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To work with living tissue means to engage with contingency, and contingency–whether it bears optimistic or pessimistic associations– carries a lot of power.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when Tagny Duff, a performance artist and assistant professor at Concordia University, took her “Living Viral Tattoos” to the International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) in Belfast, Ireland in 2009. Less than a month before the opening of the exhibition, she was told that her work would not be shown. She could still present her paper, but she was forbidden to display her tissue samples. There was no explanation given, but since no one else’s exhibit was canceled, she presumed that it had something to do with the nature of her project.

The project, initially researched and developed at SymbioticA in 2008, is a series of in vitro sculptural prototypes made of living tissue (in this case, female breast tissue discarded after elective breast reduction surgery *shudder*) that has been incubated with a lentivirus—a third generation non-pathogenic clone of HIV infused with fluorescent protein. A “tattoo” is formed by the bruising effect that is created when the virus is added to the tissue.

That the virus used in her artworks was not infectious was lost on the organizers of the symposium. Clearly, they were not comfortable putting the bodies of their publics in proximity with tissue samples or viruses of any kind. They did not understand what her project was about; either because of their own knee-jerk, uninformed reactions or because Duff herself failed to disclose the characteristics and underlying purpose of her project in an accessible way. Or perhaps it was a little of both. In any case, not able to bring her artworks to the symposium, Duff was forced to stage her exhibit in her hotel room:

There is a great deal of discomfort with “wet” tissue to be sure. And indeed this was one of Duff’s motivations behind the project, to restore the “moist” materiality that is often elided by textual documentation in the realm of scientific knowledge. But clearly this moist materiality is also elided in public knowledge as well because certain segments of the public want nothing to do with it!

Claire Pentecost observes in “Outfitting the Laboratory of the Symbolic: Toward a Critical Inventory of Bioart,” that “artists face many of the same challenges scientists do in relation to an alienated public […] contemporary ‘fine art’ is a small, misunderstood subculture. Unless its practitioners are willing to radically change the nature of art itself and the apparatus of its distribution, it is hardly a good candidate to significantly redefine the public’s relation to science” (116). This brings up the issue of criticality, which is especially relevant to bioart since it seems to be subject to more scrutiny than any other kinds of art, or even science projects. Criticality is the “legitimating effect” which Pentecost presumes is one way to distinguish art from popular culture (115). The problem with criticality however is that it can be “another capture device for creative energy that could be redefining value itself at a more vital intersection” (116). Pentecost suggests instead that bioart should want to “address a kind of problem in the world where most people live” (112).

And in a sense, Duff does want to do that; and her response from the organizers at the symposium illustrates that there is a need to confront the fear of contagion in contemporary society (I’m reminded of Drew’s post from a few weeks ago) and the anxiety over soggy substances (!). Her project explicitly addresses these problems, but perhaps its inability to get beyond her publics’ immediate visceral reaction suggests that bioart might need to do more than simply desire to address a problem: it needs to be genuinely tactical and shift its mode of address (like relocating to a hotel room!).

When I saw her presentation a couple of weeks ago at Ryerson, my initial reaction to the samples of breast tissue sitting in jars on the table was a visceral one. I couldn’t help examine these samples without being urgently aware of my own body, and its potential relation to this spongy, discolored substance. Which in the end was Duff’s intention: to bring back the visceral, to confront the “wet flesh” elided from dry documentation. But she ends up eliding something herself: the body.

The relation between the breast tissue and the woman’s body from which it was shed is ignored. In her attempt to demystify her process (showing a video of her tattooing method) she glosses over where the tissue actually comes from. The body is disavowed, and abstracted through another process of mystification. And of course there’s the artist’s own body: if scientists engage their bodies in order to model proteins (as Natasha so carefully elucidates in her manuscript) how is Duff engaging her body when she works with and makes sense of her tissue samples? For me they invoked an indelible visceral discomfort. I felt bruised, much like the tissue she parades. And while bruises are signatures of violence–and suggestive of the ways in which scientists hurt the samples they work with–they are also indicative of a reparative process. Unfortunately that process will only elude me if I give into my squeamishness, and avert my eyes.

All photos by Tagny Duff

Pentecost, Claire. “Outfitting the Laboratory of the Symbolic: Toward a Critical Inventory of Bioart.” Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience. Eds. Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. 107-123.

