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Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History

Editor: Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, Alessio Cavallaro
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: June 2004

 REVIEW 1: Nick Mercer

In the introduction to Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, co-editor Darren Tofts states that the study of "cyberculture" is concerned with the "process of becoming through technological means" (3). In a way Prefiguring Cyberculture is about the "process of becoming" of cyberculture, and while it in no way shies away from a contemporary focus on technology and culture, one of its great strengths is in the way many of the writers examine the connections between present day cybercultural practice and the ideas of the great thinkers and writers of the past who anticipated many of these practices and developments.

The collection is divided into four sections and a "coda." The first section, entitled "Robot: AI, Life and Cyborgs," begins with Eric Davis' essay "Synthetic Meditations: Cogito in the Matrix." In his essay, Davis identifies the Cartesian concept of the cogito as one that still haunts contemporary cultural theory, and asserts that the anxieties surrounding "cybernetic subjectivity" can be explored through the "split" in the Cartesian cogito. The split in the Cartesian cogito, put simply, is between self-conscious awareness and those motivating agents that escape conscious reflection but nevertheless determine subjective agency. In his discussion Davis refers to the film The Matrix, and its twin themes of "false reality" and virtual technologies, as spectacularly realizing the Cartesian fantasy. Within this framework, Davis proceeds to analyze how special FX are used allegorically in The Matrix to destabilize the Cartesian mind/body dualism through its emphasis on the "phenomenal or subjective dimension of virtual bodies." Davis finally posits his theory of the split cogito within Lacanian/Zizekian discourse. This for me was one of the strongest of the essays in the book, and while it may seem theoretically dense, this is offset by Davis' lucid expression of complex concepts.

The second essay in the first section is also very strong and, like Davis' essay, Catherine Waldby reinvigorates a well-worn subject of cultural and literary critiques of technology -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In "The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture," Waldby resists the apocalyptic or technophobic reading of Frankenstein in favor of a "more attentive reading" that understands Shelley's story as a comment on the symbiotic relationship that underpins the relationship between human and machine ontologies. Waldby sees the Frankenstein story as one that is critical of the outmoded opposition between human and machine, and reads it almost as a lament on humanity's lost opportunity to understand itself by recognizing the technological "monster" as the "mirror-image of the human." The failure of Victor Frankenstein to accept his monster's "humanity," Waldby argues, is founded on misguided notions of essential humanity and on myths of natural origin that inform Western perceptions of human/technological relations.

The next two articles in the first section take on a decidedly different tone to the first two. Both Elizabeth A. Wilson's "Imaginable Computers: Affects and Intelligence in Alan Turing" and Evelyn Fox Keller's "Marrying the Premodern to the Postmodern: Computers and Organisms After WWII" critically engage with cyberculture from a historical perspective, and contest the narrative and disciplinary terrain of computational science, biology, genetics, and cybernetics. In her essay, Wilson focuses on the work of Alan Turing, a seminal figure in the history of computational science and information theory. Wilson believes that commentaries on Turing and his intellectual contribution to computational science, information theory, and A.I. are too narrow and constricted in their analysis. Combining a biographical and psychological study of Turing, Wilson claims that central to Turing's theory of "machine intelligence" are the "affects of surprise, interest and enjoyment" (47), and that for A.I. to develop, intelligence has to be learned through affective experiences similar to the intellectual development of a child. It is this idea that Wilson argues has been neglected by a majority of A.I. researchers, and while many other tenets of Turing's mathematical and computational theories have been implemented in the construction of A.I. systems, it is the failure to adopt this notion of intelligence as "child-like learning" that has restricted the field to a limited vision of intelligence as something that can be pre-programmed. Keller traces the history of theories of living systems and the "organic"; from Immanuel Kant, to the 19th century scientific discourse of embryology, to 20th century genetics and molecular biology and finally to the first and second waves of post-WWII cybernetics. Keller documents the transition from biological theories grounded in "vitalism" and teleological models of organicism that referred to metaphysical notions of "life-force," to more concretely scientific research in experimental genetics that saw the identification of DNA as the articulation of the "invisible guide" of organic life. Keller notes the impact that cybernetics (particularly the second-wave) and complexity theory had in moving the field of molecular biology and genetics from "arch reductionism" and linearity (its research practices at this time were motivated by the strategy of reducing life to its simplest units and then proceeding from their, in a linear fashion, to establish the "essence of life") to envisioning biological codes and information as complex, multi-layered networks, that have no end point or limit, but can be understood best by observing interaction between systems rather than looking at "self-organising" systems in isolation.

