Organs without Bodies, Reproduction without Sex
The artist has mentioned that she sees the body as ‘objective’, and therefore takes on a ‘cold and calm approach’ to its representation in her work. What this approach produces is, I argue, a fantastical rendering of this character built on the premise of the living body as a system of information under the biomedical gaze. An image in Uterus Man’s manga edition, the Diagram of Uterus Man, resembles an anatomical diagram wherein the character’s body parts are meticulously mapped onto a flat illustration chart (Fig. 1). Rendered in pink and red – the colours of flesh and blood –Uterus Man seems more an object for scientific inspection than a natural body. This visceral image is designed so that it closely resembles a digital reproduction of the uterus. The Diagram shows how the medical paradigm renders the human body as – and so transforms the human body into – a demonstrative visual text. The conversion of a natural object ‘into visual text about the object’ is, according to Bruno Latour, a shared purpose of the entire scientific enterprise. Scientists produce standardised representations, whether they be diagrams, tables or formulae, from their study of natural objects in order for other scientists to learn from them and ultimately to reproduce, build on and manipulate the information within them This regulatory impulse towards the body corresponds to the argument made by Michel Foucault and taken up by Rosi Braidotti, that modernity marks the triumph of ‘the simultaneous sexualization and medicalization of the body, in a new configuration of power which [Foucault] describes as “bio-power” – the power of normativity over the living organism.’
The juxtaposition of ‘uterus’ and ‘man’, then, emerges as a quintessentially disruptive gesture that reflects the idiosyncratic, uncompromising manner by which Lu Yang works with the body and the digital media. Her video work UterusMan is, as I argue, a profound reflection of how sexuality has mutated under the biomedical gaze and technologies that are loaded with the desire of manipulating the body and sex. With female sexual anatomy being featured throughout the film in the form of what Braidotti called the ‘body image’ – the image of the body produced by digital and medical technologies – UterusMan is not only a work of science fiction, but also a documentary on sexual anatomy. In line with the textualisation of body parts in the Diagram of Uterus Man, the body images in the animation version that look like ultrasound scans of the uterine cavity further transform the reproductive organ into a schematic and textual rendering (Fig. 2). Based on Foucault’s seminal notion of biopower, Braidotti pointed out that body images – scientific representations of the body – whether they be ultrasound scans or microscope images, are instrumental in the medicalisation and sexualisation of the human body. The aim for producing body images is to make the standardised body visible and intelligible. The medical imaging techniques represent the desire to control and manipulate the female body through dismemberment, producing an instance of what she called ‘organs without bodies.’
It is the loss of bodily integrity under the biomedical gaze that produces the Uterus Man’s asexual status. Feminist discussion of the body and the self is largely based upon the notions of the embodied nature and the situatedness of subjectivity. Foucault emphasised the fact that the embodied subject has been located at the centre of the techniques of rational control and manipulation since the Enlightenment, and thus ‘becomes the site of proliferating discourses, forms of knowledge and of normativity.’ Unsatisfied with Foucault’s inattentiveness to the specific case of women’s bodies, Braidotti casts her gaze upon the medicalisation of the female reproductive body. The feminist theorist noted that the relationship between subjectivity, sexuality, and reproduction has been (and continues to be) increasingly problematised by advances in biomedicine. She argues that the body has been reduced to an ‘organ-ism’, or ‘a mosaic of detachable pieces’ since the dawn of clinical anatomy. The desire to inspect the smallest units of the body expresses itself through the incessant development of techniques for observation and visualisation. This scopic drive, the essence of modern science, is the result of a desire to place the body under the detached scientific gaze. It is ‘a gesture of epistemological domination and control’ that transforms the body into a ‘mass of detachable parts’, resulting in the subject’s loss of bodily integrity. Braidotti’s interpretation of the political implications of technological representation of the female body helps us understand how this relationship between subjectivity, reproduction and sexuality is addressed and reimagined through the UterusMan character.
