The Art of EMF Science:
Aesthetics, Ethics, and Post-Digital Health Advocacy
Dr. Aaron McKain, Steven Pederson, and Allison Baker
The Institute for Aesthetic Advocacy (IAA) is a Minneapolis-based art collective. The Institute’s modus operandi is the use of art to catalyze and capture community deliberations on pressing issues of digital ethics (e.g., privacy, free speech, Big Data’s balkanization of American politics, the bio-effects of cellular technology) while also transforming these conversations, in real time, into aesthetic enactions of a particular community’s digital civic values, ultimately curating these pieces into a “living” declaration of post-digital ethics.
Debuting at RSA 2018 -- and subsequently exhibited at X, Y, and Z -- “Cellular Home Invasion” – featuring work by Prof. Allison Baker, Dr. Aaron McKain, Prof. Josh Gumiela, and Riley Miller – uses sculpture, sound, and live programming to examine the current scientific controversies around defining the “health” and “normalcy” of our post-digital bodies and homes. The installation aesthetically enacts the competing realities of two recent “cellular” revolutions: The scientific discovery of the microbiome and the emerging medical consensus on the health effects of the electromagnetic frequencies that power our phones and the “internet of things.” As always,what drives the IAA is our belief that art and museum spaces (properly curated and cited) can actually become sites of intellectual power: Providing materials that can be used by patients, doctors, lawyers, legislators, educators, and jurors as they navigate the ethical and scientific dilemmas of our post-digital world.
What can be done if a scientific and technological revolution (with potentially catastrophic medical consequences) is underway but cannot be seen? And how do patients, lawyers, doctors, politicians, and advocates negotiate competing experts and information/disinformation campaigns when the health of hundreds of thousands (if not millions upon millions, globally) is on the line?
In our new post-COVID public health reality, these are the now familiar -- if terrifying -- questions that we all must navigate. But if digital technology -- and its resulting algorithmic filter bubbles -- catalyzed our current “postmodern pandemic” Coronavirus crisis, then, ironically, it is the most contentious scientific disagreement of the past twenty years (that began when the first cell phone was turned on) that provides the best illustration of (and may provide the cleanest methodological path out of) of our current quagmire of post-fact public health ethics: EMFs.
Once the providence of cranks and tinfoil hat conspiracists, 2019-2020 may be seen, in hindsight, as the moment when public health activism on electromagnetic fields (EMFs) went mainstream. In December of 2019, the City of Berkeley filed -- and won -- their suit against cell phone lobbyists blocking mandatory warning labels on mobile devices. In the fall of 2019, the Chicago Tribune reported on their independent scientific findings that proved the FCC was not enforcing their legal limits on cell phone radiation (SAR). And in July of 2020 -- at the end of six year “fact-finding” investigation by the FCC -- the Children’s Health Defense (CHD) and Environmental Trust Fund filed suit against the FCC on three grounds:
The FCC had ignored thousands (and thousands and thousands) of submitted peer-reviewed studies connecting cell phone and wifi frequencies to “non-thermal” biological effects.
The FCC failed to provide the definitions and parameters for individuals seeking ADA and HUD remedies for “radiation sickness.”
The FCC failed to provide definitions and parameters for individuals seeking remedy (on property or “bodily autonomy” grounds) for non-consensual invasion by EMFs.
While we are -- after five years of conference presentations; interviews with patients, advocates, doctors, researchers, and attorneys; and museum and gallery shows -- academically sympathetic with (many of) the lawyers, advocates, and scientists lobbying for a safer “post-EMF” world, the IAA’s concerns with the scientific debate surrounding EMFs and their effects is somewhat larger: How do we, as rhetorical theorists, provide a model to triangulate competing scientific claims in a postmodern public health context? And how do we -- as artists and curators -- use aesthetics (and the affordances of the gallery space) -- to “enact” the ethical dilemmas that will continue to face us (as citizens, patients, and juries) as we navigate health and politics in our fractured post-fact society?
