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Whitmanian Cybernetics
by Paul H. Outka


Introduction: There’s no place like cyberspace…

The Internet isn’t really new anymore, at least not like it used to be.  Although it is, of course unimaginably “big” already, and growing ever faster – from 18 million web pages in 1995 to 829 million web pages in 1998, for example (and by the time you read this…)[1] – the initial cultural shock is passing.  Hundreds of millions use email and the web as a matter of daily habit.  For the even greater number who don’t have access, the mass of online data has changed from “the strange new world of the Internet” that Time magazine described in a 1995 special issue, (9) to an unhappy measurement of their widening distance from the global economy’s winners. 


Since the Internet is not, in itself, anything at all, just raw digital code, incomprehensible without an interface that translates that code into words, pictures, and sounds, its meaning lies in the metaphors we use to interface with that primordial sea of zeroes and ones, the incomprehensible cyber-Kantian noumenal.  In perhaps an even more fundamental way than literature, the Internet is an entirely constructed medium.  The utter fungibility of binary data means that the Internet is, in effect, what we – or “they” – say it is; and some basic similarities are beginning to emerge in the way the Internet is talked about.[2]  One consequence of the Internet’s “maturation” is that the reference of the various words we use to describe the millions of connected computers scattered around the globe – the Internet, the Web, the Information Highway, cyberspace, etc. – is taking shape, to forming its initial metaphors into an identity.  


At the heart of these metaphors lies the common – and to me, worrisome – assumption that we should think of the mass of globally interconnected data in spatial terms – as nets, webs, highways, outer space.  If early operating systems like DOS can be thought of as just barely two dimensional – hierarchies of files and directories organized “under” the C> prompt (“first, get into Word Perfect…”) – and later GUI’s (“Graphical User Interfaces”) like Apple’s system for the Macintosh or Microsoft’s Windows as crudely three dimensional – various overlaid windows with pull-down menus and files stored “inside” folders and icons – the Internet seems like a world.  The cursor has become the userid, the document has become the Internet itself. 


This spatialization of the Internet’s information has become ever more firmly rooted since William Gibson first coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.  What is science fiction in 1984 becomes a strange experience of “thereness” nine years later in Mark Dery’s 1993 introduction to Flame Wars, a South Atlantic Quarterly issue devoted to the Internet:


Those who spend an inordinate amount of time connected by modem via telephone lines to virtual spaces often report a peculiar sensation of “thereness”; prowling from one conference to another, eavesdropping on discussions in progress, bears an uncanny resemblance to wandering the hallways of some labyrinthine mansion, poking one’s head into room after room.  “One of the most striking features of the WELL,” observed a user named Ioca, “is that it actually creates a feeling of ‘place.’  I’m staring at a computer screen.  But the feeling really is that I’m ‘in’ something; I’m some ‘where.’” (565)


Ioca’s “peculiar sensation of ‘thereness’” his or her “feeling of ‘place’” in turn has shifted into the easy, even reflexive, assumption that the Internet is a space.  Microsoft, in its current advertising, asks us, “Where do you want to go today?” while Intel promises that its latest processor, the Pentium III, will let us “not just onto the Internet” but “into it.”  And Margaret Wertheim, in her 1999 book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, argues passionately that interconnected digital information is in fact a new space for human existence:


     What is at issue, of course, is the meaning of the word “space” and what constitutes a legitimate instance of this phenomena.  I contend that cyberspace is not only a legitimate instantiation of this phenomena but also a socially important one.  In the “age of science” many of us have become so habituated to the idea of space as a purely physical thing that some may find it hard to accept cyberspace as a genuine “space.”  Yet Gibson’s neologism is apposite, for it captures an essential truth about this new domain.  When I “go into” cyberspace, my body remains at rest in my chair, but “I” – or at least some aspect of myself – am teleported into another arena which, which, while I am there, I am deeply aware has its own logic and geography.  To be sure, this is a different sort of geography from anything I experience in physical world, but one that is no less real for not being material.  Let me stress this point: Just because something is not material does not mean it is unreal, as the oft-cited distinction between “cyberspace” and “real space” implies.  Despite its lack of physicality, cyberspace is a real place.  I am there – whatever this statement may ultimately turn out to mean. (230-31)


This solidification of Gibson’s metaphor, or conceit, or trope, into Wertheim’s (and Microsoft’s and Intel’s) “real place” recalls Nietzsche’s well-known discussion in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” of how “truths” are (just) metaphors that have been repeated until we forget they are metaphors:


     What then is truth?  A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after a long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.  Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force….” (84)


The “truth” of the Internet remains, however, only metaphoric.  Wertheim never leaves her chair when she is online – binary code is transmitted to her modem over a phone line, her computer turns the code into tiny dots of color displayed on her monitor that she, in turn, interprets as pictures or text.  Information is certainly exchanged, communication happens, but it all occurs in this world. The dangers in the way we commonly talk and think about the net lie in this Nietzschean hardening of the spatial metaphor into the unspoken or explicit “truth” that cyberspace in fact exists in or as a sphere somehow separate from our own everyday reality, the one where people have bodies, suffer, die.  There’s no place like cyberspace – literally.  It is an illusion, a fiction.[3]  Nothing that happens “there” matters except as it affects – gives pleasure, interest, or pain to – someone here.  The “information highway” connects people, provides them convenient access to information and entertainment; there are no stops on it though, no immaterial “places.”  My message goes from my computer through the wires to your monitor; you reply in kind – we don’t meet in the middle, just like we don’t meet in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth if my long distance call to you happens to bounce off a satellite.

