A CONVERSATION WITH SANDY STONE
Allucquere Rosanne (aka Sandy) Stone has, needless to say, crossed a lot of borders. Her writings are dis-located on the intersections of cyborg, gender, and cultural studies, feminist theory, and media production. In an earlier incarnation she worked in computer programming and neurology, doing time with Bell Labs Special Systems Exploratory Group (which, among other things, invented touch tone on electronic PBX). She has also been a recording engineer for Jimi Hendrix, did sound work for a number of other groups including The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby Stills and Nash, and was involved in synthesizer development in the Silicon Valley. Not too long ago she received her Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz's History of Consciousness program, where she studied with Donna Haraway. She has played a pivotal role in organizing the 2nd and 3rd International Conference on Cyberspace. Currently she directs the ACTlab (Advanced Communications Technologies) at the University of Texas at Austin. We recently had the opportunity to stop Sandy for a chat prior to a performance she was giving at UC Santa Barbara.
SS = Sandy Stone
BB = Ben Bratton
LG = Laura Grindstaff
RN = Robert Nideffer
BB: This issue of _SPEED_ is about science and re-enchantment; we want to talk about the ways in which technology, in becoming more ubiquitous, more a part of daily life, becomes more demystified. To start off with, perhaps we could talk a little bit about what you call "a sense of mystery" that results from certain kinds of playing--with computers, with other people. What kinds of mysteries are out there to work with?
SS: Well first there's the mystery of sex, which is one of the biggest mysteries. And then there's a continual recreation and reinvention of mystery which is enhanced by virtuality, and the way that virtuality replicates some really basic recreations of phantasmatic spaces, going all the way back to the idea of interfaces: plate glass, the original creations of commodity space in the Paris Arcades. Everything on the other side of that glass had an aura attached to it that you enhanced as you went along. So you already have a good momentum, you're already running in order to create that space that's enchanted, and that's powerful. So from there it's just a matter of getting into the right gear.
BB: What about the interface itself? Is the sense of mystery located in the interface, or...
SS: I don't know, I don't have the faintest damn idea. I mean, you could figure that out, but once you start to parse that, then you're messing around with the thing, and I don't think that's important to mess around with in that way. Because you can't parse mystery--as soon as you parse it, it goes away. What I'm interested in doing is saying, well here are structures that predispose you to being able to have an experience of mystery, or aura, and then from there, not try to pick it apart to find out *why* it's happening. I'd rather just go in and experience it.
RN: One of the things I was reading in the interview you did with _Mondo 2000_ relates to the point you just made: exposing the nuts and bolts that hold reality together, to grab a moment and interrogate it as a pedagogic strategy for locating and examining certain moments of rupture. I'm curious about what this practice looks like in VR. As we move evermore towards virtual systems, how does that moment of rupture get reworked as a kind of pedagogic tool?
SS: Well, this is a fascinating question, and it's one of those things I'm investigating now. It has to do with how you create human bodies, how you do coding, what the shapes look like when you get out on the edge where human bodies don't even look human. I could draw it, but... There were some basic experiments done with human faces; it turns out that the face was the thing you could play with the most. People recognized almost anything with two dots and a line as a human face. But you can make things with two dots and a line that are NOT recognizable as a human face. The question I want to ask is what happens when you move the two dots and a line around so that it's ALMOST as a human face. You get to a point where things start to dither, and at the dithering point people start to get very nervous. That's the moment I'm talking about--the moment when people get nervous. You can do the same thing with the human body, too. Playing at that edge (which keeps moving, incidentally) is what I'm trying to do. That's the issue I'm thinking about currently in terms of virtual space and in terms of the way the body works, and how to use those things as interruptions.
RN: So this point where people become nervous would *still* be judged in relationship to an experiential awareness that comes from living in the more physically tangible reality that we're currently spending most of our time in. But what about for the "Next Generation," the kids who will grow up primarily in cyberspatial environments, what do you think might provoke their nervousness?
LG: In other words, does the reference point always have to be human? Because you talk about the machine starting to take on these human qualities, and we still think about machines in very anthropomorphic terms, but at what point might that moment of rupture not even be related to the human and still work in the kinds of ways?
