Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
Book Review: Fluid, Mutable, Plural, Posthuman Subjectivities – A Radical Project for Feminism?
Review of Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls. Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, by Kim Toffoletti. Published by LB Tauris, London, 2007.
Reviewed by Dr. Victoria Grace
(Senior Research Fellow in Social Sciences, Canterbury University, New Zealand).
Kim Toffoletti’s book is a study of possibilities for transformative subjectivities in the contemporary hyper-mediated culture of postmodernity. Building on her doctoral research, this Australian author is concerned to analyse how the rigid, fixed, dichotomous constructions of identity, in particular gender identity, might be challenged, called into question, and reformulated by the fluidity and mutability of a subjectivity exposed to the implosive forces of simulation. Going further, she explores these as creative and transgressive potentialities that might be found in the figure of the posthuman.
Toffoletti explores these themes through a variety of sites of “posthuman imagery”: the Barbie doll, the persona of Marilyn Manson, TDK advertising, and tropes of biotechnology such as cloning. Her focus is not on how particular images, consumer objects, digital media, and the new technologies in general are “good” or “bad” for women; rather, she is concerned to engage them as performative events or acts and discover their points of disruption that offer new possibilities for human subjectivities and “post-gender” experience. Toffoletti’s conviction that the posthuman is useful for women is situated in relation to numerous feminist discussions on this very question.
The framework for developing her analysis, however, distinguishes her work from that of other feminist authors who have taken up aspects of some of these questions. Toffoletti refers to Baudrillard’s description of “simulation culture”, and the significatory transformations associated with it. She uses her interpretations of Baudrillard’s notion of simulation as a vehicle for generating insight into the posthuman alternatives of interest to her as these are reflected in constructions of reality, the body, and selfhood. Her analysis is one that seeks out the blurring of boundaries, the confusing transgressions of categories, the ambiguities of form, and the shifting constructs of time and space that engender posthuman possibilities and post-gender bodies.
Each of her chapters begins with a highly engaging, brief personal vignette that immediately brings the reader close to the author’s method of observation, reflection and theoretical critique. For example, in relation to her discussion of the Barbie Doll as “posthuman prototype”, we learn how Toffoletti came across a collection of variously dishevelled Barbie Dolls “carelessly laid out on the asphalt” at a Melbourne open-air market selling “pre-loved” goods of all descriptions. She tells us how she photographed the “Barbies at the flea market” (the photo is included in the text), describing in detail the aspects of their presentation she observed and the reflections this prompted. She wants to look at Barbie in a different light from those who have raged against the proliferation of Barbie dolls as being a bad role model for girls (with her unattainable bodily proportions and ultra, caricatured feminine styling). Rather, Toffoletti’s vision of Barbie is that of “transformer”; transformer in the sense of a “sign-switcher” in electronics, whereby Barbie is rethought as a “transformative, plastic figuration”, mutable in her inability to be recuperated within an identificatory frame of reference. Barbie inhabits and reflects the implosive “confused cultural space” of hyperreality, and as such Toffoletti refers to Barbie as ambivalent (possibly ambiguous is the more accurate term in a Baudrillardian context). For Toffoletti, Barbie “erases the specificity of the category of ‘woman’ by operating as an endlessly proliferating sign of the body that explodes any possibility of articulating the “truth” about female identity” (Toffoletti, 2007:67).
This discussion of Barbie contains an informative and interesting few pages on the mutability of plastic as a material product that is moulded and is mouldable into all kinds of possible shapes. Toffoletti skilfully enlists the characteristics of plastic as a support for her narrative about posthuman imaginings, referring to its combined artificiality and ubiquity. In Toffoletti’s rendering, Barbie’s plastic body, plural and decentred, is a simulation that does not strive for equivalence with the real.
The reader is provided with an image of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals CD album centrefold. Toffoletti’s textual descriptions of the images she chooses to analyse are extremely insightful and not without all sorts of pleasing surprises that only someone with a background in the study of visual culture could or would “see”. Through her description the reader is led into viewing Manson as “neither male nor female, organism nor machine, human nor animal” and thus, Toffoletti argues, “confuses the role of the image as either reflecting the self or representing an Other” (Ibid.:83). Manson is all about mobility and metamorphosis, a shifting, synthetic figure constituted as a kind of boundary bandit in defiance of any ontic fixity. In this way, Manson as simulacrum exemplifies Toffoletti’s wish to refigure “sexuality, race and gender as fluid and displaced terms”, leaving behind any notion of the natural, the original, with their inevitable binaries constituted in dialectical terms: “By disrupting the limits of the body, Manson exceeds signification, challenging existing notions of identity and difference, and enabling new models of embodied existence beyond dialectical thought” (Ibid.:105).
A superb analytic description of the face of a digitized image of a baby on the TDK advertising poster (with huge ears, square eyes that appear adapted to computer screens and a smiling mouth profile that could receive a CD), begins a chapter in which Toffoletti develops her ideas on the evolving form of the body as interface. The image of the baby represents the absolute nature of immersion of the body in communication forms to the extent that any distinction between the body and communication media is eradicated. Toffoletti has a clear grasp of the implication of simulation for embodiment: “no longer will an individual need a stereo when the individual becomes a stereo” (Ibid.:125). Similarly, in discussing examples from the biotech world, the themes of boundary blurring and the erasure of origin stories are continued and extended. Simulations such as Oncomouse are transgressive in Toffoletti’s view, calling established boundaries into question. She discusses the clone as a posthuman form collapsing the distinctions of natural and artificial, real and virtual, in conjunction with consideration of images by the artist Piccinini.