What is so intriguing about the EMF debate is that it is -- in essence -- zero sum. If Team A is correct, we are -- according to the CHD lawsuit and hundreds of scientists (from places like Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, X and Z) -- “poisoning” a generation of children and denying diagnoses (medical and legal) to millions of adults. If Team B -- the FCC, lawyers for Silicon Valley, the IEE and most physicists -- are correct, there is, literally, nothing happening. Both sides -- actually -- have a point. Which is why in the pages that follow, we will outline our method for civic education on these post-fact donnybrooks (using a subset of narrative theory already deployed in the academic and professional contexts of narrative medicine) and then demonstrate -- through our track-record of juried and curated exhibitions of the IAA’s “Cellular Home Invasion” project -- how we go about using art (and the affordances of the gallery space) to “aesthetically enact” even complex scientific and legal debates within the field of public health.
How to Survive a Postmodern Information Pandemic: Curatorial and Rhetorical Strategies
In all of our exhibits on public health -- including “Cellular Home Invasion” and our recent international exhibit “Contaminated” -- what powers our curatorial methodologies is “Chicago School” narrative theory, specifically James Phelan’s taxonomy of unreliability.
Originally developed in the context of literary analysis (to untangle how -- precisely -- unreliable narrators are, in fact, not reliable), Phelan’s rhetorical model “unreliability” can be (with some slight modifications) taken out of debates about Jane Austen and Nabakov and imported into (sorry Phelan) the more impactful fields of medicine, law, political disinformation, and algorithmic ethics. On the front, the IAA has recently used its re-articulation Phelan’s categorizations of unreliability in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. Ostensibly a book review of In Two Voices (by Linda Clarke and Michael Cusimano), we use that text as a (extremely teachable) example of competing, yet co-authored, patient/doctor narration and the value of using the three axis of narrative unreliability as a critical lens: The axis of facts, the axis of perception (which we redub “bias”), and the axis of representation (or as we call it, “storytelling”). Quickly put in conversation with some of the key aspects of the current “narratibility” crisis in America’s public health debates, our user-friendly definitions are as follows:
The Axis of Bias focuses on how the “narrator” (or author or subject) perceives the events they are representing. What matters along this axis is who is presenting the information: how their previous experiences as well as their personal commitments and background shape the way they present and interpret information. In the case of COVID-19, for example, this could mean looking at how the varying experiences of two patients (say, one with minor symptoms and one with severe symptoms) end up shaping their perspective on the seriousness of the disease. In terms of media coverage of COVID-19, it could mean looking at how the implicit political biases of different news networks might be shaping their judgment on how contagious or deadly the disease is.
The Axis of Fact focuses on the events (or “phenomena”) that are being narrated or talked about. What matters along this axis is what information is actually being presented about a person or thing or event, and how much information is being given. There is also a concern along this axis for the veracity of the information being presented. To take another example from COVID, a theorist or scholar using this axis might look at the amount of publicly available information about the virus, the credentials of those presenting the information, the extent to which pieces of information contradict each other, and perhaps even the extent to which certain pieces of information (and recommendations) concerning the virus have been changed over time.
The Axis of Storytelling focuses on the manner in which cause-and-effect (the relationship between parts of a story) is being presented. What matters along this axis is how a narrative is being constructed - or, to put it more simply, what kind of “storytelling techniques” are being employed, how the “flow” of the story is managed, and so on. Sticking with the COVID examples, anyone using this axis of analysis is going to be interested in how “storytellers” like news organizations, documentary film-makers, pundits, or even artists present the sequence of events pertaining to the virus, and to what extent and in what way the presentation of events implies particular judgments about causality (i.e., when and where America’s problem with COVID “really” begins) and ultimately about agency (who we consider to have culpability, responsibility, or power in the situation).
Though unorthodox, what distinguishes (and, we believe, accounts for the success of) the IAA’s curatorial practices, aesthetic enactments, public pedagogy, and inclusive community-based arts criticism is its -- again unorthodox -- adherence to Chicago School rhetorical/narrative theory. In the sections that follow, we will demonstrate how curating/aesthetically composing with these unreliability frameworks in mind help to orient patrons (and the public) in the chaotic (and potentially catastrophic) legal, medical, and scientific debates over EMFs.
