Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Cool Program

I think the central unifying factor of William Gibson and Pat Cadigan, or indeed, the post-cyberpunk slipstream in general, is made loud when Gibson talks about geeks and technicians, code-writers and code-breakers needing “permission to put on that black leather jacket and kind of rock with it. And now, that's sort of taken for granted that you can do that” (in an interview with Addicted to Noise from 1996) or Cadigan expressing the opinion that “So naturally the woman in Cryptonomicon is beyond feminism because she is too cool to have problems with men” (at The SF Site from an interview conducted in 2006). Affect come reality.

Because, if anything, cyberpunk was a reduction of science fiction to its social engineering roots (once more once), an expression of contemporaneity that Gibson, at least, felt was unique to his subset of authors and literature (as evidenced in the ATN interview, when he states “[M]ainstream traditional science fiction writers, particularly in the United States, I don't think they were conscious that they were writing about the era in which they lived. I think they actually thought they were writing about the future. I'm different in that from the very beginning I was self aware.”). Science is most centrally engineering (the combination of exploration and application) and Fiction is essentially nonphysical inasmuch as it is representational and not corporeal, so science fiction as social engineering seems as inevitable as affect come reality, as cool by decision, the inverse of physicist and professor Richard Feynman’s nightmare moment when a journalist would inevitably attempt to accentuate his science background with his talent with the bongos.

“Watch or be watched” Cadigan warns in Pretty Boy Crossover (or extols, depending on your take, I guess, on which side of the perspective you are looking from). Watch of be watched is the threat, the condition, the friction, of being. Perspective is the medium of the cyberpunk existence, as it has become ours in the extraneous electronic era (first, perhaps, protectively mapped in William Burroughs 1970 Electronic Revolution and the fabulous Phone Phreaker movement, wherein manufacture and use are one and the same. The threat and promise in Pretty Boy Crossover is one of being star (and starred) and being audience, and surely that is what we are now, in this age of Twitter and Youtube? Are we not all starring in our own films and headlines, producing news bursts for the public on a daily basis?

There’s an expectation in Pretty Boy Crossover that Gibson’s Neuromancer shares, wherein modification and communication are expected, if not demanded. We must be present, technologically, electronically, at all times, and this proves prescient if you consider how many people would be irritated if you left the internet alone, shut off your cell phone, for even a day, a weekend. Smartphones show us movies (however inanely small the screen and limited the audio), and for the high-end there are portable audiovisual arrays. Laptops, satellite-communicating navigation rigs in cars, Google Maps, not too long ago, I wore a heart rig that sent the pertinent information directly and near-instantaneously to the doctors who could do something with that info.

Technology is all perpetuation, but the electronic age, because it moves at the speed of electricity, transfigures this existence to less a trajectory and more the appearance of a wall of perpetuation. Gibson’s Case refers, in Neuromancer to corporeality simulated in this electronic/informational existence as “gratuitous multiplication of flesh input” and Cadigan, in Pretty Boy Crossover has her protagonist ruminate that “Like when he left the dance floor—people will come and fill up the space.” Space is not integral, and we are not integral to space, not like we are to information. Someone (it may have been Bruce Sterling), once observed that nobody wanted fully experiential porn, because no one wants to smell a porno set, to feel the twitch of infections or the hear the crew, feel the bed damped by the previous scene shot.

When Case goes into a recording of another’s experience, he fights “helplessly to control her body” before surrendering to indefensible onslaught of “stalls vending discount software, prices felt penned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill.” He finds that “her body language was disorienting, her style foreign.” He complains that her sunglasses aren’t as good as his might be. Individuality is strengthened by a removal from corporeality, from knowledge to information. As Pretty Boy Crossover’s protagonist observes, triumphantly, “As long as they don't have him, he makes a difference. As long as he has flesh to shake and flaunt and feel with, he makes a pretty goddamn big difference.”

Unpleasant or unwanted information can be categorized off to the side, ignored, but knowledge, experiential existence, is thick and irresistible. Thusly, does authenticity supersede reality. Reality is that, in an age of easy makeup and cosmetic surgery, ugliness is adjustable, but authenticity is unpleasant features, as Neuromancer gives us in its first pages, with “In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.” Ugly bartenders are more real. Molly Millions’ cool and prosthetics, her restraint and affect betray an inevitable history of manipulation and failings, here tied up with her history of selling herself out for sex and games. You don’t see a man go through that, in Gibson’s work, because men ultimately have the choice, especially White men, to adjust and customize themselves. Cadigan has lent this over to women and nonwhites as well, over her career, from the Pretty Boys and Girls of Pretty Boy Crossover to Darcy in Icy You, Juicy Me.

Icy You, Juicy Me actually comes out and nakedly expresses the perceptual imbalance of this social equilibrium quite elegantly: “She had been watching, and now it was her turn to be watched. Nothing was going to be right until she took her turn.” While in Gibson, it is always a man’s world, and Neuromancer layers itself with Rastafarian body-modificationists with earthy integrity, with invasive Asian corporations, with women who remain icy and unreadable even when they’re overtly lusting over his very cool, ubermacho men, the superwhite guys at the top of the food chain… Cadigan accepts that White Man is identity politics just as any other categorical other. And, yes, we are all othering each other and everybody is othering us.

