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Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment

Author: Jenny Sundén
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003
Review Published: October 2006

 REVIEW 1: Clarissa Lee

It is ironic that the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), Object Oriented MUD (MOO), and other web or client-based online socializing mediums have a wide mass appeal, yet are restricted by the requirements of a certain level of internet connectivity as well as computer literacy. In fact, as Jenny Sundén has demonstrated in Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment, a majority of the users of these socializing tools, including the MOO, are represented by a predictable demographic group that are mostly based in one geographical site, thus making other users situated in the non-dominant locality "aliens" whose existence requires an apologetic explanation, in which every detail needs attention, and nothing can be taken for granted. As a former user of one of the abovementioned services myself, and being a citizen of an Asian country, I can attest to the omnipresence of a particular group and to the pressure to familiarize myself with the lingo and cultural nuances of the dominant group.

This densely theoretical but articulate dissertation on the world of MOO assiduously re-examines the discourse on cyber-subjectivity, textual (dis)embodiment, and the ubiquitous cyborg body in cyberfeminist discourse, and shows how aspects of these discourses can falter and contradict when assumptions based on generalized conclusions are interrogated with deviating cases, or forced to conform to particular specificities. Sundén, a lecturer in the Department of Media Technology at The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, carefully lays out the multi-pronged hermeneutics that are only to be expected of an entity that inhabits intertextual objectivity and subjectivity. However, the users of these interfaces might not "jack in" completely as that would require the transfer or "upload" of a person's consciousness (in the process of going from the material to the virtual self), as exemplified in the characters Case and the cyber "cowboys" of Gibson's Neuromancer, where the engagement of many of the virtual characters (driven by a real-life typist sitting behind the terminal) with their online space could reach a high-level of intensity that is only limited by the tenuous separation between the consciousness contained by the physical/abject body, and the disembodied self invested into a virtual character. I agree with Sundén that the virtual does not equal disembodiment as the "intrusion" of the "real-world" into the online world is ever-present, as suggested by the character descriptions that Sundén had outlined for us throughout the book, as well as the logs of conversations where the characters often bring in real-life examples to rationalize their online predilection and representation of self and others.

Sundén has divided this book into six chapters, plus the introduction. As an outgrowth of her PhD thesis, its structural conditions remain evident, especially in her absorbed concentration in the different angles she had decided for her study of the MOO, and the narrowness of the subject, though that in no way detracts from the excellence of her arguments. The introduction to the book introduces the character of "Jenny," the researcher/ethnographer, in her virtual office. However, Sundén does not go into the details of ethnographic methodology, whether in a "real world" or online setting, until chapter one. Instead, she concentrates on establishing the theoretical direction of her study: the cyborg body embroiled in a discursive struggle between the male and female dichotomies that had continued from the days of the Cartesian mind-body duality into the realm of the virtual via the embodiment of "online bodies." With N. Katherine Hayles' perspective that "reveal 'virtuality' as itself embodied" (11) as the springboard for her examination of "materialization," Sundén borrows from post-structuralist feminist thinkers like Haraway, Butler, Grosz, and Braidotti in order to create a theoretical framework for the conceptualization of cyborgfeminism, which she discusses in greater detail in the final chapter.

The first chapter is divided between two levels of arguments. The first level concentrates on establishing the methodology of a virtual ethnography that Sundén had used in the course of her research and how she had navigated herself around its pitfalls. She explains how she uses the concept of "'ethnography' to allude to a particular mind-set relation" (19) instead of the more straightforward translation of anthropological code of practices into online cultures. If oral transmissions are important in the ethnographic studies of an illiterate society, the text is emphasized in the examination of online communities, and that may lead one to "over-read" into the reality constructed through typed narratives. Sundén bases most of her arguments in chapter one on the principle that the distinction between "reality" and "textual" vanishes as online reality is textual reality. The writer in this online world is at the same time a reader of the literary conventions utilized by his/her contemporaries. In other words, the user's continuous response and activity online is influenced by his/her input that begun with his/her registration of a character, the reaction and interaction he/she gains as a result of his/her introductory text, his/her reaction towards the other users, and the new insights gained as a result of the interaction with other members of the community. Hence, the process of writing can not be separated from the process of reading -- a point elaborated upon further in the second chapter. In this chapter, Sundén explains her motivation for choosing WaterMOO (which is a pseudonym of the MOO she had selected for her subject) over other MOOs and the process she went through before establishing herself as the MOO's ethnographer, and the ethics she abides by in gaining access to the MOO's community. The second level discusses the fluidity, performativity, and corporeality of a textual existence. To illustrate her arguments, she uses examples of character descriptions that had been inscribed/purposively "ignored" by their human typists. And the most important personification of these arguments would be the problematic discourse of gender when juxtaposed against an online character.