SS: We can reach that moment, but we're not likely to do it in our generation, which is why I'm not specifically addressing it. I have a covert agenda, always, when I think of this kind of thing, and that's my daughter. What's she going to do? When I think of what's going to happen, I tend to think about flesh and blood, because she hasn't yet fallen totally into the machine; probably her kids will fall totally into the machine, because the preconditions for that will exist. UB-Comp [UBiquitous Computing] will have gone far enough that you could consider that sort of thing--or whatever it is that works out to be the actuality of AI (Artificial Intelligence), though of course it won't be AI, it will be something different. Then we can talk about those issues. Right now I'm addressing the things that we can foresee us actually doing within our lifetimes. Any visual production, any textual production, any intellectual production always speaks of the moment in which it is made, in a particular way. So, I'm talking about stuff which is going to be completely different next year; and next year we could have this discussion again and it would probably be completely different.
RN: I'd like to follow up on that, because you also make the point in your piece in the Benedikt volume (_Cyberspace: The First Steps_), that no matter how virtual, there's always a body attached; that VR originates, and must always return to, the physical, thus forgetting the body kind of becomes this little Cartesian trick. That seems to be said in order to make a point about the unpleasant consequences for those that are silenced by the act of forgetting. But then you go on to say that forgetting can be a powerful and productive strategy, as (Donna Haraway points out). So would you still say--for your daughter or for those growing up in different kinds of spaces--that this old Cartesian trick might be...
SS: OK, first of all, I'm being a little ironic when I refer to Donna's remark about forgetting being powerful and productive, because what she meant was that through the strategy of forgetting, that which is *constructed* becomes that which is *natural*; that which is *constructed* becomes that which is *discovered*. So, it's like "oh, gee, *here's* a piece of nature," when actually what you're doing is ignoring the fact that this was something you built and then turned your back on. So in that way it's not really a positive, productive thing, rather, you're just kidding yourself. But then we all kid ourselves about artifice anyway, particularly in a situation in which we're constructing nature. In order to make it nature we have to forget that we built it, that's what nature means, really. I don't know if that speaks directly to what you meant, but...let me see if I can get at it in a slightly different way. Right now the old Cartesian trick is something that I need to pay close attention to, because of the way that power works in asymmetrical forms. And that means that the people who get to let go of the body leave behind them a residue, so [in order for it to be successful] other people have to support that act. In an ideal circumstance where power was not working asymmetrically, then anybody could let go of the body without necessarily impacting anybody else. Even the ideal of the Buddhist Monk is not really an ideal, because if you actually talk to Buddhist Monks you know they have their own support structure and the women are invisible in that situation too--which is a whole other interesting story.
BB: I'm interested in the notion of the coming of ubiquitous technologies, moving the technics out of the box and into the street so to speak. It seems to me that there would be multiple meanings and multiple ways, depending not only on the actual transformations of technology from one kind of device to another, but also in terms of how we want to understand what technology is. One could say, for example, that drugs were a form of ubiquitous technology in terms of changing the neurophysiology of the patient, or even voice-over digital phone relays. And it seems to be that in any of these situations there has to be another kind of forgetting [that goes along with] making things invisible.
SS: Two things happen as we start down the road to "ubi-tech." We do a certain amount of letting go and forgetting, and so does the "tech." For example, what did mitochondria have to give up in order to get the big part of us, and what did we give up and what did we gain in order to have mitochondria? (which is really the first ubi-tech when you think about it). Now we're talking about a different version of the same thing. We've got these big clumsy machines which are rapidly shrinking. They're microscopic now but we have them in large macroscopic aggregates. Then they start to go inside. Two things happen. One is that we get to appropriate them for our own uses. The other one is that they come with agendas we don't understand and that take us over. OK. That's symbiotic. I don't think we can avoid that. Mitochondria had their agendas, too, but we all learned to get along and it helped us get where we are. And the same thing is happening with ubi-tech, or will happen with ubi-tech.
BB: You said that you defined interface as that which mediates between the body and the eye, but it seems perhaps...
SS: I said that interface mediates between a body and an absent person. Or not *necessarily* absent, but it can be absent...
BB: Alright, within the structure of ubi-tech, is the body then the new interface, or is it the code itself?
SS: I see what you mean, and I have the same problem with that question as I have with trying to talk about the sacred. Yes, Yes, Yes. The answer is "Yes."