The Axis of Bias: Aesthetically Enacting Scientific Disagreement in the Post-Fact Sublime
The amount of research that has been generated on both sides of the EMF debate since the 1970s is staggering. (And, in fact, it is so sensorially impossible to apprehend, we believe -- as we’ll explain in a moment -- that it is more logically understood aesthetically as a form of the sublime.) As noted in by the CHD in their lawsuit (CHD v. FCC, hereout), “thousands” of peer-reviewed, scientific studies have been published proving the biological (and harmful) effects of EMFs. (Including researchers from the most esteemed schools in America -- Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley -- the WHO, the Italian Supreme Court, and the X; 3,000 of which are awkwardly curated in the Bio-Initiative Report.) Which begs the question: If EMF impacts (and health effects) have been so exhaustively scientifically documented, why have cellular bio-effects been so willfully ignored by other scientists, politicians, and the general public? In other words, why is the “burden of proof” still on those scientists making (or advocates and attorneys citing) the 100% “scientifically” true claim that EMFs cause some measurable biological effects on living organisms? How do we account for this contradiction?
The Axis of Bias provides the first inroad to understanding this epistemic impasse. For Phelan, unreliability claims along the axis of bias involve perspectival, cultural, or ideological points of view which (taken to their logical extreme) produce competing views of reality itself. (E.g., COVID deniers, flat-earthers, and anti-vaxxers.) And while many academics, journalists, and activists -- taking a page from Ralph Nader, Nadine Strossen, or their favorite Marxist cultural theory class -- attempt to discredit “anti-EMF scientists” as paid shills for the telecom industry and the FCC as a “captured” government agency -- which we neither believe nor disbelieve as dispositive, because (rhetorically) the critique itself is so strategically futile -- Cellular Home Invasion instead aesthetically enacts the “real” scientific controversy (i.e., extreme perspectival unreliability) that creates noise and confusion in EMF debates: A methodological dispute -- which is more ontological than epistemological -- between physicists and biologists.
As rhetorical theorist Carolyn Miller demonstrated over a decade ago, the heart of the academic EMF dispute is the issue of “incommensurability” between the descendants of Newton (physics) and the disciples of Hippocrates (medicine and biology). Physicists – for their intellectual paradigm to work – can only measure EMFs -- or any frequency -- thermally to “prove” effects on a body or animal organism (i.e., does an EMF heat up a living thing enough to “see” or establish a causal effect?). Biologists and medical researchers – who are interested in public health – don’t care why a causal result is happening (with EMFs or other source of illness), they just publish, via their field’s peer-review standards, that a demonstrable effect is happening.
This is why -- despite thousands of studies to the contrary -- an honorable physicist (given their methodological perspective) must say: If EMFs don’t sufficiently heat an organism to cause measurable effects on a human body (which, spoiler alert, they don’t), no effects can be happening. (And this is also why, logically, the FCC will only regulate thermal effects and cell phone attorneys and lobbyists cite physicists’ research.) While we at the IAA are heartened that this fight between thermal (physicist) and non-thermal (biology, medicine, and public health) research is the central premise of the CHD’s lawsuit (which, via Prof. Miller, rhetorical scholars should take a victory lap for), we believe that the Axis of Bias illustrates a critical (but dangerously ignored) point in journalist reporting and regulatory debates on EMF health effects: Despite disagreement about the effects of EMFs, there is no disagreement about the tangible, physical reality of electromagnetic fields. Our first public advocacy remedy thus begins by aesthetically enacting the ontological reality of EMFs.
Exhibit A: Sonic Affect as Confirmation Bias
As Jacques Ranciere tells us, aesthetics are a “redistribution” of the sensible: What is noticed, perceived, and thus acted upon. The prima facie dilemma of EMFs in the public arena is thus obvious: The audience cannot perceive them. Taking seriously that works of art -- and, again gesturing back to narrative cultural criticism: the affects of art -- can function as evidentiary artifacts, Cellular Home Invasion’s starting pieces allow patrons to directly experience (and more concretely conceptualize) the shared, physical reality of EMFs before (in the Axis of Facts and Axis of Storytelling exhibits that follow in the gallery installation) presenting the problematic potentialities associated with the effects of EMFs.
