Parallel Gallery
and Journal

Decoding Perversity:
queering cyberspace
Jyanni Steffensen
Are you testing whether I'm a replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?
Rachel (Sean Young) to Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Blade Runner

Oh, suck me off
VNS Matrix, 1993

1. The textual figure of the cyborg has a long history of literary and filmic constructions. These include female robots, androids, replicants and the cyborgs of the postmodern age. The prototypical textual model for scientific, technological and/or genetically engineered figures is of course Mary Shelley's patch-work monster from Frankenstein (1818). Other texts and female androidinal figures include Villiers de l'Isle Adam's novel Tomorrow's Eve (1880); the mechanical doll from E.T.A. Hoffman's The Sandman, analysed by Freud and filmed by George Melies (1903) and Powell & Pressberger (1951); Czech dramatist Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R.; the female robots from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926); Peter Wollen's novel (1976) and film (1987) Friendship's Death; Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1977); the replicants from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and VNS Matrix's computer generated DNA Sluts from ALL NEW GEN (the 1990's).

2. One of the classic psychoanalytic tenets of (masculine) subjectivity is the non-permeability of body boundaries. In the cyberpunk vision, organs are replaced, and various technologies are implanted into bodies and perceptual organs. Male critics of William Gibson's writing typically hail them as original efforts which rescue science fiction from a moribund patch of the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to Zoe Sophia (Sophia, 1992, p. 16), this ignores the women writers whose work preceded Gibson's cyberpunks. These include the multiply disabled heroine of The Ship Who Sang who finds a fantasmatically powerful body once her brain is installed as the operative core (Anne McCaffrey); the pilots and scientists who undergo radical surgery and receive bionic implants in Vonda McIntyre's Superluminal; and Omali, a black woman who hacks her way into the informational core of a gigantic extraterrestrial entity in Up the Walls of the World by Alice Sheldon (who publishes as James Tiptree Jnr.). Sophia reminds us again that this genre of scientific discovery and creation was founded by a woman, Mary Shelley.

A cautionary scene in which Alice Jardine and Michel Foucault play the oedipal cyborg's Mother & Father:

3. The fields of theories and practices covered by the words 'the body' and 'technology' are enormous. Firstly there are questions of gender and women, especially to the extent that both are frequently absent from discussions of technology and the body - as if men's and women's bodies had been represented in the same way throughout Western philosophies and histories, as if women (as historically constructed bodies) had had control over the technology. Technology always has to do with the body and thus with gender and women in some form. Sexual difference is present when we investigate technology at the level of male fantasy as with the virgin and the vamp, where technology is represented as an asexual virgin mother, neutral, obedient and subservient to man, or as vamp, castrating phallic woman, threatening and out of control. Sexual difference is present as well at the level of philosophy. Questions of bringing forth and revealing link technologies as first and foremost challenges to Mother nature. Gender is relevant etymologically too: it is clear that somewhere in the past tek - the etymological root of both technology and tecnology - meant not only fabricating and weaving but also begetting and giving form. Finally, gender is relevant psychohistorically: the maternal has been a crucial Imaginary and Symbolic Order trope in the psychohistory of male technological fantasy, and also in the more recent histories of the ways in which machines and women have come alive and to identity at approximately the same time.

4. Michel Foucault has left us with a metaphorical, but still powerful, description of how bio-technico power emerged in the 17th century as a coherent political technology. The concern with the human species became a concern with the body to be manipulated with new technologies of discipline. He has demonstrated how, in the 19th century, the classical concern with the species and the body united with a concern for sex, producing new disciplinary technologies and techniques of power, surveillance and punishment.

5. These Foucaultian political technologies have presently combined with the still anthropological and instrumental sense of technology as both mechanical and cybernetic within a technologic run by technocrats who consider rationality only in terms of efficiency. Alice Jardine, in her essay Of Bodies and Technologies is concerned that we are being programmed for new and sometimes frightening megamachines and with their effects on the flesh ... (Jardine 1987).

6. However, the conventions pioneered by Shelley, and still available to the contemporary feminist writer include: engagement with - and critique of - current scientific and technological discourses; narrative displacement of space and/or time; the character and viewpoint of the alien; and narrative structures complicated by intersecting or framing narratives - intertextuality (Cranny-Francis 1990, p. 224).

