Neuromancer and the Fetishization of Information
I wonder now if there is a "consensual hallucination"
that is the internet. This was always one of the most fascinating ideas
- the geography of data, the artificial hierarchization we have imposed
as a bibliographical society on the information we possess, represented
visually, sonically, spatially. Mountains of data, towers of directories.
Drawers and folders and icons. These are representations and metaphors
with which we are already familiar. We share the schema -- all of our files
are in folders and directories now. Alphabetized on disk or organized visually
on our "desktops." This is the beginning.
In Gibson, the Matrix is like an infinitely
maneuverable city. The Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority a "stepped scarlet
pyramid" and the Mitsubishi Bank a green cube off in the distance, making
a skyline. The surface is a chessboard. This is the next metaphor, and
it's already made its way, visually, into handfuls of movies, such as Lawnmower
Man and the abysmal Johnny Mnemonic.
When I say this is a metaphor, I mean that
there is a relation, but an incomplete one. To define a simile - one thing
is like another; one thing is as another. They are not alike,
but only similar or related. A disembodied and boundless city is maybe
an apt metaphor for the way that some of us conceive of information storage
in the modern world. Everything connected in a vast openness that belies
the physical limitations of paved streets in terms of accessibility, but
it all has its borders too. To penetrate into that scarlet pyramid requires
something more than getting there.
But the dreams I had years ago
when I first read the book, vivid enough for me to remember now, were not
about just romping through this videogame world of swirling colors and
shapes, travelling without moving, blasting ICE with programs like cannons.
The dreams were about the information. In Neuromancer and
Gibson's other books, when information is garnered from some source on
the matrix, the reader sees it as written text, as words on the screen
that was Case's (to use one example) retina, or as descriptions of visual
scenes. But the way I imagined it, that was the way of the past. In the
future of connectivity and information, the data enters you as instantaneous
knowledge. This was the sublime, what made the matrix in my mind surpass
the level of televisions or computer screens. To
experience information like a rush, like sex
in its ferality and primalness, like a drug
in the inevitability, the strange distance and infinite closeness of its
Overwhelming, encompassing and yet ephemeral and searchable.
The idea of the mind surpassing and obviating
the body is fascinating to me. It's as if, in our culture today, there
aesthetics - the beauty of the body and the beauty of information.
In all the worlds of Sci-Fi, Cyberpunk and CyberNoir, so to speak, these
aesthetics intertwine -- the cyborg represents the technological body, beautiful
and informed. All the right connections. Gibson's
cybernetic samurai Molly typifies this, her mirrored silver eyes a testament
to the confused beauty of body and machine. But here I have just made a
gaffe - machine and information are two different things. We can see fetishization
of the machine in J.G. Ballard's Crash, but we cannot see the fetishization
of information. In Neuromancer, the two seem to either co-exist
or be confused. The fetish of information is supplanting that of the machine
-- the character of Ratz, the old bartender at the Chatsubo with the Russian
arm, is a reminder of the old guard. The new guard are the Panther Moderns,
their anarchy aside, with their skulls filled with sharp spikes of
software like metal mohawks. Their enhancements
are not replacements like Ratz's arm.
They are designed to augment. But not
to augment the body. No -- to augment the mind. The spikes are knowledge.
Molly's eyes have screens on which she can display information. She can
see in the dark. Though there is confusion between whether it is her body
itself that is beautiful or the capabilities of it, and hence a confusion
between the aesthetics of the body/machine and that of information/ the
machine, hopefully it is the matrix that appears before Case's senses
that is ultimately the most seductive.
Case is the one who tells us - the
body is just meat. It is the aesthetic of the
Cowboys, the ones who jack in and leave their bodies an inanimate heap
in order to access the universe of information, the realm of the sublime
that hides behind a wall outlet and lies beyond ordinary experience. Gibson
gives us competition between the longings of the body and those of the
mind. Case is useless as a human being when he is unable to jack in, on
a path towards utter self-destruction. Which is more
important - the physical world or the matrix? Though writing a visionary
world, Gibson cannot distance himself ultimately from the body. As readers,
it is what we are familiar with - it makes everything else accessible.
Without Case's and Molly's carnal desires, the pain of her wounds, the
physicality of his speed addiction, it would be hard to grasp anything
else. Gibson is possibly making a contrast between the world of the physical
and the world of the matrix, of pure knowledge and access. But, then again,
maybe this is a subtle illusion. Though they are
separate worlds, what brings them together in Neuromancer is desire.
Ambitions are the same, emotions are the
same when jacked in. Case is always looking for his edge, his anger, because
that's what allows him to perform. Without that yearning, that desire,
he is useless in either world. Bodies exhibit desire, but the mind is its
true vehicle and this desire is what integrates the two worlds, the two
aesthetics, of Gibson's fiction. The carnality
of sex is the carnality of the mind's power to access and penetrate and
possess - the fetishization of information
is realized through Case and the parallels between sex with Molly and the
penetration of electronic defenses, a relation intensified by Case's ability
to switch instantaneously between the matrix and the feeling of Molly's
And so I am meditating
on the nature of desire. Like all fetishes, the fetish of information ties
eroticism into an object. One desires a nonsexual object in a sexual way.
That's not what the fetish of information is, though - it's a unique fetish
in that, while information and access to it has been commodified to a greater
extent now than ever before, the information
itself is somethig that can be possessed like no physical object.
Books, an earlier form, if you want to look at it that way, of commodified
information, had to be physically grasped to be used. But books are not
information, just carriers. Information can penetrate us. We are the sum
of what we know and what we can access. Our senses and the processing machinery
of our brains are what make us. Consciousness as a tool for dealing with
information. Physical feelings are the result of our minds processing information.
Our desires are our craving information and access. When I am in love,
I want to experience my lover, have access to her, unite with her. Mutual
possession, total access - my desire is to know and understand and through
that to achieve an assimilation of experience. Sex is much more than an
intertwining of bodies and the rush of orgasm - in the intensity of it,
you know your partner. Spiritually and emotionally you create a bond of
is to know. The most
famous of all euphemisms for sex is the biblical -- he knew his wife.
Sense experience and information are the same, and in the fetish of information,
our emotions are reactions to both and inseparable as such.
sexually attracted to the matrix -- to the interface between sense
experience and information:
A year [in Chiba
City] and he still dreamed of cyberspace,
hope fading nightly....He’d see
the matrix in his sleep,
bright lattices of logic unfolding
across that colorless
void....The Sprawl was a long strange
way home over the
Pacific now, and he was no console
man, no cyberspace
cowboy. Just another hustler, trying
to make it through. But
the dreams came on in the Japanese
night like livewire
voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry
in his sleep, and wake
alone in the dark, curled in his
capsule in some coffin hot
el, his hands clawed into the bedslab,
bunched between his fingers, trying
to reach the console
that wasn't there. (4-5)
But this is just the beginning. Gibson
prefigures the fetishization of information -- he makes it possible and
slyly walks around it without diving in completely. The seeds were there,
though. The matrix brings together the physical and the informative into
a realm of virtuality where the distinctions between modes of desire can
be blurred. In the matrix, there exists the possibility for the gratification
of information and access to be realized physically and erotically.