Keep Your Virtual Hands Off Me!
Paranoia, Affect and Influencing Machines
We have become so accustomed to the human-computer interface that its strangeness has become numbed by habit. Media artists often provide the most forceful articulation of this habitude. Their work reminds us of the strange relations between embodiment and disembodiment, presence and telepresence. This essay examines Zoe Beloff's 2001 interactive video installation The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A in the context of these relations. The idea of media as a means of affect, of virtually reaching out and touching someone, is critiqued in this work. Beloff defamilarises our intimacy with our machines, offering a timely allegory of the impact of technology on our lives.
 In a significant scene in William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), the central character Case sits in a room wired up to a networked computer. Ribbons of fiber optic cable splice his central nervous system into an extended feedback loop of communication and information circuits. Like a guitar in an amplifier, these neural implants jack his sensorium directly into cyberspace, the "graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system" (Gibson 67). A tiara of dermatrodes across his forehead, wired to a "simstim" (simulated stimulation) deck also enables him to sense the corporeal world at a distance from the total sensory perspective of someone else. Both these connections, linked to his physical embodied presence by a "flipflop switch," (70) allow him to be simultaneously here and elsewhere. In the abstraction of the Matrix, he is a disembodied point of view navigating corporate databases, visualized as vast architectures of light. In cyberspace he leaves his flesh behind in a sublimely iconic mind/body split. Using the less sophisticated "meat toy" of simstim (71), he can broadcast himself into the Sprawl in search of contraband software; an unsatisfying solution for "console cowboys" who are accustomed to escaping the flesh. As simulations of presence at a distance, both have their limitations compared to the real thing, the Matrix a "drastic simplification of the human sensorium," and simstim a "gratuitous multiplication of flesh input" (71). Despite the shortcomings, Case is nonetheless splintered between three registers of presence and toggles between present and telepresent selves as if alt-tabbing between documents. Fluently alternating between the worlds of meat and cyberspace, he is shaken out of his complacence by an experience of radical otherness. Case encounters the uncanny displacement of experiencing the world from the point of view of a woman, Molly. While this act of "riding" with someone else is a form of disembodiment (he is out of his body), it is also an embodied experience of a very queer kind:
"How you doing, Case?" He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply (72).
As a "passenger behind her eyes," (72) Case has to submit to Molly's agency, sensing her embodied presence intimately, as if he is there. Case's expectation of high-end interactivity is frustrated by the passivity of this form of mediation, which provides him with sensory information but prohibits him from responding to it. Molly is aware of this and her deliberate, haptic titillation reminds Case that she can influence his vicarious sense of presence in her body. It dramatically fulfils the adage that media allow you to reach out and touch someone.
 Neuromancer may be over twenty years old and much has happened since its publication. But it has undeniably come to represent one particular history of the present. Computers have become pervasive and define the way we do things in the contemporary world, from work, to socialising to commerce. The Internet, while not quite the Matrix as Gibson conceived it, is the dominant global space of flows and has integrated the world in ways unimaginable in the age of broadcasting. Viruses, hacking and spyware have entered into the collective vocabulary and consciousness of a techno-savvy generation whose hands have forgotten what it means to write with anything other than a keyboard. If Neuromancer anticipated a networked world to come, it also imagined the mediation of total sensory immersion at a distance. Molly's virtual touch is still science fantasy but it is an instance of both the demand and the desire for media to yield more presence, to accommodate all the senses. It resonates as an allegory of telesthesia as a mechanism of affect as much as a means of total communication.
