SSHRC application 2011 – 2012 (successful)


In my dissertation I show that cyberpunk literature and online virtual worlds such as Second Life are engaged in an exchange of fictional forms and literary techniques that has largely been ignored by literary critics and media theorists. Emerging in the 1980s out of the work of William Gibson, cyberpunk features “punk” anti-heroes and futuristic worlds shaped by advanced cybernetic technologies. In the past ten years, Second Life has accrued immense economic, social, and even political force: more than nine million people participate in the Second Life community, exchanging more than one million dollars worth of virtual goods daily; several governments (including Estonia and the Philippines) have built virtual embassies; and hundreds of universities (including Harvard Law) have used Second Life to host classes. My central argument is that identifying the interplay between cyberpunk and Second Life promotes a new critical understanding of both these literary texts and the virtual space; this new understanding emphasizes the disruptive effects that cross-media collaboration has on categories such as reader, author, fictional, virtual, and real. The changing roles of readers and authors, and the exchange of literary elements between fictional, virtual, and real spaces, must not be neglected if literary and media theorists are to engage with emerging forms of artistic and computational expression. Understanding these new forms of expression is important because they represent new forms of literature and because Second Life (and other virtual spaces) effect major changes in the real world.

Although numerous studies in the digital humanities have focused on either the linguistic (David Crystal) or social and political (Derrick de Kerckhove) effects of cyberspace, few critics have examined the interplay between fictional texts and virtual spaces. For example, in Language and the Internet, Crystal offers an elaborate analysis of the influence “netspeak” has had on creativity and expression but fails to show how this influence has affected literature. Similarly, in The Skin of Culture, de Kerckhove investigates the impact our “new electronic reality” has had on media, politics, bodies, and minds but not its impact on literature. Many texts, such as the essays collected in The State of the Real, undertake thorough analyses of the interplay between “the virtual” and “the real” but make no mention of “the fictional.” Though these and other studies have made important arguments about the linguistic, sociological, and political effects of virtual spaces, none have examined the exchange of literary forms and techniques between literature and virtual spaces. My research focuses on four primary “texts”: William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Douglas Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy, and Second Life.
My main objectives in concentrating on the interplay between cyberpunk and Second Life are to describe the influence narrative form has on cyberpunk readers and Second Life residents; to examine the exchange of literary content between cyberpunk and Second Life; and to juxtapose the way that language effects change in fictional spaces to the way that language used in Second Life effects change in the real world.

My dissertation has three sections.
Section One: “Reading and ‘Rezzing’in Second Life and Cyberpunk.” In this section I juxtapose Gibson’s Neuromancer with Second Life, concentrating on the effects of narrative form on readers and residents. The term “rez,” adapted from the word “resolve,” is used by Second Life residents to describe the way virtual space emerges as Second Life assembles computational data into languages and images for human subjects. I argue that Second Life residents “read” the virtual space as a narrative that develops as shapes, colours, textures, settings, and characters continuously “rez” into focus. Gibson’s readers witness a similar “rezzing” effect as they are thrust into scenes they can’t possibly understand: unfamiliar words, characters, and settings are presented without introduction. Like Second Life, Gibson’s narratives “rez” as the text progresses and the reader gathers information. This process of
information gathering has been described by literary critics (such as Wolfgang Iser) as an interplay between the text and the reader. Iser’s famous “reader response” theory suggests that literary “works” are collaborations between authors and readers. This suggestion of collaboration is the transition to my second section.

Section Two: “The Intermediation of Cyberpunk and Second Life.” In this section I first show that Katherine Hayles’ theory of “intermediation” expands on the collaborative aspect of the “work” that Iser describes. Hayles’ theory of intermediation identifies a generative interplay between media—a collaborative, cross-media process that blurs the lines between fictional, virtual, and real spaces. I argue that the relationship between cyberbunk literature and Second Life is a clear example of this generative interplay. I support this argument by identifying numerous cyberpunk elements in Second Life: from the literary roots of the bodies and hairstyles that residents have built for their virtual selves (their “avatars”) to the regions of Second Life named “Neuromancer” and “Snow Crash” after the novels. I also show that terms used to describe virtual experience are borrowed from cyberpunk: Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” and Stephenson popularized the Sanskrit word “avatar” in Snow Crash. The boundaries between literary and virtual spaces are blurred by the influence of cyberpunk on the social and “physical” environment of Second Life. This disruption of the boundaries between fictional and virtual is the transition to my third section.

Section Three: “Cyber-performativity and the Fictional/Virtual/Real.” In this section I expand on the theory of “cyber-performativity” I developed in my SSHRC-funded MA thesis (“The Cyber-Performative in Second Life”). I begin by examining the importance of language that effects change (is “performative”) in cyberpunk literature, focusing on Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Echoing the theory of performative language developed by J. L. Austin and re-described by Jacques Derrida, language in the fictional world of Snow Crash simultaneously says and does, simultaneously communicating information and effecting physical change in the characters’ world. Building on the notion of performative language, cyber-performativity describes the multiple performative effects that utterances made online have in both virtual and real spaces. I use cyber-performative theory to show that the interplay of narrative forms and literary content between cyberpunk and Second Life is a collaborative process that unsettles distinctions between fictional, virtual, and real spaces. To support this argument I trace the influence of collaborative virtual spaces on Rushkoff’s open-source cyberpunk novel, Exit Strategy. Before the book was published in print, Rushkoff invited readers to annotate the online version of Exit Strategy; more than 1,000 readers contributed and Rushkoff included many of the annotations in the final print edition.

The University of Alberta’s English and Film Studies (EFS) department is the ideal place for me to engage with the literary, theoretical, and media components of my project. Many EFS faculty members are involved in digital humanities work: Harvey Quamen, Imre Szeman, Stan Ruecker, and Heather Zwicker will all provide valuable support for my dissertation. Dr. Quamen’s focus on cyberculture and postmodern literature closely aligns with my research interest and my project will benefit from his supervision. I am currently enrolled in Dr. Quamen’s Humanities Computing (HuCo) “Posthumanism” course. I am also enrolled in courses that focus on the aesthetics and politics of reading; the relationships between post-WWII literature and new forms of media; and literary theory. I will meet the language requirements of my program by continuing my study of French and by improving my understanding of the Java programming language. A strong knowledge of Java will help me to engage with the technical components of digital humanities research. The EFS department has a strong relationship with many of the interdisciplinary computing programs at U. of A.—including the HuCo graduate program, the first such program in Canada. The U. of A. is also home to many other programs connected to my area of research, including the Canadian Institute for Research Computing in the Arts, the Dimic Research Institute for Comparative Literature, and the extensive Textual Analysis Portal (TaPor).

Works Cited

Brind, S., D. Sutton, R. McKenzie (eds) The State of the Real: Aesthetics in the Digital Age. New York:
I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Crystal, D. Language and the Internet. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006.

de Kerckhove, D. The Skin of Culture. Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995.

Gibson, W. Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1987.

—. Neuromancer. New York: Berkley, 1984.

Hayles, N.K. “Intermediation: The Pursuit of a Vision” New Literary History Vol. 38 No. 1 (Winter
2007): 99-125.

Rushkoff, D. Exit Strategy. New York: Soft Skull P, 2002.

Stephenson, N. Snow Crash. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1992.

[Bibliography removed]


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