Rethinking Ambivalence: Technopolitics and the Luddites in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.
Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production
Cyberpunk fiction is characterized by its articulation of technology as a powerful narrative force that qualifies and even obliterates the role of individual and collective human agency as the focus of fictional events. Cyberpunk's critics generally agree that this technological force is given an ambivalent valence: technology is both the mechanism by which postpolitical multinational corporate power dominates the lives of humans and the means of those humans' empowerment and resistance. The critics then read ambivalence in one of two ways: either as an inability to imagine effective forms of political opposition and thus as a capitulation to extant forms of domination; or as a radical and liberatory envisioning of a cyborg human subjectivity.(1) The prevalence of these views represents an impasse in cyberpunk criticism, whereby cyberpunk's neglect of collectivist and historical politics is equated with complicity, and any critique of cyborg subjectivity on the part of authors and critics is deemed a relapse into humanism, essentialism, and misogyny. In order to get beyond this impasse it is necessary to analyze cyberpunk's technopolitics for evidence of a political identity or praxis irreducible to either collectivist representationalism or cyborg subjectivity.
Set in an alternate mid-Victorian England dominated by the ubiquitous information technology of Charles Babbage's difference engine, where Lord Byron is prime minister and his pro-technological Industrial Radical Party is in power, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1991) provides the best opportunity to rethink the ambivalence of cyberpunk writing.(2) Gibson's Neuromancer and the rest of his Sprawl trilogy evoke an unchanging postpolitical world in which the terms of technology's ambivalence are firmly set: information technology is a site of political contestation, technological power is equated with political power, and technological deficiency amounts to political dissolution; sinister multinational corporations possess this technopolitical power, while heroic rebel-hackers try to subvert and escape such power structures by appropriating technological expertise. As a kind of prehistory to the events in the Sprawl trilogy, The Difference Engine inaugurates the transition from a political society of technological instrumentality to a postpolitical society of technological authority. By enacting the moment of the irruption of in formation technology into an alternate Victorian age, Gibson and Sterling's novel presents an ambivalent relation to technology in more varied and more urgent forms than are apparent in the static and fully determined landscapes of Neuromancer. Both Neuromancer and The Difference Engine are ambivalent about technology; but the form of ambivalence is different in each. The ambivalence of Neuromancer is what most critics have responded to, yet it is the ambivalence of The Difference Engine, where an inaugural technological moment brings issues of technological ownership and emergence and the possibilities of a Luddite political sensibility to the fore, that might have most relevance to the real world of electronic postmodernity. Unlike Neuromancer, The Difference Engine does not portray a mature cyberpunk society, but by depicting the coming of a cyberpunk world, it resonates strongly with the technopolitics of our own time.
The Luddites, of course, were groups of individuals who destroyed factory machinery during the Industrial Revolution in Regency England. Since the term "Luddite" is almost universally used to mean an irrational hatred of technology, it might seem strange that the Luddite sensibility is the vehicle for Gibson and Sterling's meditation on the various possible human responses to the encroachment of technopolitical power. However, as Jean Baudrillard notes in The Mirror of Production, the analysis of Luddite actions has been sorely neglected by political theorists such as Marx. The Difference Engine can be read as an attempt to rectify this deficiency by fictionalizing Luddite actions as a significant engagement with emergent technopolitical realities. According to Langdon Winner, "there have never been any epistemological Luddites" (331), and consequently there are few critical or theoretical paradigms which might help us to make a detailed assessment of Gibson and Sterling's representation of the Luddites. Statements by Thomas Pynchon and Martin Heidegger do, however, deepen our understanding of the role of Luddism in The Difference Engine: Pynchon's celebration of the ludic and disruptive aspects of Luddism resonates strongly with the issue of technological ownership and instrumentality; similarly, the critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity and objectivity which underpins Heidegger's understanding of technology in terms other than those of instrumental use enables us to comprehend more fully the issue of technological emergence.
In his 1984 essay "Is It OK to Be a Luddite?" Thomas Pynchon rejects the account of the Industrial Revolution in England as a rapid transformation brought about by specific technological innovations in the textile industry and instead accords with the accounts of Michel Foucault (210-11) and historians such as Jacques Ellul (43) and G. N. von Tunzelman (265), which emphasize the factory system as the essential technological breakthrough of the industrial period. Pynchon argues that the Luddite attacks were directed against Ellulian technique rather than technology, and this view is supported by the fact that technologies which were the subject of Luddite attacks had been in use since the sixteenth century, albeit driven by waterpower rather than steam power. To illustrate his point, Pynchon refers to the stocking frame, a piece of machinery used in the hosiery industry of Nottinghamshire and a central object of Luddite attacks in 1811-12. After noting that the stocking frame had been invented in 1589, Pynchon remarks that "given that kind of time span, it's just not easy to think of Ned Ludd as a technophobic crazy" (40). Most significantly, Pynchon implies that for centuries people had peaceably worked with and related to the same technologies that became the objects of Luddite attacks; therefore, the Luddite raids did not express a hatred of technology but anger that workers' own technologies had been appropriated within the factory system.(3)
References to fictionality are integral to Pynchon's discussion of Luddism. Pynchon notes the attack on machinery made by Ned Ludd in 1779 as the mythological origin of Luddism, and he goes on to observe that by 1812 machine-breaking of all sorts had spread to many parts of England. All these actions were referred to by both their perpetrators and critics as the work of the Luddites, reflecting the fact that by 1812 the historical Ned Ludd "was well absorbed into the more or less sarcastic nickname `King (or Captain) Ludd,' and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than human presence out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic schtick--every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it" (40). Far from being an incidental by-product of Luddism (as many orthodox socioeconomic historians are wont to view him), King Ludd as fictional character is, for Pynchon, the centerpiece of the Luddite phenomenon. It is precisely because King Ludd is a mythic entity, rather than a documented historical person, that he represents the resistance to the incorporation of technology within the disciplined factory, and Pynchon goes on to argue that the tradition of Luddism has been maintained by the Luddite novel and is now incarnated as "the computer's ability to get the right data to those whom the data will do the most good" (41).
