Cyberculture: big picture, deep perspective

Mitchell Whitelaw

Tofts, Jonson and Cavallaro eds, Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History

Tofts, Jonson and Cavallaro eds, Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History

Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, Alessio Cavallaro eds
Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History
Power Publications, Sydney; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2000
ISBN 1864874910

In the words of senior editor Darren Tofts, “cyberculture has been a long time coming.” That’s the premise of this anthology, in which texts from philosophy, literature and computer science are reread as premonitions of our contemporary “becoming informatic.” The authors constitute a star-studded lineup of cybercultural theorists and commentators, with a substantial Australian contingent that reflects both the origins of this collection and the prominence of local thought in this scene. We have, to name a few, Evelyn Fox Keller, Gregory Ulmer, Margaret Wertheim and Mark Dery, as well as McKenzie Wark, Scott McQuire, Zoë Sofoulis and Damien Broderick.

The result is a very substantial volume in both quantity and quality, with 18 chapters, split into 4 sections. The first takes on cyborg subjectivity, AI and a-life; the second addresses virtuality and cyberspace; the final section turns to utopias, dystopias, and the future. The penultimate section is a collection of images and statements from high profile new media artists, which though perfectly readable (and good-looking), seems out of place. It’s poorly integrated with the surrounding arguments, and the material from the artists is not new or substantial. It might be that this section exists partly to acquit the support of the Australia Council and the AFC, who helped fund the project; still, it doesn’t work.

The wordy substance of the book, on the other hand, is engaging, challenging, and rewarding. Section One, I Robot: AI, A-life and Cyborgs, works through texts from sources as diverse as Mary Shelley, Alan Turing, and Philip K Dick, yet emerges with a multifaceted consensus on life and subjectivity as complex, dynamic, and machinic. Following N Katherine Hayles’ lead, this is the posthuman, according to cybercultural studies. Catherine Waldby’s account of Shelley’s Frankenstein sets aside the familiar “apocalyptic or phobic” readings to argue that this early 19th century tale is an examination of the confronting ethics of machinic life. Victor Frankenstein is faced not only with the horrifying, non-human autonomy of his creation, but by “his potential resemblance to an invention.” Rather than a fable on the perils of the technologies of life, the more fundamental issue is life as, somehow, technology: living being as machine. Waldby runs Donna Haraway’s cyborg alongside Frankenstein to suggest the productivity of a non-oppositional, connective, posthuman conception of the relations of subjects and objects, and the embracing of our shared, foundational “monstrosity.” This material machinics is historically grounded in Evelyn Fox Keller’s chapter on Norbert Weiner and Cybernetics, which in fact leads us through early biology and embryology, and the central problem of the organisation of the organism. Keller shows how cybernetics drew on the dynamic, organicist models of a biology that was entirely out of fashion in the postwar years of its emergence. Despite its limited successes at the time, the dynamic systems of second-order cybernetics are now very much in favour; and the organism now is, as Keller says, “a nonlinear, far-from-equilibrium system.” Machinic life and Haraway’s cyborg return in Zoë Sofoulis’ chapter, which makes a very clear survey of the impact of Haraway’s “Manifesto” in the humanities and the arts, while giving a useful gloss on this “cult text.”

Other subjectivities emerge here too, besides the ubiquitous cyborg. Elisabeth Wilson makes a close and very learned reading of Alan Turing, in person and text. She seeks to counter interpretations of Turing’s conceptions of machine intelligence as disembodied, asocial, and “emotionally puerile.” Instead, Turing emphasised imagination, surprise and affect, aspects which crystallise around the figure of the child, a self-forming subjectivity which is once again the focus of contemporary AI research (in particular that of Rodney Brooks and the MIT Robot Lab). A more radical departure from the material dynamics of the cyborg is Erik Davis’ opening chapter on Descartes’ Meditations. “Synthetic Meditations: Cogito in the Matrix” argues that despite Descartes now resembling a “punching bag”, assaulted from all sides for his dualistic model of subjectivity, the cogito, the incorporeal “I” who thinks, remains as a splinter, lodged in our cultural consciousness. Davis rereads Descartes to point out that the cogito is not only a reified “I”, but a procedure for reflexively interrogating the self, opening an “epistemological void” which has a particular currency. Davis’ argument escapes summation but it draws in The Matrix, Slavoj Zizek and mystical gnosticism, and ultimately returns us to the subject as “a void, a not-knowing.”

Most dazzling in this section however is a sprawling, audacious tract from Samuel J Umland and Karl Wessel, which takes as its source text Philip K Dick’s 1976 essay “Man, Android and Machine.” Setting excerpts from the essay against contemporary neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and AI, the authors show Dick’s prescience, but also make some striking and unsettling arguments. In short: that technoscience manifests a kind of autistic turn in human thought, biased towards objects, universal knowledge, specialisation and regularity; yet ironically the postmodern terrain that it has generated is illegible for the majority, with an evolved-in bias towards over-ascribing agency, and explanatory storytelling on that basis. This gap, they warn, may be apocalyptic.

