Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

Free Tourists in the Land of Plenty?

from cyberdiscourse towards politics of location

Susanna Paasonen

The discourses of travel, border-crossing, moving, nomadism, migrancy and mobility in general have been highly visible in conferences, exhibitions, and workshops alike since the late 1990s. Discussions have focused on mobilities both physical and computer-mediated and more than once, the Internet has become a signifier [1] of freedom from the confines of geography and geo-politics: a "cyberspace," a parallel dimension of sorts that is said to subvert ideas of location, space, and distance, to free the user from his/her physical location, and enable virtual travel across distances.

Play with gender and identity has been one of the central themes in these discussions. The net is said to enable gender blending and bending, taking up different identities, and exploring the limits of "the self" in general. In different chat rooms, MOOs and MUDs, one is said to have "cyber-identities," "virtual selves" that blur the common understanding of identity. In this way, the Internet has been associated with freedom and virtually unlimited possibilities of movement, access, and self-invention, such as voluntary gender swapping. The fact that one's body cannot be seen in most forms of online communication, and people interact mainly through text-based self-representations, has often been translated into freedom to "be whoever" or "whatever."

What has been of less concern are the concrete ways in which access and mobility are regulated and structured online and offline alike, as well as the ways in which users are situated in terms of geography, economics, ethnicity, language, gender, age or nationality. These issues of location, identity and power are the ones that I would like to focus on here. Moving from the attraction of cyberdiscourse to politics of location, I hope to arrive to conclusions that I find important in terms of, networking - as well as the Communication Front.

Cyberdiscourse and the fantasies of mobility

The tendency to lay emphasis on the revolutionary and emancipatory features of information networks, rather than relations of power, has been identified by Zillah Eisenstein [2] as cyberdiscourse. For Eisenstein, cyberdiscourse is an imaginary that masks the relations of power embodied in uses of information networks. It involves promises of overcoming the limitations of time, space, or embodiment, but is nevertheless deeply rooted in the reproduction and enforcement of economic and political power structures and structured privileges. Within cyberdiscourse, the Internet is depicted as "free for all," and users equally free to "be whoever they like" and to leave behind them the relations of power by which they are conditioned in everyday life. Thus the workings of power are understood as absent, or just generally inessential. Simultaneously, the question of who gets to participate in the first place is bypassed.

Contrary to this, Eisenstein argues that the social, economic, and political power relations do not disappear in "cyberspace," although the discourse of freedom and possibilities may try to render them invisible. Rather, these very power relations regulate access and participation. According to her, "cyberspace functions as a new imaginary location of escape, promise, and profit. Cyberspace becomes a whole new arena to conquer where privatization openly seduces some, but silently punishes those who are excluded." [3]

Cyberdiscourse can be seen as a movement of fantasy and power that is centrally about the fascination of narrative and discourse in popular media and media research alike. One of the most influential crafters of this discourse has been cyberpunk author William Gibson, whose figuration of cyberspace has come to signify the Internet and information networks in general. For Gibson, the "meat" is left behind when "jacking in" to the computer terminal. As Marj Kibby puts it, [4] "'meat' is obsolete as soon as thought can be uploaded into the network." Gibson's cyberspace, as described in his Neuromancer (1984), [5] is a zone in which information takes up strange forms and in which many dangers await the traveller. The user enters cyberspace, seemingly disembodied and abandoning the sphere known as physical reality. Meat is of no importance here - it is a relic of sorts, a lump of matter that can be manipulated and changed at will thanks to cybernetics. In a similar vein, Internet usage has been discussed enthusiastically as "surfing" and "travel" in cyberspace, where the limitations of the meat are rendered unimportant. The emphasis on freedom over equality is no coincidence, since Eisenstein [6] explicitly associates cyberdiscourse with American neo-liberalism and its faith in the individual and in freedom as unfettered speech. Thus debates are centred on the rights and possibilities to practice the first amendment, whereas relatively little interest has been paid to the very conditions of access and reading - namely to who has access, and what kind of access that is; to whom, and in what language, are reading, writing, and communication available; and what forms of implicit censorship and silencing are at play against those who "do not fit."