So why turn to Whitman?  At first glance, of course, he has nothing to do with cyberspace.  The Internet, we are told endlessly, is not just the latest thing, it is the future itself, our best-bet description of the new millennium’s vector.  Whitman came before electric wiring, telephones, automobiles; he wrote most of his poems by the light of the sun or a flame; he witnessed the invention of the telegraph, the steam press, photography.  We might turn to Whitman for his thoughts about sex, or beauty, or even democracy, but (certainly) not for advice about how to understand the networked PC. 


And yet, the telegraph was the first example of non-physical communication in history, the steam powered printing press made cheap mass media possible for the first time ever, photography captured a moment of reality itself, rather than subjectively representing it through the hand and eye of a painter.[4]  Whitman saw a genuine revolution in communications, one that we are still riding out – clicking “send,” reading the news on the web, downloading JPEGS.  Then and now, a faster world that is at once bigger and smaller presses inexorably, transforming us all whether we like it or not.  Just as Whitman struggled to refigure himself and his relationship to this new landscape in a way that preserved both his connection to it and his own agency, we must reconceptualize both cyberspace and our own subjectivity so that we simultaneously resist being subsumed by the Net while remaining open to its possibilities. Despite the popular insistence that the technology undergirding the “information age” represents a profound socio-historical disjunction, and that the cyborg identities that inhabit the Internet are therefore somehow radically “new,” these identities sound strangely close to the poetic stance that Whitman assumed 150 years ago.  Both the Information Superhighway and Whitman’s Open Road spring from similar dreams: of having a self defined by its motion through the landscape, rather than simply by its position on it, of a radical, material similarity between the self and that landscape, of an almost completely fluid identity that allows instantaneous “merging” into other identities, and of having a limitless space in which to move, to speed, to merge, to love.  The parallel between Whitmanian and cybernetic identity does not have to be “true” in order to be useful – this essay will argue that Whitman’s complex understanding of subjectivity offers a sorely needed way to understand cyberspace’s own tangled negotiations of identity, textuality, landscape, and democratic politics.


Indeed, the artificiality of the relationship between Whitman’s ideal America and the Internet foregrounds the unstable and constructed notion of both terms.  We already know, of course that interpretations of Whitman can and should vary enormously from critic to critic, that the reader constructs his or her poetic text.  We seem to be forgetting, however, that “Internet” does not refer to some stable external referent, that its “shape” is a metaphor, is plastic, an imaginative act, rather than a vast place that dwarfs any individual user.  We need – and will always need – new ways of talking about the Internet, talk that should help us continually reinvent it while preventing it from congealing into a “real” space defined by corporations or some version of cyber-utopian withdrawal from the one world, like it or not, we all live in.  Whitman provides a way of looking at the Internet that is at once artificial, fresh, and instructive – which is a fine description of the Internet at its best. 


What follows is, then, somewhat experimental.  I will be looking at the Internet as a sort of cyber-Whitmanian, trying to bring him into the discussion as a critical sensibility rather than technical advisor, using him as a way of getting some needed distance on the discourse of the Internet and as an insightful critic and celebrant of his own explosively technological age.[5]  On the whole, my analysis of the Internet will be critical, for several reasons: because I believe as it is currently constructed, the Internet poses more dangers than possibilities for liberation; because the wonders of the bright new cyberfuture have been touted in enthusiastic detail from ex-hippies like Howard Rheingold to Right-reactionaries like Newt Gingrich; and finally, because however wonderful the Net might be, it could and should be a lot better still. 


My discussion is organized around three broad topics – textual and physical identity, sexuality, and motion – that bring Whitman into the discussion, and that focus on different aspects of the mutually configuring relationship between the Internet and its users.  The first two sections – “Losing Race and Gender” and “Teledildonics and the Merge” – look at the consequences of the body’s absence in cybernetic relations and compares that absence with Whitman’s own polymorphous textual identity.  The third section, “Transportational Identities,” glances at the Internet’s future, its dangers, and some of the ways Whitman might help us make that future more democratic and creative. 


