Excerpts from the book Information Arts: Intersections
of Art, Science, and Technology by Stephen Wilson
Chapters focused on the body
|Compiled by Stephen Wilson,
Professor, CIA Program ,
Art Dept, San Francisco State University
###Note these links are part of the research for Wilson's
on Arts (MIT Press,2002). Please see the book for more details
about the artists, organizations, and texts listed in these links and for
extended analysis of the relationship of art and research. Feel free
to use these resources but please attribute source. Copyright, 1999-2002
Stephen Wilson, MIT Press
For links to artists, texts, organizations etc see Artists'
Chapter 2.5 Body and Medicine
Introduction: Bodies, Technology, and Theory
Science and technology have profoundly affected our
abilities to observe, transform, and manipulate bodily functions and our
concepts of the body. Research in fields such as pharmacology, brain physiology,
reproductive technology, disease, prostheses, and bionics raise cultural
questions far beyond their technical borders. Old distinctions become increasingly
blurred - male/female, live/dead, natural/unnatural, body/nonbody, self/other,
autonomous/controlled, organic/nonorganic. The body is a "contested" site
where many of the culture's discourses are played out. The times are exciting
Artists have long focused on the body in painting
and sculpture. Theatre and dance have used the body as their principal
expressive medium. Photography, film, and video regularly explore contemporary
themes inspired by changing cultural perspectives on the body - for example,
new vistas in gender or identity. Every live performance is in some ways
body art. It is impossible here to analyze this expanse of work. Many performance
artists of the 60's, 70's, and 80's prefigured the focus on the body including
artists such as Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneeman, and Chris Burden This
section focuses however on artists who work directly with body transformation
or observing technologies or body modification.
Artistic experiments and theoretical speculation
discussed in other chapters also explore issues in body and technology.
The shadow of the organic body hovers in every virtual reality or telecommunications
based experience. What is the relationship of the flesh self and flesh
other when one experiences cyberspace. What is the status of conventional
organic categories such as skin, sex, body, death, time, etc.? Later chapters
revisit the organic in discussions on telecommunications, nanotechnology
, body sensing and surveillance.
The development of information technologies, body
based biological research, and medical science has put the body up for
grabs in cultural discourse and artistic experimentation. In some ways
the body seems so "real" and grounded. We each are a body and phenomenologically
experience its states everyday - for example, pain, pleasure, hunger, sexual
excitement, fatigue, disease. We can look at others and in a mirror and
see bounded entities commonly referred to as bodies.
Cultural theorists suggest, however, that even these
"givens" are somewhat illusory. Much of what we perceive and experience
is socially constructed - our sexual identities, what constitutes pleasure
and pain, what are the boundaries of the self. For example, anthropological
explorations of pain demonstrate that some experiences perceived as intense
pain in one culture might not even be noticed in another culture. The disciplining
and shaping of body experiences are a major function of cultural institutions.
Advertising and media representation have a profound effect on body experience.
New technologies erode the boundaries even more.
What is the reality of birth when both the sperm and the egg are donated,
the embryo starts its life in a test tube, and is implanted in the womb
of another woman? What is the natural limit of the body when the mood,
strength, sexual level, and intelligence can all be manipulated by drugs?
What are the boundaries of the body when one uses plastic surgery, hearing
aid, glasses, baboon's heart, pacemaker, artificial hips....?This chapter
briefly reviews theorists who consider themes such as the love/hate relationships
with the physical body and the allure of transcendance.
In "From Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs:
Technocriticsm and the Material Body" Kathleen Woodward proposes that cultural
theorists have overly focused on communication and cybernetic technologies
at the expense of biotechnologies. She suggests that gender is an important
issue in the imbalance and the desire to transcend the body is an critical
part of the story.
Over hundreds of thousand of years the body,
with the aid of various tools and technologies, has multiplied its strength
and increased its capacities to extend itself in space and over time. According
to this logic, the process culminates in the very immateriality of the
body itself. In this view technology serves fundamentally as a prosthesis
of the human body, one that ultimately displaces the material body, transmitting
instead its image around the globe and preserving that image over time.
