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The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory

Author: Thomas Foster
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Michele Braun
 REVIEW 2: Kim Toffoletti

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicts two actors, one playing a cowboy and the other an Indian, sitting on set reading their scripts. The actor playing the cowboy turns to the other and asks, "When you say, 'my people,' do you mean your tribe or your reps?" In asking the question, the actor blurs the line between the on set performance of Indian-ness and the off set need for an agent to manage the financial and legal aspects of that performance. The question blurs a performed Indian identity with that of the actor himself. One of the problems of the dualism that the cartoon points to, between the enactment of a persona and the embodied presence of the actor, is that it destabilizes the notion of identity. Is the actor an Indian with a tribe, or an actor with associates?

Thomas Foster's The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory seeks to interrogate this kind of blurring of boundaries that the cartoon's narrative sets up as they emerge in the posthuman realm of cyberspace. To do this, Foster explores the changing landscape of cyberpunk, from its inception in Neuromancer (1984) through its translation into graphic art, film, and music, and through changing critical perspectives, specifically gender and race. The tropes of hardwiring and cyberspace citizenship inform the arguments throughout the book, culminating in a reading of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) that locates language, ethnicity, hardwiring, and citizenship within the relationships between computer software, human beings, and social spaces and places.

One of the major debates traced through the book focuses on the conflict between posthuman theories about the fixed character of embodiment and the malleability of the human body and mind. The book does not seek to promote one model over the other, rather, it instead considers some of the possibilities for understanding human embodiment, particularly racial embodiment, as it emerges in cyberpunk texts. The problem in posthumanism, as in cyberpunk, has always been located in the Cartesian dualism of mind/body. Taking the work of writers like Donna Haraway, Daniel Dennett, N. Katherine Hayes, and Allucquere Rosanne Stone as a starting point, Foster seeks to extend cyberpunk's critical engagement with the body beyond gender to race. He does so primarily through the trope of hardwiring, a combination of intractability and malleability that offers the possibility of transcending the mind/body dualism.

The trope of hardwiring both installs and destabilizes "foundational notions of identity" (63). In Neuromancer, hardwiring is both a stylistic choice and a limitation the characters must overcome: Case has to break the "hardwiring" of his compulsive self-destruction and Molly overcomes the hardwiring of her gender through her body enhancements.

According to Foster, the hardwiring trope "can designate qualities and behaviors that belong neither to human hardware nor software, neither biology nor culture" (27). What it produces is a third, hybrid space like the kind of postmodern self the cyborg embodies in Donna Haraway's Manifesto for Cyborgs. Describing dualistic categories such as mind/body and hardware/software, Foster notes that their persistence in Neuromancer reflects the difficulty in finding a language to adequately portray the space between embodiment and disembodiment. This third space is critical because it also emerges in cyberpunk's engagement with cyberspace citizenship, where the disarticulation of physical bodies influences virtual social presence.

Public citizenship requires the abstraction of individual bodies for the universalized body of the citizen, but this tends to exclude those whose bodies are marked differently, like those of women and racialized minorities. For Allucquere Rosanne Stone, virtual reality systems set up abstract citizenship as the way the individual acquires a new body through the political sphere, because it allows overembodied subjects to achieve abstraction. This produces this third cultural space "between regarding embodiment as inevitable destiny and embracing disembodiment as an escape from that trap" (138) which is reminiscent of Homi Bhabha's Third Space. In The Location of Culture, he describes it as that which "represents both the general conditions of language and the specific implication of the utterance in a performative and institutional strategy which cannot 'in itself' be conscious" (36). Thus, it destroys cultural hierarchies and ensures that "the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity" but "[carry] the burden of the meaning of culture" (37-8). Foster's third space is a similar hybrid space that offers the possibility of transcending the limitations of the mind/body dualism. In his final discussion of the ways in which the linguistic virus of Snow Crash problematizes the relationship between theories about the hardwired deep structures of language acquisition and the relativist claims that language only is possible due to the plasticity of the human brain, this third space offers the possibility that both can exist simultaneously and offers a way of imagining what posthuman citizenship might look like.

The first chapter, "The Legacies of Cyberpunk Fiction," positions cyberpunk as it relates to posthuman discourse. Rejecting evolutionary psychology's location of the human within a universal cognitive structure, as exemplified by Edward O. Wilson's "physical soul," it also moves beyond the rejection of liberal humanism proposed by N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman to outline how the hardwiring trope offers a third space in which the dualisms of much posthumanist discourse can be transcended.

As Foster shows, debates about the ontological status of the human are nothing new, from H.G. Wells's nineteenth century response to evolution through to future thinkers of today as researchers consider the computational possibilities of Vernor Vinge's singularity, predicted to emerge in the coming decades. The continuing importance of biology in the debate about the fate of the human race as we know it can be seen in arguments ranging from Daniel Dennett's argument that the brain is hardware to systems biologist Marc Kirschner's model of facilitated variation in the evolution of the human species.

The public sphere's required abstraction of the citizen intersects with posthumanism's struggles to theorize the relative importance of embodiment to participation in cyberspace communities. Foster's analysis of two third generation cyberpunk novels, Greg Egan's Diaspora and Ken Macleod's Cassini Division, presents us with two versions of future humans: disembodied minds and personalities housed within computers, and embodied, though often enhanced, humans. The novels employ diaspora and analogies to colonized peoples as ways of framing the confrontations that occur between their disembodied and embodied communities, demonstrating that the disembodied posthuman is the more prevalent mode in discussions about the fate of humans today than it was when cyberpunk began.