As an aesthetic/affective remedy to the “silence” and “invisibility” of EMFs, Cellular Home Invasion begins with Riley Miller’s interactive sculpture “Animalistic Cyborg” (See Exhibit A). Inviting museum patrons to don their “antlers” -- in a nod to the proven (but politically unnoticed) effect of EMFs on animal life -- Miller’s piece captures and amplifies the ambient EMF frequencies of the gallery space: Forcing patrons not just to navigate, but also actively confront, the “true” material reality of the digital technology (wifi routers, laptops, FitBits, cell phones, etc) that fills our homes, offices, schools, and art spaces.
As the IAA’s curator-in-residence Steven Pederson explains with regard to “Animalistic Cyborg”:
Nature and its objects are clearly spatial phenomena, directly perceived by our senses and able to be felt and traveled through; its common sense name is “wilderness”, nature as place, nature as something that can be discernibly left alone or interfered with. Consequently, any interference with or alteration of spatio-material nature tends to be directly perceived (the Amazon is on fire, the seagulls are covered in oil, etc.). But there are also natural substances (like oxygen) and natural processes (like changes in global temperature) that are not directly experienced by our senses (and as phenomena) in the clearly spatial sense, although they objectively occupy space and affect all that inhabits or constitutes it. Any interference with invisible natural processes (like cell growth) that is equally invisible also cannot be experienced directly via the senses: in the example of EMFs, it is the effects made manifest in the affected individual that make a difference for the observer, not the potential cause. Being unrepresentable, the EMF problem becomes something sublime, sublime enough to be indigestible for common sense.
Sublimity is also the aesthetic key to our intervention into the other problem of EMF science (which serves as the premiere example of our current dilemma in the post-fact, post-Truth, post-expertise): Informational overload. For Kant, the term “sublime” has a fairly specific – and, ironically, for us: pragmatic – meaning: An experience in which human understanding is only able to grasp its very inability to adequately represent something intangible, unquantifiable, or limitless. While our application of sublimity to the unseen – until sonically revealed – nature of EMFs’ techno-materiality is obvious, the more intriguing application is to the nature of evidence (and data) itself in the post-fact society.
Exhibit B: "The Weight of The Evidence"
Anxiety. Tissue regeneration. MRSA. Hospital sterilization. Yeast. Bacteria. Bees. Ticks. Fungi. Cockroaches. Autoimmunity. Stress. Calcium channels. Natural killer cells. Reactive oxygen. Oxidative stress. Rat hippocampus. Cortisol. Stomach muscles. Testosterone. Blood brain barrier. Fertility. And so on. And so on.
The effects of EMFs to these living organisms and human biochemistry have been exhaustively documented in peer-reviewed studies. So we will ask again: Why can’t EMF advocates, attorneys, and scientists not catch a break?
While under pre-post-fact society norms of evidence, a thousands of peer-reviewed studies attesting to the “reality’ of a scientific cause would seemingly be sufficient, in the post-fact sublime (driven by an attention economy) “more” evidence actually produces a bizarre Catch-22: Put simply: The epistemological crisis we face in our “post-truth” society is that the public -- because it is in the presence of such overwhelmingly abundant (and “raw”) scientific data -- has no real means to understand and evaluate the negative potentialities of EMFs. And attorneys and governmental regulators -- because there is no way to actually ‘assess’ the competing mountains of evidence -- can simply cherry pick one or two studies, present them to a jury or agency, and claim victory via evidentiary stalemate. (And journalists -- in a toxic case of whataboutism -- can simply maintain “objectivity” by citing superficially competing sources from each side?)
The IAA believes the aesthetic-theoretical concept of sublimity provides the answer. For German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the term “sublime” has a fairly specific meaning: An experience in which human understanding is only able to grasp its very inability to adequately represent something intangible, unquantifiable, or limitless. Applied to the nature of scientific evidence in the age of information, sublimity helps us see the key “truth” about our post-Truth digital world (and the EMF debate): The problem is not a lack of information but it’s overabundance. And traditional citational methods merely “feed the beast” -- and keep us from the truth -- in post-digital rhetorical situations.
So how do we ensure that both opposing sides along the Axis of Bias acknowledge the “weight” of their opponents evidence? (And ensure that the public and juries understand the breadth and depth of non-thermal EMF effects?) Cellular Home Invasion’s intervention on this front is Dr. McKain’s “performative” sculptural exhibit and voice-activated text piece: The Weight of the Evidence.
