Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment
Author: Jenny Sundén
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003
Review Published: October 2006
First, I want to thank Clarissa Lee for her wonderful review, and David Silver as the director of RCCS for facilitating the review process and giving me the opportunity to respond. It is quite a treat to get to revisit one's work through the words of someone else. Lee does a great job presenting the book, its chapters and themes, and I do not have much to add. This might have to do with the fact that three years have gone by since the book was published, and a lot has happened in the field of cybercultural studies, as well as in my own research. If text-based online worlds were the flavor of the day (in certain circles) when I started to work on Material Virtualities in mid- to late-90s, the focus has shifted significantly since, primarily due to the rapid expansion of blogs and online game worlds (MMORPGs). Given the speed of technological development, changing user demographics and patterns of use, writing about online phenomena is in a sense always media history in the making. Then again, looking back at the rich body of research on text-based online locations, it is clear that this work holds a lot of value for the growing research in, for example, online gaming.
If some of my fellow researchers in MUDs and MOOs have moved straight into game studies, my own path has been slightly different. My investment in MOOs was primarily directed towards the material side of the virtual (of bodies, technologies, and places), and the many connections and machinic translations between the body typing and its on-screen textual representation. I was intrigued by the participants' feelings of, temporarily, being in another body, yet still in the body of their own. But I was also interested in the ways in which these places were literally written into existence, in the textual dimensions of this particular online worldliness. One thing led to another, and after finishing the MOO-study I found myself taking a rather deep plunge in the field of hypertext fiction -- with an eye for the intricate interplay between body politics, spatiality, mapping, and sense of place and direction in reading and writing "three-dimensionally."
What constitutes a sense of location in narrative? How does narrative location relate to the location of the reading itself -- and the positioning of the body -- as part of reading experiences? There is a significant difference between the alert, upright, goal oriented, information seeking, game play kind of reading in front of the tabletop computer, versus the stretched out, or perhaps curled up, relaxed and pleasure oriented type of couch reading, (codex) book in one hand, teacup in the other. Then again, there is of course a whole pleasure-culture developing around lightweight, mobile computer technologies. On the far side of the romantization of the codex book is the reverse pleasure practices of laptops in bed glowing in the dark, all warm and purring flat on the stomach. To be cozy with computers is not a contradiction of terms, rather an increasing possibility as the machines get smaller, lighter, and more powerful.
On a more critical/political note, according to Adrienne Rich (1986), a "politics of location" is about making visible the location from which one is speaking, of acknowledging the material conditions that constitute subject positions. In cyberspace, a theory and politics of location needs to be elastic. If masculine (but not necessarily male) cyber-subjectivity typically has been about disembodiment, placelessness and navigational control, and the feminist response typically about embodiment, groundedness and accountability, I think there is a need to rethink what being grounded means. How could a politics of location encompass computeresque geographies? Or, better yet: Is there a way to formulate a politics of virtual place-making?
The effort to rethink the meaning and matter of "politics of location" also feeds into one of my current projects -- together with my Swedish colleague Malin Sveningsson Elm -- to gather Nordic scholars in the field of feminist studies of digital media. We have just completed a collection of essays entitled Cyberfeminism in Northern Lights: Digital Media and Gender in a Nordic Context, to be published (shortly, we hope!) by Cambridge Scholars Press. What does it mean to study supposedly global media phenomena from a Nordic perspective? In which ways could a Nordic feminist perspective on digital media make a difference in relation to dominant research traditions? What would be particular and unique about Nordic cyberfeminism, compared to the "unmarked" version of cyberfeminism dominating the field today? Against the background of an expanding body of research in the field of digital media and gender, which to this date has primarily been carried out from an Anglo-American perspective, one of our main argument is that feminist studies of digital media need to become more inclusive and aware of their own geographical and cultural biases and limits. On the basis of this argument, we hope for many fruitful discussions with colleagues around the globe.
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