Material virtualities : Approaching online textual embodiment

University dissertation from Linköping : Linköpings universitet

Abstract: While the Internet is often presented as a disembodied medium, various forms of bodily presence are continually introduced when people meet online. This study explores notions of embodiment in a particular text-based virtual world (here called WaterMOO) by investigating how bodies- always sexually specific- are created and rendered meaningful in online textual practices. What does it mean to be embodied online? What are the conditions of cyber-subjectivity? The argument is situated in thegrowing field of online ethnography, taking as a point of departure two years of online 'fieldwork'. Letting field sessions along with contemporary feminist and queer theory serve as a backdrop, online embodiment turns out to be located in a borderland between typists and textual machine bodies, speaking and writing, physicality and imagination.In contrast to the myth of cyberspace as a disengaged, free universe for transgender performances, textual bodies in WaterMOO are not only unmistakably human, but unmistakably human-gendered. A MOO provides its inhabitants with a fictive world open to play and imagination, but one that is also a networked social space quite different from imaginary worlds of fiction. On the other hand, these social encounters are always textual mediations, clearly drawing on literary conventions andnarrative structures that render them open to comparisons with other literary phenomenon.If initially, online textuality was seen as the ultimate realization of postmodern literary theory, this study incorporates an awareness of how acts of writing and reading are always confronted with the techno-cultural restrictions of the medium. Physical bodies do not only exist as textual figurations in online narratives, but 'the body typing' is itself indispensable to the creation of virtual bodies. The WaterMOO studyshows the need to shift the emphasis in poststructuralist literary theory - away from its engagement with textual 'surfaces' toward a theory of textuality as always materially and sexually engraved. The discussion arrives at an alternative cyberfeminist subject in terms of a she-cyborg. The she-cyborg is a figure of thought, but also a lived reality in various online spaces. She shows how (female) typists and their virtual body doubles are never full separated from each other, but rather infused with feminist politics embedded in collectivities of difference.

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