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Playing with Boundaries: Posthuman Digital Narratives in RealSelf.com

Sucharita Sarkar, D.T.S.S College of Commerce, Mumbai

 

Abstract

Studies in digital humanities are often embedded in the theory of posthumanism. N. Katherine Hayles described the posthuman as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (Hayles, 1999, p. 3). Enmeshed in scientific advancements in communication technology and bio-technology, this posthuman body or cyborg is always in a state of perpetual becoming, with or without its own agency. Donna Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) celebrated the un-gendering potential of human-machine couplings. Internet theorists like Sherry Turkle (1997) have also expressed optimism about the self-changing capacity of digital communication.

In this context, the paper interrogates, through a posthumanist lens, the digital narratives constructed through text and images on RealSelf.com, which is an online social media forum for those seeking (and finding) the correct cosmetic surgical treatment for human-enhancement or metamorphosis. The paper will attempt to read the website, especially selected transformation-stories from the “Reviews” section, where those who are undergoing/will undergo/have undergone cosmetic surgical procedures post their experiential narratives and photographs before, during and after the procedure in a blog-timeline format, often eliciting comments by supporting readers. These diverse narratives on the site may be unpacked to see how posthumans are playing with the boundaries of their bodies to reconstruct their selves, and whether these transformation-stories break away from earlier gender stereotypes, or whether they replicate them: old wine in a new, virtual, surgically-enhanced bottle?

Keywords: Cosmetic surgery, cyborg, digital, human-enhancement, narratives, posthuman, social media.

 

Introduction: Becoming Posthuman

“Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that.” (Braidotti,2013, The Posthuman, “Introduction”, p.1).

“As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens,…you have already become posthuman …. thehuman is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman” (Hayles, 1999, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, p. 2).

 

Posthumanism is not a deferred state or a science-fictional concept. The ubiquitous presence of the internet in our lives makes us live through posthumanism. If I confess that I am in a committed relationship with my laptop, or that my mobile phone is a prosthetic extension of my arm, I am articulating my posthuman becoming. N. Katherine Hayles described the posthuman as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (Hayles, 1999, p.3). As we enmesh our offline and online existences in more and more imbricated ways, we can witness our own continuing self-construction and reconstruction.

Posthuman theories and praxis are embedded not only in cyber-technology but also in recent developments in biotechnology. The scientific advances in biotechnology has enabled humans to reconstruct the biological human body into bionic bodies with artificial insertions and additions. Biotechnology also engages with other practices like neo-eugenics, artificial reproductive techniques and surrogacy. By fracturing long-entrenched binaries like nature/culture, biotechnology ventures into terrains that have evoked mixed responses, especially from critical posthumanists. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, controversially advocated state control of biotechnology, although one defining feature of these new participatory and/or embodied posthuman technologies is democratization of access (Fukuyama, 2002, p.181).

In this paper, I will attempt a posthumanist interrogation of RealSelf.com, which is an online social media website for those seeking (and finding) the correct cosmetic surgical treatment for human-enhancement. Located at the intersection of cyber-technology and biotechnology, the website archives multiple transformatory self-narratives that are communicated and shared. The paper aims to read the website as text and to focus on randomly selected transformation-stories published in the “Reviews” section, where those who are undergoing/will undergo/have undergone cosmetic surgical procedures post their experiential narratives and photographs before, during and after the procedure in a blog-timeline format, often eliciting comments from empathetic and presumably similarly-intentioned readers. Many of these narratives intersect and reify each other’s, and the paper will attempt to unpack these diverse narratives to see how posthumans are playing with the boundaries of their offline bodies and online subjectivities to reconstruct their selves. Grounded on posthuman and feminist theories of Donna Harraway, RosiBraidotti, N. Katherine Hayles and others, the paper will interrogate these digital narratives to find out whether they resist or reify earlier gender stereotypes, and also explore the issues of agency and anxiety that are performed through these transformation-stories….Access Full Text of the Article

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