In the section on virtual space the source texts are largely the usual suspects—Plato’s Cave, the Renaissance Ars Memoria, De Chardin’s noosphere, Gibson’s Neuromancer—though one of the most striking and enjoyable chapters is McKenzie Wark’s take on a lesser known source, Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt.” Wark uses Bradbury’s dark fable to propose a notion of the virtual as post-representational, the “too real”, a generative code engine which doesn’t mimic the real, but works on its own terms. While Wark makes a close reading, others use the texts as departure points for various trajectories, which ultimately destabilise the thematic of the section. Gregory Ulmer’s “Reality Tables: Virtual Furniture” leaves Plato behind early on in a dense and, for this reader, incoherent play on textual tables, language, literacy, and Elvis’ pelvis. Similarly Donald Theall springs off De Chardin and into his influence on McLuhan and especially James Joyce; Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari are also prominent. In another intricate paper Theall figures Joyce as a visionary of a polysemic “chaosmos” of media convergence, and the human becoming-machinic.

Australian philosopher John Sutton is more straightforward in setting the memory techniques of the Renaissance in the wider context of the exogram, or controlled, externalised and objective memory, and thus “the cognitive life of things.” Sutton’s ultimate argument is that a study of memory must ultimately acknowledge its cyborg-like transversality, its involvement in material things and lived time, as well as its interior spaces. Sutton references generously, providing an excellent resource for anyone with an interest in theories of memory. Scott McQuire sticks close, comparatively, to Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the crucial role of the modern metropolis (or in fact its luminous image) in anchoring Gibson’s overquoted coinage. Rather than a slippery non-place, this seminal cyberspace is in fact a way of grasping the informational reality which underpins the ungraspable excess of mega-urban experience: it offers the adept user the city as a legible “field of data.” McQuire is ultimately critical of Gibson’s return to the comfort of heroic, transcendent agency, in an era where the social relations that shape that agency are being radically altered by networked media technologies.

In the final section, a succession of past futures are examined, beginning with Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which Margaret Wertheim uses to mirror the 2 dominant versions of cyberspace utopia: the democratic virtual community (Rheingold and Esther Dyson), and the age of the “ barons”, who are echoed by the technoscientific patriarchy ruling Bacon’s Atlantis. In a similar manner John Potts considers Marinetti’s hyperactive visions of a machine future, and sees them coming true in the non-place of cyberspace, which shares Marinetti’s ideals of speed, progress, intelligence, and anarchic individualism. In a more conventionally historical piece, Bruce Mazlish makes a fascinating study of Samuel Butler, in particular the projection of mechanical evolution in his Erewhon and other texts. Mazlish explains the genesis of these ideas through a detailed account of Butler’s connections with other intellects of his time, in particular Charles Darwin.

Finally this section turns towards more modern futures from Arthur C Clarke, Alvin Toffler, and Vernor Vinge. Russell Blackford gives a sympathetic account of Clarke’s influential futurism, and Australian sci-fi author Damien Broderick compresses his book on an accelerating technofuture he calls “the Spike” down to essay length (in the guise of a reading of Vernor Vinge’s notion of the “singularity”). Most contentious here is probably “futures studies” scholar Richard Slaughter, who tackles Toffler’s Future Shock, analyses its practical failings, and makes the case for futures studies as a discipline. Most striking in this context is his sidelining of cyberculture as a useful way to think about the future: he argues that it overplays technology, while tending towards nihilism. Of course nihilism can be fun, especially the clever, irony-soaked variety proffered by Mark Dery in the book’s retrofuturist “Coda”, which takes on that icon of the Jet Age, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK airport. For Dery this is a symbol of lost or failed futures, but it also suggests modern air travel as a metaphor for contemporary society—anxious, dangerous, and comprising a mixture of increasingly autonomous machines with all-too-fallible humans.

This collection is a considerable achievement. To be parochial for a moment, it will boost the already high profile of Australian thinkers in this area, and with MIT Press as a co-publisher it will be distributed widely. Yet while its editorial premise has been successful in amassing high quality material, I came away with one general reservation. The focus on “prefiguring” cyberculture is fine, yet what is too often taken for granted here is exactly what that “cyberculture” is. It seems to have coalesced around a handful of familiar tropes: the cyborg or machinic organism, cyberspace, the virtual, the posthuman, the future. The most interesting material here finds new ways through these notions, yet only very occasionally is there a glimpse of what cyberculture might be becoming, what its emergent properties are; and if cyberculture is, as Tofts argues, about a becoming informatic in the “perpetual present tense”, then this is a significant omission. I may be asking something that this volume never promised. In any case, more pragmatically, we must not allow cybercultural theory to divert our attention from the myriad actual cultural practices (gaming, browsing, blogging, SMSing…) which are technoculture itself.

Darren Tofts is Chair of Media Communications at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. His publications include Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture (Interface Books, 1998). Writer and lecturer Annemarie Jonson’s book on Artificial Life is due to be published by Routledge in 2003. Alessio Cavallaro is Producer and Curator of New Media Projects at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 7-8

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 April 2003