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When I initially saw the above video and its familiar anthropomorphic pink bunnies, I assumed that this was an ad for Energizer batteries. But I was mistaken–it’s actually an ad for Duracell batteries. Apparently the Duracell bunny predates the Energizer bunny: Duracell’s campaign appeared as early as 1973 and the Energizer bunny was conceived as a parody of the Duracell Bunny. Who knew? I certainly didn’t, but that probably has something to do with the fact that the Duracell bunny doesn’t appear in North America due to Duracell’s failure to beat Energizer in the race to secure a trademark claim. There are small differences in appearances between the two animal signs as well—the Energizer Bunny is a different color pink with a different body shape, it has larger ears, wears sunglasses and plays a drum. While the Energizer Bunny is a single rabbit, the Duracell Bunnies are a species and are usually presented en masse. And the Energizer bunny beats his drum but the Duracell Bunnies are usually depicted doing something highly sporty and competitive.

But all that is beside the point. What I find most striking here is that two of the largest battery manufacturers in the world have elected bunnies as their marketing mascots; they have specifically chosen them to bear and animate the symbolic capital of their products.

A battery is a container that stores chemical energy that is to be converted into electricity and used as a source of power. As an energy source, its most important feature is endurance. A good battery is one that is indefatigable, unflagging.

But in the spirit of Nicole Shukin’s attention to multiple entendres, a battery is also: a fortified emplacement for heavy guns (an artillery subunit of guns, men, and vehicles); a set of similar units of equipment, typically when connected together (an extensive series, sequence, or range of things); the crime or tort of unconsented physical contact with another person, even where the contact is not violent but merely menacing or offensive; the pitcher and the catcher in a game, considered as a unit. A battery is a source of energy and power for technological tools, which inevitably animate networks of industry and capital. But as the additional meanings intimate the term “battery” also marionettes notions of action and movement through military references, criminal violence and sports.

Bunnies by contrast, are none of these things. First and foremost, they are not exactly tireless–particularly the domesticated ones. Rabbits are actually quite languorous and mellow.

They are grazers and typical like to just hang around, albeit cautiously. Of course, every now and again they get frisky and exhibit little bursts of energy.

But this kind of behaviour is intermittent, and rarely unflagging. The only time rabbits ever actually exhibit such unfaltering persistence is in the realm of sexual behaviour.

We’ve all heard the adage “doing it like rabbits”: it’s fair to say that rabbits have a reputation for having sex a lot. This is not a baseless accusation. They really are eager and insatiable creatures. They don’t have an estrus cycle—they are always ready and willing to engage in a little hanky panky. While their sexual behaviour is not always heterosexual nor reproductively driven, when it is, they can reproduce very quickly. Their gestation period is only a month, and depending on the breed, a litter can be anywhere from 1-10 rabbits. Of course these “rough-and-tumbles” are furtive and fleeting, lasting a minute or two at most (I’ve raised rabbits in case you’re wondering).

It is very telling that Duracell and Energizer would seize upon the rabbit’s intrinsically insatiable sex drive to market the endurance of its batteries. Perhaps it is not endurance they are selling after all, but efficiency of their sex drive and its ability to continuously renew and redirect itself. Drives are, at least in psychoanalytic terms, inherently erotic. Rabbits are animated by the “blind insistence” of the drive, and Duracell and Energizer wish us to equate this with the blind insistence of their batteries while calling upon ideas of fertility and productivity especially with the large number of rabbits on display here, it’s difficult to not think of their incredible efficient and powerful fecundity).

Shukin writes that in biopolitical times, animal signs must “encode the innocent place of ‘life itself’” (179). And that disinterested place is that of the drive. For Jacques Lacan, drive is a kind of “acephalic” knowledge that has no intrinsic relation to truth. It is non-subjectivized. For Lacan, drive does not anticipate a specific final goal, but instead is sustained by its perpetual aim. And the eternal way of the aim is ironically its very goal. It circles around it endlessly, without satiation or closure. It is reminiscent of a closed loop, not unlike that of industrial ecology of capitalism as outlined in Shukin’s book.

A battery, in Duracell’s sense, is transmissive and transformative. In the advertisement above, the rabbits, as spectral animal signs are also likewise continuously morphing. These rabbits are animal automatons under the spell of mimesis, they move in unison to form various shapes, from a human, to an elephant (I thought of Edison’s sacrificial Topsy here), and finally a car. These forms are all tied to industry. The rabbits are caught up in the logic of equivalence that characterizes the capitalist market, they become the figures they mimic. These bunnies are denied real presence, not only because of the species divide–they are further displaced by being rendered as toy reproductions of bunnies, not “real” at all, and then further denied by being forced into an anthropomorphic economy that animates them as excitable, energetic and above all willing participants in the labour and life of the world.

