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Sexuality and Cyberspace: Performing the Digital Body: Special Issue of Women & Performance

Editor: Teresa Senft, Stacy Horn
Publisher: New York: New York University, 1996
Review Published: March 1999

 REVIEW 1: Bryan Alexander and Debra DeRuyver

Teresa Senft, co-editor with Stacy Horn of the 1996 issue of Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory on Sexuality and Cyberspace, explains the rationale behind bringing these topics and essays together by posing the following questions in her introduction: "Does the online body/community matter? Is it material? Is it significant? ... How can we [the contributors to the volume] create something that matters?" (28). She further explains that this collection of essays is not about sexuality in cyberspace but about sexuality and cyberspace (29). Still, a more accurate subtitle would have been Sexuality or Gender or Identity or Community and Cyberspace or Technology. In other words, contrary to the territory marked by Senft's choice of subtitle, this collection of essays actually ranges over a vast number of topics, with little of substance being said to explore the direct intersection of sexuality and cyberspace. And, while these reviewers would hesitate to answer Senft's last question in the affirmative, at its best the collection does, in fact, bear witness to the ideas that online bodies and communities do in fact matter in all of the pedestrian and occasionally remarkable ways that they matter offline.

The epitome of pedestrian in this volume -- despite its seemingly unpedestrian topic of transgendered women -- is, "Modem Butterfly, Reconsidered," a thirty page e-mail exchange between Senft and Kaley Davis, a transgendered woman who successfully campaigned to join WIT (Women in Telecommunications), a public conference at ECHO. While e-mail exchanges are slowly becoming a recognized form of publishable academic discourse, Senft and Davis' exchange suffers from their inability to convince that the addition of cyberspace to the question, "what is woman?" matters in any way whatsoever. In this instance, it was perhaps unfortunate that Senft's co-editor was Stacy Horn. Horn's role at ECHO and her narrative presence in this article (84-5, 101-102, n. 4, for example), may have made her feel uncomfortable in using the cut function on this piece despite its desperate need for just that.

The piece clearly draws organizational strategies from hypertextual modes, representing and cross-cutting a variety of often qualitatively disparate texts. The epistolary co-authors invoke a battery of recent theoretical concerns, from postcolonialism to ecriture feminine, popular culture (Star Trek, Oprah) to Lacanian psychoanalysis, social construction versus biological essentialism, and a persistent concern with the failure of race to apply as a metaphor for transgendering (74-6, 87-9). At the same time a pomo play with textual genealogies overlaps from Alyssa Katz's titular 1994 article about gender swapping online, "Modem Butterfly," to discussions of David Hwang's 1989 M. Butterfly (91-3). Autobiographical discourse runs throughout, of course, as each writer tries to understand their lives partially through textual intersections. These strands often intersect, but only briefly, in an attempt to map out the extent of subjectivity's electronic and material determinants. No hypothesis or working hybrid emerges, leaving the reader with the impression of having read two writers ... reading. The idea of a discourse community replacing phallogocentrism's male fetish with "the empty phrase 'woman'" (85) briefly appears, but only under the sign of a message's concluding gesture; this concept would do well as a strange attractor within another article, and deserves exploration.

The willingness of some of the pieces, all shorter than Senft's, to resist hypothesizing adds valuable testimony to the public record pertaining to the Internet and the first three years of the Web. Mocha Jean Herrup's "Metro on Ice Meets Ball and Cheang," for example, provides the reader with a sharp snapshot of the behind the scenes development and initial reception of an early cyber art installation on the Web. Historians of the Web have a desperate need for descriptive articles or reviews like this to be written. In a medium so easily mutable, the performances and installations which we study exist somewhere between the tangible and the ephemeral. While the immense task of archiving the Web is now being undertaken by a few individuals, it is unclear whether these archives will be maintained and made available to the public free of charge. Equally unclear is whether intellectual property concerns will impinge upon access. Journals in the arts, humanities, and social sciences would be wise to include, as a regular feature, descriptive reviews of Web sites pertaining to their fields of interest. If we do not, five years from now the only memories we will have of the adolescent years of the Web will be of stale, stolen moments visiting JenniCam.