Cyberdiscourse depicts mobility and the freedom of self-invention online and is not too concerned with the people lacking access in the first place, or using limited, slow, or expensive connections. These conditions, like the limitations on physical travel, are far more difficult to bypass in the context of Eastern Europe, where the percentage of Internet users is clearly lower than in the US or EU, and connections less accessible. As a protean realm of fantasy, cyberdiscourse can, however, function also under these conditions: as visas and economic obstacles for crossing state borders are ever present, Internet access and online communications has been depicted as "ways out" in many senses of the word.

In the 1995 Interstanding conference in Tallinn, Marjut Lauristin, former Estonian ministry of Social Affairs, claimed Internet to be the means for bridging the gap created between Estonia and the West by the 40+ years of Soviet rule. For her, by educating the youth of the nation in computer literacy and equipping them with the tools necessary for the modern global marketplace, geography and history could be transgressed, and Estonia could become part of the West. At the time, similar tones were voiced 70 km north of Tallinn, albeit more mildly, as the Finnish Minister of Education, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, discussed the Internet as the site of tomorrow, on which Finns could communicate and make business regardless of their relative geographical isolation. The fantasy of the Internet as a parallel reality was evoked in both instances, and this alternative dimension was marked as fundamentally emancipatory, both on an individual and national(istic) level. Cyberdiscourse cuts through various areas of public debate, policymaking and popular culture and embeds the Internet in promises of freedom, and even revolutionary reorganisation of geopolitics.

One could claim that cyberdiscourse is not so much about the concrete practices, let alone experiences of Internet use, as it is about fantasies influenced by cyberpunk, through which the "new" revolutionary potential and attraction of the Internet has been articulated as frameworks for understanding the new medium. It seems premature indeed to proclaim the death of master narratives and the enlightenment project's belief in progress, given that contemporary culture is marked by technological optimism and determinism that assume futures saturated with computer and Internet.

One hardly needs to state that the Internet does enable communication and collaboration between people in different parts of the world - assuming that they have a mutual language -, exchange of ideas, games, and debates across national and state borders. One can publish texts and images for international audiences with little resources, make new acquaintances or keep in touch with old ones. However, this is not to say that one all of a sudden becomes free from the confines of everyday life, free to invent oneself as one pleases. Locations do matter, since we are constituted by different identifications, markings, definitions, ways of being situated in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and class. This is no superficial layer that we can simply "do away" with when choosing handles or screen names for the characters we perform online, but the very stuff that we are made of. The conditions under which one uses the medium are present in the usage and shape it.

The discourse of freedom evokes the figure of the omnipotent individual who is able to be anything, anywhere, anytime he/she chooses. Furthermore, it also endows the Internet with powers of an immersive parallel dimension, a spatiality that effaces users' physical locations. As the Cartesian fantasy has it, without the meat, one's mind is free.

But is the Internet a cyberspace? Does one travel in it? And is one free to live and perform several identities on - or should one say in - it?

I play me. and others too

In terms of the experience of using the Internet - reading one's e-mail, browsing through Web pages, clicking from one hyperlink to another - "travel in cyberspace" is not the description that would first come to mind - at least to my mind. "Cyberspace" opens up as flat surfaces with flickering icons, wallpapers and bright colours, and lots of text: portals, search engines, home pages. The body that people have tried so hard to forget, overcome and abandon in cyberdiscourse, is not "left behind," but is the very site of agency and usage: sitting by the keyboard, watching the monitor, typing and clicking away, occasionally sore and stiff.

