#102 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July
Funk Not Punk
Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Electronic Mediations Series 13. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. xxix + 312 pp. $75 hc; $25.00 pbk.
The posthuman is one of the crucial categories of twenty-first-century technoculture studies, ranging from N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), which set the agenda for much of the critical discussion of embodiment and information culture that followed, through works focused more immediately on contemporary technoculture, such as Chris Hables Gray’s Cyborg Citizen (2002), and reactionary responses, such as Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (2003). Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk, well-versed in the scholarship that has preceded it, is a welcome and original contribution to the field. This important book outlines the current research on the posthuman, draws connections between the posthuman and earlier work on embodiment, technology, and cyberpunk, and introduces race as an unduly neglected category in posthuman scholarship. It makes clear that our discussions of the posthuman are only just beginning.
Five of the book’s seven chapters appeared as essays published over the past decade or so, but this should not discourage anyone from seeking out their newer versions. On their original appearance, they made vital contributions to the study of cyberpunk and cyborg embodiment, and it is good to have them collected here, integrated into a wider argument about human “hardwiring” and our potential ability to resist it. Furthermore, the work has been updated and expanded, incorporating more recent scholarship. Even readers already familiar with Foster’s work will find new ideas and a more nuanced treatment of previous ones.
The introduction, “Cyberpunk’s Posthuman Afterlife,” argues that cyberpunk, one of the first cultural formations to explore the implications of changing human embodiment and human merger with machines, remains a fundamental concern. Although the moment of cyberpunk fiction has long since passed, the ethics of “technologically mediated forms of embodiment and subjectivity” are more relevant than ever (xiii). Foster contends that previous assessments of cyberpunk have failed to see it as one of many varieties of the posthuman. He argues that cyberpunk is not “the vanguard of a conservative, technophilic, libertarian tendency” but “an attempt to intervene in and diversify what posthumanism can mean” (xiii). Cyberpunk did not disappear but “experienced a sea change,” dispersing into the wider culture (xiv). From this perspective, “there are important reasons to retain the cyberpunk impulse against more politically problematic articulations of posthuman ideas and to reread examples of cyberpunk in the emergent context of posthumanism” (xviii). These premises explain two aspects of the book’s title: “vernacular theory” refers to Foster’s conviction that cyberpunk is a reflection on our posthuman condition; “the souls of cyberfolk,” taken from Deathlok comics (1991), paraphrases W.E.B. Du Bois’s characterization of African Americans as having a double consciousness, two souls, torn between internal experience and an omnipresent awareness of how one’s race is read through the eyes of others. Foster explains that his use of Du Bois is not an appropriation of black experience but a comment on how “expropriability is one of the defining, and often problematic, characteristics of the souls of cyberfolk precisely to the extent that cyberculture tends to materialize and externalize all soulfulness” (xxiv). Foster suggests that the performative nature of identity in cyberspace requires that interiority be expressed in easily recognized gestures, often so recognized because they reinforce stereotypes.
As Foster describes it, his book
is organized around the ways that cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk narratives in a variety of popular media redefine or “rescript” specific categories of postmodern theory: embodiment in chapter 2; fetishism (sexual and racial) in chapter 3; (trans)-gender performativity in chapter 4; histories of cross-racial performance such as blackface in chapter 5; trauma and the production of white masculinity in chapter 6; and transnationalism, globalization, and the formation of new ethnicities in chapter 7. (xxviii)
The chapter order traces Foster’s research on embodiment and subjectivity from gender (chapter 2, first published in 1993) to racial performance (chapter 5, first published in 1999), and also reveals the way technoculture studies tend “to privilege the critical perspective new technologies offer on gender and sexuality, and to minimize their implications for race and ethnicity” (xxviii). Foster attempts to correct this bias in revisions to his earlier work and in two new closing chapters focused on race and ethnicity.
