by Amy Wegener
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 16-19
In current theoretical debates about identity and subjectivity, the idea that culturally regulated signs of difference construct or inscribe bodies has provided a way of thinking about issues of gender, race, and sexuality. For instance, by dismantling the assumption that categories such as "male" and "female" are natural, writers in a variety of disciplines explore identity as a social process rather than a given. They face a complex task since they also wish to validate gendered and racial positions as locations from which to speak about experience. In this context, "the body" becomes a hot topic. Some discourses even assess physicality's meanings by imagining a world without bodies as we know them — a theoretical playground in which difference can be manipulated, and the borders between individual subjects collapse. But such a scenario does not belong solely to lofty academic theory.
Claudia Springer illustrates in Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age how a variety of popular culture texts explore such mind/body possibilities. These texts fantasize the fusion of human bodies and technology or technology's eventual erasure of corporeal experience altogether. Springer's book covers a broad spectrum of science and science fiction texts which imagine such conditions — from artificial intelligence debates to science fiction films and from ideas about the future of virtual reality to cyberpunk comic strips. She takes her reader through a maze of fantasies about utopian and dystopian worlds in which bodies are no longer the discrete (or, quite often, discreet), fundamentally "human" entities we once believed them to be.
The book's six chapters sometimes seem more intent upon synthesizing examples than articulating a strategy for understanding what these fantasies mean or how they might intervene in recent conversations about the body and identity. However, Electronic Eros has several philosophical preoccupations which drive Springer's inquiry. Her central discovery is that these futuristic fictions are riddled with contradictions — particularly in terms of gender. Not only is the need to imagine experience as bodily not so easily effaced, but popular culture often envisions technologized bodies which reassert or intensify the physicality of the inferior human bodies they replace. The result is hypermasculine cyborgs, gendered computer intelligences, virtual sex, or cyberspace "cowboys," whose greatest asset is their ability to manipulate the visual (virtual) presentation of their bodies. In Springer's analysis, these imagined body/technology fusions fluctuate between upsetting the rigidity of Cartesian mind-body dualism and reinscribing the oppositions they seem to challenge (for instance, by assuming a consciousness separated from the body).
Springer offers compelling hypotheses. Regrettably, she sometimes fails to go beyond positing contradictions to speculate about what the contradictions say about us or what kind of cultural work they do. Perhaps because the book explores escapist technological dreams and nightmares, Springer sometimes slips into the very "cyberdrool" (a rhetoric of celebration which ignores questions of ideology, existing political structures, and social relations) she warns against, occasionally becoming immersed in the alluringly slippery scenarios she seeks to examine. The book provides a thoughtful, readable synthesis of many different writers and analysts of this kind of rhetoric, but it doesn't always push the issue of what's at stake in thinking about such fictive challenges to our models of consciousness.
Electronic Eros explores another central thesis about how the body rematerializes in these fantasies. While hidden electronic technologies take over from older industrial models of powerful machines, some popular culture works resist this change and continue to conceptualize human/ technological fusion as something visible, external, and bodily. Science-fiction film's cyborg provides Springer's most salient example. The cyborg's overdetermined signifiers of bodily strength, masculinity, and violent tendencies seem to assert technology's danger in a way that is coded as physically menacing. At the same time, texts about electronic technology — such as Jim Starlin and Diana Graziunas' 1992 novel Lady El, about a dead woman whose brain is hooked up to a computer system — continue to imagine disembodied, downloaded consciousness as gendered, raciálized, and capable of sexual desire, qualities which seem apt for someone in possession of a body. In fact, the initial opposition — "man of steel is bad" vs. "electronic fluidity is good" — which Springer first establishes begins to unravel because of all the "postindustrial" examples she offers, examples which depict existence in the electronic realm as dependent upon bodily difference.
Springer's narrative grapples energetically with distinctions between and resonances among a variety of popular representations. However, her analysis is less convincing when observing the ways in which the texts' paradoxical claims might both reinforce and disrupt assumptions about gender. Initially, she asserts that electronic technology is associated with "femininity" while industrial technology is coded "masculine." While Springer provides a good account of how the metaphor of fluidity and hidden circuitry (female) stands in contrast to the solidity of, say, the Schwarzenegger-esque cyborg (male), she relies heavily on the rigidity of dualisms in her own readings, even though many of the texts she describes seem to play with these oppositions and to evade easy classifications. Springer privileges the electronic "feminine" model of technology over the "masculine." She cites Donna Haraway's idea of the feminist cyborg as a way of imagining subjectivity in terms of transgressed boundaries and "permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints." The book could be clearer about how it employs this kind of theoretical stance.
