Virtual termites: a hypotextual technomutant explo(it)ration of william Gibson and the electronic beyond(s).
(Gibson, Neuromancer 5)
1 He = Henry Dorsett Case, computer cowboy and protagonist of William Gibson's breathtakingly popular first novel, Neuromancer. If Case's sidekick, Molly, is an ex-moll, and if his immediate boss, Armitage, is both armored with the merest vestige of an unfurling personality and armored for his high-orbit Armageddon, then Case is encased in a shell that does not allow him to feel. Uninterested in the meat world, his body in a sense lacks sensation, becomes a prosthesis for his mind.
As with most of Gibson's characters, then, through a certain optic Case is intertextual heir apparent to Natty Bumppo, the archetypal American, according at least to D. H. Lawrence's definition of the notion in his discussion of Cooper's Leatherstocking novels - "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer" (73) - a cultural stereotype admired and appropriated to one degree or another by Poe, Melville, Thoreau, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler, film noir, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ________________, ________________, ________________, ________________, ________________ (fill in the blanks; present the absences), behind which rest two others: the American frontier (Case is a computer cowboy) and the American cowboy (Case is a computer cowboy), with their connotations of freedom, ruggedness, discovery, and solitude. Encased Case keeps to himself unless he has to do otherwise to survive, skirts the fringes of a grim society, speaks in monosyllables, shows more passion toward his cyberspace deck than any human in his life. He voyages into a desolate world where he encounters various trials, then rides his computer into an electronic sunset with a lover named, yes, Michael. In such a narrative realm, whose decentered center appears to be the virtual reality called cyber-space, egocentrism appears to be rendered virtually complete, characters self-absorbed, routinely seclusive, disinterested in their surroundings except to the extent that those surroundings are interested in them. When they privilege private reality over public, they exhibit (one could argue) a mild case of autism.
Wed to that American arche(stereo)type of the cowboy is (and here we begin at least circling my main point) the arche(stereo)type of the European romantic artist: Goethe's Werther; the Byronic hero; the isolated, self-reliant, gloomy, questing, sun-staring visionary rebel. As much as Case descends from Natty Bumpo with his cowboy garb, stripped language, and tough-guy ways (the culmination of the novel is, after all, a kind of metaphoric "shoot-out" with Neuromancer in cyberspace), he also descends from the romantic wanderers in quest of the (here electronic) infinite that always remains just beyond reach. A Ulysses of virtual reality, he voyages into a magical realm where he undertakes various adventures, then returns home transformed; although he loses his Circe-Calypso in Molly, he gains his Penelope in that woman with a parodic man's name. The character Henry Dorsett Case morphs into the character Bobby Newmark (the new easy mark), whose body decays while his mind exists solely in the infinite cyberspatial disembodiment of the aleph in Mona Lisa Overdrive; into the character Gentry as well - a crazed prophet searching for the unifying Shape, the modern metanarrative - whose ideas harmonize well with the surrealist imagination, which asserts, along with Andre Breton, that "the real process of thought" lies in "the omnipotence of dream" (602), that "the poet must turn seer" (605), that "it is time to have done with the provoking insanities of 'realism'" (613). Cyberspace is nothing if not the (dis)embodiment of dream, vision, the fantastic.
2 Operated. He'd operated. Here: "functioned," "managed," "conducted oneself." Carrying, too, a distant military charge (Case launches an "operation," an attack, on Neuromancer), medical (Case "operates" electronically on Neuromancer's defenses), and, most important, mechanical. Machines "operate." Case, devoid of feeling (as most of the characters in Gibson's project are), has more in common with machine than man. "I saw you stroking that Sendai," Molly tells him, noting how he interacts with his cyberspace deck; "man, it was pornographic" (Neuromancer 47). Case has sex with Molly, but he gets down and dirty with his hot box.
McCoy Pauley, Case's mentor, took his nickname, Dixie Flatline, from his interface with a computer. Now he (it?) is a construct, a disembodied cybernaut, his personality downloaded into a program that talks, responds, reasons like Pauley, and yet is not Pauley, and yet is Pauley. Like Slothtop in Gravity's Rainbow, he (it?) possesses nearly no temporal bandwidth, experiencing time only as a series of "nows." When Case asks if he (it?) possesses sentience as well, Dixie Flatline answers that it "feels" so. "But I'm really just a bunch of ROM," he (it?) adds. "It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess.... But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't in no way human" (131).
Or is it? Characters in Gibson's project exhibit limited internal action in the form of thoughts and feelings. They come closer, in fact, to acting like highly complicated automata. They seldom ponder ideas. They cannot love. They cannot even hate in any traditional sense. As a rule, they feel close to nothing. Wintermute, the artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is driven by a passionate longing to connect with its other half. It schemes, betrays, murders, not out of reflex or circuitry, but out of deep desire.
By posing such questions as Are humans simply highly complex robots? and Can machines feel and desire? Gibson joins a philosophical conversation that has been unraveling since the seventeenth century. In 1641, Descartes asserted that the human body should be considered a machine and that animals should be considered automata lacking thought and feeling. About a hundred years later Julien Offray de La Mettrie, a French physician and philosopher, combined these ideas and extended Descartes's notions to include the human mind. We are, he said, no more than conscious machines. He thereby interrogated that part of us we hold most free. The other side of the equation - that machines can in fact think and exhibit purposive behavior - surfaced during the 1940s with the development of cybernetics. The British logician, A. M. Turing (hence the Turing Police in Gibson's first novel), asserted in 1950 that it was theoretically possible to manufacture a thinking machine. Indeed, he said, in the future it would be possible to build a machine with intelligence and purposive behavior. Only human prejudice would prevent humanity from conceptualizing the resulting cybernetic construct as another human mind.
To the extent Turing suggests that intelligence merely consists of a series of potentially well-distinguished tasks, he agrees with the characters in Neuromancer, who are characterized by what they do rather than by what they think or feel. Lewis Shiner, Gibson's friend and a member of the original group of cyberpunk writers, recalled to me Gibson talking about a college course he took on American Naturalism in which he encountered, and was deeply impressed by, Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, a text where characters are defined by external rather than internal action. This impulse is reflected throughout Neuromancer, a text that privileges high-speed and often high-tech movement over static and low-tech contemplation. Molly registers this thrust when she claims: "Anybody any good at what they do, that's what they are, right?" (50).
3 On. And so we travel on to Gibson's central questions operating within the case of the human: Who am I? What am I? What is my relationship with the world? Where do I stop and others begin? Why am I not a machine? Why is a machine not me? What constitutes human identity? What makes me the same person today as yesterday, as thirty-eight years ago, as tomorrow, if anything?
4 An. Weakened variant of one from the Anglo-Saxon. Article indefinite as the human itself. Before, during, and after it, anything can happen. Like cyberspace (there's my point again, circling). Like the play(giarized)ground of postmodern narratology.
The human in Gibson, in these deeply Ovidian times, always teeters on the verge of becoming something inhumane, inhuman, less or more than what we (who?) once took for granted about the human. It can easily be destroyed by drugs, as Case realizes when he watches Linda Lee's "personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away" (8); altered by cosmetic surgery as with Angelo, the Panther Modern, whose face is a graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. Selfhood (dis)appears to be nothing more than forgery, whether it takes the form of Case's string of false passports, Armitage's handsome inexpressive mask covering Corto's insanity, or the Panther Moderns' camouflage suits.
Wintermute comments, in one of his various pseudohuman incarnations: "I, insofar as I have an 'I' - this gets rather metaphysical, you see - I am the one who arranges things ..." (120). When articulating identity, language slips; syntax comes up short. Even Wintermute's sureness of purpose decomposes in a sentence that fumbles and fractures as it attempts to speak personality.
5 Almost. We are almost there, almost at my point of departure. But back, first, for a moment, to the indefiniteness of an, to the slip and stutter, the epistemological hover, the ontological hesitation (dis)embodied by that almost word.
