TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1995

HOW LIKE A GODDESS

PROLOGUE 1: PUBLIC LIBRARY, NEW JERSEY, LATE ’40s

A young boy sits reading sequential volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has reached the P’s and is absorbed by the entry on primates. A tall gangly man sits down.

Man: What a pile you have there.

Boy nods but will clearly engage no further.

Man: I bet you have all sorts of ideas about what you want to be when you grow up. Tell me, what does a boy who reads so much dream of becoming?

Boy sits perplexed. The future as something to dream oneself into has never occurred to him. If anything, he imagines someday being a TV repair man, or an electronics engineer, but these are not the possibilities the inquiring stranger has asked of him. And so the boy sits silent, incapable of answering a question that he has never asked himself. Although he will become associated with the future—writing science fiction, building her own computer from a prototype she happened upon in the garbage—when he was a child the future was literally unimaginable to him.

PROLOGUE 2: SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA, 1988

We are sitting at a table gleaming with sun, waiting for a graduate seminar to begin. I dip a strawberry into a mass of melting chocolate she has brought for us to share. It is her way of celebrating her birthday.

Goodeve: So how old are you today?

Stone: Well, I actually have three ages: 12, 30, and 50, depending on which self, or which body, we’re speaking about.

Goodeve: Then how do you account for your history?

At the time there is an answer that tells me about the way she perceives the evolution of who she is according to when certain personalities were born and certain operations took place. But I prefer an answer from a book she’d publish some seven years later.

Stone: I have bad history: I am a person who fell in love with her own prosthesis. Not once, but twice. Then I fell in love with somebody else’s prosthesis.

PROLOGUE 3: NEW YORK, 1995

I’m interviewing Allucquère Rosanne Stone—or Sandy Stone, the name I’ve known her by for nearly a decade. I imagine the best approach for this conversation is to tease some kind of a biography from her rather than talk only about her work. The truth is, Sandy’s writing, theorizing, and performing is one extended autobiographical performance. Self-made, self-referential, it breathes of our technologically vibrant era. The odd part of that statement is that the very notion of “self-made” or “self-referential” makes questionable sense when attached to a person who has changed so many times, and whose absorption in certain late-20th-century theories and practices—of virtual worlds, of the mutability of body and self—is as material and literal as one can get. The thing I can’t get away from is just how material virtuality is, and always has been, for Sandy. It is practice, possibility, performativity, and, most delicately, life. As electricity gave birth to Frankenstein’s monster, virtuality gave birth to Sandy and, according to her, to the very age we live in.1

The questions put to Sandy at public events may be phrased matter-of-factly, but the answers they elicit change the very shape of the way she is perceived. The virtual self is the only true self here:

Audience member: I’m just curious, when you were little did you play with Tinkertoys or with dolls? I mean, as a little girl did you constantly dismantle and rebuild toys?

Stone: Well, you see this is all highly problematic, and will come in some ways as a disappointment, because I wasn’t a little girl; I was a little boy. I didn’t begin living performatively as a woman until 1974. Some people find that a disappointment in the context of childhood experiences, because stories of women who were encouraged to fool with technology as children have been so rare, and my disclosure in answer to that question both removes the thrill of hearing that story, and also for some people raises once again deep resentments about the privileges that young boys have in that regard.

So what is Sandy’s history? I know it in snippets, gracious, hilarious, startling fragments she has thrown at me in conversation over the years: the California studio engineer for ’60s rock heroes (Jimi Hendrix, David Crosby, Van Morrison); the bad transy of The Transsexual Empire, the mean-spirited attack on transsexuals that Janice Raymond published in the ’70s; the young man auditing film classes at New York University in the ’50s; the lesbian witch of the ’80s; the challenging and playful science-fiction novelist, University of Texas academic, and “stand-up theoretician” of the virtual systems of the ’90s, who carries all these pieces in her yet still shudders visibly remembering how miserably he failed as a child at the most archetypal of boyhood roles: “I just couldn’t connect with it. There was something so difficult. I’d go off in the wrong direction, get lost, lose things. It was a totally traumatic experience to not even be able to be that simplest of American things: a neighborhood delivery boy.”

