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CYBORG ASTRONAUT: Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Video Games

Project leader:
Eren İleri

Duration:
2 years

Funded by:
Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW)

ÖAW | DOC
Eren İleri, Institute for Fine Arts
Duration: 1.9.2021 – 30.9.2023

The cultural and societal significance of space exploration and the imagination of outer space has been the focus of many research efforts in recent years (Cockell, 2016; Dickens and Ormrod, 2016; Messeri, 2016; Redfield, 2002). Notably in science fiction studies, critical debates concerned with the history of the social and political aspects of space exploration and outer space travel are emerging (Carrington, 2016; Geppert, 2018; Lavander, 2011; Rieder, 2008, Westfahl, 2012). In the field of game studies, researchers have begun to acknowledge the posthumanist dimension of digital games (Boulter, 2015). However, in the realm of the critical analysis of science fiction, the cultural imagination of outer space in digital games remains underresearched and posthumanist theory has been largely absent in this context.

Since the 1960’s, the representation of the spacefarer characterizes a shift in cultural perception: While in the 60’s the virile figure of the astronaut was closer to that of the airplane pilot, embodying values traditionally assigned to masculinity, such as courage, resilience, bodily strength and performance, later representations of the spacefarer often render the body as an obstacle for spaceflight (Llinares, 2011). The body of the real-world astronaut turns out to be the weak link of the hybrid between human and machine, as weightlessness of space cancels out muscular strength and all bodily functions entirely depend on the life support systems of the spacesuit or the spaceship. In this landscape of the cyborg astronaut and outer space “colonization”, disembodied masculinity becomes associated with the realization of outer space. In the field of science fiction, as in the discourses of real-world space exploration, outer space becomes a domain where colonial imaginations of the Other are reproduced and re-projected. The positioning of outer space as the “final frontier” facilitates ideas of conquest and exploitation; as language, imagery and representations of colonialism are re-invoked in the context of outer space (Lavender, 2011; Wheeler, 2013). Threatened by technological advancement as well as the emancipatory movements advancing diverse subjectivities, white male subjectivity attempts to reconfigure anthropocentric masculine identity in a disembodied subject (Fernbach, 2000; Masters, 2005). This transformation of the masculine identity can be traced in various representations of the astronaut or outer space exploration narratives and gameplay mechanics across popular science fiction video games. Therefore, the investigation of the forms of representation of gender and race in contemporary video games, specifically related to issues of disembodiment reflecting today’s political and philosophical realities, necessitates a critical feminist and post-colonial approach, which incorporates contemporary theories of posthumanism (Alaimo, 2016; Colebrook, 2014; Haraway, 2106; Wolfe, 2010).

This PhD project examines the novel representations of disembodied masculinities in the cultural production of outer space in contemporary science fiction video games. By deploying a philosophical framework which draws upon central aspects of critical posthumanist theory, this research project investigates how notions of “the conquest of space” echo core concepts of modernism and humanism, as well as how disembodied masculinities operate within the ideological framework of outer space exploration in contemporary digital games. Based on an in-depth study of the current discourses of posthumanism, a critical framework of analysis of digital games will be elaborated. The research questions on the manifestation of disembodiment of masculinity and race, and their relation to the cultural production of outer space in digital games will be investigated within a transdisciplinary approach drawing upon the fields of science fiction studies, game studies, cultural- and gender studies. Textual analysis of video games (Chess, 2016; Consalvo & Dutton, 2006; Mäyrä, 2009), which focuses on the narratives and gameplay mechanics will be employed on digital game case studies, comprising selected science fiction video games released in the last decade.