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The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory

Author: Thomas Foster
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Michele Braun
 REVIEW 2: Kim Toffoletti
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Thomas Foster

I want to begin by thanking the two reviewers. It's very gratifying to encounter two such careful and thorough readings of my book. I'm especially pleased to get positive responses from two feminist readers, since the origin of this project can be traced to the special issue of Genders on cyberpunk, which I guest-edited way back in Winter 1993. Kim Toffoletti rightly points out my theoretical touchstones in the book are feminist technoculture critics, especially Donna Haraway, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, and Lisa Nakamura. I appreciate the way both reviews identify and foreground key arguments or threads in the book, but I would also like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the issues the reviews raise.

Kim Toffoletti begins her review by describing The Souls of Cyberfolk as a project of recontextualizing cyberpunk within a larger set of posthuman debates, with a longer historical range, though the goal of the book is also to define the value of the particular positions taken by writers and cultural producers working within the framework of cyberpunk, in however revisionist a manner. As Toffoletti indicates, the point of such a project is in part to define the diverse political agendas that can be served by concepts of the posthuman and to reject characterizations of posthumanism as either inherently progressive or reactionary.

I would like to underscore what I see as one of the most important points in Toffoletti's review, specifically her emphasis on the intersectional or interstitial nature of my approach to the relations between gender, sexuality, and race. One of my key claims is that technoculture studies needs to pay more attention to issues of race and the related categories of nationalism and colonialism, rather than allowing gender and sexuality to retain the relatively exclusive centrality that they have tended to possess within the field. However, by no means is this claim intended to suggest that gender and sexuality should be ignored in favor of a focus on race. I was therefore very glad it was clear to at least these two readers that I was not interested in shifting to race and making other issues secondary, or simply tacking on additional chapters about race to the book, but instead I attempted to analyze the shifting relations between these categories in each chapter. I was also pleased that Toffoletti's review flagged my focus on masculinities, both black and white, as well as redefinitions of femininity.

Michele Braun's review calls attention to another unifying thread of my argument in this book -- that is, the specific way that cyberpunk narratives use the concept/metaphor of hardwiring to represent a complex relationship between determinism and agency, or what Braun describes as a "third space" defined against the dualisms of essentialism and social constructionism, or nature and culture. The effect is to move Bruno Latour's theory of technoscientific hybridity toward Homi Bhabha's theory of cultural hybridity, as Braun astutely suggests.

Braun also emphasizes the theme of cyberspace citizenship in The Souls of Cyberfolk, and I use the category of the citizen to mediate between technologically-mediated forms of communication or social space (the public sphere) and the politics of nationalism, transnationalism, ethnicity, and race. Braun is quite right when she indicates that this argument constitutes another central thread of the book's argument. However, I would like to clarify the way in which I read Allucquere Rosanne Stone's concept of the socially apprehensible citizen in computer networks, since I argue that the relation between virtual personae and physical embodiment that characterizes this cyberspace citizen is not simply a repetition of the more traditional concept of citizenship, specifically the traditional demand that individuals undergo a process of self-abstraction and the transcendence of bodily particularity in order to accede to the status of a universalized national citizen. The problem of how to resist such norms of self-abstraction, and the tendency to imagine that computer-mediated communication allows us to literalize that process and separate mind from body, is vexing, especially for historically minoritized subjects (Michael Warner indicates as much when he argues that "an assertion of the full equality of minoritized statuses would require abandoning the structure of self-abstraction in publicity," an "outcome that seems unlikely in the near future" [400]).

