Women at the Interface
Gothic and new technologies have always been closely allied, from eighteenth-century phantasmagoria shows to the digital revolution. As Jeffrey Sconce has shown, recurring fictions of uncanny disembodiment and an ‘electronic elsewhere’ accompany electronic media throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Sconce 2000: 9). The emergence of telegraphy, radio, television and computers each in turn produced fantasies of spectral presence and an otherworldly space from which that presence emanates or through which it travels. Women's position within this alliance is complex: often the mediums through which technologies are Gothicised, they frequently provide a hinge between the embodied human subject and a pure realm of disembodiment. This uneasy positioning of a Gothicised female subject across the Cartesian mind/body dualism is reiterated in contemporary fictions that engage with the possibilities of digital technologies. Virtual Gothic heroines seek liberation into a realm of pure mind, but remain haunted by the needs and sensations of the body. In the texts considered in this chapter – Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan (1894), William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995) and Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y (2006) – virtual Gothic women are constructed as double agents, travelling through and acting upon two parallel worlds, and providing an interface between pure cerebration and sensory embodiment.
The digital culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries projects a persistent fantasy of a virtual realm, a synthetic space in which real actors may interact with varying degrees of consequence. This space is realised in video games, in Multiple User Domain (MUD) virtual environments such as Second Life, and in the space of the World Wide Web itself, in which users are freed from their immediate physical constraints to communicate with their counterparts across the globe. While these actualised forms of virtual space may be mundane, in fiction they are frequently and explicitly Gothicised. For writers such as William Gibson, the unofficial figurehead of the cyberpunk movement, the virtual realm is represented as a labyrinthine space, replete with doubles and ghosts enabled by cloning and digitalised memory. Virtual reality becomes the latest iteration of the magic lantern show or phantasmagoria which, as David J. Jones demonstrates, was a crucial context for the development of Gothic literature in the eighteenth century (Jones 2011).