Virtual Play:

Baudrillard Online

Although the value of Baudrillard's notion of a radical form of play, the cultural force of images without clear reference to the "real" world, has been debated for many years, few scholars of play have considered its implications for their own study. This neglect is regrettable, if only because the trope of "play" is so central to Baudrillards own work, as well as that of many modern writers. Play, in some sense, seems central to the modern experience. A case in point is Internet, the developing international network of computing linkages. An empirical instance of computer-mediated discourses which establish cultures online is adduced to show how it instantiates and extends the idea of play beyond virtuality to everyday lived experience. Some conclusions are drawn which point to further research along these lines.

Virtual Play:

Baudrillard Online

Classic definitions of play such as Huizinga's (1955) tend to make assumptions about it that formerly seemed more obvious, but now perhaps is less so: that play is to be distinguished by its quality of pretense measured against what may intuitively be taken to be real (Huizinga, 1955: ch. 1). In the classic definition of play reality is generally thought to represent a primal, pre- cultural characteristic of personal experience. This folk notion of personal experience suffices in many circumstances to orient ourselves toward the world in which we mostly live, and in turn makes us aware, by contrast, of our playful and merely temporary departure from that realm.

Yet I would like to show in this paper that neither reality nor pretense is as simple as it has once seemed. In the process I will argue that our definition of what it means to experience the real world directly and intuitively must be adjusted and perhaps even disprivileged against our understanding of what constitutes pretense, and hence play. In fact I will try to sustain a rather radical premise: in modernity, our experience of the real is primarily playful. Whether we wish to acknowledge it, we are now immersed in play throughout our daily lives.

The empirical ground for my position arises from my ethnographic work with the virtual events, relationships, and cultures encountered through computer mediated discourses; the theoretical basis, from the apodicta of a postmodern guru, Jean Baudrillard. I shall first tell a story and ask some questions about its significance. I shall then sketch an interpretive approach which emphasizes the insights of Baudrillard, and I shall apply his thought to the immediate empirical problem. Gradually, I shall expand the empirical issues, and the Baudrillardian perspective, well beyond the limits of the initial tale. Finally, I shall return to the more general issue of reality and pretense within the perspective of play, and I shall argue for a comprehensive reformulation of the notion of play in the modern situation, and by the same token, for a new understanding of modernity as play.

The Tale of the Seal Hunter

The Internet is a loose, decentered network of mainframes and personal computers that sustains global connections among its users, estimated now in the hundreds of thousands, and increasing rapidly (Kehoe, 1993). The most simple and obvious of these connections is electronic mail, with which most will be familiar. Other, slightly more complex connections include listserved electronic conferences and newsgroups. In addition, the Internet affords access to many online services such as library catalogs, databases of scientific, literary, economic, legal, and political information, interactive role-playing games and other leisure pursuits, and more than a million shareware files on every imaginable subject. For purposes of this paper, however, I will consider only electronic conferences and newsgroups.

Electronic conferences and newsgroups are organized in the first instance by a formal focus on particular topics widely ranging from the "frivolous" (such as alien visitors, Eric Clapton, and odd sexual antics) to the "serious" (such as the philosophy of communication, the esoterica of dental fillings, and the mathematics of fractals). A second level of organization arises from the developing social conventions, or netiquette, of online discourse (Aycock and Buchignani, 1993). Despite such organizational parameters, Internet discourse is routinely off- topic, repetitive, inane, or obscene. It is not too much to say that an ethic and an aesthetic of anarchy, disparate voices raised in electronic cacophony, often prevails. In a sense, this centrifugal character of online discourse lends itself especially well to intimations of playfulness and provides a useful starting- point for my investigations.

Early one morning in my peregrinations through cyberspace, my attention was caught by the following story, quoted on a European listserved electronic discussion group, CHESS-L:


[photo of Uki Derzhal with some sort of sled]

"By Kevin K. Creed

Correspondant" [sic]

"A seal-hunting Eskimo rocked the chess world when he soundly defeated three Russian Grand Masters in fewer than 10 moves!"

"Uki Derzhal, 57, had never even seen a chessboard until a group of Russian scientists came to his desolate wilderness home near Mackenzie Bay in northern Canada to study weather conditions and hired him as a guide."

"The researchers taught Uki the moves and were astounded to discover that he had an incredible talent for the game. They brought Uki back to Russia and matched him with some world class players."