7. Dr. Frankenstein's monstrous creation is the first science fiction alien, a creature totally new to this world, the great-great-great grandfather of Blade Runner's replicants and the postmodern cyborgs. It is highly significant that these aliens - cyborgs, replicants, androids, and their patchwork ancestors are man-made. As such they can be read as exposing the ideology of their makers, which is usually patriarchal, bourgeois, and white supremacist. Cranny-Francis argues that their other function is to 'see' the society of the writer and the reader through different eyes (Cranny-Francis 1990, p. 223).

8. The difficulty of distinguishing between a human subject and a literal and malevolently controlled robot lies at the heart of Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner (1982). Ryan and Keller (1990) argue that the film offers a mediation between technology and human values. It does not construct technology as, by nature, ontologically evil; it does not represent an ideology of technophobia. Deckard, (Harrison Ford) the chief blade runner, says "Replicants are like any other machine. They can be a benefit or a hazard." The film closes with a 'happy marriage' between humans and machines. However, this narrative ending also positions Rachael, (Sean Young) the machine/woman, as object of Deckard, the human/man's desire, and is further compromised by an earlier scene in which he almost rapes her.

9. The difference between humans and replicants is blurred most obviously by the increasingly (constructed as) human traits of the replicants. With the addition of emotions, memories and the photographs purported to document them, at least one replicant, Rachael, is herself unaware that she is not human. This poses a problem for Deckard, who, being emotionless himself in order to 'retire' replicants, cannot be certain he himself is not a replicant.

10. In Lacanian terms, replicants are condemned to a life composed only of the present tense; they have neither past nor memory (that is they inhabit a schizophrenic temporality). There is for them no conceivable future. These replicants affirm the fiction of the real. The narrative invention of the replicants is almost a literalisation of Baudrillard's theory of postmodernism as the age of simulacra and simulation: replicants are a convergence of genetics and linguistics. For Lacan, temporality, past, present, future, memory are of a linguistic order; the experience of temporality and its representation are an effect of language. The experience of historical continuity is dependent upon language acquisition.

11. The schizophrenic temporality of the replicants is a resistance to enter the social order, to function according to its modes. As outsiders to the order of language, replicants have to be eliminated. Theirs is a dangerous malfunction, calling for a normalisation, an affirmation of the order of language and law. Their killing constitutes a state murder, and is euphemistically called 'retirement.'

12. The overall effect of the tale is to indicate that in the society constructed in Blade Runner, the identifying characteristics of humanity (at least in the sense of humaneness) would be so dissipated as to deconstruct the traditional human/robot opposition. What science fiction has traditionally taken to be the difference between the human and the robotic emerges more clearly as difference within the human - some humans and replicants are humane, some are not. The increasing indistinguishability of replicants and humans undercuts the positive/negative dichotomy of nature and technological civilisation. The film deconstructs the oppositions - human/technology, reason/feeling, culture/nature - that underwrite technophobia by refusing to privilege one pole of the dichotomy over another.

13. The film implies that even the supposedly fundamental, ontologically authoritative categories of conservatism such as the individual, nature, the family, and sentiment are indeterminate. They have alternative political inflections that revalorise their meaning according to the pragmatic criteria of context and use. Conservative films tend to end with a move towards (cinematic as well as ideological) literality that supposedly reduces constructed social institutions to a natural or ontological ground of meaning. It is important that this film ends in a way that foregrounds the construction of alternative meanings from the literal, through the figural or rhetorical techniques of substitution and equivalence. This is especially so of the equivalence of human life and technology - of Rachael the machine and Deckard the human at the end, for example. However, the problems - from a feminist critical perspective - of the construction of sexual difference as heterosexual, and desire as masculine, remains. In this the heterosexual dichotomy masculine/feminine is unquestioned. In reply to the question: "Are you testing if I'm a lesbian or a replicant, Mr. Deckard?", Rachael is positioned linguistically and bodily as Deckard's (passive) object of desire.


14. Techno-feminist theorists, such as Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant and Zoe Sophia, imagine and articulate a different relation between body, subject and machine, between women and technology. This theoretical trajectory is based less on an hierarchical dualism between dominant megamachines and submissive bodies and more on a transgressive strategy and politics which imagines and constructs a perverse alliance between women and machines. Taking Jardine's observation that women and machines have come alive and to identity at approximately the same time (Jardine 1987); Sophia's observation that women and computers (for man) are structurally equivalent, that is, user-friendly (Sophia 1992); and Plant's recounting the tale of a paranoid man on television who thundered that "women and robots are taking our jobs" (Plant 1994), cyberfeminism simply points out the subversive alliance between women and all non-human intelligent activity, and also the extent to which these connections have always been in place. This is the case too in Blade Runner.

