BODY: THE ROOT OF ALL PEOPLE

Excerpted from Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body by Roy Christopher, out via punctum books

“I wish I could peel away your humid, human skin

And attach you to me, parasitically.”

— Milemarker, “Insect Incest”

“The body, like most things, is a tool. The body’s morality depends on its user. The body’s morality is determined by the types and amounts of consumption it participates in. The body is a filter. The body is a filter for language. The body is a filter for reality, which it distills into image. The body filters image. The body is an image. The body is image.”

— from Elle Nash’s Nudes

“The heart is a rotten root twining

Through soil feasting on droplets.”

— George L. Clarke, Westlake

It’s not like it looks on TV. You never see the open torso of a body heaving and sucking after a bullet, a piece of shrapnel, or a chunk of flying concrete has ripped right through it. The worst part is the smell: somewhere between bad breath and warm shit. And it’s inescapable. If the blood and guts get to be too much, you can look away. You can’t get away from the smell.

Bodies are gross. Getting out of them remains one of the most pervasive and persistent human fantasies. Fragile and frail, they fail us. They suffer injuries. They decay. From feeling the limits of this sluggish shell to seeing it as a prison cell, everyone is looking for a way out. 

Remove This Shell

Regularly referencing the limits of humanity in general and of the human body specifically, the lyrics on Godflesh’s Streetcleaner include laconic lines like, “you breed, like rats,” “bleed dry mankind,” “remove this shell,” “life / Our life / My life / Is expendable,” “There has to be someone killed,” “hell / Is where I lie / Now take the power / When we all die / We all die,” and “the world shall shed / A tiny tear.” Death and extinction appear throughout. It might sound like typical heavy metal fare, but Broadrick bristles at the connotation.

“I’ve always hated metal,” he tells me. “I’ve just used and abused it. I think people like to think that before we made Streetcleaner that we were some long-hair band who’d just discovered industrial music when that’s not the case at all. The first music I was into was punk rock. It’s so hard to convey these ideas to these people. They always come to me with how metal should go back to what it was in the eighties, and I’m like, ‘bloody hell!’ I’ve always found metal rather conservative.” Godflesh has not only always rebelled against the strict confines of genre distinctions, but they never really fit them anyway. Streetcleaner grinds and growls like a flailing, failing factory: claustrophobic, misanthropic, foreboding, and forbidding yet dead deliberate in every aspect. “This was the antithesis of the old archaic image of cartoon, all conquering, always male, metal,” Broadrick says in 2022. “And I’ve always felt the absolute opposite. If I want to hurt anyone, it’s myself, for a start. And I feel like if it’s the enemy of anything, Godflesh was always just the enemy of ignorance in all its forms.”

Faces of the ‘Flesh: Justin Broadrick and Benny Green

Justin Broadrick was born on August 15, 1969 in Birmingham, an “unpleasant” area that he describes as “the Detroit of England.” His first few years were spent on an actual hippie commune. Then he, his mom, and stepfather—his biological father was a heroin addict whom he didn’t see until he was 15-years old—moved into a council estate, the public housing projects of England. By the age of 12, Broadrick found punk rock like Crass, industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse, and Krautrock like Can, as well as Brian Eno’s early ambient work, all of which would inform his own musical output. He started messing around with some of his stepfather’s music gear and taught himself guitar. “[W]hen I began to play guitar,” he explains, “I mastered one bar chord and realized that I could play any Crass song I wanted. That was pretty satisfying in itself. ‘Music’ was like a dirty word when I went to school in 1978. Everyone was just into football hooliganism. But at home, I was absolutely inspired at a very young age to act in my environment, both in the form of music and, to some extent, against the oppressive environment I was in.” Finding oneself trapped in a body can be a traumatic experience. When that body is walled-in by a city with cement and a family fraught with addiction, escape is high priority. When that body is left all alone, isolated from all other bodies, escape is high priority.

In the meantime, we put a lot on them. Bodies provide us with the illusion of permanence. For some of us, the body is a canvas, here to display the trials and traumas of the mind. We tattoo them with the symbols and sigils of our life’s stories, its highs and lows that we don’t want to forget. Our bodies display the scars of jumps and falls, attempts and fails. For others, the body is merely a vessel to carry them through this life, a physical manifestation of a time on this planet. Either way, we adorn them, embellish them, cover them, uncover them, care for them, curse them, protect them, mutilate them, use them, abuse them, augment them, extend them.

Boundary Trouble

Once declaring that an individual is a “montage of loosely assembled parts,” and furthermore that when “you are on the phone or on the air you have no body,” Marshall McLuhan’s brand of media theory dismembered the body. The music and media we make, as well as the machines we use to make them are all extensions of ourselves in McLuhan’s terms, but they’re also prosthetics, amputating parts of ourselves as they extend them, turning us into cyborgs. Judith Butler reassembles the body as “culturally intelligible”; that is, as one that is recognized by the members of its society, what Sandy Stone calls the “legible body.” On the phone, on the air, or online, you are “read” as a member. Stone also postulates the “illegible body” that exists “quantumlike in multiple states”: “their social system includes other people, quasi people or delegated agencies that represent specific individuals, and quasi agents that represent ‘intelligent’ machines, clusters of people, or both.” This discourse doesn’t just fragment the body into gendered, sexualized, augmented, and virtual codes and constructs, but also addresses the fact that concerns about the body haven’t been marginalized by technological evolution as largely predicted. Just as telecommuting de-emphasizes place in that we can work from anywhere, it reemphasizes it in that where we are matters more. Not having a body or having a technologically mediated one now matters in a different way.

Even from a steadfastly feminist stance, we tend to focus on the narratives and discourses surrounding issues of the body more so than their material systems and conditions. As Donna Haraway, the author of “The Cyborg Manifesto,” puts it, “the cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.” N. Katherine Hayles adds that cyborgs are “simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings, and narrative constructions.” In such a muddled milieu, the power lies in the control of these analogies and their boundaries. Without the philosophical consideration and creative expression that art provides us, trying to conceive of a self beyond the body is pointless.

Another term for the feminist in Haraway’s work is the posthuman, and philosopher Rosi Braidotti pushes the analogies and boundaries of the body past postmodernity in her 2013 book, The Posthuman. Cybernetics defined humans as “information-processing systems whose boundaries are determined by the flow of information.” Braidotti pays special attention to these flows, building from three areas of thought: moral philosophy, science and technology, and anti-humanist philosophies of subjectivity. Paul Virilio shortened the term “cyberspace” from its imaginary, original form “cybernetic space-time,” which evokes the ultimate mechanical prosthesis of the mind, a planet-spanning, command-control system to end all such systems. Even now, a globalized network culture decentralizes the humanist subject’s stability in space and time. The upending of anthropocentrism upsets the hierarchy of the species, and the technological mediation of the human subject disrupts our ideas about bodily norms. 

The body’s boundaries are permeable. Not so permanent after all, in the long tail of gender, the body’s own physical signifiers are less important than how we feel within them. Moving beyond the body as we know it means subverting any extant grand narrative or theory of the embodied human and any attempt at a new one. It means rejecting the demonization of science and technology. It means embracing the nonlinearity of our posthuman times, the further fragmentation of our selves, and the permeability of our bodily boundaries and definitions. Haraway writes, “it means both building and destroying machines, identities, relationships.” It means rethinking the lines we’ve drawn through the ones we’ve crossed.

Any attempt to escape the body only reifies its limits. Every augmentation brings its own detriment. Every route out has its own pitfalls.

This is the Voice

The tagline to the 2009 movie Moon reads, “250,000 miles from home, the hardest thing to face… is yourself.” Moon tells the story of astronaut Sam Bell, who on his last two weeks of a three-year solitary contract harvesting Helium 3 from the far side of the Moon, out of sight of Earth. During his last two weeks of his lunar stay, the daily routine of his mission starts to devolve into madness and second-guessing. Sam is haunted by hallucinations of a teenage girl and an older man. Overwhelmed, he chants “two more weeks, two more weeks” like a mantra.

Even though his existence on the Moon is largely attended to by communication media and technology, Sam can’t escape himself. He is alone aside from his computerized companion, and the messages he sends to and receives from earth are prerecorded, unbeknownst to him. Even in its celestial setting, Moon is more concerned with inner space than outer space. Writer and director Duncan Jones wrote the role of Sam Bell specifically for Sam Rockwell, and his having the same first name is no accident. Jones explains, “one of the reasons why I left the name Sam is I wanted [Rockwell] to have that feeling of it being a little uncomfortable, that he’s having to face himself, because in the story, that’s what happens.”

Sam I am: Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon, 2009

Now, is the fissure caused by the Mother, the Father, or the Other? In Moon, there’s more than one Sam. Actually, there are more than two Sams. Judith Butler asks, “what if there is an Other who does violence to another Other?” What we think is the original Sam on the Moon eventually encounters two other Sams, and two of them find a store of endless Sams. Aching to resolve his existential identity crisis, the Sam we’ve followed from the beginning calls his wife on Earth. His daughter, Eve, answers the videophone, and explains that his wife died years before. During their brief conversation, he hears his own voice from off screen. This opens the real fissure. Recognizing the sound of his own voice after a moment of detachment, Sam immediately hangs up. The words spoken from Earth do not matter; only the voice with which they are spoken. Seeing himself in the flesh on the Moon was one kind of encounter. Hearing himself speak from Earth was more than he could take. Butler writes, “we cannot, under contemporary representation, hear the agonized cry or be compelled or commanded by the face.” Only the voice can do this. The voice is the presence of the real.

The voice without language is the seat of suffering. Like machine parts pushed past their limits, cogs stripped bare of their teeth, language lost to pain brings us back to the body. When Sam hears the sound of his own voice on the line to earth, he is returned to himself. Witness Broadrick’s howls or the shrieks and shrills of other metal vocalists. In these extreme musical forms, the voice is employed as another instrument or texture. Mladen Dolar writes, “as soon as it departs from its textual anchorage, the voice becomes senseless and threatening.” Moreover, when technology tethers the voice with language through text or some other media, we are aware of the Other and sometimes our own Other. We do not like to realize ourselves as Other. We do not like to realize the humanity of the Other. These realizations are nowhere more present than in the voice. Seeing is one thing. There remains a distance to the visual. Hearing is in your head. Dolar challenges the primacy of the visual by positioning the voice as “the first manifestation of life.” That is, before the image of the mirror, before self-recognition via the gaze, it is through our voices and our media that we realize that we are, and that we are Other. Dolar adds, “the voice is both the subtlest and most perfidious form of the flesh.” The voice of pain or the voice of the Other gets right inside you.

Sound mind, sound body: the body is inescapable, even if only in sound.

— Roy Christopher is an aging BMX and skateboarding zine kid. That’s where he learned to turn events and interviews into pages with staples. He has since written about music, media, and culture for everything from books and blogs to national magazines and academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of several books, including Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body (punctum books, 2022) and Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019). Find out more at http://roychristopher.com