While Toffoletti presents a convincing elaboration of how Baudrillard’s notion of simulation in a hyperreal world is evident in images across the range of instances she chooses, in my view it becomes problematic to enlist Baudrillard as an author through whom one can advocate for the “potentialities and possibilities” inherent in this significatory and sociocultural formation. Baudrillard is too frequently interpreted as a celebrant of the implosive dynamic he analyzed at the heart of the logic of an economy of sign-value. On the contrary, he was its most caustic critic. He derided the hyperreal as a system far more totalitarian than that which it replaced; the previous “order” where identity and difference were dialectically inflected, and exchange value was grounded in a generalized notion of utility, was benign by comparison (although also of course at one level equally problematic for the erasures it accomplished). To not see this critique in Baudrillard’s work is to read Baudrillard with insufficient scrutiny. With such scrutiny so many of the quotations from Baudrillard’s work in Toffoletti’s book could not be read as support for her deconstructive agenda; one hears the full force of Baudrillard’s critique (and irony) in these quotations and indeed in the works from which they are taken.
Toffoletti’s book is rich with theoretical analysis and discussion, and engages with numerous authors’ commentaries on aspects of the argument she develops. Feminist theory features prominently in these discussions. It is to Baudrillard, however, that she turns and returns for the theoretical grounding of her argument. And yet Baudrillard cannot be enlisted for “advocating simulation” as Toffoletti asserts; the idea that simulation is a “radical project” runs entirely counter to Baudrillard’s critique. Nowhere does Baudrillard invoke hyperreal simulation for its “challenging” propensities for “contestation” or to “enable re-thinking” or “offer new possibilities” for “new imaginings”. I take issue with Toffoletti’s rendition of Baudrillard’s “political project”:
Yet to suggest that the anticipation of the model reduces or limits our engagements with the social world would be to misunderstand Baudrillard’s political project. Rather, the infinite replication of the model causes a short-circuit in established modes of meaning based on dialectical thinking, allowing ‘for all possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all the time, in the sense that their truth is to be exchanged in the image of the models from which they derive, in a generalized cycle’. (Toffoletti, 2007:142, citing Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1994: 5).
This passage clarifies the central point of my disagreement with Toffoletti’s reading of Baudrillard. In my reading, the “infinite replication of the model” is not a radical overturning of binary thought, but instead it is raising the hegemony of the binary structure to the nth power; it is an insidious significatory and onto-epistemological iteration of the generalized semiology his work so ardently and rigorously critiques. The “infinite replication of the model” moves us even further away from the core concerns of Baudrillard’s project, one that takes as its critical point of departure a valuing of singularity, illusion, reversion and the dual relation in its irreducibility – constructs which are entirely “other” from that of binary thinking or of its implosion into a realm of simulation, of multiplication of difference in the delirium of sign-value and the hyperreal.
Toffoletti’s project might be a worthy one for feminism at this point in time, and certainly an important one for feminist scholars to give their serious consideration. She asks and explores how can the changes in subjectivity that most surely accompany contemporary changes in the socio-cultural, economic and significatory spheres, be figured as “useful” for women and feminist critique? What are the features of the posthuman that can be critically deployed? Baudrillard’s work indeed provides a useful scaffolding for describing features of the posthuman, but his “project” is not one that can be enlisted in support of an imagined or desired posthuman subjectivity in Toffoletti’s terms. Baudrillard is explicit that simulation and proliferation of signs dissolve the “subject”. This dissolution of the subject is not simply the dissolution of the unified subject of humanist philosophy as Toffoletti contends, but of the very subject who, in its encounter with and constitution through others, lives the drama of its misrecognition of itself as unified and whole. That is the “subject” that dissolves in the hyperreality of simulation. Toffoletti celebrates the collapse of the distinction between “self and Other” in hyperreal simulation and views Baudrillard’s analysis of simulation as support for what she argues is its critical potentiality. On the contrary, Baudrillard in fact despairs at this implosive effect; hyperreal “subjectivities” further remove us from the possibility of selves for whom others are irreducibly “other” in their utter singularity.
Baudrillard is not “for” simulation, and his fierce critique of the hyperreal makes it clear that its implosive force does not engender illusion in the way he employs this concept. Baudrillard’s stance could not be more unambiguous according to Turner who writes in his introduction to his translation of Baudrillard’s The Intelligence of Evil: “our collective project of creating a virtual reality […] is to be understood as a suicidal project of termination of the human species” (Toffoletti, 2007:12). As Baudrillard said in a conversation with Enriques Noailles not long before he died: sure, both seduction and simulation are beyond meaning, but where the beyond of seduction is a beyond of a generalized logic of signification, simulation stays resolutely on this side of signification (in other words, is entirely constituted within its frame). For the “subject” (no longer a subject) constituted within the simulated and the virtual:
It is the end of interiority and intimacy, the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him [or her] without obstacle. He can no longer produce limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence. (Baudrillard, 1983:133).
Toffoletti’s project of optimism for articulating the promise of critical subjectivities in the frame of the posthuman is bold and admirable in intent; whether Baudrillard is the theorist to enlist in this task is another question.
Jean Baudrillard (1983). “The Ecstasy of Communication”. In Hal Foster The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays in Postmodern Culture. Translated by John Johnston. Port Townsend: Bay Press.
Jean Baudrillard and H. V. Noailles (2007) . Exiles From Dialogue. Translated by Chris Turner. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kim Toffoletti (2007). Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body. Published by L. B. Tauris, London.
Chris Turner (2005). “Introduction” in Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact. Translated by Chris Turner. Oxford: Berg.