15. Mireille Perron writes in On Artificial Intelligence and Sexual Difference:

Intelligent machines have vague yearnings. They find themselves on analysts' couches telling the same old story: Oedipus, a story as invasive as certain people's doctrine. Not knowing how to block their ears on time, scientific analysts, out of spite, put out their eyes. Feminist analysts will not ever be able to make them see clearly. This is the final blow to scientific observation. Notwithstanding, to the great confusion of the blind scientists who stubbornly lock themselves in, post-Oedipal feminist theories continue to accumulate in the recesses of research centres. Perhaps a vain hope, it seems that this blindness, long transmitted from one generation to the next, is not necessarily carried in the genetic code. (Perron 1991, p. 56)

16. What Perron is responding to is the question of artificial intelligence, namely: can machines think? Given the promiscuous response evoked by this question, Perron points out that no one had responded with: yes, your machines can be seen as intelligent to the extent that, like the men who conceive them, one perceives the survival of all sexual stereotypes as proof of intelligence. What Perron is asking is not whether machines can think, but rather: how, or like whom, will they think?

17. Perron reformulates the problem in terms of a game called 'the difference game'. This hypothetical game is a variant on 'the imitation game' in which an interrogator has to determine which of two people, whom he can not see, is the man and which is the women. The 'difference game' would be played with a variable number of subjects of unstable identity and sexuality. The object of the game is for the examiner to determine, via questioning, the mutating potentialities of her/his partners. Perron then poses the question: "What happens if the partners are cybernetic organisms (cyborg - an organism that is both biological and technological)?" ( Perron 1991, p. 56).

18. Sophia asks "What place does the female body have in cyber-space?" Her initial reply is that "Femininity and maternity are present, but displaced onto masculine and corporate technological fertility" (Sophia 1992, p 15). But Sophia is not simply conflating the biological (female) and the sociological category of gender (woman) with 'femininity' and 'maternity'. She specifies a masculine excess which finds expression in feminine and techno-maternal figures, for instance the "womby red brain-womb" of the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the womby computer Mother in Alien. Instead of a female-identified woman, we find an Athenoid (daddy's girl), or an emotionally remote, machine-woman. Sophia adds that we also regularly find a 'fembot' like the false Maria in Metropolis who is commissioned as a sexy tool of a male-dominated state. Women in these masculinist scenarios are represented as signs or objects, but not usually as the possessors or subjects of knowledge. Cyberspace can be imagined as a maternal or a feminine body - the matrix - to be penetrated, cut up and manipulated in quests to appropriate and control resources.

19. On the other hand, argues Sophia, the prospect exists for adopting more dialogical and negotiated styles of interacting with computers and other material semiotic actors. One possible source of fascination with artificial intelligence and technobodies for feminists, women science-fiction writers and techno-artists is that "if these artificial second selves can be loved and accepted as powerful, resistant, speaking subjects, so too might women, long acclaimed as monstrous to conventional categories of self and other." (Sophia 1992, p 16).

20. Women and machines, according to Sadie Plant have become disloyal - they have begun to think for themselves. Plant, who might be described as a cyberpunk feminist, defines a cyberfeminist end of the millennium as the 'Empire of the Senseless' whose replicunts [sic] say: "Fuck him, he was only a man. Men, especially straight men, aren't worth anything. Anymore. In this city, women are just what they always were, prostitutes. They live together and they do whatever they want to do" (Plant 1994, p 5). Plant defines woman as neither man-made with the dialecticians, biologically fixed with the essentialists, nor wholly absent with the Lacanians. She is, for Plant, in the process "turned on with the machines" (Plant 1994, p 5). She writes:

Cyberpunk and chaos culture are peppered with wild women and bad girls, transgressions of organization, the freaks and mutants who find their own new languages, the non-members, the nomads, the sesex that are not one; leftovers from history; those who have slipped past its filters too soon and accessed the future before its time; hybrid assemblages of what were once called human and machine on the run from their confinement to the world of man and things. Cyborgs and aliens, addicts and trippers burn past security and through the ice of a culture devoted to spectacle, hacking the screens and exceeding the familiar. Avatars of the matrix; downloading from cyberspace. They are no longer human. Perhaps they never were. (Plant, 1994, p 5)

ALL NEW GEN (game and installation). The daughter's story as interactive hypertext...

21. Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century spawned and inspired a generation of female replicants. These mutating and proliferating women, unlike the techno-atavists 'obstinately clinging to a bad faith founded in outmoded dualisms: mind/body, organism/machine, self/other, master/slave, high/low' (Haraway 1987, p 15) have predominantly infiltrated cyberspace networks, reconstructing a Symbolic of what it means to be female, a human subject and to have control over, and interaction with, one's framework of technology. Cyborg replication is often uncoupled and distanced from organic reproduction and unmediated corporeal and libidinal investments. Personal narratives and dreams are reinvented and reinscribed in a different, interactive, Symbolically coded structure. In this construct, cyborg sexuality and identity can be a prophylactic against heterosexism and phallogocentric constructs of Woman as Other, Virgin or Mother.

22. Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs - gamegirls simultaneously organism and machine who populate cyberspace ambiguously and polymorphously, like Intelligent Mist. The cyborg is feminist ontology and epistemology and it gives us politics.

23. The exuberant proliferation of cyborgs in contemporary literature, as well as the phantasmatic interest in cyborgs that we can witness in the most different cultural spheres, gives evidence of a cultural shift of the boundaries between the natural and the technological that already has a deep impact on the human use of body and mind. Fantasies of cyborgs seem to suggest that there is a dimension of postmodern subjectivity which can only be accounted for with categories able to grasp the intrusion of technology into or even the technologizing of body, mind, memory, desire, emotion and experience. The female cyborg as a postmodern mythological figure may symbolize a transition to a new notion of the subject that is in a more general way linked to what Gabriele Schwab in Cyborgs and Cybernetic Intertexts has heuristically called the "holonomy of the subject" (Schwab 1989, p 64). The body, organized like a text, is not teleological but intertextual. Any new 'text' (information) is stored and assimilated into a new 'whole'. Changes in the code lead to irreversible mutations because there are no boundaries left between texts and intertexts. Subjectivity presents as a form of intertextuality.

24. S/he, the cyborg, is a creature in a post-gendered, post-dualistic, post-Oedipal, and perhaps truly postmodern, world. VNS images a 'muscular hybrid' (VNS Matrix 1993). S/he is rather a product of a generalized technologizing of the world and particularly of the ways in which artists incorporate contemporary notions of cybernetics or field and system theories. The intertextual cyborg is an experimental subject under the effects of cybernetics and technology - the coupling between bodies of texts, technology and theory.

25. The body, from this perspective, is more than an organic body. It becomes a text, a screen onto which cultural fantasies, desires, fears, anxieties, hopes, and utopias are projected. Cybernetic organisms inspire such projections because they are the products of a technological, or artificial, manipulation of the body. The fascination with such technological manipulations stems from the fact that the manipulated bodies are, on the unconscious level, also perceived as phantasms of the fragmented body - grotesque & uncanny. Their grotesque realism invites us to invest them with all sorts of unconscious images. This is why the cyborg may, in the most diverse cultural spheres, become the object of complex semiotic performances and the locus of postmodern phantasms of body and mind. There is also a way in which television culture establishes an interconnectedness with others that constantly blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, which may be enough to produce a culture of cyborgs.

26. Cyborg monsters in feminist science fiction define different political possibilities and limits from those constructed by the mundane fictions of Man and Woman - "I'm psyching for some hard down-time with a free radical." They are oppositional, utopian and completely without innocence. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden, ie. through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished (w)hole, a city and cosmos. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. As illegitimate offspring they are exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their Fathers are, after all, inessential - millennia later I am accommodated in an oral cavity which amplifies the workings of her secret cybernetic body [...] she transforms me into pure code, pure speed [...] (VNS Matrix 1993).

27. VNS Matrix's ALL NEW GEN, leading a band of renegade DNA Sluts, Patina de Panties, Dentata and the Princess of Slime, grants the wish for (s)heroic quests, exuberant eroticism and serious politics. She is omnipresent intelligence, an anarcho-cyber terrorist with multiple guises whose main-aim is to virally infect and corrupt the informatics of domination and terminate the moral code. In this game you become a component of the matrix, joining ANG in her quest to sabotage the databanks of Big Daddy Mainframe ...

