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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Thomas Foster

As explained by the author, the intriguing title of this book is derived from the Marvel comic Deathlok, written by the African-American creative team of Dwayne DcDuffie and Denys Cowan. Deathlok is one of the many popular cultural artifacts that Thomas Foster analyzes in his book The Souls of Cyberfolk. While it could be argued that cyberpunk constitutes the core of this book, a textual analysis of cyberpunk literature is not its central preoccupation. As suggested by the title of the first chapter, "The legacies of cyberpunk fiction: New cultural formations and the emergence of the posthuman," Foster recontextualizes cyberpunk, reading it relative to "a set of other posthuman discourses and speculative cultures (either preexisting or emerging around the same time as cyberpunk)" (xii). This process of understanding cyberpunk within a continuum of posthuman debates is significant, in that it challenges the notion of cyberpunk as the originary source of posthuman discourse. It is partly this project of recontextualization that distinguishes Foster's approach to both cyberpunk and posthuman theory from existing scholarship in these areas. As he articulates in the book's introduction,
    the possibility of rereading cyberpunk not as the vanguard of a posthumanism assumed to be revolutionary in itself, but instead as an attempt to intervene in and diversify what posthumanism can mean is my answer to the question of why cyberpunk still matters at this relatively late date (xiii).
Drawing on the methodological approach used by Lawrence Grossberg, the author examines how cyberpunk operates as a cultural formation. He is primarily concerned with how the "cyberpunk constellation of ideas, tropes, and practices" (xv) moves across contexts, as well as the consequences of the reinvention of cyberpunk in different cultural practices and texts. In this sense, cyberpunk is not just a literary movement, but as The Souls of Cyberfolk illuminates, a phenomenon that has pervaded a range of cultural sites including literature (the focus of chapters two and seven), contemporary art, magazines, and advertising (chapter three), comic books (chapters three and five), video-clips and popular film (chapter six).

In this respect, the book is structured clearly and logically, working from a general overview of cyberpunk and posthuman debates in chapter one, through textual analyses of "traditional" cyberpunk literature in chapter two, and then offering feminist, queer, and race readings of the abovementioned multimedia texts. This organization enables the author to build a convincing argument for cyberpunk as a cultural formation that has both responded to and extended on techno-human narratives, through the "incorporation of issues of gender, queer sexualities, ethnic and racial differences, transformations in a nationalist model of citizenship, and global economic flows" (xi).

A central preoccupation for Foster is the question of posthuman embodiment as it is articulated in cyberpunk science-fiction and represented in image culture. At the outset of the book he clearly charts and evaluates the various forms of posthumanist thought, which read technology as simultaneously potentially empowering for human subjects while calling into question the very essence of what it means to be human. By highlighting the ambivalence and complexity of posthumanist thinking, Foster opens up the possibility for new cultural imaginings of the self and identity. As he puts it,
    it is precisely this internal debate over the meaning of these new possibilities for understanding and changing ourselves that makes posthuman narratives a model for the dialectical relations critics need to develop toward new technologies and technocultures: a combination of unbounded pleasure in the horizons they open up and unceasing scepticism toward what we might find when we get there (244).
Another strength of this book is its sophisticated analysis of the identity categories of gender, sexuality, and race. Given the "tendency for technoculture studies to privilege gender over race" (188), Foster could plausibly have redressed this gap by focussing his attention primarily on race with gender as a secondary theme. To his credit, the author avoids the limited strategy of adding race onto gender, or reading them through a heterosexual lens. Rather, The Souls of Cyberfolk reveals the impossibility of approaching these categories as separate and discrete elements of identity. This is evident in an engaging examination of the marvel comic Deathlok in chapter five.

The comic series revolves around the transformation of African American scientist Michael Collins into a cyborg. For Foster, both race and gender are crucial to interpreting how Collins' cyborg embodiment is negotiated by the reader. According to Foster, "Deathlok's cyberspatial body images always encode a sense of bodily limitation, a sense of being subjected to the gaze and the cultural preconceptions of others, as well as a potential for shape-shifting and fluid identifications" (157). His reading highlights how the specificities of bodies and their effects emerge at the intersections of race and gender, as well as arguing that race need not be erased in cyberspace. Rather, Foster considers the degree to which "new technologies might function to facilitate genuine cultural change" (166). This offers just one example of a number of explorations throughout this book focusing on cyberspace's possibilities and problems for marginalized groups. Throughout his study Foster draws on Allucquère Roseanne Stone's (1995) influential work on transgender and embodiment in virtual systems, the writings of Donna Haraway (1991), and Lisa Nakamura's (2002) excellent Cybertypes to situate and build his argument for the necessity of race, gender, and sexuality critiques in posthuman narratives. He asks "to what extent do technological challenges to humanist ideals map onto multicultural challenges to the false universality of those same ideals and their surreptitious privileging of straight, white, middle-class masculinity?" (54).

This focus on masculinity is a welcome intervention into studies of the posthuman. Despite a sustained gender studies project to interrogate both masculinity and femininity as identity categories, much of the academic writing on the representation of gender and technology remains focused on women (unlike film, where the question of masculinity and its representation has been well established by writers like Yvonne Tasker (1993) and Sharon Willis (1997)). This is not to ignore the important feminist critiques of cyberpunk's masculinist overtones that the author discusses, nor the important work on masculinity and technology by social constructivist scholars such as Judy Wajcman (1991) and Cynthia Cockburn (1991), or the cyberfeminist interventions of Sadie Plant (1997). Rather, I mention this here to applaud Foster's ability to reveal the ways that, "gender and racial stereotypes are technologically mediated and actively produced, not taken for granted" (62).

Although Foster shows real skill in situating his analysis across a wide range of cultural texts, and certainly this is one of the appealing aspects of this study, I question the extent to which this multimedia approach limits his ability to comprehensively evaluate the specificities of each mode of production and its impact on how readers understand texts. I found his argument to be particularly convincing in those instances where the specific aspects of the medium being discussed were taken into account (as in his fantastic study of the Billy Idol video clip "Shock to the System" in chapter six).

According to Foster, it is important to "focus on what was specific about cyberpunk in relation to its competitors . . . cyberpunk offers a distinct set of critical resources, an archive, that postmodern technoculture still needs" (xviii). Rather than seeking to define what cyberpunk is perhaps a more useful approach would be to consider the extent to which the foundational concepts of cyberpunk are called into question through the act of appropriation by other cultural forms like film and art. In fairness, the author does attempt to do this to the extent that his project situates cyberpunk within a continuum of techno-human discourses, rather than interpret it as a foundational genre.

The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory encourages us to approach cyberpunk and posthumanist discourses through a different lens. By reading cyberpunk as a "form of vernacular theory" (xviii), and critically examining how its tropes are taken up across the popular landscape, Foster succeeds in his aim to reorient our thinking about cyberpunk. His analysis positions cyberpunk as more than a literary genre, showing it to be a cultural formation whose central preoccupation with the techno-human relationship has consequences for how we imagine our bodies, selves, and communities across a variety of textual sites.

Cockburn, Cynthia. Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change. London: Pluto Press, 1991.

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

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Penley, Constance & Willis, Sharon (eds). Male Trouble. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Plant, Sadie. Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate, 1997.

Stone, Allucquere Roseanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Cambridge: Polity, 1991.

Willis, Sharon. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Kim Toffoletti:
Dr. Kim Toffoletti co-ordinates the Gender Studies program at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. She has published on the posthuman in the feminist journals Thirdspace, Hecate, and Outskirts. Her book Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body is scheduled for publication with I.B Tauris in 2007.  <kim.toffoletti@deakin.edu.au>

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