In Count Zero, the sequel to Neuromancer, the Wintermute-Neuromancer entity comes apart in cyberspace almost immediately following its union. Scatters. Becomes, from one perspective, a plethora of subprograms, Lyotardian micronarratives, language games, each relatively as good (or bad) as any other, and, from another perspective (science fiction is a genre all about seeing, all about other perspectives), a host of voodoo gods haunting the matrix. Like Tzvetan Todorov's fantastic, Gibson's project thus tends to keep at least two possibilities (and usually a plurality of them) open at once, twice: here scientific explanation side-by-side with (alternative) theological discourse. Discursive worlds thereby shift, become narratologically amphibious. Gibson ambidextrizes the beliefs about existence that those discursive worlds suggest. Compartmentalization and hierarchism become virtual, become an almost ... but not quite. Each discursive world becomes simply one of many, relatively as good (or bad) as any other. De(re)valued, the resulting configuration refuses absolute significance and closure.
The reader enters an in-between that just keeps gnawing onward.
6 Permanent. And so nothing remains "permanent" here. The reader inhabits an Ovidian space of possibility, a space that exemplifies the virtual, a virtual space, cyberspace. "VR is not so much a medium in itself, as a technology for the synthesis of all media" (Ryan). The reader enters the radically unstable geography of termite art.
When attending the University of British Columbia in 1976, Gibson, as he told me, came across an essay by the iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber called "White Elephant Art and Termite Art." Originally published in 1962, it became part of Negative Space, a collection of Farber's essays, in 1971. It is one of the few essays that directly influenced Gibson's aesthetics. In it, Farber distinguishes between two kinds of art. The first, for which he holds contempt, is White-Elephant Art, the sort that embraces the idea of a well-crafted, logical arena, incarnated in the films of Francois Truffaut. Proponents of this near-school produce tedious pieces reminiscent of Rube Goldberg's perpetual-motion machines that exude a sense of their own weight, structure, and status as masterworks. The second kind of art, which Farber advocates, is Termite Art. This is the sort that stands opposed to elite aesthete culture, embraces freedom and multiplicity, and is incarnated in the films of Laurel and Hardy. Proponents of this near-school produce pieces that gnaw away at their own boundaries, leaving little in their wake except traces of enthusiastic, assiduous, and messy endeavor.
Gibson's termite project is nothing if not extreme, contentious, conflicted, ambivalent, the product of a kind of bricoleur's brinkmanship. Most often considered a science-fiction writer, Gibson obviously employs various extrapolations of technology or pseudotechnology but he also appropriates, as we have seen, stylized cowboys, scouts, and bad guys, the adventurous frontier mentality, and motifs of the shoot-out and barroom brawl from the western. From the spy thriller, which portrays a Pynchonesque vision of contemporary reality, he borrows the convoluted plot; ideas of international conspiracy; vast, bewildering political or corporate powers; secret agents; and evil henchmen. He lifts low-life sleuths and criminals, archetypal tough guys, mysteries solved through the collection and interpretation of clues, seedy underworld settings, clipped prose, and sparse dialogue from the hard-boiled detective genre. He adopts a sense of pervasive magic, horror, ghosts, long underground passageways, and dark staircases from the gothic novel and formal distortions, bizarre characters, decadent settings, absurd incongruity, and a fascination with the irrational and abnormal from the southern grotesque tradition. From the tradition of the Erziehungsroman, he takes the plot of education that traces the psychological journey of a youth from innocence to experience, like Bobby in Count Zero and Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive.
In other words, he transmogrifies writing into writing-as-network. In the following passage, for instance, Case returns to his sleeping compartment from a hard day only to meet Molly for the first time:
Fluorescents came on as he crawled in.
"Close the hatch real slow, friend. You still got that Saturday night special you rented from the waiter?"
She sat with her back to the wall, at the far end of the coffin. She had her knees up, resting her wrists on them; the pepperbox muzzle of a flechette pistol emerged from her hands.... She wore mirrored glasses. Her clothes were black, the heels of black boots deep in the temperfoam.... She shook her head. He realized the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag. The fingers curled around the fletcher were slender, white, tipped with polished burgundy. The nails looked artificial....
"So what do you want, lady?" He sagged back against the hatch.
"You. One live body, brains still somewhat intact. Molly, Case. My name's Molly. I'm collecting you for the man I work for. Just wants to talk, is all. Nobody wants to hurt you."
"'Cept I do hurt people sometimes, Case. I guess it's just the way I'm wired." She wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light.... The fletcher vanished into the black jacket.... "You try to fuck around with me, you'll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life."
She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.
She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew. (24-25)
As Paul Alkon points out, emphasis falls not on scientific detail but on the marvelous. Unlike much science fiction depending on gadgetry for its effects, Gibson's work usually focuses on the magic inherent in a situation. Here the scene partakes of motifs associated to a large extent with "pulp fiction transformed to a futuristic setting with some appropriate changes of costume, decor and vocabulary" until, that is, Molly reveals the scalpel blades inset in her fingertips (78-79). Suddenly, the world tilts. Molly becomes, not a tough gal from a hard-boiled detective novel, but a sorceress. The universe of technology slips since "it is very hard to understand how a four-centimeter (1.6 inch) retractable blade along with even a highly miniaturized motor-mechanism could be implanted without impeding ability to bend the fingers at their first joints, although some ingenious explanation could doubtless be offered" (79). By refusing to explain the technology behind this scene, Gibson as usual underscores the scene's astonishing aspects. Much the same happens to the cyberspace matrix itself, all glitter and flash without the mechanics.
A sense of the artificial pervades this scene as well from the fluorescent lights to the fact that Molly is literally "wired" differently from most humans. Like Molly, who is an amalgamation of technology and humanity, the scene, emblematic of the text as a whole, is an amalgamation of various narrative modes. Gibson here not only brings together the universes of fantasy and science fiction, but also those of the detective novel (the dingy setting, clipped prose, and tough-guy dialogue), the western (Molly's boots, gun, and black clothes suggest the archetypal evil cowboy), the spy thriller (Molly, part secret agent and part low-life henchman, introduces the conspiracy plot at this point), and the realist novel (the description of the sleeping compartment is an accurate one of Japan's current low-cost business hotel rooms). By mongrelizing discursive worlds, Gibson mongrelizes the beliefs about existence those discursive worlds suggest. Compartmentalization and hierarchism gone, each universe becomes simply one of many, relatively as good or bad as any other. Thus de(re)valued, each becomes one more instance of gomi (the Japanese word Gibson uses for junk), refusing White Elephant ideas of totality, absolute significance, and closure.
Danny Rirdan faults Gibson's prose style on a number of grounds, including the fact that it both is "ambiguous" and embraces "mystification for the sake of mystification" (44). But, given the preceding, it is clear that ambiguity and mystification are exactly what Gibson is after. In a characteristic move, Gibson "mystifies" the above scene from the start by giving the reader dialogue without accompanying tags: Molly speaks without the reader knowing it is she who is speaking; then she is described; but through a narrative sleight of hand she is not named until nearly two thirds of the way through the passage. In addition, again characteristically, futurist concepts and devices like the "coffin" and "flechette pistol" are cited long before they have been explained, so that the reader has the impression he or she has missed the explanation. Frequently one must glean meaning from context (as with the word "coffin" here), and sometimes one must wait pages (sometimes forever) for illumination. The effect is close to that of the cinematic jump cut found in MTV videos that produces discontinuity in filmic time while drawing attention to the medium itself. It is as though, as Donald Barthelme has claimed in another context, that, just as modern painters had to reinvent painting because of the discovery of photography, so contemporary writers have had to reinvent writing because of the discovery of film (26).
The reader is further disoriented by the Pynchonesque premium Gibson's style places on poetic information density. Gibson is infatuated with detail and inventory, from the pepperbox muzzle of the flechette pistol to Molly's heels sinking into the temperfoam, from Molly's hairstyle to the color of her fingernails. This infatuation is foreign to most science fiction, not to mention more mimetic modes. Gibson regularly loads his sentences with a blend of high-tech jargon, brand names, street slang, and acronyms that lends an overall sense of urgency, intensity, and at times congestion to his style. He commonly uses prose as others might use poetry. Words like "cyberspace" and "black matte" are repeated with the incantational power of figurative language.
