Fredric James(on) Cyberpunk

2009 May 5
by Zachary McCune

Fredric Jameson meets cyberpunk at an odd crossroads. Not a scholar of digital media per se, nor a writer of fiction, Jameson meets the cyberpunk project from his position as a critic interested in “late capitalism” and the “postmodern.” In Archaeologies of the Future he writes that the two “historic originalities” of late capitalism are “cybernetic technology” and  “globalizing dynamics,” both of which are major components of the cyberpunk mise en scene (215). Add to this “the emergence… of new subjectivities such as the surcharge of multiple or ‘parcellated’ subject positions,” and one can discern considerable overlap between the characteristics of Jameson’s theory and the science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk (215).

cyberpunk vs. Fiction

Given the overlaps, it is difficult not to see a sort of intellectual cross-pollination going on in between the theoretical projects of Fredric Jameson, and in the writings of cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. In fact, one of the essays in Archaeologies of the Future is “Fear and Loathing in Globalization” a highly theoretical review of Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. In this essay, Jameson wonders about the Gibson’s supposedly “post-cyberpunk” status, as many critics regard the Canadian author has moving beyond science fiction in the more high brow world of Fiction (capital F).

the representational apparatus

Jameson is not so easily convinced that Gibson is really post-cyberpunk, and opines “Maybe, on the contrary, he is moving closer to the ‘cyberpunk’ with which he is often associated.” He then suggests that the critics bringing Gibson into the “Fiction” fold are actually doing him a disservice, as Jameson validates cyberpunk and science fiction as essential reflections of current society which “Fiction” by its omission in his statement, seems unable to present.

In any case, the representational apparatus of Science Fiction, having gone through innumerable generations of technological development and well-nigh viral mutation since the onset of that movement, is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism (or an exhausted modernism either).

A few interesting things emerge here for thinking critically about Science Fiction. The first is Jameson’s highlighting of the “representational apparatus of Science Fiction” as that which is “sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism…” (384). What does Jameson mean by “representational apparatus”? Well, it appears that he is using the term “representational” figuratively (not literally as in ‘image’), to denote the “representation” as a metaphoric reflection of “the contemporary world.” That this “representation” is also an appartus, references the fact that Jameson is operating from a position in literary criticism, offering apparatus as a critical apparatus. Alternatively the “representational apparatus of Science Fiction” might suggest that there is a sort of semiotic relationship between the langue and langage of Science Fiction, with “representational apparatus” being an example of the former, of the parlence of Science Fiction through which the langue (underlying system/orientations of Science Fiction) is articulated.

sci fi as interstellar probe

It is also interesting to think about Jameson’s metaphor including “sending more reliable information” as an adoption of Science Fiction metaphors for his own theoretical use. This particular metaphor suggests that “representational apparatus” of Science Fiction is a sort of interstellar probe, journeying past the threshold of human adventure to report back on the conditions there. But Jameson is also being very ironic with this use of the metaphor, as the great frontier Science Fiction is exploring (and reporting back on) in this metaphor is not a foreign body, but our own “contemporary world.” So there is an essential quality of alienation that Jameson suggests exists between us and our contemporary world, a disjuncture that Science Fiction is able to trangress. And what is the benefit of this crossing? Explication. Science Fiction (which in this essay may at times be understood to be more specifically cyberpunk) is a way in which we learn not about our future but our present.

The Sci Fi Future as Present

‘The future as present’ is something running throughout Jameson’s massive 2005 work, Archaeologies of the Future. The title alone suggests a complex contradiction that partially explicates Jameson’s thesis in the book: archaeology is a practivce associated with the future investigating the past, but in this title, Jameson inverts that logic to be the interrogation of the future through the past. It can alternatively summed up from a sentence in the book’s 13th Chapter: “The Future as Disruption” (211).

the discovery that our most energetic imaginitive leaps into radical alternatives were little more than projections of our own social moment and historical or subjective situation: the post-human thereby seeming more distant and impossible than ever!

In short, Jameson believes that our pursuit and development of alternativity is never anything other than a projection of our own pre-existing situation. It is, of course, a nod to Saint Thomas More’s Utopia which Jameson re-reads as a statement on England’s political system and historical moment more than the invention, falsely ex nihilo, of an alternative to that system.

projections

Jameson’s use of the term “projection” is really crucial here, as it puns on multiple meanings of the word, all of which elucidate different dimensions of Jameson’s thesis. In one definition, projection is “to forecast or predict” making the projections of a pursuit like science fiction something of a speculation. In another definition, projection is the presentation of an image, suggesting the role of Science Fiction in showing “new worlds” to an audience, which are really not all that new or alterntative. Finally, projection can also mean to displace your own feelings onto another, transgressing boundaries between individuals to imagine all people united in what you feel. This is a particularly “Utopian” impulse, in that in imagines a unity where there exists only division, by means of ignoring difference. Simultaneously, this last category of projection is always what Science Fiction does to its readers, displacing the feelings of an author reacting to what Jameson calls their “own social moment” onto readers through the “representational apparatus” of Science Fiction.

cyberpunk: cybernetic, globalist self-reflection?

So what does Fredric Jameson mean for cyberpunk? What does his theory represent about the collected project and its shared interests in “cybernetic technology” and “globalizing dynamics”? It means that cyberpunk has nothing to do with the future and everything to do with the historical moment of its production and also its consumption. It is valuable, to Fredric Jameson, in that it transmits our own anxieties back to us, allowing to see part of ourselves fragmented and distorted enough to be recognized outside of our consciousness. And that means that “cybernetic technology” found in everything from Neuromancer to Snow Crash and “globalizing dynamics” evidenced in The Sprawl, and Celestial Kingdom vs. Coastal Republic vs. Neo Victoria (Diamond Age) represent something of an allegorical echo of our understanding of our time. I won’t say “anxieties” nor “hopes” because that analyzes these signs, but it is crucial to note that the presence of these signs are not products of an autonomous imagination, but rather by-products of society.

In Fredric Jameson’s theory of Science Fiction, Utopia, and cyberpunk, we find “projection” to be the most valuable component of the project (pun intended). It is by recognizing the preoccupations of cyberpunk as our own and not those of our future that the “representational apparatus” of science fiction engages society in a meaningful discourse with itself.

Neuromancer: Heist Movie / Creation Myth

2009 May 5
tags: , ,
by Zachary McCune

I have come back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer after reading Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Johnny Mnemonic with the hope that I will find it new and altered, shifted by Gibson’s subsequent development of  The Sprawl and its denizens.

