Muri (2004). Virtually Human: The Electronic Page, the Archived Body, and Human Identity.

Muri, A. (2004). Virtually Human: The Electronic Page, the Archived Body, and Human Identity. In P. Stoicheff & A. Taylor (Eds.), The Future of the Page (pp. 231–254). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

“‘Nearly weightless though it is, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not — it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure. The former occupies a position in space — on a page, in a book — and is verifiably there. The latter, once dematerialized, digitalized back into storage, into memory, cannot be said to exist in quite the same way. It has potential, not actual, locus. … And although one could argue that the word, the passage, is present in the software memory as surely as it sits on page x, the fact is that we register a profound difference. One is outside and visible, the other ‘inside’ and invisible. A thing and, in a sense, the idea of a thing’ (Birkerts, 2006, p. 154-5).” (p 231)

“Whether a lamentation for the loss of the texture and substance of the book, or an exultation for a supposed new traversing of boundaries and freedom from hierarchical structures, a predominant conclusion has been that we are altered by our media. … Certainly, the material form of communication can shape cultural paradigms, what Harold Innis characterised as ‘grooves which determine the channels of thought of readers and later writers,’ (1951, p. 11) but does our media actually ‘restructure consciousness,’ (Ong, 1982) as early media theorists such as [page break] Adorno, Ong, or McLuhan assumed and contemporary theorists have continued to do? … Is the page’s influence on our culture more important than our culture’s influence on the page?” (p 231-232)

“Sven Birkerts has similarly conflated book, body, and humanity in his discussion of ‘the fate of the book’: ‘Maybe we are ready to embrace the pain of leaving the book behind;’ he writes, ‘maybe we are shedding a skin; maybe the meaning and purpose of being human is itself undergoing metamorphosis.’ (Birkerts, 2006, p. 190) … The desire to become virtual, they suggested, promotes ‘a radically diminished vision of human experience and of a disintegrated conception of the human good: for virtualizers, the good is ultimately that which disappears human subjectivity’ (Kroker & Weinstein, 1996).” (p 232)

“What has changed is our analogies for the page as body and the text as thoughtful reflection: the simulacra produced by computer program and displayed upon the ethereal and immaterial page subverts conventional tropes for body, mind, and human spirit. The electronic environment has enabled us to understand our bodies as computational configurations of atoms and electrons, the mind as electrochemical charge and the body as DNA: the body no longer is the cathedral for the soul. The body is a biomechanical system, a complex machine which can defy death when updated with artificial components. The electronic environment has also destabilised a centuries-old system of inscribing and disseminating principles of critique, judgment, and morality through the stable and material texts sanctioned by our educational and religious institutions. The page is a tool for teaching but in the electronic environment, anyone can be an author. And so, if we imagine the electronic environment as virtual not real, as fleeting and malleable not permanent and canonical, as technological and commercial not literary and artistic, or as permeable and rhizomatic not fixed and hierarchical, we imagine we might predict the future: mind-body and mind-text meet figuratively at the locus of the page, and if the materiality of the page changes — so the theory goes — so must we as humans.” (p 233)

[“Some Conceptual Frameworks: The Electronic Page and the Book of Life” (p 234) …]

“This very invisibility, changeability, and seeming instability creates the illusion of a new form of human consciousness that is permeated by, and permeates, the computer network. There is a history to this image of the mind, however: the material page has been traditionally understood as representing the human form as repository for knowledge, memory, creativity, and imagination; likewise, the human mind has traditionally been presented as a writing surface.” (p 235)

“This inscription of morality as upon a blank page evokes and reinforces a system of education and morality through the page itself.” (p 235)

“The page on the screen thus becomes emblematic of a moral shift.” (p 235)

“The relationship between technology, human embodiment, and morals is complicated not only by a history of metaphors for body, text, and material page in an older tradition, but also by the growing prevalence of science and technology as more ‘useful’ disciplines than the study of literature.” (p 236)

“‘Earlier accounts of individuality were associated with some sort of identity of matter, whether of the material substance of the animal or the spiritual substance of the human soul,’ he wrote. ‘We are forced nowadays to recognize individuality as something which as to do with continuity of pattern, and consequently with something that shares the nature of communication’ (Wiener, 1954, p. 103).” (p 237)

“As the page becomes immaterial so is the self depicted as immaterial, flickering in a state of virtuality, our humanity snagged on the edge of the screen separating world from data. On the other hand, the idea of the conscious mind freed from the body’s limitations suggests the fulfilment of a longstanding desire for transcendence, of which the electronic archive is a secularised version.” (p 238)

[“The Electronic Page and Human Spirit” (p 238) …]

“The relationship of the material page and the computer text to human identity is complicated by the various terms used by writers to connote vastly different notions of that unnameable, unlocatable, and unmeasurable quotient that gives us our humanity: since writing began we have questioned where that aspect of our selves we call identity, consciousness, mind, rational thought, soul, spirit, or ghost resides. … The representations of ourselves and our environment, evolving from page to microchip to biochip, reiterates an old metaphor of capturing the soul or spirit in the text. In a remediation of the lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet — ‘So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this give life to thee'” (p 238)