In an effort to capture -- in “real time” -- the sheer magnitude of citational evidence on EMF science: The Weight of the Evidence converts (in a constantly evolving/updated curatorial process) the studies of EMFs and bio-effects into tangible paper trail of citations which serve as the representation of the “weight” of evidence that must be either (a) acknowledged or (b) rejected by the patrons already alerted to the ontological reality of EMFs. (In fact, hundreds of studies have been added since Cellular Home Invasion debuted at the Rhetoric Society of America in 2018.) This scientific materiality (i.e., the physical, economic, and intellectual labor of peer-review) is thus made undeniable in two ways. First – by trolling the very nature of “material lists” in museum title cards, McKain’s paper piece turns the sheer magnitude of the citational evidence of EMF science into a – materially enacted and thus “weigh-able” – sculptural exhibit. Second, by continually triggering peer-reviewed evidence as the docent (usually McKain) performs a vocalized “tour” of the exhibit, the inescapable connections between technology and EMFs is reinforced. A sample .gif is provided here:
While perhaps helpful to EMF advocates and scientists, the IAA’s aesthetic interventions along the Axis of Bias have potential across the field of public health in the post-fact society: Rejecting the traditional (but epistemologically counter-productive) aesthetics of academic “citation” (which is how we get “one” vaccine or climate change study touted as discrediting decades of scientific work), we seek to avoid the reductive “tit for tat” in public health discourse that allows for flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers to attempt to go “mano y mano” with scientific evidence. (In other words: Our belief is that reducing the ethos of a field to a singular apprehendable citational record inevitably makes evidentiary science “smaller,” more challengeable, and less true.) The overarching point of The Weight of the Evidence is that the point isn’t ever just this one study (whether on EMFs or any other medical dispute), but the – incontrovertible – body of scholarship, which has an affective aesthetic force that cannot be so easily brushed aside when you are forced to viscerally inhabit it. (Or when it is suddenly blasted in your body or on your property.)
Axis of Facts: The Gallery Space As Epistemological Judge in Interdisciplinary Scientific Disputes
Assuming -- against all likelihood -- that the CHD prevails in its case (and a court rules that the FCC must consider non-thermal EMF effects), a victory will not ensue. In fact, the actually difficult scientific and regulatory work will only begin. As the FCC notes, the “ubiquity” of cellular and WiFi technology means that regulation will be exceedingly difficult. And as the CHD -- and its scientists -- argue, if the issue isn’t thermal EMF effects, then the issue is the actual wavelengths (and rates of pulsation) produced by this technology. All of that has to be sorted out. And sorting it out with a court invaliding the field of physics isn’t going to make things any easier.
This brings us to the second level of narrative unreliability: the Axis of Facts. While questions along the Axis of Facts in pubic health contexts usually deal with a dearth of information (thereby making a narrator unreliable) the ontological disagreement between physicists and biologists (and the uncoordinated way that thousands of studies on EMF effects have been produced) invite a more vigorous analysis about factual reliability in order to (a) evaluate and curate existing biological studies and (b) attempt to reknit common, interdisciplinary paradigms of understanding between biologists and physicists
In other words, if physicists cannot acknowledge biological research (on non-thermal effects) without throwing their methodological paradigm into chaos -- and since there is no “Supreme Court” in higher education to adjudicate cross-disciplinary ontological disputes – Cellular Home Invasion instead reimagines the gallery space (in the form of peer-reviewed aesthetic enactments) as the most logical venue to adjudicate interdisciplinary disputes (in the public imagination) when our institutions of knowledge are (definitionally) incapable of adjudicating/addressing a public health controversy without compromising their standardized methodological approaches. Far be it for artists and rhetorical theorists to wade into these uncharted waters. But we did. And our curatorial key is focusing on two (but often confused) components of factual unreliability in triangulating scientific disputes: Misreporting and underreporting.
Exhibit A - Misreporting Findings and Blurring Scientific Precision
By “embodying” the academic disagreement, patrons can quickly understand why -- in terms of empirical research – the current terms of the interdisciplinary EMF fight are not only sloppy but unscientific. (Why does this phone -- in this room, next to this body -- trigger the sign in a unique way? And how is this “uniqueness” captured in physics’ meta-critique of EMF research?)