I found Samuel J. Umland and Karl Wesserl's article "Cassandra Among the Cyborgs, or, the Silicon Termination Notice" to be potentially one of the most exciting and original essays in the collection. Particularly interesting is Umland and Wesserl's discussion of Asperger's Syndrome, a psychiatric condition that is situated along the autism spectrum, and a condition that is shown to be prevalent in many of the leading physicists, engineers, and mathematicians of the 20th century. Umland and Wesserl outline many of the key aspects of autistic cognition, and assert that Asperger's Syndrome is a cognitive paradigm that corresponds with the kind of specialization and asocial literalism and reductionism that is most effectively employed in scientific enquiry into complex systems. Finally, Umland and Wesserl maintain that there is an inherent danger in complexity theories and systems due to their "autistic narrowness of focus," and that in the highly optimised world of postmodern cyberculture we have no back-up system; there is no "organic whole" that enables "homeostatic equilibrium." The implication being that we are accelerating historically towards an apocalyptic end. Throughout the essay Umland and Wesserl refer to the insights of Science Fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and stipulate that their's is a "misreading" of Dick. I would have liked to have seen, however, a more concrete connection between Dick's writings and some of the themes with which Umland and Wesserl engage, specifically in regard to Dick's Martian Time-Slip, in which Dick explores autistic cognition in relation to the reconfiguration of temporal, spatial, and narrative coordinates.

The final essay in the first section is Zoe Sofoulis' "Cyberquake: Haraway's Manifesto," in which Sofoulis tracks the impact that Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" has had in the discourses of cyberculture. Sofoulis effectively canvases Haraway's socialist-feminist cyborg project, and situates Haraway's brand of cyborg feminism amongst other feminist discourses in the 1980s and 1990s.

The second section in the collection, entitled "Virtuality: Webworlds and Cyberspaces," moves the focus of the book's essays from cyborg subjectivities to questions pertaining to conceptions of "reality," representation, and media. The first essay in the section, Gregory Ulmer's "Reality Tables: Virtual Furniture," however, I found almost impenetrable. Moving on from that though, is John Sutton's article "Porous Memory and the Cognitive Life of Things," which is an intriguing journey through the "pre-history" of the theories and practices of memory. Beginning with Descartes and the Cartesian notion of the medium of memory being "animal spirits" that flow through the blood and bodily fluids of the human brain/body, Sutton argues the Cartesian understanding of memory was one that did not see order built into memory, but rather saw it "open" to reconstruction, misassociation, and imagination. In contrast to Descartes' theory of memory, the post-Reformation English natural philosophers understood memory as having an "internal fixity," and believed that it could be controlled and manipulated through will and the soul. Sutton then relates the medieval and Renaissance "arts of memory" to more recent forays in cyberculture that analyse forms of intelligence augmentation and the "internalisation of memory architecture."

Leading on from Sutton's account of memory and prosthesis is Donald Theall's "Becoming Immedia: The Innovation of Digital Convergence." Like Sutton, Theall is interested in how consciousness (memory) can be understood and extended through the technologies of cyberculture. Theall begins by acknowledging the work of Pierre Teilhard and Marshall McLuhan in imagining a cybernetic "chaosmology" (in Teilhard's case, the "noosphere") that sees human minds increasingly connected and converging with electro-magnetic and digital media. Theall also contends that the great modernist writer James Joyce's experimental writing and helical representation of history stands as a precursor to the convergence of media and the strategies of hypertext. Joyce's Finnegan's Wake is held up as exemplary in its "semiotic ambivalence," and in its polysemic language games, as paralleling the "fluidity of electromagnetic media" (149). Like Sutton, Theall stresses the importance of "prehistory" in analyzing cyberspace and digiculture, and he effectively refers to Joyce's propensity to use language like an "abstract machine" that encodes the relations between mind, matter, memory, and history, as indicative of the status of human consciousness in "becoming immedia."

I found McKenzie Wark's essay "Too Real" to be very absorbing. Through a close reading of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt" in The Illustrated Man, Wark interrogates the concept of virtual reality as mimesis. He asserts that when thinking about virtual reality one should not focus on its mimetic aspects but rather its status as an interactive space that is "too real" in how it works -- that is, as means through which the real becomes programmed like a computer game. I would have liked Wark to expand on this idea further rather than digress into an etymological account of the word "virtual." Nevertheless, I found Wark's theorization of the "vector" and "antipodality" in virtual culture particularly useful in mapping the conceptual coordinates of virtual space. However, my favorite essay of the section, Scott McQuire's "Space for Rent in the Last Suburb," I think maps the mutations in time and space of postmodern cyberculture more effectively by exploring the geographical, topographical and conceptual transition from the urban space of the "modern city machine state" to the "postmodern information city." Using William Gibson's classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer as a touchstone, McQuire imagines the new digiscapes of the "data city" transforming quotidian experience in the postmodern metropolis. Perhaps, like Case in Neuromancer, the phenomenal experience of the citizen in the emerging "data cities" will be like that of "a virtual pilot of a data-vehicle flying through the spatialised information order." Or, as McQuire also posits in reference to Paul Virilio, the human subject will move beyond the status of a mobile motorized pilot and instead become motile; a kind of extreme case of bodily inertia whereby we are limited in our bodily gestures to a few movements -- like a couch potato "channel surfing." I'm particularly drawn to analysis of temporal and spatial reconfiguration and how this affects phenomenal experience in cyberculture, which is why I preferred McQuire's essay to the rest in the section. Personally, I would have liked to see more emphasis placed on this aspect in the section.

