Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music, Electric Flesh. Montreal: New World Perspectives (CultureTexts Series), 1993. 177 pp.

Review by Steven Pinter, Division of Social Science, York University

Arthur Kroker's Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music, Electric Flesh may strike one as an inarticulate attempt to address the impact of technological change on subjectivity. Yet the book, together with the accompanying CD, appears in a somewhat different light as well. Spasm alters the language used to think about technology; it continues a critical and distinctly creative reflection on technology. In this, the book is consistent with the aims of the collection of which it is a part.

Kroker's New World Perspectives (NWP) series has aggressively bumped against what we usually take as mainstream treatments of selected social and theoretical issues. An earlier volume in the NWP series, The Possessed Individual: Technology and th e French Postmodern, hints most closely at some of the issues addressed in Spasm, especially the chapters on television and on the Gulf War. Kroker has also recently received attention from a quasi-underground electronic hacker magazine called Mon do 2000. The December 1993 issue of Mondo (Issue 11) carried a lengthy interview with Kroker in which his recent work is discussed.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker have been building their cultural studies audience for quite some time. It is surely one of the evident effects of creative academic work that interlocutors emerge where once none existed. The interlocutors for Kroker 's inscription of innocence and cynicism would quite likely never have come into being had it not been for a provocative rewriting of the language which frames technology and subjectivity.

The principal object that Kroker addresses in Spasm is virtual reality: an electronic communications space with an infinite number of possibilities for manipulating the reality which we actually inhabit. Kroker writes:

Refusing to stand outside virtual reality (which is impossible anyway), [Spasm] is a virtual book, half text/half music. A floating theory that puts in writing virtual reality's moment of flux as that point where technology acquires organicity, w here digital reality actually comes alive, begins to speak, dream, conspire and seduce. Here virtual reality finally begins to speak for itself through a series of stories about a floating world of digital reality: floating tongues, noses, sex, sk in, ears and smells. (5)

The refusal to nominate fixed points marks out a writing style which blends diverse forms of "writing.''


In keeping with the emphasis on storytelling, Spasm blends several types of representation. Starting with the CD (sold with the book), and including the photographs in the book itself -- referred to as records of "the coming shape-shifters of dig ital reality'' (9) -- to photos of a digitally remade face appearing with slogans on every page, Spasm writes through a multitude of layered stories. The text alternates between narrative description:

    Spasm is ... the story of the dark outriders of virtual reality. Three individuals -- Steve Gibson, Linda Dawn Hammond, and David Therrien -- who, like Old Testament prophets wandering in the desert, are the new rugged individualists tr avelling through the sprawl of the digital frontier ... (9) and theoretical aphorisms Technology as degeneration? The electronic cage corresponds to four orders of domination: beyond alienation (the objectification of the subject) to reif ication (the subjectification of the object), beyond reification to simulation (the fetishism of the spectacle), and now beyond the age of simulation to virtual experience (the specularity of the fetish). Beyond that is the simulated order of the social to the digital order of the virtual, beyond the semiology of the sign to the language of recombinant genetics, beyond the normalizing discourse of sociology to chaos biology, and most of all, beyond technology as commodity or icon to virtual reality: that momentous evolutionary rupture wherein technology assumes a living species existence.... (37)

It is this alternation between stories of rugged individualism and a critical reflection on technology that sets the ground for Spasm's unique contribution: crash aesthetics.


The key component in Kroker's rewriting of the language of technology and subjectivity is "crash aesthetics.'' For Kroker, crash theory connects a full-throated acceptance of virtual reality technologies with a radically new political critique of the impact of technology: "our fate now is to develop an ethics and politics of impossibility.... An excessive politics and ethics that would operate under a double sign: appropriation and resistance.... In short a crash aesthetics that would pri vilege the ... twofold aesthetic strategy of ironic distancing and ironic immersion'' (43-4).

Crash theory is then carried into popular culture spectacle: Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Michael Jackson, sex-change artists, Disney World, and Biosphere 2. Spasm contrasts spectacle with the photography and music of the "outrider Old Testament proph ets.'' We see the application and appropriateness of crash theory to contemporary realities: a theory which fuses within itself the excessive nature of television-mediated reality with a chaotic political reflection built around the constellation of Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Virilio, Foucault, Barthes, and others. It is in the "crashed analysis'' of popular culture signs that Spasm's most evident contribution lies.

In keeping with the radical juxtapositions created by Kroker's crash theory, bodily organs are recombined into a new hierarchy, with the ear replacing the eye as the privileged site of virtual reality.


Spasm begins a History of the Cynical Ear (46-56). This history is a response to new possibilities for sound production through digital techniques (50). The call for a history of the ear is, for Kroker, a thoroughly bimodern project. What is "bim odern''? For Kroker, this concerns "two impossibilities: the recovery of memory by learning a new method of algorithmic hearing, and the opening of a new horizon of listening through a digital reality that seeks to displace the ear'' (50-1). Bimod ernism is a distinct combination of impossibilities (preceding crash theory) with which Spasm rewrites the language connecting virtual technology with subjectivity.

The outgrowth of crash theory from bimodernism marks out the significance of Spasm as a text combining photography, music, and theory into an aesthetic stance which shifts the language in which technology and subjectivity are joined. Crash theory signals growth and change in Kroker's analysis, representing an addition to a growing vocabulary of impossible concepts. Kroker's work, and the work of the "outriders'' who are part of Spasm, inscribes an aesthetic approach on the everyday and si mplistic references to the impacts of technology on individuals and bodies.


That Spasm is a "series of stories'' (5) complicates the presentation. Are we reading "fiction,'' or is there an aspect of "non- fiction'' here? The question is never taken up; one supposes that Kroker doesn't care for certain distinctions. Simila rly, Kroker claims that Spasm is that moment "where virtual reality (VR) finally begins to speak for itself'' (5). This issue complicates matters, too. If Spasm is an instantiation of VR, then is Kroker actually writing the book, or is he merely a n intent artistic interlocutor, recording lone observations in a variety of media? These questions may appear unnecessary, and may seem to take away from the spontaneity and in-tunedness that one is asked to bring to Kroker's work, but they are stil l important questions.

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