The ambivalence evoked by Pynchon is based on the reappropriation and destruction of technology. The two valences of technology are evidenced as Luddite forms of technology are rescued from and pitted against their incorporated counterparts. In "The Question Concerning Technology," Heidegger articulates a different type of ambivalence, one that is centered upon technological emergence or development. Heidegger criticizes the historical understanding of technological change, which derives from a definition of technology as an instrumental tool and a focus on individual technologies. For Heidegger, this view is based on the metaphysics of both representation and the division of the world into subjects and objects. Heidegger attempts to break free of such metaphysics by defining the essence of technology as "the arising of something out of itself," a process akin to "the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself" (10). Typically; Heidegger says that this essence of technology is readily apparent in Greek handicrafts or wooden peasant bridges, but that it is hard to discern in modern technology. Modern technology is a "challenging revealing" rather than a bringing forth, which challenges humans to order nature into "standing-reserve" for itself. Named by Heidegger as "Enframing" (Ge-stell), this technological essence is defined as "danger as such" because it leads to the incorporation of humans as technology's "standing-reserve" at the same time as it prompts humans to erroneously consider themselves the masters of technology (26, 27). Nevertheless, Enframing is a form of "destining," or "granting" that brings with it, in Heidegger's paraphrasing of lines from Holderlin, "the growth of the saving power" (28). Technology is humanity's savior because it forces humans to ask the question of their essence and come to the realization that they are essentially neither subjects nor objects but rather, like technology, participants in the same process of Being's emergence that occurs in contingent time rather than idealistic and mechanistic history: "It is precisely in Enframing, which threatens to sweep man away into ordering as the supposed single way of revealing, and so thrusts man into the danger of his surrender of his free essence--it is precisely in this extreme danger that the innermost indestructible belongingness of man within granting may come to light, provided that we, for our part, begin to pay heed to the coming to presence of technology" (32).(4)
Heidegger's discussion of Enframing concludes by assessing the essence of technology in terms of artistic expression. The arts of ancient Greece were for Heidegger a mode of revealing the essence of truth and bore no relation to concepts of the aesthetic, the latter being associated with the individual genius and thus the metaphysics of the subject. Because everyday language similarly conforms to the metaphysics of representation, Heidegger, as Allen Thiher notes, seeks a form of language that "is not fundamentally a form of representation of metaphysical entities (universals, ideas, or concepts) found in some other locus than language itself" (55). At the same time that he decries the aesthetic, Heidegger reintroduces the concept of poetry or art as that which is not reliant on the individual artist, does not refer to some extralinguistic reality, and thus can partake in Being: "Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art" (35). Poetic language, technology, humanity--for Heidegger, all these are not the instruments or representations of one another but enactments of Being's emergence. Therefore, if we wish to find a form of language that accesses the essence of technology we must look for writing that enacts rather than represents Enframing and the possibility of the saving power.
An example of both Heideggerian art and what Pynchon terms the Luddite novel, The Difference Engine opens a generation after a series of Luddite uprisings. Both the aristocratic government of the Duke of Wellington and the Luddite insurgents have been defeated by the Industrial Radical Party, which remains comfortably in power. Under Byron's prime ministership, major new technological advances are being undertaken to complement the plethora of difference engines that store the society's information and provide the "software" for the workings of its machinery. The events of The Difference Engine are then triggered by a meeting between Dandy Mick Radley and Sybil Gerard, both of whom reappear (along with many other elements) from Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845). Mick is a former Luddite activist and Sybil is the daughter of the idealistic Luddite leader Walter Gerard. Mick possesses a set of cards which he had made in Manchester; known as the Modus, these cards resemble the software for the novel's difference engines. Mick asks Sybil to mail the Modus to France, where it is run by a member of Les Fils de Vaucanson, a French Luddite group, in the Great Napoleon ordinateur; consequently, "an outre element of inconstancy presently haunts the machine's higher functions" (387). Under interrogation, the saboteur informs the authorities that the "formula" (the Modus) is now in the possession of Flora Bartelle. Florence Bartlett then appears with Captain Swing and Ada Byron at the Epsom Derby. Ada, who is in possession of the Modus, seems to be held against her will; she tries to escape and is struck and restrained by Bartlett. In the melee, Ada gives the Modus to Edward Mallory, a distinguished paleontologist.
Much of the ensuing narrative involves Swing's attempts to wrest the Modus from Mallory's hands. During The Great Stink, an ecological disaster that envelops the sky above London and brings the city to a virtual standstill, Swing tries to bring down the Rads' government, but he is defeated by Mallory and his associates. Mallory hides the Modus in the skull of the Land Leviathan in London's Natural History Museum; however, Mallory tells Ada of his secret, who then tells it to Bartlett as "a full repayment of all my debts to you" (375). Bartlett recovers the Modus, but after she is killed in a police ambush, the Modus finds its way into the hands of the diplomat Laurence Oliphant. Oliphant is extremely wary of the Modus, which is associated with his incessant fears of an All-Seeing Eye, and he hides the cards in a tobacconist's shop and then gives them to John Keats. At the novel's conclusion, Ada lectures on the power of the Modus, noting that it was her calculations that enabled the Great Napoleon to be sabotaged and prophesying that the full potential of the Modus to emerge into life and self-consciousness will be realized when a more sophisticated engine is developed. As if to prove Ada's predictions, the narrative then fast-forwards to an alternate 1991, where the Modus grows into sight and self-consciousness as the Eye feared by Oliphant.