Chapter 1, “The Legacies of Cyberpunk Fiction: New Cultural Formations and the Emergence of the Posthuman,” is a theoretical overview that “situates cyberpunk fiction and culture within a larger history of posthuman speculations about possibilities for intervening in the forms of human embodiment and consciousness and opening them up to historical change and to self-modification and control” (xxvii). It forges valuable connections among recent posthuman scholarship, earlier work on embodiment and subjectivity such as Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995), other work on cyberculture such as Lisa Nakamura’s Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002), and political engagements with contemporary technoculture such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000). Foster contextualizes his own readings within an impressively wide range of theoretical perspectives, defining the posthuman as the “redefinition of the space of subjectivity and the undoing of interiority” (9). His theoretical and fictional examples include computer technology (Hans Moravec, William Gibson) and genetic engineering (Edward Wilson, Greg Egan). In contrast to pessimistic critiques of the fantasy of transcendence through uploading, Foster argues that it “genuinely responds to a popular need” to imagine identity differently, “an imperfect (to say the least) response to the perception that it is necessary to relocate subjectivity in some more complex spatial relation than is possible when we imagine the body as container for mind or self” (10). He further suggests that posthumanism has inherent affinities with multiculturalism as a “critique of the exclusions created by any concept of normative human ‘spaces’” (13). Foster offers a fresh perspective on some well-trodden terrain, challenging ideas that have come to be taken for truisms: that cyberpunk is inevitably escapist, that it uncritically reinforces gender and racial stereotypes, and that it is invested in mind/body dualism. Foster offers new readings of even the most familiar of novels, including Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), seeing both as spaces where human liberation is possible as we rewrite our own “programming” and expand self into virtual domains.
Chapter 1 also presents the book’s main argument about the unique cyberpunk version of posthumanism through close readings of Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997) and Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division (1998). Foster contends that the parallels that cyberpunk establishes between humans and machines present a model of subjectivity that can overcome the limitations of cultural conditioning, rejecting and recoding what is “hardwired,” and critiquing the political ends to which the rhetoric of biological hardwiring is put. Foster usefully contextualizes this argument within a history in which full “human” subjectivity has been denied to some homo sapiens (women, non-whites) because the public sphere “is structured by a dichotomy between ‘publicness’ and embodied particularity” (33). Thus, the malleable and unstable relationship between subjectivity and embodiment within these narratives “makes legible and problematizes the assumptions informing the historical construction of the modern democratic citizen” whose ability to participate in public discourse has emerged from a process of self-abstraction (33). Foster concludes that, with existing scholarship’s under-theorization of race, “popular narratives about the possibility of a posthuman future are unable to articulate that possibility entirely outside the framework of racial histories”; as his readings reveal, “these narratives therefore also have something to teach us about the difference race will continue to make in the new technocultural contexts” (47).
The remaining chapters explore this difference, sometimes by focusing on racial representations and at other times by discussing race within a chapter focused primarily on posthumanism’s more familiar concerns about gender. Chapter 2, “Meat Puppets or Robopaths: The Question of (Dis) Embodiment in Neuromancer,” argues that cyberpunk provides a “third way” to think about embodiment and identity that transcends the binaries of “universality/particularity, mind/body, culture/nature, freedom/determinism, individual/social, and hardware/software” in much posthumanist theory (50). Foster concludes that Case and Molly, like Wintermute, overcome the limitations of their hardwiring and transform themselves into something new by the end of the novel. The essay connects the novel’s deconstruction of stereotyped gender categories to its representation of Hideo as a manufactured Asian stereotype, arguing that Neuromancer “reveals the ways that both gender and racial stereotypes are technologically mediated and actively produced, not taken for granted” (62). Thus, “cyberpunk represents cultural identity as an inescapable, if partial, commodification of subjectivity” (73) for all subjects, including white male ones. Challenging Jameson’s contrast of “authentic” minority culture and commodified culture, Foster argues that minority groups have not lived “free” of the influence of late capitalism. Thus, “minority experience does not offer a ready-made point of resistance to late capitalism; what such experience does offer is a history in which both commodification and resistance are combined, a model in which experience itself can be understood as a situation of simultaneously being forced to signify for others and to insist on the specificity of one’s history and identity” (75). Performing a doubled self in cyberspace can potentially create a more dialectical view of life under late capitalism, an experience not easily sorted into majority/minority cultures, resistance or commodification. I agree that cyberpunk cannot be reduced merely to the fantasies of young urban white males (as Andrew Ross would have it) and that we should be attentive to the “different ‘lesson’ from Neuromancer” (75) that has been taken by queer and multicultural writers using cyberpunk conventions. Foster seems to minimize, however, how such writers explore the alienated and commodified existence that some subjects already live, something quite different than the loss of the white, male subject’s “natural” self-ownership.
