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Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body

Author: Kim Toffoletti
Publisher: New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007
Review Published: October 2009

 REVIEW 1: M. Beatrice Bittarello
 REVIEW 2: Birgit Pretzsch
 REVIEW 3: Nicholas Yanes
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kim Toffoletti

Kim Toffoletti's Cyborgs and Baby Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body attempts to combine Baudrillard's theory of simulation with feminist critique, and wants to "explore the various ways the techno-human relationship has been characterized, using feminist, philosophical, media studies and post human perspectives" (4). Her analysis is especially interesting because it tries to find a way out of structures based on binary modes of thinking and dialectical opposition (18-19).

In Chapter 1, Toffoletti points out that our engagements with technology complicate the idea of a "human essence"; her posthuman is a process of reformulating established categories of being which creates possibility of transforming identity. Thus, the posthuman reality has important implications for women. This chapter examines and criticizes previous feminist approaches to the posthuman, from those based on Deleuze's theories to Donna Haraway's work, focusing on the complex relationship ideologically established between women and technology.

Chapter 2 first outlines Baudrillard's simulation theory and, then, its connections with and differences from Haraway's thinking, an aspect Toffoletti goes back to in detail in the final part of chapter 6 (156-158). Toffoletti introduces her readers to Baudrillard's theory of simulation and shows why his research may be relevant and useful to feminist critique. The four following chapters are devoted to the analysis of four case studies of the posthuman form: Barbie and plasticity, TDK advertising and interface, Marilyn Manson's self-portrait and catastrophe, and Patricia Piccinini's work in relation to the coding of the body.

Chapter 3 re-examines Barbie by comparing it to the figure of the mannequin in the 19th century and to the "transformer" toys. The comparison reveals that "Barbie erases the specificity of the category of 'woman'" by operating as an endlessly proliferating sign of the body that explodes any possibility of articulating the 'truth' about female identity" (67). At this point Toffoletti introduces an examination of "plasticity," a notion that contests signification and eludes fixed interpretation; this leads her to propose "to rethink subjectivity as always in process" (72). Toffoletti points out that not all feminist theorists are convinced of "the liberatory potential of a displaced and diffuse subject" (75); rather, some aim at reclaiming for women the subject position, thus reinstating, in her view, elements of modernist values of autonomy, unity and essence. In her view, a subject understood in terms of transformation is an advantage because it serves as a "strategy to hack into the phallogocentric codes that structure ideals of femininity and scrambles interpretations of embodiment that reinscribe the myth of woman as tied to nature" (79).

The following chapter examines a self-portait of the heavy metal singer Marilyn Manson, in which the singer looks like an hybrid of animal, human, and machine. Toffoletti's analysis shows how in this image sexuality, race, and gender become fluid and displaced terms. This posthuman image is different from previous representations of monsters in myth, literature, science fiction, or biology. Her comparison of the image with Goya's Saturn devouring his child, and with Barthes' analysis of Greta Garbo's face are especially enlightening. Saturn and Garbo's face reinforce the self/other dialectics; Manson's sexually indeterminate portrait erases the category of the other (104). His image is not the utopian cyberpunk dream of transcending the flesh to enter the virtual; rather it suggests a new vision for feminist thinking, because it "destabilizes the Cartesian dualisms that underpin the liberal-humanist subject, as well as a notion of female identity based in positive difference" (104).

In Chapter 5 Toffoletti uses a famous commercial image representing a child with modified facial features to explore "a model of the body as an interface system that is immersed in diverse communication forms" (108). The image exemplifies interpretations of the contemporary immersion in media environments as triggering "multiple sensations and sensory modalities brought about by the erosion of the boundaries between once disparate components like the subject and the object, the self and the Other, the real and the virtual" (110). If the subject is not an active agent, it is neither a separate entity that can choose to resist from a place outside of media culture. Thus, according to Baudrillard, techno-human engagement questions the logic of Enlightenment ideas about the self as unified and coherent. Toffoletti acknowledges that "we are situated bodies who feel and experience the world" (121), but she is concerned with the question of how we come to know and experience reality. In a culture of simulation, there cannot be resistance, appropriation or response, but a new conception of the subject can emerge that puts an end to dialectical systems where identity is forged through differentiation from the Other (115). Toffoletti's argument is that images such as the TDK ad generate our sense of what is real. By focusing on the issue of prostheses, Toffoletti is able to highlight how we situate ourselves within the context of contemporary technologies which blur the boundary between self and technology. The subject is inside the flow -- in the TDK image, the distinction subject / technology (and information) is abolished (125-126): thus we are less like cyborgs than interfaces.

