From Auto-Mystification to Identity-Sacrifice: Donatella Demuth on Shedding Skins

Visibility is immediately an issue of political philosophy. In the age of networks, this has only changed insofar as it has become abundantly clear that it is specifically the province of theonomy. As grating as it is against the comfortable illusion of a progress that can be reconciled with human wellbeing, the sovereignty of algorithms has been quite rightly assessed by conservative parties as incentivizing superficiality and the compression of attention spans. Even the most deeply engrained forms of human behavior warp and dissolve before the interest of profit maximization.

While in the '90s this effect was still somewhat limited to deep web death- and UFO-cults, the phenomenon has long since ceased to take place at the margins of the world. Instead, it now structures this world. It can be confidently predicted that populism - waging, as far as it is concerned, defensive war against this tide that is washing away everything meant by "human" to its bare infrastructure - will see its brightest moments in the near future, as many a popular Neomarxist political theorist has noted while skillfully failing to see their own exemplifying this dynamic.

To risk positing cliché as a mantra: a moment is sacrificed as it is photographed. With the visual culture of modernity taking off - a movement identical with the exponentially accelerating development of photographic technology - what the world is becomes increasingly intelligible as a set of transmissible signs. Speaking from here and now: far more than geometry, the schema according to which our field of vision is structured is the technobiotic complex of feedback loops summarized as its instagrammability. Personal beauty, too, outmodes its sexual and neuro-chemical origins to be magnitudes more intuitively understood as a compulsion of Möbian self-signification, encryption and decryption.

It is first of all clear that any person, by definition, engages in auto-mystification, and that this is even - to a degree - welcomed by the public. With doped up telecommunications technology, however, a once (and, in name, still) ambitiously invoked diversification has become the boogeyman of filter bubbles and cyberbalkanization. To the sheer horror of all humans involved, what had talked so sweetly of recognition and affection (terms so close to the brain stems of social apes) necessitated their very transfiguration into a measurable quantity. A like button is the traumatic impact of number upon mammalian existence.

It is at this point that a new avant-garde of virtual artists slots in, for which one Sophie Ramirez, also known as Soff (the Hebrew word for the limit or end, invested with an expectable degree of qabbalistic intensity), is exemplary. An altogether fragmented and decidedly incoherent scene, only its Meso-American splinter has yet made a name for itself: "Majochoya", from Mahou Shoujo, the metamorphosis-obsessed 'magical girl' subgenre of anime, which it treats as East-Asian hypercapitalist pop imaginarium, from which to extract and weaponize database-patterns.


In Soff's '21 photo series 'Hot Girl Summer', exhibiting a head-shaving exercise over time, the transaction involved is not that of a vulgar renegotiation of human aesthetic conventions as hosted by the culturally hegemonic (neorationalist) feminisms. It is also that of the much more discomfortingly ancient term of sacrifice: always denoting destruction or abandonment of something precious in problematic relation to a hope of receiving something else in return. Even Christianity, in a crucial sense the formalized rejection of ritual sacrifice, founds itself upon the self-abandonment of the Nazarene. Sacrifice is what recurs with Majochoya and its Occidental analogs. A body is deprived of any signifier that could possibly point to good health, but this generates attention and mediatic nourishment. The current sexual predicament is a paradigm shift, from beauty to the ability to generate attention. At the same time, paradoxically, the shaved head presents a loss of identity. Who shaves their head? Those entering a convent, or joining the troops, South-American pariahs, the sexually lost (and thus ultimately perverted..). The stripped Barbie doll's bald head is the faculty of the ego dissolving upon its crown — it is the body beheading itself. Such dissolution does not occur in the service of any faith, or some other, comparable collective entity. It is the most perfect and ulterior act of auto-mystification. An artist like Ramirez becomes the aesthetic object in herself: clad in Pornhub merchandise one day and vegetation the next, her body is radically laid open to be used as a canvas by the unnature of modernity.

Illustrated here, vividly, is that if there is something of interest to be sought in the wealth of digital images, the heuristics required will not be able to operate on the basis of quality at all, but rather have to zero in on sheer quantity. There is a violence to the quantified image. It cuts into experience like a swarm of bloodthirsty insects or surgery nanobots. The initiated hunting season for one's self conjures up such fitting terms as that of the snapshot. Excessive personal photography — of artworks and other bodies — as it has established itself in the post-cybernetic age, becomes a substitute for the exact gaze. As soon as storage is outsourced from the body, visual culture becomes akin to a drone strike rather than the sniper's calculated precision.

The good life and the pursuit of happiness have finally been unveiled as the dead end of a hermeneutic, self-referential preoccupation with one's self. When those like Soff intensify this dynamic towards its limit, the glistening smoke screens of capital are entered to revel in the glory of the surface. Hyperproductive melancholy and mirror-hall narcissism are the virtues of post-cybernetic society.

This, our narcissism, is not so much an isolated clinical appearance as it is the expression of an aeonic turn in the guise of social pathology. The much bemoaned modern feeling of alienation is only the most pathetic interpretation that is possible to be extracted from the mystical vision of emptiness, which is always preceded by some act of fragmentation: from the isolation of the hermit, to the schism cleaving the church apart and thereby initiating modernity from protestant ethic, and even a gene pool undergoing adaptive radiation in reaction to a catastrophic shift impacting traumatically upon the topology of the biome it calls home. The initial separation of Anglosaxons from mainland Europe falls under this dynamic, and it presently continues in the formation economically exceptional microstates throughout Asia.

As trivialized as Susan Sontag has become, what resonates of her reverberations through the halls of modernity is the description of photography as a sublimated kind of bodily disintegration which also, paradoxically, appropriates the Other as a symbolically possessed object: in short, as murder — and Soff invites mass sublimated murder. Ramirez relinquishes control over her private image in the name of making the self a myth. The problematized gain in this particular enactment of loss, this particular sacrifice, lies in an unbinding from the soul-myth. Ever since pop culture has opened all seals of projection, personal narratives are no longer of any interest. At the same time, the photographer tangibly recognizes itself as a murderous animal, whose hunt follows the instinct of religious calling rather than high-level reason. Quoting Villem Flusser, I conclude my reflections with a final “praise of superficiality”, in the ever paradoxical hope of finally guiding profundity to consummation in its death, whose positive reciprocal is the spread of the surface.