Reality Bytes

by Vicki Kirby

© all rights reserved

An excerpt from Telling Flesh, which has been reviewed by Penelope Deutscher

Although the uncanniness of cyberspace is difficult to describe, there is a consistency among commentators in noting its lack of physicality. For Benedikt, cyberspace possesses an “inherent immateriality,” a “mytho-logic” whose genetic filiation is the fictional, the magical, and the mystical. Cyberspace is “permanently ephemeral,” the space where the perfect body is paradoxically acquired through an annihilation of the flesh. Vivian Sobchack, a writer whose work addresses questions of phenomenology, worries that this desire for an ultimate escape actually demands “Getting Rid of the Meat” (1993: 577). Sobchack describes the following lines from Mondo 2000 as typical of the sort of snuff fantasies that seek to replace the body with a virtual avatar, or meat puppet. “Nothing could be more disembodied or insensate than … cyberspace. It’s like having had your everything amputated” (577).

The religious resonance in this desire to finally transcend the flesh is succinctly captured in Gibson’s Neuromancer, the cyberpunk classic about a console jockey’s addiction to the giddying delirium of the virtual razor’s edge. Case, the novel’s principal character, is despondent with the realization that he can no longer access the thrill of chasing down life inside the matrix. On this side of the computer, the side of dumb, carnal necessity, he feels as if the very fact of having a body is a profound disability:

For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh. (1986: 12)

If humanity has often described itself as carnally incarcerated, then cyberspace seems to offer a unique form of reprieve. Lacking substance, it promises a virtual escape route from the constraints of prison life.

Allucquère Roseanne Stone, a writer who is very familiar with the marvellous intrigue of these electronic worlds, introduces us to one such story of virtual fulfilment. In “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?” (1992a), we are introduced to Julie, a single and totally disabled older woman with no social life to speak of. Julie can, however, engage the computer keyboard with the aid of a headstick. Stone recounts that the woman’s warm and perceptive intelligence won her many friends on the net, and her thoughtful and sympathetic advice was greatly valued. Within the intimacy of the virtual community Julie was much loved.

As things turned out, however, Julie hadn’t fully overcome the failures of the flesh. Eager to meet and to thank the physical manifestation of her virtual confidante, one of Julie’s on-line chums finally tracked her down. But the delight of anticipation foundered on the obstacle of Julie’s body. Although she was indeed middle-aged, “Julie” possessed normal mobility and a profession that carried a good deal of authority and respect — she was, in fact, a psychiatrist, a male psychiatrist. The troubling fact of Julie’s body had been of no significance previously, being just the vehicle of an expansive and generous on-line personality liberated from its broken housing. In view of this, what are we to make of the feelings of real betrayal that were inspired by this particular revelation of sexual difference? 1

Not unrelated to this question about the confusion between RL, (real life) and VR is the now infamous case of chat-room violation outlined several years ago in The Village Voice. In “A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society,” Julian Dibbell described the rather benign virtual community of LambdaMoo. “[T]he place was the living room — which, due to the inviting warmth of its decor, is so invariably packed with chitchatters as to be roughly synonymous among LambdaMOOers with a party” (1993: 37). What took place in this convivial atmosphere was an unprovoked and unexpected series of sexual assaults that became progressively violent. The final injury was one victim’s forced self-abuse with a piece of kitchen cutlery. The virtual rapist, a character named Mr. Bungle, disabled his luckless victims by using a special program that enabled him to describe his victims’ behaviours as if they were compliant and willing participants.

After recounting this tale of mayhem, Dibbell reminds us that the scene of personal humiliation was “made of nothing more substantial than digital code” (1993: 38). And just in case we are still unclear about the circumstances, he underlines that “[n]o bodies touched” (37).Yet if indeed no bodies touched, a fact that the literature on cyberspace is unanimous in conceding, then the victim’s post-traumatic tears and real-life outrage seem a little excessive.2 How could this MUD (multiple-user dimension) rape, this lurching crawl of sentences across a computer screen, be felt as a paralyzing physical assault?

