Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present

“The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (149). So Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 in “A Cyborg Manifesto.” When I composed a call for papers around this evocative line, I hoped to solicit work that would address the continuities and the transformations between the chimeric time of Haraway’s 1980s and our own uneven present, more than 20 years on. The response was successful beyond my wildest hopes. Feminist science fiction, in the collective analysis of the writers gathered here, proves to be a diverse and amorphous category in which real and imagined science and technology bleed into one another. The essays call attention to the ways in which fictions and realities of scientific speculation shape how we experience the nexus of gender, new media, and technology––from the gendered history of physics to the migration of brain-scanning technology out of laboratories and into the world, from imagined visions of reproductive technologies to sentient robots to the social consequences of cataclysmic change in urban landscapes.

Samuel R. Delany wrote in 1984 that science fiction is not about the future, but is rather a “significant distortion of the present” (177). In a world where not only technologies and their marketing but also social and political discourse draw continually from popular culture’s science fictions, this insight has grown ever more important. How do science fictions distort our perceptions of what is real and what is possible––and how should we mediate those distortions? Which should we critique and which should we embrace? If our times are science fictional, then the feminisms they demand must be technological and ripe for speculation. Joan Haran and Katie King’s essay calls for “science fiction feminisms” as well as “feminist science fictions” and “feminist sustainability”: this issue showcases the diversity of meanings contained in all three of these phrases.

The essays in this issue take us from the past, through Clarissa Lee’s reconsideration of the work of mid-20th-century physicists Emmy Noether and Maria Goeppert Mayer and Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s engagement with the race and class politics of New York City gentrification as refracted through art and fiction, to a wide variety of speculative futures. Many of them take us to the cyborg, yet they do not simply repeat Haraway’s influential figure. For Jilly Dreadful, the cyborg is one among a range of literary tropes that expands into a mode of storytelling; for Deanna Day, the cyborg should be left behind in favor of the critical lens of the zombie. Haraway herself, who is represented by a reprinting of her acceptance speech for the Science Fiction Research Association’s 2011 Pilgrim Award, shows the range of tropes that science fictions make available in addition to the cyborg. The cyborg is a figure who can obscure as well as reveal the importance of feminist analysis: Paula Gardner and Britt Wray show the ways in which gendered cyborg imagery hides the scientific reality of EEG devices’ consumer usefulness in favor of making things ‘cool,’ while Barr’s essay describes a science fiction world in which cyborgifying people become less human than inorganic yet affectively conscious robots. In the cover image, commissioned from renowned feminist science fiction illustrator Jeanne Gomoll, we see reality and fiction commingled: a cyborg figure slips out of the worlds of imagination, occupied by the persons and the dreams of the writers discussed in the issue, and makes her mark in a universe both new and familiar. Describing the image, Gomoll writes that the cyborg “is an element of an author’s imagination, emerging into a fictional landscape on which the symbols from several novels are inscribed on the walls and a mythical beast threatens her next step and another galaxy is around the corner” (personal communication). Science fiction is a world of imagination, but it is also just around the corner, always and almost already here.


Each contribution to this issue will be read and shared separately, garnering its own traffic and developing its own path thanks to Ada’s commitment to open access scholarship. Nevertheless, to read them in order is to follow a path that may bring its own insights and pleasures. We begin with Moya Bailey’s audio interview with Adrienne Maree Brown, “Shaping God: The Power of Octavia Butler’s Black Feminist and Womanist SciFi Visions in the Shaping of a New World.” Providing an introduction to science fiction’s importance as a way for activists and theorists to collectively focus their speculative political imaginaries, the interview is placed so that you might listen while you contemplate the rest of the issue (a written transcript is also available). Then Haran and King provide a speculative framework for the issue, and indeed for the work of Ada, Fembot, and its members as a whole, in their exploration of “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions and Feminist Sustainability.” Explicitly placing their work as part of the project in collaborative knowledge production that Ada undertakes, Haran and King foreground difference and dissent within their own collaboration even as they lay out, with grace and coherence, exactly why the nexus of science and fiction is a zone to which all feminists ought now to be paying attention.

After these two lead pieces, we enter a cluster of works focusing on speculative depictions of reproduction and futurity. In “Somatic Capitalism: Reproduction, Futurity, and Feminist Science Fiction,” Rebekah Sheldon works with Margaret Atwood’s 1986 and 2003 science fictions to theorize the importance of gendered, reproductive bodies to the emergence of what she calls “‘somatic capitalism’––the intervention into and monetization of life-itself.” The mechanics of biological reproduction are more directly engaged in Lucy Baker’s “A Curious Doubled Existence: Birth Here and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga,” which analyzes a series popular among fans but rarely engaged by academics. Bujold’s work allows Baker to highlight the way that less-than-ostensibly-feminist science fiction can illustrate the significance of technology to everyday social decisions about domestic labor and personal autonomy. Offering a more negative take on science fictions of reproduction, Deanna Day’s “Toward a Zombie Epistemology: What it Means to Live and Die in Cabin in the Woods draws from queer theorists’ critiques of the normative futures demanded by reproductive discourse in order to celebrate popular culture’s production of alternatives, which she reads in the zombie apocalyptics heralded by Joss Whedon’s 2012 film.

Feminist critiques of transhumanist and singularity ideologies make up the next small cluster. Gardner and Wray engage the science fictions of the present in the form of discourses that surround technologies that look like they belong in a sci-fi movie but are in fact real: EEG devices that measure brainwaves and are marketed to consumers as means to control household technology and understand the brain. “From Lab to Living Room: Transhumanist Imaginaries of Consumer Brain Wave Monitors” argues that the discourses surrounding such devices work more to obscure than to encourage neurological understanding. In a related critique of the transhuman whose focus is squarely on the fiction in science fiction, Marleen Barr’s “Creating Room For A Singularity of Our Own: Reading Sue Lange’s We, Robots” brings Lange’s imaginary egg-shaped robot into the context of the speculative fictions of transhumanism and the singularity that are claimed as real by the likes of Ray Kurzweil.

We then move to a cluster of essays in which fictional speculation appears not only in content but also on the level of form. Clarissa Lee’s “Emmy Noether, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and their Cyborgian Counterparts: Triangulating Mathematical-Theoretical Physics, Feminist Science Studies, and Feminist Science Fiction” takes advantage of the affordances of online publication to give readers a chance to choose their path through a groundbreaking essay whose creative innovations reward close and thoughtful reading. Lee merges a feminist theory of mathematical physics, biographies of two influential and underappreciated women physicists, and an exploration of her own decision to make the creation of science fiction part of her process as a critic and theorist into an extended analysis that can be read linearly or in modular sections as each appeals to the individual reader.

Lee’s work is followed by another piece that demands and rewards intense readerly engagement: Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s “Queer Urban Composites: Any City or ‘Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany).’” The “composite” of the title also describes the writing’s palimpsest-like form, in which an argument builds gradually through visual examples and densely nuanced analyses. Bianco works with the convergence of science fiction and new media art in Ann Lislegaard’s installation “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” to argue that we should think of art not only as something to be explored in theory but as a way of doing “nondiscursive critique.” Her speculative call is taken up in the two pieces that follow, in which Jilly Dreadful and Antoinette LaFarge and Annie Loui depict and explain their feminist science fiction new media art. Dreadful’s “The Cyborg in the Basement Manifesto, or, A Frankenstein of One’s Own: How I Stopped Hunting for Cyborgs and Created the Slightly Irregular Definition of Cyborgean Forms of Storytelling” and LaFarge and Loui’s “Excerpts from Reading Frankenstein: Mary Shelley As 21st Century Artificial Life Scientist” need least introduction, as each explains the conditions of its own creation within the text. Both bring the literary and cultural canon of feminist science fiction into the context of contemporary new media art and performance, merging the often-incommensurate worlds of critique and creation, theory and practice.

The issue closes with a return to Donna Haraway, allusions to whose work spiral through every contribution. In a format fitting to the collaborative focus of Fembot and Ada, I invited Roxanne Samer, Alexandrina Agloro, and Laurie Carlson to review Margret Grebowicz and Helen Merrick’s new book on Haraway, and their conversation is transcribed in their Beyond the Cyborg Collective Book Review.” Their review includes a bibliography of additional sources relevant to Haraway’s work, especially in the field of women of color feminism.

Finally, Haraway’s 2011 speech brings us home to the convergence of science fiction and social reality in which we live every day. Her  “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far” uses weaving as a metaphor to dance us through the nexus of feminism, technology, and media. In Haraway’s speech and in each of the new works published here, we have new threads for the already rich and complex fabric of science fiction feminisms’ exploration of gender, media, and technology.


The essays in this issue have passed through two rounds of intensive review, their authors strengthening their work with extensive revisions, in a time scale far shorter than the years it can often take for scholarship to move from submission to publication. We have the Fembot collective’s own contribution to the futures of feminist science fiction social realities to thank for this intellectual generosity and high-speed rigor. This was the second issue of Ada to follow a collective, open review process whose details are still being hammered out. (Bailey’s audio interview, Samer, Agloro and Carlson’s conversational review, and Haraway’s republished speech passed through only one round of editorial review.) As always in any editorial process and in any feminist collective, there were moments of conflict and anxiety, but the experience of working with each author and with the collective reviewers who gave their time has been amazingly rewarding. Academic life often feels competitive and lonely, but Fembot feels more like feminist science fiction fandom––intellectual labor built on love and shared excitement.

Thanks beyond measure are due to the reviewers who stepped up to participate in this collective process: Aimee Bahng, Kristina Busse, Gerry Canavan, Anne Cong-Huyen, Karen Estlund, Conseula Francis, Alice Gambrell, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Horbinski, Nina Huntemann, Chera Kee, Regina Yung Lee, Margherita Long, Rebecca Onion, Kathleen O’Riordan, Amanda Phillips, Suzanne Scott, Shelley Streeby, and Sherryl Vint. In addition to reviewing, Carol Stabile and Radhika Gajjala provided tireless editorial support and many hours of copyediting, while the behind-the-scenes work of Bryce Peake and Karen Estlund makes Fembot and Ada possible. My personal thanks are also due to Kathryn Wagner for support through the editing process, to the students in my science fiction, queer theory, literature and technology, and cultural studies classes at IUP for constantly reminding me of the various contexts in which this work matters, and to the online and convention-based feminist science fiction fan world in which I live and to which I hope this issue will make a meaningful contribution.


  1. Delany, Samuel R. “The Necessity of Tomorrows.” Starboard Wine. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984. 23-36. Print.
  2. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” 1985. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991. 149-181. Print.

Lothian, A. (2013) Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3doi:10.7264/N3FQ9TJR

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“Shaping God”: The Power of Octavia Butler’s Black Feminist and Womanist SciFi Visions in the Shaping of a New world – An Interview with Adrienne Maree Brown


Audio transcript available here

“God is Change.” These are the captivating introductory words to the Earthseed sacred text, The Book of the Living. Bourne of the prophetic mind of Octavia Butler, this lasting truth is but one example of the visionary themes that populate her narratives. The works of science fiction writer Octavia Butler have long been gateway texts for feminists and womanists of color curious about the genre. For Adrienne Maree Brown, Octavia Butler’s work is more than just an interesting read: it’s an opportunity to think critically about what tools and skills we need as human beings to create the world we want. Emboldened by her own love of Butler’s work, Brown has been pulling people towards each other with the words of Butler in gatherings that mirror many of the important themes that course through the texts.

Brown is a patternmaster. She brings communities together through the thread of Octavia Butler’s writing in collaborative sessions that emerge around the curated content of her Octavia Butler Strategic Reader. On June 19, 2010, Brown facilitated the first session that created the reader at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. The crowdsourced document included the questions and musings of nearly one hundred Octavia enthusiasts. Edited by Brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, it was made available online for free to anyone interested in working with the texts.

Part of the symposium description read: “From faith to facilitation, interpersonal relationships to trans-local networks, survival of the body versus survival of values and spirit and culture, and above all, communication, Butler foresaw the patterns we are currently participating in and offered guidance for how to navigate them with integrity.” I had the pleasure of being in the room as Brown expertly facilitated the group to bring forth our collective wisdom surrounding Butler’s work. She set up the space by explaining her deep connection to Butler through the identification of major themes from selected texts. The crowd broke apart into groups where we discussed different books and generated questions for the reader. We also participated in a fishbowl discussion, where different people came in and out of the conversation as the group listened.

Brown shaped the conversation to reflect the Butlerian, feminist, and womanist principle of collectivity. She helped hold the space, but required the active participation of all the people in the room. We created a non-hierarchal, interdependent community as we experienced multiple forms of knowledge creation and expansion. These themes in particular come through in the following interview.

The Reader has grown from these crowdsourced questions into emergent strategy sessions that Brown facilitates across the country, as well as the forthcoming anthology that includes movement leaders thinking through the issues of our world by writing their own science fiction. The crowdsourcing model is utilized again as Brown and co-editor Walidah Imarisha used Indiegogo to raise nearly twice the amount needed to fund the publication of the anthology.

When I heard about the Ada special issue I reached out to Brown immediately because her projects show the real world possibilities that prolonged engagement with Feminist Science Fiction can generate. In the following interview conducted through the digital co-mingling of our voices via Google Hangout, Brown and I cover a lot of ground. Please see the list of questions below.

Who are you and how did you find out about Octavia Butler?
Do you see Octavia Butler using Science Fiction to deal with the “messiness” of human beings?
What makes her work feminist? What do you think about the issues of consent her work raises?
What lessons have you learned from Octavia?
What was Octavia’s Brood? How did that project begin?
What has Octavia taught you?
What do you think about how technology is discussed in her work?
How did you decide to make the reader? What made you want to create a collaborative process with this work?
How did you become such an excellent facilitator?
I’ve read and seen you talk about how Octavia’s work asks you to redefining “strategy.” You mention moving toward a model of emergent strategy as her characters do via their relationships, being present, and communication. How do we build these strategies?
What does embodied organizing feel like? How do we think about ableism and class as it relates to embodied organizing?
How does your food and education justice work fit into your conceptualizing of the Reader and the world we want?
What do you want for folks who engage the Reader?
What do you want for the legacy of Octavia and your work in the world?

Bailey, M. (2013) “Shaping God”: The Power of Octavia Butler’s Black Feminist and Womanist SciFi Visions in the Shaping of a New world – An Interview with Adrienne Maree Brown. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N34F1NNF

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Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability


The hospitality of Ada and Ada’s audiences is necessary to this essay. We offer our scholarly play among trans-spatial and trans-temporal webs and platforms as a practice of anticipation and even a quite serious fun that values not-quite-being-yet in sync, writing wise or conclusion wise. We quite like this demonstration of a collaboration that is not yet in consensus. It is a practice we value together, an honorable dance of and between science fiction feminisms and feminist science fictions. Indeed, differential contexts motivate us here and we deliberately draw attention to our process because we believe that the work of crafting and communicating shared visions is properly foregrounded, as must be the inevitability of its––at least partial––failure. And maybe pleasure. We are interested in acts of imagination not mystification, although we acknowledge that knowing the difference may not be easy. Collaborating across syntax and writing styles, continents, time zones and academic generations, even modes of employment, we entered into it all willingly because of the potential we both saw for a transformative encounter. Our differential inhabitations of an only partially and occasionally co-incident time-space continuum shape both how we continue to work together as well as what we have to say, with and to each other. Collaboration is a risky enough business at the best of times, and in this one we found out that we could not even really fully articulate the different demands that drove us to work together and apart. Thinking and writing in different registers and with divergent case studies, our mutual entanglement in a productive web of texts, contexts and communities sometimes threatens to exclude each other’s imagined readers. This means we depend on actual readers to take part in a cat’s cradle game with us now: one that Donna Haraway introduces and variously identifies with science studies, science fiction and speculative fabulation, one in which we all together play at “passing patterns back and forth, giving and receiving, patterning, holding the unasked-for pattern in one’s hands.” (Haraway 2013 [2011], n.p.).

Feminists Seeking (Academic) Sustainability

SF brings us, the authors, together. SF is multiply––and that is the point––science fiction, scientifiction, science communication and fabulation, speculative fictions, speculative feminisms. SF is also texts, contexts, histories and communities – variously contested and in coalition. SF brings us, the authors, literally together at, say, academic conferences where we finally meet face-to-face, and literally provides us work, on one hand at an interdisciplinary social science research centre (Cesagen, Cardiff University, UK), funded to explore emergent technoscience; on the other, say, a course just taught in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. As our common take off point for intervention in a present moment of academic restructuring, that air we both breathe and the condition of our continuing; and as feminists seeking worldly sustainabilities in addition to these academic ones––we argue here how SF world-making reference points matter. SF is what drew us together to consider lively materialisms that matter now.

As already suggested, ‘now’ is not necessarily a shared experience, as we are materially embodied on different continents. We are subject to different local political economies, however transnational we might imagine our shared projects to be. What logics, materialities, and imaginations of temporality work for such sustainability? What habits of mind and body, cognition and affect, might we cultivate to shape our work, maybe to resist despair, as we or others around us fearfully or even boldly anticipate restructuring’s results or engage its processes? What multiple projects of knowledge making or worlding are even our very companions? (Haraway 2013 [2011]) Temporalities amid different ranges and sensations of urgency require inspection of how future-oriented discourses and practices operate. The work at Cesagen, for example:––sharing with various publics just what it is that genomics does, is about, and might be, the economic and social factors that shape it;––is preoccupied with teasing out the ways in which the promissory logics of contemporary science communication function to “disappear” kinds of labor, resources and contingencies that, materially speaking, make up those very differences between now and our imagined Futures. An elision of what needs to happen to make now “then”––or then “now”––may even motivate us to do that necessary labor, find those resources, negotiate those contingencies, each in pursuit of ends we desire, even while such an elision is sometimes also likely to strangely crowd out much needed room to maneuver among seeming determinations.

What sorts of clarities of communication and practice are possible and necessary? What sorts of clarity are spurious, misleading, perhaps even deadly? What “double binds” might be said to condition our very practices of transdisciplinary articulation across worlds rapidly diverging amid communication technologies only nominally under “authorial” control? (Warner 2003; King 2011b) These all condition some experiments we take up in this essay, for it matters just how we pay attention to the ways The Future is Now. (Kirby 2010) We are interested in reading in and out of context, and in shifting understandings of how we understand our own context or that of the texts and stories we exchange and circulate. We offer no hard and fast conclusions, but there are many openings to share. We ask of you a willingness to participate in a series of demonstrations, sometimes deferring details, sometimes hunting and gathering beyond this text, modeling a sometimes necessary and emergent readerly practice here, an element in what nowadays is referred to as “transmedia storytelling.” This is a materiality embedded among a range of media ecologies. Transmedia storytelling across platforms and registers also works across spacetimes to actualize these very ecologies as their own stories. Such emergent technoscientific imaginaries of this habitable moment are only partially able to be articulated (connected and communicated) because they are themselves crucial aspects of how now is understood to be and indeed does come to be “into-being” (Haran 2010a; King 2011a; Haran, McNeil, Kitzinger, O’Riordan 2008; Jenkins 2006; Kirby 2011). Demonstrations are sometimes the best one can share in the middle of everything as it happens. The spacetimes we open up to, in the next section, emerge out of materialities of communicative practice through which we experience what we are living now as those very futures once anticipated. However, it is instructive to compare contemporary highly capitalized forms of transmedia storytelling with those that emerge from intersections of fan communities, academic communities and activist communities, both in our contemporary moment (if there is such a thing) using ‘new media’ platforms and at earlier historical junctures when mimeographed fanzines, APAs and fanfiction circulated nationally and internationally. (APAs are amateur press associations of fans who put out apazines, their own magazines of loving intellectual and creative work.)

Trans knowledges turn out to be vibrant matter here as well: transnational, transgenic, transgender, transdisciplinary, transmedia (Bennett 2010; Kier 2010). Such materialities expand those various senses––meanings, sensations, and affects––in and through which our actions as this present will entail futures, some with perhaps irrevocable consequences, however uncertain or predictable, or, for that matter, alterable. (Think of global climate change as one vivid example.) Then, add to all that the proper “senses” in which global academic and other economic restructurings disrupt and are themselves disrupted by these uneven spacetimes. Our version of “sustainability” here attempts to work itself out among and as these, and we share what we know (which is not always enough) of trans markings, that is to say, knowledge productions across academies, nations, disciplines, media, knowledge work sectors, commercialities, temporalities. We deliberately offer our en-trans-ing examples as those that can never instantiate some essential truth about what is happening: either as an object of critique or as a moment of breakthrough. That which is wrong about something is thankfully not all that it is. Nor is it any conclusion…. Let us begin, then, abruptly.

The Future is Now

Superbly handled 15-minute opening sequence grabs the viewer by the lapels while dexterously illustrating the premise’s central notion of preventing crime by foreseeing it. By analyzing imagery culled from three psychic “Pre-Cogs,” Pre-Crime unit chief John Anderton (Cruise) is able to piece together enough evidence about a suburban crime of passion in the offing that he and his team arrive in time to stop a jealous husband from stabbing his wife and her lover…. Standing before clear panels in his glassed-in control room, Anderton resembles a master orchestra conductor as he vigorously summons images from his Pre-Cogs, wipes them away, reframes them, advances and rewinds the action, requests new angles––anything to pick up clues as to location, identities and sequence of events…. D.C. has been murder-free for six years. On the basis of this unblemished success record, and the belief that the system is infallible, a vote is pending to take Pre-Crime national. Todd McCarthy’s review of Minority Report (Variety, 2002)

This now iconic opening sequence from Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, as well as a variety of transatlantic scholarly analyses since of so-called “premediation,” are touchstones engaging an altering sensorium for such “anticipation work.” (McCarthy 2002; Spielberg 2002; Grusin 2010; Awan, Hoskins, O’Loughlin 2009; Adams, Murphy, Clarke 2009)  In the UK-based international, transdisciplinary journal, Subjectivity, Canadian and US medical anthropology, history and women’s studies, and sociology and science studies scholars Vincanne Adams, Michele Murphy and Adele Clarke respectively point out that “Anticipation is the palpable effect of the speculative future on the present” (2009, 247).  “Crucially, the future increasingly not only defines the present but also creates material trajectories of life that unfold as anticipated by those speculative processes. Anticipation is rapidly reconfiguring technoscientific and biomedical practices as a totalizing orientation” (248). Note the transdisciplinary transmedia engaged here in their spacetimes: a 2002 Hollywood film from a 1956 cult SF story, reviewed in a trade magazine often popularized, with YouTube trailers and bits online in some now––increasingly used as a figure for, even having materially motivated, a range of transnational academic publications and knowledge projects, some deliberately locating themselves in relation to practices set into motion with 9/11. These can be understood as all about as well as demonstrations of so-called anticipation work, or “premediation.” Within an SF transmedia ecology, they both show and tell. We wonder, however, whether Adams et al are science fiction readers. As sf readers––indeed fans––ourselves, we read ‘anticipation work’ as a much more contested process, and suggest that even totalizing orientations might function to alienate and provoke resistance rather than to enroll consent.

Indeed, across all these ecologies and temporalities, it is popular entertainment channels that circulate many current technoscientific imaginaries and more effectively than do sober channels of science communication or research policy agenda-setting. Often it is cross-channel trafficking or transing that is significant, together with their “locals” and “globals.” Adding to such spacetime continua, William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a compelling exploration of the ways in which the ghosts of science fiction (past) futures might be said also and simultaneously to haunt these, our technoscientific presents. We might even say that a scholarly focus on premediation is an effect of those now past once-futures, as they offer up to us a future-anticipated present, one that may even misrecognize or only partially recognize some of its own spacetimes. (Gibson 2003 [1986]; Haran, et al. forthcoming)

US feminist and sometime SF author Marge Piercy writes about her commitment to political fiction when she speaks of being “Active in Time and History” (1989). We would suggest that attention to historiography is as crucial as attention to anticipation work for our own activity in the present. We must continue to narrate the social and economic histories of science(s) in dialogue with our utopian and dystopian technoscientific futures. Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” claims that “The political struggle is to see from both sides at once” (1991 [1985], 154) raising questions about just how we might practice this looking in both directions at once: perhaps how roads not travelled might have been even less enchanting than those we now experience; or perhaps remembering the paths that have been willfully forgotten. Feminist science fiction writer, Ellen Klages (2006, 2008), turned to writing historical fiction for children to explore the non-heroic aspects of national investments in science, educating young people and reminding their elders who read along about how the nuclear arms race was initiated and how the US space program was indebted to laborers enslaved by the Nazis. Imaginative shuttling back and forth in time, as well as across national and disciplinary borders, labors well to craft those “modest interventions” among spacetimes that US feminist theorist of technoscience Haraway (and anthropologist Deborah Heath) inspire us to work out and among (Heath 1995, 1998, forthcoming; Haraway 1996, 1997).

Inspecting and evaluating “totalization” itself as a narrative, as a time claim (Weston 2002), as an environment (or several environments), as an ethical urgency, as a horizon on or for or without hope, matters here. How might other tenses be shifted too, to feel out such “totalizing orientation,” as noted by Adams, Murphy, Clarke, as full of many agencies, if not agencies in control? Which embodiments and cognitions refuse to conflate “agency” with “control”? Indeed, despite all the imaginative or anticipatory work that might have seemed to call such into being, paying attention to hauntings makes sensible once-totalizing futures that have not come to pass. Gibson’s imaginative historical contingencies trump our hopeful or hopeless investments in even partial determinisms, technological or sociological. Critical work in feminist science fiction and utopian studies has demonstrated how imagining “otherwise” is vital, that is to say, lively, no matter how many ways we feel pressed to accept some “Future is Now.” You see, SF teaches us how spacetime continua may and may not be reversible, envelope differently in various realities, and offer relative and relational points of view that are more and less determinative, multiple, and sensitive to what appear to be horizons of possibility. Since a range of technoscientific and transmedia apparatus shape some of these effects and affects, we want to highlight their transnational, transdisciplinary, and transmedia valences.

Former US molecular geneticist and current historian of science communication at the University of Manchester, David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood (2011) and “The Future is Now” (2010) go into considerable detail demonstrating how film and television enactments increasingly come to work as “diegetic prototypes” in a distributed practice of research and development. He describes how the film Minority Report can be understood as just such an R&D space for prototyping computer engineer John Underkoffler’s gestural interface technologies, even as he served as the film’s science consultant:

Minority Report was a golden opportunity for John Underkoffler to demonstrate to the public, and potential funders, that not only would his gestural interface technology work, but also that the technology would appear as if it were ‘natural’ and intuitive for users. The important factor was that Underkoffler conscientiously treated this cinematic representation as an actual prototype. ‘We worked so hard to make the gestural interface in the film real. I really did approach the project as if it were an R&D [research and development] thing.’ (50) …These approaches led to the funds he needed to start the company Oblong Industries and to turn his diegetic prototype into a physical prototype. This real world prototype in turn led to a development contract with defense giant Raytheon to produce gestural interface technology for the US military. (53) …After Minority Report Underkoffler and Production Designer Alex McDowell helped to form an organization called MATTER Art and Science, whose objective is to transfer the creative methods of cinema into scientific and engineering work. For MATTER Art and Science every potential technology should be treated as a diegetic prototype. This allows them to map out the social, political, economic and practical possibilities of a technology before it is even considered for development. (65)

If “The Future is Now” we might wonder what room for maneuverings around and about current restructurings do speculative feminisms or SF feminisms even have, pastpresentfuture-wise? David Kirby’s coinage of the term “diegetic prototypes” for an account of many striking transdisciplinary, transmedia collaborations could be read carelessly or anxiously as describing a world in which Hollywood determines our future, where premediation names the temporal trajectory, and where anticipation work captivates a neoliberal present. But sensitize ourselves to en-trans-ing spacetimes, and situate diegetic prototypes among additional processes and distributed infrastructures––including the science fictions that might be read as what Tom Moylan (1986) calls ‘critical  utopias’––and the term may name tools useful for science fiction feminisms finding maneuvering room. What kinds of innovations are these? And what are their circumstances of play?[1]

In her new book, Networked Reenactments (2011), Katie King tracks some of the same sorts of prototyping practices, or––as she analyzes them with their distributed infrastructures––“reenactments,” with an eye to how knowledge work and the entertainment and culture industries mutually restructured in the nineties and after. King examines some forms of such “innovation”––on its non-voluntary edge––together with a critique of neoliberal pressures, and as a double bind necessity to alter, change, offer something new. She looks to the circumstance of what British and transatlantic anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson called “double binds”––abusive and creative––for a double-edged understanding of those circumstances SF feminisms survive, and as among the reasons to claim those processes Haran takes up in the next section. Bateson analyzed “transcontexual tangles”––the collision of moments seemingly “the same,” yet strangely disjunct because simultaneously occupying different contexts unremarked upon or not understood as such––as sometimes confusions, ranging from the disorienting to the disabling, and also, but only now and then, gifts that shape the inspired, the manic, the innovating (Bateson 1972b [1969]; King 2011).

King describes how Bateson’s work on learning, and play itself, inspires such artists, game designers, and “intellectual entrepreneurs” as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This term intellectual entrepreneur is intended to shadow those double bind circumstances requiring so-called innovation that transnational knowledge workers, since the nineties, live within, with their uneven, sometimes abusive effects. But it is also intended to honor how creatively we practice our survival of these, to care about and for what we make and what we are becoming…. Bateson’s work on learning and play is not only a touchstone for King, but indeed has inspired artists and game designers, people like Salen and Zimmerman. For example, in their US game design textbook Rules of Play (2004), Salen and Zimmerman rely on Bateson to analyze the double consciousness in which play allows selves to keep track of as well as inhabit more than one reality simultaneously. Salen’s Quest to Learn, a NYC school sponsored by the US MacArthur Foundation, explores how a neurologically-informed gamer savvy might alter the ways we practice learning and teaching. (MacArthur Foundation 2010; McGonigal 2011) And Eric Zimmerman’s project Drift takes advantage of multiuse architecture as a game element in “a proposal for a building in the form of a game, the result of a collaboration with architects Clara Klein and Nathalie Pozzi… for an architectural competition called Sukkah City, which challenged entrants to design a version of the traditional Jewish structure called Sukkah…. Our proposal centered on a game that was to be played by two or more participants within [a game environment simultaneously a Sukkah, a desert, and a building].” (Zimmerman, Klein, Pozzi 2010) Such trans-sectoral play with simultaneous realities is one feature in what counts as innovation today.

Anticipation work, as described by Adams, Murphy, and Clarke, attempts to grapple with all these possibilities as speculative predictions that pressure the present with totalizing structures of feeling, explorations of risk, damage. Bateson explored these “transcontextual tangles” in the fifties and sixties by working with schizophrenics, artists, meditators, ethologists, veterans and the Veterans Administration, students, and New Age entrepreneurs. Transcontextual tangles are rarely benign: those he analyzed as abusive double binds range in severity from the disorienting to the psychotic (Bateson 1972a [1954]; 1972b [1969]). But transcontextual tangles are involved too in these surprising combinations of transmedia, transdiscipinary, trans-sectoral practices involved in many sorts of “play”––and, for each one, transfer across contexts, architectures, and platforms is crucial in their design, use, demonstration, and collaborative generations. But these are not outside of double bind circumstances. What sensitivities of feeling, thinking, sharing do such objects among entities involve? To examine so-called innovation as many double bind processes that take place in often quite abusive circumstances is not to minimize their damage, but to survive it. (Bateson 1972b [1969]; King 2011) King’s book is sometimes a critique, sometimes an exploration of how global economic restructurings and distributed practices, their affects and effects, are altering who we are becoming….

For some, SF is a shuttling back and forth not just across temporalities but also across justices, utopian or dystopian, and damages, psychic and collective. In this next section Haran reweaves what counts as utopian in order to open up intra-psychic processes as collective forms of recognition and survival.


In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway argues powerfully for an infidel heteroglossia rather than a common language and explores science fictions that she sees as exemplary of this heteroglossia. She is critical of feminist texts that constitute explanations as totalities rather than as partial. Whilst we acknowledge that totalizing explanations are highly problematic, we also want to stress the responsibility of the reader to question seamless narratives and / or to bricolage less partial accounts by reading explanations in conversation with each other. We would argue that science fiction––and feminist science fiction in particular––models this conversation between explanations, and as such can sensitize its readers to the process of testing explanations against each other. It can also be read productively in conversation with feminist theory produced in multiple disciplines to think and feel our way towards what we might call an ethicopolitics. For example, entangling the psychoanalysis of Jessica Benjamin, the philosophies of Judith Butler, and the film theory of Vivian Sobchack with the narrative fiction of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing allows us to intertwine intersubjectivity, its ethics and ambiguities, with interobjectivity, across beings and things, intrapsychically and among transmedia and transnational feminisms (Haran 2003, 2010; Benjamin 1995, 1998; Butler 2006; Sobchack 2004). SF allows for thinking and feeling into and through questions of what might be desirable feminist transformations better than theory, or perhaps better than theory alone. (Haran explains: I am conscious that I risk setting up ‘Theory’ as a straw figure, here.  Feminists have long theorized creatively and disruptively, and ‘theory’ has been a highly contested term within feminism so understanding the term as indexing some monolithic discourse is problematic (cf Butler and Scott 1992).. Nonetheless, I wish to claim a distinctive mode for SF). All this invites another sort of entanglement and identification from SF readers, one potentially more open and ambiguous, or even “ambivalent,” than feminist academic theory and critique. (An unexamined clarity experienced as excluding, damaging or alienating may be an unintended effect of some academic critique. Debunking, for example, can evacuate from its object everything but the critique, which survives alone as the object’s essential truth and then may appear to insist on refusal as urgent ethical action). Intersubjectivity is not only explored within the text, it is constituted through the text in a complex networking of multiple imagined relationships between and among writers and readers and texts and worlds. Feminist science fiction is a textual – and embodied – practice rather than a textual form: it is a practice that is developed in multiple interpretive communities that take “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and … responsibility in their construction” (Haraway 1991 [1985], 150).

Exploring The Fifth Sacred Thing as a “boundary object,” it is instructive to test the responsibility that is being taken––or deferred in the construction of boundaries. The text’s author is a well-known US ecofeminist and practitioner of earth-based spirituality and this leads many potential readers to assume that they can dismiss the book unread because they assume they know what its contents will be. However, other readers do engage with this text and with conversations it facilitates. Boundary objects are those lively agencies that gather persons across possible disunities, even sometimes unconsciously in a misrecognized assumption of commonality not in fact actual at all, yet naturalized in a valuable work-around practice that permits consensual action without agreement (Star 2010). As such a boundary object, The Fifth Sacred Thing becomes somehow even a particularly curious occasion to wonder about the reading strategies and political and theoretical affiliations of other readers. What is it about the text that calls out to them? Is it the depiction of polyamory, the espousal of non-violent direct action in the face of murderous opposition, the account of earth-based spirituality and magic, the imagined project of building a better world from the debris of our own? For some readers, the author’s ecofeminism and her spirituality make the text seem politically and theoretically suspect, while for others the text functions as another piece of evidence of the proximity, if not always coincidence, of ecofeminism and feminist science studies. Its version of the Goddess, for example, is remarkably pragmatic and postmodern, self-consciously calling attention to our creation of enabling myths and metaphors. Starhawk’s goddess could be a companion to Haraway’s cyborg, not its abject other, as the novel invites us not only to account for our implication in histories of oppression, but also calls for self-conscious play with narrating history and recognizing its openness to revision.

Holding close to Jessica Benjamin’s discussions of intersubjectivity while inhabiting spaces created by The Fifth Sacred Thing in its boundary object-ness offers one way of thinking through our obligations to others. Benjamin argues that: “any subject’s primary responsibility to the other subject is to be her intervening or surviving other” (Benjamin 1998: 99; emphasis in original). As a psychoanalyst, Benjamin is referring to our capacity to intervene in or survive the destructive wishes and fantasies of the other, but as Starhawk, Sobchack, and Butler––among others––point out, we are vulnerable to harm and injury from others much in excess of ill-wishing or destructive fantasizing. Ethicopolitics is an attempt to found our modes of relating to others in Benjamin’s focus on survival, positioned as utopian. But utopian here names a space for on-going change, negotiation, working with the damage, not that topos, the “good place.” Although, as Butler points out, our vulnerability to others cannot be wished away, nevertheless, one of the possibilities offered by feminist science fiction is a special habitation. We can inhabit SF feminisms as an imagined or enchanted social theory in which we “become-with” others differently. Ethicopolitics captures both the sense of knowing feminism through multiple conversations that others share, and also a feminist project about that unending negotiation necessary to extend to all other subjects the just and flourishing lives that we seek for ourselves. Thus feminism as ethicopolitics recognizes how constant and continual negotiations have been and will be required to work towards that justice and flourishing (without some transcendental end point), as its content will keep changing with changes in the social structures and “natural” resources that are struggled over.

SF names books and “texts,” reading protocols and commercial market niches, intra-psychic survivals and abilities to suspend or inhabit all at once multiple worlds. It can generate simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as “us” and “them.” And SF across its referents unveils infrastructure upon infrastructure, from commercial story production to non-academic inspirations for and with feminist theory, to materialisms of story kinds, across platforms, gadgets, games, nets and webs, and funding. Transmedia storytelling hunts and gathers resources: all possible autonomies, but also all possible intra-actions, using every bit of “screen” to confront us with ourselves.

SF Feminisms

While what we might call “double bind” realities are dangerous, they also exist in degrees that may trigger alternative realities of playful, ritual, magical, or spiritual significance in many worlds. They may trigger individual and collective disaster as well. And these too may be transcontextually undecidable in terms that are even elements of their playful or magical significance, and hold open temporalities that do not line up simply across past, present, and future. For many of us in one particular now, “gaming” has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today, and at alternate grains of detail, from the neurological to the climatically global, from the public goods held in common to the commercially pressured, work-person days of just making a living and finding a few roses in there somewhere. Restructuring has us all in a grip, but this is not the only future that might have been, nor are the futures of our pasts evacuated by that rendering of now.

Games and media play upon our neurological and cognitive “screens” with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with. US semiologist and science writer Steven Johnson analyses skills honed among, with, and even as these media ecologies––practices involved now in transmedia storytelling. (You will recognize all of these as elements in contemporary television and film. They originate in gaming and, to some extent, in SF fandoms and communities. [Johnson 2005; Jenkins 2006; Pearce 2009]) First,  multiple threading requires us to keep track nowadays of many story arcs and a range of narrative frames, noting which ones are currently active and which ones are latent but potentially significant. Those may inspire us to practice filling-in, that is to say, tentatively trying out possible materials in spaces left latent or even empty in production, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. But all this within what ranges? a book? a TV show? your iPad game? or more and beyond these? Well, • probing involves learning the rules of, say, a game or virtual world’s simulation by trial and error, while necessarily also checking out its edges, limits and unexpected artifacts or patterns. And it exercises our neurological capacities to perceive all sorts of bits of realities as models, metaphors, or immersive environments that it turns out we are already inhabiting all over the place! Gathering these or moving among platforms, from webcasts to TV episodes to games to film, these then allow us to perceive all these many possible contexts through • telescoping processes, those involving apprehending simultaneously all the possible structures of nested hierarchy and mobilizing them in various sequences. (Some feminist theorists might recall here another semiologist’s version of something called “differential consciousness,” one of US Chicana Chela Sandoval’s set of feminist technologies for radical transformation [Sandoval 2000, 2002]).

These are among the SF Ecologies King shares with students in a new course on Science Fiction Feminisms, emblematically opened through the door of this book by Johnson, in-your-face provocatively entitled Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. The title engages a range of what could be, often are, moral panics confusingly in play over video games, television, and web and computer based new media and learning systems, and in this book Johnson tacitly draws upon research described in two earlier books, one on neuroscience and the other on emergence (2004, 2001). King’s class focuses on how our technological and embodied biomes are actually hooked together, entangled for better and worse, affected and affecting at many scales of connection––from neurotransmitters, to psychologies of screen and interface, to game-based learning systems, to role playing online and off, to games of chance, exploration, strategy, assembly, and movement, to complex systems ecologies of evolution, internet infrastructure, global economies, and more––now scoped and scaled transcontextually as “gaming” (Schrage 2000; Johnson 2005; Wikipedia 2011; Flanagan 2009, 2011; Ito, Herr-Stephenson, Perkel, Sims 2010; MacArthur Foundation 2010; McGonigal 2011).

For King, “gaming” thus includes but is not limited to what it means to inhabit some now of undecidable and yet constantly predicted probabilistic futures, in which critique itself only too easily can be hijacked to essentialize its objects with deadly clarity and thus anticipate much too closely horizons of imagination––and sometimes inadvertently shape its ethical urgencies as despair. Adams, Murphy, and Clarke analyze such foreclosure as “abduction”:

In anticipation, abduction also acquires a temporal form: the tacking back and forth between the past, present and future. Abduction moves reasoning temporally from data gathered about the past to simulations or probabilistic anticipations of the future that in turn demand action in the present. Abduction thrives in the vibrations between the is and the ought, consummately modern yet augmented by anticipation in ways that undermine the certainties on which modernity thrives. Abduction is the process of considering more precisely how to anticipate in actual practice. (2009, 255)

While nothing is innocent in gaming––from the casinos on Native lands, to the industry’s entanglements with violent representations, to military uses of game theory and war simulations for training troupes––still, it is also the case that none of these can properly be held out as essential truths about gaming, even if the first thing King’s Women’s Studies students say about it all is “Isn’t it addictive?” And of course, video games might really hook into impulse control disorders, although, then again, it depends on what counts as addiction (Wood 2008). Maybe what we are actually “addicted” to here are the panic urgencies and moral certainties of some forms of anticipation work. How might gaming forms of learning work with us to scope and scale among their and our distributed embodiments across spacetimes in practices of intersubjectivity and interobjectivity?

Notice what is at stake in double binds: good signaling skills make nonabusive play on the edge of double binds possible. ‘My body is reacting as if I am in danger, but really I’m in front of a computer screen.’ This is the kind of edgy double consciousness Gregory Bateson first theorized as crucial in play, now taken up by video game designers (Bateson 1972a [1954]; Salen, Zimmerman 2004: 451). But Bateson was well aware that not every edge of play is so easily resolved: that transcontextual confusions, but also gifts, arise from situations in which “tangles” remain––in which finding out which bits are active, which bits are context, which bits can be made explicit, which rules are perceptible, which distributed embodiments, cognitions, and infrastructures are in play, matters. And the skills for all this, transcontextual movement without falling apart––what restructuring academies, nations, and industries call “innovation”––are at the very heart of all those things that the word “gaming” now covers.

Gaming? Funding? What scary futures and current nows of some past future do these offer us as sustainabilities or habitations or critiques? The Fifth Sacred Thing was first published in 1993, and its portrayal of a mid-21st –Century no-longer-United States, informed by ecofeminist critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, and fundamentalist religion already then seemed urgent to many readers. Its depiction is of a future where, despite serious environmental degradation, one community has renounced violence and reshaped its social and material relations in just and anti-oppressive ways, living joyfully and in peace––albeit a peace that is continually struggled over. It is a novel that many readers across enfolded temporalities have found enchanting, one now perhaps anticipating new immersive realities in layer after layer of possibility and platform. However, in recent years the novel has become hard to find in print, thus not readily accessible to such new readers. In 2011, however, Starhawk embarked on the risky business of trying to share her vision of the future with a much wider audience than had read her original novel. How did she do this? What platforms for possibility opened up? Well, in all its gaming, funding meanings, she set up a Kickstarter page, established to raise finance to pitch the novel to a big movie studio. Notice how Kickstarter presents itself as: “a funding platform for creative projects … Every project is independently crafted, put to all-or-nothing funding, and supported by friends, fans, and the public in return for rewards.” What sort of platform now can use social media to support new models of funding creative production? According to its website, since its launch in 2009, 20,000 projects have been successfully funded to a total of $200 million dollars by 1.8 million people. The Kickstarter page for The Fifth Sacred Thing sought $60,000 in pledges. It raised $76,327 from 1431 backers by the 60-day deadline, “winning” its own funding challenge.

Even if Starhawk did not use the explicit language of premediation, her project can certainly be understood as a form of anticipation work. Yet it is one that remediates those implicit and explicit critiques that trouble Adams et al. In the first paragraph, under the header “About this project,” a counter-visionary labor and field for shaping realities is deliberatively initiated: “They say that movies are collective dreams. If so, we’re heading for a nightmare – for there are very few films that show a positive future on earth. We want to change that. How can we create a thriving, just and balanced future if we can’t even imagine it? We want to bring alive a vision that can inspire people – and we’ve found the story in Starhawk’s novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing” (The Fifth Sacred Thing [2011a]). But it is not just the novel here that offers an augmented reality of feminist sustainability.