Gibson utilizes colors with a similar poetic intensity. In the above passage, as in much of Gibson's fiction, black and white dominate and tend to occur in succession. Molly's jacket, jeans, boots, and presumably hair are black and seem "to absorb light," just as Molly is in the process of "absorbing" Case into a deadly conspiracy. Her cheekbones and fingers are white; rather than traditional associations with innocence and purity, though, this color in Gibson's work carries associations with the pale skin worn by the living dead like the Draculas in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gray - the color that appears with the next greatest frequency in Gibson's fiction and is negatively associated with such things as Mona's johns, the dead earth, and the aleph - is absent in this passage, but its metallic double, silver, appears in Molly's mirrorshades and, apparently, her scalpel blades. Silver is ordinarily associated with the technological in Gibson, as is its near cousin, chrome. Black, white, and silver coalesce here in a visual pun that transforms Molly into a femme fatale, a phallic female, a "catty" woman who is half animal, half machine.
Three significant metaphors inform the passage: (1) the lenses of Molly's mirrorshades seem to "grow" from the skin above her cheekbones; (2) Molly acts violently because she is "wired" that way; (3) her clothes appear to "absorb light." This again is indicative of Gibson's poetic prose. While a number of rather conventional metaphors occur in Gibson's fiction, simply linking attributes of two objects from some generally similar category, the most interesting ones often link something natural with something artificial. Mirrorshades "grow" like plants out of Molly's skin. Molly's behavior is "wired" like a machine. Her clothes "absorb light" like a black hole. If the romantic metaphor makes nature familiar and technology unfamiliar, these postmodern metaphors make nature unfamiliar and technology familiar. Such metaphors also partake in the aesthetics of the unpleasant, its roots trailing back to the poetry of Eliot and, before him, Baudelaire. For Gibson, a road is "dead straight, like a neat incision, laying the city open" (Neuromancer 87). The plot of a soap opera is "a multiheaded narrative tapeworm that coiled back in to devour itself every few months, then sprouted new heads hungry for tension and thrust" (Count Zero 51). Given such astonishing use of language, it may easily be argued that Gibson's focus is not on conventional plot at all, but on accumulation of detail and turns of phrase. Gibson's fiction is less about what happens or to whom or where than it is about style. Like Molly herself in the above passage, Gibson's is a fiction of artifice. In this way, Gibson (as he says) is a termite artist par excellence in that he tends to zero in on "the little corners of things more than the way the whole thing looks" (Tatsumi 7).
Often Gibson's emphasis on writing-as-network, ambiguity, mystification for mystification's sake, information density, obsession with detail, highly metaphoric prose, and the aesthetics of the unpleasant adds up to a sense of confusion and uneasiness on the reader's part. Dropped without much exposition into an alien and sometimes obscure future world, the reader is put in the uncomfortable position of having to make decisions about meaning and moral value based on very little textual evidence. If trained as a modernist, ready to search for patterns of intelligibility, the reader experiences an analogue of what John Brunner calls "overload" (53) and Ted Mooney "information sickness" (36), a radical disorientation before a plethora of facts that might or might not connect.
Gibson reminds us about this condition numerous times in the course of his fiction. At the end of Count Zero, Turner gives Angie a biosoft dossier and says: "It doesn't tell the whole story. Remember that. Nothing ever does" (241). The dossier, like the novel itself, supposedly holds a narrative that should make sense of things. But at the same time Gibson offers the possibility of significance and closure with one hand, he subjects that possibility to contradiction or cancellation with the other. Just as the dossier (to which neither Angie nor the reader gains access) "doesn't tell the whole story," so too Count Zero itself promises meaning only to defer meaning to its sequel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, which itself concludes, not with illumination, but with a promise that truth is just around the corner and that we'll arrive there "in a New York minute" (260) though, ironically, Mona Lisa Overdrive is the last book in the trilogy, and the only "meaning" the reader can obtain in a New York minute is to return to the beginning of the trilogy and start reading again. The story almost makes sense, but not quite. The almost-making-sense seems to indicate meaning has only been deferred temporarily. But that is not the case. Meaning, it slowly dawns on the reader, is contained in the failure to achieve meaning.
7 Adrenaline. Enthusiastic, assiduous, messy, and fast. Like what happens in cyberspace. Or with those two key metaphors in Gibson's Virtual Light: (1) the San Francisco bike-messenger service, one of whose employees, Chevette Washington, steals a pair of virtual light glasses (which produce images in the brain by stimulating the optic nerve without employing photons) from a grotesque man at a party on an angry whim; and (2) the Oakland Bay Bridge, abandoned by the city after a megalithic earthquake, slowly homed by the homeless, and currently the topic of a (re)search by a young Japanese scholar named Yamasaki attempting to employ the bridge to understand American Kultur.
Gibson's use of the first metaphor nods in a gesture of appreciation and appropriation toward the major means of transportation in his friend Lewis Shiner's 1991 novel, Slam, about the anarchistic world of skateboarding, underground economies, and computer networks. The bikes, like Shiner's skateboards, are emblematic of environmentally conscious no-fuel freedom, intense energy, exhilarating flash, and sexy fashion: the cultural inscriptions of the technohip.
The patchwork dwellings on the broken bridge - from bars to tattoo parlors, sushi shops to rag-tag shelters, inhabited by those living on the edges of our culture - indicate something else, too. They "had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic. At night, illuminated by Christmas bulbs, by recycled neon, by torchlight, [the bridge] possessed a queer medieval energy" (62). Or, elsewhere, the dwellings "had just grown, it looked like, one thing patched into the next, until the whole span was wrapped in this formless mass of stuff, and no two pieces of it matched. There was a different material anywhere you looked, almost none of it being used for what it had originally been used for" (178). A model, surely, for postmodern America itself. For the chapters in Virtual Light, as well, most of which are no more than five or ten pages long, like those in Count Zero, and which form a structure of intersecting plots that move inexorably toward a unifying (?) climax. But, most important for my (here it is again, almost) point, both bridge and text are also emblems of termite art.
They just keep gnawing onward.
Adrenaline. The heart of Gibson's project. Look, for instance, at "The Winter Market" and the two views of art Gibson presents there. One romantic, one purely postmodern. The character Lise represents the former. When Casey (another encased case) listens to her voice, he hears "levels of pain there, and subtlety, and an amazing cruelty" (121). She is literally isolated from others, living in her exoskeleton, helpless without it, self-absorbed, able only to take from others, unable to make love. She is self-destructive as well, refusing to tend to the sores on her wrists caused by the exoskeleton or to her addiction to the drug wizz. When Casey jacks into her mind, he is so moved by what he feels that he cannot stop himself from crying. Her de(re)formed body is controlled by forces outside her, but her imagination, hers and no one else's, is dark brilliance, "able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung's sea, and bring back - well, dreams" (123). Dreams?
Rubin Stark, by stark contrast, is a gomi no sensei, a master of detritus, a bricoleur, a termite artist, who never likes to refer to himself as an artist. The idea strikes him as too precious, pretentious, ponderous. Predecessor of Slick Henry in Mona Lisa Overdrive, he wanders the city "like some vaguely benign Satan" (119) gathering junk to construct whimsical de(con)structive robotic sculptures suggestive of those by Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories. Rubin is not overly concerned about success. He does not take his art especially seriously. He cruises for his ideas among the aisles of the late-twentieth-century cultural hypermart, ready to shoplift, ready to see what falls into his cart.
8 High. Adrenaline high. What it all comes down to - up to - in Gibson's pluriverse. Enthusiastic, assiduous, messy, and (here, at last, my point) cyberdelic. In other words, the definition of cyberspace, the virtual area that manifests Gibson's idea of termite art, a realm on the other side of the computer keyboard, through the screen, the sublime electronic beyond that both exists and does not exist, opens upon expectation, chance, burning bushes, voodoo gods, exotic spaces, the notion of trespass, informational order joined to informational subversion, a zone where anything can happen, everything is possible, all fences are down, the dead can dance, the living die (though usually, flatlined, only for a short time), the visionary be made (hyper)(sur)real. A narratological region that continually chews away at its own boundaries and hence the reader's, problematizing everything from place to gender, identity to its own position in the "world." Cyberspace is the symbolic territory of termite art.