The above ad thus represents and celebrates the virtual transformation of animal life into energy that powers the automobility of capital. But as Shukin explains such a virtual transformation is not without real, bodily/material violence: just because it is not visible does not mean it is not there.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.

The graduate students from the York and Ryerson joint program in Communication and Culture are putting off their annual “Intersections” conference next weekend, March 12-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “encounters.” You can check out the website here for more info.

Conference events will be taking place at the Ryerson campus, downtown. I thought the keynote on bioart, living viral tattoos and cryobook archives might be of interest to some of you (Saturday March 13 at 7:00 PM). Here’s the blurb:

Creative Keynote
Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 7 pm
Student Campus Centre, Room SCC 115
Ryerson University
55 Gould Street

“Visceral Encounters”
with Tagny Duff
Assistant Professor in Communication Studies
Concordia University, Montreal

Cellular tissue, genetically modified organisms and biotechnological practices such as tissue engineering and genetic engineering practices are emerging materials and techniques in “new” media art practices, or biological art. Artists are now working in science laboratories, and creating art objects with biological techniques and materials.

While the wet, fleshy, visceral quality of such work generates copious material for theoretical writing on the changing status of bodies, art, technology and science, the artworks proper (and organisms featured within them) are rarely encountered in physical form. Rather, the encounter is mediated through documentation circulated via various distribution networks in the form of epi-texts, websites, PowerPoint presentations, photographs and video documents. These documents are often read as indexical references to the biological art work and/or the process of its making, when in fact, such representations are heavily mediated and can be read as generating legitimacy and authority to the scientific, biomedical image. These documents accrue symbolic value for works that most viewers will never experience in meatspace. Why and how are biological works rarely accessible in public presentation yet simultaneously generating and regenerating plentiful substitutes and documents?

This presentation will explore some of the aforementioned concerns in relation to the projects Living Viral Tattoos and Cryobook Archives created in collaboration with scientists, a plastic surgeon and artists between 2007-2009. These biological art projects featured the use of biological virus (lentivirus cloned HIV1) and donated human ex-plant tissue. Corporeal materiality is foregrounded in these works at a time when digital media technologies, such as anatomical/surgery dissection procedures using computer simulation software, full-body x-ray scans at border crossings, digital finger and retinal scans, and thermal imaging software are changing conventional forms of visceral encounters with wet bodies.

Tagny Duff is an artist, researcher and educator based in Montreal. Her biological art works, performances, videos, and net art works have been exhibited nationally and internationally for over a decade. Recently, Living Viral Tattoos (2008), the installation, was officially selected for the ISEA 2009 Exhibition (Belfast, Ireland). The video component was featured at the Moscow Biennial (2009), National Centre for Contemporary Art 2008 (Keliningrad, Russia) and IX MediaForum and Moscow International Film Festival 2008 as part of Evolution Haute Couture, curated by Dmitry Bulatov. Other recent exhibitions include Performing Diagnostics (2009) Articule (Montreal, Canada), Moist Media Archives Prototypes (2008) Perth Institute of Contemporary Art 2008 (Perth, Australia) and Recursive Symmetry (2008) Gallery Aferro (New Jersey, USA). Living Viral Tattoos (2008) and Cryobook Archives (2009) were created during two separate residencies at SymbioticA, The Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts in Perth, Australia between 2007-2009. The works will be featured in a solo exhibition Viral Memorabilia at the FoFa Gallery (Concordia University, Montreal) in 2011. Duff is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University and is the founder of Fluxmedia, a research/creation network for artists and researchers interested in the convergence of art, science and technology.

Avon's Retroactive + Repair Creme makes promises it can't keep.

Retroactive + Repair Cream is a moisturizing treatment that seeks out age damage and repairs it before it shows on your skin. It not only helps slow down and reverse signs of aging, but also stops wrinkles before they start.

Retroactive used Rejuvi-Cell Technology to re-energize skin cells to slow the signs of aging so that when skin cells act younger, you look younger. Retroactive + uses Rejuvi-Cell Repair Technology that recharges aging skin cells so they act younger, stimulates the repair of damaged skin cells at the molecular level, and protects against future cell damage. Retroactive + is still a silky smooth gel cream with the same signature fragrance, and is still suitable for sensitive skin and is alpha-hydroxy acid free.