 Cyberculture is one term that has been coined to describe this emerging state of embodied telesthesia. A decade ago there was still something novel, exciting and even strange about the relations between virtual and physical space, between embodiment and disembodiment, presence and telepresence. In the developed world, this interaction and commingling of local and remote states of presence is so much a part of everyday life that it has become second nature. It has become as intuitive as driving a car or riding a bicycle, as intimate as the cities we live in and the daily round of quotidian experience. McKenzie Wark goes further and posits this habitude as a third nature conditioned by tele-technologies and their creation of an abstract terrain of social spaces (159). Third nature implies a transformed concept of the human as much as it describes an expanded notion of space. Donna Haraway (1991) and Katherine Hayles (1999) have described this altered state as cyborg subjectivity and posthumanism respectively. Both terms have been largely misunderstood, often invoked as terminal conditions announcing a technological transformation of humanity, in the form of a Stelarc-like assemblage of flesh, metal and circuitry. Both are, in fact, metaphoric evocations of what it means to live in a world in which telepresence cannot be dissociated from the business of being human. At the social level of being in the world, Bill Mitchell has described this evolving e-topia as an "economy of presence" to account for the "different grades of presence that are now available to us" (129). Mobile telephony and ubiquitous computing have expanded and enriched the vectors of communication within this economy of presence. As forms of intimate apparel, these media allow for what James Katz and Mark Aakhus have called "perpetual contact" (2002). Mobility dramatically extends the disruption of presence as fixed and tied to a particular location. The relations of local and remote are mobile, constantly shifting in a state of peripatetic flux. As Larissa Hjorth has observed, locality is "always in deferral, transition, translation, mediation and recontextualisation" (2005).
 How quickly we forget. It is true, as Andrew Murphie and others have suggested, that new forms of "technical mobility" create visible and rigorously theorized "new intensities within the social," taking it "somewhere it has not perhaps been before" (2005). But technological novelty is easily subsumed into an already technologically saturated culture as ours. The inherent strangeness of alternating states of embodied and disembodied presence has been resolved and naturalized by habit. With each generation of new media we succumb to a kind of psychosomatic amnesia. We forget the speed with which technological emergence becomes residual. Another name for this amnesia is what Marshall McLuhan called "Narcissus narcosis," which he described as a syndrome that makes us unaware of the psychic and social effects of new technology "as a fish of the water it swims in" (1969). In other words in becoming intuitive, co-presence becomes invisible.
 In that visceral instant of virtual touch, Case momentarily remembers the strangeness of co-presence, the unnerving sensation of being influenced by someone in your absence. It is a revelation, an epiphany that, in a different way, enables him to distance himself from himself. Case is suddenly made aware of the subtle logistics of place, of being in the moment, the here and now. He is palpably there. But if "there's no there, there" in cyberspace, as William Gibson famously asserted, what does it mean to be affected under such conditions? The New York based artist Zoe Beloff has actively explored conditions of ambiguous presence. Beloff is interested in the history of pre-cinematic projection techniques, such as the diorama and stereoscopy. These media, with their links to the paranormal and spiritualism, appeal to Beloff as both the technical apparatus of projecting illusory presence as well as imaging the mental transmission of thought. Her fascination with the materialization of phantom manifestations that are "not there" draws her to the case histories of mental patients and mediums, who she regards as "technological visionaries" (1). The Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C. (2004), for instance, is a stereoscopic installation that depicts ten séances performed by the medium Eva Carriere in the early twentieth century. A work about materialization, Beloff subtly exploits the potential of stereoscopic images to fool the eye into believing that the participants in the re-created séances actually occupy the same space as the spectators. Beloff regards this work as a new way of integrating virtual and embodied presence. Her work is consistent with the contemporary fascination with immersive effects and technologies in the cinema and gaming culture. But this ambiguous presence is far from smoke and mirrors phantasmagoria. Like Gibson's cyberspace, it can be a powerful, transformative mechanism of affect. It represents the artist's exploration of the psychology of tactile connection with remote, absent others.
