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.


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.

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