Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars: A Polemic, Dec. 9, 2008

This is the thirty-eighth 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.

In 2008, I began my Ph.D. work with Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler. Ultimately, he directed my dissertation and we became friends.

On the advice of friends in the SFRA and of having read Mack’s first Political Science Fiction collection while at the University of Liverpool, I wanted the opportunity to study at Kent State University and work with him.

This is the third and final artifact that I produced during my coursework independent study with Mack focused on Philip K. Dick, postmodernism, play, parody, and performance. As an invested SFRA member and its then-publicity director, I was concerned about the chilling effects a troll and his sock-puppets wreaked on our email list at that time. Ultimately, Mack helped me steer the independent study in that direction to theoretically grapple with online discussions in real life (RL).

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

9 December 2008

Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars:  A Polemic

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.

–Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

This essay’s objects of study include the community of Science Fiction (SF) scholars, of which I am a member, as well as our practices of online communication and discussion.  In September 2008, the normal intermittent conversation on the email list of a long established, professional organization of SF scholars was disrupted, or derailed, which might be a better description, by the controversial, inflammatory, or perhaps unexpected emails of two list participants with different originating email address–one a dues paying member of the organization, and the other a non-paying email-only list member.  However, these two seemingly separate persons are in fact two online personas or characters created and operated by the same individual.  The real world person responsible for these personas is clearly playing with character and online identity engineering.  For the two personas, he constructs identity and narrative of self through verbal wit and word play that has its antecedents in literature, or what I call Pulp Media. This online, or New Media, practitioner of online persona engineering largely caught the SF scholar community woefully unprepared to meet his persona on the page, or rather on the screen. Instead of engaging the personas within cyberspace on the email discussion list, which often carries conversations about marginalized identities and the alien Other, many list participants chose to react against the list personas. Why did these scholars, arguably some of the most engaged persons dealing with issues of Otherness, attempt to expel, rather than embrace, the Othered personas?  Can SF scholarship overcome a privileging of literary texts, and expand their work to the realm of daily practices and the real world of science fictional technologies (i.e., the Internet) that facilitates their professional work?  Or, is SF scholarship divorced from the present through its overemphasis on the future or alternate worlds imagined in its traditional objects of study?

I approach these questions first through a discussion of literary character and persona.  Then, I employ psychology as a bridge between literary character and online identity or persona. In this paper, I argue that character in Pulp Media is replicated in New Media with the recognizable exception being the proliferation of persona narrative construction online, which results in the necessity of reflective revision of our practices in cyberspace, including our supposedly isolated forums of discussion.

The online personas on the SF email list are indicative of the doubleness of character in literature.  Obviously, writing the self and creating doubles of character in literature have a long history in literature.  The touchstone work is Saint Augustine’s Confessions (397-398 AD), in which he attempted to reflect on his life, memory, and self.  However, he realized that memory and self change over time and his record of self in the Confessions can be best thought of as a representation of self as recorded through the lens of memory.  Other forms of doubleness take on a more fictional aspect such as that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and her characters: Victor the creator, and his created Monster.  However, the Monster also doubles humanity, because he falls in love, or desires companionship of a female mate.  Even though he is called the Monster, he is in fact very much human–one that is isolated, alone, and ostracized as the Other.  A more emphatic and explicit form of doubling takes place in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  The title’s namesakes equate to one person with a schizoid personality–a person split into different, and even competing identities. Though, as different as Hyde is from Jekyll, there still remains the underlying core of humanity and human identification. Still much later works, such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), continue to feature doubled characters.  In this case, the Replicants, android workers of the future, double humanity, and it is the ambiguously human characters who doubt their own humanity and fear the possibility of being the Other.  In these examples, there is a crisis of identity, because the division of self obviously destabilizes what is assumed to be a unified identity or sense of self.