From the images of endoscopy penetrating the body into the ovary, to that of echography visualising the invisible uterine cavity, the footage shows multifarious techniques and different degrees of medical visualisation about the body. At the opening scene of the anime, a fast-moving green pointer swiftly locates the different components of the uterus. When the green pointer fixes on, for instance, the uterine artery, a short medical text unfolds to describe what this is, and this description box is juxtaposed with an image of a three-dimensional model of the uterine artery (Fig. 2). This is followed by footage that shows the medical imaging of the artery. Presented as separate components, Uterus Man’s body is conceptualised as an assembly of interlocking and tessellating pieces like jigsaw puzzles, virtually dissected under the medical gaze. The fragmentary and isolated condition of the female body in the medical representations embodies the production of what Braidotti calls ‘a mosaic of detachable pieces’ under the scopic drive.
Foucault’s distinction regarding the epistemology of sexuality is useful to understand how the links between reproduction, subjectivity and sexuality are severed under the biomedical gaze. He defines scientia sexualis as designating the scientific knowledge about the sexuality of others, and ars erotica denoting the knowledge derived from the phenomenological experience of sex. Developed from Foucault, Braidotti’s concept of scientia sexualis is concerned with ‘the techniques of medicalization of the reproductive body’, whereas ars erotica is ‘the arts of existence or practices of the self.’ In her view, the scopic drive foreshadows the development of reproductive technologies that break the tie between reproduction, or scientia sexualis and sexuality, or ars erotica. If the integrity of the female subject and sexuality rests upon the integrity of the female body, what the biomedical gaze produces is a fractured subject, asexual in essence.
Though modern techniques of visualising the female reproductive organs are featured throughout the film UterusMan, it is worth noting that ‘qihengzhifu’ (奇恒之腑) is inscribed on the character’s chest (Fig. 1). It is a Chinese medical term that represents the systematic correspondence of the individual’s organs to the bodily whole via the mediums of qi (气, energy) and blood. With regard to why this lesser-known term for uterus is written on the hero’s body, the artist explained that it came up when she was trying to search for a term other than zigong (子宫, uterus) online. While zigong – as it is written on the hero’s cape and pelvis – was coined by the medical missionary Benjamin Hobson in the process of introducing western medicine to the Chinese audience, qihengzhifu registers a more holistic indigenous knowledge about the functioning of the internal organs. In Chinese medicine, the uterus and testes (胞, bao) both belong to the category of qihengzhifu that gather, store, and transform the energy (qi and blood) for reproduction. Unlike how it is understood in western biomedicine, the uterus is not considered an isolated and independent organ but is entangled in a visceral system loosely associating liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys. According to the foundational text for Chinese medicine Huangdi Neijing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), the kidneys are the most important of the five viscera that supply the life force qi to sustain both male and female vitality and reproductive capabilities. Since the Yellow Emperor’s body is ‘more truly androgynous’ because it ‘has no morphological sex, but only gender,’ Chinese doctors never used any isolated organ as a marker for sexual difference, nor did they visually represent the male and female bodies separately on that basis. It was not until the nineteenth century, when the western reproductive anatomy was introduced in China, that sexual difference become a visual knowledge enabled by medical observation.
In his compelling study on the genealogy of sex in modern China, historian Howard Chiang shows how the introduction of modern scientific knowledge brought about an epistemological change in the term ‘xing’ (性) and a new understanding of gender difference. Traditionally carrying meanings such as ‘natural instincts,’ ‘inherent tendencies,’ ‘disposition,’ ‘temperament,’ ‘the nature of something (or of someone)’ and ‘life’ in premodern China, xing did not come to mean sex until the twentieth century. For Chiang, ‘the modern formulation of xing qua sex’ is entangled in an ‘epistemic nexus,’ which is a new regime of knowledge built around the relationship between the representation of life, the empirical experience of desire and the malleability of the body. Braidotti’s concept of scopic epistemology echoes what Chiang called ‘the visual objectivity of sex,’ one of the factors in the ‘epistemic nexus’ that contributes to the modern formulation of xing qua sex in his study of the formation of sex as a scientific concept in Chinese modernity. According to him, the visual objectivity of sex emerged from the introduction of western reproductive anatomy in the form of medical illustrations to China. The anatomical illustrations provided concrete visual references to explain the differentiation of sexes. As such, they facilitated an epistemic shift in how sexual differentiation came to be conceptualised in a way that was entirely different from the abstractly theoretical terms of Chinese medicine. This scientific understanding of sex triggered a conceptual evolution in which the reproductive organs (the uterus and testes) were no longer only seen as the result of the congregation of cosmological force, but also as the major determinant of sexual difference.
