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Friday, September 11, 2009

Punking Everything in SF/F (Part Four): The (Closer) Past (Cyberpunk B)

(Here begins the second part of my conceptualization of cyberpunk. Expect these sorts of things to be irregular, but at the same time a part of this blog, because much of what I will be doing as a graduate student is exactly what I am doing here, but simply on different subjects. This is, for all intensive purposes, practice. Regular programming should, as always be expected.)

First, a recap of what cyberpunk is, with some inferences to what it is not:

What is it?
Cyberpunk is a genre of fiction, primarily of the science fictional vein, that attempts to merge the concept of cyber (taken broadly to mean the speculative future of technology embodied as objects such as the net, artificial intelligence, and other such items) and punk (to be taken as the resistance by a figure or figures to the dominant social paradigm of the post-industrialist complex, with reasonable removal of the unfortunate hypocrisy that eventually took over the punk movement and established its resistance as moot; one can look at Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s concept of “No Future” in his essay “Cyberpunk and Empire” to get an idea of the nature of the gray that is the punk; and, of course, reading that essay can offer some unusually powerful insights into some of the aspects I glossed over in the first post for this series). Typical elements include: noir imagery, excessive representations of urbanity (to the extent that the urban is typically the central scenic POV and the corporate/industrial complex is instead removed or seemingly nonexistent, and thus is present more as a disembodied head than anything else), urban decay, hacker culture, and the introduction and general adoption of some form of social resistance through the technological (enhanced drugs, code manipulation, use of online-as-real environments, rogue AIs, etc.). It would be fair to say, then, that cyberpunk has already happened, insofar as certain aspects (such as artificial intelligent at the human level) have yet to happen, but other elements (the dominance of the web, the use of networks to mount resistance, both locally and internationally, etc.) have certainly occurred or are occurring.

Example: Neuromancer by William Gibson and “Cyberpunk” by Bruce Bethke.

What it isn’t?
Cyberpunk is not a grand, ridiculously Hollywood-ized foray of random technological gadgets and faux-hacker-culture obscenities that have been so readily adopted by the reading/viewing public as definitively “cyberpunk.” While cyberpunk certainly includes those elements found so grandly exposed in The Matrix and various other films and novels that have been applauded as cyberpunk, it is not so much a genre of visual or technological appeal as a genre of deeper, grander meanings and statuses of resistance. So, while one might say “that guy has a bionic eye and a talking computer” and think “it must be cyberpunk,” we can automatically dig deeper to find where its cyberpunk-ness ceases to be anything but visual aesthetics. We cannot, for example, call such a tale “cyberpunk” simply because of a bionic eye and a talking computer, but precisely because the bionic eye and the talking computer are part of a grand resistance as per the “punk” suffix, demonstrated as such through the interaction of said subjects, willingly or otherwise, with a social paradigm that is radically corporate and radically homogenized as such.

Example: The Matrix is arguable, because one could argue that the robots, intelligent and sadistic, in a way, are simply an allegorical representation of an economic model of social structure, precisely because the use of humans as commodities (i.e. the use of people as objects rather than as subjects) is so obvious. But, one would have to see the Animatrix to understand that The Matrix and its sequels are not about commodity so much as about revenge and survival. A grey area still exists; perhaps further attention to such a thing may be elemental to a broader conceptualization of cyberpunk.

Now, having said the above, I think it is fair to resume the discussion of cyberpunk as a genre.

Cyberpunk is comprised of three movements, though not, by any stretch of the imagination, linear movements, but movements equally as resistant to standards as the punk in cyberpunk. It should be noted, too, that these movements are not definitive categories in the sense that they exist independent of one another, though it is true that they are in genres other than cyberpunk. These movements can be imagined as follows:

I will only briefly discuss these, because their broader contexts are not necessarily needed here, though certainly worthy of exploration outside of this attempt at literary criticism.

Neither of the above categories are necessarily extreme in representation when seemingly adopted by an author, nor are they categories that should be ignored simply because they have been given a weaker role than others (literary critics would tell you that it is possible that those elements which are so hard to discern in relation to other elements are probably the ones most worth paying attention to). But to the descriptions:

Post-humanism, in the sense of science fiction, is quite literally what the name seems to imply: post (after) the human. In cyberpunk, and most of science fiction, post-humanism takes the shape, primarily, of the technological: artificial intelligence, robots, cybernetics, bionics, and other forms of prosthetics, whether for the outward body (a robotic arm) or for the internal body (a chip in the brain). Post-humanism, however, should not, in this broad definition, be confused with the alien, and if further explanation is needed for this point, then feel free to tell me in the comments.

Post-industrialism we have discussed before. It is the switch from super economies to service economies. Taken literally, again, it means the reduction of manufacturing and the production of service. Post-industrialism is not the end of manufacturing, since no society can possibly survive without the ability to create the goods that thus enable service, but there is simply less emphasis on the creation of objects, and more emphasis on what those objects do for us. For example, one might think about the iPod, which provides a portable way to listen to music (the service); we know that the iPod is built by Apple (the manufacturer), but most of us know nothing else beyond that. We are more interested in what the iPod does for us as individuals and a culture than we are in how it is put together.

Post-nationalism is somewhat more difficult to simplify, but in its relationship to cyberpunk, it is rather easy to grasp. It is the questioning of the nation state, of its values and properties and existence. Within cyberpunk, this concept is seen as the abolishment, or the thinning of, the lines that draw our nations. A prime example would be the presence of orbital colonies, such as the Rastafarians of Neruomancer. How does one figure the nation state out of something that is not only mobile, but inevitably resistant to the drawing of lines? Theoretically, you can’t. The nation state is a fixed object, something that must have definitions to its shape and design, whereas the orbital complex that is space and the various human endeavors into it are entirely resistant to any notion of nationalism; they are always mobile and always untouchable. The same is true of the net, a structure that cannot logically be figured as nation, because its lines are always shifting and no single entity can say “the net is mine.” Dominance of these spaces--temporal or mutable spaces--is, thus, impossible so long as what attempts to grasp them is owned by the social structures of nationalism.

Other, and more elaborate, definitions of the above exist, but, again, they don’t necessarily have a place in this discussion of a particularly narrow subject.

Again, it seems, I have been overly long-winded and am forced to once again split my conceptualization of this concept. The good news is that the final installment will be just that, because there I will be discussing some short, but important aspects of cyberpunk, particularly its “demise” and an understanding of where cyberpunk went, why it has largely been overlooked as a medium for the study of (post)modernity and the advancement of tribal capitalism, and other such things. There will not be a recap there, so study up (or don’t, because this is not a classroom, nor a space for you to assume the role of student; I readily accept criticism and deconstruction of my arguments here and elsewhere and expect them).

That is all!


Here are the others posts in this series: Part One (Punking), Part Two (Punk), Part Three (Cyberpunk A), and Part Five (Cyberpunk C).

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