Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press. 1993.
Bonus round! Trying to make up for lost time today by throwing in a review of a book based entirely on reviews and my memory of reading it two summers ago (shhh, don’t tell my advisor, though in all honesty I’ll probably end up going back to this one many times over in my work). The Duke University Press critical theory train just keeps on rolling with Scott Bukatman’s early-90s head trip of a book on technology, subjectivity, and science fiction. As a tangent, it’s been interesting to note that Duke and Minnesota comprise probably more than half of the books on my lists, all told. Basically, I’ve decided that if I publish a book on cultural and media studies, I want to do so through Minnesota, and if I publish a book on film theory or “critical theory” in general, I want to do so through Duke. But I’m getting way ahead of myself here! Let’s talk instead about how people trained under N. Kathryn Hayles thought about sci-fi back in 1993!
This is one of those tricky books about which to say anything definitive, because I really, really liked it, but I was also left with a whole lot I feel didn’t get addressed. For one thing, it’s another in a long line of books of critical theory that pull a lot of performative tricks with their language to make an argument that probably could have been made much more concisely. For another, it feels not quite right to say that there’s a focused argument here, as the book feels much more like a description of the current state of play for sci-fi and society. But maybe that’s just the case because I have the benefit of 20 years of hindsight since this book was published?
Bukatman takes up the same fundamental question that I’m asking in my own research: how is living in the technological condition affecting our ideas of ourselves as subjects? His basic assertion is that the age of electronics and the digital realm makes the functioning of technology difficult to visualize, and that SF has been the genre to give us the metaphorical tools to grasp those technologies in human terms. In essence, the tropes of “cyberspace” and “digital presence” that unfold in the infinite gridspace of TRON or Neuromancer are ways for us to render sensible (or sense-able, in keeping with the theme of affect for this list) the maddeningly invisible workings of our computers, televisions, and (though Bukatman hadn’t yet seen these) smartphones.
Nevertheless, he states, postmodern anxieties about the penetration of the organic (male) subject by alien technology, fears of losing oneself in one’s uniqueness to technologies of the masses and spectacular capitalist consumption, and the addictive “image virus” that seems to glue us to our screens pervades the whole endeavor. Bukatman’s answer to such Debourdian hand-wringing is basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ We’re already living in it, he states. Technology has already become so intertwined with our subjectivity as to be inseparable, so far better to just accept it and learn how to thrive under such conditions. This is of course the source of the dad-joke pun in the title: our identities are interfaced with our terminals, which may signal the terminus of identity as we have heretofore known it. This is already being reflected in surrealist cyberpunk narratives and body-horror special effects that both serve to break down the distinction between subject and environ, self and world. Again, this seems sort of obvious at this point, but I suppose it was more revelatory in the early 90s. And from my understanding, it was certainly novel to take up SF as the object of “serious” academic study, despite the genre’s longstanding relationship to critical discourse.
What feels dissatisfying about this book (besides the want of a more pointed thesis than “this is how it is”) is that it pays a lot of attention to technology and subjectivity, but not a lot to the subject per se. In other words, the “subject” of Bukatman’s study is a generalized one, which of course equates to a white, male, heterosexual, Western one. Bukatman’s aware of this, I think, but doesn’t do enough to address it. The last part of the book briefly brings in feminist SF — and the structure of the book which points from where we’ve been to where we’re going seems to suggest that this is the way forward — but it feels like a last-minute addition rather than a seriously considered element of the argument. Race, meanwhile, is completely effaced from the discussion, and we can only wonder what sorts of cultural differences might emerge if we press on Bukatman’s argument. Another tangent: it’s interesting that Bukatman brings up Disneyland as an SF space, whereas Yoshimi Shun’ya would discuss it three years later as a (modern) narrative space par excellence. Maybe this has to do with the different designs of Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland? Still, it’s interesting to see where some people see narratives emerging and others don’t.
In sum, this sprawling book feels super exciting as someone that wants to get into all the cool and promising potentials of cyborgian subjectivity, posthuman technological experience, and SF as a mode of thought and being, but we need to be careful not to just throw sweet SF buzzwords around without thinking through what kinds of subject positions they’re privileging. Maybe that’s where my work will come in? Hopefully so.
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