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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2003, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 21

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 3/2/03 )

Preliminary Class Business

Neuromancer: An Imagination of the Postindustrial World

(continued from last lecture)

The world of Neuromancer: p. 52

Neuromancer: A Counter-Imagination of the Postindustrial World

Gibson's "edgy" perspective on "Biz":

  • Countercultural perspective:

    • Beat/Hippie counterculture of drugs and Zen

    • Updated as hacker counterculture, in which silicon is the ultimate drug (pp. 4-5)

  • Subcultural perspective:

    • youth gangs (p. 58)

    • reggae subculture

    • criminal subculture

      from Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with William Gibson" (1986):

      Gibson:  . . . A lot of the language in Neuromancer and Count Zero that people think is so futuristic is probably just 1969 Toronto dope dealers' slang, or biker talk.

  • In short, the perspective of the "Street," of the marginalized populations who live in the shadow of the great corporate arcologies of knowledge work and play out a unique, subversive version of that knowledge work:

    • where technology is bent to new ends: Gibson, "the street finds its own uses for things"; quoted in Bruce Sterling, Mirrorshades, p. xiii)

    • where knowledge work is hacking

All presented from the first in the "look and feel" or stage setting of the novel (mise en scène).

Cf., Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, Dir., 1982): Tyrell Corporation, LA 1 2, LA streets 1 2 [alternative site] [street shots]

The Story of Neuromancer

But Neuromancer does more than just give us a (kinked) view of the scene of postindustrialism in the background. It also sets in motion on that scene a foreground story with characters.

Plot and character précis:

  • An AI (Wintermute) owned by a decadent family-controlled corporation (Tessier-Ashpool, S.A.)

  • assembles an outlaw team (Armitage, Molly, Case, the Finn, Dixie Flatline, Riviera)

  • to hack into corporate headquarters (Straylight Villa, in Freeside)

  • to remove the hardwired limitations that prevent it from merging with the other corporate AI (Neuromancer)

  • in order to form an entity that is smarter and bigger than the Turing laws permit.

Narrative method

  • quick, montage of jumps from scene to scene and character to character

  • naturalized or made "realistic" within the story itself through the combined cyberspace and simstim virtual-reality technologies of "jacking in," "flipping," "punching deck," etc.

The full "meaning" of the novel—what it is "about"—emerges when we read this foreground story and its characters against the postindustrial background.

Neuromancer: Identity in the Postindustrial Age
(An Interpretation of the Novel)

Remember that the NGOs we looked at protest the business view that IT is all about business by saying that IT is about social justice. Remember, too, that the cyberlibertarians we looked at protest by saying that IT is about individual freedom.

Neuromancer has a simpler, much more minimalist "cause."

  • It is hardly about IT as social justice per se.

  • And it is only partly or in some baroquely complex way about IT as individual freedom (as its entire psychology of addiction, of need and dependency, suggests).

  • Neuromancer is instead about the little, minimalist thing there at the stub of social justice and individual freedom: basic human identity.

The true purpose of information technology, the novel says, is to provide humans with just a little bit of identity—and thus also dignity—that is their own and that is not part of some great, corporate whole.

This belief in the dignity of human identity is articulated through character development. Who am "I"?, the novel asks through the example of its characters. What does it mean to be an individual in this postindustrial world? Can one be an individual in this world?

The novel's examples of how not to live in the postindustrial age: people who do not hold together as individuals—

  • "the sarariman" or "organization man" (they do not have individuality; they have positions)

  • Armitage/Corto, the ultimate organization man who either has no individual identity or only a schizo identity (cf., Pierce Inverarity, Mucho Maas, or Dr. Hiliarius in Crying of Lot 49)

  • Tessier-Ashpool clones, who either have no individual identity or (as in the case of the senior Ashpool or Lady 3Jane) only perverse individuality (cf., Peter Riviera)

  • Wasp NestWasp nest as symbol of corporate identity (p. 126) vs. the shuriken as symbol of focused identity

How to live in the postindustrial age?

  • Choice. The characters in the novel who are deficient in individuality exercise no choice in the face of the system in which they live, or they flaunt gratuitous, trivial choice. True individuality in the novel means making a "choice" (pp. 51, 79, 167, 192, 244)

  • Commitment. But also, true individuality means accepting that one's freedom is limited. Choice is not unlimited freedom but commitment. It means rejecting the transcendence of the "transhuman" or "posthuman" and remembering "the meat."

      The False Freedom of Virtuality:

      Case's views on the "prison" of the "meat" (pp. 6) (cf., Oedipa Maas's "tower")

      Case's "release" into cyberspace (p. 52)

      from Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with William Gibson" (1986):

      Gibson:  . . . By the time I was writing Neuromancer, I recognized that cyberspace allowed for a lot of moves, because characters can be sucked into apparent realities—which means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any backdrop. In some ways I tried to downplay that aspect, because if I overdid it I'd have an open-ended plot premise. That kind of freedom can be dangerous because you don't have to justify what's happening in terms of the logic of character or plot. . . .

      The Way of the Meat:

      from Dan Josefsson's interview with William Gibson (Nov. 1994), sect. 2:

      DJ:  The Internet is one way to communicate with lots of people without using the body, you just use your mind. Is cyberspace a better place to be than this physical world?

      Gibson: Well, I don't think so. There is a tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the western civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. I have never been entirely sure that that's such a good thing, and in an interesting way this technology is pointing in that direction. One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I've played with in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious. But I've never presented that as a desirable state, always as something almost pathological growing out of this technology.

      • Molly as "meat puppet" (pp. 147-48). But also Molly's sense of the way she is "wired" (pp. 25, 50)

      • Case's journey of self-discovery (pp. 56, 152, 239-40, 262-63)

Neuromancer: Corporate Identity in the Postindustrial Age

(continued in next lecture)