Rather, the vision for this project takes diegetic prototyping to another enfolded set of augmented realities, a transmedia storytelling that shifts platforms and distributes worlds. One of the philosophies espoused in the novel is that ends do not justify means, but that rather means become ends. So, in contrast to Unterkoffler, who used his film consultancy work to leverage start-up capital and recruit customers, Starhawk and her partners in the project work out ways to model the very social technologies that will be portrayed in the movie as/if is made (The Fifth Sacred Thing [2011a]):

We’ve written a Green Plan that will set new standards for environmental accountability in the film industry. We’ll bring resources into the inner city by networking with community organizations with whom we have longstanding relationships. We’ll put up a website with extensive resources and develop many ways that people who are inspired by the vision can learn the skills they need to create it and connect with others who share it. We want the movie to help nurture and support the movements that are already growing to put our world on a path of peace, justice and ecological harmony. (See also 2011b)].

That Kickstarter has become itself an entertainment platform, one not unlike the TV game shows of the past, generating excitement for projects that rival each other in over funding lotteries and jackpots of narrative and competition, is more and more obvious in mutual restructurings of knowledge and culture industries. Kickstarter campaigns become fictions and fun with industrial design (Bogost 2013).

But Starhawk and SF feminist fans have, both deliberately and inadvertently, incorporated Kickstarter into their own multiple immersive SF feminisms: one among a range of distributed materialities all too ambivalently, yet very lovingly, augmenting gaming realities as feminist worldings, as sustaining hopes. It remains an open question as to how successful the film project will be in helping to “nurture and support the movements that are already growing to put our world on a path of peace, justice and ecological harmony.” But by supplementing the circulation of the original novel text with the time-limited Kickstarter page and ongoing website and Facebook presences, all featuring concept art and other resources for visualizing both the film project and the social project from which it emerges and to which it is intending to contribute, affiliates of The Fifth Sacred Thing have scaled up the transmedia storytelling that was already emergent from the novel’s readership. In doing so, they have provided feminist science / fictions or science fiction feminisms with an intriguing example of the “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” (Haraway 1991 [1985], 154).

We conclude, again abruptly, with an anti-climax stopping point, one deliberately without an ending. From this stopping point, without delimiting any, we note what some of our own SF feminisms are: A course Katie King is teaching now, its topics some of the subjects she writes about, reads, and shares with others. Some worlds Joan Haran has traveled among for at least a couple of decades, from fandoms to conference panels, to work in a genomics centre.[2] A set of spaces, people, practices, objects, that share infrastructures and require our good faith. Many spacetimes imagined and lived and yet to come, futures across times that have already happened. Us, co-authors, distributed ourselves across spacetimes, in this academic open access feminist journal, sustaining….


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Haran, J., and King, K. (2013). Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.2. doi:10.7264/N30P0WXQ

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Colin Milburn suggests one avenue to pursue: “our understanding of how science fiction works at the bench would be greatly improved by seeing scientists as cultural consumers like any cultural consumers, perhaps even in some cases as science fiction fans like any science fiction fans, but having at their disposal the tools and the resources for making science fiction and other cultural materials actually usable for science—and vice versa.” (Milburn 2010, 565). Perhaps the task for science fiction feminisms is to increase the likelihood that scientists turn to feminist science fiction, rather than elsewhere, for their prototypes.
  2. Joan’s thinking also always responds to open-ended – and sometimes imagined –conversations with Deborah Lynn Steinberg, Niamh Moore, Kate O’Riordan, Jenny Kitzinger, Maureen McNeil, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa and Michelle Bastian, and other scholars of gender, representation and technoscience encountered in her feminist travels.  She includes many other writers and readers of feminist sf in the transnational networks of friends and colleagues she inhabits.

Somatic Capitalism: Reproduction, Futurity, and Feminist Science Fiction

“Every technology is reproductive technology,” -Donna Haraway

Reproductive futurism in the neoliberal present

Suddenly, it feels a lot like 1984—not the iconic 1984 of Orwell’s dystopia, but the 1984 in which Margaret Atwood composed The Handmaid’s Tale. This was the same year that saw the release of the anti-abortion film The Silent Scream, and only a few years after the unsuccessful push for congressional ratification of the Human Life Statute, which brought the idea of fetal personhood to the national stage. As Valerie Hartouni notes, the 1980s were “obsessively preoccupied with women and fetuses” (42). We might say the same about the 2010s. The list of newly adopted or narrowly averted anti-abortion legislation from the past year is extensive, and all of it justified through the logic of biopolitics. When Texas State Representative Jodie Laubenberg hails the passage of that state’s 20-week abortion ban as “ensuring that women are given the highest quality of health care in a very vulnerable time of their lives,” she appeals to the general affirmation that it is the state’s business to attend to the health and wellbeing of its population—a mandate then easily extended to the health and wellbeing of the unborn [1].

But this virulent form of reproductive futurism is difficult to reconcile with the neoliberal regimes of flexible accumulation that otherwise dominate post-crisis America.[2] As developed by Lee Edelman, reproductive futurism names the logic by which the social good appears co-terminus with human futurity, a futurity emblematized by the figure of the child and vouchsafed through reproduction. In this sense, reproductive futurism is one of several disciplinary technologies that links sexuality and domesticity—with their attendant eugenic aspirations and immunitary procedures—to the national domestic as the basis for economic vitality.[3] It is through the vigor of the household that the nation rises and falls. As Theodore Roosevelt put it in his 1905 speech to the National Congress of Mothers, “the welfare of the state depends absolutely upon whether or not the average family, the average man and woman and their children, represent the kind of citizenship fit for the foundation of a great nation” (204). In her Wayward Reproductions, Alys Eve Weinbaum calls this obligation not only to bear children but to bear proper children “the race/reproduction bind” (5). Rightly raised and rightly raced, these children contribute to the “stock” of the nation, a term whose configuration of market economics, racialist ideology, and animal husbandry makes clear how much this ascription of vitality is premised on the promise of a tractable future.[4] Biologized, the nation’s future wealth is in its present reproductive choices, which are fostered and supervised by a whole roster of experts. It is to this state-based biopolitics that Michel Foucault’s description in History of Sexuality 1 best applies, for the production of Roosevelt’s “average family” comes from the state’s investment in and extension of its disciplinary procedures. Not for nothing is the 20th century both the century of biopolitical governance and the century of the child.[5]

In its guise as figure for and promise of a national future, the child is tethered to a rapidly fading era in the history of biopolitics. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick trenchantly observed, “since the beginning of the [Reagan-era] tax revolt, the government of the United States […] has been positively rushing to divest itself of answerability for care to its charges, with no other institution proposing to fill the gap” (141).[6] It’s no surprise then, that the “highest quality of health-care” touted by Representative Laubenberg is in fact none at all, as the law is widely acknowledged to result in the closure of all of the women’s health clinics in Texas that provide abortion services. While certain forms of pastoral care and disciplinary control continue, then, they do so as vestigial strata—often with punitive intent—within an overarching ideological framework that privileges deregulation, privatization and risk-amplification. In this context, “stock” ceases to designate the tenderly marshaled wealth of the nation in its variety of forms and instead becomes the financialized object of speculative market manipulation and its unevenly distributed necropolitical consequences. Stock, in this sense, relies on surplus: surplus value, surplus vitality, surplus populations.[7]

Yet as the fervent pro-natalism of the past several years has shown, reproductive futurism has lost none of its efficacy under neoliberalism.[8] If anything, the child has become more available and more pervasive, even as economic and legislative policies undermine the very social vitality the child supposedly indexes. Why should this be the case? One possible explanation for the persistence of reproductive futurism is that the child provides a justificatory rhetoric of future growth, a kind of reproductive economics that matches the vehement vitalism of anti-abortion activism. In these terms, we might look to the homology between reproductive and economic futurism as inspiriting the money relation and lending the child’s beatific innocence and utopian promise to the debt form, fulfilling what sociologist Melinda Cooper calls “the prophetic, promissory moment of capitalist restructuring, the kind of utopia that is celebrated in neoliberal theories of growth” (60).

For as convincing as this argument is, however, it neglects the literal and material conjunction of the child and capital, or what I will call “somatic capitalism” – the intervention into and monetization of life-itself. Rather than focusing on the domestic household, somatic capitalism operates above and below the level of the individual subject to amplify or diminish specific bodily capacities. It siphons vitality rather than exerting discipline, swerves and harnesses existing tendencies rather than regulating their emergence. It differentially distributes exposures and zones of safety, but with the implicit acknowledgment that no system is ever really closed enough to be safe. Its accelerant is capital, and it rides on the profits to be reaped from catastrophe. It is an expression of the move from state biopolitics with its rhetoric of concern to neoliberal speculation. Its focus is on species as repositories of recombinant capacities. Thus its paradigmatic artifacts can be found in all that biological plasticity makes possible: stem-cells and transgenic animals, genetically-tailored medicines and bioweapons.[9] The converse of this activation of organic plasticity is the catalyzation of systemic complexity in the autonomous agency of natural forces, brought home by biospheric change, genetic mutation, and epidemic disease. That reproductive futurism continues unabated into the 21st century, in other words, has less to do with ideologies of unfettered growth and more to do with uncontrolled biological growth.

This project, then, concerns the space of encounter between reproductive futurism and reproductive futures, or the profusion of liveliness rendered visible by the harnessing of life-itself in modern production processes.[10] We are accustomed to thinking about economic-growth futurism as resulting in the actual despoliation of the present. In that version, the fetishization of the child is a bitterly ironic fiction that occludes the harm done to future generations. The examples I have given, however, point in another direction. Taken together, these forms of liveliness suggest other-than-human profusions that threaten to dissolve the bond that seals the child to the future. (Consider here the profusion-as-destitution exemplified by red tides.) Reproductive futurism in the neoliberal present, I argue, is thus a response to this threat that harnesses the associations of the child with the future to reconsolidate liveliness back into human, at the same time that material practices in the life sciences make this sovereign fantasy harder and harder to maintain. In order to further explore this dynamic, I turn to two exemplary representations of reproductive futurism—Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking dystopia Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and her 2003 speculative fiction Oryx and Crake. In both novels, the question of human reproduction gives face to a latent anxiety about nonhuman vitality: for Handmaid’s Tale, human infertility is both the warrant for state-enforced reproductive futurism and the volte-face of human mutation brought on by industrial waste accumulation; for Oryx and Crake and its full-throttle somatic capitalism, reproductive futurism takes the form of direct control over the germ-line through species-wide genocide and our replacement with humanoid transgenics. Though both novels leverage reproductive futurism against reproductive futures, they simultaneously make apprehensible the specter of liveliness within the circuit of wealth (and waste) production.

As Atwood’s novels demonstrate, this is a particularly vital nexus of issues for women, as the extraction of nonhuman livelinesses from the child has spurred a host of efforts to graft the culture of life over the culturing of life. By the same token, however, the child-figure that emerges from this labor is a queer child, in Kathryn Bond Stockton’s sense of that term, or what we might call the queerly-human child. Stockton argues that the construction of the modern child as the fragile interval of innocence before the inevitable fall into adulthood, far from generating a smoothly teleological progression into normative heterosexuality, instead enables the proliferation of lateral potentialities. By shifting the terrain to think about the child’s relationship to the reproduction of the species-qua-species, I am arguing that these queer potentialities inhere biologically as well: we are not the smoothly self-similar species we wish to imagine. The child is strange, in other words, and stranger still when given the work of obfuscating the strangers we have already become.[11] As feminist extrapolations, Atwood’s novels map the consequences of this reproductive futurist response to the burgeoning of life and provide a glimpse of the apprehensions of mutation that, I contend, structure and fuel that response. And to the extent that this phobic mode of response denies the very effects that somatic capitalism seeks to induce, its consequences should be of vital concern for everyone—human and nonhuman alike.

Technologies of reproduction

Nowhere has the antimony between biotechnical life and the life celebrated by anti-abortion activists been more fraught than in the realm of reproduction itself. We have already had occasion to note that reproduction is a privileged instrument of social order. Weinbaum argues that “competing understandings of reproduction […] became central to the organization of knowledge” (2) from the late 18th century on. Alongside Foucault’s famous contention that “the whole thematic of species” serves “to obtain results at the level of discipline” (146), her formulation helps to delineate the reverse correlate: that the disciplining of populations through the regulatory apparatus of sex, gender, and race also serves to shore up the only apparently natural relations of reproduction, relations whose plasticities were made newly visible in the period in which Atwood was composing The Handmaid’s Tale. Hartouni, for example, records the July 1986 headline news of the surgical removal of a fetus from the womb of a comatose woman, Marie Odette Henderson, noting that in such cases the fetus appears rhetorically unmoored, “an independent life form floating about in the world […] loose, lonely, abandoned, in need of being saved” (32). Donna Haraway and many other feminists writing in the 80s and 90s made a symmetrical point with reference to the continuing discursive effects of intrauterine fetal visualizations.[12] These visioning technologies render the fetus fully representable as “not just the signifier of life but […] as the-thing-in-itself” (Haraway 178).

While this visual and discursive instantiation of the solitary fetus is incontrovertibly attuned to a pro-life politics dedicated to effacing the woman whose body the fetus quite literally is, there is also something anxious lurking behind this adamant isolation. In its monotonous repetitions, the life-itself made sensual in the image of the fetus betrays the lurking presence of another kind of life-itself engendered by reproductive technologies. From the “test-tube” birth of Louise Brown in 1978 to our current “embryo-strewn world of the 21st century” (Franklin 2006, 168), assisted reproductive technologies have begun to unravel the bond between sex, pregnancy, and childbirth and to intimate that life may neither be fully controllable nor fully controlled. As a manipulable object of medical knowledge and intervention, reproduction is shown to be one of many biological functions, in the process blurring the distinction, as Susan Squier delineates, between the unique event of human birth and the kinds of breeding practices long associated with animal life. Indeed, it is under the pressure of IVF technologies and their extraction of bodily capacities from the housing of the individual subject, and in the mix-and-match practices of human and animal surrogacy, that the equation underwriting the fantasy of hetero-reproduction—that 1 + 1 will always = 1—dramatically transforms. The reaction-formation Lauren Berlant names “fetal motherhood,” then, responds to this transformation by collapsing the reproductive woman into the juridical and discursive primacy of the fetus, retooling the apparatus of fertility as adjunct to the single, sacred child.

The Handmaid’s Tale is by far the best known and most commonly read of Atwood’s novels and it has garnered much critical commentary.[13] As a dystopia, it is often considered in light of that genre, and especially through Atwood’s formal choice to write it as a first-person oral record discovered by a later society for which it serves as a historical archive. As a feminist dystopia, it is read as an “if-this-goes-on” warning that asks, as Atwood herself puts it, “how thin is the ice on which supposedly ‘liberated’ modern Western woman stands?” (87). And as a work of feminist science fiction, it engages in the critical distance from the sorts of received notions of the natural and the transhistorical that Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement” and that motivates both Carl Freedman and Earl Jackson Jr. to assimilate science fiction with critical theory tout court. Both science fiction and critical theory strive to formulate “a worldview in which the subject is not the cause but the effect of the system that sustains it” (Jackson 102).[14] Indeed, Atwood’s novel gives us three different narrative presents—the dystopic future, the remembered past that most closely resembles the period of the book’s composition, and the far future in which the other two texts function as testimony. In juxtaposing these moments, the reader comes to see the differences in their assumptions and thus the “creation of the gendered subject within language and culture” (Lefanu 4).

Despite this broad array of approaches to Handmaid’s Tale, however, surprisingly few seriously engage the profound shifts in reproductive technologies that were occurring contemporaneously with its composition. In this, Heather Latimer’s account is both perspicacious and telling. Latimer first describes the novel as acutely “tap[ping] into the time period’s politics” (213) by extrapolating from the 80s backlash against reproductive rights to imagine “a world where maternity is so tightly linked to state oppression that any move against the state, from unlawful sexual interaction to contraception is considered a radical one and punishable by death” (217). Latimer’s insight is to see in this a satiric rejection of the terms in which the abortion question has been framed, one whose symptomatic positing of life against choice is always capable of turning the one back into the other. This satire only works, however, if the primary political context encoded through the novel—violent opposition to abortion rights—is understood only as a technology of gender oppression, without further inquiry into the reasons for such resurgent misogyny.

Yet Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about reproductive technologies. In an earlier essay, Anne Balsamo casts the novel as a critical mapping of the new technologies of reproduction and their effect of breaking reproduction “into discrete stages: egg production, fertilization, implantation, feeding, and birthing” (236). Her particular focus on the criminalization of maternal drug-use, however, reads reproductive technologies instrumentally as “the means for exercising power relations on the flesh of the female body” (233). In picking up on Balsamo’s analysis, Squier emphasizes the divisibility engendered by new reproductive technologies and their confusion of inside/outside, part/whole, and human/animal distinctions (1999: 102, 111). While crucial, their focus on how these newly unstable body boundaries get “produce[d] and manage[d]” (102) diminishes the vibrancy of the vibrant matter that is their subject. In getting a handle on the circulations of knowledge and power through the biomedical body, it is easy to overlook the extra-discursive consequentiality of these procedures in their ongoing ecological intra-actions. That reproduction gets “managed,” in other words, is indicative of its unruly escape from that management. As biologist Lynn Margulis and essayist Dorion Sagan write, reproduction refers to the “process of making living copies” that also enables mutational transcription errors, while the genetic transfer that typifies sexual reproduction can likewise be achieved through such variegated means as “cosmic irradiation, acquisition of viruses or symbionts, or exposure to ambient chemicals” (19).

In the next section, I turn to a reading of the novel’s wary recognition of the dialectic between official state-sponsored reproductive futurism and its sur-official production of reproductive futures. Rather than tracing the map that Atwood provides for us, my reading picks up on another capacity of science fiction and science fiction criticism: the extrapolation of virtual potentialities. “If the past persists in the present,” Steven Shaviro explains, “then the future insists in the present.” In what follows, I look to those moments of untimely insistence that bear less on the present from which Atwood generates her extrapolation then on the novel’s wayward registration of a virtual future. My intent is less a good faith analysis of what Atwood is up to in Handmaid’s Tale, then a sussing out and sallying forth of odd moments and strange ellipses that grow laterally around the edges of the plot.

Redeemed by childbirth

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the moral imperative of reproductive futurism comes at the end of a cattle prod. In its dystopian present, America has become the young Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship whose response to the crisis of fertility is to strip women of their employment and their property, and sort them according to their social roles: the wives of highly ranked men retained their positions, as did religiously and morally acceptable married women of lower ranked men. Proper unmarried lower caste women were divided into laboring Marthas—cooks and housekeepers for upper caste households—and the Aunts who train the Handmaids. It’s around the Handmaids and their fertility that the social structure turns. They are its constitutive exclusion, the abjected groundwork around which the machinery of state labors. As Offred, the narrator, sourly remarks in connection to the state’s brand on her ankle: “I am a national resource” (65). Offred’s name, like that of all handmaids, derives from the family she serves and changes as she moves from house to house—three cycles for each high-ranked infertile family, three shots at producing the child that will redeem her and spare her from the label of Unwoman and a life in the colonies clearing toxic waste.[15] Assigning names to the classes of women is just one example of the disciplinary mechanism by which the women of Gilead are made to disappear behind their social roles.[16] They are not allowed to read, their money has been replaced by government script correlating with a small number of shops, and their uniform, the same color and cut for every woman in her role, is issued to them. “Think of yourselves as seeds,” Aunt Lydia tells Offred, “the future is in your hands” (47). It is not her hands, however, that bear the future:

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was lithe, single, solid, one with me.

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed, around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. (73-74)

Handmaids are “ambulatory chalices,” “two-legged wombs” (136). Offred’s disappearance behind her womb, and the social relations that make it more real then she, exemplifies Berlant’s notion of fetal motherhood, or the production of the hetero-reproductive household through the enormous privilege given to the child as the index of the vitality of the nation. Given this, it is apparent why so many readers of the novel have treated the specter of infertility as a ruse. After all, for all the weight placed on childbirth and the dire consequences for Handmaids who do not succeed in becoming pregnant and birthing healthy children, the mechanisms by which such impregnation is supposed to happen are absurd. In light of the once-monthly Ceremony of copulation triangulated through the body of the infertile wife—with its restriction on female orgasm—and the legal sanctions against claiming that any man is infertile, the discipline taught to the Handmaids begins to look like exactly that: a disciplining technology. No abstaining from liquor or coffee, no amount of Kegel exercises, will make up for the exclusion of male-caused infertility—if the point is indeed to produce more children.[17]

Clearly, then, infertility serves to naturalize patriarchy. Not for nothing does the book underscore that “gender treachery” (43) is as much a capital crime as religious deviance and a history of providing abortions. Since Handmaids only escape punishment for these crimes by virtue of their fertility, their failure to produce life is tantamount to their death. As Latimer writes, Atwood offers “a picture of what the world would look like if a woman’s only reproductive ‘choice’ is pregnancy or death” (2009 213). In a different sense, however, infertility is indeed a ruse. For the novel also includes a third possibility that splits open the opposition of pregnancy and death and that links Handmaids and Unwomen through their shared encounter with reproductive futures: that is, the unbabies and the mutagens responsible for their deformities.

The chances are one in four. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. (112)

The rhetoric of spatial permeability—the constitutive openness in the meeting of radiation and skin, the keen hospitality of fatty cells to chemicals—intersects with the temporal permeability of the “once,” signaling the bleed of other moments into the apparent solidity and permanence of the present. Although never foregrounded in the novel, the conjunction of toxic pollution, infertility, and mutation suggests that Gilead’s militarized reproductive futurism responds as much to the uncontainable liveliness of biological and ecological forces—including those extra-diegetic reproductive technologies whose absence the novel so conspicuously underscores—as to the threatening break up of hetero-patriarchy in pre-coup America.

In this sense, the differences between a state biopolitics of sexuality and population and a neoliberal biopolitics of subindividual capacities and algorithmic databases appear as differing strategies for negotiating and organizing what Hannah Arendt identifies as the key characteristic of modernity: the unnatural growth of the natural. It is a fact not often enough noted that the term “biopolitics” has its origin in Arendt’s The Human Condition. Unlike Foucault’s designation of life as the new entrant into the political, Arendt’s biopolitics foregrounds the disaggregation of the labors that sustain life from the domestic household and into industrial reproductions. Symmetrically, her concern is less the form of subjectivity engendered by this shift in production than it is the effect on the planet of the demand for ever greater efficiency in the creation of an ever expanding repertoire of goods and services. This increase in production is accompanied by two contradictory demands: that extracted resources retain their animacy so that their vitality can be operationalized and also that they are not so active that they transform too quickly from value to waste. Industrial production relies on precisely timing the duration of a good’s durability and therefore on the management of the metabolic process of production, consumption and decay. The ideal result of such control is a world in which things “manifest themselves and vanish” (134), but the reality is a “waste economy” (134) in which the vibrancy required of the production process is never rendered fully sterile no matter how many layers of lead separate out the spent uranium, to take a paramount example, from the surrounding bedrock.

“The force of life is fertility,” Arendt notes. And yet the example of nuclear waste makes clear that biological reproduction is hardly the only source of liveliness. For this reason, queer theorist Mel Chen prefers the term “animacy,” which she describes as designating the rich fields that inhere in the interstices of molar binaries like “life and death, positivity and negativity, impulse and substance” (4). In this context, reproductive futurism promises to consolidate the explosion of other-than-human liveliness under the figure of the child at the same time that it suggests an accelerating horizon of unrecuperable vitality. Through the figure of the shredder child, the mutant child, The Handmaid’s Tale shows us the reproductive future behind the sacred child of reproductive futurism. Indeed the only child born in the space of the novel in a collective ritual of sympathetic identification so powerful it causes phantom pains and false milk in the bodies of the women who attend is an Unbaby. While this may seem less like liveliness than death and despair (a conjunction that resonates with the mandate “breed or die”), a lyric description of an egg, which directly precedes both Offred’s explanation of Unbabies and the birth scene that brings another Unbaby into the world, gives us another combination of deathliness and liveliness. I quote from it in full:

The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusion. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.

The egg is glowing now, as if it had an energy of its own. (110)

The egg hiding under a cozy the shape of a women’s skirt, the egg Offred imagines incubating between her breasts, the egg that reminds her of the moon but is also the shape of God, is inescapably the fertilized egg of Handmaidenly ambitions. As she notes, “This is how I am expected to react. If I have an egg, what more can I want?” (111). And yet this egg, with its arid, barren landscape repelling all profusion, glows with its own energy––an extra-reproductive vitality whose liveliness like the “swarms of toxic molecules” alerts us to the profusion that surrounds us. As Offred reflects: “the desire to live attaches to the strangest objects” (111). In fact, her gaze insistently picks out these signs of liveliness, from the “worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips” (17) that she spies in the back garden to her hermaphroditic vision of the tulips “redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices, thrusting themselves up” (45). For Offred, this profuse display of natural fecundity offers an alternative mode of conceptualizing futurity—all flesh is grass, as she acutely observes. In Oryx and Crake, it is exactly this life that is the target of techniques of control trained on the production of agricultural, biological and ecological liveliness.

The reproductive solution

In a PMLA article a year after the publication of Oryx and Crake, Atwood objected to the too-easy link to Handmaid’s Tale. And indeed, the two novels are quite different. Most obviously, Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by a woman and concerns women’s lives under a regime not of their own creation. For this reason Gina Wisker, following Mary McCarthy, calls it a domestic dystopia: “A women’s world, ironically policed by men” (McCarthy qtd in Wisker 90). Oryx and Crake by contrast is narrated by a man, Jimmy, a survivor of the apocalypse, and it recounts his life with his best friend Crake, the architect of the apocalypse. Where The Handmaid’s Tale appears to have only two modes of commodity production—agricultural and military—Oryx and Crake is wholly given over to commodity innovation: electronics, entertainment, beauty products, fertility clinics, snack foods, vitamin production, coffee, and biomedical devices. Where Handmaid’s Tale divides the population into a small number of acceptable social roles based on race, class, and gender, the future America of Oryx and Crake uses metrics like testing and genetic screens as its sorting mechanism. Like Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake enforces those boundaries with barbed wire; but where the body exerting regulation in the world of Handmaid’s Tale is the state and its abiding interest in the welfare of its citizen, the communities inside the fence in Oryx and Crake are owned by private multinational corporations. The state function appears only in its most privatized form—through the CorpSeCorps that contracts with corporate compounds to provide policing services. Tellingly, where the guards and the checkpoints in Handmaid’s Tale kept women from leaving, the most serious boundary concerns in Oryx and Crake have to do with the flow of nonhuman bodies––proprietary information, patented life forms, and engineered diseases.[18]

In summary, then, the difference in social and economic organization between The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake reflects the extra-diegetic cultural shift from a regulatory state, militarized in The Handmaid’s Tale, to a neoliberal global order that has shucked off the carapace of nation entirely. This gives Oryx and Crake the structure of a double apocalypse: the pre-apocalyptic world is itself a near-future dystopia.[19] As a teenaged Jimmy mockingly describes:

Everyone’s parents moaned on about stuff like that. Remember when you could drive anywhere? Remember when everyone lived in the pleeblands? Remember when you could fly anywhere in the world, without fear? Remember hamburger chains, always real beef, remember hot-dog stands? Remember before New York was New New York? Remember when voting mattered? (63)

Jimmy is right to mock this litany, with its universalization of a narrow set of privileges and its misrecognition of the complicity of the fondly imagined past–precisely by way of jet planes and hot dog stands—in creating the neoliberal present. As this linking of past to present suggests, however, for all their differences, there is a fundamental condition shared by the worlds of Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake: for as distant as the corporate compounds and necropolitical pleeblands feel from the garden-suburb totalitarianism of Gilead, both are expressions of what Arendt calls the social, or “the admission of household and housekeeping activities to the public realm” (45). The concomitant “tendency to grow, to devour the older realms of the political and private” (45) in the enormous attention to and investment in the stuff of survival promises ever-increasing well-being and instead produces ever-widening immiseration. It is in this sense that we might understand Oryx and Crake’s most defining feature: its genocide. For perhaps the most acute difference between the two novels is the source animating anxiety about the human: infertility in Handmaid’s Tale, overpopulation in Oryx and Crake.

It’s a funny thing about that genocide. In “Arguing Against Ice Cream,” her review of environmentalist Bill McKibben’s polemic Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Atwood seems to concur with McKibben’s assessment that while human genetic engineering might be fun, it’s a form of fun we should deny ourselves. A similar sensibility informs her retelling of the Scrooge narrative in her Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in which she poses the ghosts of Earth-day past, present and future. Like her account of genomics, Atwood discusses debt as an appealing indulgence with a nasty down side. All this contributes to the critical consensus that Oryx and Crake privileges environmental innocence against the “god like power of science” (Hengen 140). On one side, the exciting choices available in designer babies (“The line forms to the right, and it’ll be a long one” [Atwood 2011 129]); on the other, the ill effects on our species and our environment of “pigging out” (130) on biotechnology. That utterly recognizable opposition, however, is not supported by the novel. Crake, the architect of the genocide, is just as much of a humanist as Jimmy-the-humanities-major, and far more of an environmentalist. “As a species we’re in deep trouble,” he tells Jimmy, by way of explanation for his Paradice transgenics program:

They’re afraid to release the stats because people might just give up, but take it from me, we’re running out of space-time. Demand for resources has exceeded supply for decades in marginal geo-political areas, hence the famines and the droughts; but very soon demand is going to exceed supply for everyone. (295)

His solution to this very McKibben-like set of concerns is to engineer a genocide and to replace humanity with a superior species. Explained to the company that supports his research as the “floor models” (305) for a designer genomics clinics, the Children of Crake have many of the features eager parents might wait in line to get: custom-designed beauty, immunity from microbes, UV-resistant skin. But, as Jimmy comments, they have a number of implausible traits as well. The Children of Crake are herbivorous, hard-wired against hierarchy and racism, and unlikely to have a carnivore’s attachment to land and conquest. Most important of all, their estrous cycles have been altered so that they can only reproduce when they are fertile. For Crake, sex is what’s most damaging about homo sapiens, or rather the combination of sex and imagination:

Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere thought of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or rabbit doesn’t behave like that. Take birds—in a lean season they cut down on eggs, or they won’t mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive. (120)

Crake takes his moniker from an extinct bird that gave him his handle on the hacker-game Extinctathon. Many of the other players are environmental activists and many of those are members of the God’s Gardeners group whose off-the-grid collective survives the apocalypse and forms the main perspective in Year of the Flood, the next book in the trilogy. They instigate social change through acts of civil disobedience. Crake’s genocide merely takes it one step further. Indeed, for Crake this action is just a less prolonged version of what would happen inevitably anyway as homo sapiens became one of many species in the great die-off. Crake styles himself immune to the relation between sex and the imagination of death that drives Jimmy’s decisions. But, like their ostensible opposition as scientist and humanist, this too is wrong. On the contrary, Crake is the apotheosis of the link he draws between sex and death: his Paradice project is designed to be the last and most successful human eugenics program, leveraging the enormous curatorial power of commercial genomics in the service of reproductive futurism on a mass scale. It is precisely Crake’s certainty in his own prognostication, his conviction that his imagination of death is empirical rather than emotional, that allows him to believe in the morality of his genocide.

But, as we learn, controlling the future is also the secret strategy employed by the compounds for assuring profits. Before Crake engineers the disaster that wipes out most of the human population, he makes a discovery. Crake’s father is dead by the opening of the novel, apparently of suicide. Midway through the novel, Crake asks Jimmy a hypothetical question: what happens if you’re a drug producer like HelthWyzer, but you’ve cured all the known diseases? He answers: you produce them instead.

Listen, this is brilliant. They put the hostile bioforms into their vitamin pills… they embed a virus inside a carrier bacterium, E. coli splice, doesn’t get digested, bursts in the pylorus, and bingo! Random insertion… But once you’ve got a hostile bioform started in the pleed population, the way people slosh around out there it more or less runs itself. (211)

It is this discovery for which Crake’s father was killed, pushed off a highway overpass outside of the compound’s walls, and it is the discovery of his discovery that leads Crake to his reproductive solution: the rapid production of human extinction through the vector of a contraceptive pill and our replacement with a retooled transgenic humanoid species that Crake calls his children. In this reading, what appears as an opposition between a self-indulgent commodity culture and an innocent biological and ecological inheritance on whose side the novel––>and we with it––are assumed to err is in fact a dialectical movement between reproductive futures and the reactionary reinstallation of reproductive futurism. And both are aptly described by the ascendency of Arendtian biopolitics.

Thus, where Handmaid’s Tale attempts to disguise the emergent conditions of reproductive futures in the armature of reproductive futurism, Oryx and Crake renders reproductive futurism biological. As a young boy, in the world before the apocalypse, Jimmy lived at OrganInc, a multinational biopharmaceutical firm and suburban compound where his father worked before being recruited to HelthWyzer. At OrganInc, Jimmy’s father made sus multiorganifer and his mother, before she quit to raise Jimmy, was responsible for defeating the infections and diseases that plagued them. In one of Jimmy’s earliest memories, and one of the first he relates to the reader, he and his father attend a bonfire at the compound. They are burning animals, dead animals. Jimmy, who is five at the time, worries that the disinfectant poison they have to walk through will hurt the ducks painted on his boots, but his father assures him that the ducks aren’t real and so won’t be hurt. Jimmy’s confusion is understandable. He is also anxious about the sheep and cows on the pile: “The animals are dead,” his father tells him. “They were like steaks and sausages, only they still had their skins on” (18). He’s joking, but the language is still precise. Sus multiorganifer, the product Jimmy’s father oversees at OrganInc, are transgenic animals that grow human organs for transplant. Colloquially known as Pigoons for their resemblance to their closest relative, each animal is reaped over and over again as a gene splice allows the organs to grow faster than the animal. It’s “much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts,” Jimmy’s father quips, “or keeping a for-harvest child or two stashed away in some illegal baby orchard” (23).[20]

This incident summarizes in miniature the relations that attend somatic capitalism, or what the novel elsewhere describes as AgriCouture—to exhort life, to summon its vitality and torture it to efficiency through careful control over its somatic capacities. This is a world of part objects, like the headless ChickieNobs, plant-like animals that grow bulbs of chicken breast meat on long, rooted stalks. One of a number of telling puns the novel employs, OrganInc encodes the current marketing craze for the organic while dismantling the salience of the organic/artificial distinction. More pointedly, by emphasizing through capitalization the INC of incorporation, Atwood’s moniker highlights the property relationship at the heart of somatic capitalism.[21] OrganInc and its competitor businesses are quite unabashed in their ambition to convert all of nature to patentable standing reserve for human consumption. Indeed, the question that tasks them isn’t whether that will be accomplished but when. This is the lesson of the burning cows and sheep, or rather what motivates their conflagration: the attempt to contain an engineered disease. In a conversation Jimmy relates, a friend of his father’s blames the animals’ destruction on a rival company. “Drive the prices up,” he opines. “Make a killing on their own stuff” (18). The invocation of killing here amplifies its already piquant ambivalence and reminds us that what we are witnessing is a scene of slaughter, however salutatory its intended effects. And<, since the desire to Make A Killing is by no means restricted to the hypothetical other company, the benignity of the motivation for this slaughter comes under serious doubt. In the final analysis, though, it’s neither OrganInc’s actions nor the deliberate dissemination of a new life-form that matters, but the failure of containment. “I thought our people had us tight as a drum,” Jimmy’s father complains.

Caught between the dual demands for control and for a reserve of vibrant potentialty, somatic capitalism breeds the conditions for its own catastrophe, as Crake—shining son of the compounds and the architect of the apocalypse—makes so emphatically clear. The virus cares not at all why it was created or whose research animals it infects; the pigoons, rakunks, and wolvogs bred in the exuberant early days of created species quickly run feral. And, though feral pigoons may be the paradigmatic emblem of somatic capitalism, it is the apocalypse itself—and its instrumentalization of life’s spread—that takes up the position of the shredder child as the system’s own constitutive exclusion.

I opened with the suggestion that I wanted to problematize a straightforwardly historical narrative about the transition from reproductive futurism to reproductive futures—and I hope I have shown how the two take each other as their warrant and their redemption. As the recent resurgence of laws concerning women’s reproductive freedom attests, the logic of regulation based on reproductive futurism is entirely coherent with a system otherwise dominated by neoliberalism and somatic capitalism. Like Crake’s Paradice, our current apprehension of liveliness takes the face of the child as its reproductive solution. But, as the post-apocalyptic pigoons remind us, alterations to the germ-line are not so easily contained. In the Crakers, we have begun to negotiate a space for reproductive futures without triggering the phobic and deadly impulse to reinstall reproductive futurism.

Postscript: change or die

On 20 November 2012, the International Green Awards recognized Charles, Prince of Wales for his lifetime contributions. In his prerecorded acceptance speech, Prince Charles warned that our collective refusal to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change will have dire consequences not only for the Earth but for humanity as a species. “It is therefore an act of suicide on a grand scale,” he continued, “to ride roughshod over the checks and balances and flout nature’s necessary limit as blatantly as we do.” The UK’s Independent summarized this position as: “Mankind Must Go Green or Die.” Like Latimer’s “breed or die,” which it uncannily echoes, this phrase is haunted by its unstated third term: mutation. For species-suicide, as every after-the-end post-apocalypse tells us, is a fantasy of cleanliness formally symmetrical with the quest for origins. And it’s a fantasy we no longer credit. From the agricultural collapse of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl to the boat called the Tomorrow in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, contemporary science fictions replace strategies of aversion with tactics of domestication.

I’d like to close this account of reproductive futures with a sex scene. The scene, from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, coordinates several forms of life around and through the private bedroom of a hetero-reproductive couple. The couple in question, Charlie and Elizabeth, have just gotten confirmation of their theory that life on Earth evolved from the seeding of alien DNA. Starting from cave-paintings at archaeological digs on different continents, they traced the aliens to a distant moon, where they have found proof for their theory that homo sapiens were brought to Earth by a genetically-identical alien culture. And so they are celebrating with liquor and love-making. What the audience knows, however, is that this most protected of acts, spontaneous, private, married heterosex, is in fact a carefully manipulated vector for wholly other reproductions. Just prior, we watched as the android David spiked Charlie’s drink with a mutagenic virus. By the next morning, Charlie is visibly infected and Elizabeth—whose infertility the film carefully establishes—is pregnant with alien life.

This pattern is not limited to Prometheus. The same structure informs the Oughts reload of the 70s television series Battlestar Galactica, which constellates human and artificial life around population anxieties. The remnant human population, forced by nuclear war to abandon their home planet and pursued across space by genocidal Cylons, bans abortion and keeps running tabs on their population numbers. At the same time, the Cylons—replicants and so infertile by design—are hijacking human women as experimental subjects and surrogate carriers for their breeding ambitions. Ultimately, though, it is not through juridical control or biotechnological intervention that the two populations find their renaissance, but instead through trans-species sexual reproduction. Hera, the child born of a Cylon mother and human father, in the innocence of childhood, leads her people to their new home and becomes in the process both generatrix and messiah. From the filthy workshops of creation to the iconic family romance, the no-longer-human child steps into the role of savior in an alliance of reproductive futurism and synthetic biology whose basis of acceptability—that they look like us!—is so spectacularly denied in Prometheus’ monstrous birth scene. For the child Elizabeth carries, like the shredder babies of Handmaid’s Tale, gives the lie to the fantasy of lineal descent that animates reproductive futurism. The child emerges from her, but it is not like her. And in this sense, could there have been any other day for Elizabeth and Charlie’s success than Christmas Eve, that most hetero-reproductive of holidays, or any other context for their mission than the desire by their corporate sponsor for new investment opportunities? They went looking for redemption in the origin, for a clean line of patrilineation, and what they found instead was the mess of the biological: complex system triggering complex system until everything teems with life.


This essay received generous attention from Annie McClanahan, Julian Gill-Peterson, Ted Martin, Joseph Varga, and Karen Weingarten, in addition to Alexis Lothian and the Editorial Collective at Ada. I appreciate all of them. I received crucial support for the composition of this essay from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies and its director Richard Grusin. Draft versions were presented at the Science Fiction Research Association conference in 2012 and the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2013.


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Sheldon, R. (2013) Somatic Capitalism: Reproduction, Futurity, and Feminist Science Fiction. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3VX0DFT

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Laubenberg is quoted by Eric Nicholson in his Dallas Observer blog of June 23, 2013.
  2. By “neoliberalism,” I mean the move toward deregulation, privatization, and putatively free global markets that though ongoing since the 1970s reached a particularly fevered pitch after the 2008 credit crunch. For more on the meaning of the term and its domains of operation, see Harvey.
  3. By “immunitary,” I mean the analogy of the body of the state with the biological body and the concomitant capacity to distinguish host from parasite, welcome guest from invading stranger. For an account of immunity as the central organizing logic of modernity, see Esposito.
  4. I am indebted to Nicole Shukin’s sophisticated analysis of the relations encoded in the notion of stock in her Animal Capital, as well as Sarah Franklin’s wonderful Dolly Mixtures.
  5. “The Century of the Child” was the title of an influential 1909 monograph by Ellen Key that advocated for the centrality of the child to a well-functioning society. On biopolitics: Foucault’s description of biopolitics unfolds in “Part Five” of History of Sexuality, but it is by no means the only one. For an excellent overview of the various and competing meanings of biopolitics, see Michael Dillon and Luis Labo-Guerrero’s essay “The Biopolitical Imaginary of Species-Being.”
  6. I am aware of the extent to which I am un/naming queer theory here. That this is an argument for the queerness of nature—both in the sense that nature moves in nonlinear chains that belie the logic of hetero-reproduction and in the sense that classical queer theory can be understood as an incisive deconstructive reading of the epistemic co-constitution of gender, sexuality and nature—emerges far more emphatically in the larger project from which this essay is derived.
  7. In this connection, see Dorothy Roberts’ excoriating exposure of the structuring exploitation of women of color in reproductive services and of the differential treatment of and access to women’s reproductive health services for wealthy white woman and women of color. As Roberts makes clear, racial oppression merely changes form under conditions of neoliberalism.
  8. Pro-natalism and reproductive futurism have very different objects and affective registers: tied as it is to abortion politics, pro-natalism appears angry and aggrieved and is directed toward women, while reproductive futurism is often expressed as a relation of hopeful delight around children. Despite these differences, I submit that pro-natalism takes part in the logic of reproductive futurism. Where reproductive futurism exhorts us to do the (reproductive) labor of futurity, pro-natalism generates that legal bonds that make such labor compulsory.
  9. For a convincing reading of postmodernism in terms of this activation of subindividual capacities, or what he calls the “postbiological,” see Milburn 2005.
  10. Not all of these are “reproductive” in the same sense. By putting them together under this rubric, I hope to underscore a) the extent to which the products of production processes have their own internal dynamism and b) the way that this dynamism exceeds the filial to include unexpected germinal horizons.
  11. See Stockton 2009. For another examination of the strange temporality of the child, see my “Reproductive Futurism and Feminist Rhetoric.”
  12. See in particular Petchesky 1987 and Stabile 1992.
  13. It not only has its own Sparknotes manual, an indication of its tendency to be taught to secondary school students, but it also sports a place on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most banned novels.
  14. With regard to Handmaid’s Tale, both “feminist” and “science fiction” are contentious terms. Atwood famously rejected science fiction in an interview about the book, proffering “speculative fiction” instead; since its publication in 1986, Handmaid’s Tale has elicited mixed reactions from feminist readers some of whom see its critique of difference feminism as swamping its denunciation of gender-based totalitarianism.
  15. In a excursus on Handmaid’s Tale in the context of her reading of Children of Men, Sarah Trimble calls attention to the context implied by the presence of the colonies and the expulsion of all people of color—”the children of Ham” (83) in the world of Gilead—to those colonies. Trimble argues that this is evidence that the novel primarily encodes fears of the decline of the white race, an explanation also endorsed by Professor Pieixoto, the condescending historian whose lecture about the reconstructed narrative ends the novel.
  16. As Sharon Rose Wilson explains, however, the name Offred offers a range of subversive connotations to astute readers. Most prominently, its encoding of the word “red” connects Offred both to the Red Cap fairy tale tradition and to the color’s connection to political dissent. Read slant, Offred resembles the word offered.
  17. It is worth noting that the second half of the novel, which concerns an illicit romance between Offred and the household chauffeur Nick, also reveals a sexual underground. Offred is courted by the Commander and eventually taken to a nightclub where sex outside of the Ceremony takes place. This section extends Atwood’s critique of gendered relations of power around sex and sexuality.
  18. Which is not to say that these checkpoints are not also fraught with the gendered dimensions of power that accompany surveillance. Jimmy’s mother, who eventually joins the resistance, rants about the disproportionate use of strip-search by the male guards on the women of the compound (51). In an allusion to Offred’s story, Jimmy’s mother’s accomplice is one of the guards. (60).
  19. For Gerry Canavan, the novel “effectively destabilize[s] the affective coordinates of post-apocalyptic fiction, in which the post-apocalyptic landscape is a horror and the pre-apocalyptic landscape the longed-for object of nostalgia” (141).
  20. This aspect of Oryx and Crake echoes in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a connection that demands further attention than I can give it here.
  21. It is worth noting that an important thematic is child sexual slavery. That these various forms of property relationship exist on a continuum—rather than occupying their usual polarities of legal/illegal—is one of the novel’s interventions. This comes to us through the character Oryx and, like the connection with Ishiguro, deserves further consideration than I can give it in this essay.

