“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)

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“An Opening Into Something”: New Media Connection in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

“Without a sense of how weird the present is — how potentially weird the present is — it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future.” – William Gibson

I’ve just finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). Anyone who isn’t familiar with his work is probably more aware of his influence than they think. Without Gibson, for example, The Matrix probably wouldn’t exist, having taken its cue from his seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer (1984), where we first find the concept of cyberspace articulated.

I’m interested in Gibson for two reasons. Firstly, because of how his recent writing provides a unique perspective on twenty-first century genre. With Pattern Recognition, which is the first in the Blue Ant trilogy, we see an established sci-fi author alter the boundary between serious literary fiction and science fiction. Furthermore, Gibson’s line above acknowledges what has been a strand in literary criticism on the contemporary, that the now is too interesting in and of itself – he’s a significant commentator on how we understand the contemporary. The second is that, having only read Neuromancer earlier this summer (and becoming a complete evangelist for it in the process, telling all and sundry that this was a work of sci-fi that is still extremely powerful in the present day), I was keen to see how Gibson’s style has developed up until this point.

Pattern Recognition makes free use of new media interaction. Gibson understands the proliferation of this kind of communication as significant to human experience. These forms of signification, the descriptions of screen-time, connection and online communities are central to the messages if the novel, and arguably the most important and essential relationships we see are almost wholly conditioned by technological interaction.

The protagonist is Cayce, who works as a kind of finder for a form of postmodern ad agency, identifying “cool” when she sees it, understanding which logos and designs will work simply by a form of intuition. It is an ability which works the other way too, with brands she finds disturbing causing an extreme phobic response. She becomes embroiled in a hunt for the maker of the Footage, an internet film phenomenon. The Footage is a modular avant-garde event, sections of film released sporadically and anonymously, one which has garnered a cult following online. Cayce is part of F:F:F, Fetish:Footage:Forum, a site dedicated to intricate and impassioned discussion of the origin, style and possible purpose of the Footage.

Gibson’s thriller plot is essentially a holding pattern for Cayce’s interactions with the community, and with her own struggles to maintain a grip on her jet-lagged soul. Her constant travel across the globe means that she is constantly out-of-sync with the cities in which she resides. Her moments of connection – the screens, the community – provide some level of personal security:

It is a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar cafe that exists somehow outside of natural geography and beyond time zones.

The community is expertly drawn by Gibson (there have a developed vocabulary for delineating which hermeneutic gang various users are in – “Kubrick’s Garage” or “Spielberg’s Closet?”). For Cayce, the community around the Footage, and the Footage itself, provide a connection which she otherwise lacks. When asked if it’s just that she’s reading too much into it, she confirms that there is something ineffable, either in the footage itself, or in the process, which keeps her returning:

I’ve wanted to believe it, simply in order to let the thing go. But then I go back and look at it again, and there’s that sense of … I don’t know. Of an opening into something. Universe? Narrative?

Cayce constantly struggles to comprehend the narrative she is part of, or the universe that has allowed her father to go missing. F:F:F provides a form of imaginative understanding that helps to augment her personal understanding. This kind of interaction is not a complete comfort and saviour, but it does provide the displaced person with a temporary sense of connection, and thus control.

Cayce makes reference to metaphors of the soul because of her disjunction from time zones and the constantly weirder events that take place in them. The constant is her internet connection, her ability to read correspondence those few figures in her life which help to ground her one form of fixed and controllable identity. Her personal proximity with Parkaboy – an influential user on the F:F:F site – increases throughout the novel, even while geographical proximity becomes so distant and multifarious as not to matter. Cayce acknowledges the shift in proximity, the movement of F:F:F into her reality, as something physical – a negating of the metaphor of screen world:

She looks at the phone and wonders who Parkaboy is […] But now, in some way she can’t quite grasp, the universe of F:F:F is everting. Manifesting physically in the world.