Along this narrative line and the textual framework that supports it, Gibson and Sterling's ambivalent technopolitics unfold in ways that are illuminated by Pynchon's and Heidegger's statements. One must admit, however, that The Difference Engine can with some confidence be read as an unambivalent text that celebrates technology and mocks Luddism as reactionary and ignorant. Such a view is upheld by Herbert Sussman, for whom "Luddite" is "the novel's pejorative term" (7). This conventional understanding of Luddism as reactionary ignorance is apparently shared by Mick, who seems to distance himself from the Luddite activities of Sybil's father and acquiesce with the system of the Industrial Radicals:
Your father's dead girl! 'Tis not that I mean to hurt you, saying it, but the Luddites are dead as cold ashes. Oh, we marched and ranted, for the rights of labor and such--fine talk, girl! But Lord Charles Babbage made blueprints while we made pamphlets. And his blueprints built this world.... The Byron men, the Babbage men, the Industrial Radicals, they own Great Britain! They own us, girl--the very globe is at their feet, Europe, America, everywhere. The House of Lords is packed top to bottom with Rads. Queen Victoria won't stir a finger without a nod from the savants and capitalists.... And it's no use fighting that anymore, and you know why? `Cause the Rads do play fair, or fair enough to manage--and you can become one of 'em, if you're clever! You can't get clever men to fight such a system, as it makes too much sense to 'em. (22)
Mick is somewhat at odds with the Rads because he infiltrates government engines, but he shares the Rads' view regarding what, in the wake of the demise of the political, is in this and all cyberpunk writing the site of technopolitical struggle: "It's what a cove knows that counts, ain't it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information. Very flash" (8).
However, the argument put forward by Sussman quickly becomes unraveled by the narrative of the Modus. The Modus originates with Mick, and Gibson and Sterling portray him lovingly poring over the cards, but because Mick's ultimate purpose is to use the Modus to destroy the great French engine, he shares the Luddite mentality. Thus, as in Pynchon's essay, the desire for information technology is an expression of the Luddite sensibility. Also, characters such as Captain Swing and the Marquess of Hastings, who, by Sussman's account, should be vilified as antitechnological Luddite morons, actually desire technology: the Marquess speaks of "Engine-clacking" (295) as being relevant and helpful to the cause he espouses, and, as we have seen, Captain Swing spends his time trying to reappropriate the Modus. Gibson and Sterling evoke these characters in varying degrees of sympathy (Mick is a lovable rogue, whereas Swing is a vicious fool), but it is impossible to sustain an opposition between these characters since they all conform to Pynchon's definition of the maverick Luddite: just as English workers coexisted peaceably with the technologies associated with the Industrial Revolution, so too the Modus originates with and is of concern to these characters, all of whom seek to both appropriate and destroy technology and the political power it ensures. As in Pynchon's account of the Luddites, the seemingly contradictory views of these characters are explicable in terms of a type of ambivalence that hinges on the issue of ownership. Mick's actions are those of someone who understands the potential of technology to wither the oppressive homogeneity of state power and establish informational alliances among diverse sectors of society, yet who realizes that this potential is being thwarted by the centralized and bureaucratic use of difference engines for surveillance and discipline. In this situation, a simultaneous act of technological reappropriation and destruction is entirely reasonable.
The reason for Mick's ambivalent relation to technology becomes clearer if we read The Difference Engine as an allegory of post-Fordism. (Just as Gibson insists that he is writing about contemporary, not futuristic, events, so the alternate history of The Difference Engine can be read as a treatment of the present day.)(5) Mick is like those who must endure the insecurity of job mobility and flexibility, and ultimately unemployment, as a result of massive automation through information technology in the workplace. Unlike Luddism as it is conventionally understood, Mick does not want to eradicate technology and return to preindustrial production. Neither does he show any interest in reestablishing a factory system of industrial production, and in this regard he exemplifies Baudrillard's Luddites. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard argues that contemporary capitalism is characterized by a tyrannical "code of production," which was borne of industrial production and which now entails the production and control of human behavior, and he concludes that the Luddites, in seeking to destroy and not simply appropriate the factory system of productive machinery, had greater insight into industrialization than Marx (132). Rather than the system of productive machinery, Mick wants to appropriate what Marx, in a famous excerpt from the Grundrisse, termed "general intellect," or the information stored in automated processes and functions (706). As Pam Rosenthal argues, Marx's belief that the concentration of general intellect in automated machines would free humans from labor and care has, in contemporary post-Fordism, been proven tragically misguided (96). However, the recent work of Italian political theorists such as Paolo Virno returns to Marx's statement to find that its optimism has renewed significance. According to Virno, the technopolitical realities of post-Fordism are characterized by "ambivalence" (26) because the very technological conditions that are eradicating "the society of work" and supplanting political democracy with corporate power might, under another social regime, free humans from work and the state in beneficial ways. Rosenthal sympathetically posits that cyberpunk is a diagnosis of post-Fordism; I would go a step further and argue that Mick's Luddism represents the groping realization of a possible world after post-Fordism, in which general intellect, freed from corporate ownership and political control, forms the basis of freedom and equality. While the destructiveness of Mick's Luddism registers Gibson and Sterling's opposition to how technology is complicitous with a world of work, production, and control, I think Mick would agree with Virno's statement that "Every light we will ever find is already here in the so-called darkness" (26).