Thinking of my everyday Internet use, I can't help the feeling that the strong interest in gender swapping and free play in media theory fails to account for the majority of online practices. The fascination with "being someone else" or "somewhere else" can be linked to the lure of cyberdiscourse that depicts the Internet in terms of novelty and transgression. What is mentioned less often is that "being someone else" tends to lead to reproducing and recycling stereotypes. Situating oneself in chats, for example, tends to happen through easily recognisable social categories of gender, age, locality/nationality, general looks, and sexual preference. Taking up categories of a "14-year old school boy from Oslo," "33-year old female secretary from Kiev," or "69-year old pensioner and widower from Liverpool," if one is identifiable as, say, a "25-year old female PhD student from Helsinki," is literally about taking up a common-knowledge understanding of such categories. As Caroline Basset has put it, [7] "much of the gender-twisting on the net was defensive, or even normative [.] you slipped out of one stereotype into another. It marked you, in de Lauretis' terms, even when the performance was your own."

What Basset is pointing at is that identity play may be intentional and voluntary, but it is not something one can totally master - after all, performances are also about audiences and interaction with other performers, about the ways in which others come to understand, situate, define, and classify you (or your character). The performer is not the source of these meanings, which are derived from social categories and cultural norms. In fact, the performer is not actually even the source of her/his character, given that it is based on cultural stereotypes concerning the identity categories that provide the performance with "coherence."

The process of marking that Bassett refers to is described by Teresa de Lauretis [8] as a "process whereby a social representation is accepted and absorbed by an individual as her (or his) own representation, and so becomes, for that individual, real, even though it is in fact imaginary." This imaginary nature of social representation as representation of the self is, of course, unusually clear in the case of "made-up" characters and gender-twisting, since social representations are really all one has access to when making the characters. The two become one, with little negotiation, which often, but not always, means a strong presence of stereotypical characterisations.

It is important to note here that there is no subject that is not be marked from the start. In order for one to have an "identity," one must first come to occupy the category, or site, of a subject, as Judith Butler illustrates. [9] For Butler, the subject is the linguistic condition of intelligibility, social existence and agency. Since intelligibility assumes prior reference to speakers' status as subjects, that is, being recognised by others and oneself through categories like gender, there is no identity unmarked or "free from" the matrix of power, of which making the subject is part. There is no subject "free to be anything," or "able to do any identity," no matter how appealing this idea may be.

Patricia Wallace points to this, writing (within cyberdiscourse), that "we enter the virtual world laden with the psychological baggage of a lifetime and certainly don't abandon our suitcases in the entrance lobby." [10] There are limits to one's imagination - on gender, sexuality, identity - and these limits are conditioned, and reproduced, by the ways one has become situated in society. These positions are subject to change, and subjects are not simply locked in some kind of mechanism of power - something emphasised by Butler. [11] Agency cannot be derived from its conditions (that is, power), and it enables purposes unintended by power.

My point is not, then, that one cannot, or that people do not, play with different identity categories online, or that there is no identity work happening. What I am arguing is that identity should not be collapsed with character - for example one performed in a MUD or a chat, identification with which can be comparable to an actor's identification with a role. Characters can influence one's perception of the self, self-presentation and representation alike, and other performers' reactions to the character can help understand the locations of other people. I do not understand these characters as identities that one can oscillate between, or choose from. Identities are embodied and situated, and they are preconditioned by subjectivation, becoming-subject, and achieving a sense of the self as an individual.

Politics of location and nation

I'd like to briefly outline an alternative take on Internet usage, one that takes into consideration and lays claims to the importance of location and situatedness. The meat is not something I either want or can do away with, but the condition for doing things in the first place. Bodies and locations matter. And they should be accounted for.

In her essay, "Notes toward a politics of location," Adrienne Rich argues for the importance of speaking as an embodied, gendered subject, of not transcending the body. Bodies are marked not only by gender, but also age, ethnicity and sexuality, and these multiple points of location define the speaking subject. Since these points are among the elements that produce the sense of being "me," they are often taken for granted and rendered invisible. Politics of location, for Rich, means recognising one's location, naming it, and taking responsibility for it. It is a means for speaking as a woman without claiming to speak for all women. [12] There are many locations and modes of experience within identity categories. Politics of location does not mean searching for origins or roots, but accounting for different trajectories of identifications and namings through which one has become, and is constantly becoming, the subject that speaks. The politics of location also tries to make visible the ways in which subjects, from their different locations, exercising power over others.

