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Review
reload: rethinking women + cyberculture. Ed. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

January 2007

reload is a rich anthology of fictional and theoretical perspectives on the interrelationships between women, cyber-technology, and technocultue. The very concept of this anthology is unique: it constitutes the first collection of women’s cyberfiction and the first attempt to read the issues that arise from women’s cyberfiction alongside recent theoretical reflections on gender and technology. Placing these two modes of discourse side by side in the pages of reload, Mary Flanagan and Austin booth have created a vibrant dialogical space capable of nurturing both student interest in and scholarly engagement with vital questions about the promise and the peril of women’s relationship to modern technologies.

Flanagan and Booth open the volume with a joint introduction that orients the reader to the central issues in women’s cyberfiction, including its roots in the male-dominated cyberpunk and its critical appraisal of the hypermasculinist values embodied by that fiction and its particular brand of technoculture. While traditional cyberpunk, with its valorization of the renegade male hacker/cowboy, tends in practice toward the reification of constrictive gender roles rather than toward the transcendence of those roles that it promises on the surface, the genre offers much to writers of feminist fiction and theory in its “exploration of subjectivity and technology, its deconstruction and fragmentation of the subject via representations of technoculture, and its attention to the discursive and the material body and to the effects of embodiment” (Flanagan and Booth 9). Cyberfeminist interrogations of these issues can help to demystify “technology,” revealing through women’s variegated day-to-day experiences with technology its imbrication with cultural values and practices, some of which are oppressive and some of which are liberating. Booth then offers an additional chapter, “Women's Cyberfiction: An Introduction,” which outlines these issues in greater detail and historical depth, reinforcing the editors’ conviction that “technology is itself neither a means for domination nor a means of resistance,” but a complicated cultural terrain that cyberfeminists must learn to navigate for survival, pointing out both its limits and its positive possibilities (27).

Following this contextual work, the anthology is broken down into three major subdivisions: “Women Using Technology,” “The Visual/Visible/Virtual Subject,” and “Bodies.” While key terms and issues cross the boundaries established by the text’s partitions, the selections in each section speak to a specific set of issues and concerns. “Women Using Technology” examines “how digital technologies enter into women’s personal, social, and work lives,” with special emphasis on women’s roles as producers and consumers of cybertechnology and the ways in which women’s daily experiences with technology can be both liberating and oppressive (43). Candas Jane Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex” (fiction) reveals the abuses suffered by women in a male-dominated technoculture through her protagonist, Angel, a late-teens/early twenties ex-anorectic and user who finds herself exploited by Manncorp, a programming company that abuses her talents and maintains her subservient position through violence. The harsh reality of women’s exploitation in technoculture is examined critically by Heather Hicks in “Striking Cyborgs: Reworking the ‘Human’ in Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It.” Hicks, by way of David Brande and Pam Rosenthal, rethinks the metaphor of the cyborg, a centerpiece of cyberfeminist work since Donna Haraway’s influential “A Cyborg Manifesto,” which in 1991 offered an optimistic assessment of the possibilities for women in late twentieth century technoculture. For Hicks, the cyborg is defined most accurately in terms of function rather than form; the issue in evaluating women’s cyborg existence, their integration of technology into their daily physical lives, is thus more about the work that cyborgs do than about the ways they are composed. The work of the machine, Hicks notes, is incessant, non-remunerative, and definitive of the machine’s existence. Women’s cyborgian incorporation of technology into their lives is thus linked by Hicks to the reality of the all-too-high expectations of women’s work and the all-too-low compensation women receive for that work. While these selections clearly show that technoculture holds limited promise for women, the picture is not entirely bleak. Dorsey’s Angel, while controlled and abused by Manncorp, is nevertheless able to use her skill with technology for her own pleasure and profit. She creates an orgasm machine, which disrupts the abusive sexual economy and at the same time makes her a very rich woman. Manncorp is still Manncorp, but Angel has found a way to subvert their power over her and, most importantly, has survived.