Exhibit B: Under-Reporting Causality in the Context of a Scientific Revolution
Because the IAA likes science -- and recognizes the immense task of engineering it will take to “solve” the EMF health crisis, if we choose to believe in that ontological reality -- Cellular Home Invasion also posits an (open and changing) question/challenge to the EMF field: How do we account for physicists’ methodological inability to recognize any “non-thermal” measurement of EMF bio-effects? If under-reporting -- along the Axis of Facts -- is the recognition of not deceit but a “missing” piece of contextual information, what is it that could have dropped through the interdisciplinary cracks?
Rather than throw the entire research paradigm of modern physics into chaos, “It’s the Microbiome, Stupid” provides one simple narrative answer to the physicists’ dilemma (that is already well-documented in the peer-reviewed research): Both the physicists and biologists are under-reporting their causal findings in the context of the early 20th century’s other scientific revolution. In other words: It’s (maybe) the microbiome, stupid.
We have to confess, this intervention -- a curatorial scientific hypothesis -- was catalyzed by our own peculiar narrative path of discovery: When our students asked one of the early naval researchers on EMFs -- Dr. Bob X [at the University of X medical school] -- whether they found evidence of EMF effects on non-human life, his answer to the class was “yeah; critters hated that shit.” More eruditely, new revelations on the human body’s microbial composition -- of which we humans, according to the new maxim, are merely “10%” -- have, as we all know, radically changed bio-medical and psychological research in the last decade. Unsurprisingly, a sizeable chunk of EMF research looks specifically on how frequencies affect non-human life -- with causal evidence for bees, birds, fish, cows, domesticated chickens, bats, pigs, mice, insects, arachnids, and rats -- an equally sizable chunk looks at EMF effects on the bacteria and “bugs” that constitute as much as 90% of our human bodies. By ignoring the microbiome, physicists don’t merely mis-report, their under-reporting denies them a potential causal mechanism (perhaps even a thermal one) that maintains their methodological paradigm.
What is needed then -- in public debates over EMF science – is maybe not a new scientific revolution in physics, but just an acknowledgement of the scientific revolution (of the microbiome) that has already happened. Or maybe, just directed attention at the other (also cited by the CHD) causal mechanisms and health consequences of EMFs. To this end, while “Cell Phones Zap Your Gutbugs” is one instantiation of the exhibit, it is also -- clearly to the audience -- removable: A specific challenge to scientists and researchers. (New text in the hopper are, of course, “Cell Phones Zap Your Brains” and “Cell Phones Zap Your Balls.”) But, once again, the IAA’s goal in Cellular Home Invasion is more modest than changing the nature of scientific debate in the academy: Using aesthetics to prompt audiences to decide for themselves how to weigh evidence in an interdisciplinary scientific stalemate seems essential insofar as that stalemate is likely to continue for the near future, even while the consequences for picking the wrong ontology are potentially catastrophic for the present.
“QVC EMF Chic,” “Explodo,” and “Prayer Gloves”
Axis of Storytelling: What Post-EMF World Should We Inhabit?
As postmodernism’s literary godfather Brian McHale explained in the early days of X, the key question for postmodern information aesthetics (after the fracturing of shared reality) is, by definition, not epistemological but ontological and ethical: What world is this? And what am I to do in it? Which EMF story -- its theoretical impossibility (according to physics) or its empirical reality (according to biology) -- should we tell? Which one should we live in? What are the consequences for choosing the wrong world?
As part of its fact finding investigation, one particular set of consequences of the world we choose was made very narratively clear to the FCC: The alarming number of affected (and surprisingly often, homeless or unemployed) “radiation sickness” patients who, according to current FCC regulations, aren’t affected at all. Summarizing just a sampling of the -- as always -- peer-reviewed evidence cited in the CHD’s brief, we find these symptoms and biomedical indices:
Neurological effects. Headaches. DNA damage. Testes damage. Sperm damage. Female fertility. Cancer. Cell membrane effects. Antibacterial resistance. Reduce immunity. Oxidative stress. Cortisol levels. Glucose levels. Mitochondrial damage. Sleep issues. Memory issues. Learning issues. Perception Issues. Visual issues. Auditory issues. Motor function issues. Cognitive function issues. Alpha brain waves. Cortical activity. Brain synchronization Epileptic seizures. Attention deficits. Emotional problems in children. Hyperactivity in children. Behavioral problems in children. Heart palpitations. Ringing in the ears. Skin rashes. Fatigue. Nose bleeds. Unremitting flu-like symptoms. Dizziness. Burning sensation.
