Science Fiction Studies

#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997


Veronica Hollinger

The Technobody and its Discontents

Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. NY: Grove, 1996.viii+376. $23.00.

Anne Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996. x+219. $49.95 cloth; $17.95 paper.

Claudia Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. x+182. $27.50, cloth; $12.95 paper.

The premise that we may interact with technology through our senses as well as our intellect has given us occasion to reexamine what our bodies have to do with our minds. (Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theater, 207-208)

Our minds are thus in one sense finally unshackled from our bodies; we have left them behind in our offices or studies and entered the non-corporeal space of the cyber-world. The great mortal fact of life, the body's contingency, is no longer a simple given. (Mark Kingwell, Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink, 197)

In William Gibson's latest novel, Idoru, a young Japanese girl describes her brother as "otaku"; her overworked translation device renders this as "pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social- deficit" (88). Among other things, she means that her brother spends all his waking hours jacked into his computer; in fact, she speculates, it's likely that he inhabits cyberspace even in his dreams. Score one for Gibson, whose ironic minimalism dramatizes one of the more disturbing tendencies of contemporary technoculture. In his critical survey of some of the fascinating and bizarre features of this culture, Mark Dery metaphorizes this same tendency as the desire to reach "escape velocity," to achieve freedom from the requirements of the physical body, to escape the limitations of the flesh through some kind--any kind--of techno-transcendence.

Escape Velocity is a kind of companion piece to Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, a collection of essays edited by Dery in 1994 which also tours many sites in the contemporary geography of post-industrial culture (see my review in SFS #68, 136-139). As well done as that earlier collection is, Escape Velocity is better: it is thoughtful and politically engaged, well researched and learned, canny, wide-ranging, entertaining, and very well written. It is also very relevant, since Dery's overview is more than simply a report about some of the strange subcultures springing up on the fringes of the mainstream. In fact, Escape Velocity emphasizes how the truly bizarre is becoming the truly everyday. Dery's reports from the edge spill over into commentaries about the middle-ground, the interface between the body and the machine inhabited by so many of us now living in the post-industrial west. Like the studies by Balsamo and Springer which I will also be discussing, Escape Velocity is relevant because, to use the terms of Gibson's translation device, there's a lot of pathological-techno-fetishism accompanied by social deficiency going around these days.

The three books under review here, all of which concern themselves with dimensions of the body/machine interface, have very overt political agendas, and this makes good sense when we consider that the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and our machines have the potential to fulfill themselves in the material world inhabited by these same bodies and machines. In this sense, Dery, Balsamo, and Springer are story-tellers designing narratives about technoculture which aim to influence the directions it will take in future. And, as we might expect from their focus on narrative, technology, and the future, science fiction provides all three with a privileged cache of ready-made stories from which to draw material. At stake, of course, are our lives in the real world of lived experience. As Dery concludes in his introduction to Escape Velocity,

The rhetoric of escape velocity crosses cyberpunk science fiction with the Pentacostal belief in an apocalyptic Rapture, in which history ends and the faithful are gathered up into the heavens. Visions of a cyber-Rapture are a fatal seduction, distracting us from the devastation of nature, the unraveling of the social fabric, and the widening chasm between the technocratic elite and the minimum-wage masses. (17)

Dery's analysis reminds us of the influence of the cyberpunk ethos on current constructions of life in the middle of the information-technologies boom. It also recalls Jean Baudrillard's analyses of the "fatally" seductive nature of the simulation. One of our ongoing anxieties arises from our sense of the loss of the real--of authentic experience; we dread being trapped in a reality which is only ever virtual. This is, of course, the flip side of those celebrations of virtuality and body-abandonment propounded by scientists like Hans Moravec and theorists of artificial intelligence like Marvin Minsky. Their visions of a future in which humans happily abandon their bodies for existence inside their own electronic systems are one target of Dery's trenchant critique of "techno-Rapture." Not coincidentally, Moravec and Minsky are taken to task in much the same terms in Springer's Electronic Eros; as Springer argues, "What Jean Baudrillard describes as our postmodern obsession with simulacra finds full expression in a world populated by electronically copied human minds" (130).