As mortal creatures, aging is an inevitable fact of our lives. In many cultures, aging is embraced, but in North America, aging is not only undesirable but also actively resisted through cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. While the desire to live forever is by no means new, recent developments in biotechnology have somewhat successfully enabled the defiance of visible signs of aging.

This comes as no surprise considering our society’s late-capitalist neoliberal predilections, for growing old and dying means the dwindling and ultimate cessation of production and consumption. The notion of perpetual youth is heralded because it ensures consistent exchange value. But perpetual youth is not actually possible. So while aging and death are not desired outcomes, they can be rendered profitable by inciting fear and anxiety, and an insatiable market for anti-aging cosmetics and surgeries.

This anti-aging project is a collaborative enterprise animated by both capital and biotechnology. My concern is, how is this anti-aging project rendering life? It is rendering life as retroactive, reparable, reversible, and regenerative. As such it is an extension of the logic and discourse of biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal era that seeks to extend life and value beyond perceived limits, chasing the speculative promise that always lies “beyond.”

Take for example the above promotional spiel for Avon’s Retroactive + Repair Cream. Avon claims that the cream actively “seeks out” age damage and repairs it even before it shows up on the skin. It’s preemptive in this way, “stopping wrinkles before they start.” The cream re-energizes your cells, making them “act younger” and protects them again “future cell damage.” The cream is both retroactive and proactive. It mobilizes the past (from the perspective of the present), and preemptively mobilizes the future (from the perspective of the present).

The body and life can be continuously modulated, in space and in time and as such they are conceived as topological forms. Topology, Melinda Cooper intimates in Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era, is the formal expression du jour for biotechnology which currently has its fingers submerged in many pies (developmental biology, experimental embryology and regenerative biology). While she doesn’t mention anti-aging strategies, much like tissue engineering, cosmetic interventions force us to rethink the morphogenesis of the body outside of metric space, and outside of metric and genealogical time (105).

Cooper examines the ways in which biotechnology and neoliberalism not only emerged in tandem, but are also in fact mutually constitutive. She diagnoses the current bioeconomy as suffering from the systemic pathology she terms “capitalist delirium.” This delirium “seeks to refashion the world rather than interpret it” and is “intimately and essentially concerned with the limits of life on earth and the regeneration of living futures—beyond the limits” (20).

Furthermore, she suggests that, “as long as life science production is subject to the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, the promise of a surplus of life will be predicated on a corresponding move to devaluate life. The two sides of the capitalist delirium—the drive to push beyond the limits and the need to reimpose them, in the form of scarcity—must be understood as mutually constitutive” (49).

So while the anti-aging project seeks to transcend the limits of life (morphologically and temporally), it also seeks to impose limits on life, ensuring that we are reminded of our inevitable decline and death. Like the Grim Reaper brandishing his scythe, the anti-aging project reminds us of the scarcity of life: that we are dying from the moment we are born; that we are living on borrowed time, and that we must eventually repay our debt, with interest. Under this logic, the narratives of our lives run in tandem with the narratives of our economy. The very condition of the creation of our fractional-reserve banking system is that of an insurmountable debt that continues to accumulate capital for the bank–but must be paid back, plus interest at some time in the future by the borrower.

And this is just another way in which cosmetic technoscience aligns with biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal era to form a veritable asymptote that seeks a limit that cannot be reached, makes promises that cannot be kept and strives for surplus that is never sufficient.

Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008.

This week’s readings ask us to consider the embodied practices involved in understanding protein molecules. We begin with a man trying to describe, through language, how protein molecules breathe–when somewhere, mid-explanation he mobilizes his own body’s gestures to supplement his explanation. He animates his body in a kind of sympathetic mimicry to help illustrate the movement of a molecule, and convey how he both feels and understands that movement, and in the end, the molecule itself.

This got me thinking about the ways in which we use our bodies, and the movement of our bodies to make sense of the phenomena around us.

Ann Daly remarks that although dance has a visual component, it is nevertheless “fundamentally a kinesthetic art whose apperception is grounded not just in the eye but in the entire body” (307). In this sense spectators of dance experience a kind of kinesthetic empathy when they watch a dancer. Even as they sit in the dark cradled in some old rusty-springed chair in a dusty auditorium, they are nevertheless bodily engaged, internally simulating the movements they are witnessing.

But there is no need to limit such notion of kinesthetic empathy to dance–why not extend it outward to include movement in general?

The videos posted below all illustrate to some degree the existence of a kind of kinesthetic sympathy between bodies. That these videos involve adorable animals only serve to deepen the affective charge of such embodied practices. Animals have long been considered great communicators of affect, and the sheer proliferation of cute animal videos circulating at any given time on the Internet is certainly a testament to that.