 The idea of the virtual touch is particularly explored in Beloff's 2001 interactive video installation The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A. In this work, though, it is very much an unwanted and distressing gesture, lacking the frisson it offers Case. It is a wonderful story, a cautionary tale about the human perception of technology and its impact on our lives, as well as the dysfunction that ensues when preoccupation becomes obsession. It is especially revealing in that it documents a historical moment when the introduction of a new medium was still conspicuous and unfamiliar. In this it is a valuable glimpse into a liminal zone of consciousness before a technology has been interiorized, to use Walter Ong's term. Or again invoking McLuhan, it enacts a state of mind, before the onset of Narcissus narcosis. The title of the work refers to and draws upon a 1919 essay written by Victor Tausk, a follower of Freud's and practising psychoanalyst in Vienna. The essay details the bizarre paranoid-schizophrenic case of one of his patients, Natalija A., who believed her thoughts were being controlled by Berlin physicians using a mysterious electrical apparatus capable of affecting people across distances. Tausk's essay, "On the Origin of the 'Influencing Machine' in Schizophrenia" is considered to be the principal source on the psychiatric phenomenon of the influencing machine. However the delusion of being controlled by alien forces using an obscure machine recurs in much of the literature to do with schizophrenia; indeed, it has been traced back as far as the end of the eighteenth century.
 For Beloff the case represented an intriguing opportunity to explore the psychopathology of media. The historical context of the work dramatizes the relations between the transmission of ideologies such as fascism and emerging media. Beloff encountered an especially revealing remark made in 1935 by Eugen Hadamovsky, a Nazi in charge of the nascent television industry in Germany: "Now in this hour, broadcasting is called upon to fulfil its biggest and most sacred mission, to plant the image of the Fuehrer indelibly in all German hearts" (4). This is particularly resonant in that one of the effects of influencing machines was their capacity to make the victim see pictures, as if on a screen. The projection of images by means of waves or rays emitted from the machines is a compelling intimation of television, arguably the dominant medium of affect of the twentieth century. Stefan Andriopoulos, in a recent discussion of the first wireless television broadcast in Germany in 1929, identifies uncanny precedents for television in histories of magic and the occult. Citing Carl du Prel's Magic as Natural Science, he garners discursive precedents for the actual technology of vision at a distance in spiritualist notions of autosuggestion, psychic telesight and hypnosis; indeed, he refers to the fantastical reception of television in the 1950s as the "'hypnotist in your own living room'" (636).  The idea of "psychic television" implicit in du Prel's study is an "epistemic condition for the emergence of electric television" (637).
Fig. 1: Image from interactive version of The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A.
 In The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A, Beloff confronts the problem of the communication of information across distance—telephony, radio, television. Thought transference through psychoanalysis, from patient to analyst, is another example. Beloff uses the hybrid languages of multimedia to create a machinic assemblage of affect. Drawing on early technical diagrams of televisions, home movies from the 1920s and '30s, as well as stock footage from medical and documentary films, she evokes a powerful impression of a time of human fascination with mediating technologies that were not as yet familiar or ubiquitous. The 2001 installation of the work involved a large stereoscopic projection on the floor of the gallery. The anaglyph image is called a Phantogram  which, when looked at through stereo glasses by the spectator, becomes a three dimensional, interactive image of the influencing machine. This "impossible object" is an example of Beloff's interest in visible manifestations that are only visible to a single observer, as a kind of hallucination (8). The image co-exists with the real world, but in an entirely ambiguous manner, simultaneously seen and unseen by those in the gallery. 
Fig. 2: Installation view of The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A.
 The participant becomes part of the work, performing unseen operations on a machine that to other spectators is not visibly here, but is manifest here in the optical illusion of the Phantogram. In this the manifold spectacle of the installation becomes a visual metaphor of the virtual touch, of affect at a distance. With the use of a pointer the participant interacts with a virtual screen within the Phantogram, which activates images, movies and accompanying sound, which "blares" from the apparatus and fills the gallery. Interactivity, for Beloff, was crucial in dramatizing the work as a kind of medical procedure being performed on a simulacrum of Natalija's A's body—a procedure that produced real affects on her actual body. Through force-feedback techniques, the visitor to the gallery installation feels the physical manifestations of the electric waves Natalija A believed were influencing her mind:
Tausk described how the patient believed that this suggestion apparatus produced or removed thoughts by means of waves, rays or mysterious forces. Indeed it was a torture machine. When someone struck the machine she felt a corresponding blow to her body. Through interacting, the participant finds themselves viscerally implicated, placed in the position of the sinister physicians/technicians (always male) whom she believed were probing her mind (9).