It is paradoxical-seductively so-that while the
new communications and cybernetic networks permit increased visual access
to far-flung parts of the world as well as to the inner recesses of the
human body, they are based on technologies that are "unseen." There is
a beguiling, almost mesmerizing relationship between the progressive vanishing
of the body, as it were, and the hypervisuality of both the postmodern
society of the spectacle (Virilio) and the psychic world of cyberspace....
From a psychological, if not psychoanalytic perspective, then, the possibility
of an invulnerable thus immortal body is our greatest technological illusion
- that is to say, delusion.
She sees biotechnology as potentially more revolutionary
than the computer and communications revolution. Biotechnologies often
impact women - for example, reproductive technologies and thus attract
less critical attention. She also suggests that ageism is implicit in much
of the discourse with the focus excessively on newness and youth.
This revolution entails not the mere extension
of the body and its images, but more fundamentally, the saturation, replication,
alteration, and creation of the organic processes of the body-if not the
very body itself-by technoscience.
Margaret Morse covers some related ground in her article
"What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society". Using the
metaphor of eating and being eaten she investigates cultural perspectives
on the organic body in a cybernetic age - what she calls "body loathing
and machine desire". She includes consideration of developments such as
cyborgs, prostheses, smart drugs, non-food(such as vitamins), nd telepresenting.
For couch potatoes, video game addicts, and
surrogate travelers of cyberspace alike, an organic body just gets in the
way. The culinary discourses of a culture undergoing transformation into
an information society will have to confront not only the problems of a
much depleted earth but also a growing desire to disengage from the human
condition. Travelers on the virtual highways of an information society
have, in fact, at least one body too many-the one now largely sedentary
carbon-based body at the control console that suffers hunger, corpulency,
illness, old age, and ultimately death. The other body, a silicon-based
surrogate jacked into immaterial realms of data, has superpowers, albeit
virtually, and is immortal-or, rather, the chosen body, an electronic avatar
"decoupled" from the physical body, is a program capable of enduring endless
deaths. How can organically embodied beings, given these physical handicaps,
enter an electronic future?
For example, she notes that the fantasy of mind downloading,
as represented in Moravic's Mind Children, can be seen as being
eaten by the machine. She likens it to a yearning to be melded with the
primal information space. In another section she analyzes "Post-culinary
Defense Mechanisms." Reactions to food and the processes of eating can
reflect on more general cultural attitudes. She sees many high technologies
playing out these old fantasies.
Fig 2.5.1 Hans Moravic. Cover
from Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendant Mind
The negation of the organic body, its nourishment,
and all that the body stands for can occur in many different cultural fields
and adopt many different means - for instance, forms of psychic defense
such as repudiation, denial or disavowal.
In "Theoretical Appropriation for Somatic Intervention"
Victoria Vesna draws on phenomenology to examine the fantasies of body
control imminent in cyberspace narrative.
According to phenomenology, in the everyday
world we do not normally experience our bodies, nor our pain, as objects
... it is when we try to pay attention to pain or to talk about it, to
"make sense" of it, that we objectify it... [We] often experience the body
as an alien environment in which our body appears as something over which
we do not have control.
She also notes that biotechnology and body imaging technologies
open the body up for unprecedented surveillance and public access. Biotechnology
also stimulates the "redefinition of the subject" .She asks what are the
implications of this visualization of what used to be private.
Similarly, one result of the new non-invasive
imaging technologies in the area of medicine is the capability of turning
a person inside out ... It conjures up foreboding visions of an all-powerful
observer who has instant visual access to the anatomy, biochemistry, and
physiology of a patient. Computer tomography x-ray imaging (CT), positron
emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound
now probe noninvasively, but publicly, formerly private regions and occluded
and secluded recesses. It remains to be determined, however, just what
are the social or political dimensions and the ethical implications of
this generalized somatic visualization of the invisible.
Fig 2.5.2 Victoria Vesna, Bodies
Incorporated. Viewers can construct their fantasy bodies.
