Fractured Flesh

Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

Terminal image - Bill Burrough's Nova Express - "the entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender." Terminal identity - the birth of a new subjectivity at the interface of the body and computer/TV screen. Within technology's increasing pervasion of conceptions of the self comes a belief individualism can merge with technology, yet current notions of humanity be retained.

Bukatman argues that the line between pomo academics and Science Fiction (SF) has become exceedingly blurred. He interweaves the "science fictions" of Baudrillard, Haraway, and Debord, with those of Gibson, Ballard and Dick, asserting that narrative form gives way to spatialized concerns that engage our fixation with the distances, spaces and proximities between embodied humanity and the electronic machines invented to facilitate an individuated subjectivity and global capital flows.

SF addresses how technology infects our being in the world, constructing "a space of accommodation to an intensely technological existence." (p.10) SF is the prescient mind that has first imagined the virtual world now under contract to be built.

Bukatman argues that "our ontologies are adrift" vis-a-vis how "subjectivity" is understood. His uncritical use of "subjectivity", along with his metaphoric trading in the meaning of space, leads to a slippery elision between embodiment and subjectivity, between physical instances and texts. Though the author never explains what he means by subjectivity, following Paul Smith, I take it that Bukatman understands the subject to have been "construed epistemologically as the counterpart to the phenomenal object...the unified locus of the constitution of the phenomenal world."1 With respect to the non-problematized use of metaphors of space devolving from a Kantian a priorization of same, geographer Neil Smith suggests that: "The central danger in an unreflective use of spatial metaphors is that it implicitly repeats the asymmetries of power inherent in traditional social is assumed as the unproblematic Other...metaphorical space gains its richness-at the expense of material space, whose impoverishment it reinforces."2

Although Bukatman retains a scepticism towards the deployment of electronic technologies, he concludes that there is no "turning back". Apparently, if our ontologies are "adrift", they float in a single (progressive) direction to that place where we will mesh with the psychotechnologies before us, between us and with/in us. Yet Bukatman never engages with "invention" or "cultural production" as historical, problematic concerns, at whatever spatial scale they operate within and/or on. To have considered cultural production as a "product" of, or process interdependent with subjectivity would have required consideration of whatever power individuated subjectivity retains to have done or still do things differently.

Bukatman expresses concern for "the body", and how it will engage with VR (Virtual Reality) technologies. He acknowledges the "flatness", hence disembodied character (p.223), of a cyberspace that lies on the "other side" of the interface VR technologies manifest. Yet he ignores the necessary relationships between visual and spatial concepts, and the production of a modern understanding of distance that results from a spatialized "view" of the world, one that also leads to the equation of impediment=distance=space. Enter VR as technology/commodity/ritual that magically promises to dissolve the distance that Modernist spatial vision has first erected. In having ignored this dynamic, one might argue Bukatman's is a deeply compromised work, fully engaged in servicing the technologies it purports to render more transparent. Here is a cultural worker for whom "language will comprise the "content" of the discourse as well as determine its form." (p .30) The "world" thus created, as Bukatman notes, prefigures and sets the stage for a world of Information, a textual world where "everything exists as data, and the real worlds of production and commerce exist largely as an afterthought." (p.33) Without considering the immateriality of society as a concept, Bukatman finds that within Debordian spectacular society all images are advertisements for the status quo. Addiction to these images becomes a central fact of life. No longer understood as pathological, this addiction "has instead become the very condition of existence in postmodern culture." (p.69) With the death of tradition and habit "I love to watch" becomes the addition of "choice". Bukatman traces tensions between narrative and spectacle (time and space), suggesting SF is the oracle pointing to ambiguous/creative resolutions between the two competing "categories of knowledge", and that SF does so through dismemberment of traditional narrative subjectivity. The author is vague as to how any ethics would be reworked by shifts in technical form from narrative to spectacle. Bukatman notes the essential invisibility of cyberspace as an "arena" of cultural activity, yet a Western understanding of space remains primarily visual in its metaphoric conception. The need to render cyber-"spaces" of power visible, so that users might gain an illusory access "therein", points to a sensual cynicism that underpins statements that failure to engage with these technologies constitutes a form of cultural folly. For Bukatman "terminal penetration" achieves and performs our direct bodily engagement with cyberspace. The subject's control is enhanced by its disappearance into technology-induced cyberspatial realms. The body's dissolution may be empowering. Yet this reviewer finds a profound crisis is raised by the interface/dialectic between body and machine. Should belief in body "obsolescence" be theorized as cultural exhaustion or as a refusal of technocratic control because the intractability of the body would no longer be so central an issue? Bukatman is ingenuous, resisting firm conclusions by citing a panoply of sources variously recommending all these options. One is not quite placed in the position of "choose", though almost.