The idea of a virtual body double is a symptom of Natalija's A's state of mind. Tausk's diagnosis was telling in this respect, in that he believed that her hallucination of persecution by an unseen and distant machine "represented the patient's own body that had become alien and strange to her" (3). Other cases of schizophrenic persecution involving influencing machines describe the identification and gradual amalgamation of the patient's body with the machine itself. Beloff points out that in the original case history Natalija's A's description of the influencing machine was vaguely human, a body without organs animated by electricity:
The trunk had the shape of a lid, resembling the lid of a coffin. In the first interview she described the limbs as entirely natural parts of the body. A few weeks later, these limbs were not placed on the coffin lid in their natural form, but were merely drawn in two dimensions. The inner parts of the body consisted of electric batteries (5).
Ever the Freudian, Tausk observed of this anthropomorphism that machines "produced by man's ingenuity [...] are unconscious projections of man's bodily structure" (4).
 The perception of Natalija A's mind and body being physically manipulated by physicians at a distance brings to mind McLuhan's observations on television as an extension of the sensation of touch rather than vision. Beloff is clearly engaged by the idea of television as a form of virtual touch and McLuhan's account of the "tactile power" of television echoes Natalija A's fear of the haptic as well as somatic and mental influences of the "diabolical apparatus:"
The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is physiologically able to pick up only 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly filling in vague and blurry images, bringing himself into in-depth involvement with the screen and acting out a constant creative dialog with the iconoscope. The contours of the resultant cartoonlike image are fleshed out within the imagination of the viewer, which necessitates great personal involvement and participation; the viewer, in fact, becomes the screen, whereas in film he becomes the camera. By requiring us to constantly fill in the spaces of the mosaic mesh, the iconoscope is tattooing its message directly on our skins (McLuhan 1969).
A kind of writing on the body, McLuhan's metaphor of tattooing is particularly suggestive. If the medium is the message, Natalija's sense of its touch reveals that it is capable of inflicting pain as well as pleasure. Demanding the "interplay of all the senses," the virtual touch of television was for McLuhan the "most significant of the electric media." Permeating domestic space, it had the power to influence thought through its "lines of force," working over and moulding "the entire sensorium with the ultimate message." Before the guru of hot and cool media had written a word about the power of television's reach, Eugen Hadamovsky in Germany realized that the new medium was the ultimate carrier wave of Nazi ideology.
 Natalija A's paranoia has much to offer media theory. She is very much, as Beloff has suggested, a technological visionary (1). Her sense of estrangement from her own body was imagined as an outering and distancing of her central nervous system beyond her own corporeal presence. It is a powerful visual image of the disembodiment and remote sensing of mediated conditions. This projection of a doppelganger invokes the virtual person we construct when communicating with an absent interlocutor. In her extensive study of presence, Esther Milne points out that "a material medium (the postal service or email system) supports the creation of an imagined body, and a spiritual, almost telepathic, sense of the other's presence" (3). But in this instance, Natalija A's imagined body is her own, not someone else's.
 Beloff demonstrates in The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A that the psychological and etymological sense of a division or splitting of the self within schizophrenia becomes a metaphor for mediation and telecommunications generally. An analogous work in this respect is Stelarc's 1995 networked performance piece Ping Body/Proto-Parasite. For three decades Stelarc has explored the relations between the body and technology, in particular the idea of electronic and robotic prostheses that amplify and extend the body's limits. His work of the 1990s, in particular Fractal Flesh (1995) and Parasite: Event for Invaded and Involuntary Body (1997), investigate the potential of the Internet as a medium of connectivity between remote bodies. As a cybernetic performance artist, Stelarc probes the outer limits of what could be possible in the name of telepresence and remote sensing. He has referred to his work in this respect as the desire to collapse "spatial separation, of generating intimacy without proximity" (quoted in Clarke, 200). Ping Body/Proto-Parasite was conceived for the Teleopolis event at the Center Pompidou in Paris and was designed to separate Stelarc from his audience, while at the same time enabling them to interact with the body at a distance. On the main stage in Luxembourg, the body was electronically linked between Paris, Helsinki and Amsterdam. A six channel muscle-stimulation system, controlled by a touch screen interface, allowed remote audiences to access and actuate the movement of the left hand side of the body, which would jerk and twitch involuntarily. Beyond the control of the artist, the body is a trace of Natalija A's perception that she is subject, in Stelarc's words, to "the promptings of another body in another place" (Stelarc). The design for this interface featured a stylized representation of the human body, a "virtual surrogate" that resembled an electronic acupuncture chart. A simulacrum of Stelarc's physical absence, it enabled the control and stimulation of the body's proprioception. Its visual design and function bears an uncanny resemblance to Natalija A's image of the influencing machine, as does its ability to affect the motor functions of the distant subject.