Dery's introduction makes it clear what the stakes are for him: "Placing our faith in an end-of-the-century deus ex machina that will obviate the need to confront the social, political, economic, and ecological problems clamoring for solutions is a risky endgame" (10). That being said, he is also interested in how contemporary sub-cultures appropriate technology for their own ends; he reminds us of an often-quoted Gibsonian motto, "The street finds its own uses for things," and, while he criticizes the tendency to look for a spurious technological transcendence, he also reminds us of the many ways in which various segments of the culture cheerfully subvert the ends to which technology has been directed by the mainstream. Finally, as he points out, "This book is less about technology than it is about the stories we tell ourselves about technology, and the ideologies hidden in those stories--the politics of myth" (15). Popular rock music, neo-primitivism, body-building cultures: all are expressions of particular ideological takes on the ways in which bodies and technologies are entwined so inextricably here at the fin de millennium (which, however, seems to have been fin for so long by now that the term has become a cliché long before any kind of fin has arrived).

I've introduced this article with a reference to William Gibson's latest story about bodies and machines because, since the mid-80s, no other sf writer has been so influential in helping to shape our anxieties about, and our yearnings for, techno-transcendence. The influence of a novel like Neuromancer has been felt far outside the sf field; this novel in particular, and cyberpunk in general, has been instrumental in moving the discourse of science fiction out of its relatively limited sphere into the wider culture. During the last half of the 80s, critical writing about cyberpunk identified its central narrative as being about the breakdown of the boundaries between bodies and machines. Initially, much of this critical writing was frankly celebratory in its welcoming of a "new" kind of sf which was so obviously "plugged in" to contemporary techno-reality. Gibson even gave us a name for the virtual space many of us were starting to spend time in--cyberspace, that space on the other side of our computer screens.1 Like Donna Haraway's cyborg, which also appeared in the mid-80s, the technologized bodies of cyberpunk seemed to provide images through which we could imagine our own fates in the looming near-future--especially if we were young white males with access to computer hardware.

Mention of Haraway, however, reminds us of the vast distance between cyberpunk's initial unquestioning embrace of cyberculture and the particular brand of politics which frames Haraway's own work. Her "Cyborg Manifesto" is an engaged text whose aim is to re-think socialist-feminism within the context of the information age. In contrast, it might be argued that Neuromancer, like so much first-generation cyberpunk, is devoted less to politics than to power fantasies.2 Gibson's computer-cowboy, Case, provides only the first and best-known example of cyberpunk's (in)famous tendency to repudiate the "meat" of the body in favor of an existence free of corporeal constraints; cyberpunk's fantasies are about roaming, disembodied and free, through the frontier territory of cyberspace. As Gibson writes, when Case loses his power to interface directly with that virtual world on the other side of his computer screen, "it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh" (6).3

In a very important sense, a lot of current critical thinking has also fallen into the "prison" of the flesh. There is a determination on the part of many critical thinkers to reinsert the "meat" into the picture, to resist those dreams of a disappearing body which have been influenced by technological fictions of its looming obsolescence. It is this resistance, I believe, which impels these three tours of contemporary cyberculture, and which informs the various critiques which they mobilize along the way.

Dery's first chapter, "Turn On, Boot Up, Jack In: Cyberdelia," traces current cyberculture back to its roots in the counterculture of the 60s and examines its cross-fertilization by the cyberpunk ethos of the 80s. This historical overview is very useful in contextualizing what has sometimes seemed like a completely new "scene." Dery introduces us to cyber-hippies; to the Gen-X cyberbabble of Mondo 2000; to New-Age techno-pagananism and the influence of Gibson's first three novels on techno-paganism's "tendency to relocate the sacred in the technosphere, to populate cyberspace with superhuman agencies" (55). Along the way, he demonstrates how the "teleologies" of both Marshall McLuhan and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have fed into "the emerging mythos of techno-transcendentalism" (45). Not surprisingly, the level of political commitment in these various subcultural scenes is pretty low; in fact, Dery excoriates much of this starry-eyed celebration of techno-escapism as "a fin de siecle schizoid break induced by sitting too long at the [computer] screen" (49). As he shows us in detail, a new mythology and a new mysticism are developing within technoculture, giving rise to a proliferation of stories about (virtual) escape and (virtual) freedom and encouraging an alarming disengagement with the world of historical contingency, which happens to be the world we live in.