Why should technology now (appear to) take on this particular space/form? Given the death, or explanation of, a mythic God, alongside the enduring wish of Western thought to trump exterior "reality", Bukatman, following Bataille, asserts that "jacking in" to cyberspace disguises the discontinuity of a purely human existence " entering the flow of data in cyberspace - the subject is dissolved in the swirls of cybernetic information, but is at the same time further empowered through an extension of motility and spatial possession. Here, then, are the paradoxically simultaneous experiences of death and immortality that are fundamental to religious practice." (p.295-96)

Not only is cyberspace an access to the new forms that power takes, but a "mythic commodity", not a space after all but an artifact (p.151), an induced visualization (p.154) identified as a space precisely because space has become the structuring concept of postmodernism and its Gods. Having explained God, a new commodity form engages each of us as discontinuous human existences, by virtue of a relocation of souls/subjectivities/consciousness to it - a consumer heaven in what it publicly promises. Yet the virtual technologies employed against Iraq reveal another consumer inevitability.

Bukatman argues that the subject is formed in response to conditions of existence. If these conditions are now immaterial perhaps the subject might follow suit, but this would occur in a situation wherein the subject would be addressed through a combination of direct sensory engagement and narrative form. But in a more overtly critical observation Bukatman writes that: the illusion of subject empowerment depends upon the invisibility of the apparatus, and when electronic reality appears to permit a direct incursion by the terminal subject, then what functions can narrative retain? (p.196)

VR appears to obviate the need for narrative as spatial exploration becomes an experiential end in itself. (p.239) If narrative first allowed the subject a history, and if narrative now becomes transparent and perceived as redundant within these "spectacular" technologies, the death of memory as we know it is at hand. One thing forgotten in the successful application of electronic illusion is that "we" have been its inventors. Yet for academics who accord genesis to the text, the idea that language is a technology, an idea central to VR, will not be received in a hostile fashion, for as a technology, language can be made to slide as needed along a continuum from existence to communication, ontology to epistemology. In forgetting we have made these machines (that they are not latter-day Kantian a priori categories) it becomes easier for the proposal that subjectivity is the child of this technology - a proposal analogized from the position that subjectivity is the child of language - to gain currency along with the notion that the human is obsolete.

Image and language are intertwined in a complex and ambiguous way. Just as not all images are visual, though it is possible to argue they can be so represented through technology, language connects to vision, and by extension, its technical practices. But it is also informed by situated cultural practices. Yet this is not quite right, for memory would not be done away with but "merely" disembodied, made part of the mechanical hive-mind. A mechanical memory will continue, but will be distinct from the body and narrative practices that help form part of the refutation that language is only a technique. Flesh will no longer ground subjectivity or memory, and this, Bukatman suggests, explains contemporary academic anxiety over the body. In making subjectivity digital the body will be all we will have left as individuals. Yet this anxiety is reified by those remaining shards of Enlightenment inheritance that instruct the western mind that the physical body, in all its putrescence (p. 286), betrays the West's hallmark rationality. VR is Exodus rewritten, except that now, to fail in the journey to the promised land is to have failed to submit to the discipline of VR by not having discarded the body. Bukatman's is a clever, risky project. He appears to argue that by fusing with machines, we armor/inoculate ourselves against them. We are making them visible hence accessible to our sensory abilities. Yet the notion of "entering" cyberspace remains fictive and any encouragement that "we" ought to "enter" it demands distinguishing between the possibility of doing so and the necessity of the same, a distinction at the heart of identifying technological determinism at work.

In "entering" cyberspace, one physically looks at a screen, though the imagination may be "elsewhere", as it often has been throughout "history" and in narrative. But this "elsewhere" assumes new urgency given the "spatial crisis" Bukatman identifies as the failure to know "where" to put subjectivity. If we are armored against these technologies, they become akin to Frankensteins, for we also create a distance of denial and forgetting between ourselves and these machines which represent the consequences of our thoughts and actions. Bruce Mazlish has argued that the Frankenstein monster represents technology as evil because disavowed.3 Does this imply that we may assume our thoughts will become evil because they will have become disembodied, and more and more will "live" in images based on the alienating, extending power of the visual sense mechanism - in a kind of cartography of the Christian eye? Potentially, there is a vicious hermeneutic at work that trades on VR's implicit promise of transcendence, for if there is any illusion of transcendence here, it is achieved through technical immanence. Transcendence takes place in the mind of the subject as proposed to it by the machine. But only in one part of this subject - the "algorithmic" part that is armored against the machine by having fused with it. Another part - the body part - remains less connected, thus raising the spectacle of a vicious internal war between the selves. Nothing new here. Nothing, that is, except the potential scale of the internal fracture.

Ken Hillis <> is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the University of Wisconsin. He is researching links between virtual technologies and their impact on dwelling on the earth with an emerging cultural belief/desire that concrete existence might be relocated entirely within a linguistic practice.


1. Paul Smith, Discerning the Subject. (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. xxvii.

2. Neil Smith, "Contours of a Spatialized Politics: Homeless Vehicles and the Production of Geographical Scale", Social Text (33: 1992), pp. 63-64.

3. Bruce Mazlish, "The Fourth Discontinuity", Technology and Culture (8.1: 1967).