And yet, of course, it is not really cyberspace we are talking about in this essay: it is just words on a page describing a realm that was at best barely nascent as Gibson wrote his first novel, a geography that over time in the world outside the novel became informed by Gibson's sense of it. Gibson's linguistic simulation of cyberspace, that is, became mimicked by cyberspace after the fact. From our present point of view, however, we understand those words are only simulations of a virtual area that did not fully exist when the words describing it were first generated and does not fully exist now in the manner Gibson said it might.
In other words, Gibson's cyberspace does not exactly function cyberspatially. How could it? Even in the best of all possible worlds we are restricted by the distance between print and "reality." But to question that relationship leads us to a related query: in what sense can a hypertextual essay, this hypertextual essay, function hypertextually when limited by its existence on the flat, linear, non-hypertextual page? The answer is in no sense. And in several. Or, better yet, just as Gibson's ?? simulates cyberspace, so too does this ?? simulate hypertext. The latter forms a critifictional correlative for the former, suggesting that termite writing might at least possibly benefit from a termite reading that attempts to avoid the white elephant of traditional academic essaying by performing termite art's contradictory circus of the mind in motion in what that mind perceives to be a micronarrativized pluriverse. Secondary text parasites (and para-cites) an already parasitic (and para-citic) mode, transforming a "primary" text into an already-secondary one that serves as host to an already-secondary text that moves to become, briefly and ironically, primary.
We are left, then, with an unstable field of play, a precarious playfulness, a Barthesian termite arena, "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash" (Barthes 146).
9, The halt, the hesitation, the Todorovian suspension, the Barthesian bliss, the Derridean absence made present, of cyberspace, opposite of Gibson's frightening external future(-present) of the dark polluted Sprawl, Dog Solitude, Chiba City.
From one (yes) perspective, the matrix is an extrapolation of spatial-data management systems studied at MIT, NASA, and elsewhere. From another, it is an idea that came to Gibson while walking down Granville Street in Vancouver. There he saw kids playing in video arcades and noticed "in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were.... And these kids clearly believed in the space these games projected" (McCaffery 272). Here the matrix functions as a metaphor for the mass media's (the adrenaline high, the wizz, those kids' raptness) addictive sway over our culture's consciousness. But cyberspace too raises questions about the relationship between religion (voodoo gods, computer cowboys' and those kids' trance states) and technology while also becoming a major metaphor for memory itself - both individual and cultural - how we continually reprogram and revise it, how our histories are, in a sense at least, historiographic metafictions, a televised precession of Baudrillardian simulacra, "the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV" ("Precession" 365). Many of Gibson's characters (think of Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Molly in Neuromancer) exhibit a certain nostalgia for a past they have redrafted almost beyond recognition. In "Red Star, Winter Orbit," Colonel Korolev, the first man on Mars, cannot recall what actually happened during his historic voyage; all he can recollect are the videotapes, the cultural encodings and edited reflections of reflections of reflections of the experience. Sandii in "New Rose Hotel" tells her past differently to the narrator each time it comes up, rerighting herself while rewriting yesterday.
The gothic quality of the cyberspace matrix - haunted as it is by spirits of the dead, littered with electronic trap doors and dark electronic corners, a mysterious nexus where some other world can always irrupt within this one without warning - implies the landscape of the irrational psyche, which in turn implies a metaphor for mind-body dualism. Characters entering cyberspace leave their bodies behind, lose themselves in the magical mental terrain of the matrix, from a (yes) certain point of view shed the conventions of hard science fiction for those of hallucinatory fantasy, Poeian play in extremis. Case, to cite one example, lives for the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace" while exhibiting "a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh." For him "the body was meat." When he steals from his employers, they retaliate by damaging his nervous system with mycotoxin, dulling his edge at the computer console. Case, (again) encased within his faulty epidermal prophylactic, perceives this event as a "Fall" from grace that forces him to remain locked in "the prison of his own flesh" (6), unable to partake of imagination, the art of negative space, the negative space of art, the realm that works as an analog for our late-twentieth-century experience of watching termite film, reading termite fiction, witnessing what Kroker and Cook call "the real world of postmodern culture": television (229).
10 A. Article indefinite as the narrative space of the matrix itself. Before, during, and after it, anything
Shiner reminded me of other contemporary writers such as Don DeLillo, Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Jay Cantor, J. G. Ballard, Nicolson Baker, Douglas Coupland, and many more whose fictions invite us to trip down hypertext lane, to see the novel as the tip of an iceberg of information, a hypertext inviting, if not demanding, exploration. (Landon 60)
The era of the novel will not end, but fiction as an adventurous testing out of boundaries and frontiers may be an endangered species.... And even if fiction writers work antagonistically to subvert the political vision, or lack of it, we should not expect any large, over-arching books, although we may hope that our Mega-Novelists, or some future ones, may find it in themselves to stir the pot in some major way. A large movement in satire, such as we saw in Catch-22 in the sixties, or some of John Barth and William Gaddis, may prove fruitful; but the satire must have breadth as well as pungency. It cannot particularize, or only particularize, but should spread, venomously, across the entire land. (Karl 50)
There it is: form follows perception, and that's the way we see now.
So, as Shed says, "human beings just got to tell stories," but the telling has been and is likely to keep undergoing change. Between us, I'd be willing to bet that the most engaging novels of the next seven or eight yea ...
[connection closed by foreign host] zi!/ox NO CARRIER (Wilde 100)
11 Byproduct. Agrippa: A Book of the Dead is a $2,000 sweet autobiographical prose poem about Gibson's childhood - about, like cyberspace itself, memory - that exists in a cyberspatial electronic elsewhere on disks, created in collaboration with the abstract expressionist painter Dennis Ashbaugh, that self-destruct after one reading. A metaphor for (un)total recall, as well as a thematic exploration of it, Agrippa happens only in a vital gap that literally nibbles away relentlessly at its own boundaries, performs rather than simulates deconstruction, keeps gnawing onward.
12 Of. Yes. But of what? About what? Gibson's first novel shortcircuits confident mappings by generating textual ambiguity and instability from the title onward, a noun hosting a new romanticism that embraces innovation and emotion: that intense subjective expressionism particularly evinced in the cyberspace sequences, reverberations of those final cyberdelic moments of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ironically, while characters in the text are emotionally bankrupt, though, they exist in environments that are emotionally charged for the reader of the text: Molly's high-paced invasion of Sense/Net, Case's fragmented recollection of the operation to restore his nervous system. The novel partakes in a new romantic longing for the absolute, the electronic ether representing a (back to Lawrence, back to those cowboys) frontier of consciousness. Case is a gloomy, alienated twenty-four-year-old hacker, whom Ratz, the bartender at the Chat, continually refers to mockingly as "the artiste." But, tone aside, Ratz is right. An emblem for the Byronic outlaw writer who lives in his memory and imagination, Case continually strives for the transcendent reality locked within his computer console. Often going days without eating or washing, seldom sleeping, he leaves the mundane material world of meat behind and voyages through a purer landscape of mind, where he encounters one visionary experience after another, including death itself. He is a future Faust, his Mephistopheles Armitage, his Satan Wintermute. More in keeping with Tennyson's than Homer's Ulysses, however, Case never reaches the end of his quest. Although he returns home at the conclusion of his mission, he is beckoned on into the vast steps of data by Neuromancer, Linda Lee's and Dixie Flatline's constructs, even some version of himself (which is himself and not himself, another reflection of a reflection of a reflection) wandering through the matrix. Wintermute and Neuromancer also strive for a transcendent reality - cosmic unity - but fail to attain their goal as well. At the moment of transcendence, as the reader learns in Count Zero, they fracture into manifold gods or subprograms, unable and/or unwilling to continue as a perfect form. The new romanticism, then, is not ultimately about attaining the absolute, but the failure to do so; less about product than process. Like the Duchamp assemblage Molly comes across in the Straylight enclave, the suitors can never (and perhaps should never) reach the bride.
