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  • “Trapped by the Body”? Telepresence Technologies and Transgendered Performance in Feminist and Lesbian Rewritings of Cyberpunk Fiction

What we have in today’s virtual-reality systems is the confluence of three very powerful enactment capabilities: sensory immersion, remote presence, and tele-operation.

—Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre

In cyberspace the transgendered body is the natural body.

—Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology

Virtual reality, it turned out, was nothing but air guitar writ large.

—Robert J. Sawyer, The Terminal Experiment

Andrew Ross once rather notoriously described the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, originator of the cyberspace metaphor, as “the most fully delineated urban fantasies of white male folklore” [End Page 708] (145). 1 In Ross’s reading, cyberpunk representations of virtual realities and human-computer interfaces do indeed turn out to be “nothing but air guitar writ large,” not only commercialized hype (as Robert Sawyer suggests) but specifically adolescent male commercialized hype. 2

This essay uses Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s recent work on the status of embodiment in virtual systems to account for the existence of a significant number of popular narratives by women writers about virtual reality, despite Ross’s characterization of cyberpunk fiction as inherently masculinist. In particular, Stone’s work helps explain the predominance of themes of gender and sexual performativity or cross-identification in these narratives about cyberspace. I have written elsewhere about the relevance of theories of performativity to narratives of cyborg embodiment, 3 but this essay considers the relevance of those theories to virtual reality computer interfaces and computer simulations, which tend to be represented popularly as technologies of disembodiment. 4 To what extent do theories and practices of subversive mimicry and performativity, such as drag or butch-femme, function as a cultural framework for constructing the meaning of virtual reality and telepresence technologies? 5

I will focus on three examples of narratives that use practices of gender cross-identification to conceptualize cyberspace and virtual reality: Maureen F. McHugh’s short stories, Melissa Scott’s novel Trouble and Her Friends, and Laura Mixon’s novel Glass Houses. I will end by using Caitlin Sullivan and Kate Bornstein’s novel Nearly Roadkill to raise some questions about the dominance of gender and sexual performance in these narratives and about the remarkable absence of popular attention to the way that cyberspace might facilitate modes of racial performance such as passing and blackface. While Stone’s comment that “in cyberspace the transgendered body is the natural body” (180) seems intended primarily to articulate the challenge posed by virtual systems to existing constructions of gender identity, the same statement might also be read as articulating a new set of emergent gender norms. Transgendered bodies and performances do in fact seem to be increasingly naturalized in computer-mediated communication and in popular narratives about it, in ways that transracial bodies and performances are not. 6

Both text-based and graphic virtual interfaces make possible the decoupling of public persona from the physical space of the body. This [End Page 709] detachment certainly lends itself to a traditional Cartesian dualism between mind and body, and therefore can also reproduce the gendered hierarchy that equates masculinity with universal rationality and femininity with embodied particularity. 7 However, this same detachment of public persona from physical location can also have the effect that Judith Butler famously attributes to gay performance styles such as drag or butch-femme—that is, the detachment of public persona from physical body can reveal that sex and gender are not related as cause and effect and that sex and gender do not necessarily exist in a one-to-one expressive relation to one another.

This critique of expressive subjectivity has received less attention than Butler’s arguments about subcultural practices of gender masquerade, but it is that critique which best defines the mutual relevance of virtual reality and theories of performativity. Butler argues, for example, that the categories of the “inner” and the “outer,” upon which expressive subjectivity depends, 8 “constitute a binary distinction that stabilizes and consolidates the coherent subject.” But in situations where “the ‘inner world’ no longer designates a topos, then the internal fixity of the self...

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