The very structure of the novel acknowledges that new media connections serve multiple essential purposes, but that one of its main functions is to do with the texture of loneliness. Cayce is utterly lonely throughout the novel, and the increasing recurrence of e-mail communication provides a foundation, the potential of close human connection, which might bring her soul back in check, cope finally with the loss of her father. Later in the novel, when her sense of displacement is most acute, she keeps searching for the right connection through those familiar portals:

Checking her mail.
Timing out, empty.
Sleep no longer an issue […]
Showers.
Does not think.

Most of the varying narrative strands are in fact concluded through e-mail correspondence, as though confirming that these are narratives Cayce now, part-resolved, can comfortably sees herself as legible element of. In this sense, the ethical question at the centre of the novel is around how to maintain connections that will keep us in existence. For Gibson, comprehending and gaining some control over the narratives which make up our existence, and maintaining the identities which allow us to understand and control our lives, is an act that is supplemented by new media connection.  He understands that new technologies become a part of us, because they constantly redefine what it means to be present, or consistently alive:

We seldom legislate new technologies into being. They emerge, and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us – as surely and perhaps as terribly as we’ve been redefined by broadcast television.

If Pattern Recognition could be called a novel that chronicles one form of plunge into the vortices of change, then it readily accepts and describes the redefinition that comes with it. New media, technologically-conditioned-communication, is another way of trying to play the game of catch-up with the soul, of working out ways of being less alone.

 

References:

Gibson, W. Pattern Recognition (2003)

Wired Interview with William Gibson

‘God’s Little Toys’ – William Gibson on Art, the Remix and Technology

On William Gibson’s Neuromancer

 

Rewriting Dystopia: Ethical Conflicts in Juli Zeh’s ‘The Method’

The tension between state and individual is arguably what defines the most influential or important literary dystopias. Zeh’s novel – The Method (2009)  – is an original modern example of a genre which essentially asks the same questions of human society through different sci-fi tropes – what rights of the individual can be sustained or justified in the face of a government which purports to work for the greater good of society? The closest analogue here is Huxley, but there are shades of other sci-fi stylists to be found. The form, I would argue, is tangibly different, and significantly so for the way we understand its messages about ethical conflict. It is almost aphoristic in places – Nietzsche is ever-present in the protagonist’s brother, Moritz – and the narrative voice contains a lachrymose note, a resignation, as if asking the question itself is problematic, a repetitive structure. It doesn’t have the pride of a self-reflexive post-modernism, but a kind of weary fatigue, a concern about how the answer should be or could be phrased.

In this sense, I’d suggest the form and structure of this conflict narrative is a peculiarly twenty-first century version of the subject and society. We often understand the central question as a conflict between the protagonist and key symbolic, authoritarian characters – John and Mustapha Mond, Winston and O’Brien, D-503 and the Benefactor – but in The Method there are multiple representatives of authority – Sophie, Hutschneider, Kramer, Barker – all of them with their own personal holdings of virtues and vices. There is no singular dystopian figure; throughout the novel these characters become more transparent, more morally complex. They are only in part representative of The Method, that is, the notion that the literal health of society, the eradication of disease and the monitoring of citizen body metrics to maintain collective social vitality, constitutes the ultimate condition of social well-being. In the hands of those characters with access to power, this biological-utilitarianism becomes what every other ethical system becomes – a vehicle to enact authority and manipulate the populace. The ‘Right to Illness’ is in part linked a la Brave New World to humanism and liberal ideas, with the smoking of cigarettes turned into a revolutionary act, but the eventual resistance to the system stems from the uncovering of political corruption and mass concerns over political control, not a sustained challenge to the ethical status of The Method itself.

The generic convention of rebelling against the forces of dystopian oppression is subverted subtly by Zeh, in a way which indicates a wider, less easily identified ideological conflict. Mia Holl asks for “time to herself”, “peace and quiet” and explains “she wouldn’t mind being ill”. This is indicative of a kind of malaise, brought on by mourning, rather than any kind revolutionary zeal. Mia is upset by the political and personal circumstances surrounding her brother’s death. As a scientist, she does not wish to reject the ideals of the method entirely – her concerns are about the institutions which establish it. Her discussions with Moritz recur throughout the novel and demonstrate that she does not work in philosophical absolutes. Zeh allows the conflict between social good and individual freedom to continually run inside Mia. She is also called liminal – a “witch” – and the process through which she is to be punished by the state compounds her ethical status further. She is to be frozen in a form of stasis.