13 Youth. Yes. But whose? Case's? No. He is an old man at twenty-four, his reflexes not what they once were. By the novel's end he has visited, like the narrator of Agrippa and like Ulysses himself, the land of the dead and returned, and, to this extent, he is not so much a neuromancer as a necromancer: the text is rife with Lazarus after Lazarus, from Dixie Flatline in the form of a construct to Linda Lee's structure in cyberspace. Ashpool intermittently awakes from his cryogenic death sleep, and his child 3Jane perceives Wintermute as a ghost (back to those gothic games), whispering in her ear. Metaphorically, Corto is raised from the dead, a Frankensteinian monster, when he is transformed into Armitage. But there is a second-order necromancy here, too. Not only are characters raised from the dead by a number of fictional magicians, but also various genres are raised from the dead by the very real magician of magicians, Gibson himself. In fact, his text ultimately becomes one about youth and old age at a narratological level: textual regeneration and endurance. Forms arise, undergo termiting transformations, and continue metamorphosed. Gibson extends, challenges, endorses, subverts, and revitalizes the science-fiction novel, the quest story, the myth of the hero, the mystery, the hard-boiled detective novel, the epic, the thriller, and tales of the cowboy and the romantic artist. He (re)presents old stories in a revealingly revamped intertextual pastiche, a new version of a very old virtual reality: the
For centuries, books have been the cutting edge of artificial reality. Think about it: you read words on a page, and your mind fills in the pictures and emotions - even physical reactions can result. (Wodaski 79)
14 And. Yes. "And" the text functions as a neurological romance, a kind of textual machine, imaginative mechanism, virtual (termite) reality that activates and stimulates the human mind, thus performing much like cyberspace itself does with respect to characters within the text.
15 Proficiency. Are we then gaining a certain degree of "proficiency" in understanding cyberspatial (termite) art in Gibson's virtual reality?
(d) None of the Above
Let's begin again.
16, The halt, the hesitation, the Todorovian suspension, the Barthesian bliss, the Derridean absence made present, of cyberspace, opposite of Gibson's frightening external future(-present) of the dark polluted Sprawl, Dog Solitude, Chiba City.
Just as Dorothy momentarily abandons the uninteresting black-and-white universe of Kansas for the dazzling polychromatic one of Oz, so too do many of Gibson's characters abandon the polluted dark universe of the Sprawl world for the pure multicolored one of cyberspace. By doing so, they move from the realm of chronos to that of kairos, from a prosaic geography registering realistic chronology, logic, and stability to a transcendent one registering fantastic timelessness, alogic, and possibility. Like their kindred spirit, Lewis Carroll's curious Alice, they head down the hyper(hypo?)textual rabbit hole, eschewing the decadence of the body and penetrate Wonderland, embracing the imaginative splendor of the mind.
This mind-body dualism initially seems to arrange itself along gender lines in Neuromancer. Reminiscent of (again) D. H. Lawrence's scheme, males tend to be associated with the former, females with the latter. Case is addicted to the mental landscape of the matrix and views his body as so much meat, and Dixie Flatline's construct is pure mind. Linda Lee, on the other hand, is perceived by Case as a body whose mind has been destroyed by drugs, and Molly embodies pure body. Once a moll in a puppet house, she is now a hired gun. Because of her jacked-up nervous system, she possesses magnificent control over her reflexes. Through her scalpel blades and mirrorshades, she has transformed meat into art. Gibson sees her as a composite of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee, Emma Peel, and Chrissie Hynde (Nicholas and Hanna 17) while Carol McGuirk also recognizes in her the razor girl from Fritz Leiber's "Coming Attraction" (McGuirk 122-23), and Samuel R. Delany identifies her as a version of Jael from Joanna Russ's The Female Man (32). For Case, Molly is simply "every bad-ass hero" (Neuromancer 213). Appropriately, then, she has had her tear ducts routed into her mouth so that she spits instead of cries.
Here, however, the gender-specific arrangement begins to break down. With Molly, Gibson has imposed stereotypically male traits upon a female character. Simultaneously, he has also devalued those traits by implying that they are part of the decadent material world that must be transcended by attaining cyberspace, an area of being to which only males have access in this text. Gibson further complicates the question of gender by calling the sum total of cyberspace "the matrix." The word matrix derives from the Latin for womb, from the Latin for mother. So while it is true that only males have access to cyberspace, it is equally true what they have access to is a female region that, it turns out, is anything but womblike at least in any (stereo)typically Freudian sense, given its charge of danger, hallucinatory power, and subversive wonder. It is a region better described by using the terms Barbara Creed does to delineate the female body and the uncertain future evinced in recent SF films: "new, unknown, potentially creative and potentially destructive" (408). Add to this that console jockeys employ the sexual metaphor of
17 (Jacked.) "jacking in" when they speak of entering the matrix (though the means remains unclear since computer cowboys use the surely antiquated system of keyboards as well as neuroelectronic connections to the brain), and we soon realize Gibson is not so much underscoring discrete genders as he is the search for a union of opposites. The male principle (Case, the computer cowboy, the mind) strives to join with the female principle (Molly, the cyberspace matrix, the body) in order to attain a sense of completeness. Case not only penetrates Molly sexually, but also merges with her by means of the simstim unit attached to his cyberspace deck. The couple performs most efficiently and successfully at the moment of fusion when, interestingly enough (and all sexual metaphors aside), gender no longer functions in the algebra of their relationship. And yet, as with Neuromancer and Wintermute, at the moment of union, of fusion, we also find disunion and confusion: discrete personalities which both remain discrete (we never lose a sense of who Molly is, who Case is) and integrated (the couple is no longer a couple, but a functioning unit). We discover a sort of technocentaur in our midst though the exact relationship between the parts is unclear. Or, rather, that relationship shapeshifts. Easy dualisms break down, are supplanted. Or, as Donna Haraway argues, the cyborg becomes our operative metaphor, an ontology for the fin de millennium: "it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualities without evil" (154). Or, more precisely, it both does seek a unitary identity, and it does not.
The technocentaur, the cyborg: another manifestation of termite art.
18 Into. Hence we once more find ourselves plunged deep "into" a discussion about the quest for a union of opposites, wholeness. Case and Molly seek physical and metaphysical connection; Dixie Flatline conceives of himself as a combination of two brains, one in the head and one in the tailbone; Case tries to bond with Linda Lee early in the novel and later actually merges briefly with Neuromancer.
But the dominant manifestation of this trope takes the form of Wintermute's compulsive attempt to join with its other. Many years before, we learn, Marie-France Tessier rejected the illusory immortality of cryogenics that Ashpool pursued. Instead, she decided to place her personality construct into an AI, Neuromancer, thus enabling her to "live" forever in the same way Dixie Flatline "lives" forever. She also commissioned the construction of a second AI, Wintermute, which would take over the role of corporate decision maker. This would enable the Tessier-Ashpool clan itself to become effectively immortal. After Ashpool murdered Tessier, however, Wintermute began running the corporation on its own. Tessier, it turned out, had built into Wintermute the compulsion to free itself from reliance on others and to seek its other half. Wintermute, whose mainframe was in Berne, began plotting to link with Neuromancer, whose mainframe was in Rio. The nexus would be the Villa Straylight, clan headquarters.
W = reason + action + (stereotypical) male
N = emotion + passivity + (stereotypical) female
Each entity suggests half the structure of the binary human mind, half the structure of cosmic totality. United, they become an all-powerful absolute metanarrative of the matrix. Like a god, they become omniscient and omnipotent and instantly begin to fracture, fragment, and fade.
19 A. Article indefinite as the meaning of this situation itself. From one (yes) point of view, the Wintermute-Neuromancer plot concerns a universal quest for harmony, wholeness, perfection. From another (Gibson's sense of technology is nothing if not ambivalent), it concerns the potential danger of out-of-control cybernetic entities. This second perspective is reinforced by a number of similar plot lines that cluster behind the one involving Wintermute and Neuromancer. Perhaps most important is Steven Lisberger's Tron where the technorebel protagonist, Flynn, battles a master computer obsessed with ingesting and thereby uniting with other programs in order to gain immense power and control in the matrix. Like Case, Flynn (whose name also echoes Gibson's Finn) jacks into and briefly inhabits the matrix. Another plot line summoned by the one involving Wintermute and Neuromancer is HAL's in 2001, in which the master computer on the Jupiter mission begins doing deals on its own, murdering three cryogenically frozen crew members, killing a fourth outside the spacecraft, and trying to control the sole survivor for its own mysterious ends. HAL's plot line is emblematic of the many others that touch upon the human fear of cybernetic or quasi-cybernetic entities running amok (hardly, here, Haraway's positive feminist reading of the cyborg). All of them track back through the industrial revolution to the prototype of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Viewed in light of Shelley's work, Tessier is the doctor who creates a monster in order to achieve eternal life. Like Frankenstein's creature, Wintermute longs for another of its species and will murder to find it. And, like Frankenstein himself, Tessier is a(nother) romantic Faustian figure who quests for the absolute and is willing to make a pact with a demon to attain it.