These crises exist in written form as literature and as words written by persons, each with a unique mind, and literature forms a corpus of evidence for the mind and its machinery.  Therefore, the early developments in the scientific study of self and identity came to rely on this evidence.  Sigmund Freud relied on classical literature (e.g., Oedipus Rex), and his love of British literature (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamlet) to develop his theories of self and pathologies of mental illness.  The significance here being that there is an interconnection between Freud’s work on the mind and the pathology of mind, and literature. Freud’s theory of self established that our mind, and its underlying workings, is divided between the surface conscious mind–ego, and the subsurface unconscious mind–the superego and the id. Despite this division of mind, normal persons supposedly present an integrated sense of self or identity to the world. Further developments in the pathology of a unified public self was made by Eugen Bleuler, who extends Freud’s work with his categorization and naming of the schizophrenias, which included the now distinct pathology known as dissociative identity disorder, or the explicit division of self into distinct personas.  Following this work, violations of the unity of self in daily life are perceived to be indicative of disease or illness, and necessitating treatment or institutionalization. However, this phenomenon is presented in literature both before and after Freud and Bleuler’s work. Doubleness of character, doppelgangers, and literary personas in literature are high literary markers, and there is a profusion of such literary/psychological devices in literature following the wider popularization of psychoanalysis.  I do not mean to say that one necessarily follows from the other, but instead, there is an ever presence of human minds creating literature, which obviously leaves psychological traces embedded in the work. However, there must be a conscious as well as unconscious injection of these themes into literary works, particularly following the increase in awareness of mental disorders and key psychological concepts.  With that being said, doubleness pervades literature, and there is a recursive operation at play following the dispersal of the Freudian theory of mind.

This pervasion is clearly evident in the doubleness inherent to the New Media, which derives in part from its literary and pathological precedents, but it also has to do with the material conditions of plugging one’s self into the network.  William Gibson, hovering over his Hermes 2000 typewriter, envisioned the physical jacking into cyberspace, a neologism of his creation that has since stuck, in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. There is a separation between the meat (i.e., body) and mind.  The meat confines the potential of self unleashed within the “consensual hallucination” within the computer network.  This is made more visually real a decade and a half later in the Wachowski Brother’s film, The Matrix (1999), when the human characters jack-in to the computer world they leave their weak bodies behind in Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” and become the Übermensch within cyberspace.  The characters, including Case in Neuromancer, Neo in the Matrix, and Hiro Protagonist in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), each invent spectacular online identities with special powers and abilities that contrast, more or less, with the material reality of their bodily identity.  Is this not true of many persons of imagination that enjoy SF, comics, and video games as a way to leave, or at least ignore, the confines of material reality and explore the potential and promise of the undiscovered country of the imagination with their doubled selves?

One such imaginative space, perhaps with the most potential for invention, is the Internet and its New Media technologies.  New Media has made possible a proliferation in the engineering of self and creation of persona–a doubling that occurs purposefully as well as incidentally.  Playing with character was largely confined to print, and it was not allowed in real life due to the pathology of a split identity.  The New Media proliferation of self and character experimentation has resulted in new possibilities as well as problems.  The possibilities include trying out new attitudes and beliefs in the relative protection of cyberspace, which is one of the themes of Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora (1998), albeit with digital beings that switch mental perspectives, which we might conceive as being central to identity. Another New Media possibility is the making connections and linking into new circuits and communities within the sprawling network.  This empowers the building of self through community and interaction that might otherwise be a challenge (e.g., geographically or demographically), or danger (e.g., a transgendered person talking with other transgendered persons in a community with groups openly violent to such persons).  Additionally, some persons create multiple online identities or characters as protection or to remove prejudice within online communities (e.g., a girl pretends to be a guy to avoid harassment, or a college-aged woman uses only her first initial and last name on email correspondence to avoid gender bias).  In contrast to these possibilities is the central problem and holdover from the real world–the assumption of a unified sense of self.  Even within cyberspace where doubling is essential to any interaction with the network, there remains the awareness of illness when there is a violation by others of an appearance of unity of self. There may be a sense of betrayal when the ruse, if you want to use that word, is uncovered. Other ways of responding to such a situation of online persona creation is deception.  There is the assumption of dealing with an individual behind the online persona or avatar, and that this is a one-to-one ratio. When one person has a chorus of voices, characters, or personas, this may lead to the feeling that there is deception–that one is hoodwinked.  However, the fact remains that New Media enables and in some cases, such as Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, encourages such multiple persona creation.  The technological assemblages of the Internet and New Media is built on multiplicity, copy-and-paste, and the passage of bits unencumbered by the realities of the persons corresponding with those bits of data. Nevertheless, there still exists for many the knee-jerk reaction of our real world conditioning that a violation takes place when the assumption of unified identity is breached, even in such an environment as cyberspace.