In Chapter 6, by drawing on a series of art-works by Patricia Piccinini and engaging with previous studies on the issue of (bio)technology and coding in relation to the human body, Toffoletti further develops her argument that a relationship between organism and machine emerges "that contests organic bodily boundaries, the locus of identity and the status of the human" (2). Piccinini's art-work series on the human ear implanted on a mouse exemplifies how tissue engineering and transgenics question the status of the natural (137). Through the boundary displacement they operate, as Haraway had noted, nature is revealed as construct. In examining the HGP Genome project's logo, which suggests a reduction of humanity to genetic code, Toffoletti proposes a theoretical passage from critical theory, based on structural understanding of what the text means, to a fatal theory proposing that "representations are the world" (147). The gene map is a map that precedes the territory: it is a hyperreality, a virtual entity with no original. An exploration of the clone, in two Piccinini's works and in Baudrillard, shows how the clone stands as a posthuman form that calls into question our conventional understandings of subjectivity and reality. Toffoletti argues that "a poststructural and postmodern feminist project to revise an Enlightenment model of the subject that privileges masculinity, reason, autonomy and selfhood, is not dissimilar to what Jean Baudrillard proposes in his reading of the clone" (155). In Baudrillard, with the clone we have to do with differences that cannot find recourse in binary oppositions: i.e. Difference as Other vs Difference that functions beyond the limits of signifying practice. Toffoletti's key difference from Baudrillard is that she thinks that from this situation "new modalities of the self may emerge" (156).

One great merit of the book is that it shows how Baudrillard's theory has a remarkably positive value, and how it can open up new possibilities and scenarios for feminist engagements. Regarding the book's thesis, I share the concerns expressed, as Toffoletti herself points out (for example, page 120), by feminist critics on risks that the female subject disappears in the information circuit, and by critical theory approaches, which highlight "the social inequalities experienced by gendered, raced and queered bodies" (120). I would add that in Toffoletti's Baudrillardian perspective the point is no more the meaning of the image, but how it acts on us; however, there are differences in the way each of us reacts to images and, since such differences are culturally determined, they should be somehow considered in further research. Another concern of mine is that the conflation/mixing of high (e.g. Stelarc or Piccinini's work) and popular (e.g. advertising) culture is too often taken for granted, even if I agree with Toffoletti's objections to Naomi Klein's idea that non commercial space is "infected" by consumer culture (140-142).

Toffoletti's reading of the posthuman may also be relevant for a feminist critique of religion, since most of the themes examined in the book are central to studies on religion. For example, the posthuman displaces the privileged position of "man," and the certainties about man's position in the universe, and challenges the centrality of divine embodiment, the relationship between creature and creator and between real and virtual, and the boundaries between human, animal, divine, and inanimate things. The posthuman, as outlined in Toffoletti's book, has the potential to disrupt religious narratives, not differently from the science fiction posthuman of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner -- in turn based on Philip K. Dick's writings. Toffoletti's approach to myth and her discussion of myth in Barthes and Baudrillard (97-98), her refusal of essentialist interpretations, and (especially) her attempt to go beyond binary dialectics are also relevant for scholars of religion.

Whether one agrees with the author's perspective or not (even if Toffoletti's discussion on pp. 18-19 answers many of my concerns, I remain unconvinced that materialist feminism's objections to Baudrillard and critical theorists' worries are negligible), this is a well-documented, ground-breaking, and important text, and Toffoletti's methodological approach is worth pursuing and developing further.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reivention of Nature. New York and London, Routledge.

M. Beatrice Bittarello:
Maria Beatrice Bittarello holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Stirling (2007); her thesis focused on the recrafting of ancient myths and goddesses in modern Paganism on the Web. She is currently researching the religious and literary roots of contemporary conceptualizations of the virtual.  <beatrice.bittarello@yahoo.com>

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