But if Gibson and Sterling have a vision of a world after post-Fordism, then why do they not represent it? In order to answer this valid question it is necessary to analyze how, through the narrative concerning Captain Swing, the ambivalence of destruction and reclamation extends beyond the evocation of technology in The Difference Engine. Historically, Captain Swing was, like Ned Ludd, the name given to a fictitious character who was held responsible for agricultural machine-breaking in England during 1830-31. Captain Swing's actions were exclusively aimed at destroying threshing machines, which were viewed as being responsible for large-scale agricultural unemployment. Unlike Luddism, Captain Swing was successful in interrupting the introduction of threshing machines. According to E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rude, "The threshing machines did not return on the old scale. Of all the machine-breaking movements of the nineteenth century that of the helpless and unorganised farm-laborers proved to be by far the most effective. The real name of King Ludd was Swing" (98). In accordance with Hobsbawm and Rude's thesis; it is Captain Swing, even more so than Mick, who represents the Luddite presence in Gibson and Sterling's novel. While Swing, like Mick, is desperate for the Modus, he is more immediately committed to the destruction of the technopolitical system of the Rads and the implementation of the revolutionary tactic of detournement.
Detournement was central to the theory and practice of the Situationist International, which played an important role in the May uprisings in Paris in 1968.(6) Derived from Lautreamont's notion of plagiarism, detournement involves taking preexisting texts and recombining them into new configurations and contexts with the purpose of subverting the original meaning in favor of a new, revolutionary one. Situationist texts describe detournement as an ambivalent "parodic-serious" activity that "expresses the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of bringing together and carrying out a totally innovative collective action" ("Detournement" 56). The parodic dimension of detournement interrupts the logic of original textual meaning, denies the notion of fixed meaning, and prevents the detourned piece being "recuperated" as "meaningful" by antirevolutionary forces (Khayati 171).(7) The seriousness of detournement does not consist in the promotion of a political program, since all positivistic concepts of representation and leadership are, for the situationists, the very mechanisms of oppression. Nevertheless, some counterbalance to parody is essential if detournement is to have its "dialectical devaluing/revaluing" ("Role" 176). Such seriousness subsists in the detournement and realization of "poetry," which the situationists perceive as the trigger of revolutionary actions that throughout history have been appropriated by the somber officials of political representation ("All" 116). The graffiti that covered the walls of the Sorbonne in May 1968 became the most notorious case of situationist detournement because it was a form of poetry or play that inspired a spontaneous and immediate uprising of wildcat strikes and radical action, which did not rely on the fixed meanings of attainable goals or the authority of political representatives.
Detournement therefore involves the destruction of codified meaning and the reclamation of a form of textuality equated with the revolutionary impulse and enacted in seemingly incoherent writing. The detournement evident in The Difference Engine conforms to this definition, and, indeed, Swing's uprising can be viewed as an allegory of the events of May 1968. As Mallory traverses London during the Stink, he encounters posted bills containing references to Luddism and imbued with fiery and apocalyptic imagery suggestive of Jacobinism and the Book of Revelation. That these Luddite bills are acts of detournement perpetrated by Swing becomes apparent when Mallory sees a fraudulent bill advertising a lecture by himself. Mallory confronts the King of the Bill Stickers, who is employed by Swing to cover the walls of London with bewildering detourned text. Even though appalled by what he sees, Mallory understands that "this queer kind of forgery" threatens a general faith in fixed meaning (274). As the King of the Bill Stickers proclaims, detournement destabilizes meaning by continuously deferring its realization in a metropolis-wide field of intertextuality: "You see, sir, it don't really matter a hang what nonsense is blithered and babbled on these bills! The secret truth is, that bills is endless by their very nature, regular as the tides in the Thames, or the smoke of London" (254).(8)
So how does detournement help us to understand cyberpunk's reluctance to present positive utopian alternatives? According to Fredric Jameson, the political unconscious of any text is both critical and utopian (see Jameson, Political Unconscious 281-99). As noted above, cyberpunk fiction is often reproved by critics for being unable to supply a positive and alternative utopian vision to accompany its several critiques (an accusation often leveled against post-modernism as a whole), but, if Jameson is right, then these texts will also contain a utopian dimension. The utopianism of The Difference Engine is hard to discern because the objects of critique (Mick's technology or Swing's texts) are themselves the source of the utopian impulse. The utopian or "serious" aspect of detournement is for both the situationists and Gibson and Sterling based not on the presentation of alternative and wholly distinct meanings, but rather the freedom from the authoritarianism of meaning produced by and inseparable from its critique. In The Difference Engine as much as in the epigraph from Baudrillard, the Luddites do not voice an alternative political system, but rather their utopianism subsists in the immediacy and spontaneous freedom expressed in their de(con)structive acts. The play of textual difference that is the positive pole of detournement and the apparent anti-utopianism of the actions of Mick and Swing are united in their resistance to representation. Utopian representations are resisted because they are perceived as the positivistic usurpers of revolution's differential origins; like Mick's manufacture of the Modus, Swing's textual production returns to these origins by destabilizing their appropriations in linguistic representation and technopolitical instrumentality. The utopianism of this ambivalent perspective is, as Baudrillard says of the Luddites, unrecognizable from a Marxist or otherwise representational perspective. However, in The Difference Engine, Luddite utopianism is not simply a viable political position; it is the primary revolutionary act that exposes all other political viewpoints as simulations.