Chapter two, "Meat Puppets of Robopaths," directs its attention to the novel that started it all, Neuromancer, to interrogate embodiment. In this chapter, the third space of the hardwiring trope is presented as a matter of style meets cybernetics: Molly's mirrorshades and Case's jacking in both are performances of identity mediated by technology. As Foster notes, the characters "are neither master of their technology nor enslaved by it," rather their hardwiring functions as a part of their everyday experience of themselves (77).

Cyberspace and cybersex merge in the third chapter, "The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic," as Hajime Sorayama's visual art of sexy gynoids produces a desire for, and identification with, the machine which in turn produces anxiety and fetishizes those objects. At the end of this chapter, Foster notes that the Turing test was originally based on a game in which an interrogator tried to tell a man and a woman apart which Turing replaced with a human and a machine. Gender anxiety and the anxiety about identifying with machines are revealed to be one and the same, with the Turing test asking a machine to pass for human through its demonstration of intelligence, not through its embodied performance of gender or race.

Chapter 4, "Trapped by the Body," turns to the transgendered body because both gender and the body are constructed through cultural intelligibility. Virtual reality is a space of cyborg performativity where the body can be left behind and participation in the public sphere of cyberspace can take place through an avatar that need not have a mimetic relation to the body of its operator in the real world. This opens the possibility that one can inhabit a differently gendered body, but the discontinuity between gender and its performative aspects are different than the relationship between race and its performance because in virtual reality, as in the public sphere, "online racial performance seems to amount to nothing more than another form of passing" (134).

This history of racial performance in the U.S. is brought to the fore in the next chapter, "The Souls of Cyberfolk" which takes it title from a narrative of the comic book character Deathlok, who uses W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk to engage with the double consciousness of being a cyborg and an African-American (58). Foster describes how in the comic another cyborg complains to Deathlok that "some people accuse me of being more comfortable with ... cyborgs than I am with my own people. Whoever they're supposed to be" (59), a complaint that echoes the confusion that the cowboy actor experiences over the whether to address his fellow actor by his performance or through his identity as a participant in the production of that character. Deathlok's own cyborg subjectivity "reminds us that slavery represents a historical occasion for reflection on who counts as human" (151), though for Deathlok, his estrangement from his physical body produces the double consciousness twice: between his material and virtual presence and his cyborg and physical bodies, a complication that seems to emerge as much from his position as a middle class man as a black man.

Deathlok can override his hardwiring, which is more than can be said for the next cyberpunk character Foster examines, Robocop, a.k.a. Officer Alex J. Murphy. Chapter six begins, however, with a discussion of Billy Idol's album Cyberpunk (1993), specifically the song "Shock to the System," in which the singer transforms into a cyborg after a beating by police during a riot. Foster uses these two sources to examine the relationship between the cyborg and whiteness as a racial category formed through the trauma that the cyborg body represents, theorizing that for cyberpunk, trauma is the loss of enhancement (175). Robocop (1987) presents a white body as the abstracted body of citizen, constructing it as the universal, while simultaneously through the trauma of conversion into the cyborg, particularizing that norm.

In the seventh chapter, "Franchise Nationalisms," globalization transcends the dualism of abstract generalization and particularization that whiteness as a racial category falls prey to in the previous chapter to privilege the abstract and the local simultaneously. The franchise communities of Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash are able to cross the boundary between the local and the global because both are opposed to an older unifying form -- that of the nation. Electronic communities, like the franchises in the novel, offer the possibility that virtual ethnicity might resist a definition of cyberspace as pure mind, instead imagining it as a new territory created by members who choose their affiliations based on similar interests. These virtual communities hold the possibility that "the malleability of body images in cyberspace can serve to reinforce and mirror real-life racial expectations and stereotypes as well as disrupt them" (219).

Foster concludes by returning to Snow Crash to demonstrate how virtuality can invert nature and culture by setting up a series of metaphorical relationships between computers, language, software, posthumanism, social spaces, ethnicity, and the malleability of human bodies. In the novel, hardwiring is associated with the programmability of humans but it is also associated with the violence that we see in Deathlok, "Shock to the System," and Robocop where the possibilities of posthuman transcendence of embodiment often require the destruction of the body. He ends with a warning about the promises of posthumanism, advising that we approach technocultures with "a combination of unbounded pleasure in the horizons they open up and unceasing skepticism toward what we might find when we get there" (244).

The value of The Souls of Cyberfolk lies in its wide ranging coverage of the topic at hand. Foster marshals the work of many of the most influential theorists within the field in his analysis of a broad range of popular genres including film, graphic novels, music videos, and the cyberpunk novels. This book is valuable for its theoretical analysis of race in a wide range of cybertexts, an area still relatively unexplored in cyberstudies.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: New York: Routledge, 1994.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Michele Braun:
Michele Braun is a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. Her dissertation explores the ways in which postcolonial writers employ cyborgs and clones to engage with issues of embodiment.  <micheledbraun@yahoo.ca>

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