As a governmental agency dealing with public health, the FCC -- according to the CDH -- should obey the “precautionary principle” in making its decisions about the regulation of EMF emitting technology. But the reality is: What would be the -- economic, political, and ethical -- consequences of acknowledging post-EMF ontology? And how do you balance those -- very real -- effects against the denial of a causal/medical narrative to potentially millions of afflicted children and adults?
The IAA does not purport to have the answer. But given that esoteric disputes in scientific epistemology cannot seem to suggest one either, it appears that we need a conceptual intervention that is both public-oriented and - in the spirit of our exhibits - aesthetically enacted. In narrative-rhetorical terms, the axes of bias and fact have helped us identify the problem. In order to talk about the potential solution -- and help take some of the onus of narration off of our fellow citizens -- we must now turn to the axis of storytelling.
Exhibits D-F: Wearables
Any quick glance at the stories we circulate in the name of post-digital subjectivity makes it clear that the public -- and those of us in the fields of rhetoric, communication, composition, and public health -- have no problem embracing (or paying lip service to) the “materiality” of rhetoric in our post-human moment: We think nothing of blaming our phones, devices, apps, and the “satanic panics” of our social media era for teen suicide, body images issues, ADHD, civic discord, school shootings, and so on and so on. And yet, while we scramble for the faux-scientific statistical evidence that “proves” these effects on cultural grounds, a glaring question looms: Why aren’t we looking at -- or even acknowledging -- the concrete evidence of the biological effects of that same technology? Or -- more bluntly -- Given the increasingly apparent relationship between EMFs and certain medical quandaries (and the difficulty those patients have in making their stories legibly herald) why don’t we -- as curators, rhetorical critics, and communication researchers -- also look at the actual, scientific evidence of the communicative bio-effects of our EMF-powered technology?
This ethical imperative brings us to Cellular Home Invasions “wearable” exhibits: “QVC EMF Chic,” “Explodo,” and “Prayer Gloves.” Designed by Prof. Baker – and taking their cue from Dr. Cory Holding’s research on 18th century “gesture manuals'' (which sought to teach preachers and teachers of the day how to communicate with their bodies) -- Exhibits D-G infuse these gestures with (purposefully clunky and “low-rent”) versions of embodied technology. Copping the stylistic features of QVC meets Road Warrior Cyber-chic, Prof. Baker’s wearables exhibits reinforce the idea that before we blame or fail to acknowledge the bio-effects of particular technologies, we must first inhabit our new (posthuman) subjectivities. Gleaned from the 18th century manuals of gesture, we show that even human (religious) gestures, when infused with embodied equipment – are themselves, well, mutated: Gestures of peace, gestures of war, and even the gesture of prayer could -- or couldn’t -- mean what you (or “post-EMF you”) intended to your electromagnetically empowered or bio-triggered audience.
Far from falling into the tired binary of “EMFs are good” versus “EMFs are bad” -- since, after all, non-thermal EMF pulsations are also widely used to heal bones and fight cancer -- the IAA’s wearables simply reinforce the (sadly, revolutionary) idea that we are already are posthuman EMF subjects, and we should judge our interpretations of each other (and ourselves) accordingly. Just as your FitBit only measures your post-FitBit EMF body, all arenas of human communication -- prayer, persuasion, psychology, politics -- must be analyzed with our EMF materiality in mind. Even that bare aesthetic acknowledgment of evidentiary possibility -- in our research, cultural criticism, and day to day life -- opens up new storytelling pathways for our fellow citizens on the “spectrum” (as it is called) of radiation sickness.
And nowhere is this connection between post-digital communication, posthumanism, and the dire need for an “aesthetics” of EMF subjectivity more apparent than in the digital era’s favorite medical “crisis”: Autism.