Chapter 3, “The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic: Posthuman Narratives and the Construction of Desire,” considers how cybersex undoes the “natural” relationship among bodies, erogenous zones, and sexual orientation. Drawing on Walter Benjamin and Slavoj Žižek, Foster argues that cybersex refuses the separation of Marxist (the fetish hides the existence of social relations) and Freudian (the fetish hides the lack of a female phallus) concepts of the fetish. Foster hopes “the technocultural instability in the object nature of machines, once articulated with a Marxist tradition of revealing how objects were never just objects but have a social being, might lead to self-reflection on our social histories of objectifying others and excluding them from the category of the generically human” (95). Although thought provoking, Foster’s conclusion does not seem sufficiently rooted in the examples of cybersex representations that accompany the article, illustrating a pattern in which the book points to ways that cyberspace might be used for self-reflective and progressive purposes, while at the same time revealing through its examples a more conservative reality. Representations of cybersex more often reinforce “natural,” gender-distinct constructions of erogenous zones—as is illustrated by the photos from the magazine Future Sex accompanying this chapter. More promising is Foster’s reading of Hajime Sorayama’s Sexy Robot art (1983): images of well-endowed metallic robot women posed in classic pin-up girl poses that “evoke rather than dispel male anxieties about both technology and female sexuality” (98) because they “make it impossible to determine whether the sexy robot is a fetish object or a woman who has been fetishized” (102). These images “require the heterosexual male spectator to not only confront but identify with technologies that themselves generate castration anxiety” as the sexy robot body cannot function as a fetish against female sexual difference (102). Different from conventional digitalized women “sex objects” such as Lara Croft, the robot women “enable us to desire differently, by accommodating libidinal investments in male lack, rather than a phallic ideal” (103). This is a provocative argument but, as with the different lessons that might be taken from cyberpunk, “mov[ing] beyond the repetition of sexist and racist stereotypes or fantasies” to “laying bare” (106) the social relations at work in such fantasies is only one of a range of possible responses to these images. Foster emphasizes their subversive potential at the expense of a more dialectical reading. Race is addressed briefly through comments on the lighting technique used in Sorayama’s art, and the chapter finally argues that Richard Calder’s DEAD trilogy (Dead Girls , Dead Boys , Dead Things ) “rethink[s] the experience of embodiment from the point of view of the fetish object” (108).
Foster considers how theories of gender performance in cyberspace can and cannot be extended to racial performance in Chapter 4, “Trapped by the Body: Telepresence Technologies and Transgendered Performance.” Using the theory of gender performativity from Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter (1993), Foster distinguishes between “modes of cyber-cross-dressing” in which one wears other bodies in ways that “only reinforce normative gender and sexual identities” and “modes of virtual embodiment that more fundamentally subvert such identities by more fully utilizing the potential of virtual technologies to disrupt the expressive or one-to-one-mapping of social identities and meanings onto bodies” (121). Incorporating theorists Stone, Butler, Sue-Ellen Case, and Hayles, and fiction by Laura Mixon, Melissa Scott, and Maureen McHugh, Foster outlines the ways that VR technology gives new meaning to embodiment, making it attractive to those who have been stigmatized historically as trapped by their bodies. He then considers the extent to which ideas of embodied specificity and performance are applicable to racial identity. Blackface, like drag, can destabilize the perceived relationship between body and identity. Foster concludes that the social context for blackface performance is quite different from that of drag, and that “racial norms are often installed and reproduced precisely through modes of racial cross-identification that are not mimetic or expressive in the same way that gender norms have been historically, so that such modes of racial performativity are much less likely to possess a subversive meaning than modes of gender cross-identification such as drag” (135). The next three chapters, Foster’s most compelling contribution to the field, explore how racialized bodies are performed in cyberspace.
Chapter 5, “The Souls of Cyberfolk: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories,” returns to the metaphor of hardwiring and the relationship between embodied specificity and the status of “the citizen.” Foster reminds us that the citizen is a combination of the “physical and performative attributes” that make up the “culturally intelligible body” and “the collection of virtual attributes which, taken together, compose a structure of meaning and intention” for this body, concepts drawn from Stone’s War of Desire and Technology (Stone qtd. Foster 139). Cyberspace representations draw attention to the split within the citizen between embodied particularity (erased or disavowed in the supposedly unmarked white, male bodies) and universality (which only white, male bodies seem to occupy unproblematically), a standard that has meant that non-white subjects have been able to occupy the citizen category only partially, as it allows entry to only one part of their dual existence. Foster develops a theory of black identity as an iterated performance, like gender performativity, and uses this framework to read the comic book Deathlok, a story of a black man, Michael Collins, whose brain is used as “wetware” in a prototype cyborg soldier. The plot, as conceived by by Dwayne McDuffie and Gregory Wright, addresses Collins’s struggle to escape violent cyborg programming and to insist on another set of values through which to live his cyborg identity. Collins’s race is in tension with his programming to serve a corporation, Cybertek, identified with white-dominated society. The comic explicitly links the fear “of coming to embody all Collins despises” by giving in to the cyborg programming with “not only … becoming a cyborg killing machine, but also with a process of assimilating into white society that began long before he became Deathlok” (144).
