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.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Race, Critical Commentary and Handout for Mark Hansen’s “Digitizing the Racialized Body…” Oct 24, 2005

This is the twenty-sixth 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 Mark Hansen’s “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address,” SubStance – Issue 104 (Volume 33, Number 2), 2004, pp. 107-133.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Deborah Grayson

LCC 3306

October 24, 2005

Critical Commentary on “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address”

Mark B. N. Hansen argues in “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address” that “deploying the lens of race to develop our thinking about online identification will help us to exploit the potential offered by the new media for experiencing community beyond identity” (108).  He is not merely arguing that the Internet and computer technology enables passing, or the effective performance of a race in an online environment, but instead he shows how new media can be employed to broadly convey an affect of a community to other individuals and other communities in a way not possible with broadcast media.

The effectiveness of interactive new media is brought about because of the lack of a visible element in textual communication.  New media however does use visuals and interactivity to go beyond interpellation because of new ways of presenting those visuals in new media.  Hansen goes into detail on the shift from textual passing to “moving beyond interpellation” in his experience with and subsequent analysis of Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains art exhibit (114).

A particular element of Hansen’s argument that I found interesting regards the production of the “whatever body” through the engagement of the Internet and the new media.  First, he draws on Agamben writing, “if humans could, that is not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable” (qtd. in Hansen 110).  Instead of “being thus,” or being a certain way, the individual can become “the thus,” or a true singular individual devoid of “presuppositions and without subjects.”  Then Hansen points out that, “the new media actively invests the dimension of the thus” (110).  Cyberspace and its technological accouterments are the means for realizing “the thus.”  Can these singular identities be enforced so that they are recognized by others?  Do they need to be recognized?  These questions are problematic with the broader effectiveness of “moving beyond interpellation.”

The part of Hansen’s argument that I have the most questions about is when he explores “how [we can] use the new media and the internet to move beyond interpellation, more exactly, to liberate the body from its socially-imposed dependence on interpellation through preconstituted social categories of identity, subjectivity, and particularity” (114).  He takes Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains exhibit for an analysis and extending of his argument.  Hansen goes on to describe his first-person experience with the exhibit.  In one of the two smaller exhibits, Hansen writes about the way in which Piper uses affect.  He writes, “Caught Like a Nigger in Cyberspace compelled me to undergo a kind of becoming-other, a loosening of the grip of the identity markings on my embodiment, a felt recognition of  the fluidity–the bodily excess–underlying them.  At this moment, I confronted myself as an affective subject, a subject defined by my own excess over any of my actual states” (123).  His being “an affective subject” realizes the ability of conveying affect with the new media.  He is able to engage emotions presented by the artist through the work in an interactive way that is not possible with broadcast, passive viewing.  How effective is this in other works?  Even though a work conveys an affect to the viewer, is the affect the same for each individual viewer?

Piper’s work isn’t the end-all solution, but, “Relocating the Remains offers the catalyst for a radical reconfiguration of the self beyond identity, a reconfiguration as a self rooted in the potentiality of the body, as a self essentially ‘out of phase’ with itself” (124).  Not only is it “the catalyst for a radial reconfiguration of the self,” but it is also a catalyst for shift away from bodily identified racial signifiers.  Hansen writes, “If his [Piper’s] work manages, even for an instant, to expose the bare singularity, the common impropriety, that binds us beyond identification, and it if does so for potentially any viewer, then it can be understood as a form of resistance to the very principle informing today’s technologized racism” (126-127).  How effective that resistance is remains to be seen.  For some persons, I can see how affective works of art can convey messages more powerful than in older forms of media.  Perhaps these messages can be integrated into more popular forms of interactive media such as video games.  However, this integration would be difficult because of competition with such popular titles as Grand Theft Auto that perpetuate particular stereotypes.