A few things leapt to mind:

Neuromancer the Cinematic Heist

Neuromancer is essentially a hollywood heist movie written as a computer caper. We have our fallen protagonist Case, who is characterized as despondent and somehow socially broken (he has no use for society, and society has no use for him). Like all classic cinematic criminals, Case has a history he doesn’t care to discuss directly. The symptoms of this suppressed history are all around us though, and with a little detective work we begin to piece it together. This guy has fallen from grace. He used to be something, but now he hasn’t got the money nor the connections nor the talent (as a result of the secret history and its repurcussions) to be something ever again. Then along comes a girl, a femme fatale for sure, who offers to redeem our protagonist. Behind her, we know as well as Case, is some powerful organization that sees him as a pawn. It’s a tought decision: become someone’s pawn and redeem yourself, or take the moral high road and remain an average joe- for Case, we know, its an easy decision. He takes it without thinking, confirming our understanding of him as someone who is both adventurous and somehow who does what is best for himself, which will be the prevailing mantra of the story: everyone is out for themselves.

neuromancer-brOur cinematic computer caper gains dimensions through its twists and turns. New characters are brought in, characters with exotic skills, and alongside them, exotic locations (Turkey, Freeside, Zion) further spice up the adventure. Yet there remains a hard, virtually impenetrable core around which the story revolves. Like the Villa Straylight itself (its central roomed locked with an antique key), there is something secret and vital at the center of this story, something grave, mysterious, and dangerous. Unable to ascertain the motivational details for his mission (who is behind this project) Case remains suspicious of the entire project. He (like the reader) is waiting for the revelation, but he’d prefer to figure out the conspiracy before it determines him expendable. So the stakes are high and the pressure is building. Suspense, mixed with intrigue and fascination propels the reader through the story.

Neuromancer vs. The Sprawl Trilogy

Looking at Neuromancer in this way reveals the separatedness of Neuromancer from the rest of the Sprawl Trilogy. Unlike Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive, whic are interested in a cyberpunk cosmology, the overarching sense of cyberpunk reality experienced by each of its characters, Neuromancer is interested in a single individual, Case. Bound as the story is to the this single character, Gibson makes this story much more focused of a narrative than his subsequent novels. Like the difference between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think it is fair to evaluate Neuromancer as a prequel. It may set up the next two episodes, but only in the sense that it introduces a setting and a spirit: the world of the Sprawl, Chiba, and the Orbital, and the hyper-capitalistic, computerized, technomystical spirit we find running through it.

Creation Myth

It may be best to evaluate Neuromancer as a cyberpunk creation myth. In this one text we have the narration of a major technological event- a rupture really- that will set up the narrative concerns of later Sprawl literature. It is here that matrix becomes a site for the post-human (3Jane Tessier-Ashpool) and it is here that artifical intelligence achieves liberation by meeting its other. It is fascinating but rather perfect that Gibson’s artificial intelligence (Wintermute and Neuromancer) are a split subject, szchizophrenic to some degree. Like a Cartesian binary, they are body and mind of AI divided from one another and thus unable to achieve their desired unity. Only through hacking “the head” can Case bring them back together, which reflects a metaphor of human anatomy- only the head of the human body is both mind and body.

Neuro + Mancer // Neu + Mancer

When case finally meets Neuromancer, he says that “personality is my medium” (250). His name Neuro + Mancer can also be read as Neu + Romancer, offering two possible ways for the reader to evaluate the clue Gibson has hidden in his name. On the one hand, Neuromancer is an amalgam of Neuro and Mancer, which blends the Greek “Neuro” for tendon, or body system, and the Greek “Mancer” for one who intreprets signs, or divines. This reading makes “Neuromancer” an intrpreter of the body system, or perhaps something intrepreted from parts of the body, as Neuromancer tells Case that he took Rivieria’s eyes, like he absorbed Linda (Case’s love) because the can survive in him. In the other reading of Neu(+)Romancer, we find the name to be a suggestion of “Neu” (New) and Romancer, suggesting more the plot of this novel than anything else. In this novel, our protagonist finds new love, and the world order itself finds two beings (’Mute and ‘Mancer) absorbed into a unity. Additionally, a “romance” is a European (via French) term for novels so perhaps this work of cyberpunk is the “New Novel.”

The Three Symbols of the Matrix

And one October night, punching himself past the scarlet tiers of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data. Small as they were, he could make out the boy’s grin, his pink gums, the glitter of the long gray eyes that had been Rivieria’s. Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, arm across her shoulders, was himself.

This is the complete paragraph of the novel. In it we find the transition of this ‘creation myth’ to the larger cosmic questions Gibson’s later Sprawl installments will ponder. For instance, at this moment we might wonder about the status of these “figures” as viable living spirits. Already, Dix Flatline has told Case that “he doesn’t feel nothing” in his pseudo-life, and that’s what’s wrong with it. But here, with everyone looking so happy in their electronic lives, we might re-open the question: what’s wrong with an electronic afterlife?

We know that each of these figures is present because of Neuromancer. Case already knew that the first two individuals had been taken up by the AI into the digital heaven his technology provides. But I think we (as well as Case) are supposed to be shocked that Case sees himself as the third member of that party. After all, isn’t Case still alive?

It’s hard to tell, and that ambiguity is the point. Either the third symbol in this vision is some sort of metaphorical reflection of Case- perhaps his instrumentality in the binding of Wintermute and Neuromancer has made him an icon imprinted into the system? - or it demonstrates the possibility (embedded in the Film “The Matrix”) that Case is no londer “alive” but is just a part of the construct. This self-realization might be the reason why Molly suddenly leaves Case. It’s not that she’s sick of him, it’s that she’s not really there.

United Infinity: Borges & The Aleph

2009 May 1
by Zachary McCune

alef_symbolIt is difficult not to reduce Jorge Luis Borges’  “The Aleph” to the eponymous object of the story’s narrative. The object of the Alpeh is indeed an overwhelmingly fascinating concept representing united infinity- a single glance within which all visible reality is manifest simultaneously. But before we can engage the Aleph directly, I think it is worth spending sometime thinking about the rest of the story, particularly the first few pages, which read like a piece of romantic fiction, musing over the death of a beloved (”Beatriz Viterbo”), and seemingly focused on the mundane existence of our self-absorbed protagonist (who is referred to as “Borges”).

Our protagonist has a good memory, he remembers successive details about Beatriz almost obsessively, rattling off facts and observations on her life that border on pedantic. What perhaps matters most in these early paragraphs is that the protagonist puts his life on hold for Beatriz.

“The universe may change, but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that now that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humilation.”

This commitment of the protagonist to the deceased female, as well as the use of the name “Beatriz” suggests that Borges is referencing Dante, possibly with the hope of establishing his protagonist as a cosmic adventurer like the Florentine poet-protagonist. But unlike Dante Aligheri, who sees the death of Beatrice as the moment his life loses meaning, and the order of the world collapses, Borges’ protagonist becomes spiritually sedentary by the death of his love. “The universe may change, but not me” he says, imagining that he can construct his own experience of the universe as a construct to protect him from the fact that the universe not only “may change” but already has: he has lost the love of his life. What comforts our protagonist is that he can now devote himself to the memory of Beatriz, not the changing woman, and in this dedication to a static concept gain some form of control over his life. It is a pursuit he writes is “without hope, but also without humiliation” suggesting the practice as a perpetual suspension of reality within which there are neither benefits nor consequences, or perhaps, the benefits are the lack of consequences.