I notice the words “ethnic” or “racial” and variations do not seem to be present in Neuromancer, and only once in Count Zero, where he utilizes the phrase “raceless… face” in all its amphigoric enthusiasm. I may not be entirely excited by Cadigan’s deliberately surface-only cultural identity and orientalism in Tea from an Empty Cup, or the deliberately underscored racial hybridization of her novella, Nothing Personal, but at least it acknowledges that these are (identifiable) traits and their informational quality as well as the physical actuality that we can disregard. Cadigan’s work seems to encourage a hermeneutic consideration, while Gibson would prefer actualization and integrity, hence, the protagonist of Johnny Mnemonic has to actuate his cool and his solid integrity by lathing his own shells and bringing his shotgun to bear, but Cadigan’s Pretty Boys just need to be.

Lisa Yaszek suggests (in The Self Wired), “[W]hile Gibson posits a broad binary distinction between commodified and ironic cyborg subjects based on their respective investments in official and subaltern histories of capitalism, Cadigan revises this binary to reflect her own concern with gendered forms of history…. Furthermore, while Gibson depicts laboring subjects who change for the machines without actually changing the machines, Cadigan suggests that subjects who attend to the intersections between bodies and technologies can use these intersections as templates to produce narratives or work and identity that change the machines themselves,” although Laura Chernaik (in her Social and Virtual Space) does not “find a binary gender difference” in, for example, Synners, considering instead, a minimum of a four-term matrix of “the repressed body, the laboring body, the marked body, and the disappearing body” while accepting that this set “with only four elements, in its turn reduces the complexity of Cadigan’s text.”

To be reductively didactic about it, I think Gibson prefers to see us living in a global village, in the world, and Cadigan, like (one set of) her contemporaries, that second generation of cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson, et al), acknowledges that global village or not, we live, shop, and stand on the curbs of our neighborhood. In the aforementioned ATN interview, Gibson posits that the world is “a very dark place viewed from a sweet and fancy hotel in San Francisco” while in the abovementioned Cadigan interview, she says, “As late as 1977, I couldn't get a credit card without having a husband to co-sign for me.” Gibson, as quoted early in this essay, suggests that he, being “self aware” is distinct from what he sees as a trend of science fiction author, but before that he claimed Moorcock and Delany as direct influences. Whether he got big enough to slough off his influences, or I am reading too much into the omission of influence or causality by the mid-Nineties is immaterial in the stream of understanding, because in that stream, localized flows are what matter, not the entire datasea (as Warren Ellis’ third-wave cyberpunk/decadent fiction Lazarus Churchyard called it).

It is immaterial that Neuromancer can be read as sociologically suspicious in terms of its publication era or contemporarily, but it is absolutely of significance when it is read as so suspicious, as untrustworthy in its representations or extrapolations, in the moment of now. As would be a Cadigan novel or anyone else’s work. Cadigan simply seems aware of this by the time of Tea from an Empty Cup in a way that Spook Country does not appear to lend itself to. For instance, in Tea from an Empty Cup, there is this doting and daring exchange:

“‘Christ.” The white guy rolled his eyes. ‘What’d you do, put your brain under the pillow and you got that instead of a dime?’
“‘Hey, it’s not what you think,” the Japanese guy said. ‘There’s a genuine creation myth in there. Among other things. And it’s all genuine.’
“‘I could show you the chromosome they stripped it offa,’ the Japanese guy said defensively. ‘One hundred purebreds got scraped for this. One hundred. In a hospital. This is pure pharmaceutical –’”

One could almost believe that has inherent positions about race, culture, or the validity of myth or industry, hospitals or creation. But, on keener consideration, the conversation is designed to be read into, to be presupposed and interpreted by the reader. Confidence has to be affect or it is probably worthless, and if it has worth, it is a worth that any other perspective, any other affect, can devalorize. It is the worth that Ellis ruminates against in his recent (and ongoing) Doktor Sleepless; “Your own bodies talk to your environment all the time without you doing anything. You can interrogate buildings and have conversations with objects. That wasn’t in the future you were expecting. You can rebuild your own fucking bodies with stuff you bought from the hardware store. You think that hardware store guy ever expected to sell anything but pots and pans thirty years ago? Bullshit. The future sneaks up on us. It leaks in through the small, ordinary things. You want a jetpack but you don’t even think about your IM lenses and your phones. Were you born with them? No. You’re science fictional creatures. Each and every one of you.”

It is worth and significance that Cadigan puts the lie to when she states in her SF Site interview, carefully reassuring us that it is reiteration, “It's what I've said in a previous interview with someone else a long time ago: that I insist to live in a world where the word ‘feminist’ is as quaint as the word ‘suffragette,” as it stands to a contemporary read, while Gibson is wondering “While we're on that, crack is a technology too. Why was that invented when it was? I'm really curious about that. Who did that? Who did that? How did cocaine suddenly appear in a form where you could sell like a $2 hit?” as though the causality, the investigation and not the recognition holds the importance.

It’s the difference between Neuromancer’s neurotic conflict between flesh and cyberspace, between idea and thing, experience and urge, or the circumventing rejection of our new cybernetic god at the climax of the novel, compared to the exeunt of Pretty Boy Crossover, “He keeps moving, holding to the big thought, making a difference, and all the little things they won't be making a program out of. He's lightheaded with joy—he doesn't know what's going to happen.”

1 comment:

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