Meat Me and the Virtual Writer

It must seem a terrible contradiction that I could write passionately about the integration of mind and body ("Spirit and Flesh") and yet be so enthusiastic about a phenomenon like Nellie and the Drummers, an all-virtual band. Nellie is an alternative to meat existence, evangelist to a new mysticism I find no more appealing than any of its predecessors. But she is also a special example of a distinction I insist on making, between the artist and the art, the creator and the creation, the maker and the made.

Nellie: Detail from 'The Torch Singer,' by Reed Waller

and the Drummers

The story of Nellie and her band, creations of visual artist Reed Waller and musician Nell Delano, was on the web for some years. The band consists of Nellie and four fantasy creatures, all created in modeling and animation software. The music is entirely computer-originated, including the vocals, which are built from synthesized phonemic software. Nell Delano is a fine songwriter as well, if the lyrics of the sample songs are any indicator.
[Nellie's website is down, as of March 2007. Try for more information.]

Nell's "Digital Diva" captured the appeal of digital life effectively. And it brings me to the key issue I want to discuss, the relationship of created personae to "real life." Reading "Digital Diva," it is easy to slip into thinking that it is an essay. In fact, in an earlier draft of "Meat Me" I referred to it as "Nell's self-description." But the title of the file is "aboutNellie.html." It is not "about Nell Delano" or "Who Is Nell Delano?" Are Nell and Nellie the same person? Of course not. The question raises a Medusa's 'do of other questions, however. If Nellie is not a "version of Nell," what is their relationship? Mother/child? Perhaps that comes closest, with a creation so humanesque.

If Nell Delano's persona, Nellie, is not Nell Delano, then her affirmation of her digital self is a fiction, no different than Augie March's usurpation of the narrative "I." What is revolutionary about Nellie is not the illusion of life but the completeness of her manifestation. She is not, like Melville's Ishmael, merely the writer of a novel. She stands before a microphone singing songs about how good her life is. We can see her and hear her as well as read her words.

The Hoax of Fiction

Nellie is no more strange than the odd authorial personae we have had centuries to become used to. Fiction began in English with a series of hoaxes and impersonations of astonishing hypocrisy. Travel anecdotes were presented as truth. A huge translated novel claimed to be the true adventures of a mad Spanish nobleman. Manifestations of the virtual author were quick to follow. Samuel Richardson pretended to be a vaporous girl scribbling letters. Fielding and Sterne wrote their "histories" and "autobiographies" tongues firmly in cheek, but Tristram Shandy is as ambiguous a child of the author's mind as anything since.

Every writer has created a character they wish they could be, just as every reader has read one.

Daniel Defoe, the generally acknowledged "first English novelist," managed simultaneously to attack "creative writing" in his essays and prefaces, on the grounds that it was godless lies (he singles out Homer for special assault) while claiming to be the editor of factual memoirs by Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and the anonymous but so persuasively real diarist of Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe does not, like Nellie, renounce his physical self and announce that he prefers to be Moll. But every writer has created a character they wish they could be, just as every reader has read one.

When John Fowles steps inside The French Lieutenant's Woman to sit in a railroad car with Charles Smithson (a Victorian collector of archaeological specimens and biologists who did not found the Smithsonian Institution) and stare at him rudely, in what sense is that authorial self-portrait "really him"? Are we so far, on that page, from avatars and cyberlife? When we watch film images that look like Jeremy Irons pretending to be an actor pretending to be Charles Smithson, if he blinks, who is "he"?

Elsewhere I have explored the relationship of author and character ("I Am Not Frank)" or rather, of person, author, and authorial voice. Writing is like photography in that it captures elements of a gone time. The great illusion of life is permanence, as Heraclitus pointed out before he disappeared. I am not the man I was when I wrote that sentence. Or this. The difference may be immeasurably small, the loss of a few atoms and cells, the shaping of a new idea. Or a block of blue ice may have fallen on me by the time you read this, and I am dead paste. The maia of things is a river of meat and blood, bones and ideas. I may read something I wrote five years ago and I think, "I wrote that?" [for good or ill]. I read something I wrote twenty years ago, and I am seeing another mind, one I am intimately familiar with, but one I have outgrown, no more "me" than the cicada shell is the shrill living bug.

My recent stories, "Peace Past Understanding" and "The Bear Who Forgot He Was a Man," play in this intellectual space. The first opens with a setting that could not be more autobiographical, quoting an actual email I got in the context of a web site virtually identical to and paraphrasing my response. The woman who sent that email has absolutely no connection whatsoever to anything else that happens in the story. And the story ends with an absolute fiction, a death no detail of which ever happened. Between, the story weaves truth and invention as if details were being drawn from a single pool. I told a friend that I could identify six real women who contributed something to the story, none of whom was Emma. Emma is herself, not someone in costume. For me, Emma is as real as Nellie, and if I do not find her as admirable as Nellie, she certainly has a right to her own opinion about that.