Like Case and Molly, who are able to transcend their gendered horizons, Collins is able to overcome the limitations that would make his brain only wetware for the soldier software; he begins to use the cyborg body for his own purposes. He infiltrates a video game his son is playing and “tries to revise and rewrite the video game’s programming in the same way that he has overridden and overwritten the onboard computer in his cyborg body, and in the same way that McDuffie and Wright are trying to rewrite the conventions of action heroes in the comic book itself” (146). This story arc, written by black artists, is Foster’s best example of the use of cyberpunk imagery to contest racial categories. He argues for direct allegorical links among Collins’s struggle to control the cyborg body, his search for his missing human body, and the experience of slavery. Deathlok’s cyborg imagery recovers something of the subversive potential in Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985), a work whose implications for racial identity have not been fully appreciated. Foster concludes that Collins’s “acceptance that he must remain a posthuman cyborg also implies the necessity of acknowledging how becoming a cyborg, like the African diaspora, changes possibilities for resistance, both setting new limits and creating new opportunities” (152). This transformation is “a repetition of the trauma of the Middle Passage and the construction of a new hybrid culture on the other side of the Atlantic” (152). It is crucial to remember, Foster emphasizes, that for Michael Collins and Deathlok, the cyborg imagery is more than merely a metaphor: “there is a literal sense in which African-American bodies have historically undergone legal and cultural processes that have detached the signs of humanity from the bodily markers of ‘blackness’” (155).
Chapter 5 most strongly demonstrates that cyborg imagery can reveal the degree to which “inclusion in the category of the human is understood as a privilege bought only at the price of accommodating a white norm” (159). Through cyborgization, Michael Collins realizes that his relationship to the universal category of the human was already problematic. Foster extends his discussion beyond the limited example of Deathlok, considering the performance of race that is inevitable for all bodies within cyberspace. As with gender performances, “if visual perceptions are denaturalized and shown to be cultural constructs, those constructs may nevertheless be hardwired into our perceptions” (165) and will not necessarily disappear in the new medium. Instead, we may find that although we can perform as we wish in cyberspace, our performances may be read within the “hardwired” preconceptions of others. Foster emphasizes that “it is possible to overcome and to rewrite this kind of hardwired programming,” arguing that the value of cyberpunk representations is that such programming “is more recognizable as such within a technosocial context than within the naturalized context of purely organic bodies” (165). This conclusion is more reserved than those in the earlier chapters, as he recognizes the power imbalance through which such rewritings occur. In cyberspace, the distinctions between passing and blackface are blurred to the extent that “white people as well as blacks must pass as white to be recognized as such in the absence of their bodies, and black people as well as white must put on a kind of blackface to be recognized as black” (167). What this means in practice is that the tone for all racial performance is set by the perceptions of the dominant, racist culture (blackface) and non-whites are thereby discouraged from experimenting with alternative performances of race.
This chapter is no doubt so effective because Deathlok is one of few available examples of cyberpunk imagery used by a non-white creator. Given the parallels between the Deathlok story and the more widely known Robocop (1987), it seems odd that Foster does not compare the two texts. Instead, the trauma of white men undergoing cyborgization is the topic of the next chapter, “Replaying the L.A. Riots: Cyborg Narratives and National Trauma,” on Robocop and Billy Idol’s “Shock to the System” video (1993). The title is inspired by Samuel R. Delany’s comment in an interview with Mark Dery that interest in cyberpunk now seems to him “a largely nostalgic pursuit of a more innocent worldview” that has “no more active historical validity once we pass the Los Angeles King riots” (qtd. in Foster 171). Foster reads Idol’s video and Robocop to demonstrate that cyberpunk imagery is not neutral in the post-LA-riots world, maintaining that by enacting trauma on white, male bodies such imagery is far from innocent in this context. “Shock to the System” specifically invokes the beating of Rodney King—and was inspired by Idol’s sympathetic response to the legitimacy of the uprising—but at the same time it substitutes the body of the white artist for the body of the black victim. Similarly, Robocop shows the white, male body vulnerable in ways to which it is normally immune, as Murphy loses autonomy over both mind and body to the corporatized police force and its ends. Such imagery represents “a defensive reaction to the decentering of white masculinity by feminist and antiracist multicultural social movements” (173).
