze combination in 1991” (6). Such images of new beings made up of fish/tomato/antifreeze combinations sound more like the free associations of the surrealists. Soluble Fish was, after all, the name Breton gave his novella published the same year as the First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Indeed Haraway uses the phrase cyborg surrealism to describe both the method and the “peculiar” territory of advanced capitalist techno-science she explores in Modest_Witness. In this sense, the “beauty” (that is, the convulsion of reality) of Lautréamont’s famous hero, Maldoror, “as handsome as the fortuitous encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, pales next to the wonder (and ambivalence) induced by transgenic constructions such as the mouse who glows in the dark or which is bred genetically to develop skin cancer – now readily available and, even in the case of the OncoMouse, obsolete within biotechnical laboratories (7). Blue-tipped mermaids such as those populating Mariko Mori’s Empty Dreams are no longer mythological creatures so much as signifiers of this new transgenic body, the fusions between animal and human that have become the living dreams of cyborg surrealism.
Although Mori has been quoted as saying the women in her work “appear to be happy because they are cyborgs, not real women” (8), anyone who has seriously considered Haraway’s often cited Manifesto for Cyborg (written almost exactly 60 years after Breton’s manifesto) knows the distinction between real women and cyborgs is itself an outmoded fiction, a hangover of unrepentant humanism. Cyborgs are never essentially happy nor sad but like all of us products of history and complexity, woven of unconscious and conscious drives, desires, and elaborate emotional territories. Haraway’s formulation, presented in the form of an ironic manifesto, uses the science-fictional figuration of the cyborg as a way to account for the very real transformations that have occurred within the technosocial, technoscientific landscape of the late 20th century. In other words, Mariko Mori’s women are real cyborgs.
And yet the question remains, as genetics breeds beings made up of increasingly complex and ‘impure’ molecular origin, beings who blur the boundaries between nature and culture, human and the non-human, is there a different kind of unconscious emerging from this increased intimacy between the machines, humans, animals, and non-physical territories? Is there an unconscious produced in the wake of the seeming wild juxtapositions of Freud’s contemporaneous publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and the foundation of modern genetics? I would argue there is and it is exactly what Haraway means by cyborg surrealism. In other words we live in a world where the once fantastic image of the sewing machine and umbrella coming together on a dissecting table seems, on the molecular level, to have come to life. And now we can wonder what kind of unconscious imaginings such beings themselves might harbour.
In his essay ‘Across the Morphic Fields: The Art of Mariko Mori’, Paul D. Miller invokes surrealism to account for Mori’s high-velocity condensations of santo (Japanese term meaning large metropolis) with Japan’s hybrid history of cultural transmutation – the manner in which Japan is woven of Chinese culture, Buddhism, Shinto religion, Christianity, and Western high-tech capitalism. In other words, Mori’s surrealism has little to do with the unconscious but everything to do with the new global culture with which Japan has become synonymous; it is cross-cultural (or intra-cultural), a product of “the two-way conditioning between the imagination and its environment”, just as Mori herself is “at home at any place in the global village, yet still rooted in the traditions of Japan” (9).
But what of the unconscious in this context, particularly since it is the unconscious and not the imagination through which surrealism re-engineers reality? At the end of Modest_Witness, Haraway calls for the theorising of an “unfamiliar unconscious, a different primal scene where everything does not stem from the dramas of identity and reproduction” (10). Asked to elaborate, she emphasises that “the word is to be taken literally. An ‘unfamiliar’ one is not of the family. Etymologically speaking, the whole notion of the familiar means the family, and the kinds of things that blindside us today aren’t necessarily familiar in the sense of familial. In other words, all these new kinds of relationality we presently experience between the organic and inorganic, physical and non-physical, animal and human – relationalities that shape who we are and that we in turn shape – need to be rethought in terms of an unfamiliar unconscious. I don’t know how else to put it” (11).