A Curious Doubled Existence: Birth Here and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction (SF) relies on the symbiotic relationship between the technological and the social. This is often illustrated by the tension between the scientific and medicalized process of reproduction (via uterine replicators, cloning, and genetic modification) and the primal, ‘natural’ process. Varied levels of technological advancement and associated societal changes across the myriad planets within her SF universe allow Bujold to structure this tension as an emotional and social process as much as a medical or obstetrical one, while maintaining a respect for the choices, risks, and vulnerabilities involved in becoming pregnant. Contrasting the experiences of three births depicted within the series––Cordelia Naismith and her son Miles Vorkosigan; Alys Vorpatril and her son Ivan; Ekaterin Vorsoisson and the simultaneously replicator-gestated ‘twins’ Helen and Aral Vorkosigan––allows us to situate Bujold’s explorations within our contemporary discussions around birth choices, technology and medical interventions developed over the past 30 years. Her depiction of medical intervention and the experience of pregnancy offers a philosophy to integrate the technological and the natural, manifesting a socio-cultural experience that does more than simply extrapolate from existing technological advances.

Bujold’s SF work highlights and integrates women’s experiences into the narrative. It is this examination and ultimately hopeful yet practical approach that makes Bujold’s work feminist – it is “Invention…stories and role models and possibilities, that prepare us to leap barriers and scale heights no one has reached before, that prepare us to change the world.” (Gomoll 6). The three births depicted are quite different in the context, the aftermath, and the socio-emotional performance of the method by which the births take place, but they share a common theme: trust and fear of the biological and social process of birth. The fears and emotional contexts expressed by the women echo those shared by contemporary women in discussions around birth, and the increasing prominence of women’s voices, experiences and histories within culture. Bujold’s depiction of the planetary society of Beta and their reproductive control mechanisms has been read as a feminist utopia of sorts within the text and by readers [1] but the author calls it “psychological allegory, actually a sly sort of fantasy with technology,” disavowing any intended utopia, feminist or otherwise, both in and out of the text. Sylvia Kelso challenges this with the observation that “feminist discourse and feminist stances turn up, apparently naturalized” in post-80s SF, including Bujold’s work (Kelso and Bujold 404). The existence of the births in the text reveals some of those feminist ideals around women’s stories. The practicality of Bujold’s depictions is what allows them to resonate so clearly with contemporary concerns, even as they have left her work open to pigeon-holing as space opera, or otherwise not taken seriously as ‘hard’ science fiction (Wisse n.p.). However, Lee posits that

Bujold uses the replicator to explore the implications of technologically mediated reproduction within varied set of social arrangements, linked through their reliance on the replicator for reproductive control… the narratives render this central point cryptic, a footnote within the more overtly military or detective-fiction action. (Lee, “(N)ovum” n.p.).

Thus the position of reproduction within the society itself, and our own, contributes to the invisibility of the uterine replicator as ‘hard’ tech. Bujold’s identification of her work as ”fantasy with technology” (Kelso and Bujold 404) with the naturalized feminism and foregrounding of women’s stories and experiences, points to those primal emotions of fear and trust in the process of birth that exist regardless of genre, dependent entirely on the authorial integration of reproduction into the narrative.

The main considerations shared by the three women are about birth and technology, death or separation, and the aftermath of birth. There are obvious overlaps––for all the characters birth and death are inextricably interwoven, as are technology and the aftermath––but the threefold theme of birth, death, and life creates a matrix to explore Bujold’s writing and contemporary concerns. For most of human history, birth has posed the greatest physical, emotional, social and financial risk undertaken by women and women alone; even with current technologies around gender and reproduction, it is still a risk undertaken by anyone capable of becoming pregnant (which remains primarily women-as-a-class, even with our progress around gender issues). Bujold depicts this as the defining difference between the genders; women and hermaphrodites [2] possess the possibility of pregnancy, forced or otherwise, and this in and of itself embodies their experiences in the world in a way not shared with those who are incapable (which is only men––those who can engender the pregnancy but not endure it [3]). Even within the pseudo-utopian permissiveness of Beta, where upon menarche young girls receive a contraceptive implant, a hymenectomy and are welcome to visit Licensed Practical Sexual Therapists, women and hermaphrodites are still vulnerable to unwanted or forced pregnancies. Primarily these are engendered as part of the Barryaran war campaign, but Cordelia refers to unlicensed children, and mentions that rape still occurs on Beta–– she does not elaborate beyond those points, but simply acknowledges those un-licensed pregnancies as “… so rare, they’re dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 17). The technology that allows the characters to have fully functioning and side-effect-free contraception is no protection against a forced pregnancy, just as the uterine replicator allowing a fetus to exist outside its mother is not protection against the outside world. Both somewhat utopian concepts are revealed as only artificially restructuring the experience of women and hermaphrodites to the minimum level of male involvement in reproduction, thus maintaining a reflection of our contemporary gendering of reproduction with the added benefits of Bujold’s technological future.

It is from this unequal risk that her characters, along with women worldwide, embark upon constructing families, in a variety of ways both familiar and unfamiliar. Alys Vorpatril’s natural conception, pregnancy and birth are a familiar narrative and a ‘control’ to reveal the existence of ‘natural’ birth within Bujold’s future vision, with Cordelia Vorkosigan’s natural conception, interrupted pregnancy, caesarean section and uterine replicator-housed infant slightly less so––even as her experiences will resonate clearly with anyone who has given birth to a premature infant, or undergone a difficult pregnancy. Ekaterin’s textual experience of an entirely in vitro conception and birth is the least familiar, as she eventually risks missing the birth of her own children. However, the three characters echo a number of contemporary concerns around birth, natural and medically assisted––the technologies, the dangers, the separations and what comes afterwards, regardless of how one identifies with the method of birthing. It is this marriage of technology and the very physical, very emotional context of birth-giving that subverts what Sarah Lefanu calls a “…dualistic notion of character versus technology” within SF  (“Sex, Sub-atomic particles and Sociology” 181). Bujold’s integration of technology into embodied experience shows her own distance from the conventions of the genre, illustrating instead her focus on the social. Ekaterin’s experience, as alien as the concept may be, still does not pit her against the technology; instead it allows her children to exist even as the possibility arises that she and her husband will not survive.

Birth, death & technology

The concept of the uterine replicator is not new. They have an established history in the literature ranging from Ann Oakley’s warnings on the obstetrical power imbalance and obsolescence of women in The Captured Womb: A history of the medical care of pregnant women (1984), and the genetically and mechanically modified decanters from Brave New World (1932) to Shulamith Firestone’s visions of a feminist utopia only possible with artificial reproduction in her The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and the carefully maintained and nurtured ‘tubing’ of David Weber’s Honorverse (1992-ongoing). The uterine replicator can fill many societal functions, and recall varying levels of body horror, misogyny, or positive medicalization; Bujold’s SF portrays the uterine replicator almost entirely favorably in terms of the outcomes and the adoption of the process, with the spectre of ‘death in childbirth’ both very real and very present, for mother or child. She addresses not only the socio-emotional cost of pregnancy, but also the physical and the economic cost to society. This is a theme throughout her work and addresses the ways in which communities seek to ensure each child born is wanted, cared for and integrated into society. However, she does not present the uterine replicator as a technological utopia free of harm, risk or failure, as illustrated by the birth-givings of Cordelia, Alys and Ekaterin. This uptake of the technological process of birth, be it the uterine replicator in Bujold’s universe or caesarean births and epidurals in contemporary society, creates sites of tension where the historical narratives––from the idea of birth pains as punishment to unmedicated birth as an indicator of personal power––are at war with the expressed desires of many women, and are also subject to the manipulation of male-dominated medical structures seeking to dictate access to the technology, or to semantically separate the woman from the fetus as demonstrated in Hartouni’s Cultural Conceptions (1997). Even though Bujold depicts the dangers of the uterine replicator, she does not offer a one-sided or incomplete vision of what the technology offers to women and to society.

Cordelia Naismith is the protagonist of two of Bujold’s SF works – Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991) (collected together as Cordelia’s Honor in 1996, which is the omnibus referenced in this essay); in these novels she is variously an astrocartographer, (space)ship Captain, prisoner of war, smuggler of arms, war hero turned traitor, vice-Regent, mother and foster-mother to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Her journey from her home world of Beta (highly technologically advanced with legendary social and sexual freedom, economically stable, democratic and affluent) to Barrayar, the home world of her eventual husband (settled then isolated for 600 years, misogynistic, warlike, technologically bereft, poverty-stricken, with extreme class-based differences but on an upward trajectory economically and becoming more progressive/’galactic’ socially) is punctuated by war, secrecy and her own fractured sense of home. She goes on to be a recurring character in the rest of the series as the mother of the protagonist––and retired Vice-Regent, and Vicereine of a newly settled planet that she herself had discovered, and progenitor of a variety of scholarships and schemes for increasing Barrayar’s social and technological wealth.

When Cordelia falls pregnant she seeks to be ‘good’––by Barrayaran standards, which means a ‘body birth.’ On her home world she would not have considered a body birth or even a ‘natural’ conception due to the risks of her chosen career but without the technologies of home, and seeking the social approval of a watching planet, she chooses to follow the path of least resistance. [4] After her fears around body births are realized when an attempt at assassinating her husband poisons her and the treatment damages her five-month-old fetus, she begins to rebel.

The primitive Barrayaran back-to-the-apes style gestation was nothing but the utter failure of reason to triumph over emotion. She’d so wanted to please, to fit in, to try to become Barrayaran. . . And so my child pays the price. Never again. (Cordelia’s Honor ch 9)

At first she is pushed towards abortion as Barrayar has a deep-seated societal loathing of disability, evidenced by infanticide for the obviously disabled at birth, euthanasia for the wounded and social isolation for those who do not choose suicide, but in order to provide the best possible chance for the fetus’ survival and health she chooses to continue the pregnancy in the uterine replicator as the medical treatments would otherwise kill or cripple her. To achieve this, her pregnancy is interrupted by a caesarean that ultimately almost kills her:

 Vaagen plunged his gloved hands into her belly as dark whorls clouded Cordelia’s vision, her head aching, exploding in sudden sparkling flashes. The blackness ballooned out, overwhelming her. The last thing she heard was the surgeon’s despairing sibilant voice, ‘Oh, shit…!’  (Cordelia’s Honor ch 9)

Her recovery from this takes place as part of the narrative (as opposed to some recent surgical births in science fiction, such as Shaw’s self-administered C-section in Prometheus) and explicitly notes the violence of the act, even within the medical context––“The vibra-scalpel had made a cleaner cut through her abdomen than, say, your average sabre-thrust, but it was no less deep.” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 9). There is no escaping, even within the technological framework, the embodied experience of pregnancy and birth and the recovery from the same. Her son Miles is saved and treatment begins in order to address the effects of the poison. It is at this point that Cordelia reflects on how her choices are what ultimately affect both her and her child. Her desire to conform, both as a newcomer and as a high-status woman, was at odds with her initial ideals and it is this conflict that arouses her anger, particularly the pressure to abort the definitely ‘damaged’ and disabled fetus and continue performing as her new home society expects. She maintains some support for her actions in continuing the pregnancy via the replicator from her husband and others, but suffers significant amounts of confrontation and attempts at manipulation, including an attempt to ‘abort’ the uterine-replicator-housed infant. This societal pressure to maintain a eugenically motivated ‘purity’ reflects, unkindly, our own statistics and rhetoric around abortion of fetuses bearing markers for disabilities, the selective non-treatment of disabled infants (Saxton), and the experiences of mothers in those scenarios. The technology that saves lives within the context of reproduction is delivered on the basis of perceived worth and it is only Cordelia’s will, choice, and status that allows Miles to access and benefit from the uterine replicator and the treatment it enables. This narrative structure, of the pressures placed upon the pregnant woman by both society and the medical establishment with treatment a punishment or reward, is a common trope within birth stories; the social has an inextricable effect on the medical, particularly within something as emotionally fraught as birth.

At the other end of the technological spectrum is Alys Vorpatril’s birthing of Ivan. Alys is an aristocratic Barryaran woman, whose husband Padma is related to Cordelia’s husband Aral. Through the series she remains a representative of the women of the High Vor and devoted to the ‘feminine’ arts; as the series progresses she becomes the Social Secretary for the Emperor and is revealed as a conduit for domestic information and espionage. However, she gives birth to Ivan at the beginning of the series ––a few weeks after Cordelia’s placental transfer and in the midst of a civil war. Her planned birth is sent awry by the war––she has no sterilized hospital or friendly doctor. Instead, during labor, she is in hiding from soldiers and eventually captured by the same. Her waters break as she is captured and threatened by the enemy forces. She is found because her husband, Padma, is intent on finding a doctor or midwife against her wishes. He is murdered in front of her, but she is rescued by Cordelia (and her motley group of guerrilla fighters). Less than an hour after Alys is rescued she gives birth on the floor, with Cordelia’s armsman, Bothari, as midwife.

And so the tableau hung, for spasm after uterine spasm. Alys looked utterly wrung, crying very quietly, unable to stop her body’s repeated attempts to turn itself inside out long enough to catch either breath or balance. The baby’s head crowned, dark haired, but seemed unable to go further.  (Cordelia’s Honor ch 16)

Instead of Padma’s promised doctors she is attended by a group of four people, of whom only the deeply psychologically unstable armsman has any experience with birth. This scene encapsulates many of the concerns and fears around contemporary homebirth, from the un-hospital-like surroundings, to the lack of an appropriately trained attendant, to the danger of a baby who is “…unable to go further.” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 16). Bothari employs what we can identify as probably a McRoberts Maneuver to assist the birth: he “…crouched, frowned judiciously, hunkered around to her side, placed a big hand on her belly, and waited for the next spasm. Then he leaned.”  (Cordelia’s Honor ch 16) This is a far cry from safe, gentle or painless, or the disembodied promises of a technologically assisted birth. Within the text, Bujold does not ignore Alys’ “brave and bloody birth-giving,” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 19) but instead positions its very success as what allows it to be ignored by the surrounding society. It is a depiction of shoulder dystocia, one of the most common yet most dangerous complications to befall an otherwise straightforward labor and birth, and one that, as a cause of hypoxic brain damage to the infant is most often implicated as a major risk for non-medicalised births in contemporary culture and features heavily in discussion of the risks of homebirth (Australian Medical Association 17). It is also a depiction of a very low-tech method for resolving said complication, with the positive end result being socially invisible.

Yet for all the textual misgivings about natural ‘back-to-the-apes’ birth, it is Alys’ son who is ‘whole’ while Cordelia’s pays the price for her coerced decisions. The fear of mutation or disability on Barrayar is flavored strongly with misogyny; ‘protecting the genome’ via infanticide or abortion is women’s work and Cordelia’s refusal to adhere to the social contract is a rejection of both the teratophobic and the misogynist culture that results in the (thriving) survival of her son and her husband. Alys’ acquiescence is not rewarded, though, and Padma dies for his lack of faith in her ability to birth unattended. Later in the series, when musing about births, it is Alys who is most emotionally compromised. While speaking with her son and his new wife, she elaborates on her feelings about the birth 35 years after the event.

When I went into labor, Padma panicked. I begged him not to go out, but he was frantic to find someone, anyone, to take over the terrifying task of delivering a baby that women all over the planet had been doing every damned day since the Firsters landed … So he went out, leaving me alone and petrified for hours with my contractions getting worse, waiting, … I knew, then and forever after, that it wasn’t his bravery that killed him—it was his cowardice.  (Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance ch 11)

This too echoes much of the contemporary concern about homebirth and natural birth debate being “less about the evidence for or against its safety, and more about underlying issues such as the meaning of safety itself and the struggle between paternalism and maternal autonomy” (Freeze p292). Padma’s response to Alys’ birthing is not about her, but about his desire to simultaneously act and to distance himself, to control the act. It is not the birth itself that traumatizes Alys or Cordelia, but the reactions of those (men) around them and the actions they take against their will, or in Cordelia’s case, the actions she chose in an attempt to conform to their desires. Cordelia’s victory of her logic over Barrayaran irrationality is made apparent in the survival and ultimate triumph of her son while Alys’ victory is far more pyrrhic, with Padma’s death taking the narrative place of her own. Cordelia’s rationality is based not purely in the technological science, but in a “…ruthless theism…” whereby “…tests are a gift…”  (Cordelia’s Honor ch 15) and situated entirely within her psycho-social understanding of humanity. It is this conflict between the life-saving technologies of obstetric intervention (uterine replicators, caesarean sections, epidurals, medications) and the common ability for women to undergo pregnancy and birth without those technologies that underpins much tension in contemporary discussions of birth––and the depictions within Bujold’s work.

Ekaterin’s birth-giving contrasts with the violence of Cordelia and Alys’ experiences; her children are conceived in vitro and gestated in vitro, gene-screened to ensure neither of them are subject to genetic disease. She and her husband (Miles Vorkosigan, series protagonist in his own right and Cordelia’s aforementioned disabled son) perform diplomatic duties during the gestation and she ably assists in averting outright war while coming within days of missing the births of her children. Due to the uterine replicator, the births can be pushed out to the limits of the technology, allowing her enough time to return and attend their births. The uncertainty of birth-giving is her professional schedule, not the vagaries of the body. The event itself is a disconcertingly calm contrast to the previously mentioned body-births (Alys’ vaginal birth and Cordelia’s initial caesarean.

They advanced to the table. Ekaterin went around, and the techs scrambled out of her way; Miles hooked his cane over the edge, supported himself with one hand, and raised the other to match Ekaterin’s. A double snap sounded from the latches. They moved down and repeated the gesture with the second replicator.

‘Good,’ Ekaterin whispered.

Then they had to stand out of the way, watching with irrational anxiety as the obstetrician popped the first lid, swept the exchange tube matting aside, slit the caul, and lifted the pink squirming infant out into the light. A few heart-stopping moments clearing air passages, draining and cutting the cord…  (Diplomatic Immunity epilogue)

The embodiment of this experience is shared amongst the family, with none of the fear or pain of either Alys’ or Cordelia’s experiences (or at least, Cordelia’s initial experience). Unlike Cordelia, Ekaterin evinces no emotional preference for the technological method, simply a practical acknowledgement of the putative safety; a limited safety as, when war looms, everyone is vulnerable, regardless of gestational habitat––which is something that she is explicitly aware of as the partner of Miles and privy to his own damage from birth and to Cordelia’s experiences. This birth-giving of Ekaterin’s twins shares much with Miles’ second birth from the replicator, illustrating further that it is the emotional context of birth that provided much of Cordelia’s conflict. Even though Miles was small, weak and obviously disabled, the second birthing was much more emotionally harmonious with her beliefs; even though it was in direct and open conflict with her father-in-law and much of society. At that point her internal equilibrium is maintained by that adherence to her own ideals instead of the socio-emotional pressures to perform birth acceptably regardless of the consequences. The social context of the birth is what gave it the power. It was not simply the closeness to death, but the knowledge that by attempting to body-birth against her own principles, she had compromised and paid the price. The second birth of Miles is part of that price, but it is also a triumph of Cordelia’s principles, and for all the traumas of the journey, the birth itself is a matter of “If you can open a picnic cooler, you can do this.”  (Cordelia’s Honor ch 20)

Bujold’s writing rejects the tendency for science fiction to have “a certain contempt for the associations of the flesh.” (Griffith 258) This embodiment, the blood and pain and tears and joys of both the technologically assisted birth and the natural within her writing, allows for the depth of the experiences to be illustrated rather than simply the technological advances. These depictions of birth and the emotive socio-political context surrounding them, both as they are written and as the series treats them, align with contemporary arguments around birth and reproductive technologies as vocally illustrated within various, and varied, online contexts. The fear of death, both child and mother, is expressed in nearly any discussion about birth and is covered in layers of judgment from anti-homebirth to anti-caesarean. We have no risk-free uterine replicator to avert the dangers of pregnancy or birth. Instead we have the acknowledged dangers of caesareans – infection, bleeding, increased complications for subsequent pregnancies, inadvertent harm to the infant either mechanically during the operation or also by creating a pre-term birth and the issues arising from that (Main, et al.) or In Vitro Fertilization and surrogacy. IVF itself has higher risks for the woman during both the process and the pregnancy (Mayo Clinic), as does surrogacy, particularly egg-donation or embryonic transfers where the fetus bears no genetic similarity to the mother, as this increases her chances of life-threatening and pregnancy-threatening complications such as eclampsia and premature birth (M.L.P. van der Hoorn). We also have the incubator, the techno-medical precursor to the uterine replicator, the development of which has reached a slow plateau at an absolute viability limit of around 22 weeks (with serious disability almost certain at this point). This, combined with IVF, is about as close as contemporary reproduction gets to the uterine replicator. Both offer far greater risks to mother and child than a ‘natural’ reproduction (albeit one that may or may not be technologically assisted by other means).

Bujold’s future reproductive technology still includes risks, and those are reminiscent of the contemporary and historical risks faced by women. In the contemporary moment and recent past, women’s bodies are still subject to “the use and abuse of so-called ‘advances’ in the fields of technology…” (Armitt 6)––the spectre of thalidomide and other untested substances being provided to mothers and creating long term effects and disabilities, forced sterilizations and symphysiotomies, hover over any obstetrical intervention, not to mention the countless stories of arrogance, abuse or mistreatment within the contemporary hospital system to be found in nearly any discussion of birth [5]. This is still the case in Bujold’s work; the permanently disabled mother-survivors of the treatments that Miles undergoes are mentioned only obliquely when discussing exactly how to treat the fetus without damaging the mother, providing an example of the mother-fetus semantic divide noted by Hartouni (1997) made flesh. Cordelia’s own decision not to abort finds a mirror for Saxton’s contention that “…some medical professionals and public health officials are promoting prenatal diagnosis and abortion with the intention of eliminating categories of disabled people…”  (“Disability Rights and Selective Abortion” 377). Cordelia’s position is an intensely personal one but she does not shy away from the effects on both her family, as the decision not to provide Miles with siblings that he can be compared to or disinherited in favor of, and the world around her as a very visible example of what she wishes to inspire, and how difficult that is for Miles.

The ‘galactically enlightened’ aversion to ‘body births’ often stated by Bujold’s characters is undercut by the textual experiences of the characters and the ways in which those experiences of technology and birth interact with the societies depicted. In contemporary terms this aversion would focus on unmedicated/natural birth, on the increasing medicalization and resultant backlash against the same. It is the modern equivalent of using Firestone’s ”pregnancy is barbaric”  (The Dialectic of Sex 190) to excuse and invite the ‘humanizing’ and elevating process of technological intervention without controlling for or acknowledging the complicity of a deeply patriarchal medical industry. Yet for each study proving the myriad problems laid at the feet of caesareans, the amount of surgical births is increasing in response both to maternal desires and to the aforementioned medical ‘abuse and use’ of technological intervention. Uterine replicators are a natural imaginative outcropping of contemporary technologized birth and one that, as with the aching of Cordelia’s abdominal scar and her fears for a child being treated in a techno-nursery miles away, will resonate with many women’s experiences. Conversely, Alys’ experience almost directly speaks to the faith in one’s body to birth that is a cornerstone of many ‘natural’ birthing traditions, and it will also resonate with many women. Birth is a multifaceted and intricate site of conflict within women’s bodies, society and technology, and the complexity of Bujold’s depictions are an extension of the choices of contemporary mothers. The conflict she examines is not new and the tensions she illustrates were in evidence during the 1970s and 80s as much as they are now, illustrated by Firestone’s arguments against the natural birth movement, and Dahlen’s arguments for the same, nearly forty years apart  (The Dialectic of Sex 1970, “For some women, unassisted home births are worth the risks.” 2012). Instead of this back and forth, Bujold offers a meta-textual affirmation of trust in women as a class, not just their bodies. She does not simply offer the uterine replicator as the only choice, or even the best choice, but simply what is chosen by many women. The textual preference for the replicators is undermined by the juxtaposition of Alys’ birth-giving and Cordelia’s initial caesarian, although the replicator births of Miles and thirty-something years later his own twins is almost as complication-free as that of Alys’ son Ivan and without maternal trauma.

Pro-uterine replicator ideologies in Bujold’s work are often expressed not as a judgment of the woman or her choice but as a sense of horror that she would be ‘forced’ into that experience––unlike the rarer instances where characters express discontent about in vitro births, which are invariably accompanied by the misogyny-tinged complaints of ‘taking the easy way out’ and ‘ducking one’s duty’ familiar to any discussion around contemporary IVF, caesarian or epidurals. Yet, even on Beta, with its highly advanced technologies, body births are still chosen, are still an option for those possessing the necessary equipment; on Beta this constitutes everybody due to technology allowing men to transition and gestate using their own genetically modified and ‘grown’ female sex organs. Occasionally the aversion is tainted with disgust, primarily from inhabitants of the worlds in which not only are uterine replicators standard, but reproduction is entirely technologically mandated and genetic modification is widespread. The only world with that apparent mandate on uterine replicator use (Cetaganda) is also the long-term antagonist of the series, and a culture that engages in the extremes of genetic modification to the point that children are unlikely to be genetically related to their parents. Similarly, Jackson’s Whole seems to have something akin to a mandate, and it too is an antagonist world, as well as one with a heavy bias to extreme genetic modification. The uterine replicator is a manifestation of eugenics rather than feminism on these worlds and the disgust a result of implied distance from the female and physical embodiment of birth.

The risk of death remains a facet of pregnancy and birth, regardless of technological advancement. As such, birth and death are inextricably bound within the stories we tell; from folklore to Disney, the mother dies. Bujold subverts the expected narrative of maternal death and she accomplishes this without the comforting magic of technological miracles. Her work posits an incredible amount of technological advancement within birth, genetic modification and reproductive health, but it does not wipe the slate clean, it does not remove the death/birth binary, it does not cleanly remove the mother. As the series progresses Cordelia and Alys’ birth-givings are perpetually referenced, for good or ill, and their emotional power as parent or care-giver is explicitly referenced.

It’s . . . a transcendental act. Making life. I thought about that, when I was carrying Miles. ‘By this act, I bring one death into the world.’ One birth, one death, and all the pain and acts of will between. I didn’t understand certain Oriental mystic symbols like the Death-mother, Kali, till I realized it wasn’t mystic at all, just plain fact. A Barrayaran-style sexual ‘accident’ can start a chain of causality that doesn’t stop till the end of time. Our children change us . . . whether they live or not. (Cordelia’s Honor ch 17)

Bujold allows her characters to grow, as child and parent, with the transmission of knowledge that entails (for good or ill). Mothers and care-givers are active within the narrative, as mothers and as free agents, and relationships are formed around that maternal identity. Even on Athos, the all-male colony, paternal caring is explicitly wound through the narrative, as is the still-necessary female presence in the ovarian tissues they require to continue reproducing.

It is this juxtaposition of birth and death (or at least the risk thereof) in which the meanings of the uterine replicator become clear. It is used, superficially, within Bujold’s work as a method by which anyone can reproduce, no matter the presence of a womb (although an egg is still required for reproduction – cloning is available to all, requiring only a smear of genetic material but is subject to a number of different legal/ethical identifications within universe that place it adjacent to but not precisely reproduction depending on social context) but it is still a tool of the society within which it exists. On Barrayar the uterine replicator offers unacceptable social and medical freedoms to women and would not be permitted except the eugenic potential is of high enough value to circumvent the opposition to social change. On Beta, home of the technologically free with contraceptive implants and uterine replicators for all, reproduction itself is tightly controlled and licensed, a dystopically flavoured utopia where each child is wanted and cared for in a safely middle-class existence at high cost to social freedoms. The call for licensing parents is a common one, but such calls often either condone or ignore the hierarchical privilege, the benevolent eugenics, inherent in the act – on Beta, only the licensed may reproduce, with financial restrictions placed on that licensing. Cordelia herself points out “Sexual behavior seems open at the price of absolute social control on its reproductive consequences. Has it never crossed your mind to wonder how that is enforced? It should.” (A Civil Campaign, ch 16). This juxtaposition of freedoms recalls Sarah LeFanu’s identification of sexual freedom/autonomy as key to the feminist dystopic/utopic future  (In the chinks of the world machine: Feminism and Science Fiction) but addresses the embodied experiences of contemporary life that dictate our relationship with sex and reproduction and the as yet inextricable link between the two. When women, and only women, carry the risks and possibilities of gestation, it remains a gendered experience that is affected by the same societal expectations and demands of any gendered experience. [6]

The aftermath

In Bujold’s writing, as in contemporary society, the effects from birth are not transitory. Mothers can, and do, evince PTSD-type symptoms from the birth-giving of their children. (Alcorn) Alys talks about her yearly pilgrimage to Padma’s death site, and the smell of burning hair; Miles acknowledges that his birth, his disabilities, are what prevented his parents from having more children. This, in and of itself, is a tension for Cordelia––she evinces a desire for many more children while still bodily pregnant with Miles. However, after his transfer, treatment and birth, she acknowledges that on Barrayar for her to have subsequent children would marginalize Miles even more and require technological advances such as cloning, genetic modification, uterine replicator specialists, that she believes are simply unavailable. She explains to Miles’ clone, who she claims as a son, that “you are my second chance. My new hope, all unlooked-for. I never thought I could have another child. On Barrayar.” (Mirror Dance ch 18; my emphasis). Her own fears of what Barrayar would do to Miles, to any more of her children, forestalls her desire to have more children; contrary to much of our contemporary ideas of birth, it is not that which has traumatized her but the societal response to her child’s disabilities. Alys, bound by the structures of the society, does not take another husband and without that legitimizing presence would have not more children. As Lee puts it: “She must remain of perfect breeding, in good taste, with impeccable manners, else risk losing all of her credibility in high Vor society, the locus and basis of her existing power” (“Legitimacy and Legibility: Rereading Civil Discourse Through Feminist Figurations in Cordelia’s Honor” 35). Ekaterin, whose first birth was a ‘body birth’ and as a result her son’s genetic disease required treatment as a teen instead of before conception, is able to feel secure in the knowledge that her future children will not be subject to hidden diseases as her first husband was, or her first son. While those ‘hidden’ diseases are in contrast to the very obvious disabilities of her second husband, Miles, his issues are not genetic, unable to be transmitted to their children. It is the fear of mutation, and the social ostracism because of it, that drove her first husband to outlaw genetic treatment for either himself or his son while allowing the ‘galactic’ technology of contraception to infiltrate his household. With Miles, the fear and treatment of genetic disorders is written plainly upon his body. The fear of mutation or illegitimacy is what drives the respective reproductive choices of Ekaterin and Alys. Again, the method of birth is not the site of the trauma, but the societal manifestations of bigotry and misogyny around the body and the performance of birthing.

The aftermath of bringing uterine replicators to a technologically ‘backwards’ world is at first small and contained: fetuses engendered by war crimes being sent home to their Barryaran fathers, gestated to maturity, then raised in orphanages. In and of itself that presents a moral quandary and a rejection of some contemporary statements about the ‘rarity’ and/or ‘impossibility’ of pregnancy by rape; if the child is returned to burden the rapist, not the mother, what does that imply about the emotional connection? After the last child is adopted out, the uterine replicator transforms from technological womb to site of medical breakthroughs for other treatments, and back to allow an entire society to change as women become increasingly aware of their options – a revolution of sorts (Lee, “Legitimacy and Legibility” 29) . An extreme gender imbalance develops on Barrayar, similar to that seen in some countries but caused by the indiscriminate uptake of sex-selective medication rather than sex-selective abortion and differential birth control use, and results in a scarcity of women within certain demographics (Cho 64). This scarcity combines with the prevalence of both maternal and fetal death in childbirth and a deep-seated societal fear of genetic mutation, and allows for uterine replicators to quickly become socially tolerated, in spite of the otherwise very overt misogyny around reproduction. It is no stretch to imagine that the replicators would take the place of NICU units––Miles’ birth is very close to contemporary limits of viability and the replicator he is placed in fulfills many of the same functions. As with contemporary discussions of abortion and micro-preemie care, his birth also creates tensions between women’s reproductive rights and disability activism.

Abortion is still in existence in Bujold’s future, even though fetuses can at any point be transferred to a uterine replicator. When discussing the transfer of the replicators and fetuses to Barrayar, Cordelia says “I’m surprised––maybe they just didn’t want to argue about sending them home with any of the mothers. A couple of them were pretty emotionally divided about abortions. This puts the blood guilt on you.” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 11). Cordelia herself assumes that, should she have gotten pregnant during her captivity, the fetus would have joined those being ‘returned to sender.’ Bujold does not shy away from the results of this return; from there those children are adopted out, and in one case, Elena Bothari, goes on to become an important character in her own right––a character who, by virtue of the distance (emotional and literal) from her mother, has no knowledge of her conception other than what her father, the rapist, has told her. The supposed simplicity of adoption as a solution to rape-engendered pregnancy that is not abortion is played out in emotional detail and, by virtue of the uterine replicator, separated from the maternal experience until well after we are introduced to Elena. As readers, we know more than she does: we know about her conception, and we are prepared for her horror both at knowing the circumstances of her birth and at the realization that she is biologically created from a rapist and a murderer. Her character, like Miles’, illustrates the positives of the uterine replicator but also the complicating factors of that technology that goes beyond the simple alternative-to-abortion argument. The oblique idea here is that these women could have chosen abortion, even though a technology exists that could nurture the fetus to maturation – it may seem like a startling concept except that even with contemporary technology there are concerns as “ever-lowering ages of viability broke the nexus between pregnancy termination and fetal death.” (Cannold n.p.). This illustrates again Bujold’s continued affirmation of trust in women’s choices.

There is no simple or easy answer to be found for reproductive choice, even with the uterine replicator. Bujold positions women as ultimately the arbiters of their reproductive choices, be it in vivo, in vitro, abortion, treatment or not to reproduce at all. A character notes that the very few men who insist upon body births are able to find women willing to put themselves through that process and that, while women are still unable to hold many positions of power within Barryaran society, they do wield the social power of scarcity to enforce their preferences. It is a power that is reliant on support from older generations––Alys’ position as social organizer for the Emperor allows her to enforce this social edict from the top as well, and when the Empress chooses to use a uterine replicator it is seen simultaneously as a blow to the traditionalists and to the Barryaran way but also as a much needed step forward for the planet. Her power, limited by legislation, nonetheless manifests a deeper social change than can be explained only by her choice; it is her choice, and the social support of the Emperor, and Alys, that signals the move from the socially enforced rule of body births to a wider choice. Cordelia says, earlier in the series, that

The old men in government councils spend their lives arguing against or scheming to fund this or that bit of off-planet military hardware. Meanwhile, the uterine replicator is creeping in past their guard and they aren’t even conscious that the debate that will fundamentally alter Barrayar’s future is being carried on right now among their wives and daughters…Too late to keep it out, it’s already here. (Mirror Dance ch 16)

Her observation is the mirror to Aral’s earlier comment that “The new technoculture is producing plebe progressives as fast as our schools can crank them out” (Cordelia’s Honor ch 14). It is not simply the theoretical and the technological that force societal change, but people living with those theories and technologies. Cordelia also acknowledges that the keepers of tradition are often women, again echoing those contemporary arguments around medical intervention in birth, where it is primarily women who are arguing for and against it.

These steps forward for Barrayar echo those for contemporary women with respect to birth control and medical treatments during pregnancy, with access varying across age, class, race and community. We can, mostly, imprecisely, and not without occasional serious consequences to our own health, control our fertility and no longer suffer loss after loss due to Rh sensitivities, or uncontrolled diabetes, pre-eclampsia or hyperemesis gravidarium, or any of the myriad ways in which pregnancy killed our female ancestors. It is similar with the advances in neonatal care and viability. These changes, while not as obvious as the uterine replicator in their effects, echo down the generations. Miles’ missing siblings harken back to the tiny graves of our forebears’ buried children, and highlight the relative scarcity now of fetal and infant death. Ekaterin’s first husband’s hidden genetic disease, and its presence in her son, recall the arguments about genetic testing in Western countries and resultant abortions, and the discussions about ‘designer’ children springing from that testing (Stangl). Even though it could easily be considered that “almost nothing else in medicine has saved lives on the scale that obstetrics has,” birth, technologically assisted or otherwise, still suffers from a (very Barrayaran) notion of ‘women’s work’ and commensurate lack of status (Gawande). As Oakley suggests, the medical culture of birth is still rife with misogyny and “harness(ing) paternal/patriarchal assumptions about women’s personality and role to the service of its own ascent to professionalization.” (Oakley 254). To apply Oakley to Barrayar is to note that the uptake of the uterine replicator happens not only to acquiesce to women’s demands, but it is also to assuage a culture-wide fear of mutation and illegitimacy. Bujold’s future includes the use of the uterine replicator to facilitate a male-only colony in Ethan of Athos, and significant levels of genetic modification from the creation of the four-armed Quaddies to the slave-creations of Jackson’s Whole to the eugenicist desires of Cetaganda, even as it is also used by women to sustain their pregnancies by choice or necessity, or to return the fetal product of rape to its father. Technology can be used both by women and against women.

It is the symbiotic and detailed relationship between the emotional and the physical aspects of birth and technology depicted by Bujold that allows for a nuanced relationship to be developed. From that relationship, our contemporary discussions can also borrow her nuance and integrated understandings. One of the themes of her work is that “societies seek to solve the same fundamental problem—to assure that all children arriving will be cared for.” (A Civil Campaign ch 16) With this focus, Bujold does not ignore the immediacy of the physical embodiment of childbirth but equally holds little sentiment for the ‘pastoral’ or even ‘femaleness’ (Gordon) marking her work as a covert kind of feminist SF. Bujold offers a practical vision of the future that fits within the social structures we ourselves see. Our own technologically assisted births are increasing but not without some opposition; Bujold integrates those concerns but does not restrict herself to a narratively or politically satisfying ‘side.’ Instead, like birth itself, she presents an incredibly complex weave of socio-emotional ideals, technological breakthroughs and the absolute uncertainty of the human experience. By exploring the range of uterine replicator usages, including the dystopian, the woman-erasing and the amoral, while not shying away from the positive, she illustrates contemporary concerns about medical/technological interventions during pregnancy and offers a better framework for discussion. The technology itself is not the issue; women’s choices are not the issue; but the patriarchal and exploitative mechanisms using those things are the true concerns.



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Baker, L. (2013) A Curious Doubled Existence: Birth Here and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3R49NQV

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Yes, I agree, going from relatively egalitarian Beta to bizarro feudal, patriarchal Barrayar is a definite downgrade.” and “Being a woman, I’d of course rather live on Beta Colony. Barrayar may be far more picturesque, but I would never choose to be a second-class citizen…” as reader reactions and Kareen’s flippant “If that’s Barrayar, I’ll take Beta!”  (A Civil Campaign, ch 16)
  2. This is the term Bujold uses within text, and has been identified as problematic by a number of readers and reviewers. The first of the series was written in the late 70s and early 80s and much terminology is a legacy of that. In her universe the hermaphrodites were originally genetically engineered as a social experiment on the planet Beta. They prefer the term ‘it’ as a pronoun and possess male and female sex organs capable of sex and reproduction.
  3. This includes trans* people within her future who are able to transition and receive surgery that includes sex organs cloned from their own genetic material (possibly with that of family members where necessary, and genetically ‘repaired’ to remove any abnormalities). Even with the presence of flawless birth control the possibility, however probable, of pregnancy is shared only by those possessing a uterus – contraceptive devices offer no protection if they are removed. However, reproduction can be performed via cloning and uterine replicators without the introduction of eggs.
  4. The author herself notes that even within the constraints of Barrayar, Cordelia was “…always autonomous, or at least knew she was there by her own choice.” (Kelso and Bujold 409)
  5. Symphysiotomy, the severing of the pubis symphysis cartilage to widen the pelvis during obstructed births, is rarely used intervention with significant morbidity for mothers that gained traction in Ireland between the 1960s and 1980s as doctors sought to avoid caesarean sections as the restrictions multiple sections placed upon women’s future reproduction did not align with the prevailing religious code (Payne). Often performed without informed consent they are a manifestation of adverse reproductive coercion by medicine based on socio-religious teachings, and of an intervention that can provide enormous benefit when used with informed consent and for appropriate medical reasons (Verkuyl).
  6. This is not to say that gestation/pregnancy is only experienced by women, or similarly that one must be capable of experiencing it to be a woman. Currently the experience of gestation and pregnancy is one only experienced by fertile people with a uterus and this is almost exclusively women as a class and as such is an experience loaded with gendered expectations and treatment. This has resulted in a sensationalizing of the ‘spectacle’ of the pregnant man (such as the media surrounding Thomas Beattie) while maintaining the gendered social expectations of pregnancy/birth including the medical treatment of pregnancy.

Toward a Zombie Epistemology: What it Means to Live and Die in Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012) begins with fertility.

The movie opens in the middle of the most banal of office scenes, with two white-shirted white men futzing around in a break room. Hadley complains about his ongoing conflict with his partner over their potential child, while Sitterson extracts a coffee from a vending machine. Although Hadley and his partner are still in the process of trying to conceive, she has already begun child-proofing the house. Draping himself over a water cooler, Hadley describes it. “Dude, she did the drawers! We don’t even know if this whole fertility thing is going to work, and she screwed in these little jobbies where you can’t even open the drawers!”

Sitterson waves off the “nightmare” of the drawers. “Sooner or later,” he shrugs, they will be necessary; to him, Hadley’s future child is an inevitability, and Hadley’s partner’s impulse to protect it is natural. Hadley, on the other hand, views the whole process as a jinx. “It guarantees that we won’t get pregnant. And,” Hadley concludes, “it takes me about twenty minutes to get a fucking beer.”

This scene was part of the initial pitch for Cabin in the Woods; Joss Whedon originally explained to co-writer Drew Goddard that he wanted to start the movie “with two guys in a break room, talking about fertility” (Fernandez n.p.). The film is generally described as a meta commentary on the horror movie genre, deliberately identifying and satirizing common elements of horror films to comment on audience desires. (When the seemingly inevitable horror movie zombies appear, Hadley, Sitterson, and their colleagues view them as boring and yet incredibly good at their job: “they have a 100% clearance rate.”) Whedon himself describes his project as trying to figure out “why [horror] movies follow this pattern”(“Joss Whedon and Amy Acker”).

By beginning with a discussion of reproductive technologies, and continuing to focus as much on scientists and engineers as on cavorting coeds, Whedon answers this question with an indictment of the real-world institutions of modern science in all of their bureaucratic, banal, and globally-destructive glory. He answers horror with science (fiction), critiquing the methods through which we make knowledge about the world.

What is it about us, Whedon asks, that makes us so drawn to the voyeuristic slaughter of the young? Cabin makes us reckon with the violence that feminist and queer theorists have argued is at the foundation of our social world. It dims the screen to reveal the violence that, if it were eliminated, would destroy the civilized arrangements in which we place our faith and understand our futures. The ideology of Cabin is what James Scott has described as high modernism, “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, … the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws” (4). The staff in the cabin’s control room work all year to create the perfectly ordered sacrifice of a select few. This efficient combination of deaths, supposedly deserved, will keep the gods happy and ensure the survival of the rest of humanity. It’s the cost of doing business; they accept ritual sacrifice just as we accept a certain number of deaths and mutilations to industrial accidents, clinical experiments, or radiation exposures in order to keep the economy roiling and our civilization alive. In our high modernist, technocratic world, a certain quantity of deaths are “axiomatic,” written so completely into the functioning of modernity that to remove them would mean death for all, the death of our future.

Cabin answers Whedon’s questions with a far more unsettling premise than that typically used to explain away our horrific obsession. We are not answering the call of our reptilian brains, not looking to fight back against modern capitalism, not grappling with the threat of plague or radiation or chemical warfare. We want to watch teenagers being fed to zombies, selfishly, because we know that our own lives depend on it.

