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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2002, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 18

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 2/20/02 )

Preliminary Class Business

  • Thanks to Jennifer Jones
  • The new deadline for revised, online version of short paper: March 1st
  • Drop-in tech support hours in South Hall 2509: Mondays 11:30-2, Thursdays 2-4:30
  • Literature and Culture of Information specialization (LCI) and its research positions next quarter (apply by Feb. 28th)
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Review of Postindustrial Business

* Ideology of "creative destruction" (change, innovation)
* Universality of business (business = life)
* Global Competition
* Postindustrialism
* Knowledge Work
* Information Technology
* Downsizing
* Restructuring
* Flexible Production
* Team Working
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Literary Responses to the Knowledge Work World: Cyberpunk Fiction

The first note from Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Culture Logic of Late Capitalism (1991):

"This is the place to regret the absence from this book of a chapter on cyberpunk, henceforth,for many of us, the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself."

Selected Bibliography

    Literary and cultural influences on cyberpunk

      Literary influences:
      • Thomas Pynchon (e.g., The Crying of Lot 49, 1966)
      • J.G. Ballard (e.g., The Atrocity Exhibition, 1979; Crash, 1973)

      Sci-Fi influences:
      • "New Wave" science fiction of 1960s-70s
        • Harlan Ellison (Dangerous Visions story series; "A Boy and His Dog", 1969)
        • Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968; Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, 1982)

      Influence of popular culture, counterculture, subculture (e.g., drug culture, Rastafarianism, "punk," "kung fu," hacker culture)
      • communicated through media culture: music, TV, video, film [detective, gangster, Western, Hong Kong kung-fu, Japanese samurai, Spaghetti Western], video games

    "Canonical" authors
      William Gibson
      • Neuromancer (NY: Berkley, 1984) (won Hugo, Nebula, and Phillip K. Dick awards) (Japanese translation by Hisashi Kuroma in 1985)
      • Count Zero (NY: Arbor House, 1986)
      • Burning Chrome (NY: Arbor House, 1986)
      • Mona Lisa Overdrive (NY: Bantam, 1988)
      • Screenplay for Aliens III
      • (with Bruce Sterling) The Difference Engine (NY: Bantam, 1990)
      • Virtual Light (NY: Bantam, 1993)
      • Idoru (NY: Berkley, 1996)
      • All Tomorrow's Parties (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999)
      • Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), engravings by Dennis Ashbaugh (NY: Kevin Begos Publishing, 1992)

      Bruce Sterling
      • The Artificial Kid (NY: Ace, 1980)
      • Schismatrix (NY: Arbor House, 1985)
      • ed., Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (NY: Arbor House, 1986)
      • Islands in the Net (NY: Morrow, 1988)
      • Crystal Express (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1989)
      • Holy Fire (NY: Bantam, 1996)
      • A Good Old-Fashioned Future (NY: Bantam, 1999)
      • The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (New York: Bantam, 1992); also available online as freeware from numerous sources, including versions with a Preface and Epilogue added in 1994 (e.g., <>)

      Neal Stephenson
      • Snow Crash (NY: Bantam, 1992)
      • The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (NY: Bantam, 1995)
      • Cryptonomicon (NY: Avon, 1999)
      • In the Beginning Was the Command Line (New York: Avon, 1999); also downloadable as a zipped text file from <>

    Some authors sharing a similar "cyber" and/or "punk" universe:
    • Greg Bear, Blood Music (NY: Arbor House, 1985)
    • Pat Cadigan
      • Mindplayers (NY: Bantam, 1987)
      • Synners ((NY: Bantam, 1991)
    • Greg Egan, Diaspora (NY: Harper, 1998)
    • Jeff Noon, Nymphomation (Trafalgar, 2000)
    • Rudy Rucker
      • Software (NY: Ace, 1982)
      • Wetware (NY: Avon, 1988)
    • Vernor Vinge, True Names (1981)

    Affiliates in Postmodern Literature
    • Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (NY: Grove, 1988)
      [includes piratical/parodic rewrite of the Panther Moderns episode from Neuromancer]