The third section of Prefiguring Cyberculture, "Visible Unrealities: Artists Statements," marks a turn from the essay format of the previous sections and presents a series of visions from new media artists. Unfortunately these visions are somewhat undermined by the print format. While they explore many of the themes (cyborg ontology, the tensions between the body/embodiment/materiality, and the mind/disembodiment/virtuality) already raised by many of the essayists, the fact that many of the artworks function through various non-print interfaces means that their potential for opening up new theoretical dimensions regarding these themes is limited when presented in the print format.

The fourth and final section of the collection, "Futuropolis: Postmillenial Speculations," is the most fun and easy to read, perhaps due to their speculative nature. Margaret Wertheim's "Internet Dreaming: A Utopia for All Seasons" compares two grand ideological visions of the internet: the first being the utopian vision of the internet as providing the ground for a more inclusive democratic-libertarian net-community; the second being a decidedly less utopian (although this depends on who you ask) vision where techno-elites preside over everyone else and organize the internet on behalf of the ignorant populace. Wertheim historically situates these two modes of "utopian" thinking in Thomas More's 16th century text Utopia and Francis Bacon's 17th century text New Atlantis. Drawing on these two texts, Wertheim argues that while during the genesis of the internet More's communistic "utopian" vision was dominant among the early innovators, presently Bacon's more orthodox elitist vision has actually become the reality in the wake of the "dot.com barons" of the 1990s.

Bruce Mazlich's essay "Butler's Brainstorm" focuses on the life and works of the Victorian writer Samuel Butler. Mazlich delineates Butler's various conflicting positions on the "nature" of machines and human, organic and mechanical agency, framing much of this discussion in the context of Butler's intellectual and personal engagement with Charles Darwin and Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. This is an interesting essay on a man that wouldn't automatically spring to mind when thinking about the "prehistory" of cyberculture, yet as Mazlich claims, his ideas very much intersect and prefigure the developing theorization of human-machine relations.

In my view, any collection that documents the prefiguration of cyberculture requires an essay on Filippo Marinetti and futurism. Marinetti's futurist manifesto, long before Haraway, imagined the revolutionary and utopian potential in "becoming" cyborg. John Potts' "Nowhereseville: Utopia is No-place" is a wonderful discussion of Marinetti's fusion of speed, art, and politics. Potts argues that despite the claim that in the era of postmodernity the Enlightenment doctrine of progress and its utopian premise has receded, there remains a distinctly futurist belief in technological progress, and in the liberating transformation from human to posthuman, among the various subcultures of cyberculture and in postindustrial society in general. Following Potts, Russell Blackford, in "Stranger Than You Think: Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future," celebrates a futurist thinker of a different sort -- science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. While Blackford's analysis of Clarke's future projections remains interesting, I had difficulty in finding quite the same enthusiasm as Blackford for Clarke's speculations. Richard Slaughter's article "From Future Shock to Social Foresight: Re-Contextualising Cyberculture" also engages with futurism, albeit more directly than the previous two essays. Slaughter begins his article with a critique of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, and then proposes possible directions that the discipline of "future studies" should take. Slaughter's article is systematic in its form, yet (due no doubt to its subject matter) seems a bit provisional.

At the end of the section is Damien Broderick's exciting essay "Racing Towards the Spike." Broderick, drawing on Vernor Vinge's theorization of the "technological singularity," postulates that we are heading towards "the spike," which is where the accelerated pace of technological change will become exponential. The potential trajectory, Broderick states, may take the form of a human-equivalent A.I. that will then "self-optimise" and leave the era of humanity behind. Another trajectory towards the spike, Broderick asserts, could be facilitated through developments in nanotechnology. While these imaginings may seem to be the stuff of science fiction, Broderick refers to the predictions of leading researchers in various fields, and suggests himself that the spike will occur by 2030. This essay is fascinating, breathtaking reading, and made fun by Broderick's informal style.

Prefiguring Cyberspace concludes with a "coda," Mark Dery's "Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet Age at the TWA Terminal." Dery examines the "space-Pop aesthetic" of the 1960s epitomized by the cultural visages of airline travel of the same period. Dery goes on to say that nostalgia for retro-jet age futurism in the contemporary period is ironic in an age when airline travel has become associated with aviation disasters and the fear of technology.

As a whole, I found Prefiguring Cyberculture intensely thought provoking. The essays are diverse in their themes and styles, and I think this gives the book an eclectic energy representative of the postmodern logic of cyberculture. The book conveys the breadth and substance of the cybercultural discipline, however I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention given to the everyday experience of cyberculture: essays, for example, that theorize on the day-to-day usage of mobile phones, digital technologies, computer games, the internet, and new media. Nevertheless, this is a substantial contribution to the burgeoning field of cyberculture and is a must read for anyone interested in the exhilarating universe of the cyborg, the posthuman, and the informatic.

Nick Mercer:
Nick Mercer is a Ph.D. candidate in English, Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. He teaches courses in media, communication, and cultural theory, including: "Cultures, New Media and Communications," "Screen Cultures/Print Cultures," and "Reading Texts, Mediating Culture." His research interests include postmodern culture, cyberculture, film, new media, and critical theory.   <nmercer@cyllene.uwa.edu.au>

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