And so I’ll start with some slices of conversation and questions of my own, beginning, of course, with the same impossible question of origin that Frankenstein’s monster was also compelled by: But who are you? Where do you come from? A question monsters invariably defy, which is, after all, what makes them monsters.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

SANDY STONE: My birth name was Zelig Ben-Nausaan Cohen in Hebrew. I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and we lived for the first few years in Weehawken, where I grew up looking down 42nd Street in Manhattan from the other side of the Hudson River. My mother dropped out of Montclair Normal to marry my father, who was a crusading attorney. He helped poor people in Union City, which is what he did best, but as a result we were poor too. After years of this it became clear that although my father was a brilliant crusading attorney, he was very bad at collecting money. I remember when I was very young, my father and I were on the same unemployment line several times.

THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE: Were they immigrants?

SS: No, my great-grandparents were. One side of the family was from Lithuania, the other was from a town on the Baltic. My great-grandfather on my father’s side was the rabbi of a town called Dwinsk. Someone reminded me the other day that by the rules of some Orthodox traditions, including ours, being a rabbi is hereditary, so I’m a rabbi too, which is very confusing to the Orthodox because women can’t be rabbis.

TNG: Is there any rabbinical connection with your subsequent involvement in pagan religion? I mean how does a burgeoning ’50s rabbi end up as a fully initiated ’80s pagan witch?

SS: The Latin word pagani simply refers to religions other than Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I became a solitary practitioner fairly early on—probably around the ’50s or ’60s, before I knew it as paganism. I was looking for other ways of dealing with my Jewishness, because traditional Judaism didn’t provide me with the tools for present-day problems. I first came to the Craft largely through the women’s community, shortly after I began to live performatively as a woman.

TNG: We have your birth, ethnic, and religious history. What is your work history?

SS: An odd one—first because as a gifted child I was hard for traditional career-counselors to figure out, and second because my parents provided no direction. Not that they didn’t care, they certainly did, but they didn’t have a clue as to how to help. Also, family resources were extremely limited, which meant we couldn’t afford professional help either.

This was both a liability and an asset, because its result was that I spent years in what you might call Wanderjob, searching for my place in the world, my path with heart. If I hadn’t done that, in all probability I wouldn’t have done many of the things I wound up doing. An incomplete chronology of those times would go something like this: I spent a time at Bell Labs in the ’50s. Their tests showed I had an “extremely high I.Q.,” but I couldn’t fit into their corporate scheme—I was too malsocialized to be good for much there. I worked as a quality-control checker on the graveyard shift for a record-pressing plant, and as chief engineer for a tape-duplicating facility. I was miserable, but didn’t know any better. I also audited university courses, not in any order, just ones that interested me. I even thought of enrolling, but I was smart enough to realize that as a real student I’d be taking a lot of courses I didn’t want in order to get the few I did want. So I’d find a professor whose work fascinated me, I’d explain my interest, and I’d ask if I could sit in. In those days the professor invariably said yes. In that manner I studied at MIT, NYU, Yale, and Rutgers, never officially being anywhere but getting the education I needed. It wasn’t until years later that I enrolled as an undergraduate, at Saint John’s College in Annapolis.

I also held countless weird shit jobs. But my real interests at that time lay in the basement of my family’s house. I built a darkroom down there, a music and recording studio, a tiny pressing plant, a miniature special-effects stage, even a baby particle-accelerator. I dragooned my friends into acting in films I made, and into DJ-ing over a low-power neighborhood radio station I built. I published a local magazine called Bull.

TNG: Didn’t you also build your own computer?

SS: I know that’s nuts, but sometimes nuts things are dancing lessons with god that end up becoming our life path. It was in the ’70s, and I was living in Northern California. I had found an electronic circuit board in a dumpster and hung it on my wall, interpreting it as an art object rather than an item of utility. Then one day someone who was working on the early Apple computer came to my home and said, “Where did you happen to get that?!?” It turned out that my art object was in fact an Apple prototype. So I took it off the wall and put sockets and chips in it, built a power supply, and it ran. As several other people did in similar circumstances, I also taught myself machine language and built a little modem. (Modems were extremely expensive then, but if you got a chip and you wrote some code you could make one yourself.) I had an old teletype machine that I hooked up to the computer in such a way that it would print. And so I had my own system—a found-object computer, hand-fashioned and all.

TNG: And now you’re a teacher, practitioner, and theorizer of—how do you describe it exactly?

SS: I describe it as interface and interaction arts and sciences.

TNG: But what about your work and experience with gender—that’s integral to your technological work, isn’t it?

SS: I have to find some way to include that too. I’m trying to think of a brief name that says the most possible—to get gender and sexuality, interface and interaction, esthetics and technology, into the same word.

TNG: You arrived in academia with quite a history, and quite late in life—entering the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when your biological body was in its early 50s. And somehow the seemingly unhomey place of academia has become a place for you to be and do, utilizing the various histories you inhabit.