It is this production, or at least the allusion to this site of the unfamiliar unconscious, that Mori’s art ultimately presents us with. Tropes of surrealist art surface from the unfamiliar spiritual, cross-cultural, environmental, and the psychic “mutualities” (Miller’s word) she produces. “Cyborg surrealism” is, then, a more precise description of what Mori is up to. It is as well an apt description of the seeming unconsciously inflected potency and lunacy of much ‘90s art, from the emoting techno-angst mannequins of Tony Oursler to the mutant hero narrative and reproduction myth of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, or the ‘euphoric enthusiasm’ of Jeff Koon’s celebration of materials. The power of this art is the evocation of what feels like the unconscious (hence the term surreal is often loosely attached to such work) but it hardly derives from the same universe or gene pool of a René Magritte, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, or Dorothea Tanning. The fin de siècle works of an Oursler or Barney do not so much evoke a realm of the human unconscious but rather produce one from its merger with many of the things that are, frankly, ‘unfamiliar’ to it. Such is the near archetypal cyborg surrealism of Mariko Mori. Neither dream nor stream of consciousness, free association nor automatic writing, the images and worlds she creates – and inhabits – carry the sense of an uncanny psychic projection fashioned not merely from her own individual subjectivity but one created from her fusion with technology, science-fiction myths, and the euphoria of late capitalist culture (what Frederic Jameson terms the hysterical sublime). In such works as Empty Dream (1995), Last Departure (1996) or Entropy of Love (1996), she presents herself as an offspring of this universe, indeed as an emerging icon of it. After all, her family romance is of the Tokyo-bred cyberqueen thrust from the brow of a high-tech inventor father. One of his inventions, the Hamawari (sunflower), is a “rooftop honeycomb device… that uses chromatic aberration to separate ultraviolet and infrared radiation from sunlight and then transmits this purified light indoors via a fiberoptic cable” (12). In other words, the Himawari is a high-tech illumination device bred of organic structure (the honeycomb): a machine that purifies “natural light” (sunlight) to be used inside an artificial, man-made indoor environment. It too is a cyborg, perhaps best understood not as an invention of Mori’s father’s but her paternal figure (13). Inventions both, the daughter and the illumination device circulate as offsprings of a world where genetics hails psychoanalysis and surrealism the unfamiliar unconscious of the cyborg. Neither is only human, except of course where conscience might make them so.
- Also of note is Laplanche and Pontalis’s statement that, “If Freud’s discovery had to be summed up in a single word, that world would without doubt have to be ‘unconscious’.” J. Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973(c)1967), p.474.
- See Alan A. Stone, M.D. ‘Freud’s Vision: Psychoanalysis failed as science, Will it survive as art?’ Harvard Magazine, Vol.99, p.3.
- Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp.131-171 for a discussion of “life itself”; p.247 for genetics and its relation to definitions of the human.
- Horace Freeland Johnson, ‘A History of Science and Technology Behind Gene Mapping and Sequencing’ in: The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project, ed. Daniel J. Kevles and Leroy Hood (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.38.
- Haraway, op. cit., p.227.
- ibid., p.88.
- ibid., p.98. Discusses various kinds of custom-made transgenic mice.
- Mariko Mori in: Dike Blair, ‘We’ve Got Twenty-Five Years’, Purple Prose, July 1998, pp.96-101.
- Paul D. Miller, ‘Across the Morphic Fields: The Art of Mariko Mori’, in: New Histories (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996), pp.138-145.
- Haraway, op. cit., p.265.
- How Like a Leaf. Donna J. Haraway interviewed by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. (New York: Routledge, 1998)
- Lisa Corrin, ‘Mariko Mori’s Quantum Nirvana’, in: Mariko Mori, ex. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1998, p.21.
- A tear-drop shaped opalescent bulb glows as a result of this device for a few hours each day in Mori’s New York studio.
This essay originally appeared in Parkett 54 (1998/99). Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish.