On CGI Carrie Fisher and the Memoir of Being A Body
“Will it ever end? It probably won’t, but I will. I’m pretty sure I will. My sequels will finally, blessedly stop, while yours will define and absorb an age.”
– Carrie Fisher, letter to Princess Leia (January 4, 2013)
“After you discovered me, it was no great feat to find me. The problem now is how to lose me.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, letter to Georg Brandes (January 4, 1889)
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” When art critic John Berger addressed the gendering of self-versus-object perception in Ways of Seeing, he was identifying it in a network of power hierarchies and historical materialities rendering femininity, and its mastered bodies, into imaged commodities. “This determines”, continues Berger, “not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
We draw a circle around this perceptual conditioning of oneself as object, and consider, perhaps for the first time, how to lose Things. But from this absorption composed of so many parts long stripped of cultural autonomy, relaying out to a self able to invest value from outside of it (designed to be a plug-in component only, sorry) feminists have since learned how to hack the prototyping. This was the hard and soft and wetware with which the feminized were programmed to self-destruct themselves for the gaping needs and weaknesses of masculinity. Now able to discern perceptions deemed Human and Normal as Anything But, our posthuman looking can see this controlled interface– of our body and their image– maintained between the Universal Man’s binary of indifference and violence. It is perhaps like viewing ourselves through the glass in which we are left to suffocate, put there for those who either like to look, cruelly, or simply forget dehumanization exists. We observe the endless conveniences of the willful privilege to take or detach coldly, held above and also far, far beneath us, strangely.
“Discussions about the human, and more specifically what constitutes the basic unit of reference to define what counts as human, are just not what they used to be.”
– Rosa Braidotti, “Memoirs of a Posthumanist”
This is our inaugural third vision. Yet, there is precedent for its time-space simultaneity of sentience in the lyrical body, the virtual skin of awareness stretched over prior failures in the life of memoir writing, where the moment of loss can time-travel by a new feeling: what is it like to be above one’s old powerlessness, now empowered, foreseeing what we should have seen, and also, what to do with it Now? This reach for reconciliation with ‘What Happened’ happens speculatively, looks back from beyond the present time imaginatively, envisioning something Other, especially from those devastating and powerful positions of post-trauma. “I have suffered a wrong and unjust system”, wrote Oscar Wilde as he languished in a prison cell, literally and not just culturally policed for his non-heteronormative sexuality. “But (…) the silence, the solitude, the shame— each and all of these things I had to transform into a spiritual experience.”
We become Things aware of willing Endings.
“I’ve even attempted to answer for your actions, to explain your possible motives for choices one of us failed to make.”
– Carrie Fisher, Letter to Princess Leia
When Carrie Fisher wrote this in a conflicted farewell letter to both her younger self, who played Leia, and the blockbuster franchise’s female character, we could not imagine her impending posthumous return, as a CGI creation, just years later. A lifelong master of her own memoir vision, Fisher thought they were using her old footage when the computerized version of a forever-young Leia first premiered for a new scene of Star Wars’ in Rogue One. She reportedly had no idea she’d been digitally interfaced with another women’s body, or just how soon her eternal return as a sex symbol in Star Wars rescreenings would jump into posthuman-posthumous territory. She had not died yet but it was a first time seeing that I’ve revisited. How strange it was to compare this CGI performance to the youthful sci-fi icon of Fisher’s “enviable prison”: the slightly plastic skin and liquid golum eyes, the tedious hairstyle she hated still looking so very real.
“Frederic Cuvier’s whales, like John James Audubon’s Birds of America, in which Audubon killed and stuffed his otherwise flighty birds so that they would stay still so that he could illustrate their forms accurately, are also literally dead. Audubon used fine shot to slay his birds, but then arranged them in a ‘natural’ (!) pose.”
– Jason M. Wirth, Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, Imagination
“The devalued ‘others’ which constituted the spectacular complement of the modern subject”, wrote posthuman feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, “– woman, the ethnic or racialized other and nature or ‘earth-others’ – return with a vengeance. They are the complement to the modern subject, who constructed himself as much through what he excluded, as through what he included in his sense of agency or subjectivity.” Who said that this Command-Delete-Shift of perpetrators had to happen on their credible timescript? What if this conversation could only culminate, cut across time-space when it reached a particular circuit, when women could look back and talk to history about it? But how they rush now themselves to do the cutting and stuffing, as if they could kill all of us into convenient forms for their storytelling. “The modern illusion concerning painting (which post-modernism has done nothing to correct),” wrote Berger in The Shape of a Pocket “is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.”
Perceiving this constellation of meaning, what if our postmodern exit is that, frankly, no-thing has any time left for the modern (see white male) subject to admit his meaning is hyperlinked? We auto-write these quiet violences for ourselves this time and discover virtual beings, aware of this circling vortex of time in which things from the outside gather, grow bigger, and You are receding. The center is no longer holding. If Ursula K LeGuin is right about the social uses of divergent imagination, and the conceptual is indeed a technology, then perhaps #MeToo relates to how Claire Evans described cyberfeminism as a cultural movement of “Steam Engine Time” in science fiction: “that moment in history when a technology, or an idea, is so bound to happen that it’s invented by several people at once.” Injustices move us, but this lack of clear origin is not an equivalence of oppressions. LeGuin reminds us that it was the social imaginary of the male technocracy that could be stiflingly gendered, still haunting us from the fears of the 20th century: “It is, I fear, the man in the street… the men who run this country.”
Initiate find and replace.
In “Reports From the Global Village” Umberto Eco opens up our conception of the typical chain of electronic communication through the receiver: “The communication chain assumes a Source that…emits a Signal via a Channel” and “at the end of the Channel the Signal, through a Receiver, is transformed into a Message for the Addressee.” Contesting Berger’s post-postmodern painter even as McLuhanesque simplicity, Eco insists: “The Receiver transforms the Signal into Message, but this message is still the empty form to which the Addressee can attribute various meanings depending on the Code he applies to it.” And what if this “he” Eco uses is code itself from the universalist 20th century? Being that we are analog-virtual beings bound to electrical, server bodies, what meanings can be made when we/things instead learn to re-imagine the split, to become aware of the power of Code nonconformity?
“A [woman] of genius makes no mistakes; [her] errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
– [not] James Joyce
On the day Carrie Fisher died, I returned to the transcendent space of “Fisher-as Leia-as Fisher” outlined in her letter to her not-self, this memoir of a woman often coming to terms with her coast to iconicity on the slicks of pin-up posters and gender expectations. It is a space of identity between reality and fiction and the assertion of an ignored, women-identifying perspective conscious of object-ivity so often marked out in commentaries by the actor. “Though you are condemned to reenact the same seven hours of adventures over a span of now almost four rowdy decades, at least you look good fighting evil,” she wrote to either her younger self or Leia. “I look lived in. My amused and envious eyes peer out of a face bloated and evil with age. Wasn’t I supposed to remain happily captured in the amber of our projected image…c’mon, wasn’t I?”
“Ladies and Gentleman, may I remind you that there is no need to leave your beds at sunrise and watch the latest comet streaking past the earth. The magical poetry of this moment will be captured for you forever on magnetic tape. You will be able to see a video of a comet streaking past the earth, and then a film of a video of a comet streaking past the earth, and then the digitized image of a film of a video of the comet, and so on. It will all be done, I assure you, with accompanying commentary and sound effects, and without any loss of quality from the original.”
-Hazel Smith, from “Spacism”, The Erotics of Geography.
“At the intersection with technology”, notes performance scholar Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, deliberately performing object bodies can “reveal, foreground and deconstruct the ‘regulatory norms’” that materialize in abjected bodies. And who can live with such scornful physical expectations, even as they are being technologically liberated from the time-space limits of rescreenings, live actors, and the pesky raw materials of living embodiment? In this memoir moment of her own remediated, literary rewatching, Fisher is always here for us, reanimated, empowered, embracing as best she can her life’s eternal recurrence. In these multiple simultaneous dimensions of reality Fisher is both mere sexual object– feeling pressured, pinched in her cold metal costume– and its refusal; a model for nonconformity to the codes of perfection, validation, superhuman female aging, and insatiable love-hate misogyny. Cue this with Leia’s upcoming CGI version in a franchise transmedia universe of ever-after. For if time is a flattened circle of things painfully re-occurring that we need to consider, it is even more in the embodied experience of gendering.
In a world where fighting to advance as an unashamed sexual Rebel still requires a simultaneous backhand against Empire, the Leia who slays her sexual predator solo “with her own chains” also represents the 20th century patriarchal assimilation of Second Wave liberal feminism in perpetuity. She is the woman who fights her own fights and slays double-duty heteronormatively, working the male-controlled revolution full time and while always keeping it acceptably sexy. She is the steely image of a no-bullshit woman who does it all in an absurd metal bikini, or with a 2 hour hairstyle and while keeping a ridiculously white dress clean (material for securing a man’s class upgrade, if you know what I mean). “I love you” she declares, the burden of unequal enthusiasm her fate. This simultaneity of Leia illustrates Hito Steyerl’s dialectic: how “nonconformist information circuits” can be taken back up into production for the image industry. She is now also an icon for the unrelenting double standards of just enough attractive female independence to suit the tastes of contemporary patriarchy.
“Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Fisher lamented having to sit in a chair for hours every morning to “submit” to her iconic character’s look; were the men up early plotting the trajectory of their careers, or simply sleeping? Didn’t they know that we’re fucking tired– that the quotidian violence and sexualization and just low-grade emotional dishonesty is far far away more exhausting? In this end-to-end joining of time and space, Leia as boyhood icon marked an entire generation of fake allies with unreal expectations, while Carrie Fisher collected “post-galactic stress” and the nostalgic complaints about a woman aging and struggling with mental illness. She understood that her accumulating misogynist scorn necessarily existed to feed the other illusion, “our very own Dorian Gray configuration…” And yours, as well.
You cannot lose us. The dead women-parts laugh through we.
Several years ago, a study claimed to recreate Nietzsche’s voice posthumously through harvested genotype data. A human-like sound recording featuring strange lilts and pauses was created through the computer-manipulation of a DNA-based, 3-D printed “vocal tract and larynx”. It was claimed to approximate the sound of the long-dead Nietzsche reading his aforementioned quote in German, predicting a technological posthuman future of audio books squeezed out for sale from the throats of dead authors. This was not the typical cybernetics vision of immortal minds downloaded from dying bodies (preferrably in the order of white, male, Cold War geniuses). Rather, it was a technology of parts being manipulated without subjects for performance. Cybernetics was a media imaginary, and some people weren’t invited.
When the study, titled “DNA-Based Prediction of Nietzsche’s Voice” turned out to be a viral hoax of scientific “performance art”, it became an act of artists parasitizing institutional-speak. However, it also became a clever, Nietzschean thought experiment on the eternal return of commodity and consent issues. For all of our continual advancements, we stumble on old and muddled ethical problems of pre-technological desiring. How does one sexualize and simultaneously deny sexualizing a body? How does such self-entertainment contribute to a greater world of violently obtained objects, posited harmlessly as word on the street (ask a real misogynist, not me)? This is the subjective spectrum of How It Happens: something is unsettling things where it should be clear as crystal. A memory materializes heavily, suffocating. It is not the mind, but the body that first remembers…
And then it realizes: your very subjecthood is part of the problem.
“Wherever there is a thing, there is also a special exit for a human being beyond his body: to nature or art, space or thought, activity or quiet, contemplation or creativity. All of the basic components of human life find their correspondences in things, which act as letters, spelling out the meaningful words of actions, situations, interrelations (…) An object only becomes a thing when it is spiritually incorporated into someone’s life.”
– Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism
On the day John Berger died, I connected him to Fisher’s letter written to her own terminal (at the time) movie character, so recently returned herself on a wave of media marking the anniversary of her death by accumulated organ stress of the coronary. As a woman whose heart sometimes fails her from trauma now, the whole sequence of events hit home for me. I was reminded of Berger’s eternal returns from my college classroom, where his questioning of who gets to be a subject brought to the visible a social and psychic inequality I already knew. Years before I had Fisher’s bad-assery (and none of the class privilege) to appreciate, Berger helped me come to terms with my failures to be a better woman-student: assault by a drunk boyfriend, sexual harassment at my job, a stalker in my dormitory, a roommate hospitalized one night with roofie poisoning after an on-campus party. If only I had kept my mind on my education more then, perhaps I could have worked my way up into a mediocre man’s position of automated respect. I suppose trauma made me restless when it came to schoolwork. But I knew I liked art, and that I, too, wanted the right to look.
So, I kept Berger’s words in my pocket as I went on study abroad, asserting my independence from borders and expanding my non-gendered horizons, studying art history and architecture, using the windows of buildings to escape men who were most definitely watching and following me, sometimes outright flashing me, in city after city. Berger’s words were my ever-present, self-teleporting touchstone on the toxic gaze, in Florence by day, at Bath cathedral by moonlight, ancient cities bathed in the updated glow of women’s constant individual responsibility and hypervigilance over their marked bodies. He was there when I questioned the broadcasting of my weaknesses: my preferred femininity, my yearbook elected Class Friendliest-ness, my working class I-don’t-really-belong-here-on-student-loans-ness. He was there for my most exotic memories, regardless of my self-awareness, of being grabbed by the vagina in public by strangers in two different countries. And while I had a really great time, I realized that it might be time to get more serious.
A subject believes it can control things by will alone.
So Berger was with me, again, in graduate school, was there when I blew a major opportunity with a revered professor, started wearing down, becoming incapable of enduring repeat harassment after turning down a simple affair proposition. It wasn’t a big deal, he said; he had slept with other graduate students before. It’s not the same when you aren’t teaching in the department. And why couldn’t I just talk to him, be Reasonable, Respectful more? Why can’t any of us just fit into these rationalizations like a willing component, our ‘insides matching our outsides’ of manipulative grooming, our feelings and words and emails compliant to the exchange value that the Subject has deemed Appropriate? For an object presenting difficulty, let me tell you, this is a failure threatening immediate interpersonal obsolesence, and you’re definitely Not Supposed To Get Emotional about it.