In denying the reader a utopian representation, The Difference Engine, like Heidegger's essay on technology, must jettison historical models as a means of articulating the ambivalent course of technopolitical change. In accordance with Heidegger's analysis, The Difference Engine is a type of art that enacts the process of technopolitical emergence, and this takes place on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels of the text. Speaking macrocosmically, as the hardware of engine technologies and the software of the Modus mutate during the course of the narrative, Gibson and Sterling's disposition toward these technologies (and, concomitantly, the Luddites) also changes. These shifts of narrative and authorial perspective cannot be reduced to a single narrative paradigm, such as those of progress or decline. Instead we must follow narrative changes from one contingent moment to the next and cannot rely on stable origins or teleological conclusions to marshal these contingencies into a grand historical narrative. In other words, we must observe what Heidegger calls the "destining" of technology without making of this a "destiny." Neither Mick at the novel's opening nor Oliphant at its conclusion has any idea what the effects of the running of the Modus will be, which makes Luddism, like detournement, an intervention without an objectified goal. The final verdict on the meaning of the Modus is continuously deferred as it is transmitted from one character to another. Such deferral is encapsulated when Mick tells Sybil that the Modus must be sent to Paris poste restante. In The Post Card, Derrida tells us that ultimate meaning never arrives and advises "Knowing well how to play with the poste restante. Knowing how not to be there and how to be strong for not being there fight away. Knowing how not to deliver on command, how to wait and to make wait, for as long as what there is that is strongest within one demands--and to the point of dying without mastering anything of the final destination" (191). It is in this spirit that we must follow the course of the presentation of technopolitics, not to determine whether technology is essentially virtuous or not but to track the relationship between technology and humans in The Difference Engine.
For much of the novel the reader is struck by an unremitting technological aesthetic that makes Sybil's father's Luddite fantasy of a pastoralized England bereft of "King Steam" (9), Byron, and the Rads appear irrelevant and philistine. The novel's textual affect subjects the reader to techno-linguistic fascination and eroticization. Since the novel coinages of Gibson and Sterling's writing are reserved for the depiction of the many brilliant new inventions of their imaginary world, the text seems to authorize technology by equating its aesthetic with that of the language of the book; that technological fascination is given an erotic charge is suggested when Sybil observes the difference engine that runs a kinotrope at the Garrick Theatre: "She wanted--not to own it exactly, but possess it somehow" (21). However, Sybil's observation of the image of the Crimean gun engine begins to cast the objectification of technology in a negative light: the fact that Sybil observes soldiers who themselves admire the Crimean gun multiplies the pornographic effect of reified subject-object relations apparent in this scene and hints at a critique of the technological aesthetic that will subsequently unfold.
Heidegger posits that it is extremely dangerous for humans to treat technology as their object because doing so causes humans to become the "standing-reserve" of technology. The realization of this danger is seen in Gibson and Sterling's description of the system of engines in the Central Statistics Bureau. While this vast informational panopticon is ostensibly under society's utilitarian control, it actually has become a monolithic and terrifying entity, occupying a vertiginous "terminal space" (Bukatman 101) and carefully tended by otherwise anonymous and incidental humans ("clackers") (137). The very scale of the engines diminishes the significance of the human, but this spatial denigration is only a metaphor for what is the more fundamental denial of the human. As John Johnston notes, the "information multiplicities"of earlier postmodern fiction are succeeded in cyberpunk by "media assemblages," an entirely Enframed technological system in which information has an exchange but not a cognitive value (235). For technology's human attendants, such information represents an inaccessible technological sublime.(9) Mick refers to "Machines, whirring somewhere, spinning out history" (4), and while this description superficially denotes simply the machines' storage of past information, it also has the more profound meaning of how information technology has become the subject of history, whereas humans are denied access to technology's "general intellect" and become its categorized and disciplined objects.
The development from a positive to a more critical description of technology is mirrored by a similar trajectory in Gibson and Sterling's presentation of politics. The technopolitical regime of the Rads, which replaces the middle-class political victory of the historical Reform Act of 1832, has brought many material benefits to this alternate London, and the Rads themselves, especially Edward Mallory, possess the faculty of clear and rational thinking that differs sharply from the authoritarianism of Wellington and the apocalypticism of Swing. However, we should be wary of interpreting this representation as a wholesale vindication of the technopolitics of the Rads. Indeed, there is no essential viewpoint upheld by Byron's Party: initially supportive of the Luddites, Byron has now suppressed them, "For this was a form of Luddism attacking, not the old order, but the order that the Rads themselves had established" (218). That the transformations in the Rads' perspective can lead to a destructive relationship to technology is evident in the transfer of power that occurs during the course of their political tenure. With the death of Byron, Charles Babbage becomes prime minister. Since Babbage is the Rads' "grey eminence and foremost social theorist" (100) and the creator of the difference engine, one might suppose that his leadership would visit more technological benefits upon society. However, from this point on, the narrative is marked by the rise of Lord Galton, who is responsible for Criminal Anthropometry, which uses the difference engine technology for purposes of surveillance and panoptic discipline, and eugenics.
The rise of Galton signals the convergence of the technological and political versions of the enactment of contingency. Galton is allied with Charles Egremont, the aristocrat who, in Disraeli's novel, marries Sybil and heals the rift between workers and Young England feudalists, but who, in Gibson and Sterling's book, spurns Sybil, destroys Gerard, and, with Galton as his scientific partner, is in the process of implementing a nebulous yet undoubtedly fascistic system of domination. According to Darko Suvin, cyberpunk is "where the history of capitalism, born out of popular merchant-adventurer revolt against the old sessile feudalism, has come full circle--Worm Ouroboros carrying us back to Leviathan" (353). With the resurgence of Egremont, The Difference Engine has also come full circle, as the course of technological development serves to empower the very same aristocratic class that it was, under the guidance of the Rads, supposed to supersede. But what this also means is that the Luddite actions have a renewed relevance, especially since the new dispensation of Egremont and Galton represents an alliance of aristocrats and scientists. The Luddite sensibility emerges most clearly through Oliphant, who after meeting with Sybil pledges himself to destroying Egremont and who is the mouthpiece for overt critiques of technology: for example, while crossing the English Channel by ship, Oliphant "disliked swinging-saloons, finding the Engine-controlled movements of the cabin, intended to compensate for the vessel's pitch and roll, somehow more unsettling than the ordinary motion of a ship at sea" (382). This evocation of technology and the technopolitical opinion with which it is coterminous do not signal a volte-face from a previous reveling in technology and its Radical masters, but rather the next phase of an irreducible and nonteleological process of emergence.