Fig. 3: StimSystem interface.
 Ping Body/Proto-Parasite and The Influencing Machine of Natalija A are similar in their situation of the mediated subject as a kind of puppet being manipulated at a distance. Indeed, Stelarc often refers to the body being "choreographed" in such Internet actuated performances. Both engage with the question of mediation as a compromise of and adjunct to individual agency. The emphasis on involuntary action in Stelarc's Internet-based works of this period is decisive and deepens our understanding of the psychopathology of the influencing machine syndrome and the drama of mediated affect more broadly. Stelarc has described the phenomena of "glove anaesthesia" and "alien hand" as "pathological conditions in which the patient experiences parts of their body as not there, as not their own, as not under their control" (Stelarc 2000, 121). As Stelarc's work demonstrates, the very nature of cyberspace as a networked matrix of selves and others, of relations and information flows, heightens the potential for affective communication. In other Ping Body performances, Stelarc took the idea of involuntary control to extreme lengths by submitting the body to the anonymous ebb and flow of Internet activity itself. Abstracted from individual agency and the determination of choice or volition (do I move the body's calf muscle or bicep), the body twitches and trembles in sync with the random pinging of Internet hits. This radical anonymity can have unforeseen and undesirable consequences in 'the real' of online social interaction, not unlike those encountered by Natalija A in the context of broadcast media.
 The implications of choreographing the actions of others over the Internet were dramatically and infamously enacted in the "rape in cyberspace" incident of the early 1990s. Also known as the Mr. Bungle Affair, the rape in question involved the possession and control of the identity and actions of someone else in the course of a series of real-time encounters in LambdaMOO in March 1992. The participant known as Mr. Bungle created a phantom, "a programming trick often referred to as a voodoo doll," that forced "one and then another of the room's occupants to perform sexual acts on him" (Turkle 1995, 251). For the people in question, they would have been watching themselves speak and act on the screen, in ways beyond their volition or control, without typing a word on the screen. The textual attribution of violation was explained by those affected as figurative rape. However the stylization of sexual violence expressed the more profound sense of rape as the losing control over oneself, of compromised agency, of an act of taking without consent. As Julian Dibbell pointed out in his detailed account of the incident, many "were the casual references to Bungle's deed as simply 'rape,' but these in no way implied that the players had lost all sight of the distinctions between the virtual and physical versions" (Dibbell 1994, 249). But nor was the slippage between sexual and textual violence mere affectation or sophistry. The insidious masquerade of the voodoo doll is a particularly malicious instance of an involuntary response perpetrated by an invisible agent, an emblem of the power implicit in the influencing machine as a category of affect at a distance.
 At a time when television was an emergent broadcasting medium, the sensation of being split or divided from the self, simultaneously here and there, would appear strange to anyone. But to a schizophrenic suffering delusions of persecution, it would be positively terrifying. Indeed, the somatic affect of Natalija A's sense of disembodiment was dramatically expressed in terms of disgusting smells and disagreeable slime extruding from her nose (Beloff 2003, 5). Projecting herself as a remote other, in the form of the object of her persecution, she metaphorically embodies the disorientation that we would naturalise and eventually forget in the age of advanced telecommunications. She is displaced, here and there at the same time, a dislocated self. Katz and Aakhus also remark on a similar revelation of strangeness, of defamiliarization, in terms of the advent of mobile telephony. They note that "the telephone's becoming mobile has re-familiarized many people with the amazement felt by its early witnesses" (Katz & Aakhus 2002, 1).