While the IAA’s ethical paradigm prevents us from advocating (for or against) the autism community’s loud forays into EMF legislation and activism, our duty – as citizens – also requires us to give them a shout out in the name of common post-digital humanity. Autistic subjectivity - which is medically classified across a bafflingly large “spectrum” (the same term used to articulate radiation sickness) - has been a hotbed of much quasi-theoretical speculation ranging from the concept of “refrigerator mothers” to poison flu-shots and bad diets, all of which rests on the assumption that an autistic organism is inherently retrograde. (So why would environmental factors need to be considered?) But the EMF “subjectivity rupture” allows for the exploration of the possibility that (A) the issues associated with autistic body-brains may actually have a techno-environmental basis, and (B) that the adverse reactions of said body-brains to environmental stressors may only indicate acute sensitivity to what may be harmful for human biology in general. At the very least, it may help us stop the cruel inanity of (to take just one example) such public discourses as the current one on autism, which paints people on the spectrum -- who are often publicly outed communicatively -- as inherently sick or retrograde.
This is where post-human ecology becomes a viable theoretical possibility. For instead of limiting ourselves to studying the effects of EMFs either on those who feel no biological impact or those who are likely to pursue further study because of the effects they feel, we can begin looking at other organisms as sites of EMF causality: in other words, non-human animal and plant life. Critiquing humanism - going beyond the “normal” human “subject” -- and their subjective responses to (artificial) environmental forces -- is a pathway both to understanding hidden harms in our own body-brains and for broadening the appreciation of the “mutations” (whether “disabilities” or “superpowers” or something boring and symptomatic that lies between) caused by man-made forces to include the web of life that, by sheer coincidence, we rely upon in order to exist.
Conclusion: The Harmonic Aesthetics of Post-EMF Humanity
We are EMF-interconnected, we are environmentally reconstructed, and we are posthuman. So what now?
However the legislative, public health, and academic debates over EMFs pan out, our final Exhibit -- dronesTruck’s musical performance (Exhibit E: “Unsound Methods”) from RSA 2018 -- is our manifesto for moving forward empathetically and ethically as posthuman subjects.
Capturing the ambient EMF frequencies of the gallery space -- and improvising/composing along with them -- “Unsound Methods” is a straightforward example of our posthuman EMF aesthetic in action. Moving beyond the failed categories of “social construction” and “genetic aberration” -- both of which always seem to provide rhetorical ammunition for stigmatizing “deviant” medical subjectivities -- our new posthuman EMF subjectivity radically connects us together by exploding the preconceived boundaries of “the self” as it relates to the post-digital physical environment. More importantly, our aesthetic enactment of this new “EMF ontology” opens up public debate on the effects of technology in a way that actually acknowledges the ethical, factual, and perspectival complexity of the competing stories being told.
We are already post-digital people. We are already posthuman. The next step is to catalyze, curate, and nurture the persistent improvised search (amidst the daily barrage of informational and biochemical noise) for post-digital harmony and new ways of narrating interconnected subjectivity. And during this historic moment for post-digital ethics and post-digital science – when the conditions and contours of post-digital life, citizen, and the very definition of the human are being decided daily – what has been conspicuously left out of the public conversation is the intellectual toolkit most able to diagnose our new struggles, catalyze new paradigms for posthuman humanity, and articulate our new digital values (whatever they turn out to be): Aesthetics.
1 For ethical, political, and epistemological reasons made clear in this essay, the (thousands) of scientific studies regarding the bio-effects of electromagnetic fields are only cited “aesthetically” in the Cellular Home Invasion exhibition. Our (always necessarily evolving) working bibliography – which verifies the research behind our installation – is located at instituteforaestheticadvocacy.com. This exhibition has already been academically “peer-reviewed” in its own right via its juried presentations to the Rhetoric Society of America’s 2019 and 2020 conferences.
2 Again, consult instituteforaestheticadvocacy.com for our “living” bibliography on EMF health effects. (At the time of publication, the health effects of EMFs have also become “mainstream” news in the United State.)
3. As of this writing, the IAA makes no professional endorsement about the “causes” of autism except to acknowledge that autistic subjectivity, which is medically classified across a bafflingly large spectrum, has been a hotbed of much quasi-theoretical speculation ranging from the concept of “refrigerator mothers” to poison flu-shots and bad diets.
4. “Unsound Methods” can be heard at