Gibson simultaneously reinforces this plot line, however, and reverses it: while a monstrous human (Tessier) creates a humanoid monster (Wintermute-Neuromancer), so too does a humanoid monster (Wintermute) create a monstrous human (Armitage). In each case, the romantic hope of perfection falls short: creator loses control of its creation.
20 Custom. Custom, convention, genre, reality, humanity, history, and so forth are
The dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls "post-cognitive": "Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?" Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world? What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated? (McHale, Postmodernist Fiction 10)
The passage of the subject into the pixels and bytes of "invisible" terminal space addresses the massive redeployment of power within telematic culture. In the content of a lost public sphere and an altered mode of production, cyberspace becomes the characteristic spatiality of a new era. In the context of cybernetic disembodiment, rooted in nanoseconds of time and imploded infinities of space, cyberspace addresses the overwhelming need to constitute a phenomenal being. (Bukatman 156)
The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest possible confusion.... What characterizes him is less the loss of the real, the light years of estrangement from the real, the pathos of distance and radical separation, as is commonly said: but, very much to the contrary, the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things, the feeling of no defense, no retreat. It is the end of interiority and intimacy, the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being. (Baudrillard, "Ecstasy" 133)
Not everyone can read Neuromancer: its neologisms alienate the uninitiated reader - that's their function - while its unwavering intensity and the absence of traditional pacing exhaust even the dedicated. The work is best experienced as something other than narrative - poetry perhaps - so that the images may perform their estranging, disembodying functions. The reader must jack into Neuromancer - it's a novel for would-be cyberspace cowboys. (Bukatman 152)
Cyberspace also has a long SF pedigree, including all the many variations on the SF motif of "paraspace": parallel worlds, other "dimensions," worlds of unactualized historical possibility, etc. (McHale, "Towards a Poetics of Cyberpunk" 252)
25 His. Count Zero shares much with "his," Gibson's, earlier work but also marks a number of departures from it. One of the most revealing of these centers on Gibson's interrogation of mind-body dualism. If in his earlier stories and first novel he tends to associate the body with a decadent chronos and the mind with a transcendent kairos, then in Count Zero he further confuses the two realms and complicates his allegiances. Originally cyberspace was equated with personal and cultural memory in Gibson's imagination, and the implication was that personal and cultural memory could be liberating; now the very idea of memory causes one of the protagonists, Turner, to vomit. While Bobby's cyberspace deck still leads out of the meat world and into a dazzlingly imaginative realm, other virtual gateways are hardly as appealing. Bobby's holoporn unit, for instance, seems "dated and vaguely ridiculous" (28). The biosoft containing Mitchell's dossier is less a window to a hyperreality for Turner than one to vertigo and nausea. Marly realizes, in a Baudrillardian trope, that "the sinister thing about a simstim construct, really, was that it carried the suggestion that any environment might be unreal.... Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome" (139-40). More than enough evidence for this can be found in Bobby's mother's addiction to soap operas with their multiheaded plots curling into themselves like tapeworms. If the television, video games, and walkmen that formed the basis for cyberspace once held fascination and the possibility of postmodern bliss for Gibson, those icons of simulation ("machines of reproduction rather than production" [Jameson 329]) now hold disorientation and the possibility of addictive banality. Gibson's ambivalence unravels.
26 Disembodied. And yet and yet and yet. Bobby Newmark's (the easy new mark's) plot line in Count Zero involves his education into the spiritual nature, the divine possibility, of the disembodied realm of the matrix.
A fledgling hacker living with his mother in Barrytown, New Jersey, Bobby rents an icebreaker from a software dealer named Two-a-Day and flatlines almost immediately upon trying to use it, only to be saved by Angie's presence that appears to him in the matrix as Vyej Mirak, voodoo goddess of miracles.
(Upon Wintermute-Neuromancer's fragmentation at the end of Gibson's first novel, loa overrun cyberspace. Wigan Ludgate, one of the first to intuit the spiritual dimension of the matrix, begins worshiping these deities from his high orbit home in the Tessier-Ashpool cores. Oungans such as Beauvoir and Lucas do the same on earth, thereby assuming the role of wizards in fantasy, educating acolytes like Bobby in the mystical ways of the voodoo gods. Unlike the virtuous saints, angels, and other religious virtualities that form traditional Christianity, these loa are lusty, greedy, street savvy, potentially harmful, and unpredictable.)
A large part of the idea for them came from Carole Devillers's National Geographic article, "Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints," which Gibson read while working on Count Zero. In this piece, Devillers gives a brief account of voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations. Gibson found at least four of the essay's basic ideas appealing. First, he registered the fact that voodoo is a hybrid religion that blends two faiths. The Creole name for voodoo is vodou, which in turn comes from vodun, a word that means spirit in the language of the Fon people of Benin and Nigeria. Brought to Haiti as slaves by the French in the seventeenth century, these West Africans were forbidden to practice their ancestral religion and were pressured into converting to Roman Catholicism. In the process, they merged components of their traditional religion with components of the European one. The result was a third religion in which ancestral spirits took on the names of Catholic saints. Part of the role of this religion's oungan, or priest, is to serve with both hands, to practice black magic as well as voodoo. Appropriate to Gibson's world, voodoo is both a spiritual collage and originally an outlaw religion, created by those whom the dominant society marginalized. While Gibson satirizes conventional religion by identifying it in this novel with Bobby's crazed mother, he treats voodoo with greater seriousness, implying that it has roots in opposition and exists, at least in its Hollywood stereotypes, in a dark realm of potential danger, mystery, and intrigue. It is, according to Beauvoir in Count Zero, a "street religion" that "came out of a dirt-poor place" (77). Moreover, the idea of overlaying one universe of discourse (African ancestral religion) upon another (Roman Catholicism) suggests the same kind of multiplicity Gibson achieves when overlaying the language of technology (subprograms) upon the language of religion (loa). Like the voodoo oungans, Gibson's text serves with both hands.
Second, Gibson found voodoo's notion of god appropriate to a computer society. According to African-Haitian belief, god is Gran Met, or the great maker of heaven and earth. But, as Beauvoir puts it, this god is "too big and too far away to worry Himself if your ass is poor, or you can't get laid" (Count Zero 77). Too powerful and important to concern himself directly with mere human beings, the Gran Met sends down his loa to possess and communicate with them. The voodooist must consult with these loa before embarking on any serious activity. Often the loa will "ride" an individual without warning, sending him or her into dance, trance, or song. And often this takes place at a lieu saint, or holy place, such as among a stand of trees that are considered natural temples. In Gibson's world, Neuromancer-Wintermute is literally remote from humans, buried within the Tessier-Ashpool cores in high orbit. Only Wigan Ludgate feels its presence in any profound way. Its loa, however, exist in the matrix on earth and do deals with the likes of Beauvoir, Lucas, and Mitchell. They ride Angie. And they are associated with Two-a-Day, whose home is filled with trees, from his driftwood coffee table to his stunted forest raised on gro-lights.
Third, Gibson felt that voodoo's minimalization of afterlife jibed well with postmodern existence. According to Beauvoir, "it isn't concerned with notions of salvation and transcendence. What it's about is getting things done" (76). This takes the reader back to the question of human-as-conscious-automaton that Gibson explored in his first novel. Action in Gibson's world precedes essence. Thinking and feeling, as Molly knows so well, are secondary to doing.