Losing Race and Gender

     Although it is hardly news that the environment one lives and works in both reflects and shapes one’s personal and social identity – Foucault taught us that, if not, indeed, a long tradition extending from classical architects, builders of medieval churches and palaces, nature poets, and present day social reformers – something more profound is happening on the Internet.  The body itself disappears, at least as a visible site of identity.  In its place there is only the userid, an abstract name that marks a set of access permissions, or, if the user is logged onto a bulletin board, discussion group, chat room, or MUD, nothing more than the origin of a textual string.  Although there is obviously a body connected to that userid, sitting somewhere before a screen, that body is, quite literally, written out of any important role in the experience.  Most users are tied to a specific location, usually sitting fairly motionless at a desk, their eyes focused on the monitor before them, only their fingers and eyes twitching; a physical regimen more restrictive even than reading or writing by hand.  Moreover, the text that appears on the monitor is not a physical object in the same way that a book, a sheet of paper, or a body is.  The letters on the screen are made of light, not paper, transmitted as a series of on/off electrical pulses, “written” in binary code as differences in magnetic charge on a disk, or as a series of microscopic pits laser-burned into the reflective surface of a CD.  No writer on the Internet could believably assume the second person intimacy of Whitman’s unnerving conflation of himself and his book in “Whoever you are holding me now in hand,” if only because there is no book:


Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,

With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,

For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.


Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,

Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,

Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;

For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,

And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally. (270-71)


“Losing oneself” in a novel or poem is a process internal to the reader, an imaginative act of identification (for some, mystification) occurring strictly within the mind.  The space of the book is a quintessentially intimate one, reading a private experience, the intersection between the unchanging, ordered words of the text and the reader’s personality.[6]   The “scene of reading” involves a body fixed in position in space, concentrating on another object: the fixed text of the book.  Two nouns, one observing the other, and dreaming. 


While a book can certainly charm (seduce?) one into forgetting one’s body, one’s physical context, one’s personality, even one’s century, cyber-textuality involves a different, and perhaps even deeper, blending of self and textual object.  Paltry though it is, the userid nevertheless is more than a bookmark; it is a point in the huge fluid “landscape” of data that speaks with the user’s own voice.  The feeling of being “in” cyberspace is not, then, quite the same as the strictly imaginative projection of the reader into the book; however untrue, it does feel like we’re going somewhere when we log on.  This cybernetic self that inhabits the Internet isn’t simply a replica of the reader, however: it has no body, no fixed identity, it can “travel” anywhere in its “world” almost instantaneously, can talk with any number of the faceless millions like it that “inhabit” the “space” of the Internet every day.


But how can any version of identity be Whitmanian without a body?  Whitman did, after all, write in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “I too had receiv’d identity by my body,/ That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.”  And without a body, how is sexuality, at least in the celebratory Whitmanian sense, possible?  On the surface, of course, these objections are insurmountable; there are significant and important differences between Whitman’s landscape – geographically, historically, and poetically – and the Internet, just as there are between 1855 and 2000.  Whitman’s understanding of the body and bodily identity, however, is far less static, far more subtle and woven into the landscape, and other people, than a surface reading might indicate.  The Whitmanian body is not simply a locus of identity, it is a locus of similarity, of connection; ultimately, it undermines the very notions of “identity,” and “locus,” replacing them with actions, with verbs, the “merge,” with “connecting” rather than “connection.”[7]  And in a less poetically exalted, though perhaps more materially significant, way, life on the Internet is subject to a similar Whitmanian flux.  As articles about the Net now almost routinely point out, when the body drops out of human relations, with it goes any immediate sense of the user’s gender, race, class, or sexual orientation.  Rather than Walt’s merge into a series of identities within his poetic text, the user can assume these identities for him or herself; men can pose as women, women as men, straight as gay and vice versa, and (perhaps more problematically) whites as people of color and people of color as white.  As Vivian Sobchack points out:


…it needs stating that the “terminal” transformation of human subjectivity as it enters the electronic technosphere is not necessarily negative in its consequences and implications.  Interesting things happen when identity can represent itself, to some extent, as liberated from, for example, normative categories of gender and race. (575) [8]


All across the Net, on bulletin boards and interest groups, in chat rooms and MUDs, for perhaps the first time in history, human beings are having widespread, ongoing, and vigorous conversations – forming friendships, exchanging sexual fantasies, debating political issues – without knowing who they’re talking to.  (Or better–to the extent that the self is textual and overdetermined (at least) by socially pernicious understandings of race, gender and class – without knowing what they’re talking to.)


There is something genuinely exciting and different about this new form of human relations mediated through technology and textuality.  Whitman’s creation, in “Song of Myself” and other poems, of a vast textual American landscape, populated by textual “others” and an idealized textual version of himself, allowed him not only to merge with those others, but provided a space for a strange intimacy, mediated through time, distance, silence and writing.  The Internet tropes on this anonymous Whitmanian textualized intimacy, turning it, arguably, in an even more profoundly fluid and democratic direction.  Whitman’s “vast textual landscape” is vaster still online, and written not by a single great poet, but by the collective efforts of its 100 million inhabitants.  Rather than a single, authoritative “Walt,” through whose mouth all characters must flow, recreating himself  (or trying to) in our, and others,’ images, every user logged on is granted the same textual power (although unfortunately not the same imaginative or poetic power).