RN: I'm interested in the cyborg metaphor that Haraway uses for rethinking the relationship between the human and the technological, and how her model interfaces with the way that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and Manuel De Landa have talked about humans as enabling technologies for machines. Do you see these models as qualitatively different?
SS: Yes. Donna's [Haraway's] model is only indirectly about human/machine collapse. The other thrust of it, which is not really addressed as much or in as many forums as the cultural thrust, is the cyborg as a totally fantastic, fictional, quasi-real boundary creature. And the idea of the boundary in that sense is a very pure one, because it means boundary between anything; it means cultural boundary, it means intellectual boundary, it means ontological boundary. And that's a sense in which we're all cyborgs, really, in that we all have to negotiate our parts, our own internal boundaries, the edges of the barbed wire that Gloria Anzaldua talks about. We have to continually learn to live on the borders in order to be the creatures that we are, and we find sometimes that when we're dealing with other people, there are chunks of us that are stuck in them. And when we look at our own road maps, there are chunks of them that are stuck in us, and that's part of being a cyborg. It's not just machinery, it's that other people are collapsing into us, they're already there, we're already, in a sense, collapsed into each other. In cultural terms, intellectual terms--those divisions that used to operate, don't operate anymore. We're all engaged in a very serious, very dangerous, but also very challenging and productive way of negotiating that aspect of cyborgism all the time, and it's important to pay attention to it.
LG: That seems to me what Toni Morrison, at some level, is writing about in _Beloved_, the sense that other people are part of us, that whole histories live on within us, and affect who were are and what we know. They literally haunt us, and that haunting can be either productive or paralyzing depending on how we engage with it. And of course not everybody gets haunted in the same way.
BB: When we're talking about collapses here, we're also always talking about rearrangements. New things are getting produced and rearranged. And it seems that in an interesting way the logic of the code, digital code itself, as an imaginary, already lends itself to this sort of process. Instead of being like language, which works at a kind of metaphorical level, the digital is already an engine of reorganization, specifically serial reorganization.
SS: That marks our moment. That's the end, the close the of mechanical age. And it's also the inception of that which comes after, which we can provisionally call "the virtual" (which isn't a very good word for it). That's specifically embedded in the idea of code, in the idea of digital representation, in the basic "getting down" in a very slimy way into the guts of things, into the organs of reality, and of bodies, and of ourselves. [It's a] refiguring, renegotiating, rearranging all of those things, which is really in a very deep way fucking with meaning. And we're very fortunate to be at the cusp of that.
BB: Lyotard has said we've just learned to think past the analog and now we need to learn to think past the digital.
SS: Yes, this is a priceless opportunity. I mean, we could've been born a few years earlier and been stuck on the flatlands before we got to that mountain, and here we are, we're in the mountains right now, we get to create whatever selves are going to come out the other side and it's going to be radical! It's not going to be a gentle transformation. I don't want to be in the bleachers, I want to be down on the field.
LG: I wanted to ask about your essay "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto." You talk about the transsexual body and subjectivity as a place of textual reproduction that is "nowhere" because it's outside the boundaries of gendered discourse, outside the dichotomy of male and female. And I think that one of the things you're trying to do in that article--correct me if I'm wrong--is to look at the ways in which a discourse, in this case the discourse of science and medicine, forces people to speak a certain language in order to get what they want. For example, the preoperative transsexual has to speak the language of the "wrong body" ("I'm in the wrong body") in order to get what he or she wants--surgery, or whatever it is. And that language is a result of the binary organization and opposition we have around gender (and of course there are all sorts of other binarisms too). I'm wondering if that's the kind of language that forces decisions in the virtual world too. Or do we have a new language developing? What will the new language be and what kinds of decisions will it force on people if it's not organized around binary oppositions anymore?
