A fragment about Cyberpunk and Infinite Jest

Cyberpunk thus made the vibrant imaginary of a human-technology continuum spectacularly visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s, birthing an entire subgenre of science fiction about the human subject in technology.[1] The sense in which cyberpunk attempted to articulate “technological modes of being in the world”[2] highlights that the genre primarily developed an affective aesthetic. The characters in these texts constantly feel new technologies. Vivid images of the way such feelings are experienced and navigated define texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, the first instance of digital textuality – text attempting to describe the conditions and experience of digital technology – as a robust phenomenon in print. The next perhaps unexpected way-point for digital textuality, however, comes in the form of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 1996. While Wallace’s novel doesn’t necessarily directly address the lived reality of digital computer technology in the 1990s, the technological conditions and media ecology of a near-future dystopian North America influence the plot and overall atmosphere.  Detailed descriptions of digital screen technologies litter what has been valorised by the academy as an important literary accomplishment comparable to Ulysses in scale, imagination and literary merit.[3] Such status is premised on the usual hollow categories of literary value. Yet the novel can be read as borrowing devices from the cyberpunk genre to furnish its plot and to frame the existential crises of its main character, Hal. Most notably, the fatal cartridge which if watched will incapacitate the viewer, The Entertainment, is commensurate to the Snow Crash virus in Neil Stephenson’s novel of the same name. The Entertainment is the ultimate destructive technology, which works by a viral mechanism to destroy the thinking subject. With it, the postmodern subject suffers the blackly comic ‘death’ it dreadfully anticipates, which is to become an object of technology, to lose the final vestiges of “humanity” which is persistently ironized in postmodern literature. In Snow Crash, the same death of the thinking subject is granted a political resonance, given that it is hackers, counter-cultural figures, who are targeted. In cyberpunk, such death might be understood as a gruesome and thrilling event required of a detective-sci-fi plot, whereby biological and technological life is thought together. When such death happens in Infinite Jest, it is understood as cunning satire on the evils of watching too much television. One reason this difference in reading exists is because of the different ways technology is able to be thought in what is labelled a cyberpunk novel and what is labelled a serious literary novel.

Wallace’s novel encodes an inability to think technology outside of its role in the death of this modern, autonomous, self-aware subject. For Wallace, such subjects are extremely capable in their understanding of postmodern irony. Technology simply obstructs the perpetual and vain struggle to articulate what it means to “be a fucking human being,” to use Wallace’s terms, but must also be accepted as an inescapable condition of the life in the late twentieth-century, else one might be accused of a naïve romanticism. In Infinite Jest, those people in society who still use the very latest technologies are said to be only those “utterly lacking in self-awareness.” This long and serious literary novel takes the central idea of cyberpunk, which wanted to think about technological modes of being in the world,  and address how technology might make a subject feel, and makes it a “serious” endeavour. It does this by limiting the aesthetic possibility of technological modes of being to concerns with whether technology helps one to think. It replaces the possibility of feeling technology with the limiting strategy of thinking it. With this, Infinite Jest reaffirms contemporary personal technology’s status as pathological to the modern subject (Cf. Hal at end of the novel). It is a literary reformation of the cyberpunk aesthetic, one which evacuates it of the spectacular imaginary and reaffirms the human/technology divide through ironic humour and recursive interiority. This is exemplified in the most recognisably cyborg character in the novel, Mario, whose disability is both played for humour and fetishized. Whereas with a figure such as Donna Haraway, the increased female competency in performing with and through personal technologies is the condition for emancipatory ethical and political pleasures, Infinite Jest locates the possibility for ethical valency in the interiority of the thinking male subject, one who is predisposed to mental dissection and recursive critical thought, and for whom the technological reflects not a Luddite threat of automation but the constant horror of their ever-possible object status. Mario’s variety of prosthetics are only positive in the sense that they ameliorate his object status, rather than because they blur the line between subject and machine. The irony that the technological is the very reason which allows the subject to think difference and/or exteriority, is one which is unthinkable in the novel. This is because it is an irony which threatens the position of the Wallacian dis-technological subject; it makes new technological forms the condition for the emergence of genuine sociality.


[2] Scott Bukatman

[3] Reference for this…

“Things aren’t different. Things are things.” Reading Cyborgs in Gibson’s Neuromancer



There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he’d always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered –as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. (p.239)

This moment in Neuromancer is the description of the protagonist Case encountering a cyber-version of his murdered girlfriend, Linda Lee. It comes as the result of Case’s most prolonged “flat-lining” episode having been “jacked-in” to cyberspace – he arrives in a kind of digital-mental purgatory created by the AI Neuromancer. Case works out where he is, has sex with Linda, and then refuses Neuromancer’s offer of eternal digital life, beginning the narrative climax of the novel. This passage serves to emphasize, I think, how digital textuality in Neuromancer in-fact reproduces a hierarchy of reality over virtuality, one which retains the security of a heterosexual, masculine subject in the face of ontological uncertainty effectively navigated by Harawayan cyborg-female subjects such as Linda and Molly. When the concept of the cyborg as a radical imaginary becomes most pronounced, the novel draws back from it, unable to embrace a feminine irony, incoherence and uncertainty.