"His first game was with International Master Anatoly Pasternak, one of the highest ranked players in the world. After a mere six moves, Pasternak realized he was crushed. He resigned on the tenth move."

"'It's hard for the non-chess playing public to understand how exceptional this man is,' Pasternak told reporters." "'He's not just great. He's the eighth wonder of the world. Masters of this game simply do not lose games in 10 moves. We all know all the basic openings and how to counter them. But this man plays openings and uses concepts none of us have ever seen before. He's a completely original phenomenon.'"

"Grand Master Hugo Karmetzky, high-ranking player and noted author of several best-selling books on the game, played the Eskimo and lost in nine moves."

"'His moves are so powerful and aggressive it's frightening. He pounces on you with all four feet. No finesse. No frills. I felt like a boxer in the ring with a polar bear.'"

"The scientists who found Uki have no idea where his uncanny ability comes from. It was a mere stroke of luck that led to the discovery."

"'We're all pretty good chess players,' says Boris Valshinka, one of the researchers."

"'So we brought a chess set to pass the long winter nights. One night, just for something to do, we decided to teach Uki to play.'"

"'To our amazement he began trouncing us from the very start. I know we've made a real discovery with this man. I feel honored just to have played a part in it.'"

"But Josef Malinskar, the third Master to play Derzhal and lose in 10 moves, doesn't share Valshinka's enthusiasm."

"'Chess is a gentleman's game,' says Malinskar."

"'It's associated with sophistication and decorum and meant to be played by two refined men in a civilized manner. This person is nothing but a crude savage.'"

The responses that were posted to this discussion group over the next week were quite varied. Broadly speaking, these responses fell into three groups, on a scale of credulity from greatest to least: those who believed, those who questioned, and those who scoffed.

The believers, not too surprisingly, were in the minority: one or two posters confessed themselves to be novices at the game and asked whether such a thing were possible; another poster claimed to have heard that the world champion, Kasparov, was preparing to confront the seal hunter; yet another was astonished because he said that he himself had played one of the masters, Pasternak, and could not conceive how such a strong player could be defeated so easily.

Those who questioned formed a slightly larger group: one poster checked the FIDE rating list (which comprises 11,000 of the strongest chess players throughout the world) and pointed out that none of the three putative masters was named there; another, who had spent many years in the former Soviet Union, suggested that it was unlikely that he would be unfamiliar with any of the masters' names or with the "several books" written by Karmetzky; several posters demanded to see the moves of the games; and an even larger number suggested that the tabloid _Weekly World News_ from which the incident was quoted might not be the most reliable source of chess information.

Those who scoffed, the largest group, usually did so by indirection: one poster made up his own satirical story featuring a simultaneous exhibition played by Uki the seal hunter; another inquired ironically whether Bobby Fischer (who had just completed a much-discussed and controversial rematch with his 70s nemesis, Boris Spassky) would be playing Uki next; a third remarked that this obviously resolved the lengthy parallel discussion on this group respecting the ultimate solubility of chess; a fourth (drawing on a well-known science fictional chess story, Aycock, 1992: ch. 3) told of the mystic properties of Uki's play that drove all who observed him insane; and a number of players cited comparable apocrypha about former world champions such as Lasker, Alekhine, and Capablanca who had played unknown opponents with amusing results.

In the end, Uki, his vanquished (and mysteriously "always already" vanished) opponents, and the (never produced) scores of their alleged games lost the attention of the posters to CHESS-L, and they accordingly shifted to other topics of greater interest to them.

As innocuous as this incident may seem, it still merits the asking of some serious questions. First, what domain -- reality or pretense -- does Uki the seal hunter inhabit? Second, is the reality of the posters to this electronic discussion group more substantial than that of Uki? Third, should we, as we suppose ourselves to be comfortably situated in local frames of pretense and reality, become believers, questioners, or scoffers in our turn? Fourth, in modernity is play indeed only a mirror, somewhat inferior, derivative, and secondary, of the real, or has play now become reality's successor, a virtual phantom invested with its own continuity and essential being? Where indeed may we speak of play in regard to each of these "serious" questions? For a provisional perspective on these issues, I turn to the work of Jean Baudrillard.

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, termed not wholly unjustly by one of his detractors "the Walt Disney of metaphysics" (Kellner, 1989: 179), has come to occupy center stage in many debates about the realities and pretenses of modernity. His provocative writing style would make it in any case hard to take him literally (Gane, 1991a: 130-131; Gane, 1991b: 4), but we should nevertheless consider what he has to say, in a figurative sense, about the images that occupy our lives, and that lend them perhaps to the autonomous movement of those images without obvious reference to the "real" world, the world of our personal experience (Baudrillard, 1981: 185).

