MAN + EXOSKELETAL SYSTEM
John McHale, 1972
CAN THE BODY PLUG INTO THE COMPUTER?
One of John McHale’s most lasting contributions to ecological discourse in the postwar period was his fixation with a prosthetic enhanced somaticity. McHale invented the term Man+ in his seminal book The Future of the Future, compiled from a number of special issues in architectural publications he previously edited, specifically the February 1967 issue of Architectural Design and the January 1968 issue of Design Quarterly. As Mark Wigley argues, McHale’s fascination with artificial limbs and arthropod-like joints was not merely reflecting a prosthetic desire for accessorizing and augmenting the human body, but also the reconstruction of the body as a type of controlled artificial ecology.
The exoskeletal harness system developed by Cornell’s Aeronautical Laboratory, which became McHale’s cover for Design Quarterly, was both a system of excessive technological ornamentation, but also a solid feedback loop, in which motor impulses from nerves and muscles were picked up and fed to artificial muscles. Similarly, an astronaut plugged to an exoskeletal harness system embodied Man+. With the prosthesis of devices corresponding to the body’s own junctures and nervous system, the body is partially duplicated and extended to increase man’s mechanical performance and literally overcome physical limitations.
The figure of the system-connected man can neither figuratively nor literally be disconnected from the larger history of cybernetics and the neologism of the “cyborg”, which Nicholas de Monchaux points out was originally used by psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline and mathematician Manfred Clynes for man–machine hybrids. While Kline and Clynes proposed to chemically alter man’s physiology and to adapt subjects for space travel, their ideas sit comfortably alongside McHale’s Man+ and a genealogy of similar diagrams illustrating the bonding of man and machine in a closed circuit.
MacHale’s Future of the Future was followed a year later by his book the Ecological Context in 1970, dealing with the redistribution of planetary resources. This might be proof of the fact that for McHale, the body and the planet were one and the same problem, a type of artificial ecology, which needed to be analyzed and reconstructed. McHale was convinced that only through advanced logistical operative systems used by NASA’s space program, could we begin to deal with the environmental complexity of our planet. Towards this substantial undertaking -the harnessing of the universal reservoir- the field of cybernetics seemed to promise an elaborate way out for McHale. Broadly stated, cybernetics granted to the architect -global planner- versatile apparatuses to effectively segment and systematize nebulous data in the benefit of design. As McHale writes, “Cybernetics makes possible the swift expansion of our global production, distribution and logistical support services so that we can satisfy the urgent material needs of large numbers of human beings still on the edge of survival… At the point where man’s affairs reach the scale of potential disruption of the global ecosystem, he invents precisely those conceptual and physical technologies that may enable him to deal with the magnitude of a complex planetary society.” (McHale, The Future of the Future, 96).
As Wigley points out, accessorizing and extending the body is not to simply attach prosthetic limbs to the outside of the body or to place bodies inside a prosthetic apparatus. It also means passing that apparatus right into the internal nervous system and letting the nervous system control it, letting the machinery of the body interact with the machinery that is outside it, producing a new kind of super body (Wigley, “Recycling Recycling”). The extension of the human nervous system is on many levels like connecting the body to a computer. In a computer interface, the human and the logistical operative system are interconnected on multiple levels; both sides are influenced by each other. The computer relays information enhancing the knowledge of the human as well as depicting its motives. In some cases the computer/machine can overpower the human to the point where there is no need for the human.
Man+ speaks overall of a planetary body. Beyond the images of immersion in hundreds of electric diodes, Man+ alludes to the extension of the oikos, meaning a house, building or space interconnected to global currents and flows. With Man+, oikos can no longer exist as a unitary habitation cell, but within the nexus of global flows.
NECCESSITY FOR LARGER DIAGRAM: Man+ speaks of a man and space relationship integrally bound together and eventually necessitates a larger diagram, where ambient environmental information can be registered. Beyond the functional scope of life support, Man+ illustrates a certain hubris for a passage that as a species, we, still have not yet earned.
DELUSIONS OF EFFICIENCY: Man+ can partly be seen as an aspirational projection of a world based on potentiality and connectivity that was presumed possible based on the rise of information and operative systems. From here, we can begin to see flaws comparable to these of our own capitalist society; those delusions of efficiency, flexibility, ubiquitous access to information and totality. Man+ envisions a world entirely based on mediation; existences based entirely upon mediation between individuals and a mediated existence with nature.
SPACE OF THE BELLY: McHale envisioned that bodily prosthetics would become prerequisite devices for future human survival; in consequence, the space vehicle, was the extension of a body prosthetic, a sequestering device to guarantee survival. The space vehicle was by no means a collective space, but a personal space, one that channeled a primitive survival fear into the reproduction of a womb space, like the amniotic space of the belly.