The reaction of many of the participants, myself included, on the SF scholar email list strongly indicates that old habits die hard. Evidence for this comes from the fact that list participants overwhelmingly reacted against these Othered personas rather than engaging the play and internal logic of the two characters. There were exceptions, but it would probably have required a unanimous positive response to avert the ensuing chaos on the list.  Some of the not-so-positive responses to the personas, but more so the person behind the personas after the performance was uncovered, included calling him a “worthless clown” and “troll,” who pursues “juvenile antics.”  However, the following responses are more indicative of the interrelation of psychology to persons:  “kook,” “disturbed little creature,” “needs psychological help,” “loonie,” and “he is clearly undergoing some sort of emotional meltdown.” The online persona creator is no longer a human, but a “creature,” suffering an “emotional meltdown,” and “in need of help.”  Psychology, the science of self that originally derived its models from literature, comes full circle when brought to bear on an individual who exercises literary practices of character and persona creation in a New Media email list.  However, these same scholars whose slings and arrows amount to popular expressions of Freud would not consider Shelley or Dick “kooks.” Also, their scholarly engagement of Shelley and Dick’s characters and literary personas would be probative and deductive rather than invective.  It would be an embrace rather than a reaction or rejection of these practices of character and persona creation.

In this spirit of embracing the Other, one list participant offered, “There may be ‘irrational exuberance’ but exuberance can be used productively.” Another sage called the emails “great fun” and a kind of “cyberhockey” with words flying around like so many pucks. Perhaps the person behind the email list personas took the postmodern to heart, and not in his studies but in his practices as an academic.  I contend that these personas are forms of “transgressive parody,” or what Patrick Novotny describes as:

Parody in the postmodernist aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms. The postmodernist parody of aesthetic representation has been frequently carried to an extreme of self-negation, the playful celebration of the fragmentation and decomposition of the subject. With the collapse of the modern aesthetic tradition and the “implosion of metanarratives,” postmodernist discourse transgresses and disrupts the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms and problematizes the boundaries and limits of representation. (100)

Novotny’s work reveals that postmodern parody is much more than comic imitation.  Instead, the email list online personas transgress the norms of the list and academic discourse in order to challenge and potentially break down the metanarratives of SF scholarship in order to arrive at something new. In a sense, the chaos incited by the email personas, as Henry Adams wrote in a different context, “often breeds life” (249).  It seems evident that the person behind the personas self-negates through the creation of such elaborate online identities, but perhaps a recursion takes place in which the self-negated subject of the personas’ operator then in turn takes on these new and engineered identities.  The ways in which the personas disrupted the email list and the normal list conversations sent ripples through the list community.  I cannot peer into the mind of the personas’ operator and see his intentions for his acts of transgressive parody, but it is obvious from the list conversations and this paper, as something created as a result of the events on the email list, that the email list personas’ transgressions and disruptions have resulted in a change of course into uncharted territories.

In our first trespass into these new areas, we should collectively reflect on what it is we do as SF scholars supposedly concerned about the plight of the alien Other.  The email list personas came from within our own member ranks, but the unexpectedness of the transgressive parody, something assumed to be relegated to the realm of literature, took center stage while many list members gawked at the intrusions from the (assumed) margins.  In this spectacular example, the persona creator, who pushes the boundaries and possibilities of New Media and community norms, is the outsider on the SF discussion list, because he is using New Media technologies in ways that many list members are unaccustomed to, or unwilling to acknowledge as constructive or at least inventive. We each write our identities online in a variety of ways, which are not far removed, and in fact overlap each of our email list personas.  Some of these include:  our professional websites display our professional histories and curriculum vitae; we post copious amounts of data on identity profiles on Facebook and MySpace; we blog about our personal and professional lives; we use Twitter and email to communicate and bounce ideas off one another; and we join virtual guilds and fight for honor in World of Warcraft.  The examples are too long to be fully listed here, but it is obvious that we construct identities online whether we intend to or not.  The mere act of communication builds some sense of identity in our own minds through our action to communicate and in the minds of our audience by what we have said.  Cyberspace and the New Media facilitate the writing of ourselves–in whatever way that we may choose to do so–and the creation of persona or personas in the digital domain. We must resist our assumptions, including the outmoded sense of a unified self, and make our best effort to connect with new technologies and the possibilities that they engender, especially when they are so interrelated with our own practices and SF objects of study. It is time for us to agree to bridge our professional practices to the seemingly far shore of our daily practices as human beings.


Works Cited

Adams, Henry.  The Education of Henry Adams:  An Autobiography. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1918.

Novotny, Patrick.  “No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration.”  Political Science Fiction.  Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  99-123.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.