In my reading of John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," my claim is that virtual systems do not simply reproduce or extend this norm of self-abstraction and transcendence but instead double, cite, and mime it in ways that can create a space for critical reflection and contestation of both the demand for self-transcendence and the way in which that demand has always functioned to exclude and minoritize subjects regarded as "overembodied." This process of doubling is precisely what Braun points to in her comments on my reading of the African-American cyborg character Deathlok, from which I take the title of the book. However, I did not precisely intend to present Robocop, in my chapter on that film, as embodying the white male privilege of self-abstraction and identification with unmarked, universal categories; instead, I wanted to analyze Robocop as a version of white male particularity, with whiteness produced as such through the dual traumas of both becoming cyborg, a body vulnerable to technological penetration, and being subjected to the supposed "violence" of racial coexistence in a multicultural urban space -- that is, in the film Robocop, the white male body is presented as particularized, embodied, and therefore vulnerable, but the assertion of this vulnerability is based on claims that to be white is to be subject to a kind of violence that the film wants to analogize with the historical forms of racism African-Americans in particular have experienced, even as that violence is turned against white men by African-Americans, among others. Robocop is specifically vulnerable both to technology and to what the film presents as the threat of the "inner city." In the very act of particularizing and relativizing whiteness, in seeming to dethrone it from a position of superiority, the film performs an act of appropriating the experiences of racialized groups in order to conceptualize cyborg embodiment as equivalent to those experiences for white men. The film therefore recenters and privileges whiteness, not as universal and abstract, but embodied, vulnerable, and threatened, in ways that both acknowledge and defend against the loss of white privilege.

I have one final comment on my use of a multimedia archive in The Souls of Cyberfolk. In part I saw this movement across media as empirically necessary in order to track what happened to cyberpunk. Toffoletti rightly suggests that my methodology, articulation theory, is structured around an internal tension. This method seeks to de-essentialize its own object or central category of analysis, to reveal it as an assemblage rather than an organic whole. But at the same time that a category like cyberpunk is not defined by "the existence of necessary formal elements," this method also seeks to explain how that patchwork assemblage managed to create a coherence that could be sustained as an identity across "different social and cultural contexts" (Grossberg 69). The issue here would seem to be whether this critique of the originality and specificity of cyberpunk means that the term itself should be abandoned, in order to foreground its expropriability and revision. I have to admit that I am more willing to retain the term "cyberpunk" than many of the authors I examine in the book, because I do think that this term performed certain specific kinds of cultural work which I try to define in the book. There is a necessary tension within articulation theory between identifying this specificity of effect or cultural work and avoiding reifying categories of analysis. I do believe, for instance, that what I am calling cyberpunk represents one of the few cultural sites where the dichotomies between utopian and dystopian attitudes toward technology, between instrumentalism or cultural determinism and technological determinism, have been and are still being interrogated and displaced (as Bruce Sterling has more recently argued in his nonfiction book Shaping Things). It is hard for me to see how the value of such a project and the archive it has produced can be defined without using a term like cyberpunk.

That said, my current project might be understood as responding to Toffoletti's call for less attention to what cyberpunk is and more attention to how its "foundational concepts . . . are called into question through the act of appropriation by other cultural forms." This current project, on "Ethnicity and Technicity," focuses more on the expropriation of cyberpunk conventions by writers and artists of color. For instance, this next book will include chapters on Guillermo Gomez-Pena's performance art and the Matrix films, as well as fiction by Asian and African-American writers. In particular, there will be a chapter on Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a novel by Samuel Delany that was published in 1984, the same year as Neuromancer, and I read Delany's novel as an alternative origin or paradigm for cyberpunk, in order to define the ways in which the movement's foundational narrative might be pluralized and understood as split at the root.

I appreciate this chance to elaborate on some of my ideas, and I want to again thank the reviewers for their careful attention and for re-presenting my arguments to me in often surprising and thought-provoking ways.

Works Cited:

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: New York: Routledge, 1994.

Delany, Samuel R. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. Originally published 1984.

Grossberg, Lawrence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Latour, Bruno. We Who Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Stone, Allucquere Roseanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Warner, Michael. "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject." In Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Chris Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 377-401.

Thomas Foster

<tfoster@u.washington.edu>

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