The person who calls her a witch is Zeh’s most intriguing formal creation, the ideal inamorata. This character is somewhere between morality-play-figure, a basic realist foil and a sexual partner. She sometimes resembles a kind of late 19th century aesthete in tone and manner:

Mia is sitting at her desk with her back to the room; from time to time she jots something down on one of the sheets of paper in front of her. Meanwhile, the ideal inamorata is reclining on the couch, clad in her beautiful hair and the light of the afternoon sun. We don’t know if she understands what Mia is saying or even if she can hear her voice because she doesn’t show any sign of listening or understanding. For all we know, the ideal inamorata may live in another dimension that borders on Mia’s world. Her gaze, as she stares into space, resembles the lidless stare of a fish.

The ideal inamorata’s “relationship to matter is tenuous” and this is something which defines her as apart from the world of the novel. Often, this semi-character provides significant insights as to the nature of Mia’s self, or the nature of the conflict at hand.  In a novel that is concerned with the political status of the body, a clarifying voice is given to a character who is disembodied. When Kramer first enters Mia’s apartment the uncertain status of the ideal inamorata is confirmed – “he is untroubled by the look of revulsion on the ideal inamorata’s face – not because he doesn’t care what she thinks, which he probably doesn’t, but because he can’t see her.” Kramer both sees and doesn’t see this character, because she exists within the margins of the form of the narrative. She interacts structurally in conventional ways – she is part of dialogue, she is described spatially in the same way as other characters – but she shifts the form of the narrative. The ideal inamorata ruptures the fabric of the ethical totality of health, as such rupturing the fabric of the dystopian world, . Undermining all of our desires to see the novel as a way choose how to be good, to rebel against oppression, to explain the threat to individual liberties caused by the blind commitment to a moral hegemony, is negation embodied by this particularly unreal piece of formal experimentation. Even when the inamorata calls Mia to “make a decision”, denying the middle ground over whether Moritz’s death was “good or bad”, she immediately follows it with a call to stasis – she calls Mia over to sit on the couch, turns on the TV and the chapter ends.

And it’s this I think that the novel gets right, the notion that ethical conflicts in the current age are tired. It is linked to the language used to define moral concepts, which on both sides appears to lack clarity or conviction. The status of every character in this novel is psychologically and morally messy. Even the end of the novel establishes a kind of stasis – it isn’t Winston or John’s end. (Cf. the ‘not quite endings’ of other twenty-first century novels). Contained within you’ll find clear critiques of Utilitarian desires to define and live by opposing forces of pain and pleasure (Kramer’s first and second category idea) and you’ll feel the same revulsion at the illegitimate powers exercised by a totalitarian authority. But the relationships between characters go beyond any kind of moral clarity provided by traditional moral language, and the fact that the clarifying voice of the inamorata exists outside of the protagonist’s reality, outside of the formal reality of the dystopia itself, serves to confirm this.

The Faint Whiff of Context

Today I finished reading Rita Felski’s paper “Context Stinks!”, following up on some work I’ve been looking at on literary ethics in contemporary criticism. Felski’s central argument is that the category of context is problematic for literary studies, as it automatically renders the text as an object which is easily adduced, subjugated or removed of its agency. She uses the metaphor of a “box” – whether historical, social or economic – into which we “place texts”. I have to agree that there is a certain safety and ritual in doing this. When teaching English Lit A-lvl, there was always a need for students to “use context” to the extent that it was stipulated by the exam board as an assessment objective. That we would tell students not to “bolt on” contextual information in their essays perhaps demonstrates the lack of critical creativity contained in a reading that treats social and historical periods as distinct, discrete boxes in which to “put” texts.