But while identity on the Internet may be “free” from the physical signifiers of race, class, and sex, its “container(s)” are emphatically not.  Particularly in America and Europe, corporations and universities are usually run by white men, and high technology has historically been a boys’ club.  Unsurprisingly, then, demographic studies of Internet use reveal that the majority of its population is white, male, and relatively privileged.  And these demographics (while they may be changing slowly) point toward a more subtle critique of the disembodied Internet identity.  The feeling of not having a race, a class position, or a gender is unique to the Internet and to one other group in society:  privileged white men.  We are the ones who have been walking around feeling just like “normal people” while women, people of color, and the poor have been forced to bear the mark of “difference,” the mark that allows and defines our feeling of “normalcy.”  And we are the ones that for the most part populate the Internet as well, declaring that our experience of our own race, class, and gender is in fact “freedom” from those categories.  Seen from another angle, then, the Internet does not offer freedom from race, gender, and class, it offers the freedom to experience what it’s like to be an unselfconscious affluent white man in the “outside” culture.  Once again, the “space” of the Internet is written by its inhabitants, simultaneously the technological, widely available, instantiation of the fluidity of the Whitmanian self, and an escapist dream that reinscribes white male power as the ur-normal userid.[9]


This critique, or any for that matter, will always fall short of defining something as huge and inherently amorphous as the Internet.  If only 20 percent of the people using the Internet at any given time are not well-off white guys, that’s still a “minority” of, say, 20 million.  And demographic reports of Internet use don’t really do justice to the radically decentered, even anarchic, quality of the Net; part of the appeal of the place is how much easier it is than in the “real world” to find a large group of people who share one’s unusual (say) interests – if you’re one in a million, there are, literally, more than 100 other people like you a few keystrokes away.  But it does foreground the way that users are not, in fact, disembodied; they only appear that way to others on screen.  The disembodiment that occurs when one logs on is a fantasy, again, not unlike the poetic fantasy of Walt and the American landscape he speaks.  The question is how creatively and progressively one uses that fantasy, that imaginative freedom; and that is a question just as pressing in 2000 as 1855. 


Teledildonics and the Merge

On her trip around the world, Nanzia Nunzio

Confronted Ozymandias.  She went

Alone and like a vestal long-prepared.


I am the spouse.  She took her necklace off

And laid it in the sand.  As I am, I am

The spouse.  She opened her stone-studded belt.


I am the spouse, divested of bright gold,

The spouse beyond emerald or amethyst,

Beyond the burning body that I bear.


I am the woman stripped more nakedly

Than nakedness, standing before an inflexible

Order, saying, I am the contemplated spouse.


Speak to me that, which spoken, will array me

In its own only precious ornament.

Set on me the spirit’s diamond coronal.


Clothe me entire in the final filament,

So that I tremble with such love so known

And myself am precious for your perfecting.


Then Ozymandias said the spouse, the bride

Is never naked.  A fictive covering

Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind.[10]


(Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,”

It Must Change, Section VII)


Just as it did for Whitman, the ambiguous disembodiment of Net identity – a kind of textual clothing that both covers and selectively reveals the embodied user – carries its own erotic charge.  There are a lot of cheap motels off the information superhighway.  Gareth Branwyn describes the way a typical hook-up – irresistibly called “teledildonics” by some devotees – works on a commercial network like America Online:[11]


Compu-sex is a curious blend of phone sex, computer dating, and high-tech voyeurism.  To “cruise” on InfoMart USA one must process a dizzying amount of data.  While hopping in and out of different chat rooms, one is also looking up bios, exchanging messages with compu-sex “prospects,” even tracking people’s comings and going through the Net.  If someone leaves a room, one can choose a “Find” feature and the system will report on that person’s whereabouts within the system.  It’s not uncommon to have five or six “windows” of data on-screen at the same time. … In cyberspace, good library skills are as handy as good pick-up lines.  When a possible compu-sex partner has been found, a few flirtatious lines are sent via “Private Messages” (imagine electronic Post-its).  If these exchanges bear fruit, one partner pops the big question: “Wanna go private?”  A private room is created by clicking on the “Create Private Room” button and assigning a code name to it.  Once the private room has been created, private messages are sent to one’s partner(s), telling them the room’s name/password.  The room’s creator then sits back and waits for the other chat enthusiast(s) to arrive. (784)


Once the “participants” “arrive,” what “happens” is at once without limits and entirely predictable: while (say) Superman and Lois Lane are screwing wildly on her desk at the Daily Planet, two (say) lonely people are masturbating (maybe) in front of their screens. 


Cybersex throws into sharp relief many of the ambiguous tensions inherent in – indeed, that define – Net identity.  On one hand, it seems like the activity in which the distance between the user and userid might be smallest, the (orgasmic) moment of embodiment, of instantiation.  One would certainly like to believe, at some level, that one’s “partner” is, in fact, attractive and engaged, not some slob, of a gender different from one’s preference, or, worse still, an academic taking notes.  And some people do take second and third steps after their initial meeting on the Net; there are oft-cited stories of individuals falling in love, arranging to meet in person and beginning “real” relationships.  After all, there is a real person on the other end of the modem, “there” because he or she wants to be, and not, as is the case with 900 numbers, because it’s their job.  Part of the eroticism of the experience lies in this sudden, apparent transformation of disembodied text into genuine carnality, the word made flesh, the perhaps illusory sense of “real” contact.


