Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Race, Critical Commentary and Handout for N. Katherine Hayles’ “Embodied Virtuality” Nov 16, 2005

This is the twenty-seventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Professor Deborah Grayson led the LCC 3306, Science, Technology, and Race class that I took in Fall 2005 at Georgia Tech. Unlike many other classes that I had taken up to that point, Professor Grayson organized the class around student-led discussions of daily readings and larger presentation-based projects. Her class was as much like a seminar as a 25-student class can be. Her class’ structure gave me ideas for engaging students that I continue to use in my own teaching today.

This Recovered Writing post contains my “critical commentary” and “study guide” on N. Katherine Hayles’ “Embodied Virtuality:  Or How to Put Bodies Back Into the Picture.”

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Deborah Grayson

LCC 3306

November 16, 2005

Critical Commentary on “Embodied Virtuality:  Or How to Put Bodies Back Into the Picture”

Hayles argues that bodies are very much connected to our experiences in cyberspace.  We cannot have our bodies disconnected because there would be no way to interface ourselves (through our senses) to the computer.  She writes, “Far from being left behind when we enter cyberspace, our bodies are no less actively involved in the construction of virtuality than in the construction of real life” (1).  VR designers have to take our bodies into consideration when designing interfaces for their simulations.  If we cannot interface with the simulation, then its import is significantly decreased!

She goes on to identify the reason why there is talk about disembodiment in cyberspace.  She begins by outlining the Hans Moravec’s argument in Mind Children.  Moravec essentially is saying that there is a coming shift from our organic selves to silicon based immortality.  Hayles attacks this position by looking at the dualisms, or binary opposites, involved in the removing the body from cyberspace.  She writes, “Now the (male) technoscientific mind devises for itself a new body, nor born of woman, that it imagines will be more suited for its rational thought processes and immortal yearnings.  To unpack the implications of these associations, notice that one set of dualisms, male/female, reinforces and powerfully interacts with another, mind/body” (3).  She points out that male narcissism combined with a Frankenstein complex leads “male technoscientific” persons to set about building new bodies or receptacles for their consciousness without the necessity of women.  Though, by following simple dualisms, Hayles concedes that it is relatively easy to remove our need for bodies in cyberspace.

What is required is a more complex language that addresses multiple factors involved in the discourses surrounding bodies in cyberspace.  Hayles goes on to employ the semiotic square, and multiple binary opposites mapped onto the square, “to unpack the implications inhering in a binary pair by making explicit the hidden terms that help to stabilize meaning and generate significance” (6).  Her mapping binary opposites onto the semiotic square yields interesting connections between apparently unrelated (on the surface) identities/signifiers.  The semiotic square enables scholars to dig deeper so that hidden meanings are fleshed out.

Hayles points out that the semiotic square, “shows schematically the possible relationships that can emerge when materiality and information mutually imply each other, thus providing a theoretical framework in which such apparently diverse ideas as hyperreality and mutation can be understood as different manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon” (10-11).  Hyperreality and mutation are important concepts for our study of race and in particular, race in cyberspace, because we carry our identities to greater or lesser extents with us online.

Performativity of race is related to these two concepts because hyperreality, or the appearance of a copy without an original, is the very basis of digital media.  Identity and online self-expression (through music, art, online communication technologies, etc.) is based on that which is hyperreal.  Online, we play with ones and zeros that are transformed into information that we can understand only after those ones and zeros are interpreted through layers of code that acts like the Rosetta Stone.  Mutation comes into play with the way that understandings of identity and race change and morph through the interplay of persons in RL (real life) and online.         Hayles uses the connections in the semiotic square to make the point that, “the posthuman represents the construction of the body as part of an integrated information/material circuit that includes human and nonhuman components, silicon chips as well as organic tissue, bits of information as well as bits of flesh and bone.  The virtual body partakes both of the ephemerality of information and the solidity of physicality or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the solidity of information and the ephemerality of flesh” (12).   Hayles has a book that delves more into her idea of the posthuman, but in this passage her ideas about online identity construction has a lot to do with Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.”  We are, in part, becoming posthuman because of the “integrated information/material circuit that includes human and nonhuman components.”  However, “the virtual body” is dependent on both, “the ephemerality of information and the solidity of the physicality.”  The body is definitely in the picture, regardless of views of technologists such as Hans Moravec.