What does it mean to die?

Queer theorists have begun to take a critical stance towards a dominant politics in contemporary western culture that makes appeals based on the projected needs of the future. Often, this future becomes ideologically embodied in the form of an idealized child. As Lee Edelman describes, our politics is in the service of a child who “remains the perpetual horizon, … the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” For that Child, our entire conservative politics “works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child” (7). Edelman characterizes this drive as society’s overwhelming reproductive futurism.

Judith Halberstam links such a reproductive futurism to the goals that are often espoused in the name of society’s hypothetical future children. “Success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily,” Halberstam writes, “to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2). Such success is specifically cast as a kind of prepared hopefulness where, by financially entangling individuals into particular family and community structures, we might be able to ward off whatever it is that is impending at this moment: global economic collapse, the death of the American family, etc. The imperative to work for the survival of future generations, rather than for happiness in the moment, makes it not only possible but a seeming inevitability that life must be for many people an exercise of sacrifice.

Hadley and Sitterson’s opening conversation immediately establishes that Cabin in the Woods recognizes this worldview. Hadley’s frustration with child-proofing mechanisms situates us within a world that recognizes that sacrifice for future children is an undeniable good. When Hadley whines about not being able to get a beer, we are supposed to recognize this as both funny and a little pathetic, a man-child learning to balance his own needs against his (future) child’s. Sitterson plays the role of the wise elder in their interaction, reminding Hadley that the instinct to protect is “natural” and, by implication, right. Hadley, like all parents, must submit to the technological system of child-proofing, despite its impediments to his own happiness. To think otherwise—to be more concerned with his beer than with his child’s safety—is mockingly immature and selfish.

So the scene is set.

After showing us the banal white-shirted workplace of Hadley and Sitterson, the film throws us into the saturated, summery world of five college students who banter their way into the movie’s ostensible plot: a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods that will eventually go horribly, horribly wrong. As they are introduced, each character is deliberately positioned both as an archetype and as a subversion of type. Curt, for example, barges into Dana and Jules’ conversation with a “Think fast!” and a thrown football, but immediately follows up with an educated opinion about Dana’s coursework and a suggestion (rife with foreshadowing) about how to manipulate her professor’s opinion. Jules, similarly, bops into Dana’s room with a brash and sexual sensibility, but all of her denigrating comments about Dana’s books are clearly sarcastic. The first thing we learn about her is that her blonde hair (typically so meaningful) is brand new, an ephemeral fashion choice rather than a permanent identity marker.

Crucial to the movement of the movie’s plot are the ways that these characters submit to or resist their most simple definitions: scholar, athlete, virgin, whore, and fool. For them to serve their purpose, they must be recognizable as an ideal type, but it must also be clear that something is amiss. The extent to which these characters are stereotypes is not of their own design; their personas, as well as their trip to the cabin, have been engineered by the scientists and managers that work with Hadley and Sitterson in their underground control room. The cabin itself has been made available by a mysterious cousin; the chemistry department laces Jules’ blonde hair dye with a chemical to alter her state of mind; the control room pumps pheromones into the air and changes its temperature to influence their behavior. At all stages, their path is manipulated to put them in the right place at the right time. Each of them has a specific role to play in the unfolding of Cabin’s primary ritual.

The ritual is, as will become clear, a ritual sacrifice. In the conceit of the film, the human world is built upon—and in the service of—evil gods who live beneath the earth’s surface and demand a yearly blood sacrifice of the young. The organization for which Hadley and Sitterson work is the bureaucratic apparatus through which that sacrifice takes place. It works in the fashion of the other twentieth and twenty-first century institutions of science upon which it is modeled, segmenting its task into specialized units rife with a multitude of staff, including lab-coated professionals, mid-level managers, technicians, interns, and security guards. (The chemistry department handles mind-altering substances, for example; the demolitions department orchestrates cave-ins and other destruction; Hadley and Sitterson manage the control room; interns scuttle around making bets.) It incorporates a complicated, nearly unknowable technological infrastructure to complete its task, one which distances technicians both logistically and ethically from their messy work of murder. And with banal predictability, it is run as a workplace hierarchy. Each individual reports to a manager in turn, from the guard at the door to the Director at the top, who only intervenes in the mess of operations when absolutely necessary.

The only character who reliably subverts the institutions’ intentions is Marty. An exaggerated stoner, Marty is the group’s prophet, and ultimately savior, in his own way speaking, living, and dying Cabin in the Woods’ queer truth. When he arrives to join the group at their Rambler RV, he rolls up in a beater car, windows down, smoking out of a bong made from a modified stainless steel coffee mug. As his friends reprimand him, he irreverently schools them: “Statistical fact: cops will never pull over a man with a huge bong in his car. Why? They fear this man. They know he sees farther than they, and will bind them with ancient logics.” Later, once they are all in the Rambler and on their way, he expounds further: “That’s the whole point [of the trip]! Get off the grid… One goddamned weekend when they can’t global position my ass… Society is binding, right, it’s filling in the cracks with concrete. Everything is filed or recorded or blogged. Chips in our kids’ heads so they won’t get lost? Society needs to crumble, we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.”

He holds up a large joint. “You will come to see things my way.”

This is Marty’s queer theory prominently on display. As Halberstam describes the project, “The Queer Art of Failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world”(2-3). As Edelman puts it, “at the heart of my polemical engagement” (and at the heart of Marty’s) “lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism”(3).

They see the ways that locking adults, and the children they supposedly serve, into a global technological system actually does little for their own good. You can hear the plaintiveness in Marty’s voice as he describes those chips in kids’ heads that keep them from being “lost,” from experiencing a world in which they might not be rigidly positioned.

Marty recognizes that this kind of futurist orientation is, as Edelman says, “always purchased at our expense,” (4) as well as at the expense of our future children. Despite our sacrifices in their name, our children also have little hope of ever making choices that would exempt them from sacrificing themselves either. Rather, the technological system serves itself. It conservatively serves to perpetuate itself, and with it those who are positioned as its wielders.

Cyborg epistemology

In the original sense of the term, the world according to Cabin in the Woods is a straightforward (if incredibly logistically complex) cybernetic system. Each year five youths are sacrificed, their blood drained into the earth through a series of manually operated pipes, leaving the gods appeased and allowing humanity to begin its preparations for next year’s ritual destruction. In this sense, every actor and actant in the film is a cyborg interacting with another human or technological piece of the system. This is especially true of the five youths chosen for slaughter. They are always controlling or being controlled by a mangle of people, chemicals, monsters, and various other technologies of command and control. [1]

To Donna Haraway, this very mangle provides the opportunity for transcendence — a transcendence not of the material world but rather of one’s history and subjective baggage. In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” she writes of the “border war” that has been created between the organic and the machine, and she sees the creation and employment of this dualism as one of the primary mechanisms through which inequality is made manifest and justified. In its place, she proposes a theory for understanding the world in a “non-naturalist” mode, “a world without gender” which would consequently be a world without birth or origin. For Haraway, the cyborg privileges the knowing, ironic self that imagines itself to be free of its origins because of the thoroughness of its embodied knowledge. Instead of a language of rebirth of the self, which connotes both biological sex and chance for a parental influence, Haraway’s cyborgs cope with the world and its violence through a “monstrous” regeneration. Such a world without birth would also, then, be “a world without end”(150).

Despite the cyborg’s emphasis on communication and network building, an individual subjectivity is still central to its ontology. Without even the idol of a potential future child upon which to focus attention, the modus operandi of the cyborg appears to be the further independent development of its own embodied selfhood.

But in the cabin in the woods, any faith in an individually embodied self is skewered, proved to be not only folly but itself the very basis for continued oppression. The built environment from which Haraway imagines her cyborgs building brand new, asexually reproduced selves is allegorized in the form of the cabin’s cellar. The lynchpin upon which the sacrifice hinges, the cellar in the cabin is filled with dozens of evocative objects: a wedding dress and locket, a conch shell, family pictures, film reels, a jewelry box, the diary of a young girl. It is the last, the diary, which finally sets into motion the murderous action of the film. When Dana picks it up and reads out loud the memories of Patience Buckner, it is Dana’s choice of this object that calls the whole Buckner family, risen from their zombie graves, to come kill her and her friends.

The cellar and all of its creepy, gruesome, wondrous possibility is the crucial mechanism through which Cabin’s system of sacrifice takes place; it is the illusion upon which the stability of the entire system is predicated. As Dana whispers with horror once she understands, “They made us choose. They made us choose how we die.”

When Truman, a new sentry, is introduced to the control room, it is an opportunity for the movie to explain this system. He is particularly upset by the betting that has developed around the cellar, in which individuals and departments bet on which object (and which connected grisly fate) will be selected by this year’s sacrifices. Truman, witnessing the machinations made by the entire crew to even get them to the cabin, questions how such betting can work.

Truman: How can you wager on this when you control the outcome?

Hadley: We just get them in the cellar. They take it from there.

Sitterson: They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise the system doesn’t work. It’s like the harbinger. He’s this creepy old fuck that practically wears a sign: “YOU WILL DIE.” Why do we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him. They have to choose what happens in the cellar. Yeah, we rig the game as much as we need to. But in the end, they don’t transgress?

Hadley: They can’t be punished.

The way of the cyborg is not, as Haraway claims, merely non-dichotomous, a “powerful infidel heteroglossia” (181). In actuality, to the extent that it cleaves to cybernetic discourse, it is totalizing in its emphasis on stability. The cyborg creates a new holism out of the wreckage of the built environment. But its goal, ultimately, must be that of the system from which it has so ceremoniously sprung: the continuance of self. (It is no surprise that only Marty, the stoner prophet, is adamant that the group should leave the cellar. He is aware not only of the trap of the microcosm of the cabin but also of the trap of human civilization as a whole.) This is why the epistemology of the cyborg is, in fact, a lie and a manipulation. It posits that the only way to know the self is as part of a system of technology and organism, relying on embodied knowledge to make radical new choices. Yet the cyborg and its body are literally weighted with the expectations and desires of whomever made its parts. Its embodiment will never be its own. Because of this, it can never know itself as anything other than a child: with different desires from its parents, perhaps, but still in their image.

Haraway attempts to dismiss this dilemma, recognizing that “the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential”(151).

Yet her own concern with the future—with the continued subjective experience of the cyborg and the world it inhabits—belies this premise. Cyborg epistemology has incorporated reproductive futurity into its raison d’être. Cyborg fathers are not inessential, nor invisible; they are merely distributed. The cyborg father is Hadley and Sitterson, sitting behind a computer terminal. The father is the voice of the Director through a red phone, chastising underlings. The father is the chemicals pumped into the air to subdue and instigate compliance. The father is the internalized obedience of a young woman who raises a gun to kill her friend, because the alternative—a world without human order—is too much to imagine. The cyborg father proscribes his children’s possible modes of engagement, whether he is at their bedside or not, because he has created their conditions of possibility. The cyborg may choose what to pick up, but it’s still in the cellar.

Zombie epistemology

Cabin in the Woods concludes with an affirmation of a zombie epistemology, one grounded in a drive towards death, failure, and a radical, spectacular renunciation of the individual and its symbolic future. Zombies, in their relatively short history as monsters, have been inextricably linked to systems of imperialism, global capitalism, science and technology. From Haitian legends of zombies raised from the dead to work in sugar mills (White Zombie) to zombies created by rogue radiation brought back from space exploration (Night of the Living Dead) or by a pandemic virus instigated by irresponsible research (28 Days Later), zombies have stood in for the unknown, unacknowledged victims of high-modernist technoscience.[2] Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have called zombies “the only modern myth,” referring to our twentieth-century facility with rationalizing death and destruction at the population level. We understand certain individual deaths (even many individual deaths) as simply the price of civilization in a technocratic era (355).[3]

In our twenty-first-century zombie movie, our human protagonists are the victims of this monolith, although they are no less dead for being living. When Marty and Dana finally make their way down into the bunker where the monsters and the control room are housed, they are met with the disembodied voice of the Director over the loudspeaker: “What’s happening to you is part of something bigger. Something older than anything known. You’ve seen horrible things… but they are nothing compared to what came before, what lies below. It’s our task to placate the ancient ones, as it is yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us, and let us get it over with.”

In the final minutes of the evening they are met by the Director in person, who confirms the rules of the world in which they are operating.

The Director: The sun is coming up in eight minutes. If you live to see it, the world will end.

Marty: Maybe that’s the way it should be, if you’ve gotta kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change.

The Director: We’re not talking about change. We’re talking about the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet. Including you. You can die with them, or you can die for them.

Marty dismisses her offer, but Dana raises her arm to point a gun at him. The Director implores Dana to be strong. Marty watches her. “Yeah, Dana. You feeling strong?”

But in that moment, a werewolf attack forces Marty and Dana to stop fighting each other. Then the zombie Patience Buckner attacks the Director, sending them both into the abyss that leads to the ancient ones.

The kids are left, beaten and bloody, on the steps of a ritual altar. And so they ask: what if, instead, we fail? What would seem unthinkable to the cyborgs—the destruction of their subjective and symbolic future—now seems the only option left. Dana takes a puff on Marty’s last joint and says, “You were right. Humanity… It’s time to give someone else a chance.”

Edelman similarly writes: “When I argue, then, that we might do well to attempt what is surely impossible—to withdraw our allegiance, however compulsory, from a reality based on the Ponzi scheme of reproductive futurism—I do not intend to propose some ‘good’ that will thereby be assured… We might rather, figuratively, cast our vote for ‘none of the above’” (4).

“None of the above,” as I see it, is the abdication of our obligation to the idealized future of our genetic offspring. A proposed zombie epistemology would push this abdication further, freeing us from the intense cultivation of even our cyborg selves. So long as we are building ourselves out of the literal wreckage of war, and knowing our bodies and ourselves using the same instruments of science that have made us experiments (and sacrifices), we will only ever know ourselves as our creators knew us. Though as cyborgs we might appropriate knowledge from scientific journals, in applying it we accept for ourselves the risks that were only conceived of as applying to an abstract population. Though we might free the speculum from the hands of a professional gynecologist, in wielding it we internalize the rightness of his vantage point, knowing ourselves as he might see us instead of how we might feel us. Though we might try to make the best possible choices about what to eat, where to live, when to work, and how to take care of ourselves, cyborg choices will always be informed by the science and technologies that were made by powerful people considering the interests of the whole system. The interests of all of the individual cyborgs were never part of the plan, and this makes system-knowledge dangerous to them.

Zombies, conversely, cannot deny their place in the horde. They don’t have subjectivity. They don’t optimize. They don’t bricolage. They are the sacrifice to the high modernist system, and thus they can understand the lie: the system does not serve the lives of its members. The scientists in Cabin in the Woods don’t sacrifice five children each year in order to save every other person on the planet (although that is a positive externality); they sacrifice five children each year for the satisfaction of powerful gods. When we punish our bodies to lose weight, optimize our cholesterol, or maximize our fertility, it is because placing ourselves on our physician’s bell curve is the only way a cyborg knows how to be good. They serve the bell curve, not themselves.

Zombies cannot know themselves, not according to the ways of knowing that generations of scientific establishment have codified. They know themselves to be part of a horde, but their knowledge is local. Their knowledge is embodied, but they know that it is tainted by the decay and destruction of the thing that made them. They are the least powerful as individual victims (it is no accident that, during her life, Patience Buckner was violently abused by her father), but also incredibly powerful as a collective. They work, not for the future or for the system, but for themselves.

To embrace a zombie epistemology is to recognize our limitations as subjects of power, but also to accept the radical implications of not seeing ourselves as high modernism sees us. It is to accept that science treats us as interchangeable members of a population, but to push back against knowing ourselves in the same way. The dictate of the cyborg, internalized from its distributed patriarchy, is to self-actualize, to actively build and rebuild oneself using the tools and knowledge left behind. The dictate of the zombie, in contrast, is simply to be: to be radically embodied, to be present only in the present, to let go of the possibility of discovering, categorizing, organizing, and optimizing a self. As Edelman puts it, “the queerness of which I speak would deliberately sever us from ourselves, from the assurance, that is, of knowing ourselves” (5).

As Marty might say, isn’t it about time? As cyborgs, the teenagers “chose” the means of their own destruction. But as a zombie, Patience Buckner found her way to the Director and ended her own torture. Together, they destroyed civilization.

What new modes of being might be found in their failure?

The road to the end of the world

For Joss Whedon, the road to this kind of queerness was a long one. The rejection of patriarchal control over the future has been a constant presence in his work, from Buffy Summers’ early rejection of the Watcher’s Council to her later insistence on protecting her sister even if it meant ending the world. But as apocalypse threatens, his heroes have always found a way to work out a solution to save the world. Even as Angel’s team of investigators glibly faces down the destruction of Los Angeles at the end of the television series, they still cling to one repeated theme: going down with a fight. (Angel famously stares at the wreckage of the city and directs his team, “Let’s go to work.”) And as reward for Buffy and Angel’s persistence, for buying into, as Edelman puts it, “the insistence of hope itself as affirmation,” their world, in fact, does not end (Edelman 4). Buffy recognizes that sacrificing herself will save both her sister and the world, and a continuing graphic novel series reveals a new future for the City of Angels.

Cabin in the Woods embraces an apocalyptic model much closer to the one floated in Dollhouse, in which identity, the soul, and the body were ontologically and technologically split from one another. In this world, a technologically advanced corporate entity has designed technology to “wipe” the memories and personality from a person’s mind and replace them with a newly programmed self. But after a series of events in which selves are misapplied, spontaneously generated, and destroyed, Dollhouse unambiguously showed there to be nothing natural or unalterable about our conception of personhood.

Whedon’s science fiction is becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that maybe there is nothing unequivocally good, or necessary, about our individual notion of personhood either. When in their blank state, the programmable “actives”—who are occasionally referred to as zombies in the series—often soothe themselves and others by repeating the phrase, “I try to be my best.” At first something of a weak joke (what could it mean for a non-person to be their best?), this line achieves poignancy and horror as the audience can grow to see themselves in the actives’ place, as dolls who could be made healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, or fulfilled or miserable by changing the conditions of their lives. In that world, who are we, and how do we know it?

In this way, the actives in the dollhouse are much more similar to the original zombies of western media. For the viewers of White Zombie, the first zombie film, or readers of William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, zombies were actually victims, the products of evil rather than evil themselves. Unlike later blood-thirsty models, these victimized zombies were created by white, imperial business owners to work in Haiti’s sugar mills. It is no surprise that Bela “Dracula” Legosi was cast as the zombie master in White Zombie; the master was the one to fear.

When we are tricked into fearing zombies and not their masters, we are tricked into believing that it is ourselves and our peers that we ought to fear. We are tricked into fearing that they will turn us into them. But we are all of us zombies, already, and it is a trick played by the Director that makes us think that we are not. The Director speaks in the cyborg voice, trying to convince us that we alone could be special, unique, and powerful if only we make the right choice: the virgin who can survive the slaughter by being better, purer, and more willing to play along with her expectations.

It has often been suggested that zombies stand in for a fear of the masses, in contrast to earlier centuries’ monsters, like vampires, that stand in for fears of the wealthy and powerful.[4] Such critiques may be correct, but they miss the immensity of the coup that was achieved by creating this fear, by shifting our attention and our fear away from the powerful and onto ourselves. This tremendous perversion of the zombie narrative teaches us to distrust our own impulses and instincts, rather than affirming its original indictment of imperialist, corporatist masters. Embracing a zombie epistemology liberates us from our fear of ourselves, our communities, our own bodies and what they need. It is a way of knowing the world that privileges our shared experiences and our commonalities over a competitive, acquisitive gaze.

Patience Buckner is pitted against the other kids in the Cabin, but by the end of the film they realize they are actually fighting against a common enemy. A zombie epistemology gives us license to work together to destroy the cyborg world. When Marty wonders if it’s time to give someone else a shot, this could be what he means.

At the conclusion of Cabin, although Marty and Dana regret that they won’t be able to see what happens next, they also recognize that there is nothing in the world left for them. Why attempt to preserve a mode of being that they know to be built with the blood of their friends? Their perception of the world, and their agency within it, has already proven to be so malleable as to be a fiction. Why continue to pretend that there is any desirable future in that cyborg vision? What might happen if, instead, as the giant hand of the old one springs from the earth, a zombie rises?


  1. Cabin in the Woods, directed by Joss Whedon (Lionsgate, 2012), Blu-ray Disc.
  2. Dollhouse, directed by Joss Whedon (Fox, 2010), DVD.
  3. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  4. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
  5. Fernandez, Maria Elena. “‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Spoilers: Drew Goddard Speaks Freely.” The Daily Beast. April 16, 2012.
  6. Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2011.
  7. Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.
  8. “Joss Whedon & Amy Acker – The Cabin in the Woods Interview with Tribute.” YouTube video, 5:36, posted by “TributeMovies” on April 13, 2012,
  9. Kee, Chera. “‘They are not men… they are dead bodies’: From Cannibal to Zombie and Back Again,” in Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (eds.) Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011.
  10. Lauro, Sarah Juliet and Karen Embry. “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” boundary 2 35.1 (2008): 85-108.
  11. Seabrook, William. The Magic Island. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1929.
  12. Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  13. Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
  14. White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin (United Artists, 1932), DVD.

Day, D. (2013) Toward a Zombie Epistemology: What it Means to Live and Die in Cabin in the Woods. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3MG7MDV

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. See Andrew Pickering’s 1995 book The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science.
  2. For a more thorough discussion of this trajectory, see Chera Kee’s 2011 article “‘They are not men… they are dead bodies’: From Cannibal to Zombie and Back Again.”
  3. Interestingly, in this instance the history actually belies the film. When Wendy, of the chemistry department, is explaining the system to Truman, he makes the mistake of describing the Buckners as “something from a nightmare.” Wendy corrects him; the Buckners are actually “something that nightmares are from,” coming from the old world. Unless zombies were merely waiting in the depths of some unconscious nightmare to emerge into folklore and dreams at the appropriate twentieth-century moment, the “zoology” department is responsible for much more than simple curation of the monster archive.
  4. For a nuanced examination of the myriad ways that a fear of zombies has been understood as a fear of (or of becoming) the consuming masses, see Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s 2008 article “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” They identify the transformation of the zombie from an oppressed Haitian slave into an unthinking consumer or a contagious host, critiquing the transformation of individuals under capitalism. However, Lauro and Embry treat the zombie primarily as an “ironic discursive model”; while they submit the zombie as a more appropriate post human model than Haraway’s cyborg, they ultimately focus on the individual zombie’s undead status as its characterizing feature. They seek “real world” zombie parallels in physiologically liminal individuals (e.g. patients with puerperal fever or brain damage), where this paper finds us all to be zombies: created and sacrificed en masse by a modernity that treats all individuals as interchangeable members of a population.

From Lab to Living Room: Transhumanist Imaginaries of Consumer Brain Wave Monitors


Advances in small components manufacturing have recently given rise to smallindustries offering a range of biometric devices to consumers, researchers, and DIY or “do-it-yourself” communities. These devices now include EEG (electroencephalography) or brain wave monitors, marketed as easily accessible, user friendly, affordable equipment, for use by broad markets of users in research, health care delivery, fitness, home system management, gaming, and as DIY tools for artists. Ultimately, these are data collection tools, made for a range of purposes, meant for a range of intended and yet to be discovered practices. Data collection is a key feature enticing consumers to buy. An enormous range of consumer grade biometric monitoring devices invites us to self-surveil our fitness progress, health maladies, physical therapy successes, and mood shifts, and to then collect and disseminate or even repurpose this data. These products, produced largely by North American companies, focus on a western market acclimated to cultural practices of self-tracking via the application of do-it-yourself technologies in efforts to obtain self-improvement.[1]

Popular today are a variety of heart rate and other fitness monitors and more advanced devices like the Nike+ Ipod sensor, that works with your Nike shoe to track your time, distance, and pace. More advanced, the Nike “Fuelband” tracks varied metrics (calories burned, steps taken, jacks jumped, etc.), revealing one’s exercise productivity or comparing it with one’s exercise partner, while also sending the user inspirational messages. In addition to this expansive array of sports equipment, biometric monitors track health metrics and send them directly to medical care providers. New EEG brainwave monitors are both a logical step forward for consumers engaged in personal data collection, and a curious marketing phenomenon revealing a host of odd cultural priorities.

Nike Fuel Band
Nike sensor, placed in Nike shoe

Research trajectories and university and science lab funding trends in the past decade celebrate data collection and processing as a way towards enhanced future societies, while computational theory is noted as the method best able to collect, process and employ data about subjects and communities. Information gained from the body, referred to as bioinformatics, is key to a range of culturally valued biomedical projects. Genome and stem cell projects, gene targeting and drug development, medical diagnostics, and genetic medicine generally are examples of some currently valued biomedical projects.(Thacker, 2003). Biometric devices can be seen as downgraded versions of bioinformatic research projects that bring, to a personal level, the idea that data accounts for the body, and more, that “the body can be generated through data” (Thacker 2003, p 12). Biometric devices promise, for example, an ability to predict and thus enhance or alter the body in the aim of a future where risk, health, and prosperity are managed. In other words, biometric devices suggest that our personal future progress hinges not only on biotechnological augmentation, but on personal data surveillance and purposing.

In this context, the sale of data collection devices for consumers is an important cultural practice—one that invites consumers to take part in data collection as an always already good and productive practice. The marketing resonates carefully, as will be shown, with common science stories where biotechnology is featured as citizen responsibility through idealized narratives of improved futures. In this context, then, it is unsurprising that tools once relegated to the science laboratory are invited into our living rooms for personal use. This shift suggests changes in how consumers appear to be interested in pulling, viewing, and using data off their bodies. It reveals how we accept associated and highly reductionist, illogical theories of body systems as well as the visual representations produced by these biometric devices as part of their creators’ marketing strategies.We seek to understand these shifts by analyzing the varied marketing discourses employed to sell consumer grade brain wave (EEG) monitors to a broad consumer-researcher population. We are interested in this lab-to-living-room shift because it veers away from the usual routing of science instruments to schools and public science festivals. The expansion of EEG monitors into divergent spaces constitutes a significant practice that reflects a host of concurrent cultural technology trends: neoliberalist desires for quick fixes; a growing desire for self-computational wearable and mobile devices; common discourses linking data collection to human progress; and reductionist consumer science discourses that present the body and mind as segmented, coherent, modular systems. These strong currents situate environments in which consumers and hackers come to believe that biometric devices offer biodata that can and should be purposed for other productive ends. In so doing, consumers easily overlook marketing strategies that overdetermine the scant value of the data, and repurpose it for strange ends, creating new science fictions of the personal work that we should undertake toward human progress.

Any study of how media practice intersects with the production of cultural science knowledges requires the melding of Media Studies and STS (Science and Technology Studies)—an approach few scholars have employed. Sara Kember and Joanna Zylinska (2012) argue that we need to move beyond the media object to address the linked technical, social, and biological processes by which we mediate the meaning of new media forms. The work of locating the discursive epistemological crossings from biological and social self to the consuming and augmented self (regularly using smart phone, iPad, Kindle, iPod, or sports grade biometric devices) thus presents a methodological challenge. Kember and Zylinska enjoin media studies scholars to link the creative and the critical, to track and analyze the multiple flows across these mediations.We begin to take up this challenge, asking how marketing strategies for biometric devices present science imaginaries that resonate with distinct cultural discourses and practices of targeted users via creative marketing practices. We focus on textual and visual marketing discourses designed to sell a range of popular brain wave monitors or EEG devices, formerly seconded to science labs and hospitals but now marketed to university labs for cognition research, gamers, early adopting consumers for functional uses such as home entertainment system operation, to education professionals to aid learning, and finally to artists and DIY users in hack labs for experimentation. Our analytical lens places this marketing strategy within normative consumer science culture discourses, the everyday cultural practices of these users, and broader North American cultural ideals, deeply bound to gendered and capitalist values in this post-information, globalization era. We focus on understanding how these marketing techniques tie in with an apparent desire to acquire and employ personal data surveillance devices to visualize our personal data, to obtain information of our body/self, and more importantly, to use this data in novel, productive ways

Data infatuation in liquid times

Given the broad market appealed to by these ads, it is insufficient to examine biometric devices as the most recent technology of self-care that works via biopower. Instead, the marketing strategy pulls upon and reifies a web of interfeeding, normative cultural values. Biopower logically adheres cultural norms together in brain wave monitor discourse and imagery––it binds biometric commodities with DIY cultures of free labor, neoliberalist values, data infatuation, and popular reductionist science fictions.  Our cultural practices are (now) deeply implicated with technologies (Haraway 1990). The age of the cyborg is past and we are living in the early days of machine augmentation—mobile and wearable devices collect, store, and communicate our feelings, moods, and biometric data for a range of communication, health, and art purposes.   Biometric commodities only make sense within what Bauman terms this “liquid” period of modernity (2007), where globalization has created insecurity, uncertainty, and a personal and collective sense of impotence.[2] Bauman tells us that society is increasingly viewed not as a structure but as a network — a “matrix of random connections and disconnections.” Within this network, interhuman bonds become increasingly frail and temporary, and values of division and competition win out. In these constantly changing environments, individuals are encouraged to meet constantly changing conditions with free choice, requiring flexibility and the acceptance of higher levels of risk. Virtue is not consistency but a readiness to change tactics, abandon commitments and exploit opportunities (rather than follow preferences) (Bauman 1990, 3-4).

In this environment, quick fixes become not only virtues, but also responsibilities and requirements for future survival. A range of scholars (Hayles, Rose, Thacker) suggest that new biotechnological tools that service self-responsibility and self-care are increasingly computational. As Turkle has shown, computational devices (e.g. the computer) are but one component in the history of self-care technologies (1984).  EEG devices, while clearly computational, are also deeply inscribed in popular science fictions that reduce complexity to manageable, modular systems and resound with imperatives for self care, increasingly presenting computation as a reliable albeit invisible solution that is the link to future, productive success. The following sections seek to unravel the cultural values that undergird these stories, crucially bonding popular fictions to biometric augmentation, to create desires for strange new technologies and their outputs, signified as progress.

A final, crucial component to consider in this story is the role of labor in the research conducted in the DIY community. These workers produce and offer findings to open source sites that industry can exploit; the findings, for example, verify EEGs as reliable devices and point industry to potential new applications (e.g. gaming and early adoption practices) for EEG devices. As Tiziana Terranova (2003) argues, the neocapitialist economy must be viewed as a crucial base from which to understand the development of cultural industries and products. Terranova writes: “Cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is …they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect”  (p 79). While there is a moral imperative to enhance one’s brain, at the same time, there is an equally compelling (moral) imperative among biometric hackers and users to offer the fruits of our labor, for free. In (western) culture, free labor is “pleasurably embraced” and “shamelessly exploited.” (Terranova, 5). New technological practices align with older practices in relying on public users as productive subjects. However, these technologies produce distinctly new practices and create novel forms of production and ways in which power intersects with knowledge  (Terranova 2003).

These cultural flows––our consumptive and productive practices—are key to the sale and purchase of EEG devices. Cultural flows are displaced and replaced in accordance with current capitalist-qualified, culturally fashionable “norms” that include varied distribution sites such as music, fashion, and information (Terranova 2004) To understand this flow, we must identify the threads of western cultural imperatives that typify EEG marketing strategies—to produce data, to labor, to biometrically augment for techno-enhanced futures. The production/consumption flows are key to understanding how the EEG can be sold as a tool for attractive new cultural practices, by resonating with lauded cultural values—neocapitalism, neoliberalist ideals, transhumanist futures, reductive science, and data infatuation. Understanding cultural flow also helps us to analyse the ‘cultural content of the commodity’ (Terranova 2004, 82) produced in the flow––its output: the cultural products of EEG labour and use.

Common cultural science stories and fictions

The cultural context that invites us to capture our own biodata and repurpose it hinges on the increasingly fragmented, reductive stories of biotechnological advancement consumers have been fed, over the past three decades, by health policy and industry product discourse. These cultural narratives intersect directly with global economic practices, the increasingly heightened value of consumption, and neoliberal imperatives for consumer/producers to be hyperproductive and competitive and to undertake innovative, constantly changing forms of self-improvement.

Stories of biotechnological science for consumers tend to be highly reductionist, often aided by visuals that segment body systems from their complex system context. Crucially, such popular science knowledges form the concepts and comparisons that come to constitute our collectively held science knowledge (Fleck, 1979). As such, visualized consumer science over the past three decades has inculcated incomplete, inexact, and even illogical tales in our collective science consciousness.

Biotechnology narratives in popular consumer health magazines, newspaper health sections, and mainstream TV and radio programs often represent weak and incomplete data as highly detailed information. This is then used as knowledge that can predict a subject’s health, wellness, and ability. Consumer information routinely substitutes stories of modular body systems for complex system stories (Hayles 2011, McPherson 2011.) These stories ask us to read modularity as complexity, and to overestimate data to mean cause rather than output. Culturally, we are comfortable with consumer science soundbites––easy to digest bits, in keeping with our quick-fix neoliberal culture. [3]

Ubiquitous visuals tend to present “the problem” (e.g. depression) as beholden to a single noxious issue (brain chemicals), declaring that the problem is reducible to a single cause. This single noxious problem is fixed, in this story, by drugs like Prozac that are said to remedy the brain chemical disorder. The other elements of the system that might trigger depression––hormones, genetics, poverty and economic stress, etc.––are eliminated from the narrative.

Popular visual renderings suggest cause and effect where there is no such data––for example, that illness is caused by single elements, repairable by single technologies (Gardner 2007)––or they employ visualisations (e.g. PET scans, which merely demonstrate blood flow in the brain) as proof of cause for “depressed” or “schizophrenic” brains (Dumit 2004).The visuals suggest that symptom is cause, and adeptly frame mind and body data in isolated activity quadrants that fragment body systems. As such, mood is reduced to brain chemical systems, perception to isolated cognitive systems, and cognitive state to brain wave systems. Because they are quickly accessible, such visuals normalize the extrapolation of data from modular systems into tall, overdetermined tales. Scholars have demonstrated the effectiveness of tactics—gendered drug advertising (Metzl 2004), glossed, gendered depression promotion (Gardner 2007), and PET scans (Dumit 2004)—that successfully impress consumers and health professionals with these reductionist logics. This practice teaches a false pedagogy for knowing biological and neurological processes, and works effectively to sell discrete tools to track discrete data (e.g. EEGs and EKGs), and discrete remedies (Prozac / SSRI drugs) to treat alleged single elements effecting modular systems.

Biology, the cutting edge of contemporary technoscience, says Sara Kember, is “the hegemonic discourse of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (2003, 178). Premises underscoring abundant research into neural networks, the human genome, and genetic sequencing all digest the mind and body into computational, biological entities (Galloway 2004, Kember and Zylinska 2012)––and have far-reaching effects.[4] These science tales have become everyday stories, so that consumers understand their bodies as computable, and quick solutions to complex biological problems as the work of good citizens (Rose 2007, Thacker 2004). The stories also impact how scientists conduct research. Lab research dichotomizes materiality to information, rendering the popular belief that information can capture all essential data about an organism (Hayles 2002). Reductionist reasoning is firmly embedded in scientific methods and instruments (Rabinow and Dan-Cohen 2006), and in digital media practice (Fox Keller 1995). The biases cause us to read life as matter (Thacker 2004); as such, biometric data comes to replace identity (Galloway 2004) and subjectivity (Rose 2007).

This reduction of the human to data reflects, importantly, the linked problematic, noted by Lucy Suchman (2007) where humans lack agency in human-computer interfaces. Suchman contends that the human-machine interface obscures the (productive) asymmetries of human and machine, places wisdom with the machine, hails the digital, and valorizes (new) technology. A preferred metaphor for the complexity of human cognition would in fact be the distributed system wherein networked communication links modules that house collections of data. Reductionist cognition, then, like human-computer interfaces, prohibits a complex analysis (of the human or cognition) by failing to address interactivity within the system. Instead, human-machine interfaces (like the EEG) are created and offered to users as forms of systematic communication, where rules are to be followed and wherein humans and cognition are engineered practices rather than complex processes. Hayles (2002) argues that modular systems are key to understanding complex systems, while Suchman (2007) insists we must understand the rules that govern interactive systems in order that humans obtain agency in the human-machine interface. In each of these normative systems (cognition and human-machine interfaces), obscuring interactions (of body-machine and body-mind) creates a science fiction that pushes us from advanced networked analysis of data toward reductive, highly structured readings of data out of context.

Crucially, consumer EEG devices appear to foreground the human and the body, representing them as devices that access rather than obscure cognition. As such, users adopt biometric devices in new personal surveillance practices that Giorgio Agamben terms ‘biological tattooing,’ which bring us one step closer to “animalism” (2004, 2). In this exchange between subjective body dataand media devices, body data is disconnected from critical context, and public speech itself becomes manipulated and controlled (2). Agamben charges: “Between these two extremes of a body without words and words without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever more scaled-down and tiny” (2004, 2). At stake is our agility in undertaking politically astute interventions as consumers, artists, and scientists with and through biometric devices that capture our personal data, frame it as information, and transform it into knowledge. At stake is whether we critically mediate rather than embrace reductionist and transhumanist norms in the creation of knowledge of human subjects.

Normative transhumanism

While reductionism is key to this science fiction, code figures prominently in the tale. Eugene Thacker recognizes a “biotech century” of life sciences and medical research characterizing the intersection of genetic and computer “codes” (2003, 72). Transhumanist premises—that technology will improve the human by improving upon our designs—resonate in information society, linking common cultural practices of computation with stories of science advancement and biotechnological consumer products. Transhumanist claims align computation across spheres of life, science, and consumption, making computation the lowest common denominator uniting these spheres and practices. The reduction of the human body and mind to code is, then, intricately tied to marketing narratives that sell biometric devices, suggesting that data from ourselves can be manipulated in the creation of improved, code-altered, future human subjects.

While length prohibits a full discussion, it is crucial to recognize that science and lab practices reducing bodily systems into subsections and modular systems rely on computational theories of the mind (CTM). The approach springs from the work of Alan Turing, who in 1936 famously produced a computing machine that linked syntax to cause and could, as such, duplicate human computing processes. A major problem, however, arose in analyzing the mental state of “attitude.” Philosophers group “attitudes” into two states: occurrent (evident in the object) and dispositional (traits in elements that are not so evident). The latter are more problematic for computational theories of the mind, as they are difficult to categorize as recurring states or phenomena. Turing himself saw this problem and, as such, separated modular from global thinking, to avoid extrapolation or misinterpretation of the theory. Respected CTM author Jerry Fodor decries the overblown commitment to CTM reflected in the sharp shift from global to modular brain processing study across the sciences, Fodor writes:  it “hadn’t occurred to [him] that anyone could think that is a very large part of the truth; still less that it’s within miles of being the whole story of how the mind works” (in Fodor 2000, 1).

This now common bastardization of CMT and framing of cognition in modular segments grounds our popular understandings, our infatuation with data, and our assumption that data retrieved from modular systems can create reasonable, even predictive information of cognition. Transhumanist discourses exploit this computational reduction of brain process, making it a new reasonable imaginary for those of us seeking to improve health, cognition, mood, and other practices related to brain/mind process. Tara McPherson (2011) recognizes modular thought as a kind of “lenticular common sense”—a practice bridging cultural thinking, from the UNIX system to racist culture. She contrasts modular thinking to stereoscopic melding of two disparate images to create 3d perspective; the former (lenticular) image “partitions and divides, privileging fragmentation. A lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context. As such, the lenticular also manages and controls complexity.” (25)

Modular logics make sense within transhumanist imaginaries that seek to improve upon human design. Advanced technologies from nanotechnology to neural computing claim to enhance, augment, and advance the human into a posthuman future.[5] A cogent metaphor from these intersecting disciplines is “uploading”––a practice likening neural pattern brain activity with advanced neural network computing, suggesting that humans’ minds can be upgraded, in time, to more durable hardware systems (Moravec 1988, 109-10). Here the mind is component. Potent science fiction films have duplicated the idea that the brain is essentially data: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and Lawnmower Man (1992), among others, extrapolate on current abilities of technology to enhance or manipulate cognition.[6] TV documentaries such as PBS’s The Secret Life of the Brain represent cognition and perception as biological, universal, and, in essence, data-driven. The series also examines visualization technologies, such as PET and CAT Scan machines, in technical terms, failing to interrogate fundamental misperceptions––e.g. that these visualizations can show cause of cognitive impairment or actions of cognition, when they instead visualize small actions in modular systems. A still image available to viewers as a screensaver (see image below), illustrates our cultural fascination with the synapse as the formidable space where data moves across the brain to (factually) create thought. Interestingly, this image is colored in sepia tones, suggesting perhaps new knowledges, but in keeping with historic with scientific commitments to empirical methods that produce facts. As the series suggests, brain data obtained by new technologies is presented to consumers as always-desirable output, and yet, its interpretation is best left to experts.

Screensaver of synaptic activity, colored in warm and sepia tones, made available to viewers, from the PBS series The Secret Life of the Brain (2002).

This is the story that Hans Moravec pegs as the hope for a transhumanist future where “we will soon be able to upload our consciousness into computers and leave our bodies behind” (in Hayles 2011, 1). Code, or data, of course, is the ubiquitous output of the upload metaphor. Katherine Hayles deems Moravec’s improbable scenario as “dependent on a decontextualized and disembodied construction of information” (2011,  1).  This imaginary grants excessive power to capture (or imagine) brain data; it is referenced in consumer EEG marketing suggesting that the act of tracking modular brain wave data (as patterns), and visualizing it, holds unforetold future applications for enhanced cognition. Our brain data is alterable and in turn we can alter our brains. In Foucauldian terms, docility and alterability are required assumptions that enable us to envision our bodies and minds in technologically mediated, positivist, transhumanist human evolutionary process.

Transhumanism decontextualizes the human and oversimplifies our relationship with technology, mitigating against cyborgian critiques of the biotechnical subject as framed by normative science practice. Where Hayles worries that transhumanism suggests corporeal limitations are transcended by technological augmentation, Thacker claims that technology positions itself to move us into the transhuman future. For Hayles, this dangerous claim also offers the possibility for critical questioning of the relations between matter, machine, and manipulation. Brain wave sensors, then, reside in a critical terrain where we can either reify or push back against modular, computational theories of the mind that reduce human reasoning, mood, personality and subjectivity to data without context and in turn represent that data as the right stuff for remaking humans.

Lab to elsewhere: from perception and synthesis to reduction and hacking

Historically, the development of consumer grade EEG monitors sits in an ancillary position to technologies that have moved from the lab to the home and to spaces elsewhere. Photographic technology, for example, moved from lab to home use; the impact of adapting this scientific documentation tool for everyday self-documentation is addressed by many including Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and others. Scientific devices developed for consumer researchers, however, have distinctively different epistemological and use-value assumptions, and differently impact how consumers learn, and expect to learn, about science.

Nineteenth-century photography was widely used as a science tool to document medical “deviants,” but the camera lost some of its science documentation import in becoming a casual tool to ‘kodak’ one’s family history archive. Different are the tools of science that move from lab to institutional and home spaces for the purpose of conducting or learning science. Jonathan Crary (1992) argues the importance of nineteenth-century optical research devices such as the oscilloscope and stereoscope, which moved from labs to public events, positioning the subject, all at once, as spectator/subject/and element in the machine. Play with devices in public forums ushered in an epistemological shift in our popular understandings of perception as something subjective (temporal) and autonomous to the subject, but also largely quantitative––showing a perception as a universal biological process (Crary 1992). Empirical experimentation transformed science observers into participants, using the machine to read the (objective) data and to create “truthful” interpretations of perception. This reified an objectivist understanding of cognitive processes where the user weeded out subjective experience from the (objective) data offered by the machine.

Charles Acland (2007) cites a later twentieth century trend of movement from lab to classroom, employing a psychology testing tool, the Tachistoscope, that measured rapid visual perception by temporarily projecting text on a screen and then removing it. Acland asks about the “cultural logistics” of this transition—the ideas, impulses and metaphors attached to the experience of this device transposed as a tool in the classroom to teach speedy perception to children (363). Where nineteenth-century science devices in public spaces worked to reduce our understanding of perception to an objectivist account, the Tachistoscope created new ways to explore the liminal zones of consciousness, or perception. As such, the brain “may work to coordinate the incoming information into composite portraits, but the point of access, and hence of quantitative measurement, is the pick up device (e.g. the eye, the ear, the skin, the tongue, the nose)” (Acland 2007, 365). The Tachistoscope both fragmented perception data and then synthesized it into broader knowledges of perception, teaching users this as a new, critical way to deal with body data capture and processing.

