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Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body

Author: Kim Toffoletti
Publisher: New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007
Review Published: October 2009

 REVIEW 1: M. Beatrice Bittarello
 REVIEW 2: Birgit Pretzsch
 REVIEW 3: Nicholas Yanes
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kim Toffoletti

The main aim of Toffoletti's book is to develop an alternative modality of subjectivity, one that is not grounded in identity. She argues that our immersion in technology complicates and erodes ideas about self, truth, and reality and therefore offers us the chance to move beyond dichotomous identity constructions along self/other lines. In her view, the posthuman is a useful figuration when trying to think beyond the phallocentric subject of humanism, because
the posthuman condition cannot simply be explained by the transcendence, extension or penetration of the human body via technologies. Rather it is the bodily transformations and augmentations that come about through our engagements with technology that complicate the idea of a "human essence." The posthuman emerges by interrogating what it means to be human in a digital age. (13)
Using four posthuman figurations -- the Barbie doll, Marilyn Manson, the mutant baby of a TDK advertisement, and artworks by Patricia Piccinini -- as take off points, Toffoletti addresses virtually all areas of interest in the wide field of feminism and technology: plastic surgery, teratology, myths of biotechnology, morphing, pleasure and the spectacle, advertising, communication, prostheses, genetic manipulation, coding and cloning -- among others.

In her first two chapters, Toffoletti gives us an extensive, lucid, and highly informative theoretical background to her analyses -- first on feminism and technology, then on Baudrillard and simulation. Apparently assuming a reader of general interest and scholars with disparate backgrounds, she takes little previous knowlege for granted and is therefore -- and due to her accessible style -- perfectly suited for those fairly new to the field. Experts can enjoy the concise summaries, rejoice at the thought of using these texts as introductory material for students, or simply skip either or both of the first two chapters as they might not offer too much that is new.

In "Feminism, Technology and the Posthuman," Toffoletti introduces us to the important role the posthuman has played and plays within western culture in helping us interrogate the status of body and self in a technological age. She sketches how it has been understood and interpreted, both as a promising possibility and as threat to "human nature" and the stability of society (eg Fukuyama). Toffoletti shares Katherine Hayles's conviction that even though techno-human interaction decentres the human (or rather Enlightenment's ideas about identity and selfhood), this does not necessarily mean the end of the category "human." After reviewing feminist critques of subjectivity, pointing out why feminsim has every reason to reject Enlightenment ideas about the subject, Toffoletti turns to feminist scholarship on techno-human relations, illustrating how it has focused on the question whether technology is "good" or "bad" for women. And even those theorists celebrating the possibilites technology might offer women (such as the cyberfeminists) still rely on the dichotomies that link women to nature and body. They tend to see technology as a neutral tool that can be used for either "male" or "female" aims. Rejecting these dualistic and deterministic approaches, Toffoletti claims that technology is always a social artefact and that techno-human relations are dynamic, positing "a posthuman landscape [in which] technology is neither friend nor foe, but emerges as a possibility to refigure bodies and identities outside of self/Other relations" (21).

Since one of Toffoletti's central tenets is that the status of the "real" needs to be thoroughly questioned -- which will lead to a fundamentally new understanding of representation, images, and identity politics -- her chapter two gives the reader the necessary background on Baudrillard's philosophy on simulation and hyperreality, feminism's critiques of Baudrillard, and feminist ideas about representation. In order to make her point that "looking," the relationship between representation and reality, and the interpretation of images are directly linked to ideas about "original" and "copy," she sketches the development of visual techniques from the Renaissance to the digital age. Today, the difference between the two has imploded, in our world of simulation there is no fixed origin, no "original," and therefore also no concrete relation between an image and its referent. This is important to point out, as this assumption forms the basis for Toffoletti's analyses of popular phenomena and leads her to reject the critical approach of trying to find out what an image "means," to find the "true" message behind the veil of representation.

Her divergence from conventional readings of representations is illustrated convincingly in chapter three, which focuses on the Barbie doll. Contrary to most feminist scholarship on Barbie, reviewed by Toffoletti, she refuses to see the ubiquitous doll as negative role model for girls in its endorsement of heterosexuality, normative femininity, and consumerist values. Instead, she argues that Barbie is a "transformer," questioning fixed categories such as illusion, reality, and self:
Figurations such as Barbie function to encourage alternative understandings of the body and the self as transformative, rather than bound to an established system of meaning. She is a precursor to the posthuman; a type of plastic transformer who embodies the potential for identity to be mutable and unfixed. (59)
Placing Barbie in the tradition of the shop window mannequin -- the epitome of modernist consumerism -- Toffoletti argues with Baudrillard that the generalisation of categories leads to the effect that they lose all specificity: the markers of femininity that Barbie exhibits are so exaggerated that they lose all reference to the category "woman": "Barbie reveals nothing about 'real' women because her longer-than-long legs, masses of blonde hair, and pneumatic breasts exceed the limits of phallogocentric signification by virtue of their hyperfemininity" (67-68).