Dery performs the same historical work in a detailed reading of the development of cyberpunk itself. "Metal Machine Music: Cyberpunk Meets the Black Leather Synth-Rockers" situates cyberpunk within the context of the various strands of popular culture which gave rise to it at the end of the 70s. More than a decade on the other side of Neuromancer, it now becomes possible to get the kind of critical distance necessary to construct such an historical profile, an "origin" story free of the hype which accompanied cyberpunk's initial appearance on the sf scene. As far as I'm concerned, "Metal Machine Music" provides one of the best contextualizations of cyberpunk written to date. Dery's readings of the intersections of music and narrative in novels by John Shirley and Pat Cadigan, for example, and his analysis of Bruce Sterling's mid-80s writings are exemplary. And his concluding comment on the ultimate commercialization of cyberpunk, with its nod in the direction of Neuromancer, is a gem of critical pithiness: "the mainstream finds its own uses for things, too, it seems" (107).

After ranging widely through a selection of cyber-sites, from Mark Pauline's "mechanical spectacles" through various aspects of our current "interfusion of sex and technology" (183), Dery's ends with a long discussion entitled "Cyborging the Body Politic: Obsolete Bodies and Posthuman Beings," which opens with an appropriate epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses: "My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms." In this final section, he examines some of the anxieties which have developed around the notion of the body-as-machine, the body threatened by technological evolution, the body as battleground: "Disparate forces threaten, literally as well as figuratively, to draw and quarter our bodies, our selves: high-tech prosthetics, genetic engineering, plastic surgery, gender reassignment, the public debate over body politics, and the redefinition of the body as a warm-blooded machine or a potentially lucrative source of spare parts" (233).

Not surprisingly, both J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg make their appearance in this final chapter, as producers of cultural artifacts which address, in the strongest possible terms, the anxieties developing around our technobodies: "When we objectify ourselves--our own bodies--we enter the numb, neon nightmare of [Ballard's] Crash, where people are 'mannequins dressed in meaningless clothing' and only a violent collision can jolt them back to their senses" (311). In the final analysis, power exerts itself over the physical body; it cannot be so easily abandoned, certainly not at this present moment of our technological development. The dreams and anxieties which invite us to speculate about such abandonment are given their due in Dery's analysis, but his conclusions warn us that these fantasies incorporate potential disasters for us as well: "The dream of software without hardware--mind without body --runs aground on our profound ignorance of the nature of consciousness and its relation to embodiment" (317).4

Like Escape Velocity, the studies by Balsamo and Springer are also concerned with exploring facets of our current neo-Platonic mind/body schism, our techno-metaphysical dream of divesting the soul of its corporeal envelope --as if physical embodiment were not an essential ingredient in the development of individual subjectivity. At the centre of Anne Balsamo's Technologies of the Gendered Body--her title recalls both the archeologies of Michel Foucault and the post-Foucauldian feminism of Teresa de Lauretis--is the figure of the cyborg as originally designed by Donna Haraway, and since developed by both Haraway and other feminist theoreticans.5 For Balsamo, as for Dery and Springer, sf provides an important discourse through which to explain the way(s) we live now. As she argues in her introduction, examinations of everyday life in the context of "new technologies of corporeality" announce "the collapse of the temporal distance between the present and a science fictional future in which bionic bodies are commonplace" (5). Balsamo is interested in exploring how gender remains a vigilantly guarded border concept within the context of burgeoning biotechnologies; in other words, she sets out to examine some of the features of technoculture which work to keep gender divisions in place, to maintain the gendered status quo in spite of advances through which bodies are routinely (re)tailored in almost every other respect.