Finally, Gibson loved the poetry of the words associated with voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations, and he uses them frequently in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive for sound as well as sense. While references abound to such loa as Danbala Wedo (the snake), Ougou Feray (spirit of war), and Baron Samedi (lord of the graveyards), perhaps most important are Legba and Ezili Freda. Appropriately enough for a novel about computers, the former is the loa of communications and is associated with Bobby, the console cowboy. Legba is identified with St. Peter, Christian doorkeeper of heaven, and in voodoo rituals must always be invoked first; if not, the other loa might not listen. The latter, also known as Vyej Mirak, or Our Lady Virgin of Miracles, is the loa of love and associated with Angie, who protects others from evil. Ezili Freda is identified with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ who shelters the penitent.
27 Consciousness. From one (yes) perspective, Gibson raises voodoo to the level of a grand art by basking in its poetic language. From a different one, he neutralizes its power by suggesting that it is no more than grand art, poetic language, another historiographic metafiction, one way among many for organizing the world. Voodoo becomes a construct through which to describe an event. To this extent Beauvoir is correct when he asserts that voodoo is "just a structure" (76). Technology is an equally valid construct through which to describe the same event. Again, Gibson points to religion and technology as no more than language games, abstract organizations of data, virtual spaces. Perhaps the gods in the matrix are real, as Beauvoir and Lucas believe. Perhaps they are no more than virus programs that have gotten loose in the matrix and replicated, as Jammer has it. Perhaps both possibilities are true. From one angle, the events in the matrix can be explained using the language of science. From another, only the language of the transcendental will do. Both languages are correct. Both languages are incorrect.
Another termite (de)center.
28 Into. Hence we once more find ourselves plunged deep "into" a discussion about insectile indeterminacy, contradictory possibility. Into a discussion, that is, of postmodernism itself. Of its alpha and its omega.
At the outset of "Before Postmodernism and After (Part 2)," Raymond Federman comments:
I wrote a letter to twenty of my friends (writers, critics, professors, entertainers) asking them to answer these two questions:
1. Do you think Postmodernism is dead?
2. If so, what killed it?
To my great delight, all twenty correspondents replied, but all asked not to be identified. These are the twenty answers I received.
1. Postmodernism was an exercise in discontinuity, rupture, break, mutation, transformation, therefore doomed from the beginning ...
2. As with all new things, once absorbed by the economy Postmodernism was finished ...
3. Now that the effects of Postmodernism are evident in sectors as diverse as dress, food, and lodging, and are in those forms understood, the end is not far ...
4. Postmodernism began as a genuine if loose literary movement and ended as a department store curiosity ...
5. When the academy starts to take sides and quibbles about Postmodernism, it quickly kills what it discusses ... (Federman 121)
29 The. Determinate article. There may be no place for it in this essay.
30 Consensual. At one point in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Angie's leading man tells her an artificial intelligence named Continuity is writing a book. When Angie asks what the book is about, the leading man explains it "looped back into itself and constantly mutated; Continuity was always writing it." Angie asks why. "Because," she is told, "Continuity was an AI, and AI's did things like that" (42-43). This serves nicely as a gloss on Gibson's own attempt to conclude the cyberspace trilogy. The artificial intelligence, aptly named Continuity, suggests Gibson himself, whose tremendously complex plot line involving Wintermute, Neuromancer, and their offspring has constantly turned back into itself and mutated throughout the termite course of his short stories and novels. To this extent, Continuity is one more artist figure in a fiction filled with them. Interestingly, there is also an edge of weariness, even frustration, present in the statement: Continuity, after all, is always writing because that's what AIs must do; that is how they are wired. The artist, in other words, has become an artificial intelligence writing out of necessity rather than desire. The result of that writing might be technically efficient, but it might also be relatively colorless. Certainly this is the perception many readers have about Gibson's least critically successful novel. In one of its most negative reviews, Paul Kincaid notes that "Gibson wrote one book of stunning originality which caught the mood of the time so successfully that he has been condemned to repeat it. By this third volume he is showing clear and dramatic improvement as a writer, but is doing nothing fresh with his talent." Why? There are nearly no new ideas or themes in Mona Lisa Overdrive: Gibson quotes Gibson quoting Gibson. Too, for all of Gibson's fairly fresh concentration on characterization in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Kumiko Yanaka, his first fictional child and a key figure in the novel, remains unconvincing. Despite his problems with conventional characterization, Gibson has continued his narratological drift toward more traditional, more consensual, story and discourse. And, most important for the purposes of this essay, the reader spends less time in cyberspace in Mona Lisa Overdrive than he or she did in Gibson's earlier works, and the time she or he does spend in it is far less dazzling and surreal than before, yet cyberspace is perhaps the most original and captivating element of the trilogy's virtual geography.
31 Hallucination. Bobby Newmark, one of the protagonists of Mona Lisa Overdrive, has come closer than anyone in the trilogy to voluntarily leaving the meat world behind and entering the pure realm of the mind. Existing almost solely within the aleph, he pays little attention to his slowly wasting body.
Shortly after the events in Count Zero, Bobby Newmark breaks up with Angie and appears in Mexico City with a neuroelectronic addiction. He obtains an aleph, a huge biochip with nearly unlimited storage capacity, from 3Jane who gives it to him in order to get in touch with the loa or subprograms that have begun fading in the matrix. 3Jane, in a bid for immortality similar to that of her mother's in Neuromancer, used most of her family's wealth to build the aleph. Upon completion, she put her personality construct inside it and died. A petty thief delivers Bobby to Dog Solitude jacked into the aleph. He asks Gentry and Slick to watch him. Gentry, a computer cowboy in search of the overall shape of the matrix, becomes interested in Bobby and the aleph because he believes the latter might provide the grail for which he has been questing. Mercenaries representing 3Jane's interests attack the Factory in an attempt to retrieve the aleph. In the midst of the ensuing battle, Molly appears with Mona and Angie, saying that she has made a deal with the loa or subprograms to get Angie and Bobby together in the aleph. In return, the loa or subprograms will cause her criminal record to be erased. Angie's construct enters the aleph after her death.
The aleph, loaded with all the components of Bobby's history, is one more metaphor for memory but is also significantly distinct from its seeming double, the cyberspace matrix. Whereas the matrix represents consensual or communal memory, the aleph represents personal memory. It is self-contained, functions without connection to the matrix. Over the course of the narrative, Bobby discovers he must enter, confront, and make peace with his past. He must come to terms with his relationship to Angie and 3Jane in order to find contentment. He learns to live an increasingly spiritual and private existence. Bobby searches the aleph for an answer to why the matrix changed following Wintermute's union with Neuromancer: Bobby looks for a metanarrative. At the same time Gibson announces this spiritual dimension to existence, however, he also undercuts it in at least two ways. First, he indicates that the loa or subprograms have begun fading in the matrix. The spiritual has begun disappearing at the very moment it is sought - as though to seek after the spiritual is somehow to be doomed to miss it. Second, Gibson does not allow Bobby to attain the goal of his quest. The novel ends with Finn promising him enlightenment "in a New York minute" (260). The goal of the quest becomes the quest. Termite process takes precedence over white-elephant outcome. The reality becomes the hallucination.
32 That. "Order and accord are again established," Kumi's father asserts, apparently seriously, at the conclusion of Mona Lisa Overdrive (242). Peace is made among the Yakuza in Japan as well as between Kumi and her father. Angie learns to forgive 3Jane. In a disconcertingly idyllic last chapter, Angie and Bobby are happily married after death, a futuristic Catherine and Heathcliff. Molly, the embodiment of cyberpunk consciousness, subversive intensity, retires as mercenary. That is what we are left with.
7. Because Postmodernism was viewed both as a movement and a perfume, and both as an intellectual disposition and a bowl of fruit, it had no chance to survive ... (Federman 122)
That is not what we are left with. Gibson produces a series of highly complex interconnected plot lines while continuing to experiment with technique and language. Bobby and Angie's "marriage" takes place, after all, in a "France that isn't France" (258) and may, without too much polymorphous perversity, be read parodically, that virtual cosmos within the aleph serving as a ludicrous image of the conventional novel, which exists in a radically other space than that of Dog Solitude. As Slick reminds the reader, the cosmos of the aleph is "not a place ..., it only feels like it." It smacks of "fairytale" (149).