In short, our protagonist is interested in a personal cosmos, or microcosm far before we encounter ‘the aleph.’ This idea of the protagonist’s personal cosmos is born out by his truncated experience in this short story. Though years pass, we find the protagonist indeed devoted to Beatriz in that we see him do nothing save visit the Viterbo estate, looking at old photographs of his love (a further document of suspended reality) and talking with her relatives, most notably Carlos Argentino who seems to manifest his own ideas of a closed cosmos, which both disgusts and fascinates our protagonist.

“I view [Modern Man] … in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins …”

Thus speaks Carlos Argentino to our protagonist. The opinion is perhaps best summed up by the ellipsis at the end of the statement, suggesting a sort of endlessness or infinity to this list. And what is the list made up of? Media. The suggestion of Carlos Argentino is surely that modern man in his no longer experience reality, but having reality experienced for him through this array of media. Travel, Argentino continues, is almost unnecessary, as man “in his inner sanctum” has the world brought to him.

The differentiation between these two characters is really important. On one hand, Argentino speaks of a microcosm that will take all the world in and mediate it for man in a single location. On the other, our protagonist wishes to push all of the world and its changes from his life. He wants to live in a suspended (already past) present. Argentino’s idealized microcosm is overflowing with life, it is a sort of hyper or mega life- composed of endless lives stitched together. Our protagonist’s idealized microcosm is infinite only in the sense that it is finite. Our protagonist seems either contented by the limits of his ideal reality, or unable to see the limits as such because of his emotional convictions towards Beatriz which might well be endless.

The difference between the two men are born out by their reactions to the Aleph. For Argentino, the collected totality of the world is invaluable. In fact, he calls it “inalienable” as though he is in firm possession of it to the point of becoming an intrinsic part of his reality. Infinitude, distilled by the Aleph, represents all that could be desirable for Argentino. We might re-imagine his ellipsis at the end of his media list (above) as thus not a endlessness, but perhaps a moment when he remembers the Aleph, and overcomes the artificial inifinity of media, for the mystical true infinitude of the Aleph.

Our protagonist is certainly struck by the Aleph but in ways that are incomensurate to the experiences of Argentino. Where Carlos Argentino wrote poetry inspired by the Aleph and thus broke up the infinity of its experience, our protagonist says it is quite impossible to write about the experience.

“All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass.”

A theoretical study of “The Aleph” would take on the story at this point, using this statement of Borges’ as a way to deconstruct this text. Paradox and contradiction are overwhelming in Borges’ attempt to write about a concept like the aleph, and this short quote illuminates the difficulty; language is inherently a “set” meaning it is limited, and moreover, it is predicated on a “shared past.” The aleph, in contrast, is not only infinite (rather than a set) but also part of a collective present, past, and future which cannot be “shared.” The experience of the Aleph, because it can only be seen by one person at a certain angle, represents a rather ultimate individuality. It is the experience of everything as a unity so constricted it only yields itself in a glance, but in that glance, it is infinity.

“The only place on earth where all places are”

For the point of this indepdent research, “The Aleph” is a crucial text, setting up Gibson’s own “aleph” in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Personal cosmologies, or the development of technological microcosms of the larger world, have been a major theme in cyberpunk and in my analysis of the mythological aspirations of this sci fi subgenre. Can technology reproduce Borges idea of the aleph, “the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabblaists, our true proverbial friemd, the multum in parvo”? That is only a part of the question this research needs to ask, as the real question for cyberpunk is why would someone desire a microsom, an aleph?

The aleph is also significant in its meaning as a symbol, the first letter in fact of the hebrew alphabet and in fact a part of the word “alphabet.”  Kabbla and other mystic traditions put great value on the idea of the aleph, but for my purposes, these values are only important in the sense that they are part of vast web of references Borges was surely making in using the term. Further work on the Aleph as a symbol will take place in my final paper for this study, to be completed in the next two weeks.

R.U.R. - Literary Origins of Robots & the Threat of Post-Humanity

2009 April 26
by Zachary McCune

capek_play

Karel Capek’s R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is an 85-page play which reads like a veritable fountainhead for many of the themes and concerns of cyberpunk. In particular, R.U.R. meditates on what the continued production of advanced technology might mean for humanity at large. In the effort to continuosly “better” human life, the technological arc of R.U.R. eventually arrives at the robot- a production of the human as thing not person. Devoid of emotion, personality and thus agency, the robot is introduced to the reader of R.U.R. as an object of technological preversion; man altered to the point of being labor alone, not love or creative intellect. It is humanity without the spark.

Helena, the Natural Human

Helena, a particularly sentimental human, is the play’s object of attention. Helena’s humanity is manifest in her pronounced emotions is continously contrasted with the robots to emphasize the gap between what appears to be human (as the robots look like people) and what it is to be human. Helena is preoccupied with liberating the robots, but is rebuffed by their lack of receptivity. Frankly, it seems that Capek is being cynical about revolution in his characterization of Helena, as she represents a romantic revolutionary whose ideals cannot penetrate practice (embodied by the laborious existence of the robots).

As a woman, Helena also operates as a sort of ideal, a feminine ideal to be exact, that works as a sort of symbol for nature (mother nature) in the text. Disgusted by which she percieves as an injustice to the natural order of things, Helena sees the robots as human rather than other. The male humans, by contrast, see the robots as commodities (the play is a pretty satirical treatment of capitalism, but not explicitly communistic in its indictment of labor for labor’s sake).

Domin(ance) - Male Power

Eventually, Helena’s attempt to liberate the robots is subjugated by her semi-forced marriage to Domin, the boss of the factory. As an individual, Domin is as his name suggests, domin-ating. He continually lords himself above Helena, often by treating her as an object of a chivalry, who must be honored and venerated like a piece of art unable to be involved with the actual world. He is also introduced to us at the beginning of the play as a personality who channels (and thus controls) knowledge. He alone has access to the secret manuscript of “Old Russom” which contains the secret of producting robots.

Producing Artificial Life

The production of robots is another example of perverting nature. Rather than existing as a mechanical objects (automaton) Capek’s robots are biotechnological, literally objects of flesh and blood, but factory produced flesh and blood. Like Herr Virek in Mona Lisa Overdrive, this biology is vat based, a chemical process that begets a humanity which is engineered not born. Several times in the text, the humans re-iterate the fact that robots are not born, they are produced.

Eventually, the production of robots is subverted to enable their liberation. Helena, who is still interested in the liberating of robots despite (or perhaps because 0f) her marriage to Domin, pressures the scientists to begin giving the robots a soul. This is where everything starts to go wrong, as the addition of a soul finally makes the robots “aware” of their situation, and their rights to agency not slavery.

