Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body

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Mitchell, Kaye. "Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body." SFS #98 = 33.1 (March 2006): 109-128. As of November 2022, available on line here.[1]

The on-line version of the essay (as we found the on-line version) doesn't reprint the Abstract. It notes that "Bodies"

considers the possible intersections of recent technocultural and gender theory, focusing in particular on their respective theorizations of the body [..., working] from the premise that "the body" is to some extent the product of our understanding of it and concerns itself [... i.e., the essay concerns itself] with the relationship between the material and the discursive in the "production" of the body and with the reconceptualization and resignification of "matter" within technocultural and gender theory. Both of these theoretical discourses are moving towards an understanding of matter as constructed and nonnatural;[2] this emphasis on constructionism contrasts with earlier, more utopian views of the "transcendence" of the body in cyberspace and the radical gender possibilities of cyborgs. These ideas are then explored further via readings of Justina Robson's Natural History (2003) and Pat Cadigan's Tea from an Empty Cup (1998). These two sf novels reformulate the social and cultural meanings of the gendered body through their representations of sexually indeterminate, identity-shifting, hybrid, and radically other bodies. Science fiction, then, facilitates a dialogue between theories of technology and theories of gender, and tests the boundaries of the intelligible as far as our understanding of the gendered body is concerned. (print version p. 128)

Cyberspace: On the "'repudiation' or transcendence of the body in cyberspace," Mitchell argues "first that the body is not 'transcended' in cyberspace [...] but remain a factor that cannot be disregarded," that the body in cyberspace (and other VR?) encounters and transactions is "always already gendered, as is the technology" upon which these experiences rely" (hard-copy p. 111).

Cyborg(s): Responding to responses to the idea of a "data body" (p. 112) and "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" and following works, Mitchell quotes Anne Cranny-Francis, "The Erotics of the (Cy)Borg: Authority and Gender in the Sociocultural Imaginary" in Future Females, The Next Generation, ed. Marlene Barr (Latham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2000: 145-63).

There have emerged, however, more critical and ambivalent responses to the figure of the cyborg and this figure’s significance for women.5 So Anne Cranny-Francis insists that “the human/machine interrelation configured through a female body is not mind/machine, but body/machine” (“Erotics” 155), suggesting that for women at least, the matter (in both senses of that word) of the female body is not so easily transcended, persisting as it does in what has to be overcome or negated, as what determines female (as distinct from male) humanity. She concludes, forcefully, that:

The cyborg or android image ... conveys a very ambiguous message for women. The female androids and cyborgs that appear in fiction reinforce the cultural production of femininity as accessible sexuality rather than invulnerable authority, as use/object rather than user/subject. In other words, the female cyborg (or android) may have deconstructive potential for women who read the figure resistantly. But the figure has not actually offered women a position within the debate at all. The human/machine anxiety enacted within the technological imaginary was about men, authority, power, and control—not about “the human.” In fact, ... it configures “the human” conventionally as “the masculine.” (156) (Mitchell print version p. 114)

Concerning Justina Robeson's Natural History and other works, and Pat Cadigan's Tea from an Empty Cup:

Robson’s works depict both the harnessing of technology for the purposes of human advancement and the negative, potentially dehumanizing effects of technological “progress.” Technology, then, is neither homogenized (there are good and bad technologies, good and bad uses of technology) nor explicitly and reductively masculinized: her scientists and techno-buffs are sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometimes hybrid and/or non-human creatures. Neither demonizing nor venerating technology, Robson chooses to focus on the social and political hierarchies that dictate who controls the technologies of the future world she depicts—and therefore who benefits from them. These hierarchies are not determined by gender alone. Similarly, Pat Cadigan, in her 1998 novel Tea from an Empty Cup, concentrates on the real-world emplacement of technology in complex systems of social power. Specifically, she exposes the processes of commodification surrounding virtual reality — which she calls Artificial Reality, or “AR”: only elite classes can afford the most advanced specifications and online identities, since these are based on “billable time.” In real life (RL), power rests with those who trade, legally or illegally, in the drugs and hotsuits necessary for the “best” AR experience [...]. In addition, the range of technologies addressed by Robson and Cadigan — including cloning, biological warfare, AI, cyborgs, extra-solar travel, artificial reality, online gaming, and medical nanotechnology — indicates in itself a willingness to annex an arguably masculinist discourse of technological knowledge and progress for non-masculinist (although not necessarily explicitly feminist) ends. (print version p. 117)

RDE, finishing, 7Nov22