SS: When you find out, let me know! Now here's where we get into an interesting negotiation between the art and the technology; or between that which is perceived as technological and that which is perceived as art. In the ACT lab [Advanced Communications and Technology], which is currently at the bleeding edge of that (or at least I like to think we are), the only way you can address that problem is by asking questions. You don't know what the answer is, but you try to figure out what the questions are and then maybe the answer will speak itself. So, the questions that I'm trying to ask in virtual space are a little bit of what we were already talking about before: "What's the nearly legible?" "Where is the nearly legible?" "How is 'nearly legible' a tool?" "If you use physical near legibility as a tool, then what happens?" If I knew what happened, then I wouldn't be interested anymore, I'm going to go find another job. But as long as I don't know, and as long as it's fascinating to try to find out, then I'm going to be in there trying to ask the questions. I think the important thing about all this is to keep asking the questions, because I think *any* answer is going to be wrong. In a sense, I think the important thing is NOT to get the answer. The important thing is to keep finding new ways to ask the questions because as long as you're asking the questions you're still alive and your discourse is still alive and your discourse can still take risks and change and fuck up and be able to move on. But as soon as you've got the answer you're dead. So near legibility is one. There's a whole other set of questions that I could ask...and fortunately, to a certain extent queer theory is beginning to address a lot of them. The nice thing incidentally about doing queer theory at this point is that queer theory doesn't *Know*. As soon as you Know, you get a discipline, and when you get a discipline you get all the problems that go with it, and I don't have to tell you what that means.
LG: It seems that some of things we do know aren't particularly productive for moving us anywhere else. I'm thinking about the story you tell about Julia, the on-line "woman" who wasn't "really" a woman but rather a male psychiatrist, and the repercussions that knowledge had on Julia's friends in the virtual world who had confided in her. They were still clinging to very old paradigms, and since they were transported into a new kind of space, they couldn't necessarily be asking those same old questions anymore, about gender or sexuality or whatever (e.g., are you a man or a woman?)
SS: If you want to talk about gender, let me add something on to that, which is, if we do away with two genders, then we have to think about how to reconstruct desire. And for that we need to look to existing models of constructing desire through sameness instead of difference, in order to see if that helps. Well, yes it does, but not entirely, so we've got a problem. Sameness doesn't help much, difference doesn't help much, so then we have to think about something which is neither sameness or difference. What is that? Now we're into a situation where what we're doing is really art, which is the other thing for which we have to make space in these discourses. I have a problems with standing up in front of an audience and saying: "here's the problem, here are the possible solutions, now what do we do?" What I would rather do is put up a disquieting slide, and then have people go "ooooh," and then have me say "now go away and think about that." That way you don't have to create any uniform opinion or any uniform statement; people can read it how they want--and here I'm enacting a lot of postmodern theory without stating anything directly.
RN: What you were just saying about not knowing the answers to these questions got me thinking about what Brenda Laurel (and others) are up to with the Placeholder Project at the Banff Center. I'm curious about your thoughts on this project, because it seems that what they're doing is trying to provide maps of virtual spaces for people in order to help them know what to expect. The hope is that by making the unfamiliar familiar, there isn't the danger of falling into what Mark Pesce (see _SPEED_1.1) considers a kind of final amputation, potentially leading to what he calls "holosthetic psychosis."
BB: But, like any map, it's also a myth.
SS: Which is the structure that's Brenda has put on it, and that's also really important because then on one level she's appealing to a pre-existing structure: "OK, here's spider, here's eagle." But in another sense, she's plugging into something important that we can't get at, that is pre-existing, of which the idea of the eagle or the spider is only a visual representation. We can mobilize the entire invisible unconscious structure through that little visible point. It's a shame the code is so fragile. But that's a whole other story. It's very difficult to make Placeholder work because the code requires a tremendous negotiation among equipment to make it go. Hopefully it will be better later.
SS: Let me ask you all a question. Do you think machines will ever become intelligent?
BB: I don't.
SS: you don't?
BB: It really depends on what you want to call "machines" and want you want to call "intelligence." I think part of what's interesting to a lot of people, certainly to me (and to Deleuze and Guattari, and to De Landa), is to talk about the whole history of human philosophy in terms of replicating different kinds of machines. If that's intelligence, then certainly [machines will become intelligent]. Not in a noun sense but as a verb, the Greek notion of technic, a procedure of transforming, a procedure of becoming. So, the question isn't "will they become intelligent," but "how are they becoming intelligent?" It seems that a lot of the reaction to virtual reality I see in departments of communication, or departments of sociology, is a reconsideration of the cultural context of the emergence of other kinds of communication technology: radio, television, film. There seems to have been a huge explosion in this kind of research, which to some extent has to do with the eclipse of those media, but also with changes in our experience and understanding of time and space. Maybe a good question would be: "What is the early history of virtual reality going to look like?" What would be the important issues we'd look back on and say, "well there's where we really screwed up."