Some artists and theorists see technology as potentially
enhancing the experience of body. For example, we can build devices that
will offer new experiences of sexuality and sensuality. We can free ourselves
from standard definitions of gender and limitations of the physical body.
Other theorists suggest that this escape is not so easy. For example, in
her paper "We Sing the Body Electric: Imagining the Body in Electronic
Art" Josephen Anstey analyzes some darker trends implicit in the artistic/technological
manipulation of the body and the desire for freedom from the physical body.
In "Male Fantasies", Klaus Theweleit examined
the psychology of fascism and found a trend of fear that circled ideas
of the wet, the feminine, the masses, and chaos against which the male
soldier stood erect and hard. It is easy to see how, at one level, the
cyborg fantasy replays the fascist fantasy quest for order and security,
against chaos, femininity, wetness....
The possibility of electrical augmentation of
the body and of having virtual bodies attached to our real bodies suggests
the freedom to transgress the normal limits of the body; limits of time
and space, of appearance and fixed gender, of a unitary self, of self and
other. What limits the cyber body - and the less we acknowledge it the
more it limits - is a blindness to the existing structures that exert control,
and control definition, of the body; what it is, how it can be used, what
gender is, what sexuality is, what acceptable sexuality is. In the words
of Judith Butler, no realm of fantasy or representation is, "a domain of
psychic free play."
Artists plop themselves in the middle of the multidimensional
puzzle space. What does the body mean in an era of virtual communication
and cyberspace? Is cybersex a perversion or expansion of human possibilities?
What can and should be done with the increasing power of technology and
science to control organic processes? What are the narratives being enacted
in the research and the responses to it? What about the limits of transending
the body such as AIDS? Some artists celebrate corporeality; some seek to
deny it; and some do both at the same time. Some are eager to unravel the
cultural opportunities, challenges, and enigma posed by the new technologies
and scientific perspectives.
Extropian and Post Human Approaches
World wide movements called "Extropian" and "Post-human"
have gathered adherents around the world. These movements believe that
science, technology, and cultural history have brought us to the point
where we will become "post-human". The utopian wing of the movement believe
we should exploit the new technologies - drugs, surgery, genetic engineering,
bionics, cybernetics, psychological self-help, whatever - to create the
next kind of superior human. We should be willing to experiment at many
levels - atoms, cells, the body, the psyche, the community - to bring on
our new selves and the new world.
The extropian movement has an active Web presence.
Here is one statement on "What is an Extroprian".
Extropians seek to use technology intelligently
to overcome genetic, biological, psychological, cultural, and neurological
limits to the pursuit of life, liberty, and boundless achievement. An extropian
is an optimist, a neophile, an explorer....An extropian questions and experiments.
An extropian does not rely on authorities as the final word.
Extropians tend to advocate technologies that
seem a little weird to many nonextropians, or technological solutions to
problems that many people don't even think of as problems. Just a few examples
are space development, cryonics, artifical intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology
and alternative energy sources.
Another more dystopian wing of the movement is not so
sure the changes are positive. They foresee profound disruptions in identity
and community and suggest that maybe the new technologies should not be
embraced and used only with careful oversight. Other analysts such as Harraway
and Morse suggest that the cultural trends are complex and not easily relegated
to old binary categories. New technologies often play out old cultural
themes and surface meanings hide many layers. Artists enter into this tension
of exploring the post human.
In 1992 a Post Human show was organized in New York
which ultimately traveled throughout Europe. Jeffrey Deitch's book, Post
Human, which accompanied the show, reveals some of the themes of interest
to the arts.
The advances in biotechnology and computer science
and the accompanying changes in social behavior are challenging the boundaries
of where the old human ends and the Post Human begins....The emerging world
of easy plastic surgery, genetic reconstruction, and computer-chip brain
implants may soon be adding a new stage to Darwinian human evolution. These
technological innovations will also begin to radically alter the structure
of social interaction....Does the art presented in this book and the exhibition
warn of a world from humanity has been drained? Or, on the contrary, does
it celebrate a world where one will have unprecedented freedom to reinvent
oneself? It is quite unclear whether the post-human future will be better,
or worse, or whether it will even be post human at all.
