"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 September 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

All That Is Solid Melts into Air


[i'm already thinking Pamela Anderson...

At the end of Poe's gothic horror

story, "The Facts in the Case of

M. Valdemar," the protagonist's

body dissolves into "a nearly

liquid mass of loathsome - of

detestable putridity." In truth,

all bodies are "nearly liquid"

masses of blood, bile, and soft

tissue, as any who've seen The

Operation know all too well.


The cult-fave cable show

(Saturdays, 8 and 11 p.m. EST

on The Learning Channel) offers

more or less unabridged

documentaries of actual

operations, from brain surgery

to bunion correction, heart

reduction to hair transplant,

bookended by before-and-after

interviews with the patient. A

recent episode documented what

might be called an

in-your-facelift, replete with

closeups of yellow fat globules

being squelchingly pared off

muscles, bloody slivers of skin

peeled off eyelids, blobs of fat

tweezed from the bags under each

eye - fat that "on its own,

without any prompting from us,

is about ready to launch itself

out of her eye," as the surgeon

matter-of-factly remarks. It's

Naomi Wolf's worst nightmare, as

filmed by Cronenberg. At one

point, the surgeon slips his

gloved fingers under the

anesthetized woman's face and

peels it back. After a

lifetime's exposure to the

prosthetic horrors of

special-effects artists like Tom

(Night of the Living Dead)

Savini, the patient's limp,

sallow skin seems somehow less

real than painted latex, her

glassy-eyed, slack-jawed face

less convincing than the fake

corpses in most horror movies.


[i really wonder what will be left when that so called flesh rots]

In the eyes of an information

society hallmarked by an

exaltation of mind and a

contempt for matter, the body is

a symbol of "detestable

putridity," an aging, earthbound

relic of Darwinian evolution

that Net junkies sneeringly

refer to as "meat." In late

20th-century America, Descartes'

mind-body split has widened into

a neo-gnostic chasm. When

artificial intelligence

theorists like Hans Moravec

speculate about transferring

human consciousness to robot

ships and heading for the stars

(the flesh being, you know, "so

messy," as Moravec puts it), or

UFO cultists like the Heaven's

Gaters disparage their bodies as

unworthy "vehicles" and the

Earth as a cosmic discard

destined for the recycling bin,

they're speaking the language of

gnosticism, an early Christian

heresy that reviled the body as

a "corpse with senses" and the

material world as the creation

of an evil demiurge.


[it seems that plastics scene from The Graduate was right]

The Operation is part of a

cultural undercurrent running

beneath the neo-gnosticism of

mainstream society. As we shift

from a manufacturing base to an

information economy, from

embodied sensation to electronic

simulation, from RL to VRML, the

cultural logic of digital

disembodiment is countered by

the Return of the Repressed: the

abject flesh. Images of morbid

or monstrous bodies haunt our

collective dream life, in the

subgenre of viral horror

typified by The Hot Zone, with

its Lovecraftian descriptions of

the "shock-related meltdown" of

the corpse into a puddle of

gore; in the charnel-house

couture of Alexander McQueen,

whose Givenchy creations have

purportedly incorporated human

teeth and bones; and in the

art-world vogue for the

visceral, from Damien Hirst's

pickled cows to the morgue-slab

art of Anthony Noel-Kelly, the

British sculptor-turned-body

snatcher recently arrested for

making plaster casts of stolen

human body parts.


But The Operation has other

stories to tell, other lessons

to teach. It's a glimpse of the

TV subconscious, one of those

twilight zones where the medium

talks in its sleep, like the

bizarre public access sermons of

cult leader John-Roger or the

late-night infomercials of the

motivational guru Anthony

Robbins, he of the vacuformed

hair and acromegalic jaw. It's

one of the weirder scopophilic

pleasures afforded by a media

landscape in which everything

seems to be reflected in the

camera eye, from the nonchalant

atrocities of stocking-masked

thugs caught by surveillance

cams to the Candid Camera hijinx of

America's Funniest Home Videos

to the Fantastic Voyages

relayed, live, from the

innermost recesses of our bodies

by laparoscopic cameras.


The Operation, which often

features laparoscopic images, is

a living-room initiation into

the dark, wet mysteries of a

body that each of us inhabits

but few of us know much about.

In that regard, it's also a

pitiless deconstruction of our

most cherished assumptions about

ourselves, disquieting on a

level far deeper than the

pop-eyed gross-out experienced

by the uninitiated, grazing past

the show. J. G. Ballard

underwent just such a revelation

in med school. "Doing anatomy

was an eye-opener," he recalled,

in a 1970 Penthouse interview.

"One had built one's whole life

on an illusion about the

integrity of one's body, this

'solid flesh'.... Then to see a

cadaver on a dissecting table

and ... to find at the end of

term that there was nothing left

except a ... heap of gristle and

a clutch of bones ... was a

tremendous experience of the

lack of integrity of the flesh."


[there's baywatch,baywatch nights, and of course my fav, 90210]

The Operation is one of the

Learning Channel's top-rated

programs, the object of greater

viewer response than any other

show on the network - a hopeful

sign in these times of ethical

cleansing, when advocates of the

Disneyfication of cyberspace and

the gentrification of urban

space insist that the adult mind

abide by preschool standards.

Still, the "gag me!" theatrics

of disgust that typically greet

The Operation bespeak a cultural

vacuity. It's a stunted

emotional maturity born of

puritanical mores, bourgeois

notions of good taste, and our

culturally inbred reluctance to

look beyond the free trial

offers and the bonus prizes to

the severed ear on the suburban

lawn, to put it in Blue Velvet

terms. The severed ear is a

fitting metaphor, because this

pervasive squeamishness about

the "meat" - about what goes on

in the operating room, or the

funeral parlor, or the

slaughterhouse - betokens,

again, a cringing inability to

confront the inescapable fact

that beneath the hard, dry

exoskeleton of our technology,

we're still soft, wet biology, a

"nearly liquid mass" of soft

tissues and bodily fluids that

mocks the escapist fantasies of

the age we live in by aging,

dying, and decaying, the prayers

of AI experts, UFO cultists, and

plastic surgeons

notwithstanding. Suction,


courtesy of Howard Beale

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