SS: It’s not really so accidental that I’ve wound up in the academy; I was never really happy in the private sector. There was always a ceiling on the discourse, if you will—the work was interesting, but I was never able to use all my abilities, so I always felt a bit stultified. It wasn’t until I entered academia that I began to feel complete. I had avoided it for years, partly, I now think, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be accepted in that community, just as I’d always been the painted bird, the odd one, outside it.

Three months after I started as a mercenary teaching assistant—I wasn’t even enrolled as a student yet—I was walking from one college to another. The sky was brilliant blue, the hills lush and green, and Monterey Bay was glittering like a carpet of diamonds. I’d just noticed that I was experiencing a sense of contentment and belonging that I’d never had before, and at that moment I was vouchsafed a vision: I saw my whole life up until then pass by like a long train, each car a different career, a different adventure. And as the caboose diminished in the distance I waved and said aloud, “Bye bye. . . . ” Those times were great, but they were over, and I was finally home.

I don’t want to convey the false impression that academia is an easy place to be, but for me it sure beats anything else. That’s the strange thing—not that it’s difficult but that it works so well.

TNG: In your new book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, you address the transformations of academic discourse and of the meaning of academic practice over the past few decades. In your own hands these transformations include the incorporation of performance, or “performativity”—a quality that’s one of the few constants throughout the different phases of your life. In your book, and in your public ”stand-up theorist" performances, you emphasize how communication on the Internet (as well as in academia) functions as performance, or, better, necessitates performance.

SS: Cyberspace is about performance—that’s precisely its joy and its problem.

At the University of Texas I teach a graduate class, “Theories of Interactivity,” where we work with performative improvisation. Last week, for instance, we went to a theater soundstage. When we entered the space it was completely dark except for a single pin-spot of light. One person put their hand into this sharp cone of light, and as the hand went in, the other people made sounds—a higher- or lower-pitched sound in response to what the hand was doing. The shape of the hand’s movement was translated into sounds by the people in the room. This is what interaction and interface are, and there wasn’t even a computer there! Improvisation allows people to practice accessing more of their own inner complexity, which is why it’s an important aspect of good interactivity theory. One has to be malleable and capable of a fluid kind of transformation, provoked by interaction, before one gets into the technology. The technology isn’t going to do that for you, even though that’s the myth around virtual systems. It’s the people who have to take risks and the technology will follow.

TNG: I wonder whether that invitation to fluidity is actually the source of the anxiety some people feel about the Internet, though they express their concern in the conventional language they know—with complaints about pornography, for example.

SS: You’re talking about S314, the Communications Decency Act, now on its way through Congress?

TNG: Yes, the act that creates a different Bill of Rights for the Internet than for print culture. Is that the startling revolution in the history of the First Amendment that it seems to be?

SS: No more startling than any other attack by ultraconservative, out-of-control politicians reacting with blind fervor to the products of their own imaginations, and trying to make points with the vociferous religious minorities that can cause them trouble at home.

TNG: Are we approaching the end of a period of fairly idyllic cyberspace communication—will the ’80s and early ’90s be seen as some golden age?

SS: Any time an ultraright bigot wraps himself in the flag and tries to make his sick imagination into law, our freedom is at risk. But my bet is there are still some people with spine left in the U.S. If S314 passes, it will almost certainly be found unconstitutional, but I think we’ll see some massive action on the part of the sane members of our society to kill it at an early stage.

TNG: Two terms are crucial to your work on identity, performativity, and the virtual world: “bandwidth” and “interface.” Let’s start with “interface.” How do you define it?

SS: In virtual-systems theory, an interface is the place where our agency changes form. My definition wasn’t always so simple, though. When I began this work, I thought of interfaces as passage points for social networks, in particular the networks by which computer technology is created. That’s a useful way of thinking about interface, but ultimately too restrictive for what I want to do.

TNG: “The place where agency changes form”—so agency is no longer about “self”-control or conscious intention but is understood as a direct result of the field within which you and the technology work. It’s not about, “I have this pencil in my hand and I’m writing with it,” it’s about the pencil having its own—

SS: Right. There is pencil. There is person. There is writing. But the idea that I make the pencil write goes away. This condition is endemic to our age—the virtual age, or what I would rather call the close of the mechanical age.

TNG: And “bandwidth?”

SS: Bandwidth has to do with the amount of information exchanged in unit time.