In addition to the macrocosmic emergence that occurs throughout The Difference Engine, microcosmic enactments of change through contingency also exist, and these are expressed through both direct statements and the depiction of the Modus. Critics of cyberpunk chide the genre for neglecting to represent history and historical processes (Booker 82; Moylan 190). In The Difference Engine this absence is quite deliberate, as the authors investigate the viability of theories of change more closely associated with Heideggerian emergence than political history. Gibson and Sterling's critique of history is stated in the conflict between Swing and Mallory, which also serves to qualify the evocation of the Luddites. It is necessary for Gibson and Sterling to speak critically of Swing so that we will neither view his actions in terms of positivistic utopianism nor reduce The Difference Engine to a dialectic of the latent and manifest, whereby the latent truth of technological evil ultimately becomes manifest and validates antitechnological Luddite activity. Unlike the situationists and Baudrillard's Luddites, whose spontaneous uprisings are devoid of an explicit theory of historical causality, Swing's group complacently thinks that their revolutionary success is assured by the Marxist model of historical determinism to which they subscribe. Swing misunderstands the time of the Stink by assuming that it is the prelude to an inevitable popular revolution and consequently ignores the meaning of the carnivalesque uprising that is at hand. Moreover, when Swing learns that the Modus is in the possession of Ada, his optimistic deferral is further enhanced: "We shall have Lady Ada, and the Modus, and futurity as well" (316). Despite his implementation of detournement and his attempt to reclaim the Modus from the instrumental panopticism of the Rads, Swing himself falls foul of the conception of technology that Heidegger warns us against by viewing the Modus as an instrumental agent within a determined future. That is, Swing focuses on the individual technology of the Modus as part of the historical understanding that is at odds with Enframing or emergence.
When a pocket of order emerges at the Palace of Paleontology, Swing's revolutionary optimism is obviously doomed, and his theory is trumped by that propounded by Mallory: "History works by Catastrophe! It's the way of the world, the only way there is, has been, or ever will be. There is no history--there is only contingency!" (301-2). That history is not only an inaccurate model of change but also a ruse to disguise relations of domination is suggested by the words of Jupiter, the Marquess of Hastings's African slave: "There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror" (302). After Mallory has killed the Marquess, Jupiter exemplifies the relevance of noncausal theories of change by "waiting for some impetus beyond causality to determine" how he should act in his newly freed state. These microcosmic proclamations of contingency are further elaborated when Mallory examines the visual evidence from a paleontological Royal Society expedition to Canada. These images are based on the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, a vast and well-preserved fossil record of multicellular animals dating from a period immediately following the Cambrian explosion of animal life of approximately 570 million years ago. The large number of extinct animal phyla on display in the Burgess Shale leads Stephen Jay Gould to argue that our theory of evolution as a "cone" or "march of progress" must be replaced with a narrative model based on contingency:
Historical explanations take the form of narrative.... I am not talking about randomness ... but of the central principle of all history--contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. The final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before--the unerasable and determining signature of history. (283)
The valorization of contingency in The Difference Engine increases the ambivalence of the treatment of the Luddites, especially Swing. Gibson and Sterling treat the Luddites ambivalently because their worth or meaning is contingent upon specific moments in time. While this ambivalence is latent in Heidegger's essay, the sort of ambivalence that involves the combination of "danger as such" and the "saving power" in technological emergence is overt in both Heidegger's study and Gibson and Sterling's novel. In narrating the coming-into-consciousness of the Modus as a microcosm of nonhistorical change, the novel's final section, "Modus: The Images Tabled," resonates with both the implicit and explicit ambivalence of Heidegger's analysis.
The emergence of the Modus into consciousness is described in terms of processes associated with chaos theory. Chaos theory seeks to understand the activity of turbulence, weather patterns, and other dynamical systems which are highly unpredictable due to their nonlinearity. In linear equations, "the magnitudes of cause and effect generally correspond" (Hayles 11), but in nonlinear equations the extent of cause and effect are wildly disproportionate due to a "sensitivity on initial conditions"; that is, small differences at the outset of a system (such as the weather) quickly result in massive alterations, which makes the system impervious to long-term prediction. Nonlinear equations model systems that go through a process of "period-doubling" until they "leap" or suddenly transform from an ordered and linear to a chaotic and nonlinear status (Gleick 71). The transition from linear to nonlinear activity in a dynamical system might seem like an entropic decline from order to disorder, but in reality what has occurred is a switch from one form of order to another (the orderliness of the chaotic system can be represented in phase space as a "strange attractor") (Gleick 139-44). Further, the suddenness of the transition makes it appear spontaneous and irreducible to identifiable causal factors.(10)
In the final section of The Difference Engine, the orderly narrative of the preceding sections suddenly gives way to the nonlinearity of textual fragmentation. Because the overall effect of this seeming disorder is to communicate the orderly emergence of the Modus's consciousness, this portion of the book should be viewed as an enactment of chaotic processes. The Modus epitomizes both Heideggerian Enframing and chaos by, on the one hand, "feeding through the roots of thought on the rich decay of its own shed images" and, on the other hand, "leaping quantum gaps that are causation, contingency, chance" (429). In her Victorian lectures, Ada states her hope that a sufficiently sophisticated engine will someday be devised that will enable the Modus's complex mathematical equation to be realized so that the Modus will become self-referential, self-conscious, and, ultimately, alive. Sybil mocks her endeavor as a "lecture-gull" (425), and while Ada's predictions appear to be realized in the alternate 1991 London, Sybil's critical words are relevant because the world has become one in which the human exists solely as the "standing-reserve" of the Modus: "Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye" (428). While the exploitative nature of the technological domination of humans makes it futile to argue that here Gibson and Sterling are celebrating the potential for an electronic subjectivity, the finale of the tale is ambivalent, because the means by which the Modus has become "alive" is precisely that which has been valorized as more enlightened than Swing's historicism or the Rads' instrumentality.