Take for example, this tragically cute video of a kitten attempting a daring aerial feat, only to fail, epically:

People fawn all over this video. They are affectively moved by the poor kitten’s miscalculation and its inability to see the gesture to its close. We fawn all over it because we’ve all been there, hesitating at the brink of a chair, or the tip of a puddle unsure if we can make it across the distance, unscathed. This is an emotional sympathy we feel, but one that is also animated by a kind of kinesthetic empathy. We can imagine a similar embodied feeling.

But kinesthetic empathy is not limited to humans. Or at least, we delight in thinking that it is not. I present you another variations on this kinesthetic empathy:

This video made its way through cyberspace some months ago, disarming the masses with its interminable cuteness. Why does it captivate us so? Because it communicates an affective charge, inspiring within us feelings of kinesthetic sympathy.

Here we have a woman playing with a kitten, and the kitten is in turn mimicking the woman’s movements. The woman and the kitten are involved in an affective entanglement. The woman reaches out in a communicative gesture towards the kitten, and the kitten returns the gesture by mimicking her movements. Though we can never know why the kitten is behaving in such a way, it certainly appears as if the kitten is trying to understand this woman in some way through kinesthetic sympathy, moving with her, performing her.

One way to read this video is that knowledge (in its most primitive form) comes from visualization, and the power of visualization comes from performance, or embodied practice. In order to know the woman, the kitten must engage its body. It feels out the human through its form and movements, performing its cadences, implementing its rhythms.

Meanwhile, returning once again to humans and their potential for kinesthetic sympathy, I present you with a very special duck who has apparently inspired a wheelchair-bound boy to walk, presumably by a similar affective entanglement. Affectively taken with the duck, the child watches it intently, and mimics its movements. In performing the duck, he thereby learns to walk.

http://www.allvoices.com/s/event-5234607/aHR0cDovL3d3dy5yZXV0ZXJzLmNvbS9uZXdzL3ZpZGVvP3ZpZGVvSWQ9NDE3ODg2NzE=

Either way all three of these videos illustrate the affective entanglements that exist between living things, albeit dramatized differently. We empathize with a kitten who tries a daring jump and fails; a kitten physically empathizes with a human being as he gestures towards it; and a baby learns to walk by physically sympathizing with a duck. If anything all of these videos render life as something irrefutably embodied and something that is always apprehended, experienced and understood through movement.

—–
Daly, Ann. Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

When I was a little girl I used to listen to my heartbeat using my dad’s stethoscope. I’d lie awake at night, captivated by the cadence of my own pulse, amplified. The longer I paid attention to the rhythm, the more familiar and intuitive it became. But the more I anticipated the beat and the interval that followed it, the more I became wary of the possibility that at some point an interval may not be followed by a beat. Struck by the inevitability of my own mortality, my enthusiasm for the stethoscope abruptly came to a halt and I put that fearsome contraption away indefinitely.

The point is, the moment I thought I knew the pattern of my pulse, I made myself vulnerable, and was thereby forced to submit to the real knowledge: that despite my familiarity with my heartbeat, I still have no control over it. So long as it continues to beat, I am alive. But the moment it stops, well you know. The human heartbeat consists of a lively pas de deux between the systole and diastole: the surge of life and the sleepy repose of death. It offers a constant affective reminder of our own corporeal precariousness, the fragility of our lives.

With that in mind, let me examine the evocative clip below from Just Like Heaven (Mark Waters, 2005):

The film tells the story of Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) who has been separated from her body after a near-fatal car accident. She is a specter who haunts the material world. She remains unseen by everyone, except for David (Mark Ruffalo) who now occupies her old apartment. In this particular scene, Elizabeth and David are at a hospital looking for her body. Standing in the hallway, Elizabeth suddenly feels her heart beating. Overcome by this sensation of being “alive,” she clutches at her chest.

The image of Elizabeth is the central focus of the frame, while the sound of her pulse dominates the soundtrack and permeates the space of the scene. Hearing the sound of her heart beating is reminiscent of the beguiling beat of our own hearts. The soundtrack generates a kind of affective engagement with Elizabeth, her pulse is our pulse and we are likewise made aware of the fragility of our own existence.

She travels intuitively down the hospital corridor and ends up in a hospital room. There, she finds her material body lying on a bed unconscious, hooked up to life-support machines. Her heartbeat has reunited her ethereal spirit with her physical body.