This public scientific technology trend—which fragmented the body into data modules—is an essential epistemological precursor to this modular logic era. Differently, however, EEG data is not synthesized in a contextual, complex understanding of cognition. The relocation of EEG machines from science labs to living rooms and hack labs entails the capture of data from body sections, to read, present, and interpret it as reputable data of the whole. As we will show, EEG data is explained as an electromagnetic frequency (EMF) output from the modular brain wave system that is represented as the data of cognition. The frequency of the brain wave (alpha, beta, gamma, theta, etc.) is correlated to a particular state of cognition––attentiveness, meditation, concentration, etc. Where the Tachistoscope invited users to do the mental work to link the data to an epistemological outcome, the consumer-grade EEG obscures the work of capture, and processing, and prohibits synthesis beyond the narrow brain wave theory of cognition. In addition, packaging literature explaining the EEG devices unproblematically correlates brain waves to cognition, which is presented simply as the effect of the brain waves. Any broader understanding of cognition as articulated to a larger system (that might include brain chemicals or hormones or environment) is abstracted from the textual and visual explanations of the data. Differently from the Tachistoscope, adopted from science for pedagogical purposes, consumer-grade biometric devices obfuscate the practices by which data is captured, processed, and transformed (albeit, not synthesized) into knowledge. Where the Tachistoscope synthesized data of perception into a theory, biometric monitors reduce the idea of cognition to one explainable by data drawn from EEG monitors gauging EMF data alone. Where consumer EEG monitors have different levels of ability to extract comprehensive or reliable EMF data, they all present similar epistemological claims that fetishize the practice of capturing from (but not peering too closely into) the brain: overvaluing the data captured and obliquely offering brain wave theory as an uncontentious way to understand cognitive ability and possibility.

EEGs past to present: consumer grade bachelor machines

EEGs are used by a range of researchers, including in neuroscience and cognitive science, as agile technologies to monitor brain wave frequencies, to better understand cognitive ailments such as seizures, coma, brain death, and delirium, as well as conditions such as sleep disorders. Researchers tend to use them for short periods of 20-40 minutes to monitor electrical activity in the brain; this makes these tools  useful to diagnose brain states, but not useful for understanding activity, for example, in quandrants of the brain. Brain wave monitors became available to consumers over ten years ago when consumers were offered the service of “BMM”  (brain-mind interfaces) by novel small industries, as a quick route to understanding one’s behavioral responses (such as aggression) or to learn to meditate. Joe Dumit (2003) found that users tried to achieve yogic levels of meditation output from the machines as evidence of self-improvement—that their ‘brain machine’ reflected the BMM machine. The machine output, rather than one’s state of mind, became the goal, reflecting a military goal of automation as opposed to a Taylorist industrial sentiment of enhanced efficiency.  Consumers, Dumit argues, sought self-improvement via machines, which ‘did it to them’ in an autoerotic, as opposed to interactive, fashion. Over ten years later, the design of these products for broad expert-consumer use demands we examine how marketing situates machine as interactive or ‘doing it to us,’ as theorized through Deleuze and Guattari’s bachelor machine.[7] In the context of understanding how we view the data coming from EEG monitors, we must ask: do today’s EEG bachelor machines produce subjects as ‘residue’ that, like older BMM machines, reunite the fragmented body—bonding desire to the ‘body without organs’—via machine? Is our predominant desire that the machine does it to us, or is there an instruction for doing it to ourselves?

It is important, with consumer EEGs, that though they still ‘do it to us,’ we as users are, tasked, albeit minimally, with taking part in the data collection activity—we pull off our brain wave data, read the visualized data (as proof of relaxation, focus, mediation, etc.) and sometimes direct the data to effect—moving a game avatar or turning off the TV set. This latter activity—the analysis of the data and the purposing of it to other effect––suggests, we argue, a transhumanist type of participation in improving upon the current use of our brain data for other functions, however novel or unimpressive.

A variety of EEG devices are available on the consumer market, including the Neurosky Mindwave, EPOC Emotiv, and NIA mobile and wearable brainwave sensors. These and the other models range in price from $150-$400.[8] EEG marketing visuals, alone and accompanied by textual stories, strongly lead consumers to interpret brain process reductively.

The textual and visual rhetoric of brain wave sensors relies on but rarely articulates CTM-type reasoning, suggesting that cognitive practices are largely computational. The science on the box simply presents the brain wave system—electromagnetic processes—as able to produce reliable data that can access and visually represent a user’s state of cognition, rest, meditation, and so forth.

As we have argued, brainwaves are most sensible in a complex system of interconnected neural activity, but EEG monitor descriptions suggest that the waves are coherent pieces of singular data. Much critical thinking regarding the nature of cognition is possible if users are presented with basic brainwave theory. Brainwaves work in the following manner, according to standard neuroscience research, as explained to us by Neuroscientist Dr. Sean Montgomery (2010). A brain cell (neuron) receives a signal via a neurotransmitter from a neighboring neuron, and responds by releasing ions into the space on the outside of the cellular membrane. As such it moves from being a negatively to positively charged neuron. The change in charge causes an electrical rush in these ions, exciting them. When sufficiently excited, the neuron sends the signal forward, and spits out a neurotransmitter to a post-synaptic neuron. This action potential of the “excitatory” neuron is demonstrated in its firing. The EEG device, which conducts electric charges, picks up excitatory energy—which is, in effect, the communication impact of complex internal interneural processing. The electron activity is measured by the EEG device, which picks up its electric signal on the outside of the skull. Notably, the processing involves both excited and unexcited neurons, but the EEG registers only the activity of excited neurons. The playground or context of the unexcited electrons offers, says Montgomery, is an interesting unexplored territory that is important to a more complete, deeper understanding of cognition.

The EEG device, then, tracks the frequency or patterns of (excited) neural activity—average peaks, across time, or the relative amplitude of each wave frequency. Relative amplitude, ironically, is defined in cognitive neuroscience as ‘convergence’: the exciting of a single sensory neuron by incoming impulses from multiple other neurons.   This modular way of framing frequency is a highly restrained theory of cognition, situated in a paradigm that seeks repetition across only similar space distributions of neurons. This ‘convergence’ ignores the larger and mysterious pattern of activity across nonexcitatory and excitatory neurons. Because excited neurons are trackable (that is, computable data), these patterns of computed frequency, amplitude and phase become defined as ‘normal’ patterns of brain waves. This critical reading of brain wave theory is instructive, because it demonstrates that theoretical factness is often constructed out of data collection situations that make do and that science models and tools (especially those measuring cognition) are optimally read by what they are unable to track.

In short, this framing of brain activity demonstrates a modular and computational way of approaching the complexity of neural processing. The (collectable) data are deemed meaningful as stand alone data. Crucially, their authenticity is reified by the visualization of the data, transforming it into information (of cognitive state), suggesting it is a scientifically validated illustration of cognitive process. The absent data and that absent story—the activity of (all) neural activity across synapses—are not made visible.   Instead, the visuals on the websites largely demonstrate the design of the EEG, rather than how it functions technically to pick up and translate brain waves (see figure below).

Images from online advertising for the Emotiv’s Epoch EEG device, to represent how brain waves work.
Images from online advertising for the Emotiv’s Epoch EEG device, to represent how brain waves work.

The marketing text and visuals roundly fail to provide information regarding how EEG data is transformed into information via brain wave theory. It simply presents EEG data as evidence of cognitive state.  The EEG devices offer applications that demonstrate your mind state, and games and applications that issue effects in response to a particular brainwave frequency. Alpha waves, said to reflect states of relaxation, calm, and meditation, register in at 9-14 Hz; Theta waves, registering 4-8 Hz, are said to reflect states of deep meditation or problem solving; and finally Beta waves, reflecting alertness and consciousness, register at 15-20 Hz. Yogis have been shown to have highly developed Theta; meditation is said to be a mix of Alpha and Theta. EEG devices invite us to trigger any of these waves to produce a desired effect. Aside from the absence of brain wave information, the devices, because they have few pick up leads, often fail to collect reliable EMF (“activator data”), and fail to correlate frequency consistently to the same cognitive state.

As well, using the EEG to activate particular brain states is difficult. Games, for example, call upon users to trigger a certain brain state in order to move a ball over a goal line or to keep a yogi suspended in meditation. Commonly, gamers achieve the desired game effect by hacking the machine—either deep breathing or repeating a mantra to produce an Alpha frequency and counting backwards to alert the Beta frequency. In so doing, users can be seen as hacking their bodies to produce symptoms or feedback (e.g. Alpha frequency). They are not generating relaxation by relaxing or thought by thinking, but engaging in practices that produce the desired effect. Counting backwards to obtain Theta frequency is like slapping one’s face to obtain a positive galvanic skin response on a lie detector. The point is that one is not learning to manage one’s cognitive process (learning to think hard, to lie or to hide one’s lying), but, rather, one is affecting the brain to generate the desired EMF frequency. Hacking one’s brain process is a way to hack the device; in both cases, users are trying to produce the desired data, not to understand cognition with complexity.

Because we get visualized output and effects from brain wave monitors, they provide the allure of peering inside the ever-elusive mind, suggesting, despite our hacking, the possibility to see one’s self controlling one’s mind. The founder of Emotive, maker of the Epoch headset, Tan Lee, whose public talks are widely available online, sees the EEG device as sharing key internet ideals of openness, connectivity and democratization. She discusses neural processing in complex ways—consisting of “100 billion nerve cells and many more support cells” (Lee 2013). Nonetheless, Lee routinely references our common cultural fascination with the mysterious brain and the “magic” of peering in with the EEG, participating in our cultural EEG story that dances from extremes of mindless fantasy to mindful complexity.

Entreaties to take part in the magic of (seeming to) peer into our brains, constrained science visualizations, and the fact that EEG data output (cognitive state visuals, playing a simple game, turning off the light) is rarely fantastic, complete EEG marketing campaigns that rely heavily on our cultural collective science fictions. The campaigns lazily use logical glossings to suggest that the machines possess novel and extreme abilities to capture and transform potent brain data into powerful results. Marketing pulls on our desires—to believe the science, to peer into and harness our own brains, to engage in expert-like data collection, to submit to the thing doing it to us. Together, these enticements pull us into a desire to allow the device to use us.

Reifying modular logic, capturing mundane data

Brain wave monitors often collect inexact or faulty data. As we have argued, the visualization of brain waves in games and other exercises with the EEG ask users to simply accept the data, rather than address it critically as an element in cognitive process. EEG games and biofeedback exercises (that teach relaxation for health benefits) often ask users to trigger Alpha waves, desirable because they signify calm. Yet Alpha waves, Dr. Sean Montgomery advises, reside more deeply in the back bottom of the skull, while many consumer grade monitors use leads that attach to the forehead. The EEG “leads” (or data collection points) problematically detect brow furrows, sneezes, and other activities that record as brain waves, muddying the data. As such, the data coming from these monitors is often unreliable. As well, the monitors output the data in standard linear representations of frequency highs and lows across time, entreating users to understand the data only within the paradigm of the brain wave story of cognition. Altogether, the marketing story for brain wave monitors constrains consumers from “synthesizing” data—as Acland finds possible via the Tachistoscope. Instead, the monitor packing information and advertising presses the reductionist framing of waves as cognition at every stage: graphic and textual explanation, visual description, and even at the level of use, where users have to hack to succeed quickly in game play..

Beyond the bar graphs that represent the data coming off these devices, the marketing employs textual and visual discourses in the pretense of scientific accuracy—to scientize the brain wave data as useful to consumers. Where the “NIA” (Neural Impulse Actuator) device distinctly presents itself as a science tool, the Neurosky and EPOC Emotiv devices exploit the authority of scientists using their tools for research and shroud the tools in CTM theory, to suggest that modular data is appropriate for predicting cognitive states. These assumptions are found in suggestions that the EEGs are useful for an astounding range of everyday tasks—cognitive assessment, cognitive play, gaming, hacking, and utilitarian home tasks. The enormous ontological leap from EEG capture for scientific inquiry to gaming or home entertainment use relies on collective fictions that this “science” data is useful, reliable, and re-computable. The marketing obscures rather than relays this process; we come to know our cognitive state (attention, meditation), and view our brains, newly, as effect generators, promising greater future results.

The NIA (Neural Impulse Actuator) by OCZ Technology.

The most effective brain wave monitors have more electromagnetic sensors or “leads” that are able to pick up more brain wave signals from diverse areas of the skull. Such devices make better contact with the skull, are user friendly, and don’t require gels to be applied to heads to activate sensors. Referred to as “space age technology,” the NIA device used a host of muscle, skin and nerve data to track “biopotentials” rather than neural signals alone.  While this might seem a more comprehensive technique for assuaging cognitive process, the NIA’s (carbon nanofibre) sensors, worn in a band across the forehead, produced poor data, and it was removed from market in 2011. The NIA marketing literature presented the device as a “computer controllable” gaming tool—a futurist way to use biopotential data from facial expressions, eye movements, and concentrated brainwave activity. Unique among its competitors, the NIA admits that its data is muddied by forehead response. With its simple online marketing strategy, the NIA device presents itself as a research tool, presumably banking on creating a community loyal to a tool that merely serves as a cheap gaming input. This modest approach and its weak data pick-up design strongly contrasts this tool to the Neurosky and EPOC Emotive brainwave monitors, which reach for bigger market segments and thus work on more potent imaginaries.

The Neurosky Mindwave and new (wireless) Mindwave Mobile have only one single sensor lead, which sits on the forehead––not an ideal site to capture desirable relaxation-signifying Alpha waves. The marketing consistently references the brainwave’s role in future cognitive enhancement and transhumanist advancement.


With its single lead, the Neurosky is not the favoured device among research scientists. They tend to use the EPOC Emotiv device, which contains 14 sensor leads that more accurately pick up EMF. To compensate for its weak data production, Neurosky’s marketing plan presents the devices as accessible, familiar, and friendly to the open source community. It seeks to naturalise the device with visual references to common cultural activities—kids using the Neurosky to game and users gazing at screens to operate home entertainment devices. This marketing strategy references, as explained, a reductionist and under-argued suggestion that potent data in our brains can be accessed by these ‘good enough’ devices, to help kids to improve their brains (Dumit 2000). The text provides a weak link between monitoring students’ attention levels (via the devices) and their improved thinking and achievement. Instead, these tasks and outcomes are persuasively linked by extra-discursive discourses—vague transhumanist texts from industry, science, and media, and potent North American educational policy directives linking assessment to improvement, and labeling inattention as a mental disorder (ADHD) in need of technological mediation.

Deeply resonant in many EEG marketing images are mainstream science fiction media (film and TV particularly) that inform our popular imagination, creating formative cultural myths regarding the crucial role of technology in human progress. While space prohibits a full analysis of science fiction narratives resonant in EEG marketing, the strongly stereotypically feminized images employed in ads are key to understanding the monitors as representations of techno-power: a dual sexualized fantasy of sublimating self to both technophilic desire and to technology itself, as has been explained by a range of feminist scholars (Balsamo, 1996; Kember 2003). Femininity in these ads is not offered exactly as a thing controllable by technology, but instead as a set of fetishized exchanges of power-data referencing femininity as potent, desirable, and available—a willing and interested site. Biotechnical marketing works successfully when it glosses illogical suggestions and makes invisible the complex context of a problem, replacing it with potent, culturally resonant discourses, including visuals (Gardner 2006). In Foucauldian terms, this is a discursive rupture—the subtle insertion of a new logic into an old, accepted logic. It works to successfully withhold “the rich uncertainty of disorder” that lies behind the “visible facade of the system” (Foucault 1969, 76).

Like the history of marketing pharmaceutical drugs to consumers, attractive female subjects are deployed as the first line of entry, offered up as a welcoming entry to the curious device. Below, a beautiful woman conjures a holographic image, beholding it with serene composure, linking a presently unachievable dream—future progress—with technology, via sexual allure. Reflecting a new kind of binding of the gendered body to social body imaginaries (Balsamo 1996), this body (or face) is represented as a subject (as opposed to the more traditional female silhouette or body fragment), transgressing the habits of marketing via female bodies. She is a subject whose mind conjures magic in and through the brain wave monitor; she is not exactly constrained, but rather, she is enjoined in the rapture of technopromise. And yet, this is not a subject in a comprehensible story—she is a subject only as an interface with the EEG device. Her (disembodied) mind alone is the thing mediating the viewers’ relationship to the odd device. In this loose story of technofascination, the mind/female might enable (but not exactly create) magical output via the EEG (brain) machine in the future, suggesting transhuman potential.


The female is not mere body, but mere brain. In that sense, she still serves the social body—as medium for transhumanist fantasies. The image can be seen as conjuring up dominant images of femininity we have learned collectively from the long-running TV and film narratives of Star Trek, often (though not always) representing the female via essentialist characteristics, and alien female leaders as failed versions of the feminine (Roberts 1999).[9] This marketing reflects cultural expectations cultivated by common representational practices that bind technology with femininity “played out through cooperation and an undifferentiated self” (Roberts 1999, 65). In other TV dramas, such as CSI and spin off crime dramas, which are popular across youth and adult age groups, femininity is linked to science work (albeit crime scene investigation), via tropes of beauty, geeky music scores and explicit heterosexual content, that fall well within normative framings of femininity.[10] Normative femininity is a knee-jerk semiotic device here, suggesting this strange new EEG machine as potent, desirable, accessible, alluring—an inviting technological innovation that keeps intact other knowledges (e.g. gender, science fictions) that we can rely on in uncertain times and with uncertain devices.The device does not promise to open up new opportunities for knowing, but rather for obtaining brain data, with perhaps little understanding. It does not in that sense challenge reductive science narratives, gendered technology paradigms, or gender’s place in normative social structures. This female subject obtains no new power, but rather harkens to the power of femininity as conduit. She seduces us to desire this new technology, while embracing paradigmatic sameness; in using the EEG we are asked to attribute the power of even poor science practice to progress, and to follow this obfuscated technology to its (seemingly preordained) logical conclusions.

Brainwave sensors for every body

Neurosky advertising suggests that the device can accurately measure mental states (such as meditation and attention), which it concedes are different than actual thoughts, but can be framed as conscious and unconscious states. It suggests that users can pull off data to demonstrate thinking or feeling, overdetermining its ability to detect cognition. The Neurosky capitulates: “Seeing that a user is in a state of calm is different from sensing that the user likes the color blue. ” Nevertheless, the marketing blurs the ability of the device to “detect” either state, focusing instead on output: “these mental states have powerful capabilities when integrated into video games, education, sports coaching, meditation, etc.” (Neurosky 2013). After all, its marketing slogan is “Brain Wave Sensors for Every Body.” This discursive framing asks consumers to accept that the machine can detect EMF data to interpret conscious and/or unconscious state, in order to engage in this fantasy—the transformation of brain signals to new information, and the promise of expanded consciousness or cognitive abilities. Users are asked to ignore the process of data collection and to be impressed by the graphic output from the monitors. In fact, subjective experience can equally work to interpret this brain activity (thinking hard, meditating), that is, the monitors’ output tells us little more than our experience already tells us. The visuals, and the referenced cultural contexts, seek to supplement our mere subjective knowledge with the knowledge provided by machine-produced “data.” EEG monitors dress brainwave data as science in action, valorizing the factness of data, reducing our mind practices to data, and focusing us on other, more interesting stories, and hopes—repurposing our personal data in novel ways.

The enormous glossing made here concerns how measured levels of mental states, like meditation or attention, prove instrumental in discourses of use—how to become a better gamer, learner, teacher, or athlete. In this case, the device safely assumes that cultural training around quick fixes and easy hacks, and the allure of personal data will create a market of complacent consumers who don’t care to know how devices capture, process or output brain waves. The presentation of the Neurosky as a “mind reading” device takes a giant step toward locating us as computationally and data-duped consumers, who have consumed in its entirety reductionist research regarding “the Brain” and “the Mind” celebrated across North America and Europe over the past two decades. The Neurosky is smugly certain we will buy its story—that any data, particularly brain data, is good and useful, and can be employed to manipulate consumers via highly overdetermined neoliberal, transhumanist discourses.

In this marketing discourse, the realm of neuroscience is both mystified and presented as a coherent field of inquiry producing incontrovertible views of conscious and unconscious processing. By referencing research affiliations with major institutions like Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Trinity College, and showing visuals of workers dressed in medical uniforms, readers are asked to trust that the brain wave science is advanced, that the brain’s modules (e.g. electromagnetic frequency emanating from brain wave activity) can be reasonably studied in isolation, and that the effect—small or enormous effects— moving gaming avatars, turning on the TV, or driving cars—reflects the integrity and power of the data.

The Neurosky marketing pulls directly on transhumanist claims to justify it as a healthcare device. Starting from a rhetoric of responsibility, its website claims: “It is our duty to preserve brainwaves so that we may continue to thrive as humans.” With the positivist linkage of human evolution to technology, the Neurosky frames itself as a home tool for self-improvement. In line with neoliberal, transhumanist discourses binding individual responsibility for self-improvement, consumers are encouraged to dutifully step up to the plate, taking on strange new data capture technologies to supplement docile brains—brains that are by definition imperfect and in need of improvement. The EEG offers us an individualistic technology for powerful self-enhancement, to administer upon our imperfect brains. The online consumer audience is told:

Technologies from Neurosky will be instrumental in the effort to harness, maintain and heal this most vital of human organs … healthy brains are vital to our family, our patients, our students, our planet and ourselves. Early detection. Frequent exercise. Periodic relaxation. Indulgent entertainment. Swift healing … That’s why at Neurosky, we make Brainwave Sensors for Every Body.


This inclusive marketing approach, threaded with the promise of health care, impossibly presents this awkward brain wave capture device as a tool for every body, via a familiar health discourse of “responsibilisation” (Rose 2006)—that consumers should pre-detect risk, find early solutions, to enhance their productivity. With this chameleonesque tool, Neurosky taps into markets ranging from gamers to yogis to hypochondriacs, gliding over the glossed rationales of its messy data, suggesting overdetermined data impact, with the overarching clause that brains matter and should be technologically embraced and modified, if not precisely understood.

This inclusive marketing approach, threaded with the promise of health care, impossibly presents this awkward brain wave capture device as a tool for every body, via a familiar health discourse of “responsibilisation” (Rose 2006)—that consumers should pre-detect risk, find early solutions, to enhance their productivity. With this chameleonesque tool, Neurosky taps into markets ranging from gamers to yogis to hypochondriacs, gliding over the glossed rationales of its messy data, suggesting overdetermined data impact, with the overarching clause that brains matter and should be technologically embraced and modified, if not precisely understood.

This Neurosky project combines the Neurosky brain wave sensor and Think Gear chip with the Haier Cloud Smart TV, allowing users to interact with their smart TV using their brain waves.  In this image, the human brain and machine are suggested to fit together like a hand in a glove.
This Neurosky project combines the Neurosky brain wave sensor and Think Gear chip with the Haier Cloud Smart TV, allowing users to interact with their smart TV using their brain waves. In this image, the human brain and machine are suggested to fit together like a hand in a glove.

The relationship between the brain and technology as belonging to one another gets further reified in how the Neurosky sells itself as a television controller. In the image above, we see that the brain inside the human head is dualistically separated from the technology intended to hold it. Their enframing within the television set, side by side, signifies that they belong together, fitting neatly like pieces of a virtual life puzzle. Playing on the idea that technological augmentation generates human evolution, the image suggests that something is lacking when pieces don’t fit together—something is lost if the dialogic opposite is not present––the brain needs a tool.

These visual references allow this new, radical suggestion —that brain waves themselves can be effective domestic devices—to become a new discursive truth. As a rupture of discourse, seeming to fit the usual logic of personal data capture, the brainwave effect story slips into our ways of framing everyday behaviors (like watching television or monitoring our daily run), inserting playful, fictionally familiar tools. Brainwave monitors thus enter our imaginaries and our living rooms as new gaming devices, fitting neatly alongside the Wii wand, Kinect sensor, and Nike sensor. In this quiet discursive slip, which looks merely like an innocent and perhaps predictable addition to our data collection tools, the EEG uses mythologies to load consumers with stories that gloss its weak data collection and overestimate its ability to know cognition. As such, EEG monitors are successfully transformed for purposes of play, home use, and research as mind improvement and even ‘preservation’ tools. EEG monitors, like other biotechnical tools, reinforce the peculiar character of advanced liberal democracies: “a complex of marketization, autonomization and responsibilization” (Rose 2006, 4). We are hailed by extracultural discourses to purchase this commodity to manage uncertainty by laboring to improve our futures at the site of the brain.

New geek markets, new applications

New Neurosky applications such as the Visualizer allow users to listen to music through their device and watch on-screen melodies that apparently affect one’s mood and thoughts. Other games promise dramatic video effects or even brain training to users conducting in fact little work on our brains. Notably, many of these games are produced by third parties, evidencing the new flow of productivity made possible by open sourced products that articulate to (biocomputational) cultural trends.

Gardner15 Gardner16

Among available games, the NeuroBoy application tells young gamers it will grant them the feeling of having super-powers as it allows them to “push” and “burn” virtual objects with their interpreted mental states. Mindwave apps reduce mind to body, enticing prospective buyers to use the devices to exercise our minds like “other body elements”.  The video game application (above) suggests great impact (controlling an action figure in a video game) via “focus;” users can trigger this brain wave effect, easily, as we have argued, by counting backwards.  Finally, the Neocomimi is the Neurosky’s new aesthetic accompaniment: it interprets sensed brain waves as moods and expresses them using cat ears for a public display of what’s on users’ minds. The ears relax when highly relaxed, move vertical when focused, extend extremely vertically and close together in quick succession when intensely focusing on something, and wiggle back and forth when the wearer finds something interesting.

Gardner17 Gardner18 Gardner19

The marketing video for the Neocomimi features a woman wearing the ears who gets intrigued by a male passerby. We watch her ears go from relaxed to focused, highly focused, and highly interested as the man strolls past; flirting is no longer a subtle affair.  Clearly seeking to appeal to youth gamers, kids, and subcultures such as cosplayer (costume play) communities, the transhumanist marketing strategies are transposed onto these dress up monitors in playful, recognizable, and normative gender play scenarios presented by the visuals. Neurosky articulates a familiar gender/technology nexus, promising to constrain technology to the desires of the social body. The bunny ear figure maintains this reductionist role of the body, infusing it with childish (culturally recognizable) play where technology is promoted for non-productive play among certain subjects—namely the girls wearing the bunny ears.


Finally, the Neurosky embraces an open-source ethos of sharing in giving away developer tools free of charge and sell chipsets in volumes as low as ten. Their website states that “[t]hough EEG has been around for over 100 years, we are still in the nascent phase of the movement. Do-it-yourselfers have shown tremendous creativity with NeuroSky technology. Our open philosophy embraces community, hacking, and sharing.” Not only is the device marketed to every body across a variety of different social categories and professional pursuits, it is marketed specifically to a burgeoning community of DIY creatives who provide free marketing and new applications that can in turn be sold by Neurosky. By encouraging the DIY movement to use and extend the applications offered by its technology, the developers benefit from the creative projects of outsiders that add value to their technology, for the low price of access. As Terranova (2003) tells us, this decentralization discourse from EEG producers disingenuously heralds information sharing, while taking full advantage of the generosity (and neoliberalist) inclinations of DIY workers. As critical scholars, we are aware that while one cultural product from this flow is the exploitation of inexpensive labor, other critical production is possible here. Research creation in our lab, for example, has spirited this critique of EEG monitors, and much productive work is possible across DIY communities, which can, for example, employ the devices as critical art projects, reflecting on reductive science and data valorization, as well as biofeedback tools to teach mindfulness practice.[11]


EPOC’s Emotiv device is used routinely by universities and research centres and its data withstands the peer-review process of some science journals. Yet, all the same, the device uses discourse purporting that it is a revolutionary, personal Human Computer Interaction device that one in fact needs. The website poorly links brain wave science, largely unexplained, with this still consumer grade HCI technology. As such, it provides a sell different from that of the Neurosky—suggesting that cutting edge and diverse individuals on the forefront of knowledge, who recognize the words of René Descartes when they see them, can use, and may need, a personal interface with their brain.While the Neurosky’s marketing literature explains that it can read mental states, such as relaxation and meditation, but not thoughts, the EPOC Emotiv website claims it “uses a set of sensors to tune into electric signals produced by the brain to detect player thoughts, feelings and expressions” (EPOC 2013). Using technology very similar to the Neurosky, which reads the faint electrical potentials generated by neurons placed near the device nodes on the scalp’s surface, the Emotiv also suggests that it is able to achieve extreme information (even feelings) from our brain data. The sexually provocative photographs of EPOC models, matched with its romantic claims, presumably constitute a marketing gamble: that a consumer’s desire for this gendered, technological imaginary will overshadow the slippery logic suggesting that the device can read feelings. Like the Neurosky, the gendered half-naked body (in this case, a black man) is articulated to familiar western of science experiments, where historically marginal subjects become the first to submit to the promises of science fictions, and perhaps, titillatingly, offering greater insights into subject’s desires for empowerment.Like the Neurosky, the EPOC Emotiv draws upon recognizable technology like apps to demonstrate its role as a tool for everyday use. Promising early users exclusive access to the Emotiv App Store and its “one-of-a-kind neurotechnology platform,” customers are invited to use their apps for artistic and creative expression where they can employ their “thoughts, feeling, and emotion to dynamically create color, music, and art” (EPOC 2013). Their marketing literature promises life-changing applications for disabled patients, such as controlling an electric wheelchair with one’s thoughts. It suggests that the device can link to PC games, enabling the fantasy of controlling one’s favourite game with the mind. Lastly, it capitalizes on applications for market research and advertising, suggesting that the Emotiv will deliver true insight about how people respond to and feel about products presented to them. The gaps between the needs of disabled populations, innovative gaming culture, and market foresighting are vast, while scientific explanations of the Emotiv’s functioning are completely absent. Again, these marketing stories deliver transhumanist discourse that lauds technogenesis and brings the subject ever closer to technological emancipation from human limitations.Gardner22This closeness closes in on the home, indeed, the living room—suggesting the brain monitor as intervening tool for daily use, in the casual self-monitoring and self-surveilling of discrete biometric data. The device implies that we are less evolved without the knowledge and freedom gained through such devices, and that casual living room surveillance of brain data is both everyday and has enormous effects and potentials.


This paper makes the case that consumer discourse associated with brain wave monitors glosses brain wave science in a manner not entirely different from the ways in which CTM makes glossed assumptions about how we can know the brain. The marketing raises important questions, but provides consumers no information by which they can answer them. Is cognitive process or perhaps reason something we can know from computing brain data such as waves and electromagnetic frequency or energy? Can one demonstrate intention by cognitively “pushing” or “relaxing” their “mind”? If one can push or hack the device, does this show a decision-making ability reducible to synaptic electric activity—is the subject the sum total of modular, collected, computed, and mapped data? In the science fiction of brain wave monitors, is “intentional” pushing or relaxing sufficient to suggest we are controlling our “brain” activity?

The poor data, collected and transformed into overdetermined effect, suggests that cheap devices, reductionist science, and minimal effort can have enormous, transformative, even transhumanist results for everyday consumers and expert researchers alike. Across the marketing discourses, the social body politic is mapped to the gendered body, thus linking sexual power dynamics to the promised power housed in our ever mysterious and seductive brains. The marketing logic captures the neoliberalist ease of computational theories that bind simple reductionist theories of bodies or minds to productive ends—notably, suggesting neoliberalist ethics, seeking simple solutions for brain data capture, for repair or improvement. As such, the consumer subject needs only buy the device and accept some apps to acquire the quick and easy result. Happily and magically, the science brain wave fiction is easily realized—hacking the device to get effect is fair play, and the results that seem science fictionally enticing are also familiar, constrained—flashy but nontransgressive by gender, social and consumer science norms. The absence of complex scientific discourse or reasoning, replaced by familiar gendered technoscience narratives and data infatuation, makes the entire consumption process user friendly.

This fiction, or rather sales scenario, is an apt metaphor, we’d suggest, for the consumerization of neuroscience information, and of CTM theories. They gloss over contentions among cognition philosophers and brain researchers in a similar manner. In the absence of a coherent narrative about how the mind creates thoughts, each of us scientists, science reporters, media makers and product advertisers, and consumers—is forced to embrace some other kind of logic to promote or embrace the brain wave monitor. This normally means linking the device to some other kind of authority or some level of cultural practice that seems recognizable, fits a recognizable flow—like gaming, or narrativized science research, or cosplay, or monitoring your kids—while creating new highly productive and diverse flows or outputs.

We’ve begun to outline a method here, linking critical approaches to technoscience and human computer interaction, with an analysis of the epistemological and cultural practice trajectories that bind biotechnical and neuroscience studies with biotechnical device (specifically EEG) marketing and consumption. In this paper, we have applied our critical biotechnical computational lens to the work of marketing EEG devices. From this work, we begin to respond to Hayles’ plea that we track how transhumanism embeds its ideas in “deep, rich, and challenging contextualizations that re-introduce the complexities it strips away… in these encounters, transhumanism serves as the catalyst—or better, the irritant—that stimulates a more considered and responsible view of the future than it itself can generate” (2011, 217). In future work, we will explicate more fully this methodological approach and its value toward manifesting broader new media studies, desired by Kember and Zylinska, that target technologies and cultural practices to understand more deeply how we mediate and how consumers use these devices.

Optimistically, we find a rich terrain of controversial and contradictory claims that gloss the value of modular brain waves and make it tenable to launch our critique of EEG devices and, in time, a range of other reductionist technologies—both discourses and devices. We take seriously Thacker’s concerns (2003) that the reduction of humans to data is made possible by “the equivalency, the back-and-forth mobility, the accountability, and the generativity of code in relation to the body,” thereby regulating the bio-logic of the biomolecular body (13). Ongoing cultural and media analysis, bonded to STS approaches, is crucial to exposing the ongoing lauding and normativisation of biologic. With Terranova (2003), we find that the stakes are high; she sees new cultural flows, articulated in such products as consumer biotechnologies, as a “flattening out of social, cultural, and political connections” resulting in “the loss of transcendence, of external principles which organize the social world from the outside…a loss of strategies for dealing with power”  (p 27). Terranova insists that it doesn’t necessarily have to end in nihilism, but rather, we must engage in what Levy termed collective intelligence –the “mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities” (14).

As practicing artists ourselves, we are currently exploiting these glossed, reduced, overdetermined, and contradictory claims through our own aesthetic engagements. Gardner’s research creation projects invite to query and challenge reductionist, computational claims of biometric devices, via aesthetic interpretations of biodata (Biomapping project) and  movement interventions with biofeedback (Body Editing) both referenced at Wray is re-imagining tactical practices of crafting biotechnical stories of genomes, through material participatory practices and through audio critique. Much resistive brain monitor art practice is afoot internationally, challenging reductionist and transhumanist imaginaries attached to the devices. [12]



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Gardner, P., and Wray, B. (2013). From Lab to Living Room: Transhumanist Imaginaries of Consumer Brain Wave Monitors. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3GQ6VP4

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Notably, the “Quantified Self” movement,  whose tag line is self-knowledge through numbers, holds “meet up groups” working on what it terms “artisan engineering” projects, across North America and Europe, with a few sites as well in Asia, South America, and one in Africa.  This suggests a larger uptake for do-it-yourself investigations with EEG and other biometric monitors for self-improvement in the west, and a marginal uptake elsewhere.
  2. Bauman explains that in “liquid times,” local politics are positioned, but unable to tackle problems caused at global levels, forms have no time to solidify, and individuals have no social insurance against loss.  These grand problems propel us toward individualist practices that pit us against each other, giving rise to deep fear and insecurity.
  3. North American consumer literature tends to reduce complex scientific ideas and theories, and overdetermine the meaningfulness of data, instructively, to predict a subject’s health, illness, mood, and personality. This is especially the case with consumer literature addressing brain and mind, produced by public and private sources including public health agencies, consumer advocacy groups, and health industry organizations. Consumer literature generally avoids framing data in complex body systems and instead narrativizes data in discrete systems (e.g. hormonal, neurotransmitter, brain waves) represented in visual isolation from other modular body systems. This reduction suggests that isolated systems produce data that is deeply meaningful alone, outside of its role in complex body systems. For example, visual stills and animations in drug advertisements routinely represent depressive disorders as resulting from sick serotonin systems, though neuroscience tells us that serotonin is but one element in a (complex) system that creates mood, which is, of course, also enormously impacted by environmental elements (Gardner 2007).
  4. Nikolas Rose laments that the “recoding of everyday affects and conducts in terms of their neurochemistry is only one element of a more widespread mutation in which we in the West… have come to understand our minds and selves in terms of our brains and bodies.” (2003, 46).
  5. Thacker notes that scientist-theorists, such as Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, and Richard Dawkins, have all been associated with this line of thinking. Organizations such as the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Organization have also been instrumental in creating networked communities based on transhumanist and extropian ideas.
  6. These films offer tales we have consumed since 1968, where advanced (alien) minds use computer technology to take over humans  (2001: A Space Odyssey), where cognitive enhancement is achieved via drugs and virtual reality (Lawnmower Man), and where technologies can remove or replace memories in our brains (Johnny Mnemnonic).
  7. For Deleuze and Guattari the bachelor machine creates an alliance between the (split) desiring machine and the body without organs. The subject created confuses herself with the bachelor machine—it autoerotically ‘gives birth’ to the subject.
  8. New monitors entering the market with the best EEG pickup (rivaling the Epoch monitor) are InteraXon’s Muse monitor, and Mynd by NeuroFocus.
  9. Roberts notes the changing image of the feminine across eras of Star Trek, that nevertheless still maintain strong representations of stereotypical femininity, incluidng contemporary versions of the show (eg Star Trek, Next Generation), featuring Counselor Deanna Troi, whose power comes from extraordinary empathic abilities.
  10. Also in keeping with culturally popular science fiction films that sexualize women via technological aptitude are Luc Besson’s Nikita (sexualising the technically able killer Nikita), and the Transformers films, particularly Revenge of the Fallen (2009), featuring a highly sexualized female robot (played by Megan Fox).
  11. Beyond art practice, however, we echo the calls of Kember and Zylinska for media studies and communication theory scholars to engage critiques of media/technology cultures as linked practices that can be critiqued via a range of venues, including analyses of media and cultural practices, especially where art practices intersect with everyday life practices, suggesting potent, and potentially transformative, cultural interstices.
  12. Much hacking and experimentation with EEG devices, however, is afoot. Alongside the busy past decade of biotechnical research, a parallel community of DIY science researchers have both replicated and critiqued computational assumptions in their subcultural (garage and basement) practices. Game hackers, many of them youths, participate in augmenting their cognitive abilities in their bedrooms with their PS3 consoles. The long art and music histories of tactically employing biometric data and data processing now moves into EEG use. Today, a group of Toronto artists at the Site3 coLaboratory use the NeuroSky brainwave sensor in public performances to generate seven-metre flames by connecting the headset to a gas canister, which fires when certain mindstates are reached. Non-scientist DIY communities and “hackspaces,” autonomous creative urban studios developing tactical uses for off-the-shelf technology, widely employ consumer brainwave sensors as new platforms for tinkering (Wray 2011). Experimenters with to augment their uses for surprising and creative effect. A quick search on gives an idea of the disparate ways in which consumer EEG devices have been transformed by hackers and DIY practitioners.

Creating Room For A Singularity of Our Own: Reading Sue Lange’s “We, Robots”

The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations [involving the rapid increase in intelligence] of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction post-Singularity between human and machine—Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near, (9)

What’s it been three, four years, since the Regularity? The Regularity. When everything became regular, normal, average. The opposite of the Singularity. —Sue Lange, We, Robots, (1)

The Singularity is the moment when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. In his book-length prediction of this moment, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil devotes extensive attention to human biological bodies and brains and how they will relate to machines after the Singularity occurs. Not so for the diversity that characterizes human bodies and the multiplicity of ideas which stem from cultural difference. For example, Kurzweil discusses gender on only two pages (318-319). In contrast, Sue Lange’s 2007 novella We, Robots focuses upon human heterogeneity. Lange substitutes the compassionate “Regularity” (1) for the monolithic Singularity; she imagines the point at which a technological upgrade enables robots to feel pain. The robots unexpectedly respond by desiring to live biologically human lives. Lange creates a clearly articulated corrective to prevailing homogenous presentations of the Singularity. The “Regularity’s” concentration on human difference is “the opposite” of Kurzweil’s averted eye, the diversity he does not see. In her substitution of “Regularity” for Singularity, Lange signals that regular components of humanity––such as gender and race––will be present when people and machines merge. Failing to mention these components is, in terms of feminist insight, the “Irregularity.”

The accessibility of Lange’s text might mitigate against recognizing its importance. Lange’s simple sentence structure and direct communicative mode convey a presently overlooked logical moral assertion: the impending Singularity is not a male-dominated patriarchal domain. The Singularity, in other words, should not be construed in a manner which excludes women and feminism. This assertion is patently obvious. But, nonetheless, it is often ignored. Before I read Lange’s novella as a description of the Singularity which feminists can embrace, I include the following background information: 1) a discussion about why the discourse relating to the Singularity needs to be expanded and 2) an introduction to Lange’s place within feminist science fiction.

We, Robots is in many ways an imaginative science fiction version of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Hayles points out that “[i]n the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existences and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (3). Hayles shows that difference and diversity would not disappear with technological transcendence of the human. Like Hayles’ posthuman, Avey––Lange’s robot protagonist––contradicts the fixity of Kurzweil’s monolithic Singularity. When robotic mechanisms and teleologies are changed by the “Regularity,” Avey, like a human, can feel pain and articulate personal goals. Lange implies that human difference and demarcation should be incorporated within discourse that describes the impending Singularity.

Diversifying the denotation of the singularity

Gender is often not included in discourse about the Singularity. This fact is exceedingly discouraging—and unfortunately normal. Feminist progress, of course, is not an unimpeded forward trajectory. Taking two steps forward is often in tandem with taking three steps back. (And remember that the “one small step for mankind” moon landing declaration positioned woman as an intruder in the dust.) We, Robots is being read in a context in which the Texas state legislature is impeding abortion rights and a New York City mayoral candidate routinely uses the internet to send pictures of his penis to women.[1] With shrewd directness, simplicity, and accessibility, Lange calls attention to the way such backward steps help keep women and feminism invisible within the technological discourse of the Singularity. The male-centered Singularity is a problem that has no name; We, Robots, in relation to this lack of appellation, is a needed feminist science fiction contemporary version of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The sexist Singularity needs a consciousness raising group. Lange’s text signals that it is necessary to go back to the history of the feminist future to insure that our understanding of the Singularity will be articulated in an inclusive manner. I join the “[f]eminist theorists [who] have pointed out that [the shift from the human to the posthuman] has historically been construed as a white European male” (Hayles 4).

Understanding why Lange substitutes the “Regularity” for the “Singularity” entails describing the current problem with no name to which I refer. Hence, before I undertake a reading of Lange’s text, I will briefly deploy early feminist literary criticism’s “images of women” methodology to explain how the Singularity is being described as almost being singularly pertinent to white men. For example: the June 2013 symposium called “Global Future 2045: Towards A New Strategy for Human Evolution” included thirty-four keynote speakers. Two of the speakers were women. There appear to be no African-American or African speakers. The Symposium’s partipants reflect the lack of diversity characterizing discourse about the Singularity. Where are all the women? Where is the racial diversity? Answers to these questions are not included in Morgan Freeman’s introduction to the Science Channel’s Singularity-focused Through The Wormhole episode called “Are Robots the Future of Human Evolution?” Freeman says:

Robots are also learning to think for themselves—some are even developing their own private language. Is it possible that these new life forms will evolve to be smarter and more capable than us? . . . Will we choose to merge with the machines, combining the best of our world with the best of theirs? Are robots the future of human evolution? (Wormhole)

The most relevant question goes unasked: precisely who is represented by “us,” “we,” “our,” and “human?” Lange answers this question when she creates We, Robots and asserts that people who are not white men need to create room for a Singularity of their own.