I found Hansen’s argument engaging, but I did take issue with his sidelining of gender at the beginning of his paper.  He writes, “the fact that race, unlike gender, is so clearly a construction, since racial traits are not reducible, i.e., genetic, organization” (108).  He might have chosen better language in this sentence such as “sex” instead of “gender.”  Gender is constructed within or without the individual needing particular “hardware.”  I found his usage here unusual because he later quotes Sandy Stone, who I believe would have also taken issue with this because other work that I have read by her (e.g., “The Empire Strikes Back:  A Posttranssexual Manifesto”).

—————–

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Deborah Grayson

LCC 3306

October 24, 2005

Study Guide for “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address”

“I would suggest that Piper’s concrete engagement with technology as a site of de-differentiation and universality must itself be understood in the dual mode of confrontation and invitation.  The result is a significant complixification:  not only is the address to black subjects nuanced in a way that routes self-perception through perception by the Other–that is, through the surveillant and/or consumerist gaze, but the address is opened in an unprecedented way to non-black, non-minoritarian, that is, white subjects” (116).

Caught Like a Nigger in Cyberspace compelled me to undergo a kind of becoming-other, a loosening of the grip of the identity markings on my embodiment, a felt recognition of  the fluidity–the bodily excess–underlying them.  At this moment, I confronted myself as an affective subject, a subject defined by my own excess over any of my actual states” (123).

“Through the affective confusion it brokers, Relocating the Remains offers the catalyst for a radical reconfiguration of the self beyond identity, a reconfiguration as a self rooted in the potentiality of the body, as a self essentially ‘out of phase’ with itself” (124).

Hansen, Mark B. N..  “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal Address.”        SubStance.  33:2 (2004):  107-133.

Main Points:

Online “passing” serves as a mechanism for reinforcing certain stereotypes and identities.

The Internet and the new media can be utilized “to move beyond interpellation” because of the effectiveness of interactive media to convey an affect held by the artist or by a group of people.

Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains is a powerful example of a work to use excessive affect in bringing about a better understanding, a glimpse of being, and an emotive response in “non-black, non-minoritarian, that is, white subjects” (116).

Questions:

Have you had an experience online where you chatted with someone online, but after you met the person in real life, the person did not match your preconceived image of him/her?

Have you been to an interactive art exhibit or visited a website that actively conveyed an affect of a person or a group of people represented in the work?

Do you think that the affect of experience of one group of people can be conveyed in the work by a person not of or not considered a part of that group?  (e.g., Postcolonial critiques of elite writers who are disconnected from their country of origin.  For example, Salman Rushdie has written about the country of his birth, but his life is far removed from someone that actually lived their whole life in India.)

Annotated Bibliography:

Everett, Anna.  “The Revolution with Be Digitized:  Afrocentricity and the Digital Public      Sphere.”  Social Text.  20:2 (Summer 2002):  125-146.

Anna Everett explores the “African diaspora’s” early access to computers and the Internet.  She also maps the shift of the African American press to the Internet.

Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds.  Race in Cyberspace.  New York:       Routledge, 2000.

This collection of papers addresses many aspects of race in ‘cyberspace’ (e.g., online, in games, and other digital forms).  Jennifer González’s “The Appended Subject:  Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage” is one work in this book that relates to the issues that Hansen addresses.  González looks at websites that present the body through racialized appendages.

Nakamura, Lisa.  “Race In/For Cyberspace:  Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the     Internet.”  1999.  20 October 2005

<http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/nakamura.html&gt;.

Nakamura addresses issues of performing identities online such as in chat spaces like LambdaMOO.  She calls the theatricality of assuming and performing as an online identity, “identity tourism,” which is akin to Orientalist appropriations of the Other.

Related Works:

Piper, Keith.  Relocating the Remains.  1997.  22 October 2005 <http://www.iniva.org/piper/&gt;.

Porter, David. ed.  Internet Culture.  New York:  Routledge, 1997.

Poster, Mark.  What’s the Matter With the Internet?  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota           Press, 2001.

Poster, Mark and Stanley Aronowitz.  The Information Subject.  Amsterdam:  G+B Arts      International, 2001.