The following chapter is continuation of the arguments she raises in chapter one and is in fact inseparable, though Sundén approaches it in way that is different from what I have ventured in the preceding paragraph; she concentrates more on gender and the projection of identity. Here, eighteenth century gothicity (she discusses Castle's Masquerade and Civilization) goes hand-in-hand with postmodern utopianism. I daresay that this chapter could be further strengthened through the incorporation of Kristevan semiotics and intertextuality into the reading of online bodies since Sundén is already entering the realm of psychoanalysis via Grosz, and Kristeva's theories are the primary reference of many of Grosz's work. This is especially useful in the study of fantastical characters as the projection of a particular superego. Somehow, I feel that the second chapter does not engage strongly enough with the first chapter in a dialectical intercourse that would have paralleled the interactivity of the characters and objects in MOO, compared to the engagements that later chapters have with one another. However, I find her analysis, especially on the problematic situation of gender, to be illuminating and thorough, especially in the examples she had chosen to examine. Her illustration of the absent bodies that are "present" through "literary and lyrical quotes and through fragmented or completely absent descriptions" (85) has its literary embodiment (in both highbrow and popular fiction) of masked heroes whose only form of identification would be an unmistakable signature or literary prowess demonstrated through poetic speech or note. In other words, while wishing to be evasive, they simultaneously left behind an aura that makes them intriguing.

The third chapter, "Mapping Cyberplace(s)," was alluded to in my introductory paragraph when I mentioned the hegemony of a particular dominant group, which would be MOO users connecting from the U.S. As Sundén argues in this chapter, even if proponents of the "global village" have an idealized vision of revitalizing democracy and obliterating hierarchies, it leaves out all the "differences grounded in diverse localities" (93) and ignores the position of privilege occupied by the vast majority of the denizens of cyberspace which allows them unfettered access to every nook of the networked world. Sundén brings up a very important point when she proposes that even if a sense of one's actual physical location is obliterated when one congregates in cyberspace, the sense of being somewhere in "virtual place" is still very important as it provides a sense of orientation to the visitor. In a sense, there is a need for a memory of the "real," and as Sundén further illustrates in the chapter, many of the actions that took place in the realm of the WaterMOO were symbolic of the many lives lived out in the physical world. Though the typists had to be present behind the keyboard to activate their MOO characters, once connected, the typists/their character build narratives around themselves that are temporal as well as semi-permanent. In this chapter, Sundén also explores the politics of cyber-sex centered on the facade of "reality" by the graphic-textual world of MOO, steamy encounters that unveil the fantasies of the role-players (hence its collusion with body materiality), as well as the sexual roles that each gender takes on, whether consciously or not. Of course, throughout the book, Sundén reminds us of the fluidity of gender assignments in MOO even as a vast majority subscribes to the conventional understanding of gender.

Chapters four and five works on fleshing out, in greater detail, the interplay between sex and gender, through the exploration of their double-meaning (or double-speak), of their possible "interchangeability" within a virtual context as well as the effects of their acute fluidity on online participants. Though all the other chapters are individually important in their contribution to the Sundén's overall thesis of material virtualities which she reaffirms and theorizes in greater detail in the final chapter, they are like the slow unraveling of the erotic dancer which arrives at the pinnacle in these two chapters. In fact, the mapping of cyberspace in chapter three provides the backdrop for the corporeal obsession in chapter four as the virtual geography takes on a life of its own and thus affects the mise-en-scene for intertextual intimacy of the characters, ranging from sex to intimate confidences. In the latter case, corporeality became so real that the characters experienced a sense of betrayal when it seemed as if one of the characters had "betrayed" their online friends with "concocted" stories of themselves. For some characters, the online world provided the pretext to relive/relieve a fantasy which might less possibly be realized in the physical world, though some also used it as an extension of their political negotiation of sexuality, like in the case of "Mira," the amorphous character of indeterminate gender. In earlier chapters, Sundén states that the characters were rather accepting of the "stories" built by members of their community as long as coherence was maintained. Hence, it is possible for them to accept a "lie" as long as the illusion of it is not broken by a sudden confession.

Chapter five opens with an introduction of hypertext theory which she brings into her discussion of reading and writing of an online identity. Though I understand that she intends to further her argument on how computer codes can limit the prerogative of gender designation, and hence the fluidity of narrative when assigned to specific pronouns, it might have been pertinent to also include a brief discussion on the philosophy of coded logic and its semiotical implication on the everyday language of interaction. Also, as programming languages used to develop the cyber world were derived from the English language, with the vast majority of the users being native speakers of the language, how would it affect the material virtuality of an online world consisting of denizens for whom English is a foreign language? With the growth of Internet accessibility in countries where English is hardly the medium except for expediency, one witnesses the emergence of message boards and chatrooms that are conducted in languages that are alien to the history of Indo-European languages of which English is the outgrowth. However, I appreciate that it might be impossible to include too many of these areas without diverging too much from the central tenet of her dissertation.

As Sundén argues, the term "she-cyborg" represents the politics of sexual difference, and thus moves away from androgyny. Whether in works of fiction like cyberpunk narratives or the more dynamic narrative of the MOO characters, a genderless utopia where sexual difference would not be a factor of consideration remains a distant dream that jars with the prevalent gender-centric discourse, in which the latter is problematized. However, I feel that, in this era of implosion of works in the field of cyberfeminism, the cyborg, and their interface with the cyberworld, Sundén has presented a very plausible, ethnographic textual analysis of a world that is in a way an embodiment of a medium that is an outgrowth of both an earlier era of a publicly accessed Internet and a later period when more "lay persons" (meaning a person with basic computer literacy and hardly any knowledge in computer programming) begin to stake their claim in this world. Online worlds like MOO and MUDs provide what P2P chat clients and online social forums could not, which is a home-like heterotopia.

Clarissa Lee:
Clarissa Lee is currently a copywriter for a brand communications and advertising agency while she awaits the results of her MA thesis on Sylvia Plath and the Kristevan theory on abjection from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She blogs at archive of learning.  <clarissal at gmail dot com>

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