Singularity discourse has sometimes made more room for dead white men than for living women and people of color. For example, when Charlie Rose discussed the Singularity on June 27, 2013, he welcomed three guests to the symbolically egalitarian round table that dominates his television talk show set: Global Future 2045 symposium founder and chair Dmitry Itskov; robotics designer David Hanson; and a facial-expression-mimicking robot replica of Philip K. Dick. It is jarring to see a robot being unabashedly imbued with human talk show guest status. A viewer, watching with sound muted and no knowledge of the context, might momentarily think that Dick was brought back from the dead. But even more shocking is the lack of gender and racial diversity present at Rose’s table. Discussing Dick’s fiction, Hayles remarks that the “problem of where to locate the observer—in or out of the system being observed?—is conflated … with how to determine whether a creature is android or human” (24). The hypothetical just-tuning-in viewer’s initial problem could be where to locate the Dick figure. Is it placed in or out of the human system being observed? On Charlie Rose, the Dick mechanism looks human. Robotics specialist Itskov, in contrast, acts like a robot who is almost devoid of animation and facial expression. Itskov answered Rose’s question about why he is interested in robots with rote vacuous beauty pageant contestant vapidity, saying that he wishes to “help people get rid of suffering” (Charlie Rose). He did not mention that people suffer from lack of representation—and lack of control–– regarding how they are represented.

As a writer, Hayles reminds us, Dick was concerned with these issues: “the android is deeply bound up with the gender politics of his male protagonists’ relationship with female characters. . . . The gender politics he writes into his novels illustrate the potent connections between cybernetics and contemporary understanding of race, gender, and sexuality” (Hayles 24).  The fact that the three entities seated at Rose’s table—two humans and one potential momentarily purported human—are male and/or representationally male would not sit well with Dick. A writer concerned with gender politics and cybernetics would likely not like to see himself portrayed as a Cheshire Cat vacuously smiling in response to the lack of any connection between gender and robotics.

Hanson states that Dick “foresaw a future where mind and machine and human would be perhaps indistinct and indistinguishable from each other, but he characterized what defines human as compassion” (Charlie Rose). Lange inclusively portrays this future mind, machine, and human connection. But doesn’t welcoming a robot version of Dick to Charlie Rose exemplify an unethical lack of compassion and disrespect in regard to Dick’s ability to control his image? Writer and book editor Danny Miller’s discussion of the use of Audrey Hepburn’s posthumous dancing image in a GAP pants commercial indicates that the answer is resoundingly affirmative. Miller hears Hepburn’s response as “the sound of Audrey Hepburn spinning in her grave.” Miller continues: “I just saw the new GAP commercial featuring Audrey Hepburn and my mouth is frozen in a silent scream. . . . But inserting dead celebrities into crass commercial ads? Don’t you think that we have to draw the line somewhere?” Most certainly. The point, in regard to Lange’s humanistic science fictional “Regularity,” is that we should use the time we have before the Singularity occurs to imbue it with respect, compassion, and diversity.

We, Robots addresses the need expansively to edit the images and descriptions connected to the Singularity. Before continuing to generate a narrow understanding of how the Singularity can transcend death, we need to respect the dead in terms of our present technological capacities. Lange emphasizes this necessity in a deceptively simple and vitally important manner. Reading We, Robots involves noticing Lange’s attention to the fact that the Singularity is not singular; it is, instead, a “Regularity” which must be seen to include all the regular people who are not white men. This reading depends upon understanding why Lange’s text is a feminist response to the Singularity and to Asimov’s I, Robot.

Why We, Robots is feminist science fiction

Not all of Lange’s readers have seen the feminist import of her novella or its intervention into the homogenizing discourse of the Singularity. David Soyka, reviewing We, Robots for SF Site, did not:

This is a well told story, though nothing particularly surprising or ground-breaking. It adds nothing to the canon. What’s particularly curious is that this is part of a series put out by Aqueduct Press called ‘Conversation Pieces’ . . . that are loosely connected to feminist SF. Other than the fact that women can be considered a subjugated class . . . I fail to see anything about We, Robots that is feminist. In fact, Avey, as are all the other robots, is genderless, though its job of nursemaid is typically female. Other than that, Lange’s theme here is about the human condition, not that exclusively of the female half (Soyka).

Soyka misses the point.

We, Robots is feminist in part because Avey is “genderless.” More specifically, Avey’s genderlessness eradicates fixed definitions of gender in terms of reading practices. Readers’ responses describe Avey in a manner which runs the gamut between “he,” “she,” and “it.”. For example, a reviewer writing for The Alcove blog, when referring to Avey, abruptly shifts from “its” to “her”:

In We, Robots Avey looks back on its life, from the time it arrived in Wal-Mart to the day it left its owners to return to the factory in which it was built. . . . Avey’s voice is exactly how I imagine a robot would talk and think. When she speaks, she speaks with that stereotypical robot voice, in short, clipped sentences. When she thinks, she processes information rapidly, and puzzles out anything she doesn’t understand in a very logical, stream-of-consciousness manner.” (Alcove, italics mine)

Malene A. Little, on the other hand, construes Avey as being male––and she writes for a blog called Women Writers!: “Avey begins his narrative right before his first interaction with his owners”(Little, italics mine). Because genderlessness defies linguistic expectation, reviewers refer to Avey in an inconsistent manner. We, Robots is feminist because its premise itself metalinguistically accentuates readers’ reliance upon immediate and rigid automatic gender categorization.

What to do? Avey is neither a she nor a he. Readers become emotionally attached to Avey and resist calling this robot “it.”  Mainstream English usage lacks a pronoun such as Marge Piercy’s “per,” an abbreviation for person which replaces “she” and “he” in Woman On the Edge of Time. (Since the English language lacks pronouns to describe sentient robots, for the sake of textual convenience, I refer to Avey as “she”).[2] Lange adroitly generates linguistic “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin), adding to the twenty-first century feminist science fiction canon in which Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joanna Russ questioned linguistic gender categorizations. Lange points to the necessity for newness in regard to language and feminist reading practices. Humans should not be constrained by “she” and “he”––and by the limiting gender expectations these words connote. Moreover, “he” “she” and “it’ fail in relation to describing the certainly arriving sentient robots humans will encounter. Far from not being feminist enough, We, Robots is both feminist and post-gender––in fantastic terms. Lange is a twenty-first century literary descendant of Le Guin, Piercy and Russ who boldly goes beyond the feminist parameters they forged.

Avey, an entity who is Other in relation to human gender and race constructions, can certainly be categorized as a feminist science fiction protagonist. She is initially Other in relation to the category “we, humans.” Avey counters Hayles’s assertion that “the presumption that there is an agency, desire, or will belonging to the self and clearly distinguished from ‘the wills of others’ is undercut in the posthuman” (Hayles 3). Avey may be posthuman, but she is quite willful. She asserts her humanity when she insists that she wishes to learn to draw. “Well I could use a pad of paper and a pen. . . . I plan to learn to draw. . . . After 14 years of unpaid service, you’d think I deserved a scratch pad and pen nubbin” (Lange 88).  Avey––who neither looks like a human nor walks like a human––complains exactly like a human. When Avey asserts the desire to receive a pad and a pen, she echoes the refusal of racialized Others to submit to the association of humanity itself with whiteness. In In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier’s character insists that whites call him by his surname because he wishes to be treated with the respect due to an adult human. Lacking a surname, Avey cannot act in kind. Yet writing enables her to transcend the lack of respect robots receive. She wishes to write in order to juxtapose language and respect—and to apply this combination to her own agency, desire, and self.

Lange imbues the singularity with diversity and compassion

In Lange’s narrative world, racism and sexism––indeed all “isms”––become obsolete because the human categories of race and sex become obsolete. Inequality, however, remains. (Inequality is not logical. For example, although few Jews live in Germany, anti-Semitism still exists there.) Lange depicts four sentient groups: humans, robots, “transies” (or cyborgs) and Others. These categories, lacking fixed definitions, are exceedingly mellifluous. After the “Regularity” ensues, enormous changes happen at the last minute: humans become robots, robots become humans, and transies ultimately inherit the Earth. Lange’s “book is about both coming and going, so to speak” (Schellenberg). Her entire tumultuously transmogrifying pack of protagonists are all ultimately Other than us––i.e. we, humans. This Otherness is reflected in the “Regularity” which includes Lange’s diverse protagonists. As I have been arguing, descriptions of the Singularity lack the diversity Lange includes. The dominant discourse of the Singularity imagines that ignoring human difference could make inequality disappear.

Lange’s scenario nullifies the entire human categorization apparatus. Avey, a mechanized domestic servant and nursemaid to baby Angelina, is initially a flying visual consumerism joke who resembles a levitated egg shaped version of a plastic “L’eggs” brand pantyhose container. (Mr. Potato Head is also an apt descriptor for Avey.) Avey’s  egg shape evokes R2-D2 as well as Eve, a robot protagonist in Wall-e. (These egg shaped robots are not trivial. They equate women’s reproductive capacity with technology.) After the “Regularity” takes place, humans become psychological post humans who think via robot logic. Post-robot Avey, no vacuous female caretaker stereotype, becomes a self-aware assertive person. The Others are never described. This narrative lack is logical in a world in which categorizing some people as Other is as obsolete as old model robots. Lange creates a humorous “Robots ‘Я’ Us” parody of American consumer culture which very seriously addresses the implications of robots at once appropriating human culture and creating a culture of their own. After post-“Regularity” humans and robots exchange behavioral characteristics and roles, the word “we” in Lange’s title assumes a metalinguistic relationship to standard English. We real human readers most closely resemble the final version of Avey.

Avey and her robot fellows—who become we, humans––eventually evolve into better people than the newly robotic post-“Regularity” flesh-made humans and the cyborgian transies. The psychologically retrofitted newly robotic humans (Angelina, for example, who as a young child was placed under Avey’s care) are definitely not superior to the post-robot humans Avey and her counterparts become. Lange’s brave new egg humans lack human bodies (they exemplify literal phallic lack) and, hence, are devoid of race and gender. Lange’s “we, human” egg mechanical protagonists must be taken with a grain of salt in that they are humorous. In addition to their suitability to function as objects of desire in relation to psychoanalytic feminist theory, they are also akin to the alien in Mork and Mindy who hatched from an egg. Lange, then, at once confronts serious feminist issues and imbues feminist science fiction with a sense of humor. She juxtaposes the eradication of permanent individual human gender scenario Le Guin depicts in The Left Hand of Darkness with Douglas Adams’ comedic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She creates something new under the feminist science fiction sun: a version of James Tiptree’s discussion of the female body in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” which applies to the sentient machine of My Mother the Car. Avey becomes liberated (or unplugged) from being a servile consumer appliance; Angelina can quite logically discuss her nanny the sentient egg.

The frenetic role reversals between robots and humans Lange depicts have implications for Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” [3] We, Robots is a text situated at a temporal transition point: a particular example of science fiction is becoming actualized. Sentient robots are on the verge of becoming real; the Singularity is, perhaps, near. From a 2013 NBC report:

Science fiction is quickly taking a back seat to science fact. Just look at a new report [‘A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics From Internet to Robotics’] by the country’s leading roboticists. By 2030, it says, robots will be everywhere. . . .[R]obots will become ‘as ubiquitous over the next decades as computer technology is today’ . . . . We may not be in the Jetsons’ age yet, and Roomba is no Rosie, but even [Director of the Georgia Tech Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines Henrik] Christensen agrees: ‘Science fiction — it’s happening’ (Subbaraman).

When science fiction happens to the extent that Roomba becomes Rosie, something will also happen to Asimov’s Three Laws. No longer mere science fictional texts, they may become post postmodern reality. I have said that “post postmodernism involves the hitherto science fictional impact of technology, especially electronic media, on society and culture. This social manifestation occurs when what was once science fictional comprises the very definition of reality. . . . technological innovation causes what was once comfortably defined as science fiction suddenly to become real” (Barr 168). Lange describes what transpires when the Three Laws become post postmodern in actuality. Refusing an easy distinction between robot and human, she rewrites Asimov in the manner that Kathy Acker rewrites Cervantes in her Don Quixote: What Was a Dream. “Post postmodernism” defines what happens when the fanciful I, Robot literally becomes on the cusp of becoming real: We, Robots.

Lange’s fantastic post-gender feminism provides markers which function as gender role stereotype booby traps. We, Robots includes a garden variety nuclear family in which a generic male has heterosexual intercourse with a generic woman (a human who possesses eggs); she gives birth to Angelina. Angelina is very obviously female. But this definite gender categorization is initially impossible to determine in relation to her parents, who are named Chit and Dal. (These names are as genderless as Track, Trig, and Tagg––indistinct appellations which hail from the Romney and Palin families.) “Chit” and “Dal” adhere to Lange’s penchant for obscuring readers’ categorization markers. Avey observes that Dal is “beautiful” (8). When Angelina wants to tell “Mommy and Daddy of her adventures at morning school” (19), readers do not know which gender category applies to both Chit and Dal. First contact with some semblance of gender designation in regard to Angelina’s parents does not ensue until page twenty-four in the novella: “Dal called over his shoulder while he stood at the message board” (24). This sentence seems to serve as a message board which communicates Dal’s gender and announces that he is a “beautiful” man. Or, alternatively, “his” and “he” could be read as being ambiguous; whose shoulder is being referenced and who is standing at the message board remains ambiguous. Chit and Dal could be gay men. Only when Dal is “looking up from his iPod” (74) does he cease to be as genderless as the electronic device he holds. And, finally, Chit is designated as a she in this interchange with Dal: “Then she turned to me. We’ve been waiting for you to come around to get that information” (82). Readers have been waiting for Lange to assign a female designation to Chit. However, regardless of the protagonists’ and the readers’ emotional attachment to Avey, the robot is called “it.” Avey remains an “it” even after she has nearly drained all of her battery power in order to act like Lassie saving an imperiled Angelina-as-Timmy: “It’s [Avey] coming around… it’s had a rough time of it” (82). No one would disparage Lassie by calling her “it.”

“It,” uttered by Chit and Dal in reference to Avey, is not linguistically precise. The humans are not hierarchically superior to the robot; they all perform the same job. Like Avey, Chit and Dal are domestic servants. Avey is well aware of the situation’s irony:

I had my daily chores . . . preparing Angelina for meals, naps, and nighttime, and then preparing the house for Dal and Chit’s return from their employment as domestics. They had positions doing the same thing as I did, but for the wealthy who could afford humans capable of handling a phone call that needed to be answered with a lie (Lange 12).

Interestingly, Avey explains that robots serve economically disadvantaged people, not the elite. This relationship between the elite and technology has some basis in contemporary US reality. Rich people employ human personal assistants and concierges; they do not themselves phone corporations and grapple with electronic voices which instruct them to press one, two, or three. Many socialites do not appear on Facebook.

Lange subtly establishes the human racial category which applies to Angelina, Chit, and Dal. This category becomes surprisingly apparent when Avey describes retrieving Angelina after her first day at school: “We floated down. The front school doors flew open, and out ran 35 curly-headed, shiny-faced, brown-skinned, pink-garmented four-year-olds” (17). This is the first moment in which readers are shown that Dal, Chit, and Angelina are people of color; it is followed by environmental descriptions which show that in a world where sentient robots can fly down, racially oppressed people have not risen up. Angelina returns home to a situation in which she must ignore “the drunk in the corner, the broken glass in the landing” (19). The differences between science fiction and reality mitigate against precisely defining this “brown-skinned” population. Yet Lange’s description signals to a white American imagination that we are in a poor, black neighborhood: there is “thick crack traffic” and  “burnt out buildings with no panes in the windows, some with mattresses . . . or old water stained curtains in Jetsons motifs left on a single nail” (16). The redistribution of technology we can only dream of having––robot nannies for all––has eliminated neither poverty nor its racial distribution. Dominant Singularity discourse manages to ignore the question of how race and class will persist in the future by focusing on unmarked white, wealthy experiences of technology. Lange shows us the underside of this presumption––and readers do not discover they have taken up a story in which none of the humans are white until they have already read quite far into the novella.

We humans have all been taught what “bad’ means in relation to the history of how some people have been categorized as Other, branded as subhuman. Avey alludes to inhumane human history; Lange’s narrative alludes to histories of dehumanization of African-American and Jewish people in particular. (Humor figures in the initial basis of this observation. As someone who emulates Mel Brooks’ conflation of atrocity and humor, I follow in his wake here.) We, Robots can be read as a science fiction version of Holocaust experiences and slave narratives; Avey evokes both Ann Frank and Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl author Harriet Ann Jacobs. Avey is a sentient being who is subject to being sold; her first memory is of being plugged in and turned on by a Wal-Mart staff member who “explained in a high semi-monotone how she was preparing us for the big day of sale” (Lange 5).  When Lange combines consumerism, slavery, and humor, she becomes akin to Kevin Willmott––whose film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (an alternative history in which the South wins the Civil War) depicts a cool contemporary commodified black person being sold on the Home Shopping Network. Avey can also be seen as a mechanistic Shylock who lacks the flesh-made Shylock right stuff—even though what is true of dehumanized Jews is not true of dehumanized robots. Shylock famously asks “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs?” Avey cannot resort to this line of reasoning. Unlike Shylock, she lacks hands, organs, and the need to eat. She, however, definitely possesses dimensions, senses, affections, and passions. She can be hurt––and she can die. This robot who was born in Wal-Mart—the merchant of “JerseyTown”––feels as a human feels. She “shed a few drops of hydraulic fluid” (93). She can cry. Readers might be compelled to cry when they are apprised of Avey’s demise.

After being reconfigured to feel pain, Avey describes herself and her counterparts as “downright cowish” in regard to “the harsh treatment of our human enslavers” (Lange 52). “Cowish” and “enslaved” pertain to the fact that Avey is literally branded. She feels the “soldering iron [inserted] into my fifth interstitial. . . . The integument burned a little from the contact. . . . I recoiled in terror, in blinding pain” (40). The robots’ suffering, which brings the “Regularity” into being, resonates as a science fictional version of the suffering Toni Morrison depicts in Beloved, where the “rememory” of suffering connects past and present experiences of personal and historical pain. Hayles calls How We Became Posthuman “a ‘rememory’ in the sense of Beloved: putting back together parts that have lost touch with one another and reaching out toward a complexity too unruly fit into disembodied ones and twos” (Hayles 13). The post-“Regularity” robots share painful and complex “rememory” with humans.

“Cowish” Avey evokes animals trucked to the slaughterhouse as much as human experiences of torture and enslavement: the “Regularity” links robots with humans, with those denied humanity, and with nonhuman animals too. After the robots are branded during the reconfiguration which enables them to feel pain, they are asked to “[p]lease file into the loading transports as your serial numbers are called” (Lange 43). Where there are “serial numbers” and “transports” there are Nazis. “Please” evokes a sense of the banality of death. In addition to Hayles and Morrison, this connection highlights Lange’s commonalities with Jonathan Safran Foer. Bringing Foer (a white Jewish male who is not connected to feminist science fiction) to bear upon Lange shows the diversity and range of her discourse; unlike the static depictions of the Singularity, her points are wide ranging. We, Robots echoes Foer’s attention to abused animals (in Eating Animals) and abused Jews (in Everything Is Illuminated). Newly given the ability to feel  pain, Avey and other robots are trucked home from Walmart “in darkness, with no stimulus apart from the muffled highway noise” (Lange 47). In this space, the robots feel the brutal consequences of the “Regularity.” “One of the broken AV’s had an eye plate dangling from its optic wires . . . . A third had a meter-long bit of rebar inserted through its internals. It kept repeating, ‘I hurt, I hurt’” (45). “I hurt” makes readers feel compassion for the robots––who are no longer mere appliances.

I offer these analogies to emphasize that, unlike the Singularity, Lange’s “Regularity” invokes histories of pain and suffering.  And, further, in the “Regularity,” the line between selves and others is fungible and not static. Avey, who speaks like a New York Jew (“We didn’t know from bored at that time” [Lange 5, italics mine]), endures treatment which could have been devised by Goebbels, Goring, and Himmler. In terms of the “Arbeit macht frei” sign that famously appears on the gate at Auschwitz, in the end, work makes Avey free. She does the mental work required to describe, identify,  and understand her subjectivity––her humanity. And she is ultimately able to create We, Robots, her manifesto for robots––no manifesto for silenced “transie” cyborgs who are voiceless in Lange’s novella. She articulates the notion that the robots’ encounters with human experiences should be respected. “And sooner or later, we, robots, that is, experience these things [love, fun, writing, reading and nature] or other things like them [flesh-made living beings]” (62). Sentient entities who recognize themselves as being designated as “we” cannot appropriately be described by “it.” “We” robots are able to name and to categorize themselves. Avey describes how robots are ultimately successful at “searching first for the classification” (56). They liberate themselves from a prison house of language which automatically refers to them as “it.” Avey’s thoughts and actions clearly show that “we” robots are “us” humans.

“Where are all your people?” Joanna Russ’s human men ask, when they first encounter Whileaway, a feminist utopian society populated entirely by women. (The implication is that women are not “people.”) When the “Regularity” occurs––when the robots called “it” change—it becomes no simple thing to say where, or who, the people are. Robots become people, as they learn to feel pain; people give up feeling pain and become the Borg. All of Lange’s flesh-made humans ultimately become the initially literally heartless Tin Man in a science fictional “JerseyTown” which is definitely not Oz. Avey’s last words are addressed to the “transie reader” (93)––a futuristic kind of person situated indeterminately between human and machine. The implication is that flesh-made humans, in their new robotic incarnation, no longer read. “Be grateful for the memory,” Avey says to the “transies” of the future, exhorting them to remember their “painful past . . . and shed a few drops of hydraulic fluid at the thought of all you have lost” (93). When Avey equates “hydraulic fluid” with “tears,” she rewrites human language to encompass robots’ technological version of humanity. Though the robots  may be made of metal and circuits, in this context, it appears that they have become not just human but more human than the mechanic flesh-and-blood humans. Why? Because the original people, seeking the technological superiority of the Singularity over the embodied connection of the “Regularity,” have lost their hearts.


Heart—diversity and compassion––needs to be integrated within the discourse which describes our future. Or, in Hayles’ words––which emphasize the not disembodied and finite human being, the connection between humanity and materiality, and the diversity and compassion which should be included in descriptions of the Singularity: “my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibility of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life as embedded in a material world of great complexity one of which we depend for our continued survival” (5). Avey exemplifies Hayles’ dream version of the posthuman embedded in material complexity. Yet perhaps the fact that Avey dies signifies that Hayles’ dream will not come true. Or, more positively, such might not be the case for Lange’s entire inclusive technological vision. Hopefully, the real scientific Singularity will share commonality with Lange’s science fictional “Regularity.”

These hopes relate to Hayles’ comments about how literature and science relate to technological innovation:

The literary texts often reveal . . . the complex cultural, social, and representational issues tied up with conceptual shifts and technological innovations. . . . It [literature and science] is a way of understanding ourselves as embodied creatures living within and through embodied worlds and embodied words. (Hayles 24).

I have argued against the monolithic premises of the Singularity and for the vision of the “Regularity” that Lange has created. Lange has emphasized that any vision of the human/robot divide needs to account for the historical strictures on the word “human” and the ways in which the universality that follows from the human do not allow us to understand ourselves “as embodied creatures living within and through embodied worlds and embodied worlds.” Descriptions of technological shifts should not be devoid of diversity’s complexity.  We must create a Singularity of our own––imagining future posthuman embodiments in terms of complex cultural, social, and representational worlds and words.


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Barr, M.S. (2013) Creating Room For A Singularity of Our Own: Reading Sue Lange’s “We, Robots”. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3BZ63ZS

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. For a discussion of the Texas state legislature’s abortion law, please see here. For EXPLICIT pictures of the images Anthony Weiner sent over the Internet, please see here.
  2. During the review process, readers pointed out that the transgender movement has done much to challenge gender binaries within language, including encouragement of gender neutral pronouns. For a range of perspectives, see The Transgender Studies Reader (ed. Susan Stryker and Steven Whittle) especially essays by Leslie Feinberg, Sandy Stone, and Kate Bornstein.
  3. For further information about Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, see Josh Jones’s explanation.


We do not know with certainty whether Noether or Goeppert Mayer could have been queer in their personal lives, had they different choices, but we know that their work produced the space for reconstituting and renormalizing indifference in mathematical physics through transgressive technoscientificity. Their epistemic contributions challenge the status quo of knowledge. They are descendants of Ada Lovelace in their privilege while also workers in the margins notwithstanding that privilege, because they are limited by a tokenistic existence.

At the same time, the queerness in the lifestyles and intellectual interests of the fictional characters in the speculative fiction discussed serves as a way for thinking through the multifaceted ways by which queer ideologies and queer knowledges can be conceived. Hence, the political contribution of feminist science fiction should involve not only the subversion of the discourse within science, but also the acknowledgement of the importance of interrogating knowledge formations in these areas with questions of social justice. We can push for the queering of science to produce a more liberatory and inclusive set of epistemic practices.

I close with a suggestion for reconsidering whether existing cultural-theoretical practices are amenable to the production of parallel interpretation of physics theories so as to meet head on with the other forms of theorizations practiced by mathematical and theoretical physicists. Or, one might consider whether there is a need for reforming these cultural-theoretical methodologies, extensive or otherwise, in specific directions before real inter-penetrative collaborations can take place.

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Speculative Science Fiction

What if we were to take the life-stories and intellectual productions of the real-life women scientists and have these different parts interact to create a new line of narrative; what could then emerge? It is not so much a ‘queer’ chimera made up of humanistic stories with highly abstract ideas that I am after, but rather, how queer feminist forms of agency can be approached through a combination of macro and micro politics. Many science fiction stories, even hard science fiction, tend to separate the producer from the production, possibly so that the writer need not be confronted with having to negotiate unexpected unconscious events that could arise from such a combination. To negotiate the science in a manner that will be attractive to a wide readership is also difficult.

One might notice certain similarities in the tales of the female scientists discussed in the overview, and maybe the more detailed biographies to some characters in hard science fiction stories. However, what tends to drop out of the discussion is the ability of the characters to enact queer interactive entanglements between rigorous science and the problem of the human, particularly the gendered human, to bring about a different imaginary that is neither humanistic nor scientific. Such an outcome can then create a situation that is productive for non-normative political and social interventions intermingling different global cultures, timelines, and histories––from which one can then prototype a different kind of logic on life and knowledge, one beyond the postcolonial and neocolonial. It is for all the aforementioned reasons that I have created my queer feminist science fiction story project.

The narratives of real-life protagonists in the previous sections, intertwined with their science, open up possibilities for re-reading and envisioning new ways of thinking about mathematical physics in relation to a reality that is non-quotidian. Even as this re-reading is performed through the framework of feminist science studies and feminist science fiction, another dilemma is awakened: how plausibly could a ‘real’ hard science fiction prototype be created by altering the mode of realism; through the presenting of a world containing more traffic between the transatlantic continents and Asia than would have been actual, particularly the part of Asia constituted as under-developed and not cutting-edge? After all, we want predictions of the future to be realizable rather than far-fetched.

That said, I hasten to add that there are no real-life parallels between the two women intellectuals I have just discussed and the characters of my fictional project, given that the fictional characters inhabit very different categories of worlds, different time frames, and are preoccupied with different sets of problems. The intellectual cultures from which the real-life characters come are altogether different from the ones from which I derive the fictional characters. However, parallels emerge from the position of femininity in the labor of abstract knowledge and the desire to push through difficult and cutting-edge ideas that are not always well received. The characters in the fiction are part of the same intellectual genealogy as Noether and Goeppert Mayer in terms of the epistemological interests they shared and the differences that they made to the epistemology. More importantly, in fiction, I am able to project a thought experiment involving the queering of both science and the human participants in a manner difficult to obtain with the real life characters. Through the characters, I try to imagine the interleaving of histories from the different epochs of the quantum theories produced, and project various causalities of that production through our imperfect understanding of how far quantum theory can stretch. This is most specifically explored from part two onwards of the serial.[1] The rest of the project is currently in the works. Its progress parallels the advancement I make within my own theoretical and scholarly interventions.

Another culturally different invocation is the re-appropriation of the localized myths and legends of Malaysia that has yet to take place at a radical techno-cultural level. In first producing a version of this fiction in Malay, I attempted to challenge the language to take risks, and, therefore, to imagine and animate an alterity, even if such an alterity could only, for now, have life in pure fiction. Such an alterity can only take place if subversion is allowed at the linguistic, and later, at the political stage.

Conceivably, the prerogative for the solution may lie in re-historicization as an act of agential reclamation of what is possible under the ideal, rather than after realpolitik corruption. This does not mean that one ignores the intellectual, political, and social inequities of postcolonial worlds. Rather, a stage is set for the hard thinking that has to be done concerning how one can deal with an intellectual history that was not, or is unseen, and therefore, reconstruct a history with an arrow of time pointing into the past before catapulting the newly historicized knowledge forward. The desire to explore and exploit what is possible, and also to imagine a circumstance that has no comparable examples, gave birth to the project I am discussing here.

A quotation from Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter, 1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming Imperceptible, taken from Brian Massumi’s translation of A Thousand Plateaus, best sums up the motivation behind the fiction-as-theory multimodal novel of ideas conceived in late 2010. The project arose from a desire to sublimate and complexify real-life events and narratives explicated through encounters that are not dissimilar to the ones just discussed in the preceding paragraph, with the injection of the author’s own utopian futuristic pathways:

The plane of consistency of Nature is like an immense Abstract Machine, abstract yet real and individual; its pieces are the various assemblages and individuals, each of which groups together an infinity of particles entering into an infinity of more or less interconnected relations. There is therefore a unity to the plane of nature, which supplies equally to the inanimate and animate, and the artificial and the natural. This plane has nothing to do with a form of a figure, nor with a design or function. Its unity has nothing to do with a ground buried deep within things, nor with the end or a project in the mind of God. Instead, it is a plane in which everything is laid out… (280).

The fictionalizing of theory is presented through characters that are the outcome of the convergences of manifold epistemic differentials, organic-inorganic materiality, fantastical real, and dream-memories. The characters are also semiotic representations of the properties of quantum interpretations that are then ‘anthropomorphized’ so that the abstract properties now have organic qualities that are believable but not exactly mundane.

The project began life in a different form in 2010, when I decided that I wanted to write queer hard science fiction. I toy with the idea of developing a narrative that will allow me to experiment with, and negotiate, theories I wanted to examine in greater depth, such as whether it is feasible for feminism and queer physics to ‘copulate’ and produce an intellectual and creative progeny not like either of them. At the same time, I maintain a semblance of factual theoretical rigor, through acts of differentiation and conformance, between quantum physics and the macro-universe of human relations. The fictional aspect of the work acts as a set of extended thought experiments in experimental feminist philosophy of science by allowing the politics of the ‘real-world’ to be driven by developments in physics and its rhizomatic history.

The original Malay language version of the piece, referred to as “Kucing Schrödinger” (Schrödinger’s Cat), is published in, a Malay language webzine established with the aim of promoting intellectual and political discourse. It was written with a lay audience in mind and expected that they would have to deal with culturally unfamiliar neologisms and references that could be unsettling to them. The language, as repurposed for use in the country since its independence in 1957, has been set within a straitjacket of epistemic virtue that disallows the pollution of ‘deviance’ or ‘subversion,’ unlike the deployment of a similar language group in Indonesia. Hence, the Malay version of the serial novel project focuses on unstrapping the language from its shackles while straddling the unstable relationality of interdisciplinary mélange through the enaction of a defamiliarized quantum world against the phenomenology of cultural lineages in the Malay Archipelago.

The core of the serial centers on a female particle physicist and her non-cohabitating female partner, a historian of physics, both based at a consortium of universities in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Set in a largely undisclosed timeline (with some important exceptions), the story opens with a prelude that doubles as flash fiction. The flash fiction is a conceptual monad that unfolds throughout. The story begins with Linda waking up from a dream and then rushing to get ready for a meeting. She receives a message from her partner, Nora, on a digital voice messenger with a central service connecting between her home and any place where she could access a computer-like device. The message is the spark that sets the tone for the rest of the story: Nora had discovered a barely visible emblem on an original (German) copy of Erwin Schrödinger’s “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics” that points to a mysterious project or organization in which the fictional Schrödinger participated. From then on, Linda and Nora find themselves confronted with an unsettling assemblage of physics, history, fantasy, horror, and the cybernetic. The story is imagined along two shifting horizontal and vertical lines, with sets of independent and dependent variables that could converge, or not, at varying points, thus opening the narrative to all forms of reading in the interpretative spirit of quantum mechanics.

The serial underwent a transformation, though only of the cosmetic nature, when I decided to embark on the project in English with a very different purpose and audience in mind. Moreover, the language switch brought about a set of cultural shifts and the need to rethink what is familiar and unfamiliar to different sets of readers. While maintaining the essence of the story and the superficial characteristics of the two protagonists and supporting casts, this story-in-progress no longer wrestles with too many encumbrances that is in the original language it was written. However, it is still trying to fit together different scales of physicality that neither coincide nor interleave straightforwardly into each other in terms of their respective schema and determinacy (i.e. the macro entities behaving according to quantum-level rules that are inexplicable by the laws of the macroscopic state). The results contain some unexpected outcomes that are actually the effects of actions that are not yet made manifest in the unraveling of the plot.[2]

The project also results from my dissatisfaction with the way non-male characters are portrayed in hard science fiction, or the lack of agency attributed to the non-male characters. While many feminist science fiction writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler, to name but a few, have done incredible work articulating the problem of otherness and utopic limitations, their works have been mostly focused on developing a theme of social justice and awareness through the device of defamiliarization that science fiction is able to provide.[3] This is because the critique of the status quo in gender politics becomes ever more powerful when the reader is displaced, imaginarily, on unfamiliar ground. Other than the question of ethics in science, much of the science featured in existing stories is used for place-setting and to leverage certain actions in the plot, but these are definitely not given equal consideration, or written in as the main engine, of most feminist science fiction. I hope to demonstrate, through my work, that science fiction enables social justice issues involving human and non-human organisms to be addressed and rendered more powerfully when juxtaposed against the background of epistemic advancement or destruction enabled by an imaginary technoscience that is still located very much in scientific reality. This is also a form of fictive performance of the same epistemic justice discussed by Barad, though I intend to extend the ontological measure. In doing so, I have to be cognizant of how power is rebalanced, and of whether the choices I make would lead to the reification of the same power structures under a different name. Even the best science fiction writer rarely escapes re-vindicating what is out there. I tentatively argue that the non-contiguous narrative devices and the platforms from which the narratives are then developed can help to interrogate my choice of plot, character development, and theoretical predisposition.

As the work itself is still in progress, the story evolves organically as its material is sourced from the author’s dissertation research and philosophical interests. This project inspires the author to venture beyond the constraints set by modern science and its requisite laws, so as to venture into the exploration of scientific knowledge unbred by a western model while challenging the current assumptions that only western modern science, as we know it, is capable of producing the technology that is conducive to our lives. It is my intention to problematize the notion of the ‘good life’ that modern technology is tasked with producing. The discourse of technoculture in the advancement of the ‘good life’ through scientific development and the destruction of pathological conditions, whether at the level of the physico-biologico or psychological, requires a more thorough examination of the cause of such pathologies. All of these, in the end, speak to the context-value of how technoscience, in its multifacetedness, is perceived and negotiated.

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Biography of Goeppert Mayer

One of the most groundbreaking contributions to modern nuclear physics came from Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist, for her work on the nuclear shell model of the atom that was later to earn her a Nobel Prize in physics. The nucleus of the atom, as one might have learnt in high school physics and chemistry, consists of protons and neutrons. In the nucleus are ratios between the neutron and proton that can vary. The nucleus is surrounded by an electron cloud in the form of an imaginary shell-like structure with specific rules on why there are a certain number of electrons, the how and why of their decay, and the how of classifying and predicting the energy levels of the electrons for the different elements that exist. Goeppert Mayer found that the stability or instability of the nuclear structure, or even why odd-numbered isotopes (atoms sharing the same mass that have different numbered neutrons) were less stable than even numbered ones, were then still rather unknown.

At the time when Goeppert Mayer was working through the problem of the nuclear structure model and the ‘magic number’ in terms of how many electrons can maximally occupy one shell with stability, discoveries were already made with regard to the beta-emission of the electrons demonstrating the decay of the electrons and how that could be added up in relation to the nucleons. At the same time, there were major developments in quantum mechanics such as in the spin orbital and angular momenta of electrons. As Noether’s work was about developing a big picture of the field in quantum theory, Goeppert Mayer’s findings fit perfectly with the mathematical ontology Noether developed.

To think about the atom in the structure of a ‘shell’ ran counter to the concept of the “liquid drop” model of the atom that suggested the nuclei consisted of uniform density and that all the subatomic particles mentioned were configured, as a whole, in the form of a liquid drop, with differences in the forces observed in the interior and surface level of the nucleon. In this model, the fermions (protons, neutrons and electrons) were virtually ‘bunched’ together.[1] Goeppert Mayer’s other significant (but also related) contribution was the nucleonic pairing involving even and odd number nuclei through the manipulation of spin numbers and the angular momenta at ground state (the physics of ground zero), which would have implications for how the ‘coupling’ between particles could be perceived in latter day developments in particle physics, especially in the examination of inelastic collision and decays into ever more fundamental particles than the fermions.

Goeppert Mayer’s work has been important for thinking about energy and the construction of the most elementary entities. However, it was submerged within a discourse of physics dominated by a group of rather influential men, from Born to Fermi.[2] Within that context of epistemic development, Goeppert Mayer’s pioneering contribution was positioned against the need to reconcile the data observable within experiments of an already existing ontology. In other words, her contribution has changed how one would think about an aspect of the atom and provided the impetus for further work in nuclear physics on some of the most fundamental questions in quantum theory regarding the property of spin, quantum ‘jumps’ (now known as the behavior of electrons within the constraints of the Exclusion Principle disallowing two fermions of similar spin to be on the same quantum state while dictating the movement of the fermions between the orbital shells of predetermined quantum energy), and the differential properties of the nuclei. However, her work did not actually change the way quantum mechanics continued to be interpreted at that time. She later produced a thoroughgoing book on the subject, The Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure, in collaboration with J. Hans D. Jensen, which was published by Wiley in 1955.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to tease out the specificity of her contribution from all the contributions made by the other male and (a small number of) female physicists whose approaches to their individual research problems added cumulatively, but never in a distinctively linear manner, to the knowledge at hand. One might say that she had proposed an ingenious explanation of the idea before the other person did or in conjunction with the other people, as demonstrated by the shared Nobel Prize.

A rigorous analysis of the social context embedded in the production of the physics theories requires, foremost, differentiation between the internal-analytical aspect of the theories derived from mathematical proofs and computation, and the epistemic drive that produces the predictions and enables the experiments. One also has to attend to the external-experiential aspects that involve certain ideologies, sets of scientific beliefs, as well as institutional hierarchies and constraints that drive the research programs that are the impetus for the dominance of certain models over others. Once the differentials are teased out, one would soon discover how sharp lines cannot be drawn around certain epistemic practices. At the same time, there are varying levels of oppressions involved in the insistence of specific ideologies that confine interpretations in a way that has nothing to do with obvious correlations between mathematical concepts and physical states, but the preference for advancing certain values and standards.

Goeppert Mayer went against the grain of accepted beliefs by working on a project that did not arouse interests from among the most influential physicists of the day, with the exception of Enrico Fermi (see Jardins 157-200). Most official accounts would concentrate on the veracity and scientific value of her contribution, and its later reception. However, one does not know the intricate details of the social negotiations she had to perform unless one could access her correspondences or personal journals; she had occupied positions of no power in the university hierarchy, from ‘voluntary’ to low pay in most of the universities to which her husband, Joe Mayer (the physical chemist) was appointed (see Mozkowski). Similar to Noether, she needed her work to be validated and vouched for by the influential men in her milieu. At the same time, she did not allow herself to be dissuaded from her convictions. While many of the physicists she worked with were enamored with big accelerators and a macro perspective of the universe from the top, Goeppert Mayer was interested in how the details could be the key to changing existing ways of thinking about our universe, which she quietly revolutionized with minimal fanfare.

From what we can see from this and the previous section, the normative body, a body formed of coalescence between the two women scientists and all the other scientists, in their combined interactions with abstract knowledge, should be disrupted during the valuation of that knowledge through political and social interventions performed in concordance with the analysis of that knowledge. We know that knowledge is not autonomous and that even the most mathematical of knowledge can be made receptive to social epistemological arguments. Such an understanding indirectly informs my attempt at objectively confronting epistemic formations that have always been presumed as discursively inviolable. Hence, the knowledge arising from these highly mathematical sciences can become the inspiration for a new specter of speculative feminist science fiction.

Biography of Noether

Novel developments in physics usually begin with a speculation. The speculation ranges from a prediction based on a simple hypothesis, right through to the development of models, narratives, and prototypes of myriad possibilities. Some of the better known speculations emerge from thought experiments such as the Schrödinger Cat paradox and Einstein’s Twin Paradox, each having played important roles as narratives of indeterminacies and what-ifs, each with experimental counterparts through the double slit experiment, the determination of the lifetime of particles traveling at near the speed of light, and more generally, how time is transformed between different frame of references.

Emmy Noether and her far-reaching scientific contribution to the theory of invariance are important for grounding the ontology by which speculative physics theories are able to take place; and for providing the platform for epistemological explorations. The development of the theory of invariance resulted in paradigm-shifting implications in physics, from relativity to quantum field theory. In fact, without the mathematical developments that she had pioneered, many media-celebrated physical objects, such as the Higgs Boson, would have looked very different, or possibly not have been predicted in the way they were. Her theorem, transforming between paths of actions, energy, and invariant framework, as well as finessing the connection between classical and quantum mechanics, enables what would have been considered ‘illegal’ actions under classical theory to become quantum-mechanically feasible.

Noether took the mathematical analytics of Euler, Lagrange, and Hamilton, and produced, from them, geometrical analytics that were sublimated and transformed through group theory and complex numbers. These functionals rendered hitherto inexplicable physical phenomena logical through the development of new mathematical operators. Even as new developments in variational calculus have brought about short cuts for determining whether a particular mathematical embodiment of a physical action conforms to the symmetry of invariance and extremum (representing geometrical paths of minimum or maximum points in the curves of a graph), the foundation of her work in itself remains unquestionable in its technical promise and application. The symmetry is represented by a physical object, which, after rotation within the framework, could not be discerned as any different in terms of its positioning and physique. Among the functions used to describe the mathematical ontology of the object are dependent and independent variables, which play important roles in determining the level of perturbation the functions are able to endure, and therefore in shaping their constraints and contingencies.

Through the process of rotation and transformation of spatial coordinates (and the substitution of mathematical representations of the physical processes), the question asked becomes: has mathematics been normalized so that some order of terms can be cancelled or factored out of the equations? The normalization of terms becomes a method of trimming the edges by coupling together the long-bit strings of spaghetti-like functionals, the folding in of terms to produce more elegant representations of equations then used to demonstrate whether the physical action under examination is feasible. This means that one has to consider the possibility of extrapolation from a single dimensional character to the multi-dimensional, requiring stripped-down and idealized entities that were used for testing the mathematics to be restored to their full-bodied version, then subjecting the rigorous proofs to the ultimate test of physical fit and fitness.

Therefore, the importance of Noether’s mathematical work has to do with its deployment for grounding theoretical problems in the ‘new’ physics of her day, and even the new physics of today. Her textual articulation of the mathematics is not particularly visual but still models, through abstract notations, the algebraic-geometrical structures that would drive the highly mediated object-oriented age of today’s physics and of the mathematical sciences in general. The study of such a development opens up a line of communication that extends into consideration of the development of a highly visual media culture that is layered over, and bound together, through the application of the algebra of Noether, and her successors, for organizing data structures and categories.

Having worked closely with mathematicians such as Hilbert, Klein, Minkowski, and Schwarzschild, Noether was already familiar, by the time she developed her famous theorems, with problems facing the development of the multi-dimensional post-Newtonian physics, and had worked on the problem of energy conservation in Einstein’s theory. This work was drawn from two theorems that came out of her ‘habilitation’ submission[1] in Göttingen, thus providing the tools for dealing with problems of conservation in the move from flat space-time to curved space time, through the symmetry group of finite and infinite dimensions. The theorems also allow for the reconstitution of conservation laws and identities, the latter known as the equality between functions differently defined but all adding up to describe the same qualities and quantities. Could Noether have foreseen the computational robustness of her theorem in the twenty-first century from her position in the early twentieth century?

Noether came of a long line of mathematical women whose earliest contributions had been as unsung agents of change pushing mathematical boundaries, either through intuitive insights or from seeing through the chaos to connect pieces of the mathematical puzzles coherently. Needless to say, one of the luminaries is none other than Countess Ada Lovelace. Noether and Lovelace were involved in the production of pure mathematics with almost immediate application to physics and computing respectively, even if the applications required some translation work from pure mathematics to computable algorithms. But many of the early contributions of mathematics provided by female mathematicians (most, being self-taught, had the privilege of private tutoring, and/or direct epistolary contact with famed mathematicians of their time) tended to be obscured by the fact that the theorems they developed are named for their pater familia, once again allowing patrilineal dominance to usurp their contribution, lending weight to the familiar assumptions that female mathematicians are exceedingly scarce historically. Noether was a case in point: I knew of her theorem long before I discovered that the person behind it was a woman, if only because the production of scientific discourse elides the social conditions and origins of the discourse.