This alchemic shift from text to body recalls Whitman’s own struggles to fire an erotic spark across the physical and temporal distance between his compositional place and moment and his readers’ own, a reinvocation of Whitman’s slightly desperate promise in “So Long” that,


From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally, solely to you.


Camarado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night? are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring forth from the pages into your arms…


The dream of “advancing from behind the screen,” of having one’s desire flash across the wires and download into another person’s body thousands of miles away, of transforming text – Whitman’s “book” – into “a man,” of collapsing time and space through the technologically amplified power of one’s own longing; these fantasies lie at the heart of both the Whitmanic and cybernetic identities, almost as if Whitman’s own restless ache for intimate anonymous democratic contact is the same ache that produced the Net in the first place.[12]


The world has changed, however, in the last 150 years, and the ache isn’t quite the same.  However right Stevens is that “the bride/ Is never naked.  A fictive covering/ Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind,” the body disappears altogether as a surface for erotic contact in cybersex, leaving only that fictive covering; and some of the reasons for the pleasure behind the physical disappearance of one’s partner(s) are not so fictive, and often disturbing.  Although your computer might catch a virus, there’s no way that you can, and sexual harassment on the Net, while awful and depressingly virulent, is nevertheless not as visceral or threatening as the “real thing.”  To the extent a growing number of people are “satisfied” with virtual sexuality, willing to abandon their bodies for the sterile safety of an impervious silicon condom, it would seem inevitable that a growing number will be less personally engaged in the fate of those uninterested or unable to swing on the fiber optic line.  For men and women alike (or at least men and women privileged enough to enjoy access), the growing popularity of life on the Net reflects the growing unpopularity of the world. 


Although I am generally critical of cybersex, I do not want to miss the way it might be the first step for some toward greater sexual freedom.  And although cyberspace may be gendered female, the population of the Net is overwhelmingly male.[13]  Male participants in cybersex are likely to know this statistic, and however overtly heterosexual their behavior/key word searches are, they also must know there is at least a chance that their supposedly female “partner” is in fact in techno-drag.  There is, of course, no way of knowing how much this unspoken uncertainty affects or underlies individual arousal; but it’s certainly there, in varying degrees, for everyone.  Although cybersex involves, for many participants, genuine homophobic anxiety/arousal regarding the “real” identity of one’s partner, its very popularity in an even more genuinely homophobic culture demonstrates that, in the end, the real identity of one’s “partner” doesn’t finally matter; the kicker is that one’s own identity doesn’t either.[14]  Cybersex is masturbation, but, again and as always, the material conditions of the production of that masturbation matter enormously(!).  As generations of children raised by “enlightened” parents have been told, “There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just that it’s something we don’t do in public.  It’s a private thing.”  Cybersex straddles that public/private divide that so profoundly shapes, defines, and contains sexuality, inverting it neatly by bringing the act into the open – a pick-up joint, pornography, group sex of whatever variety, etc. are all never more than a few (key)strokes away – while hiding the identities of the participants. 


In some ways this inversion recalls Whitman’s own idealized, and intensely erotic, understanding of the American democratic political landscape, weaving sex openly into the very fabric of his rewritten national identity.  For Whitman, sexuality is not restricted to a set of physical acts, but is a fluid, shifting “omnipresent unknown,” a force that both links people – especially Whitman and his readers – together, while subtly deconstructing the supposedly stable (political) Truths that seek to bind sexuality to a specific set of approved activities or body parts, to make it signify in some stable way.  As Whitman notes in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,”


     From another point of view, “Leaves of Grass” is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality – though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere.  Of this feature, intentionally palpable in a few lines, I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of those pieces might well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted.  Difficult as it will be, it has become, in my opinion, imperative to achieve a shifted attitude from superior men and women towards the thought and fact of sexuality, as an element in character, personality, the emotions, and a theme in literature.  I am not going to argue the question by itself; it does not stand by itself.  The vitality of it is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance – like the clef of a symphony.  At last analogy the lines I allude to, and the spirit in which they are spoken, permeate all “Leaves of Grass,” and the work must stand or fall with them, as the human body must remain as an entirety.  (669)


But, once again, cybersex is similar but not identical, for while cybersex embraces the sexual fluidity of the identities of Walt and his partners and makes it far more widely accessible, the underlying eroticism is as much about the separation between the electronic and the flesh as it is about their union.  It makes the fact of sex open, while concealing who is, in fact, having it, preventing sex “on” the Net from being sex in the world.  Where Whitman’s vision of a universal homosocial “comradeship” was profoundly concerned with transforming and unifying the body politic, cybersex rests just as profoundly on its separation from that body, from any-body.  Walt wanted sex to undo the rigid personal and political identities that kept Americans separate and unequal; cybersex is as much about disconnection as it is connection, the hook-up rather than the embrace. 