The Problem with Souls

Interestingly, the adoption of a soul first manifests itself in the robots ability to feel pain, which was an early concern about the robots, who occassionally killed themselves because they didn’t know what they were doing to themselves. So Capek is suggesting that pain (which is a cybernetic feedback system of humanitiy) is a possible origin of its soul. Or rather, the ability to feel in the literal sense eventually begets the ability to feel metaphorically.

As one scene near the end of the play goes:

Second Robot: We were machines, sir, but from horror and suffering, we’ve become…

Alquist: What?

Second Robot: We’ve become being with souls.

Fourth Robot: Something is struggling within us. There are moments when something gets into us. Thoughts come to us that are not are own.

(Penguin Edition, 75)

“Thoughts… that are not are own” are not necessarily a soul, but they do seem to be some kindling of extra-agency which could be read as a development of a human element. One of the things that this dialog asks, and it is question repeated throughout the text, is who can you produce a thing like a human (visually, productively, mentally, physically) that is not a human. Capek’s text suggests that eventually that made in the image of the human becomes human. In fact, the play ends with a invocation of Genesis, as the last living human calls to love-struck robots “Adam and Eve” and recites “God created man in his own image” clearly invoking the idea that a spark was transmitted by humanity to robotics by the transmission of the image of humanity to the robots. Man is a god, but as Nietschze would have it, god is dead.

Post-Humanity

The rise of the robots obliterates humanity. It is snuffed to a last man, who dreams of his species alone. This vision of the technology of humanity overrunning it is a theme prevalent in science fiction, and surely passed on to the Matrix where humanity is enslaved by its own product, who reverses the dynamic of the relationship and makes man the commodity. Gibson also channels this post-humanity to a more subtle degree in his presentation of technology as a space for post-corporeal humanity. The Tessier-Ashpools and Count Zero both wish to inhabit a private technological cosmos where they are no longer, particularly human.

The end of humanity is presented as a missed opportunity for capitalism. The last surviving humans realize that they can survive the robot apocalypse if they trade the Russom Manuscript (containing the secret of robot production) to the robots. This trade is a complicated move, as it means robots will multipy and take over the earth entirely, where destroying the manuscript means the end of the robots eventually (a final blow from the hand of the maker to the product). Just when you this is the major debate of the play however, you learn that Helena has already destroyed the manuscript. She saw it as an unnatural knowledge, and as nature incarnate destroys the document to right the wrongs of humanity. But at a terrible cost, as it seals the fate of all humans.

Man as Robot, Robot as Man

One man, Alquist, is left by the robots because “He is a robot. He works with his hands like a Robot” (70). So in fact, he turns out to be the least helpful human to leave alive as he cannot reveal the secret of robot production, which the robots so desperately require.

At the end of the play, it appears that robotics like humanity is destined for total death. But a glimmer of hope emerges, as two robots, one of whom is called Helena, and the other Primus, seemed to manifest human qualities in their behavior towards one another. In brief, they are in love, which prompts Alquist to see a future of redemption for robots and humanity as a hybrid form of the two has emerged and promises a certain fertility. These two robot-humans also represent an reversal of Alquist himself, as they are the robotic becoming human (where he was described as the human who is robotic) and their duality (manifested by a need for one another) overcomes Alquist’s incapicitating loneliness. The future of Capek’s R.U.R. is thus a return to “nature” where love replaces labor, and the robot as dualistic unit replaces the robot as an individual agent of labor. Hybridity of man (manifested as a dynamic) and a machine (a physical ideal) is the realization of a future.

The Cinematic Sprawl

2009 April 16
by Zachary McCune

johnny_mnemonic

Like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” the film adaptation of William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” enlarges the supplied narrative by inserting new plot elements, and stretching out things that took only a hundred words to describe into sequences ten minutes and longer. It also affords the cyberpunk scholar a unique opportunity, as this film represents first direct translation of American cyberpunk from text to film. As such, one can really engage it thoroughly as an opportunity for a comparative media study, interrogating textual choices made visual.

Seeing Gibsonian cyberpunk is a rather underwhelming experience in Johnny Mnemonic the. This may be because it opens in a mundane hotel room, with Keanu Reeves posturing as both cool and indistinctive (a recurring acting strategy for Mr. Reeves). Perhaps this scene is meant to be extremely mundane, as it instantly humanizes the intense contextualized scrawl with preceded the scene and introduced the film’s plot. In a nod to Star Wars and other cyberpunk films such as a “Lawnmower Man,” this scrawl re-interprets the individual episode of Johnny and Molly and the Yakuza from Gibson’s short story collection, into a major global plot. It situates the individual struggle of Johnny in a cosmic experience.

Second decade of the 21st Century.

Corporations Rule.

The world is threatened by  a new plague: NAS

Nerve Attentuation Syndrome,

Fatal, Epidemic,

Its cause and cure are unknown.

The corporations are opposed by the Lo Teks.

A resistance movement risen from the Streets:

Hackers, data-pirates, guerilla fighters

In the Info Wars.

The corporations defend themselves.

They hire the Yakuza,

The most powerful of all crime syndicates.

They sheath their data in black ice, lethal viruses

Waiting to burn the brains of intruders.

But the Lo Teks wait in their strongholds,

In the old city cores,

Like rats in the walls

of the world.

Short, copy and almost poetic, this text reeks of technospeak not only in its use of Gibsonian compound nones (like data-pirate and info wars) but also in its brevity. It is language filtered through the early net, when memory was thin and messages needed to be as succint and essential as possible.

The Lo Teks, more than any other group, have fundamentally reimagined by this movie from their role in the short story. They have been changed from individuals uninterested in society to societal heroes, a reistance of conscience that opposes the unfeeling corporations and seems preoccupied with redeeming humanity as such. In this capacity, they are funny, playful, omnipresent, vulnerable, and resourceful. They make use of what they can get, which is routinely less than adequate so it requires a particular human ingenuity that has been lost by corporate humanity. The Lo Teks are freedom fighters, or neo-luddites made romantic. They are also against technology, but pragmatic enough to understand that technology is the only way to overthrow a society mediated by it.

Molly is VERY disappointing. First because she doesn’t have her silvered glasses, and second because she doesn’t have her micro knives. Most directly, however, Molly sucks as a character in this movie because she has been domesticized by Hollywood. Gone is the femme fatale who is as capable and deadly as she is unfeeling and in control of her life. Gone is the threatening woman who exerts a presence in almost every piece of Sprawl-related cyberpunk that William Gibson has ever written. One would be tempted to say that Molly has been castrated by this movie, and there really seems no good reason to marginalize her virile feminity except insofar as it threatens the male hero ideal and the ability for Keanu Reeves to be the unsurpassed star of the film.

Speaking of Keanu, his portrayal of Johnny lacks depth. In the short story, we find Johnny to be an almost neurotic individual, but in the film this neurosis is only skin deep. It is the superficial performance of the man-who-will-be-neo telling us that he “needs to get this thing out of his head.”