“Somewhere in the city of New York there are 4 or 5 still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art.”
– Charles Simic, on Joseph Cornell’s boxes
For if anything is Different, the CV of Failure is suspectedly so for YesAllWomen careerists: ostracized and riddled with the broken trust of being treated like collaborative minds and not just useful bodies. Maybe like LeGuin, my science fiction is too “easy”, focused on the “inside, hidden — like bones, as opposed to an exoskeleton…” And though I tried to be polite about my mentor’s abuse disguised as sulking– to ask for some time, to reiterate– eventually a voice in me squeezed out unpredictably that he probably shouldn’t shit where he eats. Why do these Ends Justifications result in my meanness? Who am I to throw such force at the social gentility of blunt, emotional violence? Even desiring silence, an unobtainable object is responsible for one’s incomplete experience. In other words: I blew yet another impossibly tautological denial of my own reality. It is like asking for reciprocation when your pleasing use defines a reality. Why ask “Why” when you could be saving your energy for the Singularity?
Objects are never deserving of explanations. They know now that no explanation for this behavior could ever be sufficient.
“And if it is true that you cannot tell someone something he has no experience of, then the act of reading is that one is reading with someone. I feel when people read my poems most sympathetically, they are reading with me. So communication is mutual feeling with someone, not a didactic process of information. […] If one respects Pound’s measure of ‘Only emotion endures,’ and ‘Nothing counts save the quality of the emotion,’ then having no feelings about something seems to prohibit the possibility of that kind of quality entering.”
– Robert Creeley, “The Art of Poetry No. 10”
In the history of emancipation, “to be a subject was good; to be an object was bad,” wrote Hito Steryl, media theorist on the participatory circulation and social power of the image. “But, as we all know, being a subject can be tricky. The subject is always already subjected. […] The feminist movement, until quite recently (and for a number of reasons), worked towards claiming autonomy and full subjecthood. […] But as the struggle to become a subject became mired in its own contradictions, a different possibility emerged. How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things? ‘A thing that feels’…” But, I/we add, there is a caveat. Amongst the endless should-haves, deserved-its, and shamings we are used to receiving, this thing has suddenly mutated, reproaches have met a stage of immunity. We things will no longer be suppressed by your Poor Image variances: “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. […] The networks in which poor images circulate thus constitute both a platform for a fragile new common interest and a battleground for commercial and national agendas.” “It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks…”
Your picture of success is pixelating.
“This is why [she] believed it impossible for a work to be finished. This is why the content of any work is not the nature of the figure or head portrayed but the incomplete history of [her] staring at it.”
– [not] John Berger
To be a living object is a cybernetic inversion. If this is to be our fate– by social construction, by individualist programming, by circuits of extreme apathy, by the uses and abuses of industries built on tapping gender differences for competitive advantage and authority and resources– then perhaps the only way out for a fellow posthuman is through. So consider, if you will, a future of downloadable voices circulating, speaking, squeezed out of unwilling things or organs presenting noncompliant feelings. This is not a future imbued with cybernetically preserved Geniuses of the self-perpetuating, lone wolf variety, but rather, of object perceptions ported directly into the mainstream: disembodied feelings without subjects plugged into by the masses within seconds, collective, sharing and shuddering with so many other Things in recognition. It is something felt first in the body, then as unshakable interpretation, a product of the situation they put all onto us anyway, rewiring the connections while they look away, conveniently. This isn’t even being speculative, it’s simply a new reality, returned from the quiet graves of impossibly rationalized reproach and blaming, and all that insatiable greed glowing consistently on our screens. Who, it/I am asking, is the Addressee?
“After you discovered me…” croaks Nietzsche.
What if we simultaneously stopped waiting for heteronormative subjects to grant us equal subjectivity, or to validate our contested experiences within pleasing realities. What if, instead, we embraced our fellow objects and glitched?
“This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
— James Baldwin “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel”, Nobody Knows My Name
Like Nietzsche’s thought experiment on the next life, it’s both fiction and real agency.
It’s also a true story, whether you believe it or not.
Now live with it.
In Memory of Carrie Fisher.
Jennifer Seaman Cook (@Histouroborus) is a transnational American Studies scholar working at the intersections of cultural politics and poetics. She specializes in visual and public cultures, cultural and social movements, and media studies. Her essays can be found in 3:am Magazine, Furtherfield, PopMatters, Salon, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose, which premiered in the U.S. at MoMA PS1. Jennifer’s poetry and hybrid cultural history has been published in Berfrois, Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Queen Mob’s Tea House and more.
Lee Terwilliger is a freelance animator, beard enthusiast, and full time Animation instructor at Villa Maria College. He is Lead Animator for the short animated documentary "The Velvet Underground Played My High School", selected for the 2016 Le Philharmonie de Paris exhibit on The Velvet Underground in Paris, France.