In a world devoid of politics and nationality and threatened by an aristocratic-scientific oligarchy, the Modus represents danger as such. Yet the scientific theories and technological processes through which the Modus is realized suggest new models of human subjectivity; therefore, these theories and processes enable the reader to imagine a critique of the impact of technology upon humans without resorting to a humanist antitechnologism. Early in the narrative, the flashing images which accompany Sam Houston's autobiographical lecture--Union Jack, Lone Star flag, bust of Houston, American eagle, Jackson, a frontier battle scene with sound effects, emblem of the Tennessee government, image of the battle of San Jacinto, Travis, Bowie, Crockett, et cetera--evoke subjectivity as an iterated series of disconnected signs rather than as a harmonious, undifferentiated whole. Similarly, on the novel's first page, Sybil is described in terms that evoke the weaving of the Jacquard loom, which forms the basis of the calculatory power of the difference engine that will ultimately engender the Modus: "Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman" (1). Unlike Haraway's cyborg, this technological subjectivity does not entail the conjunction of a humanist self with new technologies that serves only to reaffirm the master narrative of technological progress and to reify the humanist subject. Neither does it entail the transcendence of the body. Rather, it is the expression of technological processes that might only be revealed by what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls "paralogy" (60), or the postmodern science of chaos theory and catastrophe theory, but which are always already present. By evoking this technosubject at the outset of their tale, Gibson and Sterling underscore the "self-similarity" (in the language of chaos theory) between the Modus's "leaping" into self-consciousness and the ordinary and preexistent subjectivity of characters and selves. It is in these terms that technology represents a saving power in The Difference Engine: not as the novel contraption that can be used by or hooked up to humanist selves, but as an unfolding according to ordered and discontinuous processes of transformation that reveals these same processes at work in all bodies.
The Difference Engine is, in Pynchon's terms, a Luddite novel of ambivalence because it savages instrumental and dominatory forms of technopolitics while evoking a subversive reappropriation of technology in fictional terms. The ambivalence of the representation of technology is due to the importance of ownership. Technology is not essentially good, bad, or (as Heidegger insists) neutral (4). Rather, its value is in part a product of who owns it. Both Mick and Swing seek to reappropriate technology, and they qualify as Pynchonian Luddites because their acts of reappropriation are also acts of destruction. Mick is involved in sabotaging the French engine, and Swing hopes to bring down the technopolitical system of the Rads. However, the critical force of these characters is undermined by, in Mick's case, an identification with the Rads and, in Swing's case, a faith in historical determinism. While Mick's course of action epitomizes Luddism as defined by Pynchon, Mick regards the ideology of the Rads as having superseded the Luddite practices of Sybil's father. Mick's desire to obtain a form of information technology for instrumental rather than subversive ends exemplifies Mick's adherence to the Rads' viewpoint, and the fact that this attempt leads to Mick's death at the hands of a character described as an avenging angel (65) can be viewed as a form of textual punishment. Mick is wrong to believe that Gerard's ideas are now irrelevant. Albeit in negative terms, Sybil realizes that her father's Luddism represents a revolutionary spirit that, like the situationists' definition of poetry, continually reasserts itself throughout human history: "His ideals would be ... crushed again and again and again, like the carcass of a mongrel dog under the racketing wheels of an express train" (17). As we have seen, Swing subscribes to a model of history that is proved false by his own destruction. Both Mick and Swing are Pynchonian Luddites who have failed to understand the point made by Baudrillard, which is that the utopia of the Luddites is not something to be implemented via technopolitical instrumentality, or won in the dialectical future, but an ever-present virtual condition.
In its critique of the historicism and instrumentality that obstruct the realization of the Luddite utopia, The Difference Engine enacts a contingent process of narrative emergence. According to Heidegger, the essence of technology is to be understood in terms of how change occurs through contingent emergence, and this understanding is best achieved through a type of poetic art that mimics the process of technological unfolding. In addition to exemplifying Pynchon's Luddite novel, Gibson and Sterling's collaboration illustrates the type of literature advocated by Heidegger. Through its discontinuous and iterated chapters, The Difference Engine maps the growth of the Modus and other technologies along a trajectory that is irreducible to paradigms of change. The Difference Engine is a technopolitical novel because technological mutations are coterminous with shifts in the valence of perspectives on politics and history, especially those identified with the Luddites. By including references to the Burgess Shale, Gibson and Sterling provide a theoretical support for their narrative's adherence to contingency at the expense of history. Toward the end of the novel, as technopolitical power becomes more threatening, the validity of the Luddite perspective increases. The ambivalence of the treatment of technology and politics derives from the centrality of contingent emergence in both cases.
Heidegger conceptualizes technology in ambivalent terms because he regards it as both danger as such and the saving power. More precisely, Heidegger believes that the danger that technology brings awakens us to the reality of this threat and causes us to rethink our own ontology and be saved by the realization of our true being. Gibson and Sterling share this vision of ambivalence. The emergence of the Modus is described in terms of the unpredictable systems of chaos theory. While the Modus is evoked as a fearsome panoptic entity, its coming into self-consciousness as both "Eye" and "I" (429) reflects back on the novel's representation of subjectivity, notably that of Sybil. The final words of The Difference Engine switch the emphasis from technology to subjectivity, as the emergence of the Modus suggests the general relevance of chaotic processes. In the language of Heidegger, the dangerous growth of technology is what provokes the saving realization that selves are already discontinuous and ordered systems.