Once she enters her room, however, the sound of her heartbeat is eclipsed by the sound of the heart monitor. Elizabeth no longer feels her heart beating, though it continues to beat as the intermittent beep of the cardiac machine intimates. Elizabeth stands still, staring at her immobile body lying in atrophy. This moment is highly suggestive of the way modern western medicine has intervened and created a disparity between the body as a perceived object, and the way it is subjectively experienced.

Elizabeth is shocked at the sight of her material body—seeing it for the first time in its entirety. Once the subject of her own senses, she is now an object that lies before them. Her heartbeat beckons her spirit back to her body, motioning for her to re-inhabit it, as if it were an empty storehouse.

Ultimately this sequence dramatizes something more akin to the Chinese understanding of pulse: “mo” which gestures “toward the ineffable yet palpable difference between a stony cadaver and a breathing, responsive human being—the spirit of a person, the divine essence of life” (Kuriyama 107).

—-
Kuriyama, Shigehisa. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone, 2002.

How are the unborn represented? Through ultrasound imagery: the sonogram. This medical imaging technology renders unborn “life” invisibly nested within a human body into something visibly discernible outside the body. Medical practitioners use the sonogram to glean important information about the fetus, but it is the sonogram’s non-medical implications that are of particular interest here.

A copy of the sonogram is given to all expectant parents and usually distributed amongst friends and family: sent over email, posted on fridges, framed on walls, placed in wallets, and celebrated on cakes .

Without a doubt, people invest the ultrasound’s rendering of unborn life with a powerful, richly meaningful aura.

We can see this aura played out in a recent episode of Glee.

Glee featured a plotline where Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig) experiences a hysterical pregnancy. She chooses to maintain the charade rather than admit being delusional, partly out of embarrassment but also because she is convinced that the pregnancy was the only thing holding her troubled marriage together. She wears a pregnancy pad on her abdomen to keep up appearances.

When her husband Will (Ryan Murphy) books an ultrasound appointment, she blackmails the obstetrician into faking the sonogram. She implores the doctor to set up a curtain to ensure Will cannot see what’s really (not) going on.

Will is distracted after a stressful day at work, and Terri exclaims: “You’re about to see your child for the very first time. Can’t you forget about those dancing delinquents for one minute?” Will apologizes, admitting Terri is right. As the doctor “performs” the ultrasound, Will watches the monitor intently and finally sees the image of the fetus there. So overcome with the first image of “his child,” he begins to cry.

Will is not so much affected by the image itself but rather the relationship between the image and what it represents: the life he has created, his daughter, his future. As soon as Will sees the representation, he automatically affixes the identity of his daughter to an image. And in turn that image takes on a surplus value—it becomes his daughter, a person to whom he will read Goodnight Moon, a person he will bathe, or color with. He will watch her transform from this image of a fetus into a newborn infant, a toddler, a child, an adolescent, and an adult. All of this is set in motion through the introduction of a medical imaging technology that reveals the ineffable image of unborn life.

Of course Terri is not actually pregnant, and the image on the screen monitor is therefore not Will’s daughter and never will be. It is another man’s daughter and the image means something else entirely to him. To the untrained eye, there is no discerning feature that betrays this. The image of the fetus in the sonogram always exists without any solid context and without the semblance of any relation to the mother’s body in which it is housed. The fetus is in and of itself. The pregnant woman’s body (in this case Terri’s) ceases to exist.

The meaning Will attributes to this representation is imaginary, mutable—most definitely not inherent to the image itself. And yet it informs the very identity and essence of the fetus and its destiny. In this particularly case however, the fetus has no destiny because it does not actually exist. It does by contrast exist as an imagined concept and this evocative of the sheer artifice of the sonogram’s whole meaning-making process.

This particular rendering of an ultrasound illuminates the notion that image represented does not actually refer to anything real anyway. But more to the point, if it has no definitive meaning, what kind of meaning are we investing it with and what are its implications?

The Anti-Abortion movement has co-opted sonogram images of fetuses, defined them as victimized object and used them as rhetorical devices to deter women from having abortions, while persuading the public to sympathize with their cause.

Meanwhile pregnant mothers on the social networking site Facebook are uploading sonogram images as their primary profile pictures. While Facebook is all about constructing and framing a personal, social persona these women are engaging in a voluntary form of self-effacement: they cease to exist and have been replaced by the image of the fetus. With that, the sonogram picture achieves its full dominance and and its ability to sever the ties between what it is and what it represents is complete.