Being There: Gothic Violence and Virtuality in Frankenstein, Dracula, and Strange Days
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Being There:
Gothic Violence and Virtuality in Frankenstein, Dracula, and Strange Days

No sooner did that idea cross my imagination, than I became convinced of its truth.

—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

This is not "like t.v., only better." This is life. It's a piece of somebody's life. It's pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. . . . You're there, you're doing it.

Strange Days

For some years now we have regarded the gothic as a particularly embodied genre. Modern gothic, suggests Judith Halberstam, begins when Mary Shelley discovers "fear to be a by-product of embodiment rather than a trick played upon the body by the mind." Beginning with the crudely stitched epidermis of Frankenstein's monster, gothic literature helps turn skin into the nineteenth century's "metonym for the human," refiguring various social crises and identities in increasingly sexual terms.1 Kelly Hurley, too, finds the various estrangements, alienations, and terrors of late nineteenth-century gothic to inhere in a body made newly uncanny by Victorian science.2 For Hurley, fin-de-siècle gothic is particularly notable for its ability to produce visceral reactions in the reader, though in this respect it is the descendant of mid-century "sensation" novels rather than gothic per se. In both Halberstam's and Hurley's readings, the gothic plays out a dialectic of embodiment and dissolution which makes violence the inevitable corollary of corporealization.3 Implicitly linking embodiment to the logic of specularity, these readings point to the perils encountered by bodies caught up in the violent, gendered field of the gaze, subject to the ressentiments reserved for figurations of the human.4 [End Page 975]

But is it embodiment that precipitates violence in the gothic text? What if the drive toward violence in the gothic text were generated not so much by the figure of the human as by the fantasy of transcending mediation (an aspiration designated, at different historical moments, variously as "immanence" or "virtuality"), a fantasy built into the narrative apparatus itself and then displaced onto some rival medium or apparatus? In this essay I will suggest—contra much recent culturally-oriented criticism—that such a double apparatus is constitutive of the gothic genre and generative of the latter's peculiar affinities for violence. I will also argue that the impulse within the gothic to abridge, compress, or transcend its own narrative modality, though represented within the diegesis as the effect of particular scientific technologies, is in the end produced at the level of enunciation: specifically through a constitutive tension between deferral and progressively condensed loops of retrospection.5 Gothic is thus not so much about embodiment as it is about a dangerous desire for transcendence which must be articulated but held at bay. This desire for transcendence is a desire for virtuality—a life without bodies or narrative constraint. And if the threat of violence which presides over this desire can be described culturally in terms of a familiar imperial masculine posture, it is nonetheless generated structurally as an effect of narrative desire.

In attempting to refine current cultural-historicist readings of the relationship between violence and embodiment, I will first revisit some older theoretical models articulating violence with literary form and attempt to elaborate these in relation to two classic gothic texts before turning to a contemporary permutation of the gothic in the emergent subgenre of "virtual reality" narrative. We might begin this re-examination by returning to Eve Sedgwick's observation that gothic narratives have an awful lot of trouble getting their story told. According to Sedgwick's now classic account, in gothic texts "[i]t is the position of the self to be massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access." This alienation is mirrored in gothic's narrative structure, where "the difficulty the story has getting itself told" weighs increasingly on the characters, the trope of "unspeakableness" producing a "barrier" that cannot be breached without "violent" counter-response.6 We may further note that the "difficulty the story has getting itself told" is almost always the result of a character's difficulty in recounting a narrative; the gothic narrative is composed both...