To argue differently is to ignore the role of three of the five senses – sixty percent of our hardwiring – in the construction of the world that human beings, like it or not, have to live in.  Blake thought that touch was the most “unfallen” of the senses, and stripped of its theological baggage, his point is an important one.  From Milton to Lacan, a secular understanding of the Fall might be described as a movement from erotic narcissism into Satanic representative language, from the mother’s breast to the Law of the Father.  This postlapsarian condition is instantiated in this view that understands virtual reality as exercising the same ontological claims as “real” reality.  Which is not to say, of course, that those technophiles are damned, only that something real is lost in the translation into two dimensional visual and auditory representation.  There still may be nothing outside the text, but that doesn’t mean that, say, the textuality of touch is not more complicated than something that can be represented on screen, or in words.  Whitman – a great poet and more capable than most of representing these missing senses in words – nevertheless openly mourns the loss of touch, aroma and taste in his sexual contact with his readers, writing in the 1855 poem later entitled “A Song for Occupations,”


Come closer to me,

Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,

Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.


This is unfinished business with me . . . . how is it with you?

I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.


I pass so poorly with paper and types . . . . I must pass with the contact of

bodies and souls. (89)


Whitman here laments the technological mediation that separates him from his readers, the “cold [printer’s] type,” press “cylinder,” and ink-“wet” paper that “chills” his “contact” with our “bodies and souls.”  Language, here printed language, hinders Whitman’s “pass” at us, his aching need for us to “push close,” toward a more real version of sexual contact, outside the text, or at least outside the text of his poem.  For cybersex enthusiasts, this Whitmanic lament is, at very least, muted; indeed, as I have argued, the erotic appeal of cybersex lies, in part, in the way technology mediates the experience. 


I grant, that, however lamented, Whitman’s own sexual merge with his reader nevertheless takes place only in and through the textually constructed world of his poetic text.  But everyone knows that; even the most thrilled devotee of his work takes the feeling of ghostly contact with the absent (or dead) Whitman as revelatory, as something extraordinary, something impossible.  It is the very artificiality, the constructedness, the virtuality, the foregrounded mediation of the poem that gives that feeling of contact its electric potency.  Words rise up and cast the shadow of someone we might have loved, someone who understands, someone like us, but wiser, sadder, truer, more talented.  With cybersex, conversely and paradoxically, the knowledge that someone – whoever they are – is in fact on the other end of the phone line makes that person strangely less important, an absent presence whose existence we’re sure of, rather than one we strain to create out of the words on the page/screen and our own longing.  What the other person is saying is what matters, not what what they are saying says about them; we “go” to the virtual hot tub for the words that appear on our screen, not to meet anyone.  When both the body, the larger community, and the poetry drop out, what’s left is the technology itself. 


It is that technology that seems to me the real object of cybersexual desire.  It is the commodity that is fetishized, not the factory/person that makes it, the immediate experience of having the computer become a site of eroticism, not the unknown person that produces the words or the body that produces the photographs.  It’s not merely the words or JPEG images appearing on the screen, but the appearance itself, of those words or images on a computer screen.  Cybersex is masturbation without the (healthy) narcissism–a fantasized merge with some abstracted vision of the future, of hierarchized political power, a power that has always already moved on. 


Masquerading as sexual freedom, this version of cybersex – in its abandonment of the body, the world, and the imagination – reifies authority, providing the safety of the prisoner in solitary confinement, rather than that of a reader of a poem in a library or garden, or of someone who has spent the time and emotional energy to create an enduring and supportive intimate relationship with another person, their mind, their body, their world.  There’s a subtle, but vitally important difference, between a Whitmanian merging of the self and the machine/world, and the loss or abandonment of the self into the rigid (if not, indeed, eternally turgid) eroticized hierarchies of access permissions, passwords, hard disk space allocations, power users and newbies – the difference between the cyborg and the robot.[15]  Computer technology, in itself, doesn’t make a good sexual partner, but it does make a very fine warden. 




Transportational Identities

     While there are a series of practical steps that we should take to make the Internet more democratic – working to ensure Net-access for all citizens, public ownership of the information infrastructure, customizable interfaces linked to common space where users would be forced to bump into each other, and so forth – a detailed discussion of them is outside the scope of this essay.  We still need some new metaphors for determining what it “is,” however, and, Whitman’s response to the technological changes of his time seem to me a good place to turn.  In doing so I don’t want to insist that these should be metaphors for everyone – but, then again, for me that “metaphoric democracy” is an essential Whitmanic message.  As Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,” “I am the teacher of athletes, / He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, / He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (83).  Whitman’s insistence that the only “Truth” is that people are far more wonderful and potent than they imagine and should act that way, a truth written into the textual landscape that he projects – via his userid Walt – throughout his poetry, is an attitude that should form the basis of the textual landscape we are creating online.  The point, then, is not to replicate Whitman, but to replicate the restless, transformative, self-empowerment of his vision. 


