Movement in the Slowness of Illness and Death

"As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed. A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the flames of ecstasy,” (Kundera 2).

When we place our body “outside of the process” we are attempting to achieve a virtual displacement or escape velocity (ECSTASY SPEED); an attempt to flee the marking of MEMORY. Yet significantly the corporeal body returns, despite escape velocity, through two conditions that are perhaps the body’s loudest voice against the faculty of the mind: SICKNESS and DEATH.

Kundera mentions that the Runner is required to think about his blisters, the feeling of his own weight, the pain of his exhaustion. Physical Pain, exhaustion, fights with the mind during the act of running. There are so many vernacular phrases (especially in the culture of long distance running) that relate this condition: "No pain, no gain." "The last miles of the marathon are all mental." "Run through the pain."

We condition our mind to THINK through the PHYSICAL REALITY of pain, to ESCAPE through mental displacement or VIRTUALIZATION of experience; removing oneself from the present condition of the ACTUAL BODY.

The image of the runner’s internal struggle with the body and pain is but a starting point for a much more serious discussion of sickness and death. Some of the physical horrors of warfare technology cannot be ignored in such discussions [Virillo, Zizek]. Despite the larger discussion this merits [which is out of the scope of this paper], I do wish to briefly comment on a few related items.

“Movement is the essence of the body...
By moving, the body makes its reality.”
(Pronger 80)

Brian Pronger states this in relation to “being there” as an event, “Being happens. Movement is implicit in the happening of an event,” (Ibid.). I go for a run, aware of my movement in time as both a move away from the past and a move into the future. But what if the body is incapable of such movement, either through illness or death? Does the REALITY of the EVENT occur?

I think instantly of the idea of "going online" – the physical body doesn’t go anywhere; I am still sitting in my chair as I post this to the blogsite. Yet, my typing and submitting online produces an effect, a VIRTUAL MOVE. The event of this has occurred, with just my fingers moving to type. There is no inherent difference in the MOVEMENT of the Runner and the movement of the online websurfer in the REALITY of the effect produced.

"Movement is the primordial logos of the real for us who are embodied," (Ibid.).

Thus, if the body stops its movement [death], or is restricted in its movement [illness], its REALITY disappears. Though the physical reality ends, the SOCIAL BODY can keep the memory of the body eliciting an effect, or maintaining a place in the social construction of reality. This is the role of the physical monument and gravestone as sites to ground the social body’s experience of a body no longer physically moving. There are also online spaces that offer the same site-specific experience of creating, engaging and maintaining the social body of the dead body [example: http://forevernetwork.com; owner of the site, Tyler Cassity, claims 'a high proportion of the people here have content-rich afterlives.']


Living with illness is an experience that inevitably SLOWS the speed of the body's MOVEMENT event. The mind has more difficulty MOVING itself away and through the pain of AWARENESS of its own physicality, its own mortality. Despite the speed of movement of the networked body – both physically and socially – the inevitable final exhaustion of the body has yet to be technologically transcended; the physical body cannot animate after death, however it can MOVE in the social body.

Perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the SOCIAL BODY at work in maintaining the discourse of EMBODIMENT is a performance that artist Bob Flanagan proposed. Suffering from cystic fibrous his whole life, he wrote and did performances that explored the human body's relationship to pain by externalizing it and projecting it onto his viewers. Near to his death, Flanagan wanted to install a closed-circuit TV camera inside his casket, thus enabling spectators to witness his final performance: the decay of his mortal remains. Though never actualized, the intention was to keep the video camera running in a gallery that would be behind a curtain – if visitors wanted to view the video, to make an EVENT with Flanagan's material-turned-strictly-social-body occur, it was literally in the hands of the observer. The reality of Flanagan's existence would be made through its social engagement.

Here, the EMBODIED subject is necessarily particularized and engaged in the social in relation to other subjects comprising the SOCIAL BODY, and the use of the video camera demonstrates how these changes in subjectivity are taking place through technological transformations and our discourse about them.

Charged Space, 1978
Marina Abramovic and Ulay
click to view video

"Two bodies spin around a vertical axis until centrifugal force throws them apart. Past the state of control, the bodies continue to move in random space. The physical dynamism is sustained by the acoustic rhythm of work chants...'Move...Move...Move...'" (Abramovic 196). In this performance, Marina and Ulay explore the relationship of the physical body to the social body. Commands to which the body is instructed to move are called out, and the impact of these on the physical body is demonstrated by the artists' bodies naturally falling and exhibiting the pain that results.

"The subject is no longer located in a point in absolute time/space, enjoying a physical, fixed vantage point form which rationally to calculate its options. Instead it is multiplied by databases, dispersed by computer messaging and conference, decontextualized and reidentified by TV ads, dissolved and materialized by the electronic transmission of symbols...The body is then no longer an effective limit of the subject’s position...In these circumstances I cannot consider myself centered in my rational, autonomous subjectivity or bordered by a defined ego, but I am disrupted, subverted and dispersed across social space,"(Poster 15-16).

Coupled with the PHYSICAL experience of ILLNESS and the inevitability of DEATH, this dispersion of subjectivity creates almost a loop of MOVEMENT between the PHYSICAL BODY and the SOCIAL BODY. The relation between these two movements is played out in the question of REALITY, and it seems that the socially dispersed subject returns to the physical body to “work out” or reestablish her/his relationship to reality.

Zizek mentions “cutters” as individuals that act in a way that is “strictly parallel to the virtualization of our environment: it represents a desperate strategy to return to the Real of the body,” (Zizek 10). By using razors and their own fingers, cutters bleed to be comforted by self-inflicted PAIN and the site of blood that reaffirms their firm root in reality, “against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existent,” (Ibid.).

For cutters, and performance artists like Flanagan, there is a use of pain and the body as a MOVE against the hegemonic weight of the social body. As Lea Vergine described of Body-based performance artists, “[in their artistic practice] they are looking for the human being who isn’t castrated by the functionalism of society – the man who lives outside the laws of profit,” (Vergine 9). Or, in other words, these artists use the body and physical pain to test relationships with subjectivity and self-knowledge that are not inscribed by the program of movement and awareness enforced by a capitalism regime. The movement of the body in performance art is an investigation of alternatives to the coercive linearity of everyday life.

"My work focuses on the visceral, where the body is a canvas but I'm not trying to express what I care about in a cognitive sense – all I can do is return to this fragile connection between real life and the experience of living." – Artist Franko B

The language of the "real" and of a concept of living that is EMBODIED inhabits theories of pain, illness and death – alternatives of MOVEMENT – that push at a communication with the self that does not have a conclusion (a fixed trajectory), but is rather a circle of questioning and engagement of human experience rooted in AWARENESS.

Cut me, I bleed like you.

Lyrics from Stagger, by Underworld, who I am listening to right now.