“The Visual/Visible/Virtual Subject” examines the ways in which women’s bodies are inscribed in fiction, cinema, video games, medical discourse, and the arts. Paramount in the selections that comprise this section is the concern with the form women’s bodies are given in each of these forums and the modes of technology used to represent them. C.L. Mooroe’s “No Woman Born” (fiction) tells the tragic story of Dierdre, a performer so graceful and compelling that every move of her lithe body and every note from her sweet voice causes the entire TV-watching world to love her more. The beloved performer suffers a tragic loss when a play-house fire erupts and consumes her body, nearly killing her in the process. With only her brain preserved, Dierdre is reincarnated in an androgynous body composed of metal rings, wrought by a mad scientist type named Maltzer, and has to figure out how to live in a technological body not her own. Her professional career as an entertainer, her relationships to friends and loved ones, and her sexuality are entirely redefined by her metal body, and Moore leaves readers with Dierdre’s resolution to continue living but offers no assurance that her life will be full or happy. Veronica Hollinger’s “(Re)Reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender” (criticism) takes up Moore’s piece in her argument about the stubborn resistance of “heterosexuality as an institutionalized nexus of human activity,” which “remains stubbornly resistant to defamiliarization” (302). Her concern is to demonstrate that gender and sexuality are performed social roles, not expressions of an individual’s “nature.” Moore’s story, she argues, is an important early theorization of gender and sexuality as performance. Despite her lack of a woman’s body, Dierdre is able to replicate through her metal body the mellifluous voice and graceful movements that made her the woman she was before the fire, a performance so convincing that her “creator,” her manager, and even her viewing public are convinced of Dierdre’s newfangled femininity before they realize that they are being played. Moore’s story ends ambiguously in that Deirdre remains trapped within heteronormative conceptions of gender—performing a certain type of femininity for her male audience—even as she reveals gender to be a malleable construct. Hollinger sees in Moore’s Dierdre an important resource for thinking about how the body is constructed both materially and discursively through technologies that are capable of giving new life and taking significant portions of one’s life away.

“Bodies” focuses on “the implications of embodiment and disembodiment for women,” extending the problem of articulating the relationship between the material and the discursive body to cyberspace (458). It asks whether or not cyberspace’s promise of disembodiment proves as liberatory in practice as it is in theory. Shariann Lewitt’s “A Real Girl” (fiction) takes up this question through the story of a 200-year-old AI who, tired of her virtual, networked form of consciousness, longs for the kind of tangible, definite, and stable identity that a body offers. She is led to this decision by a conviction—nurtured by multiple love affairs with women researchers at the research institute that houses her consciousness—that she is not a genderless, sexless machine, but a woman and a lesbian. Disembodiment for her is a curse, a condition that she abjures in order to inhabit a consciousness-less body grown just for her, in the hopes that “I will be a real girl” (Lewitt 518). James Tiptree Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) offers a rather different answer to the question of the virtues of embodiment/disembodiment in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (fiction). In this story, a hideously deformed girl named P. Burke finds herself on the outside of her hip and highly image-conscious society looking in when she is offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to give up her brutish body and her life as P. Burke forever and assume control of a mindless but beautiful body-shell named Delphi for the advertising company GTX, which wants her to travel the world displaying products in celebrity It-girl fashion. Though P. Burke accepts the offer, she finds that life as Delphi’s mind is nearly as desperate as life in P. Burke’s body, and the story ends with her tragic and lonely death. Both Lewitt and Tiptree Jr. inscribe the body within the logic of Cartesian dualism, reifying the mind/body distinction. Dianne Currier’s “Assembling Bodies in Cyberspace: Technologies, Bodies, and Sexual Difference” (criticism) looks beyond the Cartesian model to Deleuze and Guattari for conceptions of identity that hold more promise for feminist interactions with and interrogations of cyber-technologies. Their concept of “assemblage,” she argues, allows critics to conceive of identity not as grounded in an originary and fixed body, but as a product of shifting configurations of bodies, technologies, institutions, and relations of power (Currier 535). Jettisoning the concept of the stable identity for that of assemblage allows feminist theorists better to articulate the kinds of bodies that emerge from women’s daily interactions with keyboards, screens, and cyberspace, and to ask what these variable assemblages do to/in/for women’s lives, rather than continuing to focus on the more static question of what such assemblages are (Currier 536).

Flanagan and Booth achieve a remarkable balance in reload between fictional and theoretical perspectives, both in terms of the amount of space they devote in their anthology to each and in terms of the ways in which these two elements interact within it. The ratio of eleven fictional selections to fifteen critical ones gives the right impression: in order for women to understand their relationships to cyberfiction, cyberspace, and technoculture, they will need to rely on the imaginative work of fiction, which is capable both of showing our world to us in fresh and powerful ways and helping us imagine that world differently, and on the work of criticism, which is capable of rendering explicit the assumptions and convictions that underwrite the stories we tell ourselves about our reality and the practices though which we make our visions of self and society concrete. At the thematic level, the synergy between the fictional and theoretical selections discussed above is representative of the anthology as a whole, which offers opportunities to consider the relationship between technology and work (Dorsey, Hicks), gender and performance (Moore, Hollinger), and the mind/body relationship (Lewitt, Tiptree Jr., Currier) using the differing vocabularies and structures of fiction and theory. Both students and teachers will find reload an essential and well-fashioned tool for thinking about the role of cyber-technologies in women’s lives. The horizon for rethinking women and cyberculture is a vast one. The selections compiled by Flanagan and Booth have placed on that horizon the problems of typically “masculine” technoculture—economies of sexual and financial exploitation, cultures of violence, and essentialist notions of gender and sexuality; future work will doubtless expand the discussion by expounding in greater detail the range of women’s daily interactions with cyber-technologies, the possibilities for women’s power, love, and intimacy within these varied interactions, and the places these interactions occupy in national/global technological economies.

Jason M. Payton

University of Maryland, College Park

 


 

 

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