Another influential feminist thinker, Donna Haraway, has discussed "situated knowledges" that take into consideration the embodied location from which one speaks. No location is invisible, as they are all marked and they all matter. Situated knowledge, for her, means partial knowledge since nobody (no body) can transcend their location and "see all." It means acknowledging the ways in which one is located in terms of power and structural privilege. [13] Rich and Haraway both discuss the ethics of feminist studies and research in general. What I would like to suggest is a similar situated and located approach to thinking about Internet usage and practices. Furthermore, I'd like to broaden the scope of my discussion to the implications of my own particular embodied location, and my attempts of self-reflexivity - and, eventually, arrive at the Communication Front and my own participation in it.

Politics of location or situated knowledge does not mean simply declaring where one "comes from," although the practice of listing social categories - gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. - without further reflection of their significance, inter-connectedness or implications has become a somewhat standard practice. No person equals the categories through which she/he is defined, although he/she seeks recognition of his/her existence "in categories, terms, and names that are not of its own making." [14] How one does this is hardly insignificant.

More than once I have been involved in discussions on East versus West, in which I have been a representative of the latter unified bulk of people, culture, and economy. Since locations are about structured privilege - travel without visas or interrogations when crossing borders, the financial means to be mobile - such categorisations can by all means be of strategic use. However, going beyond very general definitions, locations are far more multiple and contradictory, and binary models such as East and West, North and South should also be opened to more multiple and nuanced readings that do not assume homogeneity within the given categories. Binary models are rarely good for analytical interrogation, as they are likely to reproduce polar opposites and ideological divisions rather than think across them, or open them up for reconsideration - which, in my opinion, is an important aim.

Within the West there are people less mobile, privileged and "Western," the West itself being far from a clear point of reference. For myself, having grown up and living in Helsinki, which for decades worked as a surrogate Leningrad/St. Petersburg and Moscow in Hollywood productions, being West European has not been - and still is not - a given. It is a category that I am defined by but that I have only recently come to identify with. I am as uneasy speaking for the "West" as I am uneasy speaking for "Finland" or the category of women. This does not, however, mean that I can only speak for myself. It means that I have to acknowledge the frameworks within, and the conditions under which I speak (as a Westerner, a Finn, a woman), and account for them.

Nationality is a crucial category that dictates legal rights and obligations, access to education, social and health services, as well as the ability and inability to cross borders with a certain passport. Nationality is a category through which people are efficiently pinned down, differentiated from each other and defined in certain ways. Tuija Pulkkinen [15] has discussed nation and nationality as constructions that are articulated against, rather than through something, and uttered for political ends in certain historical situations. As a term, identity implies similarity to and difference from something, identifications as well as defining what one is not, or does not want to be. This also holds true for nationalities, which are precisely about marking people as internally connected and coherent collectives that are separate from other nations.

Nations and nationalities are attached to images, landscapes, cultural products, famous people and common knowledge definitions that condense them into easily consumable packages. Since these packages can always be given new and different meanings, the logic of condensation is applicable in most encounters. With contemporary Finland, the package might include some high tech, Nokia and Internet, some sauna, lakes and reindeer, some blond and blue-eyed people, perhaps with a twist of Bomfunk MCs or Sibelius. This package is something that defines me, whether I agree with it or not, but it does not contain my location, embodied and laden with experiences and memories. In my childhood, Nokia was known mainly for its rubber boots manufactured in all sizes.

On tourism and situated art practices

So, what am I and where am I? A researcher in Helsinki, a media art tourist in Plovdiv - a mobile Finn with a mobile phone. With my blue eyes and bleached blonde hair, I quote and embody the very national clichés that I try so hard to work my way around. Situatedness is not only about the things we identify with or would like to associate oneself with, but centrally about the locations and categories through which we make sense to others and which are not of our own choosing. What, then, to do with the politics of location within media arts, or practices in particular? In what ways do locations matter in them?