With the term qihengzhifu, Lu Yang is playing with the contentious discourses of gender, sex and sexuality. But despite its inscription, the malleability of Uterus Man’s sex bears closer association with western biomedical knowledge than with that of classic Chinese medicine in an ontological sense. Medical images of the body are instrumental in the medicalisation and sexualisation of the human body. Furthermore, Uterus Man’s body is transformed into a pure surface in a clinical representation. The medical gaze flattens out the body, producing a representation that has only surface. This hyper-abstraction of the body is what Braidotti described as physical reduction to ‘exteriority without depth, a movable theatre of the self.’ As the inside goes outside, hidden depths move to the surface in the tradition of medical representation and the private, interior space of the body is endowed with the characteristics of coding and classification that are, as art historian Cadence Kinsey noted, commonly embedded in ‘the logic of the exterior, social body’. Indeed, what makes Uterus Man a fantastical figure of science-fiction fantasy is this fact that his body is turned inside-out – with the usually untouchable flesh, veins, and blood ‘hardened’ and turned into unbreakable armour and shield. The flattening out of his body in medical-text style coincides with the flattening out of everything in the medium of animation, which, as the anime critic Susan Napier points out, ‘privileges simulation over representation.’
The phosphorous green pointer and the head-up display (HUD) in the film indicate the machine-like quality of Uterus Man (Fig. 2). Phosphorous green is the tint that is often associated with chilling sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell or the Matrix trilogy, perhaps because green was the colour of computer-generated text on the old monochrome monitor commonly used in the early days of computing, for example the Apple IIe released in the early 1980s. The HUD that appears constantly on the screen further endows the anime with the tension of sci-fi, in that the HUD was initially developed for military aviation and was later found commonly in video gaming as a game’s user interface. In the demonstration of Uterus Man’s superpower, the ‘blood energy altitude flying’, the HUD mimics the normal transparent display in the gameplay that presents information about the flying superhero for the invisible player. Entangled in these visual (con)texts, Uterus Man is recognised as a cyborg, whose malleable body can be disassembled, transformed and regenerated at will.
In her seminal 1985 work ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway notes that science fiction is full of cyborgs, and so is modern medicine. In the context of art and design, technology has been likened to a prosthesis that can enhance vision, just as it does in modern warfare. It functions as an actual prosthesis in medicine, and modern medicine is, of course, a crucial source of inspiration for sci-fi culture producers. With the word ‘ren lei (人类, human)’ appearing throughout the film, Uterus Man is a combination of science fiction and medical science that envisions a radical potential version of the human body. Also, as Haraway and the speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin maintained, science fiction is not ‘predictive’ but ‘descriptive’ – ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’ – one could argue that the fantasy in the film is but a dramatised version of the body and sexuality under biomedical conditions. Uterus Man’s very status as a hybrid of machine and organism is demonstrated in his pelvis chariot – a quadrupedal mount that implies the malleability, versatility and the transformative power of the human body (2013, Fig. 6). The sequel to the scene of Uterus Man driving his pelvis chariot is footage that features a machine towing a real pelvic skeleton, making it rotate as if to showcase its working mechanism. This process of removing the bony pelvis from where it is originally located in the body and then mechanically transforming it into something that equips the subject with speed and power evokes the trope of the body being modified and enhanced by transactable biotechnologies, such as organ transplant, skin graft and plastination.