Baudrillard believes that a substantive break has occurred between the classical forms of capitalism analyzed by Marx and the development of capitalism since the Second World War (Baudrillard, 1981: ch. 6). This breach, he argues, is not only economic and political, but cultural as well (Baudrillard, 1983: 33). While earlier forms of capitalism fostered an ethic of production, its latter mode reveals itself in a no less rigorous aesthetic of daily consumption (Baudrillard, 1975: 33-41; Featherstone, 1991: ch. 5). Consumption, for Baudrillard, has assumed the guises of creativity and fulfillment (or by contrast vacuity and alienation) formerly ascribed only to labor (Baudrillard, 1988: 21). In so doing, consumption has exposed a significant tendency of modernity: the circulation of images as true value (Baudrillard, 1988: 11).

In Baudrillard's thought personal reality has become subordinated to a ceaseless movement of codes of consumption which can never be satisfied, yet nevertheless generate a lack, an endless desire to confront and possess the real where there can only ever be access to an image of the real, its pretense of being (Baudrillard, 1988: 45). As images shift and dissemble among themselves, they pursue their own strategies which displace ordinary human agency (Frank, 1992: 96). Consumers of these signs must constantly reposition their sense of self in an arena of instability and quest for satiation; yet always there are more images to be consumed and more desires to be attended to (Baudrillard, 1981: 56). The consequence, inevitable if it is understood from Baudrillard's perspective, is that in modernity we do not engage ourselves with the real, but with the pretense that has everywhere supplanted it (Baudrillard, 1988: 135).

There is much more that might be said about Baudrillard: his style, like that of many others of his ilk, lends itself to charges of mystification at best, misogyny and racism at worst (Kellner, 1989: 181-185). Yet his emphasis on the role of play as a dominant form of production and consumption in modernity leads me to ask about the way in which our culture has disengaged images from their obvious reflections in personal experience, and thereby pretense from reality (Baudrillard, 1983: 11): is this play? The tale of Uki the seal hunter, though situated in a highly abstracted scene of virtuality, offers an opening to more searching questions about the reality that it decontextualizes, and yet revivifies with its imagery of a restless "play" of images that seek one another for their own, "inhuman" purposes (cf. Lyotard, 1991: Introduction).


So what shall we make of the seal hunter's tale?

First, Uki's textual reality transpires in an electronic mode, the computerized world of gadgets which function according to their own mode of signification (Baudrillard, 1981: 32). Whether Uki appears on the Internet or in the _Weekly World News_, he remains a stereotype of the primitive who "uses concepts none of us have ever seen before" (Levi-Strauss, 1966). This notion of an ancient, innocent, and mysteriously accomplished world that we have forever relinquished stands in stark contract to the high- tech environment into which it erupts. We shall get no closer to, nor more distanced from Uki by careful inquiry, and we perhaps should not wish to do so: this is pretense conflated with reality in its gentlest form, and to seek the secret of its fragility might only expose its elusive nature as imagery, and our experience online as the merest fabrication. Herein, warns Baudrillard, lies his presentiment of the desert of images, where the acceleration of ideas traverses their surface, but cannot penetrate their depth, for there is none (Baudrillard, 1989: 6).

Second, shall we instead seize upon the reality of those who post to the Internet? After all, their electronic signatures arrive from somewhere, and are directed towards a conversation, albeit one without the apparent substance of personal experience, that congeals itself as real debits to the accounts of those who subscribe to CHESS-L. Surely, if anywhere, there is truth of a sort in this bourgeois economy of the Internet (Aycock, 1991). The reciprocity of ideas committed to electronic text carries with it at least an address, and a responsibility for the productions of its meanings, a fundamental project in any culture, virtual or real (Goffman, 1974: Introduction).

Yet the posters to this group are as evanescent as their messages, and when harsh blows (or in the Internet jargon, "flames") are struck, they divert no life chances, they interrupt no career trajectories that have been, or might yet be intended. Virtual persons (Baudrillard, 1988: 22), appear as suddenly on the Internet as they depart, and the stakes of the game of postings are ephemeral, at most a temporal rejection that lacks the modalities of demotion or despair. Ukis tale, it is true, lends a passion ("the eighth wonder of the world . . . powerful and aggressive") to the cold textuality of the Internet, but that passion has few if any consequences for the subscribers to this discussion group, nor for that matter, for Uki. Those who post to CHESS-L survive another day, despite their immediate textual triumphs and defeats, to post again apparently without impunity. Baudrillard again summons the elusive imagery of modernity to account for its circumstances: "simulation is . . . the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (Baudrillard, 1983: 2).