TNG: In your book you describe reality as a wide bandwidth because as we interact in real time we use speech, gesture, color; dress, tone of voice, context, etc., simultaneously. But when we communicate via computer; the bandwidth is narrower: we only have text on the screen.

SS: Marshall McLuhan was the first to point out that some media are “hot” and some are "cool”—that is, a hot medium has wide bandwidth and a cool medium has narrow bandwidth. This is significant because when we participate in a narrow bandwidth we actually engage more deeply in certain ways. This has been what has interested me on the Net, or in my work with phone-sex workers: people are forced to construct a more complex, satisfying interaction out of the limited materials supplied. This makes a cool medium more participatory than a hot one. In narrow-bandwidth communication, in fact, the interpretive faculties of one participant or another are often powerfully, even obsessively engaged.

TNG: I’m fascinated by the links from your work on technology, identity, and performance in cyberspace to your history as a transgendered person. Performativity is clearly important to how a preop transgender person negotiates a body that doesn’t feel right. But it also carries over to your various performed/embodied sexual selves, and to the identity boxes the practical world puts you in, even when you don’t traffic in such identities. You shifted from being a man who loved women to being a woman who loved women; your object choice (woman) stayed the same, but because you changed genders, your social definition switched from heterosexual man to lesbian woman—all in/as the same body. Then, after your marriage to a woman (the Swedish entrepreneur Helene Bostrom) broke up last year; you met a man—it was through the Internet—and you’ve started a physical relationship with him. So you’ve now entered the identity of “heterosexual woman.” Can you talk about these experiences—the experience of being those different people and also being “a” you, although I know you’d be the last to claim “a” you as who you are.

SS: The answer is that I have no idea what my sexuality is or is meant to be. Going through a sex change is like being given a ticket that says, “This is a ticket to take you from the traditional cultural definition of man to the traditional cultural definition of woman. Here are the terms and conditions of this ticket. Number one, if you have surgery you will not be able to go back. Number two, you will go from one pole to the other. Number three, although you’ve gone from one pole to the other, you may be able to carve out some territory of your own, but you will have to do that later.” There’s a long long list, you read all of it, and you have to pay attention, because the last item on the list is, “You’re responsible for reading and knowing everything on this list—no regrets.” And that’s really the way it is. You must know beforehand that there is a good possibility that when you come out the other end, you won’t be able to have orgasms, and you may be confused about what your sexuality really is.

TNG: And that’s common? That’s part of the process?

SS: Right. And many gender identity clinics still expect that if you become a woman you’ll want to love men. You’re expected to be normally heterosexual.

This is less true today than it was; people have gotten a lot smarter about these things. But I was a product of my time, and didn’t work out my understanding and theory of posttranssexuality until later. If I had it to do over, I might have had a vagina constructed but not had my penis removed; but such a thing would have been unthinkable as recently as the early ’70s, when I had my surgery. I’m sometimes asked, If I had “it” to do over again, would I; and my unqualified answer is Yes, absolutely. That part of my life journey was absolutely right, and a terrific adventure and thrilling voyage besides. I wouldn’t have been happy as an unconventional male; my identity is my identity—I have made and tested my life choices in the crucible that is the intersection of time and the body, and have found them good. Mine is not a simple or an easy identity, but it is more me than any other easier identity I could have chosen. I don’t regret a second of the journey.

TNG: Transsexuals are monsters as Donna Haraway has taught us to understand them—unwieldy identities who may be ostracized yet offer a “promise,” if one fraught with ambivalence and tension.2 In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster appears in a world that hates him; this is the cause of his destructive, vengeful side. Yet readers constantly find this monster more “human” than his maker, Victor Frankenstein. All the scars, all the various pieces of flesh that have gone into him, become places of promise in Haraway’s sense—they’re what enables him to learn and listen and construct a viable existence. But unfortunately Shelley makes him an outcast. This is where what you’ve lived through and theorize about comes in. The late 20th century is a moment in which discourses like Haraway’s cyborg politics coincide with practices like the operation, becoming increasingly normalized, that adjusts the biological body to fit the gendered body. So Frankenstein—

SS: —has become Frankenstein unbound. And the medical debates about transsexual operations could be framed, “Should we give the monster life?”

TNG: When you say “life,” it’s life as community, the ability to command cultural recognition. You’ve called it “the construction of a legible body.” It’s this sense of recognition or legibility that the Frankenstein monster wanted, and that other “monsters” are now allowed—through the opening up of ideas about self, sexuality, and race that are both technologically realizable and theorizable. This latter job is the work you’ve undertaken in such papers as “Aliens, Freaks, Monsters: The Politics of Virtual Sexuality.” 3

SS: Right. I’ve always found fantastic, liminal, or traditional mythic beings the most comfortable place in which to position a concept of community.