Balsamo's concern is a specifically feminist one, informed by her recognition that the female body has always been subject(ed) to varying forms of discursive construction while the male body has tended to remain "unmarked" --as if it were some kind of corporeal default setting. These days, however, every body has become the subject/object of new kinds of techno-constructions and Balsamo reads the "panic postmodernism" of theorists like Arthur Kroker, Jean Baudrillard, and Deleuze-and-Guattari as one response to this relatively recent overturning of the notion of the sacrosanct male body. She argues strongly that "feminists have a political stake in constructing and critiquing theories of the body within postmodernism" (31), especially in light of the current proliferation of such constructions.

In Balsamo's terms, literary texts are part of a larger arena of narrative activity which incorporates cultural practices such as bodybuilding, medical practices such as cosmetic surgery, advanced imaging technologies, and the experimental work developing around virtual reality technologies. The cyborg women she "reads" include female bodybuilders as well as science-fiction characters, pregnant women as well as the cyborg-products of plastic surgery. In the process of developing her own overview of these features of the techno-culture, Balsamo argues for the contruction of feminist critiques of technolological formations as cultural formations, and for feminist analyses of these formations developed from strongly informed positions. Like Dery, she is aware of the body-anxieties which propel so much of the current rhetoric of techno-escapism. Discussing virtual reality, for instance, she notes that: "It is not a coincidence that VR emerges in the 1980s, during a decade when the body is understood to be increasingly infection as well as to gender, race, ethnicity, and ability critiques. With virtual reality we are offered the vision of a body-free universe" (127).

Balsamo makes a strong case for the centrality of science fiction in this kind of analysis. Her examination of issues surrounding reproductive technologies, for example, opens with a reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and she contends that "As works of fiction that generically extrapolate from the current moment to fictional futures (or pasts), these [sf] narratives offer readers a framework for understanding the preoccupations that infuse contemporary culture" (112). She demonstrates this most clearly in her detailed discussion of Pat Cadigan's Synners. In a chapter entitled "Feminism for the Incurably Informed"--which first appeared in Dery's Flame Wars-- Balsamo reads Synners as "an alternative narrative of cyberpunk identity that begins with the assumption that bodies are always gendered and always marked by race" (144). She is not arguing, I think, that Cadigan's novel is a feminist text; rather, she reads it for the ways in which it provides the space for undertaking a feminist rethinking of the cyberpunk ethos. Technologies of the Gendered Body is a sophisticated exploration of how genders and subjectivities are constructed around the technobody, the natural body become a discursive construction produced by what we might think of as the cyber-imaginary. Although technology promises the "effacement" of the body, in fact the discourses of cyberculture, as Balsamo demonstrates, as often as not work to enforce exactly the kinds of boundaries which it promises to erase forever. And gender, of course, is one of the most strongly guarded of these border sites.

Technologies of the Gendered Body opens and concludes with statements about the importance of "corporeal feminism," and Balsamo identifies three tenets of this theoretical position which are particularly relevant to her own work: "(1) the body is a central symbolic resource for cultural work; (2) the discursive, symbolic body and the material body are mutually determining; and, (3) gender is often a submerged discourse within many studies of the body and culture" (11).6 The influence of feminist studies which (re)claim issues of embodiment and materiality as centrally important within the context of contemporary culture has begun to be felt in a wide spectrum of critical writing, including that which studies science fiction. In fact, science fiction itself has felt the influence of such feminist reclamations, evidenced in an increasing number of sf texts by "post-cyberpunk" writers concerned with the role of the body in the construction of individual subjectivities. (For discussions of some of these texts, see the essays by Karen Cadora and Mary Catherine Harper listed in my Works Cited.)