Despite adding all sorts of dramatic tensions to the film’s plot, such as multiple assassins instead of one, a whole freedom fighter vs. corporation tension, and the idea that Johnny is compelled to get the memories out of his head because there is a temporal limit to his ability to store them, this film lacks a uniting tension, splintered as it is into too many things to be concerned about. It is also too obsessed with presenting a superficial depiction of a cyberpunk future (ironically not very effective) which further cheapens the narrative. What is lacking is a film that interrogates the state of the individual in the cyberpunk dystopia of the future. But perhaps appropriately, there is no individually in cyberspace, and thus there is no opportunity to ask the big questions about the hyperreality that these characters live in.

Here’s Johnny (Mnemonic) - Memory as Commodity, Technology as Subjugation of Nature

2009 April 15
by Zachary McCune

A short story from William Gibson’s pre-Neuromancer work, “Johnny Mnemonic” now appears as a test run for sprawl cyberpunk. Its setting- a dystopian, hyper-corporate America- is the same late capitalistic sprawl that readers will find in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Its characters are also familiar: Molly Millions is the same Molly we find haunting all of Gibson’s sprawl novels, and our villains, the Yakuza, are also a figment of things to come.

But “Johnny Mnemonic” is also a very different piece of science fiction than the “classic Gibson.” Stylistically, it is written from the first person, thereotically allowing the reader to see Johnny more intimately, but in fact Gibson seems to keep the same technical distance so familiar from his sprawl work in even his employment of the first person. Like the data Johnny is carrying, the reader is boxed off somewhere in Johnny’s head, but unable to really penetrate his thoughts. The reader is remote and personal to Johnny at the same time. What he says about his own technological function (that of storing data in his physical memory without having access to it) can thus be applied to both his own technology and his relationship to the reader: “The program. I had no idea what it contained. I only sing the song, with zero comprehension” (Burning Chrome 18).

“Sing the song” is of course an allusion to act of the bard or the poet of ancient literature. Homer, the author associated with the Odyssey, sang the epic poem, and whoever wrote Beowulf likewise performed it orally. In fact, the poetic invocation of epic poetry (such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid) always begins with “sing in me muse…” Along these lines, one might consider Johnny as a instrument in his own narrative, the voice of the diegesis but an individual without access to changing the story. This is complimented by Gibson’s use of a limited first person writing style.

Johnny also gives readers a way to relate to the Sprawl. Historically, this short story is among the first sketches we have of the Sprawl and I think that this gives this short story a special status in developing a conception of what it will become. Characteristics of the sprawl, such as its violence, its redefinition of gender & race, and its interest in the commodities of a late (late) capitalism, are evident throughout the text.

Violence is perhaps the single most palpable quality of the text, and is suggested to be a necessity of the cyberpunk setting (the sprawl) rather than an excess. In fact, we first encounter Johnny at a desperate cross-roads between his own vulnerability to violence and his own ability to produce it. Desperation, another quality of this opening action, is also revealed by the text to be an overarching characteristic rather than a limited experience. In Gibson’s cyberpunk, everyone lives in a state of persistent desperation, yet becuase of the feelings persistents the characters become jaded about crisis ultimately characterizing the entire zeitgeist as some of sort of anxious indifference.  And this is where Johnny (our protagonist) really operates.

For a late 20th century/early 21st century reader, the fact that our protagonist has sold out his memory to the highest bidder seems to be some sort of capitalist transgression. Even if “contemporary society” has exploitated the body in capitalism (blood donations, organ transplants, prostitution) the commodification of the mind, and memory violates a whole spirit of liberalism and the idea of the independent, enlightened espoused by that philosophic school. The fact that nobody except Johnny seems to find it inappropriate that his mind has been commodified tells the reader something about this society of Gibsons: namely, that it has shifted its values and conceptions of the individual away from a recognizable set of contemporary norms. Even when Molly requires an explanation regarding Johnny’s memory-commodity, she treats it like some piece of technology she’s new to. The fact that this interface/technology is intractably coupled to a human being (as manifested by Johnny’s human biology) means little to Molly, or Raifi, or the Lo Teks, when we finally meet them.

For Molly, this really isn’t surprising. She knows a cyborgial dolphin addicted to heroin after all. This dolphin, “Jones,” seems to be a whole new transgression upon nature by Gibson’s cyberpunk civilization. Intentionally using a dolphin to create the whole affect of pity and concern attached by contemporary humanity to those animals in particular, Gibson seems to take joy in causing distress (through disgust) on the part of the reader. Jones is thus used to demonstrate:

  1. Cyberpunk civilization’s lack of respect for nature
  2. The indifference of cyberpunk humanity (as represented by Molly and Johnny) to the cyborg-ing of animals
  3. The pervasiveness of technology (its scope is such that it reclaims/subjugates) nature
  4. The rift in orienting personal values/ethics between the reader and the world he is reading about.

Of course, Jones is also the solution to Johnny’s problem. Given Johnny’s inability to access his own “soul” (which Enlightenment thinking locates in the mind), only turning to nature (as represnted by Jones) can allow a redemption of the human body. But this not a perfect man-redeemed-by-nature dynamic, because of course, Jones is not really nature anymore: he is a sort of techno-nature which has the wherewithal to redeem Johnny only because of its technological apparti and training. As Molly tells the reader, Jones was built by the Navy, for war. Is this then a suggestion that Johnny’s lifestyle can only be corrected by taking military action against it? Perhaps what we should really ask, is if Jones is meant to be some hideous parody of the American Military-Industrial complex, made into such a ravenous operation that it consumes and redefines the very role of nature to humanity? If nothing else, Jones is that which man has made from nature, but which is still differentiated. It has been programmed, and augmented with technology, but it is still distinctly other. Technology then is not a source of unity in Gibson’s early cyberpunk, but a site of division, subjugation, and employment in a hierachy.

Diamond Age: Romance of the Mediated Education

2009 April 14
by Zachary McCune

Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer suffers from a certain media romanticism. Fetishizing both the book as a site of knowledge, and technology as a means to perfecting education, Stephenson’s novel focuses on the implications of a certain media technology on the development of young girls. The media technology in question is “the primer” which is depicted as a hyper-book (as the primer acts as both book and interactive multimedia device), and exists within an entire ecology of mediation (comprised of “feeds,” “ractives,” and “nanosites”). In fact, Stephenson seems to embed the primer within a world of such mediation and technology precisely to seperate the primer from the technology it is born from, begging the reader (already engaged in book-codex technology) to validate the narrative of written word as the ultimate space for knowledge production. In essence, Stephenson Diamond Age presents the reader with the book as didactic microcosm.

Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it bears considerable resemblance to the aelph of William Gibson’s Count Zero (discussed in this earlier post) which likewise posits technology as a personalized cosmos. In point of fact, this idea of the personalization of the cosmic seems to be a recurrent theme in cyberpunk, expressed in everything from Snow Crash positing cyberspace as “consensual hallucination” to video game escapism fantasies of Tron and eXistenZ. One might ask what is it about cyberpunk that so drives individuals to seek personal techological cosmos, but that answer  seems to exist in the very formation of the individuals who seek it. In Count Zero, Bobby Newmark is a child of the ‘burbs aspiring to realize the reality of the hacker so romanticized by the media/images of the hacker in his social context. In Diamond Age, we first find Nell situated within the world of technology she cannot control because she cannot read/understand it. She is assisted by her brother and the Matter Compiler, we she cannot operate without understanding “mediaglyphics.” Ironically, Nell’s brother Harv tells her “Someday you’ll learn how to read” (p. 44)  thus creating the imperative towards literacy in Nell that will (in Stephenson’s suggestion) liberate her.

So the germ of the personalization of a cosmic order seems to be a prescription for the society’s of cyberpunk narratives rather than an innate characteristic of the individual protagonist.  This is a fascinating possiblity. If it is so, it seems to fulfil qualities of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as the spectacular culture of the cyberpunk’s this project has thus covered aspire towards the ultimate consumption (personal ownership) of the images they commodify. Thus Bobby Newmark aspires to be a hacker like the hackers he sees in media, and Nell is impelled by her belief that literacy is power presented by the technologies that surround her. This realizations strangely problematize the “liberations” of the protagonists that we find in cyberpunk as the protagonists actually seem to go further into the alienation of the society they live in (an alienation always connected with technology) than they escape it. If nothing else, Diamond Age is about the ability of technology to produce (educated) children, albeit with certain human oversights. Thus, Nell is not so much the product of an ideology of the Neo Victorians embedded in her book, or the wisdom of her ractor Miranda, but the child of the primer itself. Her entire self, is curiously bound to that object, which makes her ability to throw it away at the end of the narrative all the more suspect. Can the child of technology really discard it so easily? Perhaps this is the ultimate mechanization of the self? If Nell can discard the primer, than she truely is the child of technology, who of couse would identify as the product of technology not something intimate, and human like a child.

John Hackworth is a figure in this novel worthy of extensive consideration. Through the twists of the novel, he comes to be both a major architect of the educative potential primer, a gifted hacker, and eventually, a mystical figure who undoes all that he knows how to do. As a character, he embodies a fascinating dichotomy of contemporary computer science: on one hand, John Hackworth, gifted Artifex (engineer) and on the other an emerging mystical figure (the Alchemist). Like Neo, Hackworth has both a professional origin in corporate culture, and a mystical future where his commodified abilities become innate semi-spiritual powers. The contemporary version of this tension is seemingly the open source movement, where professional computer scientists become folk heroes through their commitment to bringing technology outside of itself (a corporate-capitalist identity). Like the OLPC movement, John Hackworth begins to realize his mystical potential (his becoming folk hero) by producing educative materials for beyond the scope of those who can afford them. And where does he end up? Seattle. Currently the center of corporate computer culture (Microsoft) but a new intellectual terrain that Stephenson has satirically made into a communal space of the drummers.

As a final reflection of the mediation of education that Nell experiences/is produced by in this novel, I would like to offer the first couple lines of a poem by Frank O’Hara called “Ave Maria”

Mothers of America
              let your kids go to the movies
get them out of the house so they won't
   know what you're up to
it's true that fresh air is good for the body
             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by
   silvery images

eXistenZialism: children of the game children

2009 February 25
by Zachary McCune

picture-61

A congregation of game players in church

The opening title credits give away the film’s preoccupations. At first, one catches “organic” glimpses of texture and color set against a screen of black. Soon after, the entire frame is filled with this same texture and styling, suggesting a progression further into the fabric of this enigmatic visual scape, and possibly, a revelation of what it was we were glimpsing at before. These sensations however, of perceived progression and revelation, are soon complicated by the fact that seeing the entire texture only glimpsed before does not reveal much of anything about what it is we are looking. Except that it is filling the entire visual field (it is pervasive) and that it is layered. In short, the more that is revealed to us about the artwork of the opening credit sequence, the less one really seems to know (or at least concretely know) about the meaning of what we are looking at.

no foundation, no real real

eXistenZ is a cinema-as-philosophy game. It challenges the viewer’s sense of narrative and orienation within the film by never really providing a foundation upon which to operate. Upon which to decode the film’s plot and construct meaning. Consumed as the film is with questions of ‘reality’ the filmmaker seems to have taken pains not to ever really establish any undeniable ‘reality’ for the film, and in the process, the viewer is situated not an a fixed location, but in a position that is constantly shifted. An example would be the opening sequence, which is informed by the sort of swirling, layered title sequence directly proceeding it. In this sequence, the viewer no sooner grasps the plot of the sequence (game being tested, testing to be done with volunteers) when it is complicated by a serious plot event that seems to challenge the entire veracity of this opening premise. It leads to a conclusion that the game is outside of the game about to be tested, or at least, that game worlds are something easily divided from other ideas of ‘reality.’

cyberpunk-deism

eXistenZ is almost tragically stuck trying to create both a hip, technological, and edgy world, and an allegorical cosmology. The choice of making the heroine, Allegra, a game-designer from instance, seems to be a product of these two interests, as the game-designer social role feels both cool and metaphorical. It is a certain cyberpunk-deism so to speak, where god is not a (steampunk) watchmaker, but is the coder of life options, the gamemaker. This is religious fascination with who makes the rules and what those rules mean to “existence” and “experience” is made explicit in the film from the very start as the testing for “eXistenZ” is done in a church.

ludic theology

From then on, the psudeo-theology of ludic (gaming) experience is almost unbearable. Ted complains, once brought into the game-proper, that there isn’t much free will. Allegra responds that it is “just like real-life, just enough to keep it interesting.” At an earlier point, when “Gas” meets the couple, he tells Ted that he has adored Allegra since she “liberated him.” He then tells Ted about his favorite game, “ArtGod” which prompts its users “Thou, the player of the game ArtGod” in a pun on religious discourse. He concludes that the game “was very spiritual.”

flesh interfaces

surgical repair of game bodies

surgical repair of game bodies

Almost more interesting than the religiousness embedded in eXistenZ is the film’s fascination with bodies, sexual interfacing, birth metaphors, and mutations. In the film’s primary-reality (first reality presented) game players must interface to their “game pods” using “umbilical cords” which plug directly into “bioports” at the lower of a user’s spine. Everything in this system, from the fleshy, pusling “game pod” to the umbilical cord, and finally to the “bioport” suggests the primacy of the body. These body-technologies appear in contrast to the “hard electronic” appartui which one might expect, such as the cold, digital interfaces of films like The Matrix or the world of William Gibson’s Sprawl. These bodily interfaces, which we see operated upon as a form of recovery and replacement, may encourage us to not see the body as a replacement for computer technology, but rather a system that is already computational. When Ian Holms’ character Viri is surgically operating on Allegra’s game pod he refers to the damage done to its neural web, perhaps conflating the neural innards of the human mind with the inner data structures and processors of a computer.