Springer's criticism of her science fiction examples tends to assume that the "feminine" is more "feminist," even though she recognizes that electronic technology's promise of dissolving boundaries between subjects (a "feminized" condition) is often depicted as threatening. Furthermore, in these dystopian visions, electronic technology's invisibility often becomes insidious rather than empowering. Springer makes clear the electronic mode's theoretical potential, but her book lacks a clear vision for how popular culture might be (or fails to be) progressive by adopting this way of thinking. Relentlessly pitting the idea of "patriarchal" representations against the promise of "feminist" ones, the book's critical discussion occasionally falters when confronted with examples that can be read in several different ways. Part of the problem may be the author's desire to label texts themselves as "feminist" or not, rather than to position herself as a feminist reader of the texts' ambiguities. Springer highlights contradictions and begins to speculate about what they could mean more generally. For instance, bodies become steely, or desire is displaced into "a computerized electronic realm" because with the presence of dangers such as AIDS, bodies are vulnerable as never before (10). However, she could go further in following her hunches about what investigating these texts could provide as a "payoff."
Springer's introduction promises such speculation, emphasizing a historical link between technology and eroticism and establishing the paradox that in the popular imagination, technology evokes both "a future of heightened erotic fulfillment" and "threats of extinction" (8 and 11). In this vein, the first chapter, "Deleting the Body," starts to ask why these fantasies prevail. Surprisingly, one of the first discourses that Springer discusses is scientific writing on artificial intelligence, which she suggests does not differ much from science fiction on the same topic. Artificial intelligence is described in these texts as more and more like human consciousness — and vice versa. It becomes hard to tell whether technology might protect the body in its state of vulnerability or whether it is the threat that renders the body ever more expendable. The chapter also begins to articulate how some of these scientific concerns are played out in various fictions (the cyborg, cyberpunk), mapping out terrain covered in later sections and showing how fictional constructs raise important questions about the authenticity of "the human" as a category distinct from "the machine."
Springer wraps up the chapter by outlining Fredric Jameson's definition of postmodernism and briefly discussing feminism's contention that gender roles are constructed by culture. She very usefully brings up the issue of how recent work exposes ideological assumptions about science's "objectivity," but then she ends this section on an alarmist, sensationalistic note: "After all, it may be too late to reject the cyborg existence. We are all already jacked in" (49). Such a deterministic rhetorical flourish left me wondering how Springer defines relations between popular fantasies and social and political realities. Such seductive speculations dangerously posit change as inevitable rather than as a cultural process. This rhetoric is also imprecise about how ideas and anxieties circulate — as when Springer later locates "us" in the "new postmodern social order" (100). What is this new order like, and do we have any agency here? I suspect that Springer is thinking of Donna Haraway's claim that the political always hinges on strategic fictions, and that lived experience shapes and is shaped by the imagination. As Haraway writes, "This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion." Although Springer begins intelligently to sketch out the implications of Haraway's concept applied to a study of popular science and recent science fiction texts, at times Electronic Eros only gestures toward a more rigorous consideration of how this equation works.
In Chapters Two and Three, Springer convincingly demonstrates how the body reemerges in texts which deal with abandoning the body and escaping into an electronic world: cyberpunk comics and writing on virtual reality. In "The Pleasure of the Interface," Springer describes cyberpunk fictions, which paradoxically present losing the body as a sexual experience. Cyberpunk does present the possibility of trying on different genders and sexualities, but cyberpunk comics visually depict bodies conventionally coded "masculine" and "feminine." Springer vividly assesses this imagined realm — how it alters definitions of human consciousness, and what its limitations and contradictions are. She questions how this potentially subversive subcultural discourse challenges traditional ideas about the body and identity. She finds that these comics show us the process of constructing and reconstructing images of bodies, but their iconography also adheres to stereotypical representations of gender.
Analyzing similar questions, "Virtual Sex" looks at the status of virtual reality in the popular (and scientific) imagination and finds that this "alternate reality" is also often associated with sexual pleasure that is thought to reach new heights of intensity even though it is no longer "bodily" (again, this raises the question of what embodied consciousness is). Springer briefly considers critics of VR's escapism and the troubling dilemma of who will control this technology. The chapter also introduces the potential terror of blurred subjectivity with a brief analysis of the film LAWNMOWER MAN, arguing that the title character's violence is a response to the threat which "feminized" subjectivity poses to the borders of his body when his intelligence is enhanced using virtual reality as "therapy." The idea of the "postmodern subject," then, as imagined in these texts, is at once potentially liberating and destructive. Springer juxtaposes many opinions on the dangers and benefits of VR technologies. Even though her own position sometimes takes a backseat to the debates she synthesizes, the questions she raises here will be quite helpful to anyone thinking about the potential impact of virtual reality or its current existence in popular fiction.
The second half of Electronic Eros examines representations of "cybernetic" men and women, as Springer continues to develop her concern with the gendering of the body/ technology interface. Chapter Four, "Muscular Circuitry," argues that "mainstream films have privileged the violently masculinist figure" (96), citing THE TERMINATOR and ROBOCOP as primary examples. These kinds of representations are bad, says Springer, because they resist the aforementioned "new postmodern social order" and exude nostalgia for unchallenged male supremacy. She pits the action-hero-cyborg's masculinity against a more fluid, electronic model of femininity, asserting that bodies of the Schwarzenegger variety can be read as "patriarchal" and even "fascist." As at other moments in the book, it's not quite clear here whether Springer is assuming that electronic technologies inherently have feminist potential or whether they are portrayed as "feminized" in popular culture for particular reasons. Interestingly, this categorization also proves unstable in other examples, as Springer discovers that bodiless intellect is sometimes gendered male while the material, biologically reproductive body is associated with the female.