Third, there is an important notion that must be addressed here. It is the problem of human suffering that appears to escape Baudrillard's metaphysics (Kellner, 1989: 140-141). This issue seems to displace Baudrillards thought as itself trivial in a modern world of real starvation, torture, and enslavement so vividly portrayed by the Marx whom Baudrillard has, in the view of his most persistent critic, frivolously abandoned (Kellner, 1989: 18; but %vide% Bane, 1991a: ch. 6). The problem of human suffering at first glance divides work from play, text from body, and reality from pretense in a way that upholds the folk notion of personal experience and renders Baudrillards playfulness superficial, even callous. This needs further attention.

Surely we, as embodied persons living in the real world, experience our own human gestures of reliance and dismissal. In local contexts, we do suffer of course, and so do others. That is to say, we (and others) endure the "oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes" or if we do not, rail against them much as did Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1). Yet, if Baudrillard speaks cogently, in modernity we stalk a spirit of the imagination, who stalks us in its turn. Indeed we are condemned no less than the Prince of Denmark to a poisoned duel of contingencies from which we shall not emerge alive, let alone unscathed (Baudrillard, 1990a: 144ff.): "(c)hess is a gentlemans game. . .Its associated with sophistication and decorum and meant to be played by two refined men in a civilized manner." This deliberate heightening of the drama of modernism through my reading of Uki's tale conflates what is/ought/seems to be so in a resonance of pure play raised to Geertz' notion of "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" (Geertz, 1973: 448). Life, like chess, is a "gentleman's game," and the "crude savage" need not apply.

Thus we adopt the alternative roles of believer, questioner, or scoffer to our imminent peril: those who accept unquestioningly the "really real," those who temporarily distance themselves from it, and those who reject it in favor of another, more satisfactory yet not more substantial imagery are alike content with Baudrillard's "banal" strategy, the supposition that human consciousness governs the images of modernity (Baudrillard, 1990a: 181; Gane, 1991a: 174). Ultimately such attitudes are defeated by "fatality," the strategies that images adopt of their own accord (Baudrillard, 1990a: 181). Describing an encounter with the fictional (?) Pasternak, searching for authority on the institutionalized international list of rated players or the copyright of published works, enquiring after the written moves of a furtive game, likening a tale to the enfabled doings of world champions are all alike the stigma of panic or hysteria that Baudrillard ascribes to engagement with modernity (Baudrillard, 1988: 45; 1992: 26; Kroker and Cook, 1988: Preface). The mysterious powers of Uki, the savage, the "natural" man whose play is likened to that of a "polar bear," are overtaken in each of the three categories of response that I have identified by attempts to govern the tale through its reduction to "cultural" discourses, those which defer to the normal standards of civility. Yet in Baudrillards thought, and in our exemplar of the seal-hunters tale, each such attempt to discover a firm ground of reality defers to another %ad infinitum% with only the electronic trace, the elusive play of virtual discourse, remaining. Again, in Baudrillard's thought, this is a "banal" strategy doomed to failure.

Thus, when I looked immediately online that day beyond the tale of the seal hunter on CHESS-L, I found only the juxtapositions that ironized his story (cf. Aycock and Buchignani, 1993): postings on another discussion group (IPCT-L) which attempted without much success to define the virtuality against the real, and on yet another group (DERRIDA-L) directed towards the autobiography of its signatories, all elapsing and collapsing in simulated textual images of human embodiment. Many other instances could be cited, but it is doubtful that online discourse contradicts Baudrillards position.

Can we do better, instead, by moving away from computer mediated discourses? There is the nightly news, which assumes a posture of the real, saying what is so (Fiske, 1989: ch. 7). Shall we rest assured, then, with the carefully choreographed "spectacle" of Desert Storm (Gane, 1991b: 69; Kroker, 1991: ch. 2)? How about spinoff news programs which prime vehicles with incendiary devices to achieve a desired visual impact? Or "reality" television, at whose behest a movie contract was signed, and a production company formed to celebrate the doings of David Koresh and his followers even before the stand-off in Waco, Texas had been fully consummated? Perhaps television, after all, is not the best ground from which to assail Baudrillard.