For artists the impact of the technologies on identity
and concepts of self are of prime concern. Critical theory had already
started to question old notions of a natural or essential self. It had
shown how media and other cultural institutions shaped what we each considered
our real self. The new biologically oriented technologies continued that
assault by making even the material "givens" subject to modification. Concepts
of the self would have to change and become more fluid. Dietch traces the
history of self discovery and self modification technologies through the
60s and 70s. People were encouraged to change their appearance and behavior
in many ways. He proposes that television has already prepared us for multiplicity
and for the expectation of self modificational power. He suggests we have
passed through self discover to self hlep to "post-human" reconstitution
of the self.
The new construction of self is conceptual rather
than natural. A key element of the emerging consciousness of personality
is that an individual need not be tied to his or her "natural" looks, "natural"
abilities, or the ghosts of his or her family history (dietch 33-35)
The decentered television reality that we experience,
with its fragmentation, multiplicity, and simulateneity, is helping to
deepen the sense that there is no absolutely "correct" or "true" model
of the self...There is less need to psychologically interpret or "discover"
oneself and more of a feeling that the self can be altered and reinvented.
Self-identity is becoming much more dependent on how one is perceived by
others, as opposed to a deeply rooted sense of inner direction
As body modification technologies develop, their use
becomes more accepted. Deitch sees a future of ever expanding, non-medical
uses of these technologies. Approaches that integrate art and science will
be necessary for elaborating the possibilities and helping guide the new
found capability of creating artificial bodies.
It is assumed that the average person can and
should alter his or her body through rigourous diet and exercise. The virtues
of mind exercise and even of mind-altering drugs have also achieved wide
acceptance. Plastic surgery is not only accepted and encouraged by many
of our social role models but is enthusiastically shown off. As more powerful
technology becomes accessible, the next logical step might be for members
of the post-Jane Fonda generation to want to create a genetically improved
child who would already incorporate the enhanced physical endownment that
years of exercise, liposuction, and implant surgery had accomplished....
As the organic, naturally evolving model of human
life is replaced by the artificial evolution into the Post Human, art is
likely to assume a much more central role. Art may have to fuse with science
as computerization and biotechnolgy create further "improvements" on the
human form. Many of the decisions that will accompany the applications
of computerized virtual reality and of genetic engineering will be related
to aesthetics. Technology will make it possible to remodel our bodies and
superchange our minds, but art will have to help provide the inspiration
for what our bodies should look like and what our minds should be doing.
Arthur and Marilousie Kroker offer a somewhat more intricate
vision of what is going on in this cultural development in their concept
of "mimetic flesh." They paint it as a post-modern mixture of research,
play, rebellion, and art in their recounting of experiences with biotechnology
researchers, artists, and punk body modifiers in San Francisco.
Memetic flesh as a floating outlaw zone where
memes fold into genes, where the delirious spectacle of cyber-culture reconfigures
the future of the molecular body. In Ars California, mimetic flesh is neither
future nor history, but the molecular present. Pure California Gening....Neither
technoutopian nor technophobic, mimetic art in the streets of SF is always
dirty, always rubbing memes against genes, always clicking into (our) memetic
The sculpture of the future might well consist of technology
mediated modifications of our psyches and physical bodies. But this line
of analysis does pose some paradoxes. With a dissolving self, who makes
the decisions about future modifications? What elements of a person? What
are the sources of the ideas about what actions would be interesting or
desirable? Haraway warns about the dilusional discourse of "choice". Is
there really any role for art or will these choices about bodies be absorbed
into the fashion-advertising-media complex that governs other choices now.
"Go to the store to pick a new gender, face, genitals, muscles, mood, sexual
pleasure, intellect.... " just as people go now to pick cola, shirts or
Chapter 7.1 Research Agendas and Theoretical
Are Bodies and Physical Space Relevant?
