The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN

The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN

 Sarah Courville

Sarah Courville

The camera opens to a bloated face. Viewers watch, in a mixture of horror and intrigue, as a hand in a blood-soaked glove holding a purple pen decorates the woman’s swollen lips and cheeks with more dashes and circles. There is a pronounced, raised mass of skin to the side of her chin that appears from the blood and swelling to be the newest addition. Most striking: she is wearing mascara. This is a woman who woke up in the morning and, before heading into the neon-green operating room with surgeons in baroque costumes to have her flesh peeled open and silicon inserts shoved inside, remembered to add a layer of mascara to her eyelashes. ORLAN, briefly, seems human again.

It is this, the humanity (and what has been interpreted as a subsequent movement away from it) that is so striking about the procedure. French artist ORLAN’s art is grounded in the flesh. Deeming her art style “carnal art,” she uses her own body as her medium, appropriating surgical traditions and medical technologies to create a new form for herself. The surgeries, part of an art piece labeled The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN, are gruesome and captivating, both a celebration of the body and a celebration of its destruction. Before each procedure, she recites, “Skin is deceiving ... in life, one only has one’s skin ... there is a bad exchange in human relations because one never is what one has ... I never have the skin of what I am.” The disembodied bloody hand injects a needle into her upper lip, and I have to look away.

If ORLAN’s body is the medium, the author of the art being produced seems to be, to some extent, the technology acting upon it — both the immediate medical procedures taking place and the omnipresent communication apparatus documenting and supplementing the affair. In a review of one performance, the New York Times described the room in which it took place as the following:

The show also includes a photographic record, accumulating at the rate of one picture a day, of the artist in recovery, her head bandaged, her face puffy, her eyes blackened. These images are contrasted with none-too-seamless computer photographs of her face fused with one or another of the five mythic women.

Everything is being recorded. ORLAN presents us with a circus of technologies. Through camera technology, surgery becomes spectacle. The surgeries, in part a response to cosmetic surgeries already available to women, are made possible and necessary by the medical technology available. And yet, technology’s purpose here is subverted. That is to say, it has no real purpose.

Technicism as a philosophical tradition argues that technology is valuable in that it is, as a whole, useful. It serves to complete tasks, solve problems, and even create. Egbert Schuurman describes it as “an ethos, the fundamental attitude we have introjected in our knowledge of and dealings with science and technology [that] promises to solve all global problems and to assure progress through technology and scientific-technological control.” While this is a more extreme approach, Schuurman is able to articulate the basic goal of technicism: improvement. Partaking in the meliorist idea that the world can be bettered by human action, technicism pinpoints technology specifically as a resource in catalyzing this betterment: technology — as machinery, as skill, as a method of organization — should, and will, make things better.

The tools employed in ORLAN’s art — the scalpel, the suture, the local anesthetic she uses in order to remain conscious during the surgery, the technique of the surgeons themselves — participate in a moral tradition.

This idea, that there is a ‘better’ toward which technicism believes technology to aim, is clarified by Schuurman: according to him, technicism operates according to “an extremely utilitarian worldview ... denying things quality.” Under technicism, then, a technology’s value is nothing more than the quantity of goodness it produces. A standard is established according to which a technology’s value can be judged. “Things are functionalized.” Technology is made moral.

The idea of a moral direction to technology is key to the development of medical technology, where utility is most valued. The root of medicine, mederi, originally meant “to know the best course for,” and then, “to heal.” The idea of improvement is contained within the concept of medicine itself, and it is this goal of improvement that stands behind innovations in medical technology. The tools employed in ORLAN’s art — the scalpel, the suture, the local anesthetic she uses in order to remain conscious during the surgery, the technique of the surgeons themselves — participate in a moral tradition. Indeed, it seems absurd to claim that medicine could not be goal-oriented. And yet, a key point of ORLAN’s Carnal Art manifesto is as such:


“NOT INTERESTED IN THE PLASTIC-SURGERY RESULT” — this is a philosophy that ignores the ends of its actions. ORLAN’s treatment of technology is in this way fundamentally unteleological. Instead, she works with, and creates art with, the process of surgery itself: technology is no longer valued in what it produces. As such, ORLAN destabilizes the current mode of valuing technology. She creates a newer body not to improve the biological one but in order to transform it. This transformation is not directed at a better form but a different one — there is no moral value assumption behind her decision.

In the rejection of a utilitarian technology through the use of technology-as-art, — because, as the manifesto emphasizes, the entire performance, and not just its end results, is the art piece — ORLAN introduces a new value for technology: the aesthetic. She creates the technologized body for performance alone.

