• Essays

Frida: a postmodern icon of the cyborg

by Daniela Falini

In her essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" Donna Haraway gives a detailed definition of the
cyborg as cybernetic organism made of flesh and technology.
The cyborg, more than any other concept, manifestly reveals one of the most striking discoveries in the recent scholarship in the philosophy:
not only God is dead but also Nature.
Indeed what can be defined as "natural" these days?
Neither gender nor race, neither family nor reproduction.
Thanks to new technologies (microelectronics, biotechnology, genetic engineering) almost anything can be discussed using the semantics of the cyborg, as everything, humans and objects, can be conceptualized in terms of assembly and disassembly. Any part can be connected with any other one according to common codes elaborated by Language and Technology.
"Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others"
In her attempt to build "an ironic political mith faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism" Donna Haraway develops a complex network of thoughts (a sort of rhyzome ), all related, in a way or another, to the "cyborg" concept.
The cyborg concept allows Haraways :
- to find a perfect subject for her feminist theory of objectivity based on the situated, partial and embodied knowledge (the cyborg has a deconstructed identity, escaping the classical distinction between man and woman)
- to go over post-modernist theories that see technology only as a powerful mechanism of control (the cyborg represents a positive vision of the relationship between man and technology
- to re-think the unity of the human being thanks to the cyborg virtuality of a body that is a mix of organism/technology and can be seen as a "material-semiotic generative node" because it is a sort of platform for multiple codes of information from genetics to computer science.
A number of striking correspondences clearly illustrate the ways in which the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is an example of the cybernetic icon.

HARAWAY's CYBORG

FRIDA

a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction

 

After the bus accident that "marked" her with a handrail which went through her body from one side to the other at the level of the pelvis, Frida has often represented her body as a mix of flesh and objects (see "The broken column" where her opened body allows us to see the inside: the spinal column is substituted by a broken ionic column). On the one hand she was totally immersed in her contemporary social reality (exaltation of the Mexican Revolution and of the mexicanidad against Americanization, political passion shared with her husband Diego Rivera, active participation), but we could say she was able to belong to reality only thanks to her fantasy and her fictional world. In the same way her paintings are hybrids of facts and fantasies.

Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction,

 

Frida was never able to have children. Abortion and the sufferings created by this event are one of her recurrent topics (see "Frida and the abortion", where she opposes her own sterility to the fertility of the earth, "Me and My Doll" where she underlines her solitude in front of a naked baby doll.) Sterile as consequence of the accident, she reproduced herself in an artificial way, endlessly replicating her image in her paintings.

My cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities ...,

 

In many of Frida's works the boundaries of the body are completely distorted, revealing her fascination for transmutations obtained through fusions with the earth (bodies as plants that extend their roots underground "Roots", "Portrait of Luther Burbank") or with animals ("The wounded deer" where Frida painted herself with the body of a deer). Frida's bodies are always re-codified, in some cases assembled and disassembled.

The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity,

 

partiality: I have formulated the hypothesis that Frida was moved to represent herself and her body with a deeply fetishistic attitude. According to Mario Perniola's definition, fetishism "does not adore the world, does not have any illusions about it, nevertheless declares itself without reserve and with the greatest energy in favour of a part, of a detail..."; indeed, Frida made fetishes of several details of her body, through a real disintegration of her self/body scattered in her paintings and drawings (see "What the Water gave me" and nearly all the drawings from the Diary). In this way her body ceases to be an object fixed and identical in the subject's perception a determined shape to become a sort of "thing" that acquires an "overflowing" abstract universality.
irony: humor and irony marked Frida' s lifestyle. She wrote in her diary, "Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing."
intimacy: everything is intimate in Frida's paintings, her intimacies are shown in such an "open" way that they can become quite disturbing (see "My birth" in which an adult Frida's head comes out from the vagina of a woman in labour). She often showed her own body naked and tortured by different kinds of wounds ("Remembrance of an Open Wound", "The Broken Column"), or bleeding ("Henry Ford Hospital").
perversity: in a certain sense we could define Frida's active sexual life involving both men and women in spite of her disease, her 32 surgeries and the impossibility for long periods of having "normal" sexual intercourse, as a perversion. On this point it is interesting to make a link with Ballard's novel "Crash", where bodies' deformations (wounds as new cavities, tattoos, scars) become new and exciting instruments for the strange sexuality of the main characters, victims and authors of car accidents, fascinated by a perverse mixture of natural impulses and technology. Surely a powerful sensuality permeates all her works, but it is paradoxically more evident in her still lives (see "Flower of Life" where an exotic plant is transformed into male and female sex organs).

The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, ...

 

Many of Frida's paintings show the combination of real and fantastic elements, like Diego's portraits with a third eye; self-portraits with Diego's image or a death image on the forehead ("Diego and I", "Diego in my thoughts", "Thinking about death"); Frida with a childish body and an adult face in her nurse's arms ("My Nurse and I"); internal organs and other meaningful objects placed outside her body and connected to it by as many umbilical cords ("Henry Ford Hospital"). This is one of the features that prompted Andre Breton to embrace Frida as a Surrealist, but she always denied this connection. Indeed, even in her most symbolic and fantastic work ("What the Water gave Me"), reality wins against fantasy because every dissociated detail of the painting refers to precise events/ emotions in her life and is the evolution of elements coming from other works.