At least within the context of this discussion, then, what we need is Walt.  Literally: Walt – Whitman’s userid – wrote the landscape he inhabited; he had creative power over it.  He spoke as and for the landscape, rather than the reverse – “If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.”   That creative power must be put in the hands of the people who use the Internet.  Right now, although the Internet preserves the Whitmanic transportational poetics, it does so at our expense, taking the power it unleashes back into itself.  We need to reverse the flow of power; technology should be as transparent as possible, it should serve us and get out of the way, should make us more potent individuals, artists, citizens, and keep silent about its own wonderful abilities.  It should enrich this space, not form its own.  The question, then, is how to design an interface that would encourage this empowerment of the user, avoid the “pathogenic ontology” that Marc Pesce warns us against.  If the problems of our current interface have to do with the way it erases self identity, refuses its users any orientation in the datascape, isolates individuals from each other and fractures our sense of time, then we need interfaces that promote identity, that ground people in a familiar landscape and encourage them to explore new places, that appear on a human, rather than trans-global, scale and tempo. 


Whitman’s answer was to get on the road, to understand the self not as an object, a noun, plunked down “somewhere” in a far larger object/landscape/noun, but as a verb, an activity, as motion.  Understanding the self as motion combines both landscape, time, and identity itself, in a single concept, a concept that requires all three terms in some sort of shifting relationary balance to “be” motion – a thing that moves, a landscape of some sort to provide measurement or distance, and our own precious time – all blurred together in a single, ongoing gesture.  One of Whitman’s most important innovations, it seems to me, is this reconceptualization of identity as action, as verb, rather than the static, or only temporarily unstable, relation between nouns, between the self and some (grandiose) external object or landscape.  This is a vital point for a cyber-Whitmanian; for if Whitman sees identity as a verb rather than a noun, then the question of how to preserve that verb-self in the face of a Net that seems structured to erase individuality altogether in an infinite flurry of activity, is a central one.  There’s a difference, however, between the disorienting wandering that current metaphors for the Internet seem to encourage, a disorientation that is about empowering the Network and the private interests that control it, and a user using the Net to bring useful, interesting, or entertaining things into their own world.  Movement not only implies speed for Whitman, it implies a creative relationship to the landscape, it implies that the person is the center of the movement, not the swirling chimeras of corporate-owned virtual space.  I want to preserve Whitman’s transportational identity and the kind of subjectivity that it implies, and I want the power that it releases to return to the user, not remain in the technological object that evokes it. 


If the Internet is what we say it is, and yet, we are biologically wired to understand the data there spatially, then the solution, it seems to me – and, I think to Whitman as well – must be to build on that spatial metaphor, not try to abandon it or, worse still, simply turn our backs on information technology.  Ultimately, I want to understand the Internet as a communal activity, not as a space, our online identities as loci of action, not as nouns eternally dwarfed by the larger reality of the datascape.  Rather than going somewhere when we log on, we should be doing something, trying to keep the focus on the activity, the information, and not how cool we are, or lucky, to be invited to the technoparty in the first place.  In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman gives a sense of what such a restless Net identity might look like:


Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,

To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,

To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,

Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,

To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,

To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,

To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it

stretches and waits for you,

To see no being, not God's or any, but you also go thither,

To see no possession, but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or

purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,

To take the best of the farmer's farm and the rich man's elegant villa, and the

chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and

flowers of gardens,

To take to you use out of the compact cities as you pass through,

To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,

To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather

the love out of their hearts,

To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling

souls.  (13, 305)


The Open Road is a metaphoric place of freedom and power, a metaphor for a utopian version of the physical world.  Whitman here insists that that freedom and power flows from the people that walk that world, that the “place” and its inhabitants are ever-changing.  Whitman’s vision won’t fix everything, but it might help, might be “good health to us nevertheless.”  And the closure implied in “fixing everything” was never Whitman’s point, or mine, either.  If you don’t like his interface or mine, move on, make up your own, or pick a poet you like better and ask what would Shelley, or Hughes, or Rich, want this landscape to look and feel like.  The issues are not technological, they are artistic, or at least they should be.  In the time-honored literary theoretical tradition, we need Internets, not the Internet.  In Whitman’s tradition, the Net needs to contradict itself, needs to be large, needs to contain multitudes. 





Works Cited

Beaver, Joseph.  Walt Whitman–Poet of Science.  1952.  New York: Octagon, 1974).

Branwyn, Gareth.  “Compu-Sex: Erotica for Cybernauts.”  Dery, Flame Wars, 779-792. 

Dery, Mark.  “Flame Wars.”  Dery, Flame Wars, 559-568.

Dery, Mark, ed.  Flame Wars.  Spec. issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 92:4 (1993): 559-


Folsom, Ed.  Walt Whitman’s Native Representations.  New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Gates, William, with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson.  The Road Ahead.  New York:

Penguin, 1996.

Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York: Ace, 1984.

Haraway, Donna.  Simians , Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York:

Routledge, 1991.

Larson Kerry C.  Whitman’s Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Negroponte, Nicolas.  Being Digital.  New York: Knopf, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”  Philosophy and Truth:

Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s.  Ed. and trans. Daniel

Breazeale.  New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1979.  79-97.