The death of the author [16] has been declared for nearly half a century, and it is true to the degree that readers, viewers and interpreters of all kinds are active makers of meaning, not merely passive targets of the artist's "message." However, to claim that it makes no difference who produces these texts, where they "come from," that intentionality has ceased to matter on all levels, is a claim I do not embrace. Replacing the individual artist with a collective or network has been one strategy for doing away with the romantic conception of art and the artist as the authentic and unique source of meaning. However, I believe that there are ways to discuss art making and authorship that do not fall back on naïve assumptions concerning intentionality and the making of meaning. As I see it, it does matter where texts are coming from, since without laying claims to these contexts and locations there is the danger of relativism - a view that all texts and claims are equally valid and readers free to use them as they please. A situated view implies answerability for the things one produces, be they research or texts consumed in the context of arts. One is responsible for the things one utters.

Art projects and texts of all kinds don't come from nowhere, they come into being in certain contexts, for certain audiences, purposes and platforms. This was also the case with Universal Tourist, planned and realised during CF2000. What Steve Bradley, Tapio Mäkelä and myself were after in the project was to look at markers of nationality and location as they are recycled in tourist imageries and consumer culture at large. At Communication Front - crossing point between the East and the West - we had all become representatives of the West, but with little agreement on what the marker (and thus we) actually stood for - after all, we live the Atlantic Ocean apart. We did nevertheless agree on the fact that we were tourists with our cameras always at hand, target audiences for postcards and local attractions. Given the difficulties in adopting the categories of "West" and "tourist," we chose to work and play with them.

The feel of the Universal Tourist is that of a first-generation commercial US based website with enthusiastic marketing rhetoric, T logos, soft pastel colours, rotating globe animations and meandering java applets, both "Western" and "touristy." The project materials were gathered to a large degree by doing what tourists do: walking around, taking snapshots, picking up things and loitering about.

With tourist postcards and leaflets from Finland and Bulgaria, digital photos taken and trash found from the streets of Plovdiv as work material, we wanted to illustrate the spaces between generic national imageries, the packaged representations of nationalities and imaginations and the lived experiences of everyday life.

One cannot simply refuse the categories of location and nationality through which one is constantly defined, but one can analyse one's relation to them, take one's distance from, recontextualise and resignify them. Refusing to repeat the categories as self-evident, natural and given, one can face them as ideologies and tools of common knowledge while acknowledging their power, also their power over oneself. I believe that is often the most efficient tool for such a project - for quoting norms with a difference, making them visible, and opening them up for critical investigation.


[1] Signifier: in semiotics, one of the two parts of the sign (the "sign vehicle"), the other being the signifier. See Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners <> - eds.

[2] Zillah Eisenstein, Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy, NYU Press, New York and London, pp. 70-71, 94-95.

[3] ibidem, p. 74.

[4] Marj Kibby, Babes on the Web: Sex, Identity and the Home Page, 1997, p. 1. Electronic document at <>, quoted 21.11.1999.

[5] William Gibson's Neuromancer is available in electronic form online at <> - eds.

[6] Zillah Eisenstein, op. cit., pp. 94-95.

[7] Caroline Bassett, A Manifesto Against Manifestos?, in: Cornelia Sollfrank and Old Boys Network (eds.), Next Cyberfeminist International, OBN, Hamburg, 1999, p. 13.

[8] Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, p. 12.

[9] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997, pp. 10-11.

[10] Patricia Wallace, The Psychology of the Internet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 88.

[11] Judith Butler, op. cit., pp. 12-15.

[12] Adrienne Rich, Notes Toward a Politics of Location (1984), in: Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, W. W. Norton, New York and London, 1986, pp. 212-213, 219.

[13] Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, in: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books, London, 1991, pp. 190-191, 193.

[14] Judith Butler, op. cit., pp. 20-22.

[15] Tuija Pulkkinen, The Postmodern and Political Agency, Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki (diss.), 1996, pp. 148-150.

[16] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author (1968) <> - eds.

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