The Cybercultures Reader
Editor: David Bell, Barbara M. Kennedy
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: May 2001
It should be said at the outset that The Cybercultures Reader does exactly what I think a Reader should do: it provides a core text for cybercultural study. The Cybercultures Reader claims to "bring together key writings (. . . ) in the field" and it proves two things -- that this can be done comprehensively, in a single volume, and that there is a field. This Reader achieves the difficult balance of remaining coherent whilst drawing together writings from a number of disciplines across media and cultural studies. It presents both the dystopian and utopian takes on cybercultures and also contextualizes these by setting up the entries to debate specific issues across this spectrum. Thus, although all of these chapters have been printed elsewhere, the book successfully recontextualizes them so that they speak to each other as well as to the reader of the text. This is a thorough and comprehensive collection that manages to provide both a sense of the history and the complexity of cybercultures, and also manages to contain and provide a working definition of the term.
The anthology commences with the now classic text in debates about cybercultures, Michael Benedikt's "First Steps." Benedikt manages to convey the enthusiasm and energy of discourses of cyberculture but also avoids the 'future present' strategy of science fiction deployed by other cyber-propagandists. It is this that is useful about 'First Steps'; it offers an agenda without promising the future. The Cybercultures Reader moves on promisingly from its inquiring opening and the overall architecture is impressive. The arrangement of the chapters is in nine main parts. This structure is highly user friendly, moving from the theme of approaches to cyberculture through to the specifics of popular, subculture, feminisms, queer theory, the human body and post human bodies, to the spatiality of mapping and colonization. The technique of the Reader is dialectic; from Benedikt's hypothesis of cyberspace as "a new universe" (29) to Ziauddin Sardar's claim that it is an obscene "group(s) of cyberfreaks giggling in the corner while giant corporations trade gigabytes of information about money and death" (740). This dialectical method is also reflected in each part of the Reader; for example, cyberfeminisms are presented, theorized, and then challenged.
Of the many strengths of this Reader are Barbara Kennedy and David Bell's excellent introductions. Each section of the book is introduced with a clear mapping and critiques by the editors who point out what they think are the weaknesses and strengths of each section. These introductions help both to signpost the reader throughout and offer an insightful guide to their selections. Part One (approaches), Part Three (cybersubcultures), Part Four (cyberfeminisms), Part Seven (post- (cyber) bodies), and Part Nine (cybercolonization) are particularly strong in terms of both the introductions and individual contributions.
Part One, "Approaching Cyberculture," provides practical and imaginative addresses from Michael Benedikt, Arturo Escobar, Kevin Robins, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, and Shawn P. Wilbur. These all pay close attention to notions of the real in relation to the virtual and point toward a political economy as well as foregrounding philosophical, social, and content-based approaches. Arturo Escobar's "Welcome to Cyberia," remains the most systematic of these accounts and his directional paradigm in terms of an anthropological approach to cyberculture remains highly relevant and throws out a challenge which six years later has yet to be exhausted. The contributors to this Reader do fill out, in part, the lines sketched out by Escobar as do other core collections such as Web Studies, edited by David Guantlett and The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, edited by Andrew Herman & Thomas Swiss. In line with Escobar, much of the Reader is exemplary, displaying the committed political engagement and the dynamic critique emerging from work in the last ten to fifteen years that can be called cybercultural study.
Parts Two and Three consider popular cyberculture and cybersubcultures respectively. Popular cyberculture is made up of readings of representations of cyberspaces/cultures in off line media from print to film. This section servers to make the Reader more relevant to those studying film and literature and, in conjunction with cybersubcultures, provides an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between the social imaginary and social activity. In the subcultures part, Susan Zickmund's "Approaching the Radical Other: The Discursive Culture of Cyberhate" is a thoughtful exploration of issues of self expression and censorship and is a useful reminder that "radical," "progressive," and "liberatory" are highly contested terms. Tiziana Terranova closes this section with a coherent analysis of transhumanist and extropian performances in "The Post-Human Unbounded: Artificial Intelligence and High-Tech Subcultures." Whilst I do not disagree with Terranova's argument, her conflation of the terms post-human and trans-human is in danger of eliding the important critique of biotechnology which is also carried out under the 'post-human' banner.