Stone refers us to the prescient computer engineers, the progenitors of life on the nets, for an explanation. These early programmers “had long ago taken for granted that many of the old assumptions about the nature of identity had quietly vanished under the new electronic dispensation” (1992a: 83). The series of technological changes that herald the need for these assumption updates are clearly evolutions for Stone, a “succession of prosthetics” that can be deemed, albeit in retrospect, to augment what has been deficient, or lacking, in our lives. 3 Stone reads technology as the supplement that repairs a body rendered incomplete before its augmentation. Through the logic of the fetish and investment in the fetish and in the implications that accompany it is quite explicit: “Penetration translates into envelopment. In other words, to enter cyberspace is to physically put on cyberspace. To become the cyborg, to put on the seductive and dangerous cybernetic space like a garment, is to put on the female” (1992a: 109).

Stone locates the first epoch of what she admits is a “virtual system’s origin myth” in the development of the scientific paper in the seventeenth century. This form of academic writing is described as “virtual witnessing” because its readers successfully substituted text for an actual experiment. Through three more epochs, Stone charts the increasing level of mediation in the development of human communication. Stone doesn’t question the status of this developmental narrative as narrative by her use of the word myth. Rather, the apparent qualification concedes only that there may be other ways to divide up this history of incremental, progressive change, and that its exact point of origin is necessarily an heuristic one.

The complex gee-whizzery of virtual systems and their conceptual “challenge and promise” is uniquely contemporary according to Stone, who charts the elusive ground of this recently discovered “new world” and decides that its settlers are indeed first. The literature reminds us again and again that there is no body in virtual space or, perhaps more precisely, that the parameters of virtual habitation are only now being determined. Yet there is an imperializing tenor in this observation that cannot escape notice. Within the conventions of conquest stories, new lands are very often perceived as empty, their useless vacancy inviting occupation and exploitation. Indigenous peoples are only accorded an attenuated human status because they are, by nature, part of the landscape and therefore invisible. 4 As the landscape of cyberspace is assumed to transcend the Cartesian coordinates that supposedly discover native existence, Stone has assumed that we are well clear of the problem.

Paraphrasing a notion explored by Donna Haraway, Stone figures this disruption of Cartesian space in terms of a “geography of elsewhere.” Its strange contours result from the fact that cyberspace is said to be “purely conceptual,” “a world of total representation,” “pure information,” and therefore untrammelled agency. It seems that this potent distillation of intellectual ascendancy and technological advance properly belongs to the domain of culture. Given Stone’s quite definite separation of representation and information from physical life, we can also presume that the legend that charts this “new world” is illegible to the blind immaturity of carnal matter.

Michael Benedikt gives further emphasis to what he sees as a vast difference between the ideational and the physical world in his “Introduction” to Cyberspace: First Steps. In an attempt to capture the full significance and wonder of future habitation in a “purely conceptual” space, Benedikt first describes and praises the virtues of its opposite, namely, the brute existence of primordial being. This was also an immersive existence, according to Benedikt, but one made special by the raw immediacy of life, the “universal, preliterate actuality of physical doing” (1992: 12). Benedikt is captivated by an Edenic, primordial existence that emerged on the plains of Africa two million years ago, an experience that was essentially full and complete, a sentient plenitude that was blissfully uninterrupted by a yet-to-evolve intellect.

Unmediated by representation, the lives of our ancestors were consequently immersed within nature so completely that they were an expression of nature itself. Although Benedikt regards this pristine state with some nostalgia, he also sees it as imminently recuperable. He conjectures that VR technologies will soon be able to abandon symbolic forms of communication altogether. With nothing between us and our desires, “[w]e would become again ‘as children,’ but this time with the power of summoning worlds at will and impressing speedily upon others the particulars of our experience” (1992: 13). Benedikt’s prediction of future relies upon a notion of past whose origin, or birthplace, is locatable in its lack of differentiation; namely, in its uncorrupted purity. Whereas primitive existence unfolds in the pure plenitude of unmediated nature, the consummation of the technological is an achievement of unmediated culture, that is, pure mediation.