Still, our personal experience is immediate and real, isnt it? Our bodies surely represent an ultimate touchstone of what we take to be true. Yet there is a problem here as well: should we trust even the sentience of our own bodies that we now know to be infested by self-images that promote anorexia, gynocide, racism, and the more exotic "isms" of modernity (Foucault, 1979: ch.3; Caputi, 1987; Lawrence, 1987; Martin, 1987: ch. 7; Watney, 1989; Featherstone and Hepworth, 1991)? After we interrogate our own bodies in a catechism of self-doubt, what is left to us as self- evidently real?

Pretense, as Baudrillard reminds us, is the ideology of facticity where facts are themselves forfeited (Baudrillard, 1989: 85; see also Barthes, 1985: 34-35). Uki's savage victories over civilized men are, from this viewpoint, merely the stuff of Levi-Strauss' myths that "think themselves in men's minds" (Levi-Strauss, 1975: 12). As are we, perhaps.

I have saved the fourth question for my conclusion, and I engage it now.


If the three questions that I have asked, and to which I have sketched answers above, sound a note of disenchantment, that is precisely the mood in which Baudrillard reigns supreme (Gane, 1991b: ch. 5). Although he is more often treated superficially as a proponent of a radical idealism which is divorced from reality and suffering, there is a persistent intonation of Baudrillard's thought which attempts to associate play with the problem of evil, the metaphysical context of human suffering (Gane 1991a: ch. 1). To address the fourth question that I have asked, let us think once more about play.

When we try to distinguish play from reality, we usually also formulate a difference between pleasure and the serious, often taking the former to be a secondary and derived image of the latter. By contrast, if we were to privilege play over the real, then we should, apparently, by that distinction privilege the mood of fun and dispense irresponsibly with the laborious, the everyday modality of suffering and embodiment in the world. But Baudrillard does not permit this indulgence: he argues that pretense is dominant in modernity, but so is suffering (Baudrillard, 1990a: 9). Perhaps we have mixed our categories; perhaps we should reconsider our premises.

I propose the following as starting-points for our consideration of the role of play in modernity:

1. In modernity, the play of images is prevalent in mass- mediated discourses.

2. The play of images in mass-mediated discourses increasingly supplements real experience by its simulations, to the extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. Our personal experience becomes intertextual, real experience confused with mass-mediated images.

3. Our intertextuality responds to the "fatal" strategies of the consumption of images. These strategies may evade and even negate personal intervention. As a result, human subjectivity becomes a task, not a given. Human thoughts and feelings mingle with the desire induced by images, which indefinitely postpone fulfillment by sliding to other images, and yet others.

4. Our subjectivity is therefore that of the play of images experienced in virtuality. This virtuality is not only the movement of images in cyberspace, but also the intensification of the autonomous mobility of images in everyday life, images without a stable reference to "reality." In effect, virtuality has become our mode of personal experience in modernity.

Thus the story of Uki, the seal-hunter, is the tale of us all, mass-mediated textuality and embodied context miscegenated. Play, in this view, is the promise and the fate of modernity, where the dominant mode of discourse is simulation (the "hyperreal"), yet for this reason all the more intensely felt in that domain (Baudrillard, 1990b: 79).

There are at least four games here according to Baudrillard, corresponding to each of my questions in its turn. First, the game of online discourse, which is exactly the experience of simulation (Baudrillard, 1988: 22; Borgmann, 1992: 161); second, the game of signatures in cyberspace, the clamor of digital voices, virtual presences that cannot be resolved by reference to the real world (Baudrillard, 1983: 103); third, the game of embodiment, the imagery of suffering and desire that does not escape the virtual, but seals us inexorably within its fatality (the "ecstasy of the real," Baudrillard, 1990a: 9); fourth, the game of the real itself, that is subordinated in modernity to the play of images, and the consumption of pretense as the dominant mode of productivity in this latest stage of capitalism (Baudrillard, 1992: 15). Each of these games is above all a simulation, a virtual modelling of reality sited in the playful imagination, the diffusion of pretense across the cyberspace of modern lives (Baudrillard, 1975: 20; 1983: 103; Benedikt, 1991; Rheingold, 1991).

Baudrillard speaks once more: "Caution: objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear" (Baudrillard, 1989: 1).

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