But what is this disrupting force — this ‘technologized body’? ORLAN’s surgeries have ranged from docile lip injections to blueish implants on the sides of her forehead. Stuart Jeffries writes of them in an interview with her: “Critics called them ‘demon horns,’ but they are more like nascent antlers. Today as we chat, I notice she has decorated them with glitter eyeliner to accentuate their presence.” This image, of the sparkling, horned woman, calls upon ideas of alienness or even hybridity, a common feature of the grotesque — and, indeed, the emotions elicited by ORLAN’s post-op photos seem to match the power of the aesthetically grotesque. ORLAN is, quite visibly, human: the entire world has been exposed to the insides of her human flesh and the contents of her human body. And yet, as she becomes the art piece of technologies, at least this appearance of humanity seems to diminish. She is human, but there are non-human parts in her (and sticking out of her forehead). Her glittering antlers remind me more than anything else of the projected form of the human in the future: ORLAN seems to be the first transhuman.

ORLAN writes, “My work is a struggle against the innate, the inexorable, the programmed, Nature, DNA (which is our direct rival as far as artists of representation are concerned).” A second point of her manifesto is as follows:


There is in this way an idea present in ORLAN’s artistic rationale that the relationship between identity and body is, in some way, flexible. She is able to “swing between defiguration and refiguration” because, as the manifesto later states, “THE VOICE OF ORLAN REMAINS THE SAME.” She is inimical to DNA because she possesses some sort of fundamental quality that is not merely genetic. In the Bowdoin Journal of Art, Samantha Siegler writes that ORLAN’s surgeries “embraced postmodern abilities for corporeal malleability,” and indeed this very sentiment, that the body is changeable, also stands at the center of transhumanism.

The basis of the transhumanist philosophy is that the human body in its current iteration is not necessary to the preservation of a human essence: there is some fundamental, albeit seemingly inarticulable, human quality that exists independent of the human form. Of the movement, Max More wrote that it seeks “the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology.” There is an interesting similarity between More’s treatment of the human form as something arguably insignificant and a line sewn into the gown of one of ORLAN’s surgeons: “The body is but a costume.” ORLAN may be more theatrical in her delivery, but the message remains the same: the body does not necessarily need to be what it is right now.

The transhuman body does not need to be useful — it can just be, in some unsettling and even grotesque sense, beautiful.

And yet, even the transhumanist movement seems to have inherited the technicist burden to justify itself morally. Humanity+, a transhumanist organization, writes that transhumanism “affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies.” Its main proponents seem to view it as directed by the same utilitarianism that motivates technicism. Much like the technology behind it, under this idea, the transhumanist, technologized body becomes moral property.

And yet, this assumption about the value of transhumanism as lying in what it could do for humanity, while not incorrect, seems to ignore the material reality of the transhuman body. What defines being transhuman is the body itself: with the philosophy’s established quasi-dualism maintaining that the self remains the same even when the body is changed, the only definitive criterion for being transhuman must be the status of the body itself. This is a body that will necessarily have a physical appearance, one that incites reactions and emotions in other bodies. The transhuman form, as ORLAN’s proto-transhumanism shows, must have some aesthetic value.

The difference between ORLAN’s treatment of technology and the dominant technicist ideology is also, then, what distinguishes her own project from that of transhumanism. She rejects the utility value upon which transhumanism insists, and she approaches the transhuman-like form for the appearance of that form alone. She seeks the transhumanist principle to “remove the evolved limits of our biological and collective inheritance,” and yet she does so not to better humanity but to change it. She is a living testament to the idea that the contingency of our specific human forms does not make the body a hindrance to humanity but rather something to be played with. And, in doing so, she makes a case for what a transhumanist philosophy could be. The transhuman body does not need to be useful — it can just be, in some unsettling and even grotesque sense, beautiful.

This is not to deny that transhumanism can “improve the human condition through applied reason” but to argue that it doesn’t have to. There is an ongoing research project conducted by Aarhus University called “Posthuman Aesthetics” that has as one of its main points of research “creativity with suspended purpose.” The research outline elaborates on this: “Although both technology and avant-garde aim at interfering in actual life, art transcends the dominant ultra-utilitarian notion of technology, thereby approaching visions for a more open and adaptable posthuman life world.” While the posthuman focus of this project is slightly different from the transhumanist movement, the idea brought forward by ORLAN — that there is a value to the modified human body and the technology creating it beyond its utility — is clearly already being investigated by philosophers.

ORLAN in this way presents us with a method of reimagining the transhumanist body, along with a reevaluation of what technology needs to do. She states: “I have given my body to Art. After my death it will not therefore be given to science, but to a museum,” acknowledging the apparent division between what is valuable scientifically and what is valuable artistically, and offering a synthesis through her own body. She can be both a marvel of technology and a marvel aesthetically. Technology does not only have to make leaps ahead for humanity — it can make art as well. What is required, then, is not a rejection of technicism but an expansion of its understanding of the aims of technology. ORLAN demonstrates what else technology can do. She has shown us the post-utilitarian future, and it is filled with art.

As her chin is cut into and its skin peeled back, ORLAN is answering questions on the phone. The first: “What will the body be in the future?” She answers, “The body is now obsolete.” And yet, it is not completely. In fact, the body is central both to her project and the transhumanist one. She is simply creating a space for it to become something new.

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