It seems a little confusing that Benedikt understands this postliterate state of being in terms of pure representation. However, as this state promises to deliver the urgency of the will with uninterrupted efficiency — to become one with the transcendent and realizing power of the mind — we can see why the obstacle to its achievement is matter itself. It is clear that for Benedikt representation is prevented from simply mediating itself (as pure representation) because it remains bound to the corporeal. Consequently, the achievement of a true postcorporeality will be a quintessentially cerebral experience, distilled from the material dross and distortion that is flesh itself.

Some writers have nevertheless expressed disquiet over these developments. In “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” for example, Michael Heim expresses his misgivings about the ramifications of existence “outside of embodied presence”:

The living, non-representable face is the primal source of responsibility, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer mediated communities have not yet been tested. (1992; 75-76)

Heim conjectures that the intrinsic ambiguity of cyberspace “may amplify an amoral indifference to human relationships” since electronic life permits us to “hav[e] it both ways, keeping a distance while at the same time ‘putting ourselves on the line'” (1992: 76). Perhaps Heim is thinking here of the fraught identity of people such as Julie, or of the anonymity and surprise of cyber-rape.

Heim’s caution anticipates a diminished sense of community with the expansion of on-line geographies, an inevitable “loss of innocence” that comes with the cynical recognition that trust is no longer possible, or perhaps even appropriate. Although he makes no mention of the phenomenon, we can presume that in the computer “bot” even Heim’s worst fears are exceeded. These programs inhabit virtual communities as actual personas and their conversations can be sufficiently credible to convince their interlocutors that they are indeed real people. These instances of impersonation satisfy Alan Turing’s test of machine intelligence, a situation that leads Sherry Turkle to surmise:

the test has begun to seem less relevant. What seems most urgent now is not whether to call the machines or programs intelligent, but how to behave around them. Put otherwise: Once you have made a pass at an on-line robot, can you ever look at computers again in the same old way? 5 (1995: 36)

Turkle’s position sounds positively playful when read against Heim’s pessimism, and his bleak view is also discordant with Benedikt’s delight at the prospect of virtual existence. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that both Heim and Benedikt seem equally convinced that some experiential essence will indeed be sacrificed as we move into virtual worlds. Whereas Heim laments and worries about its passing, Benedikt celebrates the possibility of its enhanced retrieval.

A battery of assumptions about the significance of corporeal substance obviously motivates these different readings. It is interesting that the nature of corporeal substance as suchis not the matter of contestation: the debate concerns the body’s ethical valuation as either expendable or necessary. Within the déjà vu of contemporary criticism, however, it would be naïve to think that the political and ethical quandaries that accompany these new technologies have not been with us for some time. The geography of cyberspace is not the only “place” whose legend acknowledges such things as the dispersal of the subject, the material efficacy of representation, the problematic nature of the body, the critique of production as causality, and the critique of Cartesian space as a composite of separable coordinates. Despite these attempts to displace the felt belief that the nature of quotidian existence is self-evident and uncomplicated, however, the emerging literature on cyberspace seems to instantiate it all the more robustly.

Although we have seen that the complex nature of identity in cyberspace is a topic for discussion, this is balanced against the view that what constitutes identity in other situations must be unproblematic. We witness this in the origin stories that invariably accompany these technologies. An origin is identified and its purported stability and simplicity are made the departure point for an evolving technical complexity. Degrees of distance from this origin are then interpreted as degrees of difficulty, as if history is the incremental repair of an original shortcoming.

There is a sexual metaphorics in this conceptualization of progress that sees mind in terms of masculine control, separating itself from a body feminized as its natural, dumb support. The presence or absence of complexity is also informed by this sexual diacritics. But why should nature be deemed immutable and lacking in complexity, or why, if we concede that nature is indeed complex and mutating, are these intricacies considered separate from other expressions of complexity?