Springer further complicates this familiar take on the "phallic" cyborg in the last part of the chapter by considering EVE OF DESTRUCTION, a film whose violent yet "sexy" cyborg character seems to play on both "masculine" and "feminine" representations of technology by combining a steely female body, unpredictable hidden circuitry, and the programmed memories of the scientist who created her. This example usefully challenges the argument set up so far, but rather than refining the chapter's initial assumptions, Springer fluctuates between reading the film as "misogynistic" (because Eve's behavior suggests the danger of unleashed female sexuality) and as a "feminist revenge fantasy" (because Eve kills abusive men). I think Springer is on target when she concludes,
However, she struggles to elucidate these ambiguities by discussing them in terms of an "either-or" opposition which (as Springer notices) doesn't quite account for what the film is doing. Though I have trouble agreeing that the film's "angry woman on a rampage" theme necessarily makes it a feminist text, I do think that what Springer does here, with some success, is to attempt a feminist reading of its problems.
Chapter Five, "Digital Rage," continues the inquiry by discussing similarly muscular-but-sexy cybernetic women enacting revenge fantasies in cyberpunk comics. The previous chapter's discussion of the tendency of repressed "human" memory to surface in film cyborgs also provides a springboard for talking about the idea of downloading human consciousness and memory and what this hypothetically would do to our notion of discrete identities and to the markers of difference that determine sex, gender, and race. Expanding her earlier point that the human mind is increasingly being likened to a computer — and that artificial intelligence's success is predicated on its ability to duplicate human memory — Springer also shows that scientific and science-fiction visions are often not so far apart.
The book's final chapter, "Men and Machine-Women," continues to look at what happens when technology is gendered female; here Springer analyzes the 1992 television series MANN AND MACHINE. She frames her discussion of machine women by setting up a comparison between Eve Edison, the series' cyborg, and the robot Maria in Fritz Lang's 1926 film METROPOLIS. In discussing the television series' gender politics, Springer focuses on whether or not the show might "articulate a feminist position" (156). She finds that the representation of Eve, the intelligent yet naive and dependent cyborg character, relies upon socially imposed rules. Eve's tendency to adopt certain behaviors under the supervision of her male partner on the police force constructs her as female. As with EVE OF DESTRUCTION, the text's contradictions seem to resist Springer's desire to tidy them, though the struggle often produces sharp insights about the TV series' specific features. Oddly, the comparison with Lang's robot Maria — originally an attempt to see "how the figure of the mechanical woman has evolved" (146) — seems to drop out of the chapter. The reader may wonder exactly what leverage Springer is trying to get on the contemporary text via the juxtaposition. The chapter makes some interesting suggestions about depicting technologized female bodies, but if there is a cultural trajectory between the silent film and the television show, this angle remains loosely developed.
Springer's conclusion about MANN AND MACHINE — and, in fact, her conclusion about many of the representations discussed in the book — is that it reveals gender identity to be constructed but does not challenge the construction itself:
Though drawing a distinction between the "support" and the "naturalization" of ideology seems questionable to me, it is provocative to think the series both destabilizes and is ultimately constrained by the cultural assumptions it manipulates. Springer's apparent dissatisfaction left me wondering what she would find a more progressive strategy. My question was soon answered with her book's conclusion:
As colorfully optimistic as this ending may be, it ignores the persistence of ideology as a process, favoring instead a vision of sudden transformation after which we can simply escape the social systems and histories which have shaped us. Furthermore, as Vivian Sobchack warns when cited earlier in the book,
Moreover, Springer's utopian pronouncement seems to undermine what may be one of the book's finest points: that what science fiction and cyberpunk discourses reveal in their anxiety-laden, often frightening visions is that boundaries require policing and that identity always gets reconfigured as difference written onto the body. That is true not just for these fantasies but maybe also for us. In other words, perhaps it is because the texts do not imaginatively dismantle existing cultural assumptions that they succeed in revealing what these limitations and preoccupations are as well as hint at why they persist. The book makes a convincing case for this scenario even if on another level it occasionally seems to call for sudden ideological transcendence.
Electronic Eros implicitly succeeds in advancing an argument, which I have perhaps taken for granted, about the importance of studying these kinds of texts and the meanings they generate. In fact, the book shows that popular culture can fuel a discussion about some of the most pressing theoretical issues we face. Springer demonstrates a vast knowledge of both pop-culture forms and scientific writing, often putting them together in surprising ways to illustrate their common obsessions. To her credit, the book delves into difficult philosophical conundrums and still remains an accessible resource for students and newcomers to these debates. It encourages a diverse readership to think about the ways in which gendered technologies and technologized genders are represented (even theorized) in popular texts. Sometimes the book's strategy may frustrate other readers, but even those who argue with some of Springer's analysis will find her approach to the subject matter compelling. As I hope that this review suggests, this book should inspire lively discussions among those thinking about technology and the body, opening up key questions about what these recurring representations mean.
1. See Donna J. Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 154.
2. Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," p. 149.