Radical analysis suggests that the physical body and
physical space are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Digital technologies
such as virtual reality allow people to inhabit simulated worlds of their
own arbitrary design using synthetic bodies. These virtual creations can
model physical reality or freely improvise from the imagination. Digital
communications and telepresence allow people to perceive and act at a distance,
disregarding the old constraints of physical space. As people spend more
time in digitally produced environments, these worlds become more realistic,
and these worlds increase in their significance in people's lives, the
body and physical space may decrease in importance.
Historical Precedents: Speculation about the
relationship of virtuality and physicality is not new. Some of the Greeks
wondered if they should ban theatre because audiences became so involved
in the artificial realities that they seemed to become oblivious to everyday
physical reality. Over time similar concerns were expressed by the power
of novels, cinema, and television to kidnap participants outside of everyday
The tendency to deprecate the physical body has other
precedents in Western traditions of mind body dualism and distrust of the
flesh. For example, Plato felt the body was imperfect and distant from
the essential forms which were the most important aspect of the universe.
Christian traditions saw the flesh as a distraction from attending to more
important spiritual concerns and saw the sojourn on earth in body and physical
space as an unfortunate detour on the way to a more ethereal heaven. In
the enlightenment, the mind was seen as much more important than the body.
It is easy to see contemporary ascendancy of virtual bodies and places
as a continuation of these themes.
The perfectionism does not need to be expressed in
religious terms. Rotzer reflects on the technoutopian dreams of downloading
consciousness. The body is seen as an imperfect vessel. Ultimately some
hope to bypass the body by intervening directly with the brain. Frances
Dyson deconstructs the great variety of narratives underlying the interest
in virtuality and its expression of the desires for new kinds of sociality
and metaphysical experience.
The cultural imaginary propelling virtuality
inhabits a curiously sophisticated rhetorical landscape, shaped by the
endless permutations of futuristic, libertarian, psychedelic, cybernetic,
anarchistic, subcultural, utopian, mystical and science-fiction mythologies
permeating late-twentieth-century culture.
The nature of the virtual experience: Marcus
Novak's "Transarchitecture" attempts to prepare for the ascendancy of virtual
space as our principal architecture. He notes that the "alien" used to
be experiences that were outside; the ability of virtual reality to spatially
manifest our ideas means that "we will discover the alien that is so near
as to be outlandish. We will become citizens in the spaces of our varied
consciousnesses." N..Katherine Hayles describes the phenomenon as the ascendancy
of pattern over presence. She describes the posthuman as a "coupling so
intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to distinguish meaningfully
between the biological organism and the information circuits in which it
is enmeshed." (Hayles, p 266). Frances Dyson explores aurality and the
phenomenology of sound as a tool for understanding virtual reality's interest
in immersion. Like sound, VR enables consideration of non dualistic, non-Cartesian
modes of experience.
Like virtuality, the phenomenal invisibility,
intangibility, multiplicity, and existential flux of sound challenges an
understanding of the real based upon the visible, material, and enduring
object. Sound cannot be held for close examination, nor can it be separated
from the aural continuum and given a singular identity. In a constant state
of becoming, sound comes into and goes out of existence in a manner that
confounds ontological representation. Similarly, being both heard outside
and felt within, sound blurs the distinction between the interior and exterior
of the body, annihilating the distance between subject and object, self
and other. )
Doubts about liberation from body and space:
Debate rages about the possibilities of the new technologies to experientially
explore postmodern concepts of body and space. Some are hopeful; some are
doubtful. VR provides some illusion of body awareness. Typically VR travelers
are imaged by body representations in the virtual worlds. Also body suits
full of sensors translate body actions into actions in the virtual world.
Simon Penny notes, however, that the real body is abandoned and that VR
reaffirms traditional notions of space and dualism in spite of its rhetoric.
One leaves it at the door while the mind goes
wandering, unhindered by a physical body, inhabiting an ethereal virtual
body in pristine virtual space, itself a "Pure" Platonic space, free of
farts, dirt, and untidy bodily fluids....it is a clear continuation of
the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long Western tradition
of denial of the body. This reaffirms the Cartesian duality, reifying it
in code and hardware.