Ada Lovelace was a different story, since everyone knew her as the woman mathematician who gave a ‘voice’ to Babbage’s calculating machine, and who had also the honor of having a programming language named for her first name, which is therefore, her personal name. One other famous female Neo-Platonic mathematician we refer to by her first name is Hypatia, whose fame, sadly, did not preclude the preservation of her writings in mathematics and philosophy.[2] While one might argue that ignoring the gender of the mathematical exponent speaks to the quality and therefore, the success of women, as equal participants in a highly abstract field, and supposedly giving lie to the idea that high-level cognitive functions are differentiated by gender, it also becomes a convenient excuse for ‘forgetting’ that the female mind matters, and that the assimilation of her contributions have been highly disadvantageous to her recognition, and therefore, her agency, turning her accomplishments by virtue of social conditions into exceptions.

Noether’s theorem did for developments in relativistic quantum mechanics what James Clerk Maxwell’s equations did for the classical field of electromagnetism.[3] While Maxwell’s geometry provided the first level of unification for electricity and magnetism, Noether’s insight into the algebraic potentiality in geometry enabled the reconceptualization of field potentials in particle physics. There is an interesting twist to the story: prior to Maxwell’s formulation of the electromagnetic field, the constitution of electricity and magnetism had been viewed as micro particles because of the materialist-atomistic view. Charge, both positive and negative, playing an important role in the particle-field representations, was also part of this atomic-materialist quilt. This materialization was later reincarnated in the form of the conservation of charge density in both continuum and discrete representations of quantum mechanics, therefore taking on mathematical import in the envisioning of the probabilistic density of particles with wave-like characteristics. Hence, the story of the charge, presented through Lagrangian mathematics as a protagonist in classical and quantum physics, now becomes an integral representation of finiteness in mathematical physics and exists in the dual factions of the particle and the field.

However, by the early twentieth century, the Maxwellian presentation of field had been replaced by a particle outlook because of developments in atomic and nuclear physics, such as the discovery of the electrons, protons, and neutrons. Later, there were also other experiments performed during the early years of the quantum theory conceptualization that led to the particle-wave duality debate Karen Barad discusses in chapter seven of Meeting the Universe Halfway. Even the early development of quantum electrodynamics, a precursor to quantum field theory, was very much centered on the concept of the particle. Therefore, it appeared that field theory, which Noether’s theorem captures so elegantly, was, at that time, relegated to the back burner. This changed again in the 1960s when it became clear that field theory was needed to deal with the development of increasingly complex sets of new ‘particles’ that were being predicted and then discovered. The emphasis on the particle had brought about a number of unsolvable problems, such as that involving symmetry breaking of the unified forces and even the particle-wave paradox.[4] Noether’s work on group theory, which had been so essential in the early days to the development of Einstein’s Special Relativity, now returned for the development of an axiomatic approach to quantum field theory, which is another way of saying, without going into technical detail, that it is a first principle/axiomatic approach to quantum field theory developed through abstract algebra.

However, there was a period in the 1920s and 1930s when her work elicited only marginal interests from the mathematical community, mainly because she was not into publicizing her own work (Byers 954-55), given the pressures of self-effacement, promoted as an ideal in scholarship by ignoring power and social differentials. That said, her work has been intrinsic to unifying the various disparate disciplines of mathematics, and even played a small, yet unfinished, part in the creation of the theory of everything whereby the mathematics she had developed are applied to the study of gravity and gravitons.[5]

Emmy Noether, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and their Cyborgian Counterparts: Triangulating Mathematical-Theoretical Physics, Feminist Science Studies, and Feminist Science Fiction

This essay contains a portmanteau of two strands of narratives from which the reader can choose his or her own critical engagement; either biographical or literary. The science fiction aspect of the narrative attempts a critique of queer feminist science taking place at an ontologically abstract level to force a re-reading of the mathematical sciences via a politically astute lens of feminist epistemology. At the same time, the essay participates in a close reading of the intellectual biographies of Emmy Noether and Maria Goeppert Mayer to demonstrate the importance and revolutionary nature of their respective contributions to fields that would later converge into the most cutting-edge physics of today, as well as that of computation. A part of the essay critiques what was at stake for these two women who contributed enormously to shaping the imaginary of the world of theoretical physics and, therefore, the imaginary that informs the foundations of hard science fiction focusing on speculative and novel ideas of physics. The imaginary of theoretical physics is rife with a multiplicity of interpretations that shape how we like to perceive our microworld, and how that, in itself, influences our connection to the macro-world. Another part discusses the critical, creative, and intellectual drive behind my production of a queer feminist hard science fiction, the Schrödinger’s Notebook.


In the chapter “Why ‘Physics’ is a Bad Model for Physics,” from the book Whose Science? Whose Knowledge: Thinking from Women’s Lives, published in 1991 by Cornell University Press, Harding argues that most feminist critiques have failed to identify the fortresses that seemingly protect science from “critical, causal scientific explanation that the natural sciences insist on for all other social phenomena (77).” Most physicists and philosophers of physics would dispute Harding’s claim, because the problem of causality, at least of the foundational issues surrounding questions of determinacy, certainty, physical realism, and observations, are germane problems in physics and its philosophical disquisition. Read differently, Harding’s criticism is a call to arms for feminist criticism to get involved with the epistemological interrogation of the theoretical fundamentals of abstract sciences such as physics, stemming from the misperception that the field is not open to discursivity or social maneuvers. The modest goal of this paper is to produce an interjection that has been lacking, while moving the goal post further forward, thus enlarging the intellectual interventions of feminist theory.

Many of the earliest feminist interventions into science, or technology, derived from the turns that took place in cultural anthropology, literary studies, and cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s that reversed their lenses so as to look inward into the critical examination of western cultures and the intellectual products that are the outcome of these cultures (McNeil). Hence, given the background and direction from where much (though not all) of science and technology studies have originated, there tends to be more interest in social than epistemological questions, while the internalist-directed philosophical analyses of scientific epistemology and ontology (particularly in analytic philosophy) would evaluate these fields in isolation of the social. Nevertheless, the traditions of literary and cultural studies are crucial for informing my transhuman reading of the subjects examined here. [1]

There have been rare, if any, instances of interventions by queer and feminist theories into mathematical and theoretical physics. Such lack is exacerbated by the small number of women who are participants in these two fields due to a combination of social and educational disadvantages over the course of centuries. In the cases of female scientists and mathematicians, their lack of public visibility means that even the most stellar contributions do not lend themselves as readily to public acclaim as comparable contributions by male scientists and mathematicians; moreover, female scientists and mathematicians are less likely to receive credit for their scholarship.[2] Therefore, queer and feminist interventions are ever more needed in light of how scientific epistemology has been shaped by the social conditions of privilege (some more than others) of a majority of the practitioners in the field. Karen Barad, who has played an important role in comparing the indeterminate matter of quantum theory with queer entanglements, is a notable exception. Her work has made it possible to think about queerness beyond the materiality of the gendered: to incorporate queerness into the corporeal matter of science. Barad’s work illustrates how the inviolability of the ontological constitution of science does not render its epistemological position closed to political recuperation. One such example is her Derridean reading of Frayn’s play Copenhagen, about the imaginary conversations between Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Margrethe Bohr. The conversations are framed in a manner analogous to interpretations in quantum theory that advocate the thinking of justice through the ethics of science and agency in decision-making concerning life-and-death situations (Barad, “Quantum Entanglements”).

Since their beginnings, feminist technocultures have taken a more innovative turn by including the study of performativity and multi-modal transgressions. Such transgressions include the presentation of non-linearity as models for arguments that are not continuous but contiguous.[3] Additionally, theories within feminist science studies become the go-to for making sense of the materiality of a fictionalized/constructed body laden with multiple cultural inscriptions and social immersions. The body (that could be corporeal or metaphysical), whether situated within the space of the actual or the virtual, is the container for the superposition and interplay of dominant and suppressed (recessive) cultural and biological values. Even when the body is able to exert and stake the claims of the marginal, there will always be different intersections of resistances: one might ask whether such resistances could themselves downplay the autonomy of a body pushing through the tension, including the gendered body that could or could not insist on its difference, thus impacting the latter’s interactions with epistemology.

In her essay, “The Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology,” Samantha Frost wonders whether an engagement with historical materialism can destabilize feminist epistemic readings of the essence of biological materiality in binary relation to cultural power relations.[4] Could epistemic standpoints stemming from particular engagement with the inertness of matter that is shaped by norms and social constructs be better dissected? Her arguments foreground certain troubling aspects of essentialist and social constructivist practices grounded in the dichotomy of culture and nature, with the expectation that one be led to a more straightforward understanding of the state of causation pertaining to the aforementioned dichotomy. Frost argues that new materialist readings aim to “counter the figuration of matter as an agent only in virtue of its receptivity to human agency. They try to specify and trace the distinctive agency of matter and biology, elucidate the reciprocal imbrication of flesh, culture, and cognition, investigate the porosity of the body in relation to the environment in which it exists, and map the conditions and technologies that shape, constrain, and enhance the possibilities for knowledge and action.” Hence, perspective, as a constructed narrative of experience, is a rhizomatic matter that precludes the uniqueness of any social or gendered perspective, as the focus on any particular perspective merely collapses the other factors from consideration, but does not exclude their already-there impact.

Hence, the essay aspires to make the connection between mathematics, theoretical physics, and feminist technoscience more evident even as the non-linearity of such connections must be emphasized. This means reading against the grain of the current philosophical and historical discourse. It also means making jumps between arguments that are not dissimilar to the ‘quantum jumps’ articulated by Whitehead in his Science and the Modern World as representations of categorical leaps. In his thinking, the move from classical to quantum modes of thinking represented an ontological jump, which we know to be untrue today given that the leap is purely epistemological; the ontology as embodied by the mathematics and mechanical worldview enables points of continuity between classical and quantum mechanics, even if some rules appear to have changed. However, I am aware that many of the substantive arguments I want to make regarding the politics of the scientific epistemology get occluded by the high level of technicality in these objects. I hope to somewhat alleviate this by limiting my technical account to an impressionistic level and focusing on the impact that politics internal to epistemology has on practices thought to be external to the scientific facts. This connects back to the argument made by Frost on the problem of untangling the different factors of causality.

Before continuing, I should explain what I mean here by speculative theories, especially the enactment of speculation that overlaps the theories of the physical sciences with science fiction. Speculative theories are theories that could not directly explain the relation between cause and effect, or provide a determinate explanation to an outcome. However, this does not mean that the theory has no basis in hard facts or empirical data: it merely means that the theory is open to further re-interpretation and reconstitution as new possibilities emerge. Speculative scientific theories, as epistemological imperfectness overlying an ontology that is always at that point of becoming complete, do not object to considering subjectivities and affectivity that are part of the knowledge production. Debates internal and external to science can then be illustrated through carefully constructed thought experiments that consider these debates separately and together. Subjective affectivity constitutes the social construction surrounding theory predictions and thought-experimental narratives that have significant roles in the interpretive act. We must also consider the importance of experimental design for bringing theoretical predictions out of their under-determined stage (where cause and effect have no direct correlative).The consideration of the experimental in partnership with theory is vital to an expanding feminist epistemology and intrinsic to thinking about how one can then go about ‘queering’ one’s interpretation of scientific theories and practices.

Were one to examine the official history of quantum mechanics, one gets the sense that it is a narrative of white-male dominance and female tokenism.[5] Even as an increasing number of women and minorities are majoring in physics, the physics they study appears pedagogically immune to other forms of interventions as its traditions of thought and knowledge transmissions are kept on a mostly ‘straight’ narrative promulgated by introductory and even advanced textbooks. But, were one to enter into a thorough examination of the development of quantum theories, one would soon find many segues and theories that never quite entered into the mainstream of discourse, since most of these were never included in the popular textbooks used by students.[6]

Historians of science like Frederick Gregory argue that the scientific revolution of western civilization, which reified the mechanistic conception of nature, ensured the continuation of patriarchal attitudes towards knowledge as had happened throughout the development of the theory of mechanics in physics. One such example is the inclination towards the anthropomorphization of the universe and a refusal to consider a universe that can exist outside the empirically determined. This is made possible because the same clerical institutions that had hitherto resisted the epistemic changes during the scientific revolution had appropriated the same mechanical (abstract) view of nature as a tool for resisting a more organic, or other possible, views of nature that the church would not be able to regulate as easily. As Gregory argues, “the view of nature as a self-developing autonomous organism was discredited and replaced with a nature controlled and ruled by God the giver of fixed mechanical law.” The mechanical view of the universe, Gregory claims, is exemplified in how the male-dominated clerisy had decided what scientific questions were important and what approaches should therefore work, embodying again the classic privileging of the intellectual choices of male authority (Gregory 51-53).

While there might have been women who were contributing to the world of abstract ideations before the twentieth century, the perpetuation of masculine versus feminine ways of knowing (which, while a gendered discourse, has the insidious propensity of over-reaching into literal differences of the biological sexes and ignoring sexual différance) ensures the continuous ignominy of that pronounced as feminized ways of thinking. Knowledge driven by the ontology of mechanics is thus seen as constituted within the privilege of the masculine, with interventions from women discouraged.[7]

Much of the work in feminist science studies and also feminist science fiction is usually centered on issues of biology and the medical sciences, which is to be expected given the profusely important stakes in these areas. But there has not been as much attention paid to how feminism can be active in the physical sciences; not merely in terms of pushing for greater accessibility and receptivity of these fields to women and girls, but how feminist epistemologies can shape the knowledge practices in the field. In fact, two trained women physical scientists, in their 2006 NWSA paper, “Interpretations of Feminist Philosophy by Feminist Physical Scientists,” sounded the clarion call for greater attention with regard to knowledge practices in the physical sciences (Belcastro and Moran). It is easy to understand the reservations that most would have in dealing directly with modern physics theories, given the seemingly high level of esotericism of the subject (let alone the obtuse mathematics), where a single mis-step (or even an out-of-context misinterpretation by a reader) can subject one to a level of ridicule reminiscent of the Sokal hoax.[8]

But should one be interested in taking up the challenge of examining mathematical-physical theories in relation to politics, one might begin by taking a closer look at how the foundational concepts and philosophies embedded within quantum theory can be made amenable to a feminist re-reading, with the latter foregrounding powerful ontological revisions. Karen Barad illustrates such possibilities in her re-appropriation and re-presentation of Bohr’s theories, such as his theory of complementarity, which is the reconciliation between classical and quantum mechanics (macro versus microphysics) in terms of how they could be measured, through the enaction of agential realism. She then applies agential realism to issues of interest in feminist theory and feminist activism, such as reproductive technologies and discourse on the body. However, it is not evident that she has applied agential realism, as a valuable material tool, for politicizing the interpretations she made in connection to the standard readings for producing more challenging interpretations of the Bohrian epistemology, thus opening the official reading to further interjection.[9]

Feminist scientific epistemologies have much to say about the specific assumptions of knowing that take place during the process of de-naturing and reconstruction (a cyclic process of breaking down current epistemic structures for new configurations to be produced). These epistemologies work well in complement with feminist technocultures to produce a set of critical methods that could provide deeper interventions into science by challenging the status quo in sociological and philosophical foundations. It is valuable to know what feminist scientific epistemologies can say with regard to forms of knowledge that rest uneasily on any discourse of gender politics, such as the mathematical sciences, even though such knowledge’s survivability and re-formations are partly the result of knowledge ideals that arose from social specificities, such as institutional recognition and access to resources, networks, and collaborations. At the same time, feminist epistemology shares parallel critical baggage and motivation with that of postcolonial theory, through a common subaltern genealogy, and the inclusion of postcolonial studies into the discussion can further enrich queer feminist intervention.

However, before we proceed further, I would like to explain further the structure of this article. The writing in this article will always be in the form of a triptych, with particular paths that the reader can choose to follow. I begin with a core introductory overview of brief critical discussions on the epistemic fields inhabited by the two women physicist/mathematicians of interest here: Amalie Kauffman Noether/ Emmy Noether (whose contribution was in the mathematics of symmetries and invariance, both cornerstones to the development of quantum theory) and Maria Goeppert Mayer (whose work was on the theory of nuclear shells). These explications are meant to provide a foundation for evaluating feminist epistemology against women’s positions as socially immersed subjects of the scientific community who then perform cognitive labors as an outcome of their immersions. While these women occupied marginal positions at the time of their labor, their contributions grew to become part of the dominant discourse. One might ask what maneuverings went into legitimizing and validating the importance of their contributions. The answer possibly, though not straightforwardly, exists in relation to the privilege these women experienced as tokenized subjects in their relation to their epistemic engagements.[10] At the same time, the margins of their differences were submerged under the dominant practices that they did not resist.

Thereafter, the reader can choose to explore further the individual works of the two women. In the more detailed discursive biographical-theoretical discourse, one gets to read the socio-political bodies of the women against the intellectual work in which they were participants, with more technical details on their contributions delineated, and about the importance of their contributions in shaping the disciplinary features of current technoscience. This section is also where I attempt a preliminary engagement of theories in the abstract sciences (mathematics included) using more humanistic feminist epistemology as another mode of reading the biographies of these two women. Therefore, the discussions in this section are less descriptive than analytical, which include the propagation of arguments that are not always historical in nature.

On the other hand, the reader can jump directly to reading about the speculative science fiction project that I am working on. I will then explain the theorization and background that informs the postcolonial-feminist-queer hard science fiction I am writing. I argue that there are parallel epistemic strains in queer and postcolonial discourses, as both arose from the desire to theorize one’s situatedness at the margins while also attempting to theorize oneself out of those same margins. The goal is to contribute to meta-narratives that can free one from dominant master narratives. Of course, how possible that contribution is depends on the number of risks we are willing to take. It is my intention to test the limits and durability of the theories I propose here before subjecting them to a fictionalization process. The method of fictionalization also enables the theoretical exploration of certain social experimentation in superimposing the material perspectives of the micro-worlds with that of the macro-worlds where hard and speculative scientific problems and histories are involved in continuous interactions. In light of that, I argue that the explication of the ‘real’ through a critical reading of the production of these two women can foreground the limits contained in the fictional while problematizing the existing conceptions of the scientific method. The point is to invoke the potential for physics, and particularly mathematical physics, to incorporate qualitative queer interpretations.

Or, one can choose to read everything available, to see the interplay between the actual and fictive without there being a linear correlation of the two. The article is laid out such that, regardless of the initial choice made, one always has the chance to go back to the path not taken.

Whose Knowledge and Whose Science, To Echo Sandra Harding

Echoing the sentiments of Harding, I read the works of Noether and Goeppert Mayer as liberatory attempts at epistemic subversions that involve the dismantling of the current scientific order from a position of precarity. For them to arrive at the conclusions they did about their work, they had to move outside the dominant thought-styles of their respective fields (Noether more so than Goeppert-Mayer) so as to analyze the scientific problems they were faced with. Then they had to re-articulate their analyses in a language that would make sense even to the most stubborn members of the scientific community. They flipped the order of linearity in mainstream mathematical and physical thought of that time, through the advancement of an alternate logic (though one still within the constraints of scientific logic), by reconstituting the explanatory theories current at that time. Therefore, they challenged the ‘normal’ progression of the mathematics and physics they worked in by advocating other ways for thinking about the hard problems they faced. This is a form of inscrutable transgression that uses subtlety in its undermining of an environment that devalued the contributions of women scientists and mathematicians through the continuous denial of academic positions and honors.

At the same time, one cannot forget that these women occupied positions of privilege even if they had to work at the margins of the scientific institutions of their time. They had had influential male mentors: beginning with their fathers, then colleagues, and a husband in the case of Goeppert Mayer, each of whom supported their work and provided them with unfettered access that most women could only dream of having. While their work should not be read against the background of their token privilege, their privileged position, in social as well as political proximity to the male elites in their fields, must not be underestimated. When they managed to achieve recognition later in life, the achievement was premised on how well they had managed the external political operations while working through subtle internal subversions, with the latter being mainly hidden.

One might assume that the two women have a ‘feeling’ (invoking Evelyn Fox Keller’s claim of Barbara McClintock in A Feeling for the Organism) for the scientific objects they work with in ways that have nothing to do with their gendered position, but everything to do with their creative contribution to the epistemic and institutional spaces they occupied. They indirectly contributed to an emergent scientific imaginary that shapes some of the popular themes in hard science fiction works focusing on the physical sciences, even if men rather than women produce most of these works. They overcame institutional and social hurdles through a combination of strategic alliances and dedication.

The practices of these two women scientists reconstitute notions of ‘competition’ and collaboration in their social milieu; they were responsible for contributing to the foundational ideas in physics and mathematics that facilitated the predictions and speculations of physics theories and objects that would later emerge in creative non-fiction and speculative science fiction. They also worked in collaboration with mostly male physicists and mathematicians through the exchange of ideas. However, that required political savvy and delicacy, since the women would have to find the best way to insist on the legitimacy of their ideas even when those ideas, however promising, could not yet be unequivocally demonstrated.[11]

Mothers and female mentors were invisible in the life stories of these two women, at least in the accounts I have been able to access. Yet one could speculate that their mothers, married to fathers who were eminent in the scientific world, would have been aware of some of the more profound advances going on even if their knowledge were only peripheral. Little is known of the hidden services these mothers performed for their scientifically inclined husbands and daughters. More work would have to be done to unearth the influence of (non-scientific or scientific, in the case of Marie Curie) mothers on female scientists and mathematicians, since this could provide a clearer explication on the limits of agency that women are able to negotiate. In the case of Noether, she did eventually go on to mentor women mathematicians during her truncated time at Bryn Mawr.

Their respective contributions challenged the technoscientific thinking of their time, and continue to do so thereafter. In the case of Noether, symposiums were held in her honor decades after her death. Papers, in both mathematics and applied mathematics, have been produced that demonstrate the refinement and extension of her original ideas and methods.[12] In the case of Maria Goeppert Mayer, the recognition came latterly in the form of a Nobel Prize in physics. She became the second woman to win it after Marie Curie, with the prize shared with two other male physicists, one of who later became her co-author.[13] The implications of their work in mathematics and quantum physics can be read as knowledge not demanding of a ‘final control’ or finiteness, allowing for subjectivity even in objective analyses.[14]

Final control, as invoked here, refers to the containment of an arbitrary value based on the assumption that there is an absolute standard of epistemology for objectivity to be situated. Instead, what is called for is the willingness to swim in the ocean of “dis-engagement” in a manner that is both mutual and unequal in the structuring of nature/culture, acknowledging that an attempt to draw boundaries can fail. Therefore, it appears that the only way to proceed is to see nature as a coyote with ever evolving meanings in its embodiment (Haraway 201). However, I doubt that either Noether or Goeppert Mayer would think in such Harawayan terms in relation to what they do, being, as they were, women who were trying to work within the constraints of fields that they were also pushing forward. Their works, on the other hand, took their own course outside the control of any one individual or institution, and therefore the representations of nature, as embodied by the ever refined epistemics, are never stable. The process, sociality, and product of scientific labor can be thought of as occupying a trinity of ontological-epistemological relations: image (the conceptual shape the science is imagined to contain); object (the image-subject interrogated); and mediation (existing/new medium whereby arguments undergo apophantic evaluation prior to transmission). This other layer of a triptych is also representative of how my arguments are played out in the next three sections of the essay.

Both women are the embodiment of cyborgian, scientific, and cultural multiplicities: their ideas challenge the privilege of the masculine insistence of its epistemic superiority through nuanced and subtle transgression; the transgression comes in the form of inserting the self into the stages of becoming that are integral to enabling the paradigmatic shifts necessary for the production of a “new” paradigm in physics. In other words, they rocked the boat quietly through subtle forms of intervention, one of which was to use their solid scientific productions to stake their intellectual claims. Depending on how one sees it, such subtlety may be considered insufficient for encouraging more female participations in similar knowledge production, and does nothing for the elimination of tokenism taken for representation of female successes.

However, the exceptionalism that is pervasive in the aforementioned tokenism masks other less overt forms of institutional devaluation and marginalization. Such exceptionalism required women to have greater confidence in their abilities so that they could earn respect through their work. The stress of working in such marginal environments cannot be underestimated, and parallels the adjunctification of the academy in the US institutions of today. While the world of physics does not need to be reminded that the most profound mathematical contributions that enabled the beginnings of a mathematical field theory, which led to the theory of quantum fields, came through the labors of some exceptional and better-known women scientists, the vital but less dramatic contributions from other women physicists and mathematicians get swept under the carpet and not paid the attention given to the same (or lesser) achievements of their male counterparts.

Therefore, the formal ontology underlying all physics theories across the classical and quantum spectrum is invariant to whatever social influences or conditions producing that ontology. In other words, the laws that determine the scientific theories proposed will not change regardless of the specific ideologies or institutional conditions of the scientists formulating them.[15] One can read formal ontology as an androgynous figure that does not subscribe to any determinate categories of ideologies (gendered or otherwise) and is a composite of a series of different categories that could combine and split to re-emerge as an entirely new epistemic category. This formal ontology then attempts to communicate the physical reality, where the process of communication undergoes re-interpretations, which are open to multiple interjections from the most subjective to the more objective, but never in a form that is ‘detached.’ The interjections range from the sociology of its research programs, to the interactions between the scientists, to the philosophy of proofs. The androgynous, considered through the mathematical sciences, and therefore dissociated from direct social entanglement, is situated outside the phenomenon of the dichotomously gendered epistemology.

The androgynous figure of the abstract-exact science and its products are not undifferentiated, but instead, represent a form of non-normative differentiation, where the epistemics (factual interpretive areas of knowledge also making truth-claims) are differentiated from the ontological (formal equations, socially invariant, with dollops of objective truths). But even in their differentiation, epistemology and ontology exist as a Harawayan knowledge-hybrid cyborg. I ask the reader to consider scientific production as a product of androgynous epistemology. The dissemination of such an epistemology enables the breaking of the first layer of exclusivity by moving away from strident binary thinking to encourage an explosion of pluralistic standpoints.

While knowledge accumulation and production appear apolitical at the point of their making, the readings of the knowledge, and thus of the mathematics, can still be politically reconstituted, particularly for understanding why certain interpretations are able to generate greater acceptances over others. I argue that the creation of an androgynous mental model for thinking through current and developing mathematical epistemologies can potentially make political engagement feasible even for highly esoteric mathematics. I do this not by insisting on any lack of solutions and objective explication in mathematics, but by being cognizant of the fact that what underlies the objective is subjective social discursivity. As mathematics requires the mastery of specific knowledge genealogies, it and its ancillary epistemics can exist outside the context of institutional hierarchies once their bodies of knowledge are depoliticized. All participants in knowledge-making have equal access to making epistemological interventions, with the latter representing the decoupling of the condition of production from its final outcome.

Thinking about mathematics as an androgynous category enables the coupling of mathematical functions to real and imaginary numbers that could then be constituted as an entity to be read as containing social causality. It also allows the works of the two women to be read transgressively through the ejection of the subject from a fetishized gaze, and by refusing to subscribe to the exclusivity of relationships between modern mathematics and an alphabetized culture as the dominant causal argument for mathematical developments. The ancient mathematics of the Chinese and Indus Valley had demonstrated how highly sophisticated mathematics, particularly geometry, were generated alongside the development of pictographic forms of writings, and these mathematics were then applied as tools to mechanical arts and technology. What the ancient mathematics demonstrates rather simply is how the production of mathematics is not indifferent to cultural and social conditions.

To begin the process of transgressive reading, I will have to chip away at a Platonic idealization, an idealization that insists on mathematics being objectively detached and non-discursive. The Platonic idealization of mathematics represents mathematical solutions as inviolable and absolute. Instead, I want to advocate thinking about mathematics and the mathematical sciences as representative of the knowledge of constant becoming and re-invention. I intend for this process to return mathematics to a discourse that allows for more direct engagement with the why of physical materiality, instead of locating mathematics as distinct while still embodying the physical.

Therefore, I read mathematics outside the binary of determinism/indeterminism at the micro level, and determinacy/indeterminacy at the macro level.[16] Such a re-interrogation of mathematics becomes increasingly pertinent in the age of new media and the digital medium that emphasizes a more multi-faceted representation of nature’s ontology. The Platonic ideal that infuses the method by which mathematics are thought about has located the latter in an abstractness that is no different from the written texts the humanists encounter regularly, a familiar yet unradical practice. According to Brian Rotman in his Mathematics as Sign, there is a privileging of the code as opposed to the more affective metacode, the privileging of alphabetic prejudice that erases the acceptance of the diagram as a useful and effective tool for doing mathematics. Hence, we end up with literal strings of very long derivations of symbols that are prone to errors. While there are diagramming methods in physics and also mathematics that try to illustrate particular concepts or intricate calculations, such as the Venn diagram for set theory, and the Feynman diagram for particle-field measurements, they are among the rarer instances of the invocation of the diagrammatic method for modern mathematical thinking. While I am not saying that the diagrammatic method is the only way to go, we must still consider why we privilege a specific form of mathematics over other possibilities. A more thorough excavation into the social-political history of mathematics could prove enlightening in this regard.

The method at work in the production of mathematics is not as non-discursive and objective as one thinks, particularly not in its illustration of physics. In fact, the work of Noether particularly, which would have extensive implications in the development of particle physics, had first utilized visualization (thinking about algebra in geometrical terms constitutes a form of visualization) in the process of integrating abstract algebra into geometry. This integration led to subsequent modern developments of abstract algebra. Such subsequent developments were then further developed by Noether and successive generations of mathematicians thereafter, into algebraic notations. These latter algebraic notations in turn have become so complex that the algebra produced is no longer intuitively imaginable without the deployment of visualizing software such as Maple and Mathematica. Is this embodiment of a trend towards abstraction a manner of demonstrating one is competent enough to be part of the old boys’ network of academic mathematics.

Please navigate to another section:

Biography of Noether | Biography of Goeppert Mayer | Speculative Science Fiction | Epilog


Lee, C. (2013) Emmy Noether, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and their Cyborgian Counterparts: Triangulating Mathematical-Theoretical Physics, Feminist Science Studies, and Feminist Science Fiction. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N3765C7S

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. The transhuman quality I refer to here is a mode of thinking about knowledge as located and dislocated from its production, of seeing the supposedly ‘inhumane’ characteristic of that knowledge as being capable of informing its human origins, even when the origins have been so hyper-mediated that the connection is no longer evident.
  2. Other than Marie Curie, few female scientists, however paradigm-changing their contributions, ever reached the same level of prominence and imagination-provoking stature of some of the famous male scientists and mathematicians (excepting Einstein from this comparison), even if the work they did enabled the work of these same male figures and therefore could be considered of comparable value. Einstein is in a class of his own, though one might say that his first wife, Mileva Maric, a woman of known brilliance and ambitions, had she not been burdened with the work of household management and childcare while her husband was out doing his thing, could have possibly been another famous scientist. But one could only speculate upon how far she could have gone given that she never had the chance to go beyond being the early succorer and supporter of Einstein’s endeavors. Scientific establishments have chafed at the idea of her making any substantial contribution to Einstein’s work, but then, they were working from the position that Einstein’s scientific production stands on its own merits with no regard for the social conditions that enabled that form of production in the first place. See <> for a brief overview and also for references to other works.
  3. I am thinking here the works of Sadie Plant in Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture (1998), Robyn Ferrell’s Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers (2006) and Luciana Parisi’s Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biology, and the Mutation of Desire. (2004).In terms of anthologies, there are Between Monsters, Goddesses, and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine, and Cyberspace (1996) edited by Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, and Cyberfeminism. Next Protocol (2004) edited by Claudia Reiche and Verena Kuni.
  4. For an ethnographical, biographical and mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) analysis of the role and condition of women in the sciences, I suggest looking at the articles in Perspectives on Gender and Science edited by Jan Harding. Many of the attempts to explain the particular positionality of women that influenced their interactions with scientific institutions have come up in multiple iterations, and thought written before 1986, has much relevance today. More recently, social media, specifically Twitter, have been replete with issues of overt and subtle discrimination and harassment that women in science had to face, and how those may have played a bigger role in undermining their work and making it harder for them to actually be different and unique when so many other battles had to be fought at the base level. See #RipplesofDoubt for conversations that highlight in more direct ways the philosophical issues surrounding passive and malleable matter Frost is trying to get at.
  5. For an exhaustive history of the development of quantum theory, I would suggest The Historical Development of Quantum Theory by Jagdish Mehra and Helmut Rechenbach in six volumes, published by Springer-Verlag. For a thoroughgoing history of the developments of quantum field theory, which both Noether and Goeppert Mayer played important early roles in developing, one may check out Silvan S Schweber, QED and the Men Who Made It (1994). The other three useful references would be David Kaiser, Drawing Theories Apart: the Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (2005), Arkady Plotnitsky, Epistemology and Probability: Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and the Nature of Quantum-Theoretical Thinking (2010) and Helge Kragh, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth-Century (2002). The references cited here are not, by all means, the final word in the history of quantum theory, but they provide sufficient triangulating information to prove that quantum theory, for the first half of the century, was dominated by white men of the transatlantic continents, with the exception of some still-pivotal contributions from a small number of Japanese and American Chinese physicists during the post second world-war periods. In fact, Kragh states as much in his book. Schweber’s book has a chapter dedicated to the role of Japan in postwar quantum field theory. On the American Chinese contribution, there is some mention (and contributing articles) in the anthology edited by Lillian Hoddeson, The Rise of the Standard Model: A History of Particle Physics from 1964 to 1979. (1997) and another by Laurie M Brown, who was herself a student of Richard Feynman, Renormalization: From Lorentz to Landau and Beyond (1993).
  6. While there are many areas of interpretation of quantum mechanics that did not make their way into standard textbooks, one might still see them in more advanced or specialized books in foundational matters in quantum theory. However, even with the interpretational differences, the theories are derived from the same mathematical ontology. There exist, however, physicists from other cultures and nations who have tried to provide direct correlations between the intellectual histories of their cultures and what they observe to be happening in modern physics. One such example is Maya in Physics authored by N.C. Panda, who tries to bring the Hindu intellectual traditions contained in some Vedic texts into a re-reading of quantum theory, by suggesting that similar strains of thoughts in modern quantum theory had already exerted and manifested themselves in the Vedanta tradition that appears similar, in its explication, to the idea of unification in western modern physics. The book was published in India. See There have also been similar recuperations done at a more academic historical level through the readings of the work and lives of colonial and immediately postcolonial Indian scientists, such as in past conference panels I have organized. Such existing interventions make it possible to contemplate other forms of interventions into the grand narratives of quantum theory.
  7. The American Physical Society periodically publishes statistics of women majoring in physics as well as reports on the status of women in physics. Such reports describe the climate that female physicists are working in, as well as reports on their achievements, grants, prizes, and also tips for navigating the workplace. See Also not too recently, a debate was sparked on an internal physics mailing list with regard to tokenism and the role that privilege plays in helping some women in physics, rather than all participating women, to advance, all other things being equal. Previous to that, there were also complaints of there being insufficient women physicists nominated to become speakers at summer schools targeting international groups of undergraduate physics majors. Both these narratives are contained, though not directly reproduced, in the two very different stories of Noether and Goeppert Mayer.
  8. That said, I want to bring the reader’s attention to a 2007 article by Harry Collins on “Mathematical Understanding and the Physical Sciences,” which points to the possibility of learning physics without necessarily having to master, to excruciating detail, all the intricate mathematics involved. He is not arguing that the mathematics is unimportant to learning physics, but rather, discussing how physical concepts can be made more accessible to the layperson, and seeking to find ways to foster greater understanding and literacy of the physical sciences by advocating for the teaching of physical sciences that does not drown the learner with details to the point of missing the forest for the trees. That way, the learner can spend more time dealing with the subtlety of conceptual arguments, rather than figuring out which mathematical operator or functional goes with what physical delimitations while still not getting the bigger picture. Nevertheless, there is some merit in working out some problems laid out in the textbooks, not for the reason of solving everything to absolute finality, but for getting a feel for the mental models and thinking processes involved. At the same time, the article also showcases a social experiment Collins performed where he did the Turing machine equivalent of masquerading as a gravitational wave physicist without possessing much mathematical knowledge of the subject area, yet appeared to have been successful in his performance.

    The Sokal Hoax was perpetuated by Alan Sokal, a mathematical physicist, who submitted a spurious paper to Social Text in 1994, resulting in what was called the “science wars” that both humanists and scientists have not ceased commenting upon for the past two decades. Sokal cashed in on the hoax by writing a book on it, The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy, published by University of Nebraska Press in 2000. You can see the original paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” at. He did make a brilliant move of picking a subject in physics that would have confounded some physicists, given the high level of mathematical and theoretical esotericism involved, so it was not as easy to discern, for the uninitiated, his true intentions unless they had subjected his piece to thorough scrutiny and used it to open discussions with other scientists. Of course, few physicists would appreciate his generous and random sprinkling of postmodern theory that seemed to border on the masturbatory rather than the advancement of actual arguments. There appears to be a level of hypocrisy involved when physicists trained in the tradition of “shut up and calculate” feel the need to inform non-physicists that the latter are wrong about ontological questions that the former are not necessarily better versed in. Additionally, not all physicists are clued in on the discussion of realism, objectivism, and materialism that had been engaged by highly respected philosophers of physics, though the latter do not engage in postmodern discourse for the most part, being more interested in discussing foundational questions in physics than extending into questions raised in literary/cultural theories. Also, you may be interested to read Mara Beller’s critique of how physicists themselves are more ‘tolerant’ of the ‘founding fathers’ of quantum theory’s own predilection towards philosophical ruminations that extend into psychology, politics, ideology, and religion, while remaining brutally derisive of the same moves made by the non-physicists theorists such as Derrida and Lacan. Beller was trained as theoretical physicist before becoming a historian of physics, and was known for her incisive and clear writing in the field of the history of quantum physics. She has since passed on.

  9. See Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, (2007). Should one refer to the argument of the previous footnote, one would be presented with a clue as to why Bohr’s philosophical conceptualizations in the foundations of quantum theory appear amenable to cultural and political interventions.
  10.  Tokenism stems from the idea that representations of minority, underprivileged, and traditionally excluded social groups have been accounted for by extrapolating from the successes of a small number from such groups in breaking through barriers.
  11. The mathematical and physics contributions that Noether and Goeppert Mayer made cannot directly be viewed in the actual works of physics I am referring to, but their work enabled discoveries and theorizations in quantum field theory, and therefore, in particle and nuclear physics, that were relatively popular subject matter in hard science fiction short stories and also in physics popularization, besides space and time travel, such as can be found in the likes of the serial Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Look particularly at issues published between 1960s and the late 1990s, which also coincided with the rise of the post-war big science of astrophysics and cosmology, as well as elementary particle physics.
  12. Noether’s theorem has becomes so ubiquitous in thinking about particle physics that what it stands for is taken as given in most introductory particle physics textbooks that I have had a chance to read through. See Griffiths’s Introduction to Elementary Particles (2008) and Mann’s An Introduction to Particle Physics and the Standard Model (2010). Also, see Emmy Noether in Bryn Mawr: Proceedings of a Symposium Sponsored by the Association for Women in Mathematics in Honor of Emmy Noether’s 100th Birthday. Eds. Bhama Srinivasan and Judith Sally (1983). The contributors to the proceedings are male and female mathematicians, though one sees a greater number of contributions from female mathematicians than would have been found in most other proceedings.
  13. See the Nobel Prize website for more information <>. I am sure most would have known that, outside the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences and economics have a pretty dismal track-record when it comes to awarding women. While prizes have been created specifically to celebrate a woman scientist/mathematician’s achievement, it did not yet accomplish the task of having the female scientists’ accomplishments recognized on a scale equivalent to that of male scientists, returning to the argument I made earlier in the essay about specific social politics that are at play.
  14. As I have argued previously, such belated recognitions of their contributions are representative of the token successes rendered possible by the importance of their works, but in no way dilute the precarity of the positions from which they had produced their works. They were fortunate to have produced works that are, in pop-cultural parlance, ‘hits,’ which neither necessarily advance the conditions for all their other female colleagues nor eliminate tokenism. Here is where I would like to acknowledge Sherryl Vint’s helpful reference to Fox Keller’s work on McClintock and a novel by Gwyneth Jones that has a strong protagonist who happens to be a biologist trying to deal with the insidious politics of academia and the effects of sexism on her personal life and her work. I recognize the confusion that Jones’s character had had with regard to social and sexual expectations that are less primary but not unimportant to my protagonists’ developments. I suppose I imagine a condition where one of my female protagonists did not feel pressured to fit in and whose actions reflect her resistance to, and tension with, gendered identification.
  15. Whether there are such things as the Laws of Nature has been debated enthusiastically in Laws of Nature: Essays on the Philosophical, Scientific, and Historical Dimensions (1995), edited by Friedel Weinert, who also provides a good comprehensive introduction to how one would classify laws, and what are real laws versus ‘pseudo’ laws, by demarcating what he considers ‘lawful’ as representing true natures of laws versus ‘lawlike’ that has the appearance of exemplifying the essence of nature but are merely manifesting certain ‘accidental’ qualities in a regular fashion, a sort of ‘pseudo-law.’ The laws available are constituted as causal laws, functional laws, and statistical laws. See “Introduction” pp 4-14.
  16. In her 2008 article “Living in a Posthumanist Material World: Lessons from Schrödinger’s Cat,” Barad outlines very clearly, in item number 3 of her notes (pp 174-5), the difference between determinacy and determinism, by emphasizing that determinism has nothing to do with causality but all to do with levels of certainty and probability of something being definite, while determinacy itself has to do with the larger causal effect that, as Deleuze and Guattari would put it, something that is becoming has neither an end nor a beginning, at least not in a way that our limited capabilities can apprehend.

Queer Urban Composites: Any City or ‘Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)’

…the way anywhere in this city, Kidd realized, was obviously to drift. -Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

The “Arts” section editors of The New York Times publish a regular feature, which both lists and reviews shows running at the numerous galleries in New York City. For approximately one year (late 2005-2006), I informally logged this index of contemporary art in order to track the degree to which digital art had achieved sufficient commercial and/or critical success to warrant private gallery showings. Commercial/critical success might also include curatorial spotlighting in the space of the gallery, reviews in mainstream venues such as The Times, and marketing exposures designed to lure the private collector to engage and purchase this “emergent” form of art—(then called) “new media.”

At the time, several major museums such as the Tate Modern in London had committed funds for the acquisition and the curation of permanent collections of digital art works. Non-commercial galleries, online and festival-based exhibitions of digital art enjoy at least a twenty-five year history, and that excludes the presentation of video, which goes back quite a bit further. The selection and placement of “virtual” (digital) work in curatorial “real” space lagged behind in both commercial and institutional contexts. Most often, the work that did find its way into shows and collections tended to be television-sized, wall-mounted display or user-screened digital video. Nam June Paik and Bill Viola emerged as analog video (tape) artists and later composed in digital video. The work of these and several other prominent video artists came to be understood as the genre of digital art (in the context of the U.S.). Digital media art’s visibility gained its early institutional and commercial footholds based on its skeuomorphic qualities. In other words, the legibility and reception of this genre occurred because of its touchstone resemblance to prior forms of analog visual media: (analog) video, television, and cinema. Legitimacy of digital art was framed through a logic of formal reproductive legibility, with cinema, videotape and television functioning as “fathers” of digital screened media.

On November 11, 2005, Ken Johnson reviewed one piece in a new show for The New York Times “Arts Section.” The work was entitled “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” and was made by “up-and-coming” Danish digital artist, Ann Lislegaard. At that time, it was not entirely unheard of for The Times to review either a relatively non-established (female) artist or an artist working in digital animation and installation. Yet, the combination of these two factors and the prestige of the reviewer certainly made a regular reader of these reviews take notice. In fact, this show was the only digital work to be reviewed that week. Johnson’s review received a privileged place in the print layout of the review section, above the fold on the left, and received the most privileged space in the online addition, the opening page. And for both the print and digital renderings of this review, a still graphic taken from Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)”[1] stood as centerpiece for the exhibition:

Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York

From October 22 through December 23, 2005, the Murray Guy Gallery presented Lislegaard’s work. The show presented several video installations, both animation and live-action, by Lislegaard and other artists. After New York, Lislegaard’s work moved on as a stand-alone show to Amsterdam, La Biennale di Venezia, and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab where Lislegaard became an artist in residence during the show’s tenure.[2]

Johnson’s review commented only on “Bellona,” the largest piece in the show. It was also work that explicitly referenced and quoted Afrofuturist and speculative fiction writer Samuel R. Delany and his 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, Dhalgren. In this novel, the city of “Bellona” has mysteriously become an obliterated urban milieu due to some cataclysmic and unknown singularity. Johnson describes the work as an adaptation of Delany’s fiction and in his review he also quotes directly from the novel:

Twice during the course of the 11-minute loop, a woman’s voice intones plaintive words from Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Dhalgren” [sic]. It concerns the extra-planetary city of Bellona, where it seems as if the walls keep changing direction so that the city becomes “like a great maze––forever adjustable and therefore unlearnable.”