Claudia Springer's Electronic Eros narrows the focus even further, in that it seeks to examine some specific intersections of erotics and technology within the context of postmodern post-industrial culture, what Dery refers to in his own study as "the crossed wires of sex and technology" (220). Springer too mobilizes the figure of the cyborg as a representation of "the increasing integration of human beings with their technology" (10). Not surprisingly, her first chapter, "Deleting the Body," introduces examples of "science and science fiction" which construct versions of the cyborged body. As Springer suggests, "contemporary cultural battles find expression in even the most shocking and improbable speculations about the future" (15). Her opening arguments are particularly interesting in their mobilization of various theoretical intersections and cultural narratives which set the scene for her examination of the erotics of technology. The work of this first chapter is largely historical, drawing upon the writings of theorists from Baudrillard to Jameson, story-tellers from Ballard to Gibson, science and philosophy, and a range of critiques by feminist scientists and scholars. Springer argues strongly that "The feminist analysis of scientific discourses is one aspect of a much larger cultural crisis over issues of gender and sexuality" (48).

Electronic Eros opens on a pertinent fragment of the controversy over postmodernism and science fiction which developed in the pages of SFS several years ago when we published a short article by Jean Baudrillard which valorized Ballard's Crash as the apotheosis of our lives within the coldly seductive web of technology and death (SFS #55). For me, this is an especially dramatic and effective way into Springer's consideration of the erotics of contemporary technologies. She quotes approvingly Ballard's question: "What wounds would create the sexual possibilities of the invisible technologies of thermonuclear reaction chambers, white-tiled control rooms, the mysterious scenarios of computer circuitry" (8). One of her aims, a particularly interesting one, I think, is to examine the specific ways in which computers, in contrast to earlier and more concrete technologies, have become eroticized over the past several decades. One of her central arguments is that "Electronic technology no longer evokes the metaphor of externally visible musculature; instead, its bodily equivalents are the concealed and fluid internal systems. Moreover, in their interactions with humans, computers offer a radically new relationship, one that no longer fortifies physical prowess." "Hypermasculine cyborgs" such as appear in the Terminator and Robocop films seek, regressively, to counteract "the miniaturization and stasis of electronic technology and the passivity of the human interaction with computers" (111-112). Obviously, gendered metaphors of femininity and masculinity come into play here in very significant ways.

Springer's study encompasses scientific narratives of artificial intelligence, the gendered behaviors of cyberspace and virtual communities, fantasies of virtual eroticism ranging from films like Lawnmower Man to "real-life" experiences of virtual sex, as well as the cyber-imagery so ingrained in many contemporary action films. Her review of relevant popular culture productions includes not only "hypermasculine" action films, but also TV series such as Mann and Machine, and comics like Elektra Assassin and Hard Boiled. Here again, in Electronic Eros, we read the thematic of the material body under siege at a time "when human bodies are already vulnerable to unprecedented threats of AIDS, cancer, nuclear annihilation, overpopulation, and environmental disasters" (27). Theories of the looming obsolescence of the body reveal a subtext of overwhelming anxiety in the face of these threats.

Like Dery and Balsamo, Springer focuses on cyberpunk as a particularly relevant site of imaginings about the fusion of bodies and machines. She also writes from within the cultural environment of postmoderism and its own particular set of anxieties, about crumbling borders, about body invasion, about historical amnesia. Her final remarks are warnings which return us to Crash and, not surprisingly, she concludes that there's a lot of retrograde masculinist ideology persisting in the erotics of technology, during this present moment which has destabilized the traditional positions of both women and machines while not (yet) overturning the oppressive supremacy of the old (male) order.