    Selected Secondary Works
      Larry McCaffery, ed., Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1991); contains a nice selection of essays and interviews on cyberpunk. Esp. useful:
      • Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism"
      • Veronica Hollinger, "Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism"
      • Brooks Landon, "Bet On It: Cyber/video/punk performance"
      • Timothy Leary, "The Cyberpunk: The Individual as Reality Pilot"
      • Larry McCaffery
        • "An Interview with William Gibson"
        • "Cutting Up: Cyberpunk, Punk Music, and Urban Decontextualizations"
      • Brian McHale, "POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM"
      • Bruce Sterling, "Preface" from Mirrorshades
      • Darko Suvin, "On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF"
      • Takayuki Tatsumi, "The Japanese Reflection of Mirrorshades"

      Andrew Ross, "Cyberpunk in Boystown," in his Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (London: Verso, 1991) [an acid critique of cyberpunk in the mode of British Retro-Marxist meets North American Cyber-Macho-Boys from Suburbia]

      Scott Bukatman
      • Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1993)
      • "Gibson's Typewriter," South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1994): 627-45

      Michael Benedict, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992) [on the construction of computer "cyberspace"]

    Impact on Recent Films

    • Johnny Mnemonic (1995), dir. Robert Longo [story and screenplay by William Gibson]
    • The Matrix, dir. Wachowski brothers (1999)
    • eXistenZ, dir. David Cronenberg (1999)


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Neuromancer: A Counter-Imagination of Postindustrialism

Written in the 1980s-90s during the same period as the encounter of American corporations with the new Japanese business model, global competition, restructuring, knowledge work, and IT, cyberpunk is the literary equivalent of books like Workplace 2000 or The Virtual Corporation. It is an imagination of postindustrialism, but a "kinked" one.

Plan for lectures on Neuromancer: Today: the "worlds" of the novel (the contexts, background, and setting). Next lecture: the "meaning" of the novel (the characters and the plot).

Neuromancer's "Worlds":

    A world of media and new media:
from Larry McCaffery's interview with William Gibson (Aug. 1986), p. 265:

LM: There are so many references to rock music and television in your work that it sometimes seems your writing is as much influenced by MTV as by literature. What impact have other media had on your sensibility?

WG: Probably more than fiction. . . . I've been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I've been by any "fiction" writer. I was going to use a quote from an old Velvet Underground song—"Watch out for worlds behind you" (from "Sunday Morning")—as an epigraph for Neuromancer.
    • A remix of old media (TV, film, books and magazines, "dub" music)

      • Ashpool's dead-media collection
        "The room was very large, cluttered with an assortment of things that made no sense to Case. He saw a gray steel rack of old-fashioned Sony monitors . . . Molly's eyes darted from a huge Telefunken entertainment console to shelves of antique disk recordings, their crumbling spines cased in clear plastic, to a wide worktable littered with slabs of silicon." (p. 183)

      • Gibson's characters as media pastiches ("cowboy," "gangster," "moll," "samurai") (p. 213)

    • A prophecy of new media
      • simstim (Tally Isham, Sense/Net star; the Panthern Moderns as terrorist media artists)
      • cyberspace (or the matrix)
      • hybrid simstim/cyberspace media (Case "flipping" into Molly's sensorium; Wintermute's and Neuromancer's avatars)

    A world of postindustrial corporations (compare particular features of the new business)

    • A world of "creative destruction" (e.g., the new technology that allows the Chiba city black-market biotech firm to leapfrog competition; corporate assassinations, kidnappings, and defections in later Gibson novels)

    • A world of universal "biz"
            (cf., Eric S. Nylund, Signal to Noise, 1998)
      • Case, businessman (p. 145)
      • The dominance of corporate "arcologies" and zaibatsus" (pp. 37, 203)

        Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti Project: The Hyper Building "Arcology"

        Zaibatsu: "A Japanese conglomerate or cartel [Japanese zai wealth . . . batsu powerful person or family . . ." (American Heritage Talking Dictionary, ver. 4.0)

        cf. Neal Stephenson's "phyles" and "claves" in The Diamond Age (1995), pp. 260-61:

              "Why do the Vickys have such a big clave?" Nell asked. . . .
              "Well, each phyle has a different way, and some ways are better suited to making money than others, so some have a lot of territory and others don't"
              "What do you mean, a different way?"
              "To make money you have to work hard—to live your life a certain way. The Atlantans [Vicky's] all live that way, it's part of their culture. The Nipponese too. So the Nipponese and the Atlantans have as much money as all the other phyles put together."