 To use more contemporary parlance associated with the digital age, Natalija A's imaging of herself as a human-like phantom is a kind of avatar, a stylized manifestation of her virtual presence in an abstract, notional elsewhere. Rivalling the distributed networks of mobile telephony, the global phenomenon of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) represents the next phase of concentrated co-presence. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Everquest are more sophisticated versions of the text-based MUDs and MOOs of the early 1990s, and their attraction has been heightened by the sophisticated immersive qualities of the environments. The avatar, which represents an individual's location and agency within the environment, provides a compelling visual index of presence in a networked, virtual world apart. Such environments have developed into online ecologies, spaces in which participants commit substantial time. They are, for all intents and purposes, part of daily life. Second Life is one such space and is described as "a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity" (on October 18 2006, Second Life registered one million residents). While not strictly a MMORPG, Second Life blurs the distinction between the real and virtual worlds, creating a complex, parallel world which duplicates the stuff of daily life in increasingly dramatic ways. It enables its residents to buy property, go to rock concerts, attend town meetings, conduct business and take university seminars within it. An annexe of the social world and the built environment, Second Life imbricates the real and virtual world in such a way that its participants are, Stelarc-like, split between corporeal and avatar selves. Accordingly, Second Life has taken the idea of co-presence further by creating "mixed world" events. Annalee Newitz described an event that took place at the start of 2006 at the real-world offices of the company that owns Second Life:
Linden Lab threw a party at which attendees sipped beer and chatted next to a giant-screen projection of the SL version of the gathering, and a webcam streamed an image of the real party into SL. When people waved at the webcam, avatars saw it and waved back. People chatted across worlds, with small social groups forming around keyboards. There was a sense of immediacy in the communication—the screen on the wall was just another room into which the party had spilled over (Newitz 2006).
The idea of mixed worlds adds a further grade to Mitchell's economy of presence. In the context of Second Life, Natalija A's nightmare can be thought of as a kind of sentience, a premonition of a technological world to come, in which the self and its avatars constitute a relational or mixed form of identity. This is certainly one way of appropriating the work as a form of media theory. Indeed, Beloff refers to her projects as "philosophical toys, objects to think with." The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A engages with "the experience of hallucination, thought transference in psychoanalysis and the development of broadcasting technologies" (Beloff). As well as an allegory of television as virtual touch, it is also a story of the digital. Or more precisely it is an allegory of any media capable of affect, an intriguing text that materialises an individual's unconscious as an exploratory theatre of delusional persecution in an age of new media.
 Natalija A's sense of persecution may in fact be a sign of the strangeness of telepresence and of mediation generally. Her estranged alienation of herself from herself is an allegory of the somatic shock of co-presence that we all must forget for mediation to make sense. Her nightmare of being under someone else's control is a register of being the subject of mediation, her release from it is the need to get over the medium. For here is an encounter with absent others that truly violates the realities of corporeal, embodied experience. Natalija A's paranoia is the realization that she is being watched, probed and affected by people she cannot see. Such encounters are indeed reminiscent of spectral manifestations, akin to encountering a ghost. It is a phenomenon that is against nature, an experience that transforms what we are capable of as humans. But mediation makes cyborgs of us all. We are spellbound by the lure of the improbable and the marvellous. Its influence is compelling and irresistible and, as Eugen Hadamovsky intuited in Nazi Germany, its instructions are simple. You will get over the medium.
The author wishes to acknowledge Zoe Beloff and Stelarc for the use of their images and their generous response to questions about their work.
 I am grateful to Zoe Beloff for drawing this to my attention.
 Beloff describes how this type of image "tricks the brain because it incorporates two incompatible types of perspective, orthogonal and vanishing point projection" (8).
 Beloff has created a Flash version of the installation with detailed documentation of its original gallery exhibition. It also simulates the workings of the influencing machine: «http://www.zoebeloff.com/influencing/».
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