Through the work of Cathy Caruth and Kaja Silverman on trauma, Foster points out how such theory tends to polarize individuals into only two camps: the oppressor or the victim of oppression. Traumatic cyberpunk narratives of fragmented identity and bodily invasion that describe the experience of non-whites and women who have been excluded from full “citizen” status, present a problem for white, male readers who want “not to become Man, the ‘abjector,’” and so seek to become the cyborg and thereby the victim of trauma (175). This sympathetic move “paradoxically only recenters and reprivileges white male subjects, first through the assimilation of cyborg embodiment to a model of trauma and then through the implicit appropriation of a minoritized racial position that can result from reimagining oneself as having undergone the trauma of becoming a cyborg” (175-76). Foster interrogates the definition of trauma—that which cannot be assimilated into experience and thus cannot be represented—in terms similar to the critique of the Lacanian Real by Judith Butler. The Real need not be understood as that which resists all symbolization, but instead as that which “reflects a prior cultural process of desymbolization, as, for example, in the perception of female sexuality as lack or absence” (179). Similarly, Foster suggests, we might read trauma as a “contested and contestable category” that requires us to ask “what specific historical experiences resist assimilation as experience, under what circumstances, and for whom?” (179).
Foster’s argument is critically sophisticated and reveals the limitations of both Robocop and “Shock to the System” in their responses to racialized experience. Idol’s video “anarchistically celebrat[es] the breakdown of normative boundaries and color lines in a way that evades historical responsibility for them” (184), while Robocop “begins with an image that evokes the politically motivated murder and martyrdom of African persons by a white supremacist state” but then quickly moves on to “rescript this history, and to replace the (presumably) black body in that coffin, a symbol of resistance to the state, with the traumatized body of a white male police officer” (195). A limitation of this argument, however, is that it does not further Foster’s stated intention of exploring how racialized bodies are performed in cyberspace; these texts are precisely about the erasure of the specificity of black experience through its appropriation by whites. Foster does note in his introduction that the “expropriability” of cyberspace identity is one of its problematic features, and in this chapter he draws on the work of Phillip Brian Harper in Framing the Margins (1994) to warn us against a postmodern blackface performance that transforms “the specific historical experiences of marginalized groups into empty signs of a generalized postmodern condition” (185). Nonetheless, the very examples that Foster chooses risk enacting such a conflation. The specific readings in this chapter demonstrate awareness of this danger; my concern is with the more positive overall trajectory of the book’s renewed look at cyberpunk imagery and race, one that too often celebrates the potential for a more subversive reading than cyberpunk imagery itself seems to warrant. Foster claims that the “coding of cyborg imagery as a reassertion of a white masculinity victimized by its ‘others’ nevertheless means that whiteness remains open to challenge and invention” (202). I fear whiteness has only recentered itself by incorporating blackness as “style” into its self-representations.
The final chapter, “Franchise Nationalisms: Globalization, Consumer Culture, and New Ethnicities,” addresses global/local tensions in the contemporary experience of “increasingly balkanized and fragmented urban spaces and the freedom of motion or ‘frictionless’ boundary crossings that seem possible in global cyberspaces and infoscapes” (205). Foster puts Manuel Castells’s work on the network society in dialogue with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), a novel in which the nation state has been replaced by franchise communities based on shared values and run by corporations. Stephenson’s novel has never seemed more pertinent than now with the rise of gated and other exclusive communities, almost uncannily so given the centrality of expertise in pizza delivery to one such community in the novel and the recent development by Domino’s Pizza founder, Tom Monaghan, of his own exclusively Catholic community of Ave Maria, Florida. The possibility of community being defined by common interests within cyberspace rather than by geographical continuity destabilizes race and ethnicity as sites of identity. People identify more with the products they consume than with the nation state, requiring new strategies of resistance for a transnational age. The era of franchise nations thematized by Snow Crash can have the positive effect of disrupting patterns of race/ethnicity and community, but equally may result in “conservative rather than progressive articulations of location and dislocation, particularity and openness” (208). Franchise nations are another posthumanism that rejects the body as the basis of identity. Non-organic relationships between groups and cultural heritages become possible, but so does increased commodification of self, allowing cultural ideas to become “hardwired” into cyberspace norms. This latter possibility is something that Foster does not explore sufficiently, instead focusing on how “the very act of self commodification undermines the essentializing logic” (227) of apartheid segregations, and emphasizing that communities, like people, can be seen as codes that might be changed rather than as fixed givens.