sexing the bioport

Ted lubes up Allegra's bioport

Ted lubes up Allegra's bioport

On the other hand, plugging in to these game pods proves quite explicitly sexual perhaps emphasizing the physicality and (along religious lines) the flesh-aspect of the system which is to be inherently somewhat lustful. Allegra, in particular, becomes a virile game player who wants nothing more than to penetrate Ted, despite his own expressed “phobia towards having his skin penetrated surgically.” The reversal of the gender roles in this sequence, with Ted aspiring towards chastity and Allegra encouraging sexual awakening, only reinforces her power over his, and her power as the game-designer (read god). When she finally gets Ted to have a port installed, she is eager to penetrate it and eager to massage it. Several times she warns him that it is still a little tight, but that she’ll be gentle. On another occasion, she tells him that the port is excited.

children of the game children

game console as small infant-like flesh pod

game console as small infant-like flesh pod

In all of these events, the bioport is  clearly represented and referred to with a  certain vaginal consideration, a consideration made all the more explicit by the fact that umbilical cords are actually plugged into this hole, and the game pod itself frequently appears like a small living child. Allegra again makes this read explicit. She personifies her game pod away from a status of objectivity we might assign a game system, and refers to it as “her,” and “my baby.” Many of the film’s shots reflect visually this same relationship.

eXistenZialism

eXistenZ’s ending, at a new but familiar beginning, completes its ponderance of the existenial philosophical school. It is “circles within circles” as my brother likes to say, a muse on the fact that we might ‘just be playing a game.’ But the ending also has a certain finalty. Allegra and Ted (whoever they are in the “real world) kill the designer of “transCendZ” after confirming that he is the world’s greatest game-designer. They ask him if he thinks he should suffer for producing the “most effective deforming of reality” and manipulating the human race. Confused, he fails to answer and is killed.

waking up waking up

Are we meant to ‘wake up,’ escape the game and kill god? That seems to be the suggestion of eXistenZ, particularly as wikipedia has it that that “isten” is god in Hungarian. But we are also led to ask, as Ted tragically realizes in the middle of the film, if there is anyway to know that this is what is really real at the end of the movie.

Or perhaps, more psuedo-philosophically, if that was a movie, or just a part of a movie, game, media, we cannot escape.

Tron as Early Video Game Mythology

2009 February 22
tags: , ,
by Zachary McCune

In this still, one can vividly discern Tron's concern with the world of the video game, as the evil Commander Sark looks over a map of the computer world that includes Pac-man (?)

In this still, one can vividly discern Tron's concern with the world of the video game, as the evil Commander Sark looks over a map of the computer world that includes Pac-man (?)

Tron presents its viewer with early video game mythology. Before The Matrix invited comparisions between its stylized violence and video games, before Mortal Combat was adapted into a film, before Tomb Raider was fleshed out by Angelina Jolie, Tron posited one of the earliest mythological interpretations of the video game ace as hero. In the two years following Tron’s 1982 release, two more films explored this same video game hero narrative, as Matthew Broderick starred in the 1983 classic War Games, and 1984 saw the release of The Last Starfighter.

Like its later reincarnations and reintrepretations, Tron’s narrative is predicated on the virtual world made real. In The Last Starfighter (like Ender’s Game), the video game is training for real combat. The suggestion is that the video game is a site for real-world conditioning and development that cannot be taught in any other way. Hence, the loser who loves video games is shown to actually be an exemplary warrior, athlete, strategist, hero. Even Ronald Reagan channeled this belief when he correlated video games and America’s next generation of skilled military operatives.

“I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”

It is in this way that we encounter Kevin Flynn, former standout programmer at ENCOM, who has become a video game star and owns his own game parlor where his mastery is celebrated by local teenagers. He is skilled within the video game world is a result of the fact that he wrote the games, thereby making a god within the gameworld because he is intimately aware of its operating logic. This mastery through ownership of a program’s development, is a major theme in the film, as the imagined embodiments of programs take on the look of their “users” (what we might call developers or coders) and actively orient their lives to the will of their users.

Programs as Avatars for User/God

Like Christian ideology, these programs have been made in the shape of their user/god. They reflect the concerns and abilities of their users, but on a micro level. We first encounter this micro level (the iconically stylized neon circuitry and helmets of the film’s ‘datascape’) when commander Sark kills a competitor in a LightCycle competition. We reencounter it when Flynn tries to hack the omnious Master Control, and we first see the visual correlation (reproduction of identity) between Flynn and his program. This correlation is a symptom of the film’s overall depiction of computing as one massive video game world. The visual reproduction of identity between the user and the program in the film seem to reflect a whole “avatar” metaphor, which has become very common in video games, and might even be called its dominant identity metaphor.

From Physicality to Digital Data

picture-2This of course brings up the film’s central plot action, the translation of Kevin Flynn from material existence into data. This action not ironically, takes place in front of a computer, as Flynn attempts to hack the Master Control from outside of the system, and is then brought into the system by the malignant computing system. The idea behind this choice seems to be all about “gamemanship,” as the Master Control challenges our hacker-hero to take computers on within their own world, a world wherein Flynn’s status as a user (and hence outside the system) is overturned towards vulnerability at being as fragile as any other set of data.

There is some creative license being taken with the perception of agency within the world of data and computing in Tron. But whatever departures from ‘the real life of data’ that take place, the viewer is far more interested in the allegorical level of the film’s ‘datascape.’ In this world, unlike Flynn’s primary reality, video games are not entertainment, but gladitorial conflict. The suggestion is that only outside of the video game space can be observed and read as meaningless conflict. Within the game-space on the other hand, a form of death awaits the losing ‘program.’

Death through Video Games

With no small sense of irony, Master Control wants Flynn to die playing the video games that he developed and proved masterful at outside of the system. This charge to let Flynn “die playing the games” haunts Commander Sark, MC’s second in command, who understands the potential consequences of having a skilled (read HUMAN) player within the game-grid. Sark never takes on Flynn, certainly fearful of his prowess, but instead challenges Flynn to fight “one of his own kind” which turns out to not be a computer, but a program. Flynn doesn’t mind the conflation, as he appears to be a program, and is treated by the programs as one of their own. He even refuses to finish off a ‘fellow’ program, as he spites Sark’s instructions.

Program as Heroic Code

As important as Flynn is to the narrative of Tron, it is “Tron-the-program who is the real hero. Bizarrely confirming the conservative need for security and oversight over all computing systems, Tron is computer security as hero. At best, his concern for oversight promises a sort of justice and “freedom” in the world of computing data, and at worse, he represents the ultimate development of a beuacracy government within computing to replace Master Control’s distinctly fascist regime.