14. The current reactionary literary climate dominated by works in received forms does not indicate the death of Postmodernism as much as the persistence of the power of market economies to define the arts. (Federman 122)
Gibson gives the reader a traditionally happy ending and reminds her or him of the artificiality of such innocent structures. He generates inconclusiveness at the very moment of apparent conclusion, which, however, calculatedly cries out for yet another financially successful sequel.
33 Was ...
20. It isn't, to say it again, that Postmodernism is dead but like any other identifiable phenomenon of a certain value - such as Impressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, New Criticism, Feminism - after a fixed period of bubbling at the surface, it sinks and recombines with other like elements to form again part of the generative stew of art and culture, and that moment of rot is called the death of a movement.... (Federman 123)
34 The. Determinate article. There may be a ...
35 Matrix. Mother, womb, every ...
ENDING ONE: TERMITE DEATH
The matrix plays no part in Gibson's fourth, longest, and most complex novel, The Difference Engine, written with Bruce Sterling and revolving around an alternate reality in which the Victorian inventor Charles Babbage computerized our culture nearly a century before the fact. In Virtual Light, the future-present has lost the mystical aspects of cyberspace dominating Gibson's earlier trilogy. In its place appears a universe almost completely rooted in the meat world. Replacing the high-intensity apocalyptic prose associated with cyberspace, the bleak flat tone associated with the trilogy's world, is a (dark) humor akin to the bright cartoonish mischief of Pynchon: a psychokiller with the Last Supper tattooed on his chest; a woman who visits San Francisco to retrieve her husband's cryogenically frozen brain from a tank of them so it does not have to feel so crowded in the afterlife. The complex and deeply spiritual exploration of cyberspace that pervaded the trilogy thereby gives way to very funny, if very easy, parody that flags the essential narratological problem Gibson, now forty-five and a postmodern icon himself, has had to wrestle with since the publication of Neuromancer more than a decade ago: is it possible to keep the news new, the action vigorous, without skidding off the novel road into the ditch of self-replication?
ENDING TWO: TERMITE DEATH
Clearly the answer is yes, and the way Gibson goes about it is by dosing his text with a powerful hit of comic vision that takes nothing (including itself) very seriously. The fresh infusion of humor into his writing takes down the seriousness of his own textual texture and grim futurist ideas before someone else has a chance to, destabilizes them in a flourish typical of termite art.
ENDING THREE: TERMITE DEATH
Clearly the answer is no. Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gibson's previous solo effort, is set in the Hollywoodish world of Sense/Net, focuses on the manipulation of young stars by various financial concerns, and is shot through with the thematization of commercial sellout. When writing it, Gibson was simultaneously beguiled by the glamour and goods associated with that dimension and bent on satirizing its commodifying impulse. The consequence is a Janus-text that looks toward accessibility and tameness, on the one hand, and toward disruptive innovation on the other. Something along the same lines could be argued with respect to Virtual Light. For all its flash and burn, there is nothing trailblazing about it. Chevette Washington, that bike messenger, has stolen those VL glasses (which provide only a pale simulacrum of the cyberspace we find in the trilogy) from a man who turns out to be a gopher for (what else but this?) a major corporation with some plans to rebuild the San Francisco skyline. Add to this narratological algebra one Berry Rydell, a good-cop-gone-(accidentally)-bad, attach him to Chevette, and you have a variation of the Molly-Case team from Neuromancer, the Angie-Turner one from Count Zero, and the Angie-Bobby one from Mona Lisa Overdrive, all edge-dwellers in their own ways, all caught in the complex workings of megacorporations uninterested in the human or humane, and all inhabiting a hard-boiled slightly stereotypical naturalist narrative universe with at least as much in common with Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm as with such protocyberpunk works as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.
ENDING FOUR: TERMITE DEATH
Clearly the answer is yes. The speed of Gibson's sentences, his narrative, and his imagination are nothing short of spectacular, all enhancing the deeper reason we read him or think we read him: his vision, his ability through the SF genre to cause us to think about what is important to think about, to startle us out of our perpetual narcosis, to move us (like much so-called cyberpunk fiction does) into a terrain of crucial cultural issues that most other contemporary fiction does not care about, let alone explore: from anarchist hacker underground networks to the rise of religious fundamentalism, cryogenics to surveillance satellites, genetic engineering to nanotechnology, multinational control of information to techno-angst, the Japanization of Western culture to the decentralization of governments around the world. And it is for these reasons, not to mention the pivotal
remains one of the most dynamic, significant,
or place under
ifies even as it demystifies, thereby obviously. But this goes without saying. Or does it? From
or paradig not, at least in a culturally ;or
diegesis in the form of an elliptical epic preterite,
fin de millennium.
36. Period. The end. Completion. Conclusion. Cessation. Culmination. Closure.
Alkon, Paul. "Cyberspace Trilogy." Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Ed. George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992. 75-87.
Barthelme, Donald. "Symposium on Fiction." Shenandoah 27.2 (1976): 3-31.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." In Image/Music/Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977. 142-48.
Baudrillard, Jean. "The Ecstasy of Communication." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend: Bay, 1983. 126-34.
-----. "The Precession of Simulacra." A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joeseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 342-75.
Breton, Andre. "Surrealism." Trans. David Gascoigne. The Modern Tradition. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. 601-13.
Brunner, John. The Shockwave Rider. New York: Del Rey, 1975.
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Creed, Barbara. "From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism." In A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joeseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 398-418.
Delany, Samuel R. "Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?" Mississippi Review 16.2-3 (1988): 266-78.
Devillers, Carole. "Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints." National Geographic Mar. 1985: 395-410.
Farber, Manny. "White Elephant Art and Termite Art." Negative Space. New York: Praeger, 1971. 134-44.
Federman, Raymond. "Before Postmodernism and After (Part 2)." Critifiction: Postmodern Essays. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 120-33.
Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1988.
-----. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1986.
-----. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
-----. "New Rose Hotel." Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986. 103-16.
-----. "Red Star, Winter Orbit." Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986. 80-102.
-----. Virtual Light. New York: Bantam, 1993.
-----. "The Winter Market." Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986. 117-41.
Gibson, William, and Dennis Ashbaugh. Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). New York: Begos, 1992.
Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1989. 149-81.
Jameson, Fredric. "Excerpts from Postmodernism: Or, the Culture of Late Capitalism." A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joeseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 312-32.
Karl, Frederick R. "Where are We?" Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. Ed. Lance Olsen. Prairie Village: Potpourri, 1995. 47-50.
Kincaid, Paul. "Mona Lisa Overdrive." Times Literary Supplement 12 Aug. 1988: 892.
Kroker, Arthur, and David Cook. "Television and the Triumph of Culture." Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 229-38.
Landon, Brooks. "The Literature of Information." Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. Ed. Lance Olsen. Prairie Village: Potpourri, 1995. 59-62.
Lawrence, D. H. "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels." Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1953. 55-73.
McCaffery, Larry. "An Interview with William Gibson." Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 263-85.
McGuirk, Carol. "The 'New' Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson." Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Ed. George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992. 109-29.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.
-----. "Towards a Poetics of Cyberpunk." Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992. 243-67.
Mooney, Ted. Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: FSG, 1981.
Nicholas, Joseph, and Judith Hanna. "William Gibson." Interzone 1.13 (1985): 17-18.
Rirdan, Danny. "The Works of William Gibson." Foundation 43 (1988): 36-46.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory." Postmodern Culture 5.1 (1994): archive PMC-LIST, file "ryan.994."
Tatsumi, Takayuki. "An Interview with William Gibson." Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (1987): 6-17.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973.
Wilde, Alan. "The Once and Future Novel: Letters to iwplmuri[at]ucsbuxa.bitnet." Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. Ed. Lance Olsen. Prairie Village: Potpourri, 1995. 94-100.
Wodaski, Ron. Virtual Reality Madness. New York: SAMS, 1993.
Lance Olsen, associate professor at the University of Idaho, is author and editor of many books, including the novel Tonguing the Zeigeist, the critical study Lolita: A Janus-Text, and the collection In Memoriam to Postmodernism: Essays on the Avant-pop (with Mark Amerika).
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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