Pesce, Mark D..  “Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace.”  Related

Readings, PostModern Culture.  Online.  Internet.  15 October 1996.

Reynolds, David S.  Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.  New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rheingold, Howard.  The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic

Frontier.  Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Sobchack, Vivian.  “New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers: Reading Mondo 2000.”  Dery,

Flame Wars, 569-584.

Standage, Tom.  The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the

Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.  New York: Walker, 1998.

Stevens, Wallace.  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.  New York: Vintage, 1982.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanna.  “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories

about Virtual Cultures.”  Cyberspace: The First Steps.  Ed. Michael Benedikt. 

Cambridge; MIT Press: 1991.

Welcome to Cyberspace: What is it? Where is it? And how do we get there?  Spec. issue

of Time.  Spring, 1995.

Wertheim, Margaret.  The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the

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[1] Adobe Magazine, “A Subjective Retrospective,” Spring, 1999, 100. 

[2] For more on the fungibility of binary data, see Negroponte, 11-75.  Negroponte is head of the MIT Media Lab, an organization responsible for many important breakthroughs in computer technology and software design.  His book is worth reading, both because he really understands computer technology and its power, and has no clue about, and seemingly no interest in, the social dangers that accompany such developments.   He’s a leading spokesman for the techno-future, a corporate toady, and an influential, dangerous, and knowledgeable public figure.  Gates’ book provides a similarly pernicious, starry-eyed, and perhaps even more influential, account. 

[3] In saying this I am not embracing some naïve form of an unconstructed Real.  Reality and truth are constructions, granted, but that doesn’t mean that playing, for example, Kesmai Corporation’s Air Warrior, an Internet-based multiplayer reproduction of WWII aerial combat, is the same as living in Dresden in 1944. 

[4] Standage argues that the telegraph presaged the current Internet “revolution” in his straightforward and worthwhile history of its development in the nineteenth century.  Reynolds captures the tumultuous cultural effect the steam press had in making cheap printing possible for the first time (see especially 81-111), and both Reynolds (especially 279- 306) and Folsom (99-177) are fascinating on the development of photography and Whitman’s interest in it.

[5] For more on Whitman’s remarkable scientific sophistication, see Beaver.

[6] This is, of course, not to say that either the reader’s personality is “private” – “free” from the influences of class, gender, race, etc. – or that the readings produced by the interaction of text and personality are not deeply connected to the larger socio-historical context in which they occur. 

[7] As Larson notes,

…the text of ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” manifests itself to us not as a cunningly deployed pattern of significances, a shrewdly arranged narrative, not even, in reality, as a ‘field of action’; it is, before all these a gesture, summons, or petition.  Its immediate ambition is not to insinuate a paraphrasable ‘theme’ or elaborate an archetypal mythology’; it wants to imagine itself antecedent to such formulations.  As we are made to recognize from the first line… to the last… the goal is not so much communication as communion.

A more prosaic way of putting this would be to say that sheer desire for communication has become synonymous with the content of communication.  From this standpoint it would seem appropriate for us to abandon talk of contracts altogether and speak instead of a poetry of contact.” (10)

[8] Note that Sobchack’s article, is, on the whole, critical of the utopian claims made by the magazine and its followers whom she refers to as New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers.

[9] Although Whitman’s “merge” into a range of other identities often seems, at least, problematic, it’s nevertheless a different set of problems – Whitman claims to be these other identities, to speak as them, not to erase their differences altogether.

[10] Stevens, 395-96. 

[11] And note the name “America Online” – currently the most popular information service – itself underscores the way data is spatialized into a landscape. “InfoMart USA” is a fictitious name for the real commercial on-line service that Branwyn used for his research.

[12] As Mike Saenz, a developer of erotic software, notes: “Virtual reality to the uninitiated, they just don’t get it.  But they warm immediately to the idea of Virtual Sex.… I think lust motivates technology” (quoted in Sobchack, 578).

[13] For more on the gendering of cyberspace, see Stone.  She notes, for example, quite brilliantly:

There is also a protean quality about cybernetic interaction, a sense of physical as well as conceptual mutability that is implied in the sense of exciting, dizzying physical movement within purely conceptual space.  I find that reality hackers experience a sense of longing for an embodied conceptual space like that which cyberspace suggests.  This sense, which seems to accompany the desire to cross the human/machine boundary, to penetrate and merge, which is part of the evocation of cyberspace, and which shares certain conceptual and affective characteristics with numerous fictional evocations of the inarticulate longing of the male for the female, I characterize as cyborg envy (108).

[14] Marc Pesce calls the disembodied doubling of identity on the net “telepresence” and notes its dangers

        In its purest sense, telepresence, one of the simplest and most direct of all holosthetic technologies, creates a profound sense of disembodiment, one that in almost any other state of being would be called pathogenic.  It is a form of electronically-mediated schizophrenia, where the self, through its various holosthetic extensions, removes itself from itself. (13)

[15] For more on cyborg identity, Haraway (149-182) is, of course, brilliant.