[ISEA95] Panel: Cameron Bailey – Virtual skin: Articulating race in cyberspace

Panel Statement

Panel: Body Matters

Is “race” corporeal? Is that all there is to one of the most complex and contested discourses of the modern era – skin, eyes, lips and hair? Clearly not. Most theories of race reject a biological basis altogether in favour of a tangle of social, political and psychic forces that work their strange and funky work on each one of us every day. Thats how it goes in the real world.

But what about cyberspace – and here I’m concentrating on online communication: the Internet, commercia1 online services, bulletin board systems. Do the same laws apply? Recent writing on electronic communication systems insist that despite its disembodied nature, cyberspace remains what Michael Benedikt calls a familiar social construct ‘with the ballast of materiality cast away’. That means race may function in much the same way that it does in the world where we are more directly accountable to our bodies. It may mean that, but it’s hard to tell, because very few of the thinkers currently probing into cyberspace have said a word about race. Faced with the delirious prospect of leaving our bodies behind for the cool swoon of digital  communication, the leading theorists of cyberspace have addressed the philosophical  implications of a new technology by retreating to old ground. In a landscape of contemporary cultural criticism in which the discourses of race, gender, class and sexuality have often led to
the next leap in understanding-where, in fact, they have been so thoroughly used as to turn sometimes into mantra – these interpretive tools have come curiously late to the debate  around cyberspace. It may be that the prevailing discussion of digitally assisted subjectivity has focused not on the culture of cyberspace as it exists today, but on the potential of cyberspace, on utopian or dystopic visions for tomorrow. Since we never reveal ourselves so much as when we dream, it’s worth noting that most speculations on the future of cyberspace return questions of race to the margins. Volumes such as Michael Benedikt’s Cyberspace: First Steps and Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity barely mention the subject at all; only writers like Donna Haraway and Vivian Sobchack have taken the question of cybernetic identity beyond a direct relationship between technology and a unified, representative, obvious human subjectivity.

  • Cameron Bailey (Canada) is a Toronto-based writer and programmer of film and video. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, CineAction!, Border/Lines and Screen. He is a regular contributor to Now magazine, and programmer of the Planet Africa section at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Full text p.12-16