I changed the theme of the site, though if you’re new here, that means nothing to you. What does matter, though, is what we’re here today to discuss. Namely, Susanna Paasonen’s “Binary Code, Binary Gender… and Things Beyond” and Lieve Gies’s “How material are cyberbodies? Broadband Internet and embodied subjectivity.” Let’s start with Paasonen.
The article is really a chapter from her book Figures of Fantasy: Internet, Women, & Cyberdiscourse. In this chapter, she is talking about identities online (which is what attracted me to this work). She writes early on that “Online characters, particularly when developed over some time, may influence one’s self-perception, and communicating ‘in character’ with others may help in understanding different kinds of social locations,” which suggests that those online identities are real and legitimate. But then she points out that this is only half the story. That “Identities are not only what we decide or desire them to be, but are, to a high degree, also decided for us” (italics in original) and “are inscribed in our bodies, internalized, read, and performed” (235). So while there is something to be said for the identity that we create on our own, Paasonen is telling us that there is also a large part of identity that is not created on our own, but rather is formed around us, for us; identities we are forced into. Part of this identity comes from the body, and from how we imagine ourselves to be (the Matrix’s ‘residual self-image’). But part of it comes also from our upbringing, our surroundings, and the situations we have experienced.
Even though we can leave all that aside online, Paarsonen is saying that we can’t leave it behind. It’s always there, always informing what we say and do, informing who we are. And while we might think of cyberspace as a realm aside from ‘the real,’ as a place where we can abandon the body and take on identities, the truth of the matter is that we can only do it when we consider cyberspace as an ‘elsewhere,’ thereby making the identities formed there somewhat marginalized (237).
It’s a frustrating way to look at things, and Paarsonen knows that. She writes about that frustration, and about how “gender is not something one can simply choose not to follow or believe in, but something by which one’s very sense of the self is conditioned” (238). While my immediate response to this statement is “Why not?”, what Paarsonen is getting at here is that the binary of gender is so deeply ingrained that it takes a lot of effort to get away from it. Our sense of self is conditioned by the binary, and so choosing not to follow or believe in gender is never ‘simple’; it’s a difficult process, one that will take a long time and a lot of work to go through. She’s not saying it’s impossible; just that it’s hard.
She writes that “Cyberspace may promise a convenient ‘way out’ from the context of everyday life and the gender system, but studies of the Internet produced during the pas decade or so should be enough to show that this promise has little ground” (241); a definite challenge. Cyberspace may promise an area free for exploration of identity, but it has yet to deliver that promise. Maybe we’ll never be able to cash that promise in; maybe we will. It’s difficult to say. It comes down to a question of embodiment online, which conveniently takes us to Gies’s article.
So we ask Gies if there is embodiment online. And he says that we’ve been looking at it wrong. Specifically, he says that “the characterization of the Internet as inherently disembodied may no longer be valid. It may have been true in the pre-broadband phase when the Internet was a predominantly text-based medium that ruled out reliance on the customary cues which accompany face to face interaction,” instead, we need to understand that “The material body, in other words, is acutely relevant to our understanding of the Internet” and that “constructing the Internet as a virtual – and therefore less real – realm means neglecting the material context in which technology operates” (313). The body matters, it effects our online identity as Paarsonen said. We need to remember that there is a material context involved. Is Gies suggesting that the world of the Internet is JUST AS real as the ‘real’ world? It seems that way, but I don’t want to say definitely either way.
After all, Gies suggests that communication online allows for a lot of space for manipulation. He writes that “Internet users in judging each other’s trustworthiness depend entirely on how others choose to present themselves in written exchanges. Thus, the potential for identity manipulation – the ability to be anyone we want on the Internet – is entwined with the capacity for disembodiment: users are no longer held back by the material body but can instead live out any bodily fantasy” (314). This seems to be in conflict with what was said earlier. But I think it follows pretty well. The more disembodiment available online, the greater our capacity for it, the more free we are to develop our own identities, our own embodiments, so that we can live out whatever identity fantasy we wish.
This is helped by the lack of reality online. If someone sends you a picture, there is no way to be sure it is of them. Descriptions, icons, avatars; all these things can be constructed towards whatever goal a person might have, allow for whatever embodiment they wish to present. This is true of any mode of communication that is not physically face to face (315).
That’s not to say that this kind of deception should be seen in a negative light. Gies writes that “Adopting multiple identities, for example, may be a way for users to get to know their ‘true’ selves by experimenting with different personae” (318). People who take on another identity online aren’t doing to to be deceptive, but rather to explore themselves.
But it’s not perfect; we can’t ignore the body altogether. Gies tells us that “The body is always present in the way in which we speak. It is, in other words, discursively constructed, which means that even in text-based communications, it cannot be bracketed off entirely (318). The way we talk presents a form of body. If it is true that men and women speak in different ways, or that one ethnic group talks one way while other groups talk another, then the way someone communicates will present at least the shadow of a body, given enough discourse.
So the body plays a big role in online identity. We can actively work to leave the body behind, or to construct a false ‘body’ through our actions and communication style. But we should remember that “the virtual body cannot be dissociated from the material body. Crafting a solution which envisages that the cyber will entirely subsume the material comes up against the problem that at some point the computer user disengages from the cyber to return to the world of bodily needs and desires” (324). In other words, we can’t ever leave the body entirely behind. Sooner or later, we have to return to our ‘meat’ (as Gibson calls it) and deal with things like bodily functions, food, and sleep.
The Internet DOES extend the boundaries of the body, though. Online, there aren’t stable markers of who we are (like, say, the body in face-to-face communication). Gies writes that “The anonymity facilitated by the absence of stable identity-makers is capable of engendering an intimacy and closeness between strangers as powerful (or even more powerful, some would say) as tactile contact in the offline world,” suggesting that there’s a lot to be said for the examination of cyber-embodiment; it’s difficult to play with identities even online because “Those who go online for identity play may soon find themselves hemmed in by the expectation that they should commit to a particular embodied identity as a watermark of their honesty and integrity” (326). So even if we DO leave our actual bodies behind, we are encouraged to take on some other body, and a stable one at that. The identities online tend to move towards embodiment, mostly through social pressure; but the cyber-embodiment need not match the real embodiment.
Bodies are important online, then. But it seems like they don’t have to be real.