Johnson notes the multimodal composition of the adaptation and deploys an odd combination of his own observation and direct citation from Delany’s text to describe Lislegaard’s animation. The suggestion of an unmediated and direct translation, from Delany to Lislegaard’s work, and presumably its reversible obverse, is not quite accurate. While Delany’s 1974 novel may in fact serve as a rhetorical source to describe Lislegaard’s visual and aural work, Johnson does not deploy Lislegaard’s compositionally inventive sonic and visual design as rhetorical sources to describe Delany’s work. Instead, Lislegaard’s “Bellona” is verbally linked to “60’s-style Color Field paintings” as part of a particular genealogy of artistic movements, a reproductive paternity of styles. What might it mean to treat Lislegaard’s multimodal digital installation as a non-discursive rhetorical analysis or assemblage of Delany’s print analog novel rather than only treat the novel as an insemination device for a mutant adaptation? [3] Even were we to construe Lislegaard’s piece as “speaking” in the languages of sound and images or aural and visual rhetoric, how might the alphabetic genres of description, argument and analysis be expressed? Or is Lislegaard’s “Bellona” a simple literary adaptation, a narrative translation, a complex adaptation, a material transformation to meet the demands of a contemporary ecology (in this case, technical, aesthetic, rhetorical, political), a transmediation, a digital extension of an essential narrative structure out of which many versions, sequels, prequels, or sidelines may be expressed? All of these possibilities begin with and propagate the primacy and paternal pregnancy of the narrative. And within literary, film and media studies, adaptation and transmediation are terms closely linked to the cinematic envisioning of a novel, wherein the milieu and narrative become visual, or more currently the transit between web content, video games and digital cinema, wherein the milieu and narrative become animated and interactive.[4] And, I would argue, milieu and narrative also become more fundamentally embodied and contextualized, more feminist and queer, which even at the level of content is explicitly clear in Delany’s text and methodologically so in Lislegaard’s multimodality. This embodied difference queers “forms of expression,” becoming queer “motions of making.”[5]

Lislegaard’s “Bellona” works in different and several media, some discursive and some non-discursive, and plays in at least three perceptible temporalities: the viewer’s body, motion graphics, and sound. “Bellona” is a multimodal installation, composed of a large tilted screen set on an oblique x- and z- angle to the viewer and as the sole object in a room. On-screen, animated architectural images, oversaturated in a color field palate as well as starkly contrasting chiascuro, include a gray-scale visual rendering of combined alphabetic excerpts taken from Delany’s novel and placed on an inset screen mirroring the oblique angle and placement of the primary screen. Meanwhile, heightened ambient noise, vaguely mechanistic and clanking sound effects, low mono-toned music, and a voiceover twice performing the same excerpted text from the novel (as displayed by the inset visual rendering) fill the room with sound waves. One thing becomes clear: there is an enormous variety and amount of discursive and nondiscursive sensation and physical impingement, consciously perceived and not, and the combination of which I will term affect, designed affections. And these affections register and re-register as cognition, recognition, emotion (secondary affect or autoaffection), discursive and non-discursive understanding and experience. Lislegaard’s urban composite works to design a fully material and temporal, a sexy experience. From the point of view of production, I call this designing or coding affections, and from the point of view of reception it offers an actual adaptation or transformation (or sex-ing) of the bodies of participant viewers. These are not separable. These are feminist and queer in the transduction of bodily affects to and in excess of narrative understandings.

Affect is the ability of a body to impinge upon another and the capacity to be impinged upon. Affects are queer, modular, nodal, networked, and function in ecologies and feedback loops, across multiple and variegated temporalities and types and scales of matter, including matters already assembled in slow, homeostatic sedimentations, regulations and composites, in other words, bodies. Further, Lislegaard’s queer composite happening, or performatively queering composite, occurs simultaneous to cognitive and re-cognitive processes as well––such that longer lived and practiced processes of engagement with systems of narrative structuration (pattern recognition), signification (cognitive extrapolation and interpolation through language), representational understanding (relational cognition), and imaginative play (autoaffective cognition feeding back on itself) continue to produce meaning-filled results and a complex process of Heideggerian worlding, ongoing, emergent, and ethological, that is furthered by transductive infolding, a queer experiential remaking.


…sex, and for that matter queer, could function as verbs rather than as nouns or adjectives. Conjugated, they could be fully conceived as activities and processes, rather than objects or impulses, as movements rather than identities, as lines more than locations, as motions of making rather than as forms of expression. -Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism

Fundamentally, at the heart of this essay is an investigation of the cross-mediation between digital media and rhetorically oriented literal art/literary studies.[6] While it might seem rather more obvious to investigate the inhabitation of digital media in literary studies by examining eLit, or electronic literature, I have explicitly chosen not to put this closer kin, electronic literature, next to print literature for several important and somewhat symptomatic reasons. To begin, I prefer not to use the terms “literature” or “literary” but rather use a more capacious understanding of media, including text and print, terminology, and therefore employ “literal art” to capture all expressive language-based, writerly/readerly production and reception and their corresponding literacies. This extends academic fields of practice and inquiry quite a bit further than our current disciplinary boundaries and in fact queers many of the disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. For example, where is the line between digital, creative non-fiction and any number of genres of multimodal composition? Or between digital video as digital media studies and digital video as film studies? Furthermore, in correlating the term “literal” to “expressive language-based” production and reception, I am not specifying what sorts of “languages” are at stake––natural, procedural, gestural, computational or performative, to name several––nor am I specifying what or who is doing the reading––a computational machine and/or a human. Where this term falls short is in the writerly, compositional, ludic, and interactive processes of many literal practices and objects. “Literal” also falls short in several rhetorical categories, but most particularly delivery.

Moving on to my second concern with eLit’s relationship to print literature — though it has perhaps ebbed a bit in the past couple of years — an extensive and ongoing debate over the differences, superlative positions, and legitimation of two of the medial delivery of literal art, electronic and [print], rages on. Fundamentally, the question, “what is literature?” –– wherein the “what is” stands in for “what counts as”––is the crux of the debate. This question is not nearly as provocative as, “what is literal?” or “what is media?”––wherein the “is” references substantive, material, medial, and processual workings. More often than not, the first question alone has been at stake and the second two have effected a bracketing off of technology and media as instrumentalized technicity, skills, and tools.

This debate produced an in-house disciplinary conversation in which proponents of eLit immediately sought institutional legitimation from their colleagues on aesthetic, cultural, and development grounds. To crudely summarize these issues, eLit is: 1) more sublime and closer to the truth of a “reader’s” experience; 2) digital culture is contemporary culture and therefore digital literatures are contemporary literatures; and 3) this new, enhanced eLit does more than old, limited white-paper literatures. This battle primarily plays out in hiring and tenure decisions rather than in discussions of the modes of production. The substantive battle moved from one between digital and analog scholars to another amongst digital scholars (immersion or interactivity? Are games literature?). Often these discussions have been hamstrung by an explicit or supplementary faith held to a particular (and rather pre-poststructural) idea of literature, in which aesthetics, taste, high modernist values, and a crude and deterministic structuralism constitute the bounds of scholarly repartee. Questions of inter-disciplinarity, longer-lived material histories of literal technicities (quill, typewriter, computer), the inflection of cultural studies and critical theory have as yet to occur and are now being redressed in special journal issues such as this.

So while this essay certainly invests itself in the literal, narrative, and representational worldings effected by both Delany and Lislegaard as instances of each category, print and the digital, and by examining Lislegaard’s piece, an installation that stands more outside than inside more conventional understandings of “electronic literature,” queering our boundaries allows us to attend to the undisciplined processes whereby productive and receptive affections of print modes of literal work and digital modes of literal work become assemblages. These motions of making are cross-mediated, cross-adapted, and materially transmediated as feedback loops in which we might mark out discursive and non-discursive transfers, medial and narrative substrates, embodied transductions and the modulation of affects.

This leaves open the question of method. As a critic of “Bellona,” Johnson reverts to the print book to critique the multimodal digital installation. Is critique a one-way, uni-modal or text-based method of inquiry? Criticism and critique are the hallmark methodological activities of the humanities. They are always-already affective politico-aesthetic assemblages of reception, the motions of making of which are so utterly familiar that the intensity of their affects are “running out of steam” to borrow from Latour. Given the medial transfer of narrative and affective feedback loops between these works, what transmutation and differentiation of methods and practices would be required to engage these works within a “critical” framework?

The term “critical” as used here refers to cultural, hermeneutical, and representational practices of “reading” “texts” derived from critical theory, cultural studies, and post-structuralism. Johnson uses Delany’s language and a report of his own observations to read Lislegaard’s installation, but how might this process work in reverse? Is there a method of non-discursive critique and should this be the work of the critical posthumanist working with digital media? Non-discursive expression tends to be considered “art” or “creative” work––the very objects of conventional critique.[7] “Creative criticism” is one such answer to the problem of affective and critical method, and one that I take up elsewhere.[8] For the immediate purposes at hand, I would like to trace a plan for a non-discursive “reading” or “criticism.”

Given the processual transduction of the Bellona narrative, from print to pixel, it is necessary both to be basic, in the sense of the microphysics of materiality, perception, and analysis in the evaluation of the collective delivery apparatus, and also to be quite literal, i.e. “readerly.” How does the idea of “readerly” mean for computational, visual, and multimodal media?

This presumes that computer code/software, visuality, and other non-literal expressive modes function like or in fact are languages. If we accept this for the moment, what sort of language system is the projection of digital animation onto a room-sized screen with multi-layered sound? It is allographic (written and spoken), visual, symbolic, procedural, performative, musical, aural, and code-based. And yet this list of the possible language types through which we might critique the work does not quite capture the complex interplay of synaesthetic, experiential, sensory and affective modalities through which the critical and rhetorical functions of Lislegaard’s “Bellona” works.

The word “critique” means to bring to crisis and presumes the subsumption of material substrates and structures in the production process that may be revealed by means of hermeneutic recovery. And methods of critique itself have been brought to crisis, not because one cannot read a work, but because the impact and power of such reading does not resonate as it once might have done. Critique is in crisis not due to a lack of availed discoveries, but by the overwhelming surplus of informatic revelation made possible by informatics delivered through digital media.[9] The cross-mediation of digital media and our critical methods produce far greater impact upon our work in the humanities than the first and second generation of objects produced digitally. Given the exponential increase in informatic speeds and access, our contemporary milieu has become one of incessant crisis, many following upon many more at an increasingly rapid pace. While the narrative of an individuated crisis may work superficially as meaning-filled revelation, the preponderance and multitude of crises populate networks of media distribution as constant affective modulations of everyday life: celebrity culture, war, global economics, national security, and the weather. We are brought to multiple crises on a minute-by-minute basis. Too many to unpack properly. Too overexposed to reveal a veiled history. Too thinly constituted for the mechanics of critique. Too continually modulated and refreshed for sustained inquiry. Too networked in feedback loops and nested variables to delineate structures. Too fast to uncover and reveal any substantial history beneath the thin and populated surface.

Critique itself, as an analog and representational method of analysis, has been brought to a temporal and material crisis. The clock of critique operates on a time scale of human perception and consciousness. The temporality of critique is historical, documentary, and mammalian, and the materiality of critique is agglomerate, large-scale, embodied, thermodynamic, and mechanistic. Processes such as allographic and “natural” language practices function well at these scales of time and materiality allowing for the theoretical and methodological assumptions that language and signification are primary; however, digital media functions through faster (and multiple) time scales and more haptic materialities than those of human perception and consciousness. The temporalities of digital media are literally electron-ic but may also be rendered in anthropomorphic time, as we see when our computational devices render the seemingly sustained visuals of our computer’s graphical user interface. The materialities of digital media are also intra-active and electron-ic,[10] their inter-operabilities functioning at several material scales simultaneously and with perceptible and non-perceptible ramifications.[11]

Affective modulations and the critical endeavor

…architectural instability is reflected in the film by swinging doors and walls, changing colors, shifting transparencies and a constantly revolving point of view, which all challenge our ability to map the whole cognitively. That, in turn, becomes a metaphor about living in a world in which few truths seem to remain stable for very long.

-Ken Johnson, reviewing Ann Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” for The New York Times, November 11, 2005

To illustrate this crisis of critique, particularly in the humanities and in the context of analog and digital objects and analytical practices, let us return to language used in the opening of this chapter. In the description of Ken Johnson’s review of Lislegaard’s “Bellona,” two different delivery methods presented themselves: the printed newspaper and the online newspaper, both The New York Times. In the print version, Johnson’s article was placed in a privileged set of coordinates in the layout of the Arts Section. This place on the page is fixed. In the online version, Johnson’s review occupied a privileged space in the rendering of the web design. As time passes, the online review transforms, subject to The Time’s odd archival habit of removing images and in some cases content from earlier pieces. More importantly, the review, no longer one article among several on a webpage, eventually inhabits its own space or unique URL on the server, coded with interactive and dynamic content accessibility. In other words, the content of the review may change, images may be deleted, and today’s top and related content will render when I access an older piece. In the digital archive, the past and the present visibly occupy space, modular space, together. Johnson’s 2005 review appears above today’s content, whatever today it happens to be. Digital media not only executes across times, but also in doing so, inherently possesses the capacity to transform place into temporally inflected location, or space. And while these comparative descriptions of the print and online versions of the review aptly demonstrate the effects of cross-mediation, the re-composition of temporality, materiality, and signifying documentary content and the very capacity for their modulation demonstrate the affective circulations impinging our cognition and sense of the world.[12]

The cross-mediated movement of Bellona between Delany and Lislegaard might be provocatively approached through queer transductions and what I will call “digi-logics.” Digi-logics might be thought to simultaneously summon Bahktinian echoes of dialogics as well as the composite and feedback functions that deploy and retain digital and analog capacities and qualities in mutual revision and relation. Lislegaard’s digital multimodal installation retains Delany’s representational narrative and its affective milieu, summoning together the remains of an entropic post-apocalyptic urban core but now introducing the perfectible reconstructions of pixilated coding to these remains. The digital/analogic qualities and movements by which the city of Bellona is reconstructively and dynamically expressed in both media predicate a continuous interchange and flow, a queering urban composite.

Lislegaard’s work is not an adaptation of the form of Delany’s project to her genre of choice, but rather a re-scaping of the world and city of Bellona that affectively, dialogically, and digi-logically assembles with and supra-tends Delany’s work. “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” moves transversally across, through, and with Delany’s text (and ultimately the reverse as well). Taken together, they function in mutual interlocution, contest, review, update, critique, compassion (co-passionate), and functional co-ordinates in a complex compositioning of queer, cross-mediated movements and motions.

Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York

Queer motions of light, motions of making: one description, one passage

While Lislegaard’s animation was produced by means of pixilation, the presentation of the video at the gallery was not, however, rendered by means of pixilated screening. It was projected onto a standing, back-tilted screen. The choice to project (throw light onto a white screen) rather than pixilate (back light through a black screen) offers a number of material and interactive medial affordances that produce a non-discursive critical relationship to Delany’s novel. The skeuomorphic nod to cinematic projection generates a vague anticipation for screened realism rather than computational “virtuality.” Both in terms of the visible production of light and in terms of the size of the piece, Lislegaard’s Bellona does not evoke user-screened or wall-mounted digital video. Instead, the size and the directionality of the thrown light from the projector and the refracted light from the screen [13] carve out the viewer’s and the animation’s movement in three-dimensional space and real-time, movement and shadow. The milieu becomes at once reminiscent of the cinematic and phenomenologically anthropocentric in its pace and distribution––analogic in the affective quality of experience. [14] Despite this spatializing projection, the pixilated visual and electronic aural production of the digital video animation stealthily permeates the room with the perfected gaseous-ness of the codified digitization of light and sound, a distinctly nonhuman or a-human constellation. Together these strains evoke strangely turbulent and even more strangely compatible sensations, a multiplicity of indeterminate and uneven, albeit ubiquitous, qualities of movement. This is an experience of digi-logical impingement, the perception of multiple worldings in process––not modulated and fine-tuned to the mammalian human, but attuned to a human and to a nonhuman sensorium, queer embodiments fed back through pervasive computing in mixed environmental media.

Authentic nonhuman milieux, or the affections of mixed materialities

In addition to light and sound, the architecture of the curatorial environment, the fixed, locative placement of the installation, at the Murray Guy Gallery added provocatively to the generative multiplicity of sensations produced by the installation. The space of the gallery/installation catalyzed this essay and my exploration of the non-discursive critical modalities produced by Lislegaard’s piece in relation to Delany’s novel. The room exerted essential and intensely physico-material tensions.[15] Despite its location in the posh, super-post-bohemian, gentrified art district of Chelsea, the Murray Guy Gallery space held little pretension to the upgrade and renovation ethos of the neighborhood.[16] In fact, the gallery was pleasantly aged, cramped, biotic, and musty, much like many of the spaces in pre-renovated tenement buildings that were once an environmental and architectural norm in New York City and other hyper-urbanized cosmopolitan cities. Most significantly, the architectural and interior conditions of the gallery called the interior descriptions of Delany’s Dhalgren to mind and to sensation.

Breaking from the meandering and animated interiors presented in Lislegaard’s video, the animation converts the color saturated interiors to visual imaging of alphabetic language—taking the form of a secondary, inset screen doubling the perspectival angle of the primary screen and displaying explicit quotations from Delany’s novel, excerpted and recomposed in paragraph form, composited in lines through motion graphics.

Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York

This textual moment first renders illegibly—or pictographically, such that the viewer cannot read the text and must treat the language as animated visual symbols. Simultaneously, the voiceover performs the text, and the addition of aural information sets up a generative tension that occurs between seeing, hearing, and reading the images as language. However, when this image sequence repeats, the visual rendering of the alphabetic information is legible, the visual images automatically become words. The words become language presented as formally instantiated text, allowing the lines from the novel to be read, to be literal.

Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York

The miracle of sensory and cognitive order restored, the process by which the non-discursive cognition of visuality transforms into discursive cognition now becomes perceptible. The correlation between the denotative content of the second screen and the affective experience of transfer between the first and second screens, the illegible and legible, is possible through queer, transductive cross-mediation.

Furthermore, the affective and material impact of the aged gallery space, coupled with Delany’s post-apocalyptic descriptions of Bellona, produce a jagged resonance in their stark contrast with the qualities of the digital animation. These sensory disjunctures create a stunning transversal complement to what is heard and read where “in this spaceless preserve any slippage can occur.  […] As if all these walls on pivots […] after one passes, they might suddenly swing to face another direction, parting at this corner, joining at that one […] forever adjustable” (Lislegaard, “Text Slide”).  Moreover, the force of memory plays into the tense decoupling. The viewer who is a reader familiar with the novel will recognize the lines and perceive that the text itself is a revised composite of lines taken at different and critical points in the novel—producing a queer digi-logic, a transversal quotation, as it were, a cross-mediated visual reading of the force of the novel’s milieu taken through its word-things. Taken as a whole, the digi-logic of the installation is one continual queer cross-medial movement, transduction and inter-modulation.


The digital video animation offers a meandering and idealized visual travelogue through simultaneously high-tech and seemingly high-modernist interiors, and as mentioned earlier, they are described by Ken Johnson as “illuminated by hanging globe lights and dyed in the ravishingly rich hues of 60’s Color Field paintings.” Despite Johnson’s citation of Delany’s novel, his vision of Lislegaard’s work summons modernist geometrics and a pure color spectrum, not the burnt-out urban core clearly articulated in the narrative of Delany’s novel. Artforum reviewer, Claire Barliant, more specifically describes the architectural feel of these formally perfected and pixilated interiors:

the rooms are almost entirely empty, save for a few doors that lean against the walls and some hanging globe lamps that give this strange dwelling a retro-futuristic feel […]. Vivid colors bleed into one another: […] floors and walls are shiny and reflective to the point where they might be mistaken for windows looking into the next room” (January 2006).

In addition to the context and physical conditions of the interior of the gallery itself, the world outside the gallery set conditions for the worlds within. In November of 2005, one could have been deafened by the (then) euphoric discourses heralding and proliferating the “real estate boom” and celebrating the international reality of intensive, debt-driven, green-lining gentrification. Seen within this affectively swirling and cacophonic environment, Lislegaard’s installation tends toward a correlation to the qualities of spatial movement and visualization that subtended the digitally mediated marketing strategies of speculative real estate developers, and particularly those engaged in selling “loft-condos” or renovated historic townhouses in “formerly distressed neighborhoods.”

At the time of Lislegaard’s show in New York City, the developers of these massive projects worked with media marketing consultants to generate highly performative digital media renderings of design for real spaces and showed them in online and onsite digital presentations. One might inhabit the perfection of finished virtual spaces as a promise of the yet-to-be-completed real analog construction or renovation. Standing in the midst of the installation of Ann Lislegaard’s “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany),” at what would have been considered the pre-renovated Murray Guy Gallery space, a marked alignment of the qualities of Lislegaard’s digital animation to those of a developer’s industrial video for potential buyers struck me with force. A compelling cross-medial schism between the qualities of urban movement invoked by Lislegaard’s perfected “Bellona” with/and/of Delany’s entropic “Bellona” converged with the discrete mediation of the works and with a particular contextualized construct of spatialization that might be entered by Delany’s suggestion that in order to get to Bellona, we might “pretend […] that we’re in a city, an abandoned city” (Dhalgren 64). In fact, Lislegaard’s “Bellona” is abandoned, and in its moment, this would be felt speculatively as a joyous affect produced through a value-extract-able, queer urban composite.

An abandoned city: 1974/2005

But what of this recombinant city…transfigured by some unspecified process, where nothing remains quite as it was…?

This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid. … a territory of inexpressible possibilities, a place remembered from no dream at all. -William Gibson, foreword to Dahlgren, xii

Like the qualities of the Murray Guy Gallery and Lislegaard’s installation, the contrasts, complementarity, and supplementarity of styles, spatialization, and temporalization traversing Dhalgren and “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” resound and harmonize. Much of the novel, the physicality of the text and its representational powers, is composed as nomadic wanderings across a destratifying set of modular interiors. The video does not present landscapes, exterior space, or access to any exteriority at all. The condition of the urban landscape presented in the novel is such that some unspeakable and un-memor/iz/able and catastrophic unhinging of the city, spatial stability, and temporal linearity occurred, and this contagious decimation virally infects or just simply queers the logic of hermeneutics and the semiotic terrains of the text:

There is no articulate resonance. The common problem, I suppose, is to have more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear. That is why I am hunting these desiccated streets. The smoke hides the sky’s variety, stains consciousness, covers the holocaust with something safe and insubstantial. It protects from greater flame. It indicates fire but obscures the source. This is not a useful city.  Very little here approaches any eidolon of the beautiful. (Dhalgren 75)

Since Dhalgren’s publication in 1974 and the 1990 interview, Lislegaard’s video non-discursively and multimodally posits what became of the “great feeling of death” in smoky “ruined urban areas” articulating “holocaust.” Lislegaard’s ”Bellona” suggests new qualities of movement in the abandoned and cross-mediated city post-1990 and pre-2008.[17] In Harlem, the Lower East Side, and nearly Every Inner City USA, post-tech and post-real estate booms, we found credit leveraged, economic neo-liberalization coupled with neo-conservative political militarized globalization. From the early 1990’s through the turn of the millennium, the red-lining pen of urban abandonment and desiccation was swapped for a green-lining one that had urban renewal, revitalization, renovation, and white-ink gentrification at its tip. The smoke cleared and indeed speculators received a burnt offering, leaving behind the need to reconsider what affective by-products the burns of tech and real estate booms give off in their aftermaths.

“Gentrification Changing Face of Atlanta: Historic Black Share of Population Declines”—the headline of an article by Shaila Dewan in the March 11, 2006 edition of the New York Times “Real Estate” section––might be taken as one such example of the outcomes of pre-gentrification “blocks of devastation,” or what the article terms “soft-core urbanism,” in digitally remastered and cross-mediated spatial markets.

: New York Times, March 11 2006
: New York Times, March 11 2006

This feature discusses the political, economic and social transitions occurring in Atlanta as numbers of “blacks” declines. Described as a process that “expanded the city tax base and weeded out blight,” the piece comments that this shift in racialized populations corresponds to a white (non-specific ethnicities and racialization populates the article) suburban “run” on real estate in the city proper. But despite the “explosion of [white] wealth,” gentrification “has had an unintended effect”: the historically majority black population is “declining” and “the white percentage is on the rise.” Economically, this racialized “population shift” is described in terms of income: “In 1990, the per capita income in the city of Atlanta was below that of the metropolitan area as a whole, but in 2004 it was 28 percent higher, the largest such shift in the country.” Note the date from which this transition was measured—1990.  The post-crash moment of 1987, with its statistical foreclosure spikes and debt, was managed by a “class” of “white” wealth in the form of finance capital and unsecured debt, “virtual” money.

A similar article by Sam Roberts, published on April 3, 2006, in the “NY/Region” section of the New York Times called out, “New York City Losing Blacks, Census Shows,” and states unequivocally, “The analysis of migration from 1995 to 2000 also suggests that many blacks, already struggling with high housing costs in New York City, are being priced out of nearby suburbs, too.” The “tides” of immigration and emigration of the African-American populations into and out of New York hinges explicitly on the moment noted by Delany: “Reversing a tide from the South who altered the complexion of the city earlier in the 20th century, the number of American-born blacks leaving the city has exceeded the number arriving since at least the late 1970’s” (Roberts).

This quick demographic check brings us to the “abandoned city” of Bellona from 1974 to 2005. Lislegaard’s piece suggests a then-contemporary, digi-logic tincture of reimagined technologies reterritorializing the catastrophic decimation across urbanscapes––a different composition, cross-mediated set of forces, the obverse of Delany’s red-lining context, “clean[ing] up” the ashes of “blight,” and clearing away the smoke.  The pre-1990 urban deterritorializations or blights were traversed by a different cycle of forces and motion: finance capital and the strangely oxymoronic new mobilities of real property, even in micro-segments––individual buildings and “units”––in terms of capital. The catastrophic urban terrain and its partially segmented remains were exposed to and absorbed by an enormous inflow of affective and impinging energy and intensity in forms of capital, interest, and legislative funneling through redevelopment funds for investors and juridical redistribution through re-zoning compliances—all of which transmogrified topographies of urban “blight” into speedways of urban “renewal.”  This speed and intensity of forces worked across cities, neighborhoods, and blocks to capture space (“reclamation”) for quicker markets that “move this house.” Buildings, blocks, and boroughs were smoothed out from the exterior by demolition and smoothed out from the interior by gut renovation. The clear-cutting motions of capitalism remake urban composites.

Dia-logics of decimation, catastrophe, and reterritorialization

…the interstices of the timeless city, portents fallen, constellated deities plummeting in ash and smoke, roaming the apocryphal cities, the cities of speculation and reconstituted disorder, of insemination and incipience, swept round with the dark. – Dhalgren, 646

Lislegaard’s installation at the Murray Guy Gallery phenomenologically averred and captured qualities of desolation, including the utter evacuation of messy humans, organic life, and signs of contemporary lived-ness—with the exceptions of door handles, a portable radio, and the anthropocentric point of view in the animation. The installation provided the viewer with an experience of “having the place to oneself” or that this eidolon of perfected, modular color and form had been reterritorialized as a high-tech experience of the total pleasure of capture, ownership, and individuation. “Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)” suggested a coded germinality in the 2005 Bellona reterritorialized by codified and procedural design to eradicate the infectious morbidity of the 1974 Bellona in Delany’s Dhalgren.

Lislegaard’s capacious and affectively conflicted installation resonated with the reorganization of urban spatiality as the aftermath of effects and affects from 30 years of red-lining forces and the subsequent 15 years of green-lining forces across urban landscapes. It was conceived as a set of modulating interiors in an urban any-and-every-space. These design-driven interiors have resulted in another sort of economically coerced evacuation of cities, which, in the case of the show at the Murray Gallery in New York City, was made superbly evident by the contrast of the interior of the gallery itself to its location in what is historically called the meat-packing district. The great catastrophic event resonated in the plosive “housing-boom,” and the clearing of smoke or the “improvement” of “bad neighborhoods” and revealed an obscured fire, offering the modulating and affective sensations of a “society of ownership” without the real material means to sustain it. Furthermore, Lislegaard’s work also suggests the possibilities of modulating and codifying interior design as a queer affective and transductive methodology of utopian national, racialized, community, and home (land) “improvement.”


Delany in Dhalgren describes navigating the taller buildings of “the injured city” as:

a refracting grid through which to view the violent machine, explore the technocracy of the eye itself, spelunk the semi-circular canal.  […] With such disorientation there is no way to measure the angle between such nearly parallel lines of sight when focusing on something at such a distance. (Dhalgren 84-85)

The protagonist’s struggle with the mechanized technocracy of visuality in the midst of vacated high rises disorients him, but this symptomology or queer visuality is eradicated through the technocracy of visuality afforded by the streaming capacities of digitally integrated media. A digital rendering offers algorithmic and kinesthetic designates with coded and temporalized spatializations rather than the unruly analog qualities of bodily kinesthesia and queer sexualities as experienced by Kidd walking in the mixed architectural concrete alleys of Delany’s Bellona.  Digitized landscapes capture bodies in a regularized, rhythmic, and intensified bio-aesthetics as seen below in stills taken of attendees at Lislegaard’s installation at the Venice Biennial.

Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York
Courtesy of Murray-Guy Gallery, New York


These stills demonstrate the fully embodied integration of viewers, architecture, and projection. The discrete digi-logic capture of light, coded time, and space moves across and through the viewers and the room as much as the digi-logic capture of the attentions, lived time, and space of the viewers and the architecture moves through the digital animation. But Bellona is still not predictable or “nearly parallel.”

The shifting spaces and temporalities of Bellona in the novel belie a transversal modularity shared between Delany’s and Lislegaard’s Bellonas, such that “The miracle of order has run out. […] I don’t need more imitations of disorder. It has to be more than that! Search the smoke for the fire’s base.  […] There are objects lost in double-light” (Delany 96). Analog media is not analogous to disorder against digital media’s claim on perfection. In the light of a gallery and the pixilated space and light of Lislegaard’s video, a veering is in progress; not as an interrogation of sources, but instead we find queer mobilities and temporalities in coded and germinal, double-lit spaces that are in progress and assemblage. Analog and digital media both may tend toward political purification and a parallelism of space—a graspable infinitude. This longing in Euro-American cultures can be traced from the infinitude of perspectival vanishing points in the paintings of the 14th century to globalized-village visions of the there-then simulacra of world, times, and places becoming the always already now-here imaginary of global, integrated, digital communications systems and universal networks of connectivity.

Analog and digital deconstructions: queer cross-media composites

In the case of green-lined digital space, Mrs. Richards, Delany’s stand-in for white, middle-class, hetero-hysteria imagining itself under urban siege, offers her (albeit self-deluded) assessment of the (pre-post-renovated) Labry apartments in which she lives: “they don’t let just anyone in here” (226). Mrs. Richards’ characterization of the complex follows a recounting of the family’s move from “a tiny house” (in the suburbs) to an apartment “as nice as this” (226) and is followed by her anxiety-ridden infection narrative of the family’s relocation to a better unit in the abandoned building.

Do you know how I thought of this moving? As a space, a gap, a crack in which some terrible thing might get in and destroy it, us, my home. You have to take it apart, then put it back together. I really felt as though some dirt or filth, or horrible rot might get in while it was being reassembled and start a terrible decay. But here […] I couldn’t live here any more.

To this, Kidd replies, “but if everything outside has changed—” (227). Digital rendering does precisely what Mrs. Richards describes. It takes apart, captures, codifies, compiles, reterritorializes, and puts something together again. It composites, but with the capacity for differential and multiple speeds, exposures and intensities. Qualities of movement and the capacities for transversal motion change. So does urban renewal. Both contain the dreaded anticipation of the glitch (already a queer figure), the space, the gap, the pocket of undesirables, a crack, bad code, a bad neighbor, but most of all, a slow-down in the market, that “might get in and destroy us” or “start a terrible decay” by infiltrating the realization process. In 1974, Kidd of Delany’s novel points to a slow burn to remains, and in 2005, Lislegaard’s contained interiority critically point to a multiplicity of fast burns that speed up the circuits of “hot” media and “hot” properties—until 2008.

What finally fleshes out these spatial circulations in Lislegaard’s work is the nonhuman and the abject absence of life—aside from the interfaced viewer. These spaces, movements, and surfaces are pure. They are porous and yet impenetrable—reflective modulations, perfectly clean and unfolding onto a limitless universe of tendential and tangential closure. The viewer is the purified protagonist. Through the ecology of Lislegaard’s Bellona, viewers become open and individuated bodies in closed and controlled circuits (informatics). Access, or getting in, is the new liberation, or the old getting out. In closed circuits of affective circulation, there is no out once in—only embodying movement in space. In Dhalgren, Kidd’s body is remarkable for its precise directionality and composition in unfolding spaces, and the bodies that populate Bellona are open and socially populated bodies in a contained but leaky and dying circulation (thermodynamics).  Delany registers this dynamic in the shifting spaces and temporalities of the novel in suggesting, “time runs backward here. Or sideways” (377). The impossibilities of spatial or temporal linearity dilate, stream away or toward, circle back with an accumulation of difference or radically diverge, and catastrophically bifurcate in the continuum of the present. There is no reversibility in a thermodynamic system, only the burn and the remains. Kidd practices his queer body as deregularizing speeds allowing the reader to “place” him or to pace through him affectively rather than critically and thereby affectively composite, construe, and interpret topography of the text.

Qualities of movement and qualities of life

It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” –Dhalgren, 10

Digital art in general is a composite medium of code, visuality, rhythm, immersion, and temporalities that construct mobile spaces rather than site-specific places; morphologically fluid objects rather than the spatial phenomenology of fixed bodies; and unfolding movement rather than narrativizing contiguously montaged sequences. There is no rational cut because there is no cut. Given our queer cross-medial context, wherein we find the past, the future and the present together simultaneously, Delany’s work in Dhalgren experiments in the alphabetic medium with queer composite aesthetics in such ways that the novel becomes a cognate with/to/for digital media and art. Lislegaard’s take on Delany’s Bellona resonates through a shared composition of the emergence and immanence of spaces, bodies, cities, and temporalities that provoke shifting relations and materialities of integrated digital and analog processes. It points to a critical shift in the politico-aesthetics of social organization and cultural production in the presence of both pervasive computing and pervasive life, one inextricable from the other.

Delany’s work in Dhalgren flows as a splay of “incidents,” movements, and interactive kinematic systems and states, suggested in the rant against “form” by militant social justice advocate, Reverend Amy, “Logicians love it here. […]  Here you can cleave space with a distinction, mark, or token, and not have it bleed all over you. What we need is not a calculus of form but an analytics of attention, which renders form on the indifferent and undifferentiated pleroma” (472). The novel reads through the gerund—leaving behind a “calculus of form” in order to move into becoming “an analytics of attention.” Dhalgren does not resolve, but diffracts to mobile attentions, pro-tensions, and affective intensities. The formal textual experiment begins, moves and ends in catastrophic openings, “considering the lacunae that pass without comment” (662), and it is the navigation of “lacunae,” the affects of passage without the capture of rational commentary that make the novel tend toward events and incidences as gerunds rather than a sequence of participled and plotted action. Kidd’s wanderings are not simply reported as plot, but instead the rhetoric of the novel wanders, collides, and morphogenetically evolves as the impossibility of formal resolution of doing in relation to done, functioning as a radioactive or queer isotope that leaves its aporetic textual trail of interactivities broken into and off, emerging and swerving from temporal incursions “with” rather than spatial causality “against”—a catastrophic cascade of dynamic textual and material transformation and transversal movements across and through what constitutes and is the city, the urban composite. Its polyphonic if not cacophonous multitude of voices might seem to occlude readership but does not. It does not, because the reader engages the text in a feedback loop of affective transfer as well as of cognitive signification.

The material dynamics of Lislegaard’s animation re-flesh our rhetoric and certainly operate through an analytics of attention, an informatics. This does not mean, as the catalogue description of Lislegaard’s Bellona suggests, that “norms and standards seem to dissolve into a chaos of anti-hierarchical conditions.”[18] Like the simulacra of our debt-driven financializations and the economics of affective valuation, we have never been there––to that Bellona––but indeed here we are––in this one… and they are modulations of a self-same multiplicity. As mentioned earlier, a moment of legible text appears in the video that intimates that Bellona has become another city now. It is a city “forever adjustable, therefore unlearnable”—a city not to be captured but navigated by qualities of movement and affect. Affective digi-logics are not cultural production labored to fixation by zero-speed compositional structuration and movement, to object-hood, stillness, generic identifications, and petrifaction. There is no outside, no slow, clear space of objectivity from which our critical discoveries may reveal a sustaining and sustainable truth. We are captured inside the procedurality of cross-mediation, queerly practicing, consciously or not, a digi-logics of affective analysis – the motions of making, of what I call queer creative critical compositionism. In this milieu, several things should be clear to the (post)humanist in the digital age, to the digital (post)humanist, and to the digital media practitioner: 1) the issues of computational and digital media literacies today are comparable to the issue of alphabetic literacy in the 19th century; 2) the critical function in digital media is creative and aesthetic as well as technical and works through affect and design, and as such, we must become modular scholars, makers, and coders; and, 3) affect and non-discursivity demand our immediate queer “analytics of attention.”

In the shifting spaces and temporal aesthetics of Delany and Lislegaard’s work, taken together across oscillating topographies of analog and digital media, “any slippage can occur.”  As the imperatives of movement dictate continuation, even in closure, we need to consider whether we are prepared to articulate a social or political ethos (if such categories might hold their rhythms long enough to remain provocative categories) in such gaseous mobility and morbidity. I recommend we begin with queer, non-reproductive experiments (because we will not paternalize ourselves out of this mess). I recommend we make and that our making is done through an ethos of queer creative critical compositionism. We must queerly invent. So again:

…the way anywhere in this city, Kidd realized, was obviously to drift” (487).


  1. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007.
  2. Barliant, Claire. “Ann Lislegaard: Murray Guy.” Artforum. January 2006.
  3. Bianco, Jamie “Skye.” #designed_affections. Laundry Day (Feminism, New Media, Science and Technology). 2012.
  4. —-. “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Ed. Patricia T. Clough. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2007.
  5. —-. “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  6. Dewan, Shaila. “Gentrification Changing Face of Atlanta: Historic Black Share of Population Declines.” New York Times. March 11, 2006.
  7. Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. 1974. New York, NY, Vintage, 2001.
  8. Eliot, T. S. “The Function of Criticism” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harvest Books, 1975.
  9. Grosz, Elizabeth and Elspeth Probyn. “Introduction.” Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism. Ed.Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.
  10. Johnson, Ken. “Art in Review: Ann Lislegaard.” November 11, 2005.
  11. Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2008).
  12. Mbembé, Achille, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40.  Also available at
  13. McCaffery, Larry. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  14. Murray, Joddy. Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2009).
  15. Murray Guy Gallery. Exhibition Catalogue.
  16. Roberts, Sam. “New York City Losing Blacks, Census Shows.” New York Times. 3 April 2006.

Bianco, J.S. (2013) Queer Urban Composites: Any City or ‘Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany)’. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.3. doi:10.7264/N33F4MH2

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Hereafter referred to as “Bellona.”
  2. A 2010 stage work adaptation of Dhalgren was produced at NYC’s The Kitchen; see
  3.  I borrow this term from Joddy Murray and from his 2009 book Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. While we agree that language, particularly allographic and natural language, is not the singular emergence point for cognition, his assertion that the visual occupies this primary and singular role reconstructs the same problematic framework: the location of cognition in an isolated and excerpted aspect of the complex material ecologies that produce embodiment, environments, sensations, perceptions, and combinatory expressions of these networked ecologies. The obvious question of concern in response to Murray’s argument would be, “if cognition depends upon the primacy of the visual, do the blind have cognition?” Of course the answer is “yes.” We also do not share the same understanding of affect. Murray’s reading of affect begins at the level of cognition or mindedness, rather than the materiality that becomes incorporation (corporeality) or embodiment. I engage this issue of affect throughout this work and specifically in “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia T. Clough. (Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2007). I attend to questions of affective methods in multimodal form (sound essay) in #designed_affections in Laundry Day, also published by The Fembot Collective (Feminism, New Media, Science and Technology (2012).
  4.  Literary adaptations ultimately operate unilaterally. The question hinges on the question of representational fealty, as in “was the film true to the book?” While it exceeds the scope of this work to expand on the differential constructions of familial fealty between different adaptive genres, I would note that in the transition between video games and digital cinema and other modes of transmediation, explicit narrative fealty is not the primary mode of valuation. The correlation of the feel (affective constellation) of the experience in ludic and specular modes while actively or less actively inhabiting a narrative field is. Retaining, extending, elaborating, and inventing more of this same feel for a world (narrative field) dominates transmedial storytelling and fan fiction as well.
  5. See Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn’s “Introduction” to Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism (x).
  6. Versus a modernist or formal aestheticism.
  7. T.S. Eliot’s objection to “creative criticism” centers on this feedback loop. The object of criticism must first and foremost be considered an ‘object,’ outside, distinguished from the critical process that acts upon the art object.
  8. See my “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One” in the 2012 edited volume Debates in the Digital Humanities.
  9. I prefer the use of the term “digital media” to “new media” for the clear temporal limitations and the allusion to a problematic (and universalizing) developmental narrative of machines. Further, I prefer “digital media” to “information and communication technologies” (ICTs) because the rhetorical, expressive, and creative capacity of these networks and associated appliances exceeds the informatic and communicative, and likewise, the materiality of the term medium is more accurate than technology. For example, a human mouth is an informatic and communicative technology but it is not digital media.
  10. At the level of the electron, materiality and temporality are inextricable and in fact, ‘intra-active’ (see Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway).
  11. Analog bodies and practices are always already composed at micro- and multiple scales, the point here is that within the analog domain, these micro-physics do not register at human thresholds of perception and conscious cognition nor do they seem of significant import or for that matter, to signify at all. As I hope to make clear as the article progresses, these multiple scales of matter and temporality always mattered. And human consciousness and perception do not constitute their material thresholds.
  12. I would argue that in fact this legible affective modularity of digital media contributed enormously to the early discourses describing digital mediation as “virtuality” versus analog (including the organic body) mediation as “reality” and likewise digital objects and computational rendering were often ontologized as “immaterial” versus organic and mechanistic “materiality.” There is nothing immaterial about digital media or objects produced through digital technics. The differences lie in the scale of observable material action and the capacities afforded by micro-scaled and speedy, code-able technology. We do not register the firing of a synapse in the mammalian brain, nor do we refer to this event as immaterial. A cascade of these firings, as with a cascade of binary code may or not reach the threshold of human observation and action. The difference here is in the computational capacity of digital media to author the code and design the action discretely. Nevertheless, analog renderings, be it our brain or the growth of a plant, and digital renderings generate compassable but not comparable worlds.
  13. A direct and material capture and play with Delany’s description of Bellona, where “objects are lost in double light.”
  14. The affective aesthetics of designing a digital process to constitute an analog experience is the inverse process discussed in my essay, “Techno-Cinema: Image Matters in the Affective Unfoldings of Analog Cinema and New Media” wherein analog cinematic production was designed to create the affective aesthetics of digital media.
  15. In fact, previous and subsequent exhibitions of the piece offered much posher environments suggestive of another level of modulation in Lislegaard’s piece.
  16. This is a description of the gallery in 2005, not its current condition. This particularity of experience, a profoundly important one for my purposes, would not have occurred had I seen this show at MIT’s Media Lab or The Venice Biennial, where the exhibition spaces are far more sanitized.
  17. After the financial swindling resulting in the recession of 2008, we might track movements back toward Delany’s redlining bent by extractive, informatic financialization. This is a topic for another essay and perhaps for a digital artist.
  18. Chaos etymologically refers to a gap, not a mess.