The book’s conclusion, “The Antinomies of Posthuman Thought,” argues that posthumanism promises to resolve the dualisms of bourgeois life critiqued by Lukács “to the extent that the technological mediation of embodiment and subjectivity undoes the ideology of possessive individualism, the material basis for the alienation of self and world, mind and body” (229-30). At the same time, posthuman thought retains the binary between information and materiality. The language virus in Snow Crash suggests how we might undo this final binary and realize the critical potential of the trope of hardwiring: “the possibility of reversing the metaphorical equation of culture and biology and defining the analogical crossing from culture to biology as working both ways” (235). Although Snow Crash rejects the language virus as that which erases individuality, Foster suggests that the deep language structures of the brain, our hardwiring, might be “rewritten not to manipulate people, but instead in order to critique and call into question cultural assumptions and social norms as they are embedded in different languages, in a technocultural restatement of one of the basic insights of contemporary ideology critique” (235-36). This is an exciting idea, but it does not explain why cyberpunk imagery has been employed almost exclusively toward more conservative ends, reinforcing stereotypes about gender and race, reasserting the privilege of the liberal-humanist self even in this new realm, and even recentering the male, white subject as the new “abject” figure.
The Souls of Cyberfolk offers an important, optimistic perspective that contrasts with previous publications on posthumanism and cyberpunk that have often tended to go too far in the direction of political skepticism. At the same time, however, this book sometimes seems too much in the camp of pleasure and needs to be read in the context of the earlier critiques. Foster sometimes seems too ready to credit texts with subversive potential. The book concludes that “posthuman narratives ambivalently but inextricably connect empowering uses of new technologies, new possibilities for self-control and self-definition, and new possibilities for cultural diversity outside the universalizing framework of the normative human form, with increased possibilities for external control and manipulation of those same uses and possibilities” (244). He cautions that we need to maintain a dialectical relation of both “unbounded pleasure in the horizons they open up and unceasing skepticism toward what we might find when we get there” (244). The Souls of Cyberfolk, in its desire to be a corrective to overly critical readings of cyberpunk, is occasionally too sparing with its own skepticism. Even so, Foster draws needed attention to the often unacknowledged ambivalence of cyberpunk texts and to the neglected category of race.
The collection might have been stronger if Foster had set out from the beginning to write a book of essays on race and cyberpunk instead of revising his earlier work on gender and sexuality to include race. Many of his fictional texts are “canonical” cyberpunk texts by white authors, and it would be helpful to see these compared to texts written by non-white authors. Misha’s Red Spider, White Web (1990) is a striking absence, conceivably a consequence of the US tendency to polarize the topic of race into “black” and “white.” Foster might also have considered black authors’ use of cyberpunk imagery, as in Steven Barnes’ Aubrey Knight books (Streetlethal , Gorgon Child , and Firedance ), or books by non-white authors not typically considered part of sf, such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1951), all of which are concerned with the implications of technology and racial identity, and whose perspective might usefully be contrasted with that of cyberpunk. I am not trying to suggest that Foster should have written a different book, but instead that he might have framed this one differently. This book presents itself as an investigation of cyberpunk and race, yet many of its essays focus on gender as much as on race and most of them consider texts written by white writers. Foster’s analyses are worthy of note and insightful, and it is very useful to have all his essays on cyberculture collected together. Still, it is important to remember that this book—like most of cyberpunk and much of posthuman scholarship—is largely focused on representations created by white people, treating race for the most part as a site of anxiety rather than identity.
The Souls of Cyberfolk is an extremely good and important book. It is theoretically astute, cogently argued, and impressive in the range of theoretical and contextual sources that it brings to bear on its arguments, beginning the discussion of race and cyberpunk/posthuman imagery, an important lacuna in existing scholarship. Its chief limitation is that it is sometimes uneven in its treatment of race in the chapters revised from earlier work. If its arguments sometimes tend more toward the celebratory than I would prefer, the compensation is that Foster’s clear enthusiasm for this area of inquiry and the texts under discussion make this a lively book and a pleasure to read. The Souls of Cyberfolk is an essential contribution to posthumanist scholarship and should be read by anyone interested in this field.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, 2002.
Gray, Chris Hables. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.
Harper, Phillip Brian. Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. Oxford: UP, 1994.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999.
McDuffie, Dwayne, and Dennis Cowyn. “The Souls of Cyberfolk.” Deathlok 2-5 (Aug.-Nov. 1991). New York: Marvel Comics.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.
Back to Home