Cyberpunk fiction dwells in liminal space: between virtual and material realities, between the human and the technological, between mind and body, men and women, past, present and future. Cyberpunk animates the idea of cyberspace itself, and the metaphysical and epistemological confrontations which cyberspace facilitates, but that matter has been thoroughly examined elsewhere. Cyberpunk storms out of a breakdown of old gaps between the sciences and the humanities, and at the same time reveals new gaps at the intersubjective level, between individuals, as well as between readers and texts, theory and praxis, moral responsibility and cynical indifference. This essay turns away from the now-tired questions of what cyberpunk is and what it can do, toward issues which such arguments conceal. Its reading strategy joins cyberpunk texts and criticism, and incorporates the notion of social and moral responsibility. One of the strengths of cyberpunk is not that it explicitly argues for a new moral and political stance in reading/writing--it is quite jaded about moral pleading--but that the gaps it reveals raise the possibility of such arguments and shift the burden to readers/writers to make something of that possibility.
I. Minding the Gap
Cyberpunk captures the critical imagination in a peculiar way. One seldom finds critical response to genre fictions so hotly contradictory. These contradictions do not map neatly onto disciplinary, political, or ideological differences, but often work across such boundaries, infusing them with an eccentric energy. Some critics conclude that cyberpunk must therefore speak to popular culture in a fresh and revealing manner, but cynics continue to insist that there is nothing new here. Rather than digging deeper into these internecine wars of interpretation, I offer a meta-analysis of cyberpunk/criticism. This meta-analysis will reveal the outline for a philosophy at the limit of what Kathryn Pyne Addelson has called "archist" or bourgeois, principle-oriented ethics (150-53). The critical perspectives on cyberpunk I review are not mistaken. Indeed, many of them are ingenious. But commentary on cyberpunk converges around rather than on a common problematic. It is in the combination of conflicts and common themes among these perspectives that we can find outlines of a new liminal space, which I will refer to as a "world-shaped hole."
Critics of cyberpunk do not divide into a convenient number of categories. Their reactions can be classified in rough terms, but nothing rides on these divisions. It is the variety of responses themselves that are of interest, and a laundry list of critical stances conveys this: Cyberpunk has been called a Baudrillardian simulacrum (Hayles 1993), and a Deleuze-and-Guattarian machinic assemblage (Tamblyn 1997, Stivale 1998). It is overtly sexist (Hollinger 1991), covertly feminist (Gordon 1991, Plant 1997), the final death blow to humanism (Ross 1991), and an elegy of mourning for the prior death of humanism (Braidotti 1997). It has regressive politics and no social conscience (Csicsery-Ronay 1991), it's dystopian (Suvin 1991), it's pro-science (Ben-Tov 1995), it's the origin narrative of machine consciousness (Stone 1995), and it's the supreme literary expression of postmodernism/late capitalism (Jameson 1991). It could only grow out of a 1980s punk sensibility (McCaffrey 1991). It's over in the 90s (Balsamo 1996), but the term cyberpunk is still useful (Landon 1991, Stivale 1998). It's genius (Broderick 1995). It's garbage (Turner 1985). It's none of the above.
One cannot discuss all of these claims in detail. It should still be noted that such polar opposite commentaries cannot arise out of mere differences in emphasis or interpretation. It is true, as Darko Suvin has pointed out, that "an evaluation of cyberpunk depends on the works examined" (359), but that's true of any body of literature. The critics discussed read mostly the same works, and still come to radically different conclusions about them. Thus whatever lies behind these antithetical positions, it must be unusual. If this literature and its critics give rise to a world-shaped hole, what kind of world could fit into it, and how are we to go about making it?
Two sources will provide answers to this question: writer/critics and reader/critics. Of the former, Bruce Sterling has given the most concise account of the hallmarks of cyberpunk. He calls cyberpunk a definitively 80s outgrowth of a deeper SF tradition. For him, "cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice. Some find the results bizarre, even monstrous; for others this integration is a powerful sense of hope" (Mirrorshades xiii). This notion of integration is broad, so perhaps it can explain the noisy swarm of reaction to cyberpunk.
Sterling notes other central themes. Among these he mentions global awareness, in the form of one-world technologies, multinational corporations, and an impatience with borders of any kind, as an article of faith for cyberpunks. Arising from this faith is a fascination with the "interzone," a liminal space where industrial artifact becomes street art. Perhaps most definitive of the genre is a self-conscious love of extrapolation (xi-xv). Cyberpunk writers take elements of daily life and exaggerate them into the near future in a manner that shocks our sensibilities. But Sterling's description, while informative about what cyberpunk writers take themselves to be doing, is of limited use for many of the issues that reader/critics raise. After all, Sterling is a cyberpunk writer. We can hardly expect him to introduce his anthology by announcing that cyberpunk is stale crap written by third-rate hacks.