The other characteristic of Barbie that Toffoletti focuses upon is her plasticity, the promise of ambiguity and contradiction which this flexible, artificial, versatile material offers. Plastic challenges notions of authenticity, it ridicules ideas of things original and natural, thereby eroding stories of origin. It is volatile, "threatening to transform into something else" (70), it is the "substance of simulation" (71) which dissolves boundaries between "real" and representation. In her plastic existence, the question to be asked about Barbie is not how "real" she is but how she challenges ideas about representations' relationship to reality.

In her reading of an image of Marilyn Manson in chapter four, Toffoletti mainly deals with the issue of difference, both sociological and biological, and how it can be erased by posthuman representations. Putting Manson in the tradition of the monster -- which has frequently been the focus of feminist inquiry -- Toffoletti points to his ambiguous position, as that which is not human but constitutes the human. Using Baudrillard's concept of catastrophe -- "the excess, acceleration and precipitation typified by the information age" (89) -- she illustrates how the posthuman disrupts traditional feminist readings of the monster, which is still very much grounded in an organic materiality. Manson, on the other hand, belongs to the "techno-human hybrids, digital mutants and genetically modified freaks of popular culture" (84). There is no reality outside of the image against which he can be measured, no subject behind the object of representation, therefore traditional understandings of difference -- the models of thought that contain threatening difference in the dialectics of same/Other -- fail here and an alternative understanding of difference is propagated by posthumans such as Manson:
As sexually indeterminate, technologically mediated entity, Manson destabilises the Cartesian dualisms that underpin the liberal-humanist subject, as well as a notion of female identity based on positive difference. Through his plastic form, Manson dismantles the over coding of signification that structures a coherent identity. (104)
Toffoletti's analysis of the "mutant baby" of TDK's advertisement (chapter five), featuring square eyes, elongated ears, and an ecstatic smile, also focuses on the question of how the subject might be rethought, in this case in its relation to the media. Instead of positing the subject as either active or passive when interacting with media, Toffoletti sees the body as interface, emerging from a society saturated with information and leading to "the eradication of any critical distance between the human subject and information and the media system" (108). The TDK baby is both the consumer and the consumed with its square eyes that look and -- as screen -- are looked upon, thereby breaking apart the traditional constellation of sender and receiver and opening up ways to think subjectivity beyond a politics of identity. Taking issue with feminism's frequent fears of an erasure or negation of the body by technology and the subsequent yearning for a return to "the real," Toffoletti argues that, while we certainly are situated bodies, experiencing the world through our sensory apparatus, the question of how we come to know "reality" and how me make meaning of it is at the centre of her endeavour: "'reality' is not a given but rather, in a culture of simulation, images such as the posthuman baby perform to make the world as we know it, to generate our sense of what is real" (121).

In her final chapter Toffoletti deals with "Origins and Identity in a Biotech World." She uses Australian artist Patricia Piccinini's works on genetic modification and mutation to illustrate how genome narratives suggest that "human essence" lies in genes and cells and how these narratives strive to create myths of origin (eg Human Genome Project and Visible Human Project). Piccinini's works are well suited for this endeavour because of their ambivalence towards biotechnology: while they are critical of the ethical implications, the creatures so produced are never judged.

Toffoletti argues that the posthuman challenges myths of origin, just as Donna Haraway's cyborg does. Using the sheep Dolly as example she claims that
Dolly existed as a model derived from the genetic information that makes up what we understand to be a sheep. [...] this information cannot be differentiated from what we would consider to be "real" or natural sheep. Dolly isn't a reality, but a virtuality [...] a simulation model of a model, itself without origins, that ruptures the formal relation between representation and its reality. And it is this disruption of meaning that undermines the legitimacy of scientific rhetoric that perpetuates the idea of origins. (142)
All in all, the book offers a concise review of feminist scholarship in a wide array of fields and it develops a refreshing and fascinating new conceptualisation of subjectivity in the digital age. At times Toffoletti's justifications for using Baudrillardian theory can be a bit repetetive, as are some other points which she clearly wants to drive home with all force. Apart from this, it is an exciting read, opens up fascinating new perspectives, and is throroughly enjoyable to read.

Birgit Pretzsch:
Birgit Pretzsch is lecturer in English literature at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University Frankfurt. She has published on Lara Croft and is currently writing her PhD on bodies, technologies, and subjectivities in cyberpunk fiction.  <birgit@cyberpink.de>

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