    • A world of global competition
      • Paradigm of Japan, Inc.
      • Hybrid Japanese, American ("Sprawl"), European scene of the novel
      • Fusion culture: (pp. 9, 19)
      • Freeside as the epitome of globalism (a free port like Hong Kong, except extraterrestrial)

    • A world of knowledge work
      • Case, knowledge worker (cf., "Johnny" Mnemonic, Molly's ex)
      • Molly, manual worker (except even manual work is now "smart"-enabled through biotech and silicon implants)

    • A world of information technology ("cyberspace," "the matrix")

      Neuromancer, p. 51:

      "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . ."

      Michael Benedict, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992) [on the construction of computer "cyberspace"]

      An Atlas of Cyberspaces

    • A world of restructuring
      • Gibson's meditation on the corporate organizational form (to be discussed later)

    • A world of teamworking: Case's multidisciplinary work "team"
      • facilitator: Armitage
      • IT specialist: Case
      • Security: Molly
      • Electronic countermeasures: Finn
      • Con man/salesman: Riviera
      • Transportation: Maelcum (of Zion)
      • Consultant: Pauly McCoy (aka Dixie, Flatline)
      • Outsourced media specialists: Panthern Moderns

  • Important Point But also a counter-imagination of the postindustrial world

      • Countercultural perspective (Beat/Hippie culture as manifested in drugs and hacking; silicon the ultimate drug, pp. 4-5)

      • Subcultural perspective (e.g., youth subcultures, p. 58; reggae subculture)

        from Larry McCaffery's interview with William Gibson (Aug. 1986), p. 269:

        WG:  . . . 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.

      • Life on the "Street": the perspective of the permanently downsized, temped, flex-timed, and stressed

      • Subversive and black-market IT: street tech (p. 11) (Gibson, "the street finds its own uses for things"; quoted in Sterling, Mirrorshades, p. xiii)

  • All presented viscerally in the "style" or "special effects" of the novel
    Cf., Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, Dir., 1982): Tyrell Corporation, LA 1 2, LA streets 1 2

    • Neuromancer is a "patchwork" world whose representation is the media collage (pp. 103, 176, 48; "dub," p. 104), cf. "the bridge" in Gibson's Virtual Light (p. 70)

    • The synaesthetic impact on the body (pp. 31, 154, 241/244)

    • General principle of the work's style: a formal dialectic of sharply-focused, autonomous fragments vs. flow, fluidity (pp. 154; cf., the cloisonné head and the novel's concept of automata, p. 74)

    • Gibson's hypertextual narrative style: jumping, cutting, "flipping" (cf., the Panther Moderns, p. 62; hacking, p. 167)

      from Larry McCaffery's interview with William Gibson (Aug. 1986), p. 277:

      WG:  . . . When I said I was prone to information sickness, I meant I sometimes get off on being around a lot of unconnected stuff—but only certain kinds of stuff, which is why I'm having trouble handling the input right now. I have a friend, Tom Maddox, who did a paper on my work. He's known what I've been up to for a long time—he says I display "a problematic sensitivity to semiotic fragments." That probably has a lot to do with the way I write—stitching together all the junk that's floating around in my head. One of my private pleasures is to go to the corner Salvation Army thrift shop and look at all the junk. . . .

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To Be Continued: The Meaning of Neuromancer (next lecture)

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  • Cyberpunk Science Fiction
  • An Atlas of Cyberspaces
  • Michael Benedict, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992)
  • Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1991)


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