Reader/critics address the unintended side effects of the hallmarks Sterling lists. These analyses can be collected into three loosely defined categories, which correspond to common complaints and defenses rather than particular writers. Each category has recourse to common ideas, strengthening the appearance of convergence toward a shared vision. A contingent moral perspective emerges from the juxtaposition of these three fluid groupings and the texts on which they focus. I'll call the first group the skeptical reader/critics. These writers tend to be deflationary about cyberpunk's pretensions, although not typically antagonistic. They admit the influence and even importance of cyberpunk as a cultural phenomenon, but urge that fans and writers tone down their hyperbole. When Sterling insists that cyberpunk presents a crucial form of cultural energy, empowering a new counterculture to slip the bonds of industrial and political control and challenge authority with its own tools (xi), the disagreement of the skeptical reader/critics is mild. They insist, for example, that while ubiquitous computer technology and virtual reality lends cyberpunk a "hip" air, it is not fundamentally different in kind from older SF stories about, say, space travel. John Foyster points out that, where rocket ships were once the "glamor icons of lonely teenagers" in the 1940s and 50s, cyberpunk merely swaps new technologies like virtual reality for the hackneyed motif of the outer space adventure (qtd. in Broderick 17). But these tales are still fundamentally romantic, cut from the same cloth as stories of cowboys, pirates, bikers, and explorers, shooting, swashbuckling, roaring and slashing their way through a Brave Old World, not a new, liberating one. Sharona Ben-Tov notes that the dark, postmodern feel of cyberpunk stories is common to the most conventional, masculinist SF. The disintegration of traditional governments, economies and institutions open space for new social structures, but the model where "war is enlisted for the masculine 'birth' of an alternative nature" is essentially unchanged (179).
These critics offer sound arguments in favour of their claims that cyberpunk is old hat, and that its technology is inherently linked to romanticism and masculinity. But they don't press the point and ask, "why these technologies?" They don't wonder why cyberpunk writers might think that there is an important qualitative difference between cybertechnology and, say, the telephone or the television. Critics focus on the masculinity of these texts but don't pursue what they mean or reveal about femininity, which is always defined against the masculine. The questions they do ask highlight not so much specific problems, but silences about them. The contours of a world-shaped hole begin to emerge.
Where Sterling sees 80s-emergent technology as fluid and decentralized, closer to our corporeal surfaces and thus capable of breaking down old barriers between the organic body and the machine, skeptics question the possible consequences of this new hybridization. Veronica Hollinger emphasizes that the price of the mesmerizing appeal of cybertechnology is contempt for the body, referred to in cyberpunk as "meat," although she approves of the potential of some cyberpunk to decenter "the human body, the sacred icon of the essential self" (206-07). Anne Balsamo worries that by repressing the physical body, cyberpunk sometimes seems politically neutral but never is (123). She writes that "it is not a coincidence that VR [virtual reality] emerges in the 1980s, during a decade when the body is understood to be increasingly vulnerable (literally, as well as discursively) to infection as well as to gender, race, ethnicity, and ability critiques. With virtual reality we are offered the vision of a body-free universe" (127). We need to learn which bodies will be repressed and which will be freed, but even more so we can extend the question, asked above, "why this technology?" to "why technology at all?" The technology of cyberspace is merely another character in the plot, a device which tests and even ridicules us by drawing our attention away from the genre's howl of moral anguish toward its ironically exaggerated mania for sex and the defeat of death. We may examine the specific technologies which appear in our fictions, but we also need to look beyond technology altogether. This observation is crucial to discerning the outlines of the world-shaped hole.
Hostile reader/critics, the second group, are more aggressive in crushing the aspirations of cyberpunk. Sterling insists that the literary quality of cyberpunk is intense, its prose rich with "rapid, dizzying bursts of novel information, sensory overload that submerges the reader in the literary equivalent of the hard-rock 'wall of sound.'" Cyberpunk writers are "in love with style, and are (some say) fashion-conscious to a fault" (Mirrorshades x). The hostile reader/critic vehemently rejects all declarations of literary skill. George Turner, for example, finds "crammed" prose, which Sterling hopes submerges the reader, to be a smokescreen for plain bad writing (qtd. in Broderick 81). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay is even more sardonic, insisting that cyberpunk fails to appropriately represent the ironic attitude of bad faith, which he feels such writers adopt toward their own work. Andrew Ross finds an equally ominous omission of the present:
Cyberpunk's idea of a counterpolitics--youthful male heroes with working-class chips on their shoulders and postmodern biochips in their brains--seems to have little to do with the burgeoning power of the great social movements of our day: feminism, ecology, peace, sexual liberation, and civil rights. Curiously enough, there is virtually no trace of these social movements in this genre's 'credible' dark future, despite the claims by Sterling that cyberpunk futures are 'