Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#1 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1998


Het Twintigste-Eeuwse Lichaam

Arjen Mulder, a scientifically trained biologist, is also a proud essayist who frequently directs his attention towards the domain of the visual arts. His hang-ups, his repertory of biological concepts and his carefree style make him a difficult customer. His decidedly fine-tuned antenna for the expressions of an advanced imagery is rather wasted on the subtleties of less obvious aesthetics. In a style which does not exactly bear witness to 'good taste', he observes objects of art as if they were products of a natural order.

I have often thought that Mulder had better keep his opinions on the visual arts to himself. What is the use of all those biologically inspired metaphors? But The Twentieth Century Body, a book of essays on the body during this century, has cured me of this scepticism. It is no longer about Mulder's misplaced sensibility. It is simply about the visual arts of this century - and therefore, modernism - having failed, despite a semblance of the reverse. Because a sensitive observer such as Mulder removes the contemporary body - as it were - from the claims of the arts and places it in the context of 'biological aesthetics'. In this book, the object which, like no other, the visual arts have maltreated, celebrated, mocked, and thrown to-and-fro between admiration and disgust, is lovingly rehabilitated and led towards a glorious future.

Mulder speaks a language of his own; never do you get the feeling that he is trying to impress you with postmodern jargon, although he constantly summarizes and quotes other work. This is never irritating, because he always remains true to his own style, and never allows the cited author to intrude. For, nowhere is he not himself. His book, although primarily intended to be a book of essays, in fact turns out to be a theory of art. It is full of summaries and explicit references, while every sentence remains a true Mulder. In other words, it is an idiosyncratic set-up aimed at summarizing the truth of life and the body in a book of essays. However, you should not read these essays fragmentarily if you want to taste the atmosphere, gain an insight, or examine the author. This book should be read from start to finish. Purely to scan fragments is wrong.

As a committed observer, Mulder, in The Twentieth Century Body, looks back on 20th century culture, through a 21st century fictional, historicizing, scenario. It is a media-cultural-didactic discourse, full of an endless series of unrestrained observations which threaten to overwhelm the unprepared reader. It is a holistic attempt to connect everything with everything, to undermine the world order as we know it, and to prepare the reader for a human existence in the coming centuries. This means: no more of that familiar slouching in a chair in front of the TV or reading a book, no more wearily scurrying through the rooms of a foreign museum, but rather, taking part in the true life, freed from gravity, without muscles and bones. A life which few of us know through our own experiences, but which is not entirely unknown.

This becomes clear from the most enlightened remark in Arjen Mulder's book, which, after all, is alive with cheerful science. Rather early in the book, Mulder cites the words of Wubbo Ockels, the only Dutchman who has had the experience of being an astronaut, to show how the body responds to conditions of long-lasting weightlessness. During his journey into space on the space-shuttle in 1985, Ockels discovered that, up there, our living organism does not need muscles and bones: So those bones and muscular tissues decompose up there. That's life. How postmodern: an astronaut lending substance to a media theory!

This book should be compulsory reading material, not only for the art buff, but also for anyone who feels the ensuing pressure of the fin de siècle. Mulder combines a strictly hierarchical, Darwinian, biochemical model with a frivolous media theory, freeing us from the shadow of the turn of the last century. Because, while art and culture at that time struck a melancholy chord, Mulder shows that our times are vibrant with unparalleled optimism. For the body, as we know it, may be ready to be discarded, but there is no doubt that, in the near future, revelational accessories will add new dimensions to it. Mulder extrapolates the profundity of these from the degree in which, in this century, the twentieth century body has been transformed by the media. The automobile, photograph, train, film, radio, TV, video, and computer are inventions which, in succession, have forced a natural, ideological, technological, and virtual, body upon us. But these developments are nothing compared to what the future has in store for us. Mulder uses the concept of 'extra-medial' (a kind of variant on the paradigmatic transformation that scientific theory makes use of) as the catalyst which makes us transform from one medium to the other. Because, be warned, the media have become true organs of our body, which, whether we have consciously experienced this or not, have planted their artificial intelligence deep into our bodies. In short, the media make the man, and since the media have encroached so deeply upon the human being, it is high time for an evaluation.

Mulder is gifted with a subtle sense of humour. As intellectual glutton and walking database, he tries to press a theory upon us by disguising it as an essay. He very systematically and structurally takes the mickey out of traditional aesthetics. When Mulder, in his own inimitable manner of association and metaphorization, explains the facts of mankind to his readers, he leaves little of the traditional perception of art intact. Because what is the use of art as an individual experience once you realize that biological conditions enable us to have aesthetic experiences? What is the value of these feelings we cherish so much? What are they, other than conditions forced upon us by delusion and the wrong programming? Not until, guided by Mulder, we begin to understand what creation intended for man, or rather, what our genes have in store for us, does it become clear how conditioned and limiting our aesthetic experiences in fact are.

If there is a connection between art and the media (Mulder's greatest fascination), then it must be their permanent fascination with the representation of the body. Not only in the form of a biological transparency, but also as equally important, as an image functioning on photo, video, film, or on the computer in Cyberspace. As is customary in postmodern aesthetics, Mulder juggles with words and notions to give the body a new appearance. Unlike many other inspired essayists, he never really makes a mistake. This is due to his unassailable style. He is a Tommy Cooper in a science fiction show, who never makes a blunder. He thrives on fashionable German theories and French media theories, not only of such 'engineers' as Paul Virilio, with their hardware, but also of 'soft' philosophers, such as Baudrillard, and yet he always remains in control. With great agility, he connects Hollywood with the literary sphere, and subsequently sensitively remarks on the freaks in Diana Arbus' photos. Or on that poor little boy who was driven to suicide in Roberto Rosselini's film Germania, Anno Zero, from 1947. And what a suicide it was: according to Mulder, his death brought about a definitive end to the classic cinema; the era of the great stories, grand gestures.

It is clear that Mulder does not fight shy of exaggeration. In this respect he reminds us of theoreticians such as Frank Reijnders. But while Reijnders still makes use of familiar notions, connotations and ideas from art history, Mulder investigates and analyses with a cool head and an analytic mind, but without a great deal of cultural-historical consciousness. He builds up a new concept of man, has a vision of mankind which hardly leaves room for past notions, and certainly not for the notion of 'man' in the humanistic sense. From the perspective of contemporary and future media, man and his environment are on their way to becoming a programmable neural network.

This is the most beautiful and convincing theory I have come across in the last few years. An art theory indeed, which is even more remarkable because Mulder does not have much of an eye for the autonomous art object, for beautiful forms. With a few exceptions (he can still recognize the picturesque), he resorts to film, books and other modern media to corroborate his discourse. The body in art hardly seems to exist here. Picasso's bizarre series of women goes unnoticed, and the futuristic machine-man is underexposed. It is the freaks in Diana Arbus' photos who attract his attention; he writes brilliantly about the (more than) human traits of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and no film could fascinate him more than Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moreover, as a true glutton, he calls upon both William Burroughs and Chantal Akerman as his witnesses. And of course, that bizarre intellectual freak, John C. Lilly; that curious scientist who, during his experiments, discovered no less than four positive, one neutral, and four negative, levels of consciousness in the human bio-computer.

There, the word has been stated. Due to the ever accelerating development of the media, the human body will undergo a complete transformation. From a superfluous, energy-absorbing identity, which is only interesting in that it offers some resistance to gravity, into one that can function in the Universe. The body is ready for an enormous metamorphosis. The question is, will it assume the model of a beetle (instead of the bones on the inside, the wing case on the outside), or rather that of an aquatic animal? While, in the traditional theory of media and art, the idea of a body with muscles and bones still prevails, Mulder shows the body a new way. An existence as a bio-computer on a weightless and gravity-less journey through the Universe, without legs or muscles, communicating with brother dolphin and sister whale. If you want to know precisely which roads it will travel, you had better acquire Mulder's book. I will not betray his secret here.

translation OLIVIER / WYLIE