TNG: In fact you end your new book by invoking the vampire Lestat, from the Anne Rice books, as a cultural theorist.

SS: I find vampires a particularly apt metaphor now because of their resemblance to Haraway’s cyborgs. Vampires live in the troubling and productive cracks between worlds, creatures of both/neither: living and dead, time and eternity, Europe and America, even, in Lestat’s case, man and woman. But equally important is how vampires see: simply being a vampire constructs one’s visual apparatus in certain ways. As a vampire, Lestat first sees and senses humans’ blood. He also sees humans as trapped in time, condemned to move in one direction as they inexorably age and eventually die. For him this is simultaneously glorious and tragic. Human mortality confronts Lestat with the dilemma, “If I love this person, I need to exchange blood with them. I need to contaminate them and thereby free them from time, so we can be companions forever.” That’s the most metaphoric of metaphors about our simultaneous desire to destroy and to preserve. It resonates deeply about the ways we relate to other people.

My idea was to use this as a point of departure for a radical shift in consciousness. I send Lestat to university, where he gets two doctorates, in anthropology and cultural theory. Once Lestat is contaminated by his new discursive vocabulary, he finds that his vision changes again—it’s twisted, fractured, reassembled by the language of cultural theory. And of course the problem is, he didn’t realize that not only his vision but his entire body would become contaminated, and his blood now carries other microbes—viruses that are continually replicating in him and changing him utterly. With his new gaze, he sees humans not merely trapped in time but trapped in identity: locked into fixed subject positions. And he realizes that when he shares blood with humans now, the mutated viruses he carries change them as well. . . . And here is where my next book, The Gaze of the Vampire, will take off.

EPILOGUE 1

Brooklyn Heights, New York: she sits on the pink downy edge of my bed, sifting through a book she has pulled from my bookshelf, Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. She reads a line at random, yet its meaning edges into our time together, formulating precisely what it is that has made this phenomenon Allucquère Rosanne Stone, and, just as clearly, what it is she tells us is the marking activity of this moment we inhabit: the promise of the mechanical age’s end and the virtual’s beginning.

SS: “Times change and so do people. People in trouble are not more constant than anyone else. But there is more to the change in the lifestyle of multiples than the passage of time. We tend to behave in ways that are expected of us, especially by authority figures—doctors for example. Some physicians had multiples among their patients in the ’40s, but their picture of the disorder was very different from the one that is common in the ’90s. The doctors’ vision was very different because the patients were different. That is an example of a very general phenomenon: the looping effect of human kinds. People classified in a certain way tend to conform to or grow into the ways that they a re described; descriptions have to be constantly revised.”4 That’s it—everything arises in interaction. It’s the sign I have on my computer: “NO CAUSES. NO EFFECTS. MUTUAL EMERGENCE.”

The sign, I realize, is equally applicable to her “self” as well—a biotransformation ever in process, ever performing a series of mutual interactions, moving into a future that little boy in the library couldn’t even imagine.

EPILOGUE 2

TNG: Can we follow up this interview on E-mail?

SS: No we have to do this in person, this helps me in a way that typing to you, or even talking over the telephone, won’t.

TNG: On E-mail you’ll just be typing what you already know? And on the telephone a certain formality might come in?

SS: Yes, while here in person, with a tape recorder, it’s more spontaneous, less controlled, and actually this way we’re both exploring rather than just sharing what we know.

TNG: So much for the radical potential of the Internet! Artforum actually suggested this could be an E-mail interview.

SS: But the point is to refuse such separations. E-mail, the tape recorder, the telephone are all equally mutable to our chosen manner of using them. Maybe if we didn’t know one another so well, E-mail would have been the way to go, because the Internet is really best used as a place to create intimate spaces for strangers and alter-personas. And I think that’s one of the most remarkable feats of cyberspace: the construction of endless new forms of performed community. There’s a future!

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer and a research associate at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Her next publication will be in Gothstyle: Essays in Postpunk Culture, ed. Lauren M. D. Goodlad and Michael Bibby.

Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s latest book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, has just been published by MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

NOTES

1. See Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

2. See Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, and “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, 1992.

3. “Aliens, Freaks, Monsters: The Politics of Virtual Sexuality” has not yet been published.

4. Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, Princeton: at the University Press, 1995.