If I have one complaint to make about these three studies, it is about the way in which they privilege cyberpunk, which provides all three with such an important source of images and narratives. Even their clear-headed critiques of the various political failings of cyberpunk, while certainly effective, function--in spite of themselves, as it were--to maintain its centrality to these critical narratives. I would have liked to see the introduction of more recent sf stories, stories which interact with cyberpunk but diverge from it in a range of significant ways, stories by, for example, Lisa Mason, Nicola Griffiths, Richard Calder, Laura Mixon, and Geoff Ryman. As it is, the rather unswerving focus on cyberpunk that we see in these studies results in its construction as sf's most representative body of stories engaged with contemporary techno-culture; I do not think that this particular construction is as accurate as it once was. While I would not argue the fact of cyberpunk's importance to the field, it is worth noting that there is, by now, a growing body of new stories/other stories being told by new/other sf writers about our post-industrial present and where we and our machines might be headed in the future(s).

Nevertheless, it seems suitable to return to Gibson's Idoru to complete this discussion. I'd like to report that Gibson has managed, finally, to resist the seductions of techno-transcendence which continue to be such a significant factor in his sf plots, but not so; at best, his take this time is mixed. While taking satirical note of some of the more negative aspects of techno-fetishism, Gibson doesn't manage to avoid a narrative climax in which a transcendent new entity comes into being through the interface between human and machine intelligences. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. . . . On the other hand, Idoru--which, in spite of my complaints here, is a very good book-- does contain at least one moment of wide-awake self-referentiality. "Popular culture," states Mr. Kuwayama, "is the testbed of our futurity" (238). Mark Dery, Anne Balsamo, and Claudia Springer know this and their examinations of popular technocultures are aimed exactly at effecting the shape of our futurity. Their studies provide exciting glimpses into some of the many complex corners of technoculture. In addition, they raise issues about bodies, sexuality, power, and perversity which are of real significance to those of us who are scholars of science fiction.


1. By now, of course, this fact is as well established within the mythology of sf as is the fact that H.G. Wells "predicted" tank warfare.

2. In all fairness, it should be noted that Bruce Sterling identified what he termed cyberpunk's "incipient Nietzschean philosophical fascism: the belief in the Overman, and the worship of will-to-power" (5) as early as 1987--although this has never prevented Sterling's own will-to-power from taking full flight in his science-fiction stories.

3. Haraway's cyborgs, as she firmly proclaims, have nothing to do with any kind of Fall. It would be interesting to spend some time thinking about the ways in which Haraway and Gibson position their cyborg/characters in relation to stories about authenticity, salvation, nostalgia, and apocalypse.

4. I will just note here that Escape Velocity includes a wide selection of fascinating illustrations: photos of Stelarc performing with his industrial robot arm; shots from Nine Inch Nails videos; images of technologized performance art and art exhibits; photos of French performance-artist Orlan undergoing one of her public cosmetic surgeries. Dery's illustrations are almost worth the price of his book.

5. Things being as complicated as they are, even Haraway's metaphorical cyborg raises some potential problems in the context of these three studies. In her recent work, Theorising the Fantastic, Lucie Armitt suggests that the cyborg "comes . . . closer to Bakhtin's classical body . . . : the closed, perfect form whose outlines refuse any sense of interaction" (80). For Armitt, the cyborg figure fits cyberpunk fantasies of disembodiment only too well.

6 .As a term, "corporeal feminism" is associated with the work of Australian theorist Elizabeth Grosz, whose Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism appeared in 1994. Closer to home, Judith Butler, one of the most influential American feminists working today, published her Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" in 1993. Again not coincidentally, Dery also mobilizes the discourse of corporeal feminism as part of his final chapter, "Cyborging the Body Politic," referring back to Balsamo's work in his own discussion.


Armitt, Lucie. Theorising the Fantastic. NY: Arnold, 1996.

Cadora, Karen. "Feminist Cyberpunk." SFS 22:357-72, #67, November 1995.

Gibson, William. Idoru. NY: Putnam, 1996.

_____. Neuromancer. NY: Ace, 1984.

Harper, Mary Catherine. "Incurably Alien Other: A Case for Feminist Cyborg Writers." SFS 22:399-420, #67, November 1995.

Kingwell, Mark. Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink. Toronto: Viking, 1996.

Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre.1991. NY: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Sterling, Bruce. "Letter from Bruce Sterling." REM 7:4-7, April 1987.

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