What suggests that this model of subjectivity constitutes a saving realization is its consonance with the technological and political elements of The Difference Engine. The Luddite destruction of technology is inseparable from a reappropriation of the general intellect of technology represented by the Modus, and the critique of the Modus brings with it a vision of chaotic subjectivity that parallels the process by which Swing's attempt to subvert the Rads through detournement liberates a poetic and revolutionary energy. In all these spheres, critical negation is predicated upon both the recognition and reclamation of already existing phenomena rather than the positing of new and deferred ideals and the denial of historicism and predictability in favor of chaotic emergence. Because of its consistent emphasis on negation, The Difference Engine does not present us with a positive depiction of a political utopia. Instead, it asks us to perceive in the detritus of its critique and the structure of its narrative the possibility of a technological utopian chaos that is always with us in contingent time.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
A faculty summer research fellowship from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln facilitated the completion of this article.
(1.) For studies which criticize cyberpunk for upholding extant political and gender domination, see Nixon 231; Ross 152; Sponsler 642; and Stockton 588. For studies which laud cyberpunk's representation of cyborg subjectivity, see Hollinger 204-5; Plant, "Future"; Stivale 79; and Sussman 19-21. The most influential general celebration of cyborg subjectivity is, of course, Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" (see Haraway 149-81).
(2.) In terms of both technology and politics, The Difference Engine realizes goals that the historical Charles Babbage failed to achieve. The fictionalized difference engines are based on Babbage's analytical engine, a more sophisticated version of his earlier difference engine, which was designed but never manufactured in Babbage's lifetime (see Hyman 164-73 and 208-10). The technopolitical regime of Byron's party represents the sort of government which Babbage, who stood for Parliament as a Benthamite and made important contributions to political economy, was disappointed to find that the post-1832 Reform government did not become (see Hyman 38, 82-87, and 112).
(3.) Malcolm I. Thomis provides evidence supporting Pynchon's comments on the stocking frame, arguing that "it acquired in 1811 a villainous reputation for having come suddenly into existence and having created massive redundancy," a reputation Thomis rejects as "myth" (29). Contemporary accounts reinforce this interpretation: an 1812 pamphlet entitled "The Beggar's Complaint," by George Beaumont, observes that "the interdicted Frames were not all of a new-invented kind, there being many destined to destruction for the sake of their owner" (99).
(4.) Unlike Plato's Forms or Christianity's God, Being does not exist outside of time and does not authorize the design of time as history. However, as Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida argue, Heidegger's espousal of contingency is compromised by his privileging of the time of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy (Rorty 43) and his nostalgia for "the first word of Being" (Derrida, Margins 27). Yet as Jeffrey T. Nealon argues, Derrida caricatures the extent to which Heidegger's evocation of the "sending of Being" "remains haunted by the specter of teleological thinking" (229). Moreover, Heidegger's belief that Heraclitus and Parmenides lived in Being more so than we do is not necessarily a privileging of origins; for Heidegger, the era of the pre-Socratics was a contingent moment in time that just happened to have occurred in the infancy of Western philosophy. It is within this model of contingent time that the multiple effects of technology take place.
Heidegger's analysis here resonates strongly with postmodernism's concomitant abandonment of strong historical paradigms and articulation of intensificatory or nonoppositional politics. Baudrillard uses these same lines from Holderlin as a central reference point for his critique of contemporary society. At the conclusion of The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Baudrillard suggests that global homogenization (danger) engenders the likelihood of its own immanent collapse (saving power) (86-87); in The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard reverses Holderlin to articulate the pessimistic view that the growth of a culture of security and protection (saving power) entails cultural death (danger) (49). Both cases illustrate Baudrillard's conception of "fatal strategy," where resistance involves the intensification rather than the elimination of those forces to which one is opposed (see Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies 7).
(5.) "My feelings about technology are totally ambivalent--which seems to me to be the only way to relate to what's happening today. When I write about technology, I write about how it has already affected our lives: I don't extrapolate in the way I was taught an SF writer should" (Gibson 274).
(6.) For the situationists' own account of their involvement in the events of May 1968, see "Beginning." For a more objective account, see Plant, Most Radical 93-110.
(7.) One of the situationists' major theorists, Raoul Vaneigem, writes that "the spontaneous acts we can see everywhere forming against power and its spectacle must be warned of all the obstacles in their path and must find a tactic taking into account the strength of the enemy and its means of recuperation. This tactic, which we are going to popularize, is detournement" (125).
(8.) In his reading of Gibson's Neuromancer, Glenn Grant argues that the detournement of technology enables characters to "transcend the self" (42). However, The Difference Engine foregrounds the linguistic detournement that was of paramount significance to the situationists, and the serious aspect of this resides not in transcendence but its opposite---the denial of any original or concluding meaning that might stop the play of textual difference.
(9.) The issue of information exceeding cognition in cyberpunk is also addressed in Whalen (82-86). For a variety of readings of cyberpunk's technological sublime, see Christie 48-50; Jameson, Postmodernism 32-38; and Tabbi 208-20.
(10.) The issue of whether chaos theory undermines determinism and mechanical causality is a highly controversial one. Theoretically, these bulwarks of Western science are not seriously challenged by chaos theory, since if one were to know all the causal factors involved in any system, then such total knowledge would make the system predictable. However, as Stephen H. Kellert argues, such total knowledge is scientifically impossible, and this means that "Determinism is not so much proven false as rendered meaningless" (74). Kellert's argument is significant because it suggests that to describe chaotic systems as spontaneously emerging and self-organizing is not to use inexact language that will be remedied once science can compute a greater number of causal variables; rather it is to speak in terms that mark the literal limit of human knowledge.
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NICHOLAS SPENCER is assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is working on a study of technopolitics in American fiction from naturalism to cyberpunk.3
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