Why is Nellie's denial of her meat existence disturbing?

Nellie says some disturbing things in "Digital Diva." She renounces flesh, for reasons we can all sympathize with. Ironically, the image displayed with the essay is a nude Nellie, with soft pliant virtual skin, stepping through (in or out) a door. A birth of sorts, vaguely reminiscent of Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Why is Nellie's denial of her meat existence disturbing? Because we think we are listening to Nell Delano? It is the Defoe illusion. Nell Delano lives somewhere, with fingers that press keys and guts that rumble, with eyes that watch and ears that hear Nellie sing. Nell Delano is real, if that is the alternative to virtual. (What is "real," after all but a concept? Is what comes out of the phone your "real" voice? It is if you think it is. Is a photograph what you really look/looked like? If you say so.)

Does Nell Delano yearn for virtual existence? Who knows? Nell's not saying. Even the "interview" is with Nellie, not Nell. Whether Nell yearned for freedom from flesh or not, Nellie did, and she got it.

Blade Runner: Do Angels Long To Be Men?

What disturbs us about Nellie, I think, is related to that disturbing film, Blade Runner. It is a shibboleth film, Blade Runner; when people discuss it, we learn more about them than about the movie. The film's clones are not "real people," but only because "real" has been defined to exclude them. They were not born of a woman. But neither is a baby that spends its third trimester in intensive care. They do not have real memories. But neither do amnesiacs, accident victims, Alzheimer patients. These are creatures of manufactured flesh, with learned memories. Their difference from "real people" is essentially semantic.

The film explores the nature of their lack, and covertly it accepts that they are lacking. Although it flirts with the revolutionary idea that they are not, it treats them for the most part as creatures lacking claims to human dignity. In this, it is rather like The Searchers, a film whose essential humanity rises above the racial prejudices of John Ford. But this disjunction of intent and effect may explain the savage visual joke in Blade Runner, when Deckard (Harrison Ford) fires two shots at a fleeing replicant (Joanna Cassidy) and we see, from the front, courtesy of her nudity under a transparent raincoat, that the bullets take out, each of them, a nipple. That is not the world dehumanizing her, but the creator — Ridley Scott.

The film operates within the notion that the clones would long to "be human." And at the end, when Rutger Hauer, the charismatic leader of the replicants, defies his own injuries to save Harrison Ford's life, it is he, not Ford, who is the morally admirable creature. But the film is a variant of Welles' The Island of Dr. Moreau, with its pathetic grotesques trying so hard to be human. ("Are we not men?") The replicants are suffering for their incompleteness, their subhuman-ness.

... you make me feel like a natural woman....

Imaginary Toad in Real Garden?

Do angels long to be men? Do dogs? Hauer's replicant colleagues do not long to be men. They long for the rights of men. They long to have their "off switches" removed, the DNA that kills them in midst of life. They see their second-class citizenship as oppression, slavery.

And they are right. But we, conditioned by culture and cultural prejudices, are threatened and offended by their failure to accept their inferiority, just as a previous generation could not comprehend that Indians and Negro slaves did not want to be post-industrial white folks. They wanted to be free to be themselves, so they could choose whether to be us.

Nellie's renunciation of flesh offends us the same way. How dare she not want to be like us? Are we not men?

If we accept that Nellie is a creature of fiction, then her "virtual joy" is nothing more than beautifully articulated self esteem. Can Nellie be virtual and be happy? The question is not ours to answer. We have no more right to deny that she is happy than we have to intervene in another culture to impose upon it our own values or to take the measure of a dog's joy or the happiness of an octopus, a chimpanzee, or a cockroach.

But what about Nell Delano? Does she dream, like a mystic nun, of escaping the flesh for a purer form, essential and separate from our mortal clay? Perhaps. We can assume that Nellie was born of Nell's aspirations, though we run the danger of confusing author with authorial voice when we do. If she has such dreams, then she is in the illustrious company of Bart Kosko, resident genius at USC and American guru of fuzzy logic, for whom virtuality is vaguely identified with nirvana and better sex. If so, I do not share her dream. I do not consider my skin a garment on the self within, whether the self is cellular flesh, Godhead, or cyberbits.

I, the hand that types these words and the mind that shapes them, am a creature first of all. It is my mind, not my body, that mars my happiness. I am not a perfect mind imprisoned in flesh, but a perfect body, spirit and flesh, imprisoned in circumstance that I would escape from. And you will never know me, that creature I am, because he is a mystery of dimension, not least the dimension of time. He is gone like yesterday's clouds, and I am here in his place. These words are the tracks of his passing. Then gone again.


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