- Artificial Culture: Identity, Technology, and Bodies by Tama Leaver
Artificial Culture is published in Routledge’s Research in Cultural and Media Studies series, which also includes J.P. Telotte’s co-edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation (2011). Leaver is a lecturer in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University in Australia and Artificial Culture is a revised and expanded version of his doctoral thesis. As a decidedly interdisciplinary project, it is a perfect fit for the Routledge series. Given that it is both interesting and useful, it is a shame that its price will probably relegate it to the shelves of academic libraries rather than to the shelves of academic offices. I certainly hope that Routledge will consider bringing out a less expensive edition.
Artificial Culture’s argument is a simple one: ‘our culture at large has become artificial’ (1). ‘Artificial’ is not, for Leaver, simply ‘a marker of the unreal, but [End Page 137] rather … a signifier of unstable boundaries, where easy binary divisions no longer make sense. The artificial blurs the divisions between human subject and technological object, between entertainment and politics, and between good and evil’ (173). The idea of the artificial permeates contemporary culture, in this view, and Leaver deploys it as a way to refresh our understanding of the nature of the world in which we live.
As a discussion that raises some key questions about our techno-lives and that makes good use of (mostly) sf literature and film to support its arguments, Artificial Culture mines much of the same conceptual territory as Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity (1993), Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity (1996), Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk (2005) and Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow (2007), although it refers only to Bukatman and one of the essays incorporated into Foster’s book. Leaver acknowledges Donna Haraway’s early cyborg writing as a key influence, and he also makes good use of N. Katherine Hayles’s work, including, of course, How We Became Posthuman (1999). Artificial Culture is in conversation with these predecessors; it is the product of a distinctly post-cyberpunk sf sensibility deeply interested in the products – both aesthetic and technological – of contemporary popular culture.
For readers familiar with the studies I have just mentioned, Artificial Culture will not contribute much that is theoretically original to the conversation. What it does provide is an intellectually rigorous reminder of how increasingly messy the boundaries have become between the organic and the technological in Western technoculture. While this is by now very familiar news, it does bear repeating. In his introduction, Leaver argues that, while ‘exploring the complex relationships between [sic] nature, culture, humanity, and technology has long been a common theme in many forms of popular culture and especially in what is broadly defined as science fiction’, more recently ‘these questions have shifted from being somewhat novel to completely ubiquitous’ (1). His subsequent chapters are devoted to substantiating this claim under the broad rubrics of ‘intelligence, life, space, people, and culture’ (3).
Artificial Culture opens with a well-organised review of some key questions in the development of artificial intelligence, which Leaver selects as the first of the artificialities to permeate contemporary culture through both science and sf. In a discussion which problematises terms such as ‘intelligence’ and ‘alive’, his review includes an introduction to Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, to Alan Turing’s work on machine intelligence and to Hans Moravec’s ideas about the possibilities of downloading human minds. Leaver also references Hayles’s critique of the reduction of human persons to disembodied patterns of information and concludes with a very pertinent reading of Isaac Asimov’s [End Page 138] foundational sf stories about robotic intelligence (collected in I, Robot (1950)). Although he does not call attention to this, Leaver’s readings demonstrate – yet again – the extent of sf’s participation in the discursive construction of an artificial Western technoculture in which the binary divisions identified by Haraway (organic/artificial, human/technological, male/female, etc.) have...