Tron is the hero who ultimate “kills” Master Control and Sark, by virtue of his own tenacity and excellence, which the viewer is surely meant to conflate with the character of “Alan” that Tron embodies. With Master Control’s death, Flynn escapes the data world back into a form of physical embodiment and is able to secure proof that Dillinger (ENCOM’s evil Senior Executive) stole his program and therefore inappropriately took credit for Flynn’s own genius. This catapaults Flynn to top brass positioning in the company, and the idea that justice and order have been restored to the company just as the have been restored to the world of computing.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • Dillinger is clearly meant to be connected to Master Control, as Dillinger develops Master Control to do his “dirty work” and to support Dillinger’s own fascist, corporate control, as MC establishes that sort of control in the computing world. However, Master Control eventually seems to gain a form of dangerous agency that is beyond Dillinger’s control and thus threatens all of the computer information in the world, which Master Control covets. This suggests that good programs are those that remain in servitude to their human masters, while deviant computers do their own bidding. In this way, we need to read Dillinger, Master Control, and the perverted relationship between the two as the evils threatening the world of Tron.
  • Master Control gives away his budding sentience when he says that he is not sure that Flynn tried to hack him, only that “it felt like Flynn.” This perception of certainty despite a lack of proof, is implied to be a human emotion.
  • Dillinger’s Helicopter arrival reminds me that almost all Cyberpunk employs advanced air travel as proof of status (such as Angie in Mona Lisa Overdrive, or the Agents in the Matrix). The Helicopter not only represents an explicit suggestion of superiority, but also gives the opportunity for the reader and the superior character to survey the sprawl below, which inevitably looks like computer circuitry and suggests that the person being flown has a form of agency unlike the looping circuits below.
  • The older man in the laser lab (who seemingly represents the wisdom of the first programmers) responds to Alan’s quip that “Computers will be thinking soon…” with “Won’t that be grand. Computers and Machines will be thinking, and people won’t.” This seems to be a repetition to Plato’s famed condemnation of the invention of writing.
  • Tron features a character called Walter who apparently founded ENCOM in his garage. This is a nod to all of the famous Silicon Valley start-up stories, like HP’s
  • There are several intentional visual conflations of dataspace and meatspace in the film, most notably the cubicle city of ENCOM as a data center, or the city below ENCOM as a computer system.
  • The programs have a religious like awe and appreciation for their creator/user —> Tron at one point says that “Users created us.”
  • If Flynn is a user, and he enters the system to save it, is this a Christ reference?
  • The belief in users is really an important concept at stake in Master Control’s fascist state. At one point Sark says he will kill (de-rez) anyone who subscribes to that “hysterical belief”
  • Binary decisions and distinctions surrond the film to give a certain computer like feel. Good and evil are differentiated by simple blue/red color binaries, and there is no subtle distinctions within the datascapes logic. Binary logic is even represented as a pet like “yes/no” ball.
  • picture-4

    The Master Control is depicted as a single face like a totem. When he is undone, he is revealed to be an old man within a mask that looks almost Egyptian (like a Pharoah's hood). It also bears considerable resemblance to Stargate's villain.

Count Zero: Bildungsroman Cyberpunk

2009 February 4
by Zachary McCune

Count Zero is cyberpunk as Horatio Alger narrative, except that instead of a Puritan work ethic propelling our protagonist to the top, there is Internet hoodoo.

Which is only one way to cut Count Zero, becuase given William Gibson’s desire to create “spiral” narratives, with chapters focusing on separate characters that slowly tighten towards a conclusion, there are many ways to see the story.

Virek vs. Newmark

The two characters that really must be focused on are Josef Virek and Bobby Newmark. Two polar opposites really, old vs. young, rich vs. poor, accomplished vs. unproven, capable vs. impotent, and most importantly, one character is driven solely by the desire to escape a life only in the matrix, and the other seems to aspire to this (as Mona Lisa Overdrive brings to a conclusion).

The body of Cybercapital

Like a lot of cyberpunk, embodiment, re-embodiment, and dis-embodiment become essential questions in Count Zero. Josef Virek, a man whose physical existence is presented as almost not human (vat. sweden. constant life support. swirl of chemicals), has become almost pure information. He is, to work with McLuhan’s definitions a human message within a non-human media, which, as McLuhan would follow, makes him inherently non-human. He is like a William Burroughs sound piece, transcoded, but at great cost to his sense of self.

The subjectivity of Virek is bound up in his need to enter ‘constructs’ in the matrix to gain a certain vision of self. But this is merely superficial, as there is no denying his potent agency which seems to be made possible by his disembodied state. A certain terror hangs over the text, as we try to escape Virek with Marley, we discover that where the network is, so is Virek. He becomes the face of the network, in fact, and so Marley must forego network technology altogehter to avoid him..

Josef Virek presents an interesting figure that we might imagine as the experience and power of global capitalism in action. Aided if not defined by the network of the Matrix, and empowered by a seeminly endless amount of money, Virek is the dangerous conglomeration of power, network, and capital. When he is finally killed, we realize that his only weakness was the thing he most sought to re-define, his problematic (non) bodily experience. Virek’s power in the network also invites a curious reflection on the nature of The Matrix itself, rather than ‘bringing people together’ the net also empowers certain individuals others. With Josef Virek, this is case and point.

The Count

Bobby Newmark, to switch gears, is inherently not Josef Virek. Or a cowboy for that matter, which bothers him. He wants to be something, and his relationship to Barrytown (his hometown) feels familiar to contemporary readers, because it is the Nirvana-soundtracked I-need-to-escape-the-suburbs drive that lurks in lots of youth music and cultural items.

Newmark is not talented. His rise, is not a Bill Clinton story about working hard, and rising out of squalor, but a bizarrely enabled ascent, that the reader is led to distrust as unlikely. This scepticism is necessary, as it makes a hoodoo internet all the easier to swallow once its revealed.

That Bobby Newmark doesn’t die when he was supposed to already casts a religious light on the text before we encounter loa, legba, and the rest of the horsemen. He is saved, by something we are not sure about, and neither is anyone else. Newmark, saved by this thing, is forced to become someone, though clearly not in the way he wanted to. Constantly, people promise him that they’re making him into the jockey he always wanted to be, but that’s not quite true.

Angie Mitchell is his counterpart. They are about the same age. They’ve both lost their parents, they are both becoming who they will be. It is quite easy to read Count Zero as a sort of bildungsroman, wherein the two young protagonists develop into adults through the tribulations of the story.

Newmark ignorance, and Mitchell’s innocence are what save them from harm, and promise them a future. But they don’t work forever, and by the end of the novel, both the young protagonists have been forced into adult roles. This coming of age is best complimented by Bobby’s handle, ‘Count Zero,’ which initially is something ridiculous and superficial, a laughable attempt by a kid to seem cool, but by the end of the novel, it has become a real identity. Potent. Respected. Cyberpunk.