Pamela Gilbert's "On Space, Sex and Stalkers" includes a powerful, detailed, and haunting description of a stalking occurring largely on-line. While the surrounding apparatus of the piece suffers from such things as a useless quick jibe at Deleuze and Guattari (137), raising questions to cover a lack of ideas (cf "Regardless...", 138), and persistent lunges towards the law without addressing implications in any way, the narrative remains a crucial text in trying to understand cyberculture's dangers without slipping into inanities like the Rimm cyberporn fiasco. Similarly, Alan Sondheim's prolific reflections on cyberspace document a rich "paper" trail of experiences otherwise too easily lost to the ether. Those readers who devotedly follow his work will be happy to find his wondrous and melancholy, "The Throes of Addiction" hidden in this collection. Less opaque than his standard poetic meditations, Sondheim gluts his sorrow on rye toast, a worn blanket, and a phone call while he writes of the aching pleasures of the medium, the memories of "words and their effects." "Eyes glazed with galaxies," we would only know of his death "by the absence of the text" (107-108). As with Herrup's (virtual) exhibition notes, each notation of electronic discourse in print helps stabilize the marginal position of cybercultural studies within academia.

More typically, however, the essays stage guerrilla raids on cyberculture that seize data from the Internet, rearrange it with print-based information, constellate the two fields as in the best cultural studies or new historicist methodology ... then fall back into a state somewhere between fragmentation and hypothesis. Barbara Browning's "When Snow Isn't White" yokes together Julian Dibbell's essay "A Rape in Cyberspace," Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" by means of etymologies and puns on "prosthetic" in order to argue that cyberspace offers potential and performative gender reversals and/or empowerments. As exciting and fruitful as this ambitious syllabus is, the leading word play fails to make the elements' differences productive, or even manifest. The notion of "virus" slides from AIDS to text to data without taking into account Stephenson's debunked archaeology, the radically opposed and variable resistance strategies enacted in the texts under discussion, or the racial differences in the socialization of AIDS (which the essay glances at, but never considers). Antithetical notions of prostheses -- enhancement or evasion of the body, plurality-generating (43), or homogenizing hegemonically (36) -- appear collapsed into fetishization. Ultimately the essay returns to assert staples of current postmodernist and performance theory -- gender is performative; identities really overlap and interpenetrate in uneasy and exciting ways -- but as reification, rather than exploration. The material arrayed is more useful than the arraignment. Matthew Ehrlich's "Turing, My Love" enacts a similarly theoretically tortured construction of the ontological status of orgasm in cyberspace. While it may be worth gliding through the elaborate structures of these two essays for the occasional insights they spark, the theoretically inclined will want to devote the majority of their time to the glistening essay by Marcus Boon, "Phone Sex is Cool: Chat-Lines as Superconductors." Boon begins by asserting that chat lines offer us a model for thinking about the future of visual and tactile virtual reality. Using the theories of Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Manuel De Landa, he argues that the pleasures we take from chat lines are the pleasures of the machine -- not the pleasures of the machine-human interface but the pleasures of the machine-machine interface in which we (flesh) are the dash, the conduit through which exchange takes place. Theoretically deft, Boon's work is particularly satisfying due to its grounding in his study of chat services in the New York City area, a grounding which is missing from Browning and Ehrlich.

If you're interested in reading further on the intersections between computer technologies, gendered identity, community, and the material effects of the circulation of networked information within a rich historical presentation, read Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine. It's personal, stylistically fun, and dead on in its insights regarding what this issue of Women and Performance was not about, the adaptations opportuned by the intersections of Sexuality and Cyberspace. Other relevant works include Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise's Wired Women, recent novels by Pat Cadigan, most of the essays in Flame Wars (ed. Mark Dery), and Sadie Plant's Zeros and Ones.

Bryan Alexander and Debra DeRuyver:
Bryan Alexander is a visiting assistant professor of English at Centenary College. Debra DeRuyver is a doctoral student in American studies at the University of Maryland. 

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