I found Hayles’ use of binary opposites compelling and useful in determining hidden meanings behind simplistic binary pairs.  After reading this article, I can see how the semiotic square and binary opposites can be utilized in studying other areas such as race and gender.  She does address these issues tangentially when she is developing her argument about needing something more powerful than simple binary pairs.  She makes valid points regarding what is “understood” in binary pairs.  For example, she writes, “In the black/white duality, the black race is discursively constructed as the opposite of the white race, which is assumed to be primary and originary” (3-4).  Therefore, binary opposites not only convey or define something by what it is not, but they also carry a built-in hierarchy with one opposite being above the other.

————–

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Deborah Grayson

LCC 3306

November 16, 2005

Study Guide for “Embodied Virtuality:  Or How to Put Bodies Back Into the Picture”

“Far from being left behind when we enter cyberspace, our bodies are no less actively involved in the construction of virtuality than in the construction of real life” (1).

“For our purposes, virtuality can be defined as the perception that material structures are interpenetrated with informational patterns” (4-5).

The semiotic square, “shows schematically the possible relationships that can emerge when materiality and information mutually imply each other, thus providing a theoretical framework in which such apparently diverse ideas as hyperreality and mutation can be understood as different manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon” (10-11).

“The posthuman represents the construction of the body as part of an integrated information/material circuit that includes human and nonhuman components, silicon chips as well as organic tissue, bits of information as well as bits of flesh and bone.  The virtual body partakes both of the ephemerality of information and the solidity of physicality or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the solidity of information and the ephemerality of flesh” (12).

Hayles, N. Katherine.  “Embodied Virtuality:  Or How to Put Bodies Back Into the Picture.”          Immersed in Technology:  Art and Virtual Environments.  Ed. Mary Anne Moser.           Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1996.

Main Points:

Mind and body are not separate.  We rely on our senses not only in everyday reality, but over time, our senses and the information that they collect, combine to construct our mind.

Cyberspace and VR are constructed to interface with bodies.

Binary opposites and the semiotic square are useful tools for finding hidden meanings embedded in the connections between interconnected, but seemingly unrelated, aspects of reality.

Body boundaries can be challenged through low-tech and high-tech VR methodologies.  The idea for studying the ways in which our bodily boundaries may be challenged comes from the study of persons whose proprioceptive sense is damaged.

Questions:

Have you experienced a true VR simulation?  Did you feel disembodied during the simulation?

When you play games online, do you create characters that are like you or do you create characters different than yourself?

Annotated Bibliography:

Kevorkian, Martin.  “Computers with Color Monitors:  Disembodied Black Screen Images            1988-1996.”  American Quarterly 51.2 (1999):  283-310.

Kevorkian addresses film examples of disembodied black actors and actresses in contemporary film.  The nature of the character’s disembodiment is often technologized in some way.  He also confronts frequent representations of black film characters sacrificing themselves in order to protect their white superiors and friends.  The nature of the character’s disembodiment is often apparent and literal because of the powerful impact of the image in film.

Lewis, George E.  “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in           Voyager.”  Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000):  33-39.

Lewis explores the implications of an interactive musical composition called “Voyager.”  Synthesizers and computers augment the original performance of a musician, but the technology (through programming) is designed to improvise which the author identifies, “ as a kind of computer music-making embodying African-American cultural practice” (par. 4).  This musical performance piece appears to present a computer that contains contains human thought (through the use of algorithms) that is capable of reproducing a style of music that is group/racially identified as distinctly African-American.

Nishime, LeiLani.  “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future.”  Cinema Journal          44.2 (2005):  34-49.

Nishime compares representations of mixed race characters in films to representations of fictional cyborgs.  She draws parallels between categories of bad cyborgs, good cyborgs/tragic mulatto/a, and mulatto cyborgs.  Her article is applicable here because of some of the cyberpunk and cyberspace oriented films that she examines.

Related Works:

Bailey, Cameron.  “Virtual Skins:  Articulating Race in Cyberspace.”  Immersed in Technology:    Art and Virtual Environments.  Ed. Mary Anne Moser.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1996.

Haslam, Jason.  “Coded Discourse:  Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow in the Matrix.”  College Literature 32.3 (2005):  92-115.

Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman:  Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature,     and Informatics.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Race and Pedagogy Project.  University of California, Santa Barbara.  2005.  15 November 2005    <http://rpp.english.ucsb.edu/category/race-and-the-internet/&gt;.

Thacker, Eugene.  “Data Made Flesh:  Biotechnology and the Discourse of the Posthuman.”          Cultural Critique 53 (2003):  72-97.

Weheliye, Alexander G.  “Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.”     Social Text 20.2 (2002):  21-47.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Georgia Tech, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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