The chapters in Part Three, "Cyberfeminisms," are set up as a complex set of critiques in the introduction to this section of the Reader. Drawing on Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, Claudia Springer, Nina Wakeford, Judith Squires, and Chela Sandoval, a rich synthesis is provided as all these voices 'write back' to each other. Consistent themes run through the section, but challenge each other; plurality and irreducible difference are all revealed to be part of the dynamics of cyberfeminism. This makes for an interesting and rich section which is entirely resonant with the methodologies of (cyber) feminism which, after Haraway, hold that the production of a "universal totalising theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality" (316). What is produced instead is a set of diverse, divergent and dialectical voices. Whilst this section is a particularly successful one, it could have gone further. It produces a strong philosophical frame but with the exception of Nina Wakeford's section on women's networks, there is little attention to how women live and what they do in relation to cyberculture. In other words, this section could be more materially embedded. Chela Sandoval's "New Sciences: Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed" closes this part and goes a long way towards redressing the balance but this could have been a starting point from which to discuss the conditions of production more fully. However, as the editors point out, a reader is a starting point, not a last word.
The section on queer theory and sexuality is, paradoxically, the most univocal. The dialectic, which characterizes the rest of the Reader, is present within the individual entries in this part but not within the section as a whole. It is univocal in the sense that it provides a largely positive representation of cyberspace as a liberatory practice that structures forms of expression which might otherwise be constrained by cultural geographies. Whilst sometimes in danger of glossing over the homogenizing effects of the Internet, it offers practical examples of how "empowerment" and self-expression can actually be realized through cyberspatial practice.
Although a strong collection -- which I highly recommend to students and practitioners at all levels -- The Cybercultures Reader contains some notable omissions. First, as I have already outlined in relation to cyberfeminisms, more attention could have been paid to the material conditions of cultural production. Secondly, a consideration of ethics, especially in relation to researching the Internet, is hard to find. There are many case studies referred to in the Reader but there is little evaluation of the ethical issues, which need to be considered, in relation to content analysis of chat rooms, Web pages, and MOOs. Thirdly, there is a narrowing of the object. This is to say that there is little analysis of a visual cyberculture, the terrain is presented solely as the Internet and virtual reality. Marked absences are everyday cyberspaces like gaming and the graphic environment of the Web. The analysis of text based formations dominates the collection. Visual culture is examined in relation to "popular cyberculture" where media products about imagined cybercultures are analysed but there is little sense of cyberspace as highly visual. Visuality is not completed erased. Part Seven, "Post- (cyber) bodies," draws on virtual reality as a visual medium. This part includes Lisa Cartwright's "The Visible Man: The Male Criminal Subject as Biomedical Norm," which uses the Web based Visible Human Project as its object of study. The visual is underemphasised in this collection however, and considerations of game space and the Web are not enough in evidence.
The range of contributors here is impressive and there are voices from journalism and performance art as well as the academy. However, the range of contributors is also problematic. Although wide, dynamic, and displaying the diversity of the field, the collection is, unfortunately, dominated by the academic voice of the United States. There is no translation of other language groups and no contribution external to the Anglo-American orbit. This is not to say that issues of cultural difference are not addressed. The last section of the book does deal with issues of colonization and the arrangement of the book leads the reader into a meta-narrative about early cyber-excitement transmuting into a replication and realization of the inequalities of cybercapitalism. However, this remains an anglophone narrative, which although having dystopian and utopian versions, is a story about a technology created by and for the United States which has colonized the globe and either oppressed or empowered those whom it has colonized. I am simplifying the arguments here of course, and the book is a complex and fascinating collection, but this remains the central narrative. It seems that cybercultural study, for all its attempts to open and internationalise the discourse, is at present reifying the very narratives of colonisation it critiques.
David Gauntlett, editor, Web Studies: Rewiring Media Studies in the Digital Age (London: Arnold, 2000).
Andrew Herman & Thomas Swiss, editors, The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).
Kate O'Riordan is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brighton and a lecturer in Media Studies in the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex. Her research interests are in gender, sexuality, and new media. <K.S.ORiordan@bton.ac.uk>
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