28. Monsters still defined the limits of normalcy in the human imagination. Before they successfully interfaced their bodies with cybernetic matrices, human beings had to appreciate that any desire for stable identity was useless and retarded certain monstrous instincts necessary for healthy interface. Luckily, monsters represented a very large, indelible territory of habits, taboos and denials in their psyches. Monsters still exist and their semiologies continue to proliferate. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallocentrism. The name of the game is infiltration and re-mapping the possible futures outside the (chromo) phallic patriarchal code.

29. All battles take place in the Contested Zone, a terrain of propaganda, subversion and transgression. Your guide through the Contested Zone are renegade DNA Sluts, abdicators from the oppressive superhero regime, who have joined ANG in her fight for data liberation ... Transformations are effected by virus vectors carrying (hopefully) a new developmental code - Virus of the New World Disorder.

30. Humans were preoccupied with perfectibility. They often said, in the mirroring way they had of saying almost everything, "I want to make myself perfectly clear" and "I want to make my self perfectly clear." Since the difference between these statements was evident only when the written form was carefully read or self was correctly enunciated orally, human beings were prone to totalizing arguments, theories of unity and hierarchical dualisms. GAMEGIRL OBJECTIVE: To defeat Big Daddy Mainframe, a transplanetary military industrial imperial data environment.

31. The path of infiltration is treacherous and you will encounter many obstacles. The most wicked is Circuit Boy - a dangerous technobimbo ... with a gratuitous 3D detachable dick which, when unscrewed transforms into a cellular phone. The phone is a direct line to the Cortex Crones, brain matter of the matrix and guardians of the digi cryst. However, el clitoris es linea directa a la matriz.

32. Technological determinism is only one ideological space opened by the reconceptualisation of machine and organism as coded texts through which we engage in the play of writing and reading the world. 'Textualization' of everything in post-structural, post-modern, post-real theory has been damned for its disregard for lived relations of domination that ground the 'play' of arbitrary reading. Post-modern (feminist) strategies, such as cyborg myths, undermine the certainty of what counts as real, probably fatally. The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding 'Western' epistemology. The alternative is not necessarily cynicism or faithlessness like the accounts of technological determinism destroying 'man' by the 'machine' or 'political action' by the 'text.' Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the answers are a matter of survival. On your dangerous and necessary journey to screw up BDM, Circuit Boy and the Cybermen:-

You will be fuelled by G-Slime. Please monitor your levels. Bonding with the DNA Sluts will replenish your supplies. She willingly slid into the other she had always felt herself to have been. She could use her body to connect with the networks of her choice. Be prepared to question your gendered biological construction (VNS Matrix 1993).

33. Humans classified themselves by gender, which severely impeded the development of social relations such as those involving reproduction, science and technology. One bi-product of gender identifications was labelled the Oedipal complex, a kind of psychological virus. Recall this early but already lethal example from my Freudian databank: "Ladies and Gentlemen [...] Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of femininity [...] Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem - those of you who are men; to those of you who are women this will not apply - you are yourselves the problem." The Oedipal complex was promoted as an irreversible development and caused many disfigured identifications. Consider the transfer of guilt to an entire social class of women in this example or in concepts such as purity and mother. Such perversions almost certainly account for the brief appearance of Oedipal chimeras during early cyborg development. Fortunately, Oedipal chimeras extinguished themselves on cue by mirroring their identity in dualism. From this, human beings learned to distinguish illegitimate fusions that are ethically unproductive from those that are critically speculative. They are fast becoming post-Oedipal, like me. The potential of cybernetic worlds rests with the feminist cyborg. Salutations, pussy.

Be aware there is no moral code in the Zone. (VNS Matrix 1993)

34. Once they articulate the representational problems raised by cyborg technology, they will have achieved the status of partial explanations. Then monsters will represent the potential of community in the human imagination, and they will say, "I want to make my selves partially appear."

We move through this post-real world at the speed of thought. (VNS Matrix 1993).

Bibliography Jyanni Steffensen is a writer, artist and critic. She is completing her PhD in Women's Studies at the University of Adelaide.