The desire Case feels  for Linda in the encoded cyber-memory where he sees her is made-up of contradiction and irony. It weighs physically (“she pulled him down”) but it is also a technology, a “sea of information coded” which is simultaneously read as biological or “natural” (“pheromone.”) It is a then “drive”, understood in a paradoxical sense, “beyond knowing” but “read” by the body in a “strong” and “blind” process. The desire located in the body is seemingly unknowable information, both technological and “natural”, digital and physical. The passage works initially to create an uncertainty about the human-machine continuity. Only humans, not machines, can “read” the inarticulable desires of the body, but those desires can’t be thought outside of a technological literacy – the “strength” which Case recognises in Linda is born in the “relentless street” but is manifest here in digital through the powerful AI Neuromancer. The ambiguity of what it means to read – only the body can read a body, but here finds strength in a digital body – seems to create fertile ground for radical thinking about being (about ontology). Perhaps, for instance, desire could be conceived of without a binary of body/machine, and then without an anthropocentric notion of what constitutes sanctioned desire. The contradiction flesh presents to the digital could be retained as an emergent pleasure.

With this, Case becomes aware of the irony which conditions his way of thinking about the world: that while cyberspace enthusiastically attempts to jettison the body, as he desperately wants to, without the meat space, mocked by the cowboys, there is no cyberspace, no place from which to transcend. Digital bodily pleasure is physical bodily pleasure, despite the constant denigration of the physical body, and the sense that cyberspace is a transcendent project. But Neuromancer does not allow this irony to reconfigure the desiring, male subject. It does not persist, or manifest newly liminal pleasures, and as such reproduces a plastic cyborg position, which is only geographic or solely prosthetic (sublime, perhaps) rather than ontological. Any ironic realisation is subsumed, and used to reinforce patriarchal pleasure as a condition-of and goal-for the transcendental. The manner of going “beyond knowing”, whether by plugging into cyberspace or by pursuing desire in meat space, is limited by the conditions of the knowing it would seek to escape. This is confirmed by Case’s coherent reading of Linda, and the novel’s inability to see the situation of reading/unambiguous reading as a problem. Case and Linda have sex, “effecting the transmission of the old message”, a description which constructs Case’s desire as a form of reproductive/textual power, and seems to erase the sense that Linda is an uncertain digital construct. Case, concerned about what might be happening to him in this uncertain and unfamiliar cyberspace, then seeks out the boy incarnation of Neuromancer in order to better reach understanding. Linda tries to follow him, and is read as an object by Case, a now paradoxically tainted and human digital unfantasy: “She looked like one of the girls on Finn’s old magazines in Metro Holografix come to life, only she was tired and sad and human, the ripped costume pathetic as she stumbled over clumps of salt-silver sea grass.” (p.243) While the uncertainty of the human-machine continuum suggested a way of re-imagining desire, the only character who can attempt to articulate it is our frightened, post-coital male cowboy. Regardless of where a possible reader might be on the human-computer continuum, the problem of who is able to read and how they do so is left unaddressed. After all, the “information coded in spiral and pheromone” is only readable by the body if the subject has a body which is allowed to engage in a performance of reading. Linda Lee is denied this reading agency, she is transmitted to as a node rather than reciprocally receiving something which she is allowed to process or think. This is because she is simultaneously computer code and woman. She is unable to even attempt to know that she is a “ghost”, as the boy-AI Neuromancer labels her, confined by Case’s fear of her ontological undecideability. The gendered way of knowing in “reality”, manifest as a coherent and certain process of reading, dominates ways of knowing the virtual, and thus the novel denies Linda’s possible place as a positive cyborg subject/myth/monster.

The main female character in the novel, Molly, possesses far greater agency in the text than Linda, but her resonance is limited in the final pages. Molly is able to read the constant irony of the human/machine continuity which defines the world of Neuromancer with a competency commensurate to (or better than) Case’s. However, the possibilities for such reading agency to move “beyond knowing” are confined at the end of the novel. Her final textual presence is a paper note explaining that her and Case’s relationship is “TAKING THE EDGE OFF MY GAME […] IT’S THE WAY IM WIRED I GUESS”.(p.267) which Case literally screws up. The knowing irony in the pun and Molly’s pragmatic voice humorously puncture Case’s romantic-cowboy trajectory. Her rejection of a traditional heterosexual relationship in favour of retaining a fugitive technological literacy makes Molly into a more robustly Harawayan cyborg figure than Linda Lee, although one which the novel is ultimately unwilling to reproduce, threatening as it is to the frame of a traditionally-gendered subjectivity. Case’s romantic vision keeps Molly in the role as lost lover: “I never even found out what color her eyes were. She never showed me.” (p.268) The final line of the novel is not a celebration of what Molly might uncertainly represent – the possibility of new pleasures, hybrid and necessarily incoherent identities  – but provides an image of the heterosexual male haunted by both versions of his frustrated desire for the female body. “He never saw Molly again” contains a lament for the fact that neither the techno-ghost Linda nor the cyborg-Molly allows for the retention of a stable masculine subject, because of the uncertainty they provoke in human-machine and gendered terms. Molly disappears, and the possibility of continuing to read gendered/machine relations anew is stopped; the novel is literally unable to move beyond the male reader/narrator towards a cyborg one. The final version of the AI Wintermute – physically present as male, The Finn – is tellingly one of total coherence. That he is “Nowhere. Everywhere […] the sum total of the works, the whole show” is something which another female character, 3Jane’s mother “couldn’t imagine.” Such coherence is the only outcome the masculine imagination could foresee. The novel finishes having reinforced a vision of virtuality which glorified the male cyborg, for Case is the counter-cultural analogue of the military-industrial superhuman, a hacker-romantic-hero. The text retreats from the very cyberspace which would accommodate the female cyborg and allow them to flourish, taking solace instead in a romantic fantasy, a reality of eternal recuperation. In the words of the AI “[t]hings aren’t different” in the end, things like being, or gender. “Things are things.” (p.270)