SS: Well one place they screwed up was right there with the word "virtual reality," which at the moment is such a damn catch word I think a lot of us wish it would go away. I used to run--and now somebody else runs--the international conference on cyberspace, and we just put out the call for papers for the one in Banff; they got umpteen hundred papers, they all show up on my desk one day and I get to read through them. What most of these people are doing is VR! VR, VR, VR! I keep saying, VR is not cyberspace! There's this huge confusion about what this is all about. VR is this big buzzword. At this point so much of it is hype. Very little of it is possible. The little that's possible is really great, but if you really want to have a good time, go sit in the Luxor ride in Los Vegas. That's a good time. Or do the "Back to the Future" ride at Universal City. That' a much better time than VR. And that doesn't require goggles or gloves. Of course, it's not interactive, but if what you're after is immersion, then think about doing immersion in that way. The goggle and glove thing has captured people's imaginations because of what it promises; the same things electricity promised back when it was going to transform your life. You had these two knobs--did you ever see any of the quack electrical devices, those electrical healing things where you hold onto the knobs and get a good shock? You still run into them in arcades every once in a while. Not video arcades, but the older ones. Electricity was supposed to be a tremendous healing force all by itself. And a lot of those people were cured of whatever they had by virtue of the fact that they believed in it. We're at the same point now, really, with VR, there's something about it that captures the public imagination in a really big way, the idea of the fantasy, being able to create these worlds, teledildonics... particularly teledildonics!
LG: I wonder how much of that has to do with the existing media throwing these concepts back and forth precisely because their version of VR is seen to transcend the limitations that exist with TV and film. It always seems to be the case that earlier forms of media are the ones to start generating a public discourse about new media, or at least that's where most people first have access to it. I was thinking about the progression of media from print to radio to film to television to video, and how it was in print that all of the discussion around radio first appeared. And it's usually a discourse that's an odd mixture of both utopic and dystopic elements, or in some cases an unadulterated condemnation, like we had with Adorno ahd Horkheimer. What has struck me about the VR stuff on television is that it's not that negative yet.
SS: Well, it's bad enough that VR is a simulation before we get any of its real simulating. I mean, the whole idea of VR is a simulation. That's the result of the discourse of VR being generated by popular media. What do you expect?
RN: It really has infiltrated the popular press, this desire for VR. I suppose it's the desire for a new kind of connectivity, an interactive connectivity. It's like what you were talking about, at least in part, the struggle or pleasure in re-establishing social bonds that seemingly have been broken.
LG: That's the theory, anyway.
BB: That's the AT&T "You Will" ads. You Will be *re*connected through further *dis*connection.
SS: Yes. Let's look at it from that standpoint. It isn't as if suddenly out of the blue people were saying "oh wow, there's this new thing happening, it's called VR." VR emerged, is emerging. We are creating it because of the moment we now inhabit, this moment at the close of the mechanical age. And this creation has to do with a whole bunch of stuff: the evolution of internal spaces within homes from one big dirt floor where everybody did everything to individual special purpose rooms; the development of the novel and of the diary, in other words, of the interior monologue; a removal of the body from public space as spectacle. What you see is that everything is moving inward. Eventually what you get is the sovereign subject, and the crown of creation becomes one person alone in a room with a terminal. That's the precondition for VR.
RN: Which then becomes the exteriorization of the interior.
SS: Right, it's like a worm hole. You get to this point where everything narrows down to the moment of the interface, and then it all widens out on the other side again. It's kind of like a negative ontology.
LG: That's what I think is happening with "reality TV" right now. It's right at that moment...
RN: It's taking part in that moment.
LG: It's not the big flash yet, it's the anxiety generated by being so close, right at the edge. Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.
SS: Yes, right. I mean, VR would have created *itself* under those circumstances. We don't have to do anything. Otherwise, it's time to walk into the ocean and drown. I actually wrote a science fiction story one time about waking up one morning and all the appliances are coming alive.
BB: "The Machines are Restless Tonight..."
SS: "The Machines are Restless Tonight." I was living in Los Angeles, and they all marched into the Pacific Ocean.
LG: Did they have to go across the Venice boardwalk?
SS: They had to go across everything. It was horrible. Even the big generators at the power plant were ripping themselves up. The last things to go were coat hangers. And they came flying over with those little arms and their curved necks all stretched out. Better them than me was the way I was thinking about it at the time...