Felski relies on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to fortify her central argument about the status of context in literary criticism. She suggests that we need to reconfigure our understanding of text-as-object using Latour’s notion of the non-human actor:

The “actor” in actor-network theory is not a self-authorizing subject, an independent agent who summons up actions and orchestrates events. Rather, actors only become actors via their relations with other phenomena, as mediators and translators linked in extended constellations of cause and effect. Nonhuman actors, then, help to modify states of affairs; they are participants in chains of events; they help shape outcomes and influence actions.

It’s a wide category to assign to a text, which might raise concern around whether thinking of the text as “actor” is really all that useful – it will be important to ask what value there is in criticism that uses such a label, although I can certainly see the potential. There’s also an unhelpful echo of the author themselves in this idea of the text as “actor” – I don’t think we can avoid the author-as-context if we’re examining a contemporary text (mainly because of the changing nature of our access to the author and their networks of influence, but that’s a discussion for another post), One way of understanding this definition is that it engenders a movement away from the ritual of reading texts as the result of their social environment towards more creative and energetic critical activity, of the kind that which understands the essential “social” nature of the text. Certainly there is an emphasis on seeing the text as part of a network, one that doesn’t allow the critic to place the text securely, conservatively into a bordered and uncommunicative past. Whether we understand this perspective as particularly radical depends perhaps upon the value you place on the historical period as a window for critical interaction. As a critic of contemporary literature, I’m attracted to the notion of seeing the text as part of a network, a dialogue which is temporally unrestrained, rather than carefully drawn.

It isn’t difficult to agree that “[a]rtworks must be sociable to survive, whatever their attitude to “society” ” and to suggest that we should recycle the boxes of historical periods into something richer, allowing for new and fluid temporal connections. This is where Felski is particularly strong, especially excoriating the arbitrary reliance placed on period-expertise when organising literature departments, considering editors for journals and other practical manifestations of critical ideology. Her use of Robbins’ idea that genre might just as well stand in for the idea of the historical period is clever, although seems to reframe the same question, considering that one of the main ways of understanding a term as slippery as genre is through its historical context. Considering that often we find genre and period coupled, defined together – e.g. the late-19th century novel, Greek Tragedy – we may find that we’re just looking at a different part of the same knot.

The idea got me thinking though – what if we’re seeing a movement away from a kind of easy historicizing in approaches to contemporary fiction, due in part to the very nature of the actor/object that we’re studying? If we want to ‘do’ more effective criticism which allows for new connections, new networks of understanding, more dialogue between texts that isn’t restrained or defined by set notions of historical periodisation, then we need to make these ideas central in the ways that we write about text and, more importantly, the ways we teach them. It seems to me that now is the time to establish a critical environment for more exciting ways of doing literary criticism., especially with a movement towards the artwork as social phenonmenon. Felski articulates that:

The significance of a text is not exhausted by what it reveals or conceals about the social conditions that surround it. Rather, it is also a matter of what it makes possible in the viewer or reader—what kind of emotions it elicits, what perceptual changes it triggers, what affective bonds it calls into being.

If we move readings away from the social conditions of a text, then we are immediately altering where we find value in the critical activity. In other words, we state implicitly the imaginative, ethical value of the texts potential to create “perceptual changes” and create new “affective” bonds. We acknowledge that texts are not clear cut in their influence, but that:

[c]ross-temporal networks mess up the tidiness of our periodizing schemes, forcing us to acknowledge affinity and proximity alongside difference, to grapple with the coevalness and connectedness of past and present.


I might go so far as to say now is the right time to do this – but suddenly I’ve brought a fixed notion of time and the social environment to bear again on critical endeavour. Regardless that it’s painted in bright colours and has stickers on it, I’ve still just built another box. The smell of context might then be inescapable, but Felski suggests here not a rejection of it, but one way of re-calibrating it. It seems to me that the spirit of these arguments is in trying to establish further creativity in critical pursuits, and so to return students to ways of reading texts which challenge their safe notions of how the world, how history in particular, is constituted.

Bibliography

R. Felski, 2011, ‘Context Stinks!’ New Literary History Vol.42 Issue 4 pp.573-591