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Elizabeth Swanstrom

Transliteracies Project Research Coordinator (2005-2007); Graduate Student, Comparative Literature Dept., UC Santa Barbara

Lisa Swanstrom

Elizabeth Swanstrom is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UC Santa Barbara. Her research interests include twentieth-century Latin-American and American literatures, the literature of the fantastic, history of science, media theory, and science-fiction film and literature. A recent paper she wrote on issues of memory and information technology in William Gibson’s science fiction titled “Wax Blocks, Data Banks, and File #0467839: The Archive of Memory in William Gibson’s Science Fiction” appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies. Swanstrom is a member of the development and editorial team of The Agrippa Files: An Online Archive of Agrippa (a book of the dead). In addition to her academic work, she writes short fiction and serves as co-editor for the online literary journal Sunspinner.

Links: “Wax Blocks, Data Banks, and File #0467839: The Archive of Memory in William Gibson’s Science Fiction” | The Agrippa Files | Sunspinner

Research Sample: Excerpt from “Hollow Voices, Haunted Spaces, and the Birth of the Rock Star Bride: Reassessing the Role of the Body in William Gibson’s Cyberpunk Fiction”

When the idoru Rei Toei appears in the chic environment of “The Western World” club in William Gibson’s Idoru, her hologram body flickers in the ambient light like swirling snowflakes suspended in a glass dome. As Colin Laney watches her from the corner of his eye–pretending not to, trying not to, but compelled to watch her nevertheless–he experiences a transcendent moment. In this instant Laney recognizes that the idoru Rei Toei, an elaborate, elegant, and complexly-patterned data construct, is something ineffable and real–something more than the sum of her flickering and light-washed informational parts. This revelation disrupts him, leaves him skittish, off-kilter, and cold.

The physically present Rei Toei, defined in Idoru as “…a personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers,” (92) marks a significant departure in Gibson’s fiction, since to read his prose is to usually embark upon an adrenaline-high exploration of cyberspace, a place that demands the abandonment of the body, and a place that is frequented by jaded, street-wise technophiles who seem all too willing to abandon their flesh for freedom. Yet the idoru Rei Toei inserts herself stubbornly into the real world, calling attention to her presence, her penetrating gaze, her luminous body.

Standing outside of cyberspace, the idoru problematizes Gibson’s status as the premiere author of the “flesh-eating 90s,” a status which has been conferred upon him as a result of his conception of cyberspace as a place that offers a seductive effacement of the flesh in favor of a flying, weightless mind no longer beholden to body or earth.

Theorists have written extensively about Gibson’s cyberspace, criticizing its heady spacelessness as a perpetuation of Cartesian Dualism. Frequently invoked as the “father” of the cyberpunk fiction movement, Gibson makes a logical target for such criticisms. Yet despite Gibson’s compelling (even seductive) writing style, which at times does offer the reader a satisfying, bodiless journey, it is my sense that the notion of disembodiment as a liberating and emancipatory existence cannot be taken for granted in his work. Because, even as they exult in the freedom that cyberspace affords, Gibson’s characters exhibit a complex, troubled, and uneasy attitude towards disembodiment.

Furthermore, the nature of cyberpunk fiction (typically identified as dark, dystopic, nihilistic) itself problematizes a simple Cartesian split. Such fiction, standing in relation to is science fiction predecessors, makes the body itself a site of experience, rather than a mere “life support system of the mind” and reveals the body as a site of creation, imagination, and shared sensory awareness. The special technological aspect of Gibson’s bodiless memory constructs in cyberspace complicates a simple mind/body split by offering up entities who are themselves modular in make-up, multifunctional in character, and distributed in nature, even if they are lacking in flesh and bone.

Contributions to the Transliteracies Project:
Internet Archive (Research Report)
Google Print (Research Report)
Inform.com (Research Report)
“The Legible City” (Research Report)
Sony Reader (Research Report)
esc for escape (Research Report)

  eswanstrom, 11.23.05

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