Arriving at a similar conclusion, Frances Dyson observes
forces within technoculture that try to restrain VR's exploratory tendencies
and draw it back into traditional conceptualizations of Cartesian space
populated with rigidly boundarized entities.
Rather than entering a "free-space," subjectivity
is recontextualized within the programmatic grid of technology, and embedded
in this grid are all those elements that drive the fixed and rigid reality,
the prescribed subjectivity one might, through VR, be trying to escape.
Causality , linearity, hierarchy, the discrete unit, the id one," the individual-all
are situated within a teleology geared towards increasing control over
systems of representation.
The Political Underlife of the Interest in Virtual
Bodies and Virtual Places: The emphasis on disembodiment and cyberspace
also can be seen as the manifestation of political narratives. In "Code
Warriors" Arthur and Marylouise Kroker describe the process of withdrawal
induced by the cyberworld. They see the emergence of a "virtual class "that
uses the fascination with cyberworlds to discredit independent sensual
experience and ease the path to domination. They describe the "bunker self"
which dumbs down its participation: "Privileging information while exterminating
meaning, surfing without engagement, digital reality provides a new virtual
playing field for tuning out and turning off. ". Physical place also becomes
a shell. Florian Rotzer describes cities as holding places for data communication.
In "The Information War" Hakim Bey draws parallels between the anti
materialist bias of both religion and science. He sees the growing etherialization
as helping support the evolution of the control and image manipulation
potentials of the modern state.
the state now consists of no more than the management
of images. It is no longer a force but a disembodied patterning of information....the
Media serves a religious or priestly role, appearing to offer us a way
out of the body by redefining spirit as information.
Bey notes that money and media have already consumed
the first world in abstractions. He warns that this view has lost touch
with the physical base of life and its reliance on others to do the physical
Americans and other "First World" types seem
particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of a "metaphysical economy" because
we can no longer see (or feel or smell) around us very much evidence of
a physical world. Our architecture has become symbolic....we spend our
leisure largely engrossed in Media rather than in direct experience of
material reality. The material world for us has come to symbolize catastrophe....And
yet, this "FirstWorld" economy is not self-sufficient. It depends for its
position (top of the pyramid) on a vast substructure of old-fashioned material
Artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena questions the typical presentation
of cyberspace as a politically neutral/raceless/genderiess/classless "territo
" open to all comers. He suggests the sanitization of cybersapce from ethnic
and other physical references serves to distract attention from important
physical world phenomena. Kevin Robins wonders about the implications of
the dream of virtual reality on the "real" world. He worries about the
severance of social relationships.
War, historically a very physical event, becomes
a testing ground for the attempted escape from physicality. In analyzing
the Gulf War, Frances Dyson notes that digital smart weapons obscure the
consequences of actions in virtuality.
hi-tech weaponry eliminates the "Vietnam syndrome"
by sanitizing the body through technology. The body of the victor sparkles
in its metal jacket, while the body of the victim disappears without a
trace. With virtuality, the circuit is completed: floating above the carnage,
the pilot initiates actions, the consequences of which are seen only via
the snow of signal termination.
According to some analysts even those few remnants of
life where the flesh in unexpendable will be brought under the discipline
of digital infomatics. Bill Nichols describes the impulse to control reproduction.
As one expert in the engineering of human prototypes
put it, reproduction in the laboratory is willed, chosen, purposed, and
controlled, and is, therefore, more human than coitus with all its vagaries
and elements of chance....These opportunities shift reproduction from family
life, private space, and, domestic relations to the realm of production
itself by means of the medical expert, clinical space, and commodity relations.
Optimism about liberation from body and space:
Others praise the liberatory possibilities. Gravity and time can be defied.
One can explore fantasies that are impossible in the biological and material
world. One can break free from the Cartesian box. One can encounter other
people in unprecedented ways. One can transform one's identity in countless
Florian Rotzer sees the technology offering a new kind of imagination
experience if it is developed in appropriate ways that avoid deterministic
tendencies. Some artists and theorists coming from a cyberfeminist perspective
propose that the technologies might provide an intriguing counterpoint
to traditional modernist ideas of mind/body split and a unitary self. For
example, Catherine Richards suggests VR may move against traditional ego
I saw in such technologies as VR a site to try
out and try on the projects reoccupying postmodern debate: the project
of inventing new images of the body where it could be seen as a threshold,
a field of intensities rather than half of the mind/body dualism; and the
feminist project of redesigning female subjectivity.