This refusal to include the identity of “nature” and of “the feminine” within the problematic of identity explains why the nature of flesh is considered self-evident, that residual “something” that technology is articulated against. It is as if we can only appreciate the strangeness of cyberspace if our preconceptions about the dumb, corporeal weight of human existence and the naïveté of the historical past are reinforced.

The mediating barrier of technology’s prophylactic interface, tangibly present in the form of a computer screen, becomes the palpable limit that protects the future and its perceived possibilities from reincarnating the past. The matter of this interface, however, the body of the screen itself, receives no particular attention. It is assumed that an interface merely mediates one thing and another, separating two independent entities from each other in an economic process of valuation from which it is somehow excluded.

This process of installing barriers is persistent and ubiquitous. It involves the separation and privileging of the ideational over the material, and in such a way that matter is denigrated as the base support of an ascendant entity (mind over matter, male over female, culture over nature, the West over the rest, and so on). Given the masculinism and ethnocentrism that benefits from this mode of calculation, it is particularly surprising that, after several decades of sustained intervention within the politics of representation, the new world of cyberspace/VR should so faithfully mimic the old.

It feels like something of a tired cliché to repeat, yet again, that a value exchange conflates woman with the body as the natural residue of a complex process of individuation that differentiates, and hierarchies, both species and subject. Nature, cast as a prior state from which complexity has evolved, is consequently separated from the emergence of a transcendent notion of culture coded as masculine and cerebral. The political alignment of “woman,” “native,” “other” as the locus of originary substance is thereby infinitely rehearsed. Indeed, that most familiar division between representation and reality, figured here as the difference between the virtual and the actual, is secured through this same political hierarchy.


Vicki Kirby teaches in the Department of Sociology, Culture and Communications at the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia. This piece was reproduced, with the permission of the author, from Telling Flesh which was published by Routledge, London and New York, in 1997.


1. The sense of betrayal over Julie’s off-line identity was so extreme in some cases that the sense of personal violation was likened to rape. Some even repudiated the emotional gains in their lives that Julie’s advice had made possible.

2.I would be delighted to discover that my blanket statement that all cyberspace literature assumes that “no bodies touch” is mistaken. However, at the time of writing, that authors with whom I am familiar take this assumption as given.

3. See Stone (1991, 1992b, 1993). Her reliance on the notion of prosthesis in her conceptualization of technology is even more explicit in these articles.

4.The assumption is not simply one that belongs in the past. For example, it was not until June 3, 1992, that a decision regarding native title (termed the Mabo decision, after Eddie Mabo) overturned the 204-year-old legal doctrine of terra nullius, which held that the lands of the Australian continent were “practically unoccupied” at the time of the proclamation of British sovereignty.

5. Briefly, the Turing test (after Alan M. Turing) involves engaging a person in a form of conversation with a computer program. If the person is unsure if his or her interlocutor is a human or a machine, the machine is regarded as intelligent …

Works Cited

Benedikt, M. (ed) (1992). Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dibbell, Julian. (1993). “A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society.” The Village Voice (December 21) 38, 51: 36-42.

Gibson, W. (1986). Neuromancer. London: Grafton.

Heim, M. (1992). “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace.” In M. Benedikt (ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sobchack, Vivian. “New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers: Reading Mondo 2000.” In M. Dery (ed.), Flame Wars: the Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stone, Allucqure Roseanne. (1991). “Background Texts.” in F. Dyson and D. Kahn (eds.) Telesthesia. San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute.

—– (1992a). “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?” in M. Benedikt (ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge: MIT Press.

—– (1992b). “Virtual Systems.” in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds.), Incorporations. New York: Zone/MIT Press.

—– (1993). “Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or How I Fell In Love With My Prosthesis.” Unpublished paper, Humanities Research Institute Conference, “Located Knowledges,” UCLA, April.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]