Friday, February 16, 2018

Negative Valences III: Exact Fantasies of Cyberpunk

For Adorno, the object (let's call it the thing itself) is fixed but the subject changes.  He went 'all the way back' through Heidegger, Husserl, and Hegel, to Kant (Buck-Morss, 1977) in order to 'fix' a philosophy that was failing, but only to fix in the sense of give it a definite object.  How the subject fits onto that 'thing' is itself 'subject' to movements through historical memory, and time. 

What, precisely, then, is the 'subject' of cyberpunk? What is its object?  Are either, or both fixed in and Adornian sense?  I think it will be useful to bring in Benjamin here, as well, to bolster a too 'Adoring' sense of the Adornian in SF, but make no mistake, it is a real thing, as real as the postmodern in cyberspace.  But to go back through Adorno to Benjaimin is, I think, productive.

Here I mean quite (again), precisely, Benjamin's idea of the Dialectical Image (Buck-Morss, 1989), here for both Adorno, and for cyberpunk.  For the latter I sample both writing and cinema/television, including William Gibson and Richard Morgan; and works inspired by their writing, namely, The Matrix, and Altered Carbon. 

So, how do ideas of exact fantasy and dialectical image work in cyberpunk?  I believe we can tie this to the idea of the 'techno-surreal' (to bring in yet another key term).  Techno-surrealism is what makes SF not just another kind of surrealism.  Mieville's novels ride this line in a very fine way.  The technological side of things is not prominent in Mieville, but it structures things in a way that gently place it into a whole other system of genres (one might call them 'weird' too) (Rider, 2017; Luckhurst, 2017).

Can we theorise the novum itself as a dialectical image? The novum of Altered Carbon appears to be the stack, but it is also what the stack enables, namely (wait for it, it's not immortality) extended generational interaction.  If you can live forever, there's a lot less impetus to pass on your knowledge to your offspring because the knowledge will always still be around for the younger generation to consult.  So it is about longevity of information.  Which really is a fantasy.  The dialectical image, one that examines the object (historical memory) might include all those different kinds of 'chip' the metonymise memory into subjects and in Altered Carbon, quite literally drive the action.

I would argue that longevity of information is decreasing, and here the Adornian aspect becomes prominent.  For the exact fantasy, based on 'hard' (computer) science is one that sees computing power and memory capacity going through the roof in line with Moore's Law, but at the same time ephemeralising and rates of change themselves change and evolve beyond recognition.  We recognise neither the age nor the provenance of the bodies with which we interact. 

If cyberpunk is really about knowledge transmission through time and space, I would argue that Gibsonian cyberpunk is more 'spatial' while Morganian is more 'temporal'.  But if this is about spatio-temporal 'objectification' then I think this Adornian notion of 'exact fantasy' is also just as much about bodies and how we relate to them.  And this, as an object of knowledge, is epistemologically and quite fundamentally knowable very specifically from the woman's perspective (as the evolving historical subject whose 'body' is objectified).  Thus the images of woman above, and below.

I do think Blade Runner is quite implicated in what I'm saying here (a kind of Adornian-Benjaminian feminist argument that, cheekily comes from me, a man), both the old and new (2049) iterations.  Not only the object (woman's body) but also the subject (male gaze, woman's positioning) and power play out in interesting ways here, but it is indicative, I think, that the Blade Runners have more appeal for male than for female viewers (the Guardian reported low attendance numbers upon release of the latter film, putting it down to primarily male interest).

We have, then, a transcendental object (Adorno, the body) which can be represented as a dialectical image (Benjamin, the technology) with both feminist and anthropological import for a 'whole'.  But what is that whole, to which these particulars must refer, if we are to remain properly Adornian?

Unlikely as it might sound, I think we could enrol Atwoodian sensibility to the effort here.  Think about what is happening, specifically, in the TV version of The Handmaid's Tale.   The whole here is society, and social implications of absolute control of women's body is what is at stake. 

You could also, even more controversially, enroll something like @RuPaul 's spoof of the handmaids, in which drag queens dressed as handmaids take the piss at their own representatives (the Queens), but at the same time re-assert a kind of masculine hegemony, one which is capable of performing across gender divides.

RuPaul is quite specifically 'of the genre' if we consider the following elements: wonder, imagination, and the infinite, all capacities of 'new' systems of genre that re-map power, bodies, and society (Rieder, 2017).

If the particular subject is dialectically related to the whole through the relatively fixed object, in what sense is cyberpunk then negatively capable of performing this philosophy?  Well, the answer is embedded in the question, which it begs: it is the poetry of cyberpunk that does it and, as such, it works through both metonymy and metaphor (Roberts, 2017).  I believe Roberts has 'nailed' it, by which I mean a really capable definition of "science fiction" one that leverages poetics of part/whole relationships and applies them to both the action (metonymically, in sequence) and the tropes (metaphorically, at a 'higher' level beyond the action) of the new system of genres that is SF (here beyond 'mere' science fiction).

Cyberpunk is poetic.  That's not such a stretch.  But the poetics enable part-whole relationships to reflect (dialectically and negatively) society back upon itself, but without doing so exactly.  A principle of identity, a minimum difference operates such that (e.g. we could call it stereoscopically, or in terms of a kind of parallax, vis-a-vis Zizek) that very difference is what enables (again very paradoxically) identification.  It is as though one is moving toward a goal (i.e. in cyberspace, in a new body, or a new gender as it were) by introducing a small spatial offset, the measurement of whose angle actually enables more confidence in arriving at that goal.

What is the goal?  To avoid goals, for one (i.e. a kind of principle of non-teleology), but also to be critical of the 'goals' of society as portrayed in popular media, in cultural productions, and in discourse.  Speculative fiction, negatively capable through its use of techno-surreal metaphors and action is uniquely capable of 'arriving' so paradoxically through the non-arrival of each spectacular event.

And within that non-arrival, the action sequence, the set of particulars that drives the 'thing' forward: the stack, the new body, the ego in cyberspace, each metonymical fragment hitting higher registers as the poetic image emerges.  The image of society is an inverse-fantastical remnant of some kind of failure, and that is recapitulated in philosophies of 'the end'.  Cyberpunk is a philosophy of the end, and as such attention must be paid to not only it, but its alter-egos, its Atwoods and its Ashbys (see previous review).  

Buck-Morss, Susan.  1977.  The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute.  New York: Free Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan.  1989.  The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Luckhurst, Roger.  2017.  The Weird: A Dis/orientation.  Textual Practice.  Vol. 31(6). 1041-1061.

Rieder, John.  2017.  Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System.  Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan.

Roberts, Adam.  2017.  How I Define "Science Fiction".  Morphosis.

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