Referring to Elain Scarry's research on pain, Diana
Gromala proposes that pain provides a test case for VR. It offers an intense
body based experience that is difficult to share with others. Gromala proposed
to undertake a project to explore the limits of VR to deal with subjectivity
and experiences such as pain.
The disembodied experience, combined with qualities
of VR that seemingly do not replicate "reality," serves to upset notions
in our relationship to the symbolic realm, as, well as binary mind/body,
subject/object, and material/immaterial distinctions. (
Digital Technology and Identity
Postmodern thought challenges traditional concepts of
identity. From the Enlightenment on, Western culture fought to establish
the individual as a unitary, volitional entity with powers of perception
and action. Its literature glorified the individual's metamorphosis and
acts of self assertion and identity. Critical theory suggests a less romantic,
more complex view. An individual's identity is fluid, shaped by circulating
narratives of gender, class, nation, history, media, and situation. Digital
technology accelerates the process and provides a laboratory for experiments
in identity. The digitalization of information provides great flexibility
in representation. Telecommunications and online environments sever the
connection between physical persons and their communications. Theorists
have sought to elaborate these new views of identity and to analyze the
impact of digital technologies.
Bill Nichols sees the self as a potentially outdated
concept. The old unitary self may have lost its relevance in a world dominated
by digital representation and interdependency.
Liberation from any literal referent beyond
the simulation, like liberation from a cultural tradition bound to aura
and ritual, brings the actual process of constructing meaning, and social
reality, into sharper focus. This liberation also undercuts the Renaissance
concept of the individual. "Clear and distinct" people may be a prerequisite
for an industrial economy based on the sale of labor power, but mutually
dependent cyborgs may be a higher priority for a postindustrial postmodern
In the essay "Digital Apparition" Flusser draws an analogy
between modern physics and identity in the digital world. He notes that
personal identity can be viewed as confluent densities of information just
as physical reality can be viewed as density of matter points. Frances
Dyson suggests that the virtual body acting in virtual space transgresses
traditional notions of physical body boundaries and location. In this fluidity
it more radically challenges the basic western notions of dualistic demarcations,
which underlie some concepts of identity.
Virtual online communities invite experimentation
with identity. These worlds are often constructed on the fly by participants
and allow people to present themselves in any way they want. They are freed
from the physical body cues of gender, age, appearance to enact various
personas. Anonymity allows for people to try out idealized or negative
identities, to cross genders, or to manifest as multiple identities. Commentators
draw parallels between online and physical life. Sandy Stone, well known
for her writing and creative work related to identify experimentation,
describes the experimental possibilities of on line representation: "They
learn how to manipulate those personalities-take them out of the box, dust
them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another
In her books The Second Self and Life on
the Screen, Sherry Turkle investigates the anthropology and implications
of online activities. She sees online communities functioning as places
to experiment with identity, much like psychotherapy. She draws a connection
between the online experiments with multiplicity and contemporary notions
of the fluid postmodern self.
Virtual personas are objects-to-think-with.
When people adopt an online persona, they cross a boundary into highly
charged territory. Some feel an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some
a sense of relief. Some sense the possibilities for self-discovery, even
self-transformation....many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture,
including the adoption of online personae, are contributing to a general
reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity. Contemporary
psychology is being challenged to conceptualize healthy selves which are
not unitary but which have flexible aspects to their many aspects.
Sigfreid Zielinksi proposes that multiplicity is built
into the structure of digital communications, not just a feature of special
online communities. The speed and rapid reconfigurations of networks makes
it difficult to maintain old style identities: "The Net is thus an impossible
place...it is not a suitable place for intentionally acting subjects to
stay, not even temporarily."