“The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious” (Douglas 142)
Digital technologies, wearables, and self-management systems have set a standard for the bodily exchange system. Bodily performances are quantified down to the last detail. If the principle of exchange has established itself in our bodies and minds (Sützl), can we think of anything that cannot be understood under capitalistic terms of exchange?
In a ‘general economy’ the excess is what cannot be comprehended in well-known systems as money, or more abstractly under the phenomenon of exchange. Georges Bataille saw this present in the luxuries of eating, death, and sexual reproduction, among others (Bataille The Accursed Share 35). These, he argued, are moved into the dark, forming the dark side of culture. Consequently, the “excessive” body is concealed and tabooed. But according to Bataille the enemy of a ‘general economy’ is not shortage, but rather excess, and as we will see the “excessive” body might be a way to question and critique the status of exchange today.
The movement of things like pain, sex, and menstruation into the dark is better understood if we understand the systems under which taboo and dirt are organized. Julia Kristeva, who has developed her notion ‘the abject’ on Mary Douglas’ analysis of dirt, and Bataille’s notion of informe, shows that abjection does not only let us understand how bodies are perceived under social rationalism, but also how abjection might be an enemy of ‘general economy’, because abjection cannot simply be commodified and therefore underlines the fragility of objectivity.
In this text I aim to question this relation between excess, the tabooed and abject in a wider technological framework. What happens if ‘the abject’, such as menstruation, changes value from excess to exchange? With this speculation I aim to challenge the standardized conception of bodily exchange, and argue that taboos in tech industry remains to be taboos exactly because these phenomena cannot be governed by the principle of exchange. In a sense this means, that taboos are what cannot be exchanged. But rather than accepting this premise, I want to point to the generative power of pollution, suggesting that what is commonly perceived as anomalous abject objects in digital culture might be a generative power for future-making.
Menstruation as dirt and danger
“Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state, nor the next, it is indefinable … The danger is controlled by ritual” (Douglas 119)
A phenomenon of special interest for both Douglas and Kristeva is menstruation. In a very literal sense menstruation is an excess of the bodily system. It is associated with non-reproductive sex, but also with death, as menstruation has the impossible status of a dead being, who never lived. In particular, menstruation is what Kristeva terms ‘abject’; something that is neither me nor recognizable as a thing (Kristeva 2). The abjection of menstruation, Kristeva argues, points to the liminality of the subject itself as the abjection of menstruation comes from her own body, and consequently leads to the abjection of self.
Whereas Kristiva builds her menstruation analysis on the psychoanalytical notion of abject, Douglas’s analysis is grounded in social anthropology and a structuralist understanding of dirt. Here menstruation as dirt is a matter out of order (Douglas 44). If we in a European culture understand menstruation as dirt, it is not (only) as a symbol of bad hygiene, but rather, and more importantly, as a symbol of an inappropriate element in a systematic ordering and classification of matter. As such the menstruating woman does not fit in a European female system, as she neither equals sex, nor reproduction. In some primitive societies, e.g. the Mae Enga, menstruation is seen as a female pollution, and even married men fear menstrual blood, as “they believe that contact with it or with a menstruating woman will sicken a man and cause persistent vomiting” (Douglas 182). Whereas we might think, that the ritual pollution, that some primitive people fear, is only of symbolic order, something that does not fit with our Western ideas of dirt, we might find that our Western ideas of dirt and hygiene is equally a question of symbolic order. At least in Northern European pop culture menstruation is treated as something dirty, disgusting, and embarrassing, symbolized through blue gel in advertisements and hidden in small pink boxes in school. Rituals, in primitive as well as Western societies, control this “danger”. In pop culture it has become a ritual to hide menstruation, to cover it through synonyms such as “the curse” or “Aunt Flo”, and to reject its material status through jokes about PMS, etc. We have learned to behave as if it did not exist.
Periodshare – push your cycle to the world
To better understand the dirt and danger of menstruation, I designed a system exploring menstruation not as a danger, but as a power. With the aim of breaking the menstruation taboo, not by hiding it but by sharing it, Periodshare questions the symbolic order of menstruation in a post-digital context[i]. The speculative project Periodshare features a wearable, wireless menstruation cup connected to an app. The system automatically tracks the period, and makes it easy for the subject to inform her boyfriend, boss, and friends about her period. She can even live-tweet her menstruation data, hereby making something very private a public issue. Periodshare explores the boundaries of inside-outside, private-public, and material-representational data. More importantly, Periodshare questions the status quo of menstruation; what is the value of menstruation in a post-digital age. While a number of artists fight the censorship of this body fluid on social medias, start-ups and tech industry invite menstruation to new operating systems. The project speculates if it would be inappropriate to say, that menstruation slowly changes value from excess to exchange.
In Periodshare the material status of menstruation does not only change status from something inside me to outside me, it also changes status from something outside me, to something inside my smartphone, and my social network. It is a transformation from material to representation, from blood to data. Still, the data is in a transitional state between being an extension of my body and representational, incorporeal data. Based on the notions on dirt and abject, this leaves us with two interconnected questions; can data change the symbolic order of things – from dirt into purity? And who am I in my exchangeable intimate data?
Bataille’s critique of capitalism’s roots in exchange
Periodshare explores the limits of an exchange economy. It questions what we as intimate beings are willing to share in a very literal sense, and what consequences the principle of exchange have for the “excessive” body.
As Sützl argues, the principle of exchange has established itself in our bodies and minds. Consequently “no one is allowed to be a loser”, and it gets “increasingly difficult to say words like ‘death’, ‘absence’, and ‘pain’ in a meaningful way” (Sützl). In this world, the user of Periodshare might be a loser, but in a possible future (Dunne & Raby 2), the user is not a loser. She loses blood and maternity, but she does not lose in the cultural game of social medias, as the technical and cultural prescribed rules are different from what we know. She tries to say words like ‘menstruation’ in a meaningful way, and instead of being excluded her social network accepts the premise of a change of rules. Sharing menstruation data becomes her empowering tool; a generative power of female pollution.
Focusing on sharing as a political act, that limits exchange, Bataille seeks to the forbidden, the atrocious, and the amorphous; the anomalous objects of culture. He points to the informe, the formless, as a violent tool against capitalism, and shows that limitations and fragilities of our bodies are indeed political moves as they resists to take shape and fit properly into a categorization system (Bataille Visions of Excess 31). Hereby Bataille’s body is a model that stands for the bounded system of a shared world. It is a body with boundaries, which are threatened by the exchange world, but these same boundaries threatens the exchange world as they points to the fact, that in every system, there is a remainder, whether it is the system of cosmogony, sacrifice, bodies, or networks. This remainder not only challenges the established arrangement of a system in order, it also challenges the question of ownership. Who owns what remains? As seen in Periodshare it becomes important to think of ownership when we are talking about intimate data. Whereas the shared period data can be an empowering tool for the subject, as just described, the tracked data can just as easily be a violation of the intimate boundaries of the subject if the data is owned by big data actors. As digital symbolic representation has made it easier to form the formless, violation of the abject becomes a question of agency.
Sharing anomalous objects in digital culture
Jussi Parikka and Tony Sampsons views spam, computer viruses, and excesses of Internet porn as anomalous object of digital culture. But rather than seeing these as remainders, junk, or noise in a system they are approached as something that has become central to today’s communication theory (Parikka and Sampson 3).
So if we look at something like Periodshare, which as argued, seek to change something culturally seen as ‘dirt’ into a more appropriate, ‘pure’ cultural object, which part does the sharing play? In Periodshare sharing is a commodifying tactic to change the status of menstruation from ‘dirt’ to ‘purity’, and to question the rules of the abject through the explicit use of something abject. This complicated things a bit, since the sharing act makes the project linger between excess and exchange. The cultural aspect shows that menstruation is a question of (bodily) excess, a tabooed and darkened cultural object, but the technological (and economic) aspect shows that menstruation might be a question of exchange. Menstruation can possibly be exchanged, and it can gain a new economic value if it is tracked and sold to third-party services. But if it is not sold, and it would still use the tactics of exchange, as something invaluable as menstruation is tracked and changed to something valuable (data), can we then still think of abject, excessive objects, which use the tactics of exchange in order to question status quo? Here it is exactly the process of changing something “disgusting” material, to something “pure” immaterial that makes it more appropriate to talk about menstruation. Menstruation blood is dirt, whereas menstruation data is pure. Periodshare looks at this symbolic representation of menstruation as data, and questions the rules under which “excessive” design might be possible in an exchange economy. An approach where designing with the abject as both dirt and value might challenge the abject as taboo, and hereby criticise the foundation under which it exists – a critique of the exchange economy – and propose ways to engage with the “excessive” body in a technological future.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share : An Essay on General Economy, Volume 1: Consumption. New York: Zone Books (first published 1949/1967), 1988.
Bataille, Georges. Vision of Excess, Selected Writings, 1927-1939, in Theory and History of Literature, Volume 14, edited by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger : An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. New York: Routledge Classics, London, first published in 1966, 2004.
Dunne, Anthony & Raby, Fiona. Speculative Everything : design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013.
Foster, Hal. “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic”. October, Vol. 78 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 106-124, The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kristeva, Julia. Power of Horror : An Essay on Abjection, New York: Colombia University Press, 1982.
Parikka, Jussi & Sampson, Tony A. The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture, chapter 1: On Anomalous Objects of Digital Culture : An Introduction, New York: Hampton Press, Inc., 2009.
Sützl, Wolfgang. “On Sharing”. Collective Sharing, COLLECTIVE MAKING 2015-2016, Kunsthal Aarhus, Aarhus, 2005.
[i] Periodshare was a research-through-design project made in spring 2015. The project included a speculative prototype and a Kickstarter campaign. More information can be found at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/752149579/periodshare-push-your-cycle-to-the-world