THE MACHINE TO BE THE OTHER. VIRTUAL REALITY, BODY SWAP NARRATIVES AND REINFORCEMENTS OF HETERONORMATIVE GENDER MATRIX

by Paul Buckermann and Anne Koppenburger

Virtual Reality (VR), science fiction, and cyberspace have always generated fantasies of escaping one’s determined flesh and act freely in an entire new world without the archaic limits we have to bear our whole primitive lives. Emancipatory approaches, in particular, have always envisioned shaking off violent offline society and all its discriminatory patterns. In entering another reality there are chances to switch individual identity, race, gender, age, class or physical potentials. Here, we want to pick up a recent experiment called Gender Swap as a scope for looking at several speculations and limitations connected to these narratives by BeAnotherLab.

Primarily, we want to highlight three rather reactionary discursive implications of body swapping:

On the one hand, a new reality can be as discriminative and abusive as the one we know all our lives (to check please hit a random internet forum, social network, MMORPG, or Web 2.0 service and trigger the trolls by just mentioning a random discriminatory marker). So, as to avoid being discriminated in the virtual reality, one often again has to choose a set of characteristics, which would pertain to a privilege in the real reality as well.

On the other hand, there are widespread assumptions that empathy for discriminated groups improves when male and/or white and/or heterosexual and/or abled adults just perceive how terrible it is to be classified according to features they are just not used to be associated with at all. We all know this from countless body swap movies (non-recommended viewing list) where obscure technology, magic, or bad weather conditions makes a father to be his son or a high school football dude to be a female nerd of color – and vice versa. Touching ones new body, being discriminated, kissing oneself, being childish, getting access to unknown spaces, or failing to adapt to another milieu – the potential jokes, moral shocks, and entertaining situations are indefinite but re-used in every piece of fiction we know. These iterative structures are all based on the myth that empathy through individual sensation leads to individual improvement. Furthermore, a cumulative decrease of individual prejudices is believed to diminish discrimination on a larger scale. This also applies to Gender Swap, which aims at gaining collective knowledge through increasing empathy. Ainsley Sutherland has already worked on the installation focused on empathy and the problematic socio-historical assumptions of it.

On the third hand (indeed our argumentation crosses body limitations into enhancement/modification), the expectations attributed to empathy in body swap narratives is problematic because intertwined with discursive and material reinforcements of a binary gender matrix. This very construction is the structural basis for the exact discrimination cyber-feminism wants to leave behind. Recently, The Machine to Be Another has produced some buzz (check facebook for numerous and upcoming live performances or media coverage) because of its avant-garde implementation of VR- and computer technology for emancipatory purposes. In Gender Swap, an application which uses the platform The Machine to Be Another, participants should not just watch the ‘man’ feeling like a ‘woman’ but feel it themselves. We doubt the actual protocol realizes the potential of such experimentation and we assume that this particular case depends on the same fantasies of body swaps like the most reactionary fiction. Moreover, it reinforces a societal structure, which reproduces an exclusive and hierarchical order of defined and naturalized sexes. Avoiding technological defeatism and believing in political, technological, and epistemic acceleration as a way to change realities, we choose to point at another speculation rather than – what we prefer to call – the The Machine to be the Other. We would like to contribute to the much-needed discussion and scrutinize the underlying societal structures when we speculate about gender and body swaps (although it can be applied to disability or e.g. Anorexia, see Wired).

The technological setup of Gender Swap allows participants to see oneself from the Other’s point of view. Two persons (‘male’/’female’) are sitting in a room wearing head-mounted displays and being wired up. The screens each display the view, which is recorded on the foreside of their counterpart’s gadget. So basically, one sees what the other would see. The users then perform movements on which each of them has to agree. The experiment investigates “mutual respect between different genders” (White Paper) by letting the users have a look into the underwear of each other. Nevertheless, it remains questionable if the users get to know each other (let alone respect the Other) by merely changing visual perspectives voluntarily and temporarily in a hyper-artificial environment.

The encounter of the self-consciousness with the Other inevitably involve processes of othering, as we know from Hegels Master-Slave-Dialectic. Though the Hegelian dialectic of self-other-identification and distantiation does not necessarily attribute a relative inferiority/superiority to the Other (Brons 2015), Simone de Beauvoir (1949) referred to that Hegelian dialectic when she described the woman as being made the (inferior) Other. Based on the assumption of otherness as constitutive for human beings, she described how women became subordinate to men: “a fundamental hostility to any other consciousness is found in consciousness itself; the subject posits itself only in opposition; it asserts itself as the essential, and sets up the other as the inessential, the object.” (ibid., p. 27). In terms of the binary gender relation, the processes of othering foster the well-known antagonisms of rational/emotional (as irrational); superior/inferior; culture/nature; subject/object, etc.

Gender Swap indeed attempts to address those issues of the gender relation. However, the embodied performance turns out to simply follow the normative structure of sexual desire: the two sexes look at each other exploring their socially highlighted and gendered differences. That particular configuration of the project points to several problematic aspects of Gender Swap as it sticks to the normative binary gender relation. By focusing on the bodily dimension, Gender Swap ignores the social, economic, political, and cultural dimension of complex gender relation that underlies the unavoidable self-Other identification and distantiation. To watch hands touching a femalized body does not allow to know how women as a social group get devalued, even when seen from the perspective of the hand-owning-person.

According to the available documentation, no efforts have been made to deal with negative effects of the othering, i.e. attributing inferiority to the Other due to non-normative characteristics. Instead, the audience of Gender Swap project watches a ‘female’ and a ‘male’ body, which both match normative body standards. Can those participate or generate value for the project who do not correspond to certain body standards or a heteronormative matrix? To us, it remains an open question whether mutual respect is achieved through technologically supported othering by individualizing a socially constructed and historically grown complexity such as the gender relation.

Since we consider Gender Swap to stick to old-fashioned perceptions of the categories men and woman, we just want to sketch a more future-oriented experiment that applies DIY -technology like hormone-hacking in order to go beyond aestheticization of the body. Pharmaceutical knowledge is ready to be hacked and to be employed apart from political regulation. Paul B. Preciado did that to buck what society offered her_him to be: a transsexual man. Preciado used testosterone gel to queer the binary of the gender relation. By publishing her_his experiences in the book ‘Testo Junkie’ (2015) the collective knowledge on the production and distribution of hormones as sexual materiality got expanded, allowing for self-mastered experiments. We have to look for, discuss and build this kind of projects for progressive speculations on the alteration of gender relations.

Sources: Brons, Lajos (2015): Othering, an Analysis. In: Transcience 6(1); 69-90. De Beauvoir, Simone (2011 [1949]): The Second Sex. New York: Vintage. Preciado, Paul, B. (2015): Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: Feminist Press

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