“… the fusion of our understanding of our own bodies with the virtual representation of life onscreen, all problematise what were once clear conceptual boundaries between categories of body-mind and text.” (p 239)

“Individual consciousness he characterised as a pilot disengaged from the grounding of body, community and reality: ‘each person sees himself at the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect and remote sovereignty, at an infinite distance from his universe of origin,’ while the body then ‘appears simply superfluous, basically useless in its extension’ (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 128-129)” (p 239)

[“The Archived Body” (p 240) …]

“As the body’s most invisible elements and processes have become more legible and better understood, the page has become more complex and immaterial. … The white page with its black ink that has always been visible and accessible in the codex book is now hidden, mysterious and invisible bits accessible to and understood by only the masters of technology. The components of living bodies, the creation of both life and thought that were once hidden and mysterious in the human body are now magnified, diagrammed, documented, transcribed, archived by the masters of technology. At the same time, the body becomes metaphorised as a text to be read, transcribed, and re-written.” (p 241)

“Curtis’ complaint has to do with the VHP’s ‘confusion of a ‘complete’ body with an _anatomically_ complete body’ (1999, p. 263) — that the people involved do not recognize the dataset as a product of a ‘techno-medical’ or ‘techno-scientific’ discourse (1999, p. 261, 263). … such arguments seek to demonstrate that inscription of the body through computer technology is a debasement of humanity.” (p 246)

“The ‘violent metastasis that is cyber-culture,’ is in direct opposition to a spiritual life: ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ they write, ‘but in the end there is only the data byte’ (154) (Kroker & Weinstein, 1994, p. 134).” (p 246)

[“Conclusion: of Books and Spirit” (p 247) …]

“The slogan on this page of the Body Voyage codex, ‘Even Lazarus never looked this good,’ attests to the desire in popular media — so much at odds with the theorists critical of the supposed redundancy of the body — to imbue the body archived in the cybertext with a soul, with immortality, with a high moral purpose. (Spitzer & Whitlock, 1998, p xi) … [page break] … While the eighteenth-century criminal was judged by God and sentenced to eternal punishment, the twentieth-century convict’s salvation is conferred by science and technology.” (p 249-250)

“Human intelligence and creativity will be the losers in our Faustian pact with an increasingly seductive electronic devil’ (Castel, 1994, p. 777). … Robert Fulford here nostalgically reflects upon ‘The Ideology of the Book,’ commenting that ‘Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has made the book the shrine of modernity, the place where we store and locate our ideals’ (Fulford, 1994, p. 803).” (p 250)

“In his afterword to _The Future of the Book_, Umberto Eco invokes the words of Claude Frollo in Victor Hugo’s _Hunchback of Notre Dame_: ‘Ceci tuera cela (The book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill images’ (Eco, 1996, p. 295). … Printed books challenged some of the authority the cathedral represented. In the same way, the dissemination of knowledge through the electronic page is threatening — or invigorating — because in our secular world the ‘cathedral’ of human consciousness or identity has for centuries been represented by the mundane and unthreatening codex or paper page. The page, material representation of mind and/or spirit, is the cathedral of the humanities.” (p 251)

“… if the codex book and paper page, so closely associated with body and mind, have historically inscribed and disseminated principles of morality through stable, sanctioned texts written by institutionally approved [page break] authorities, then what the electronic text threatens most is the perception of where that authority lies.” (p 251-252)

Selected References

  • Adorno, T. W. (1991). The schema of mass culture. In The Culture Industry (Ed. J. M. Bernstein, Trans. Nicholas Walker). London: Routledge.
  • Baudrillard, Jean (1983). The Ecstasy of Communication (Trans. John Johnston). In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Ed. Hal Foster). Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press.
  • Birkerts, S. (2006). The Gutenberg elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Castel, B. (Winter 1994). The End of the Book? Queen’s Quarterly, 101(4).
  • Curtis, N. (1999). The body as outlaw: Lyotard, Kafka and the visible human project. Body & Society, 5(2-3), 249-266.
  • Eco, Umberto (1996). Afterword. In (Ed. Geoffrey Nunberg) The Future of the Book. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Fulford, R. (1994). The ideology of the book. Queen’s Quarterly, 101(4).
  • Gibson, W. (1988). Mona Lisa overdrive. Toronto; New York: Bantam Books.
  • Innis, Harold A. (1951). The bias of communication.
  • Kroker, A., & Weinstein, M. (1994). Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Kroker, A., & Weinstein, M. (1996). Global Algorithm 1.4: The Theory of the Virtual Class. Ctheory: Theory, Technology and Culture, 19, 1-2.
  • Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. Methuen, London & NY.
  • Spitzer, V. M., & Whitlock, D. G. (1998). Atlas of the visible human male: Reverse engineering of the human body. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  • Wiener, N. (1954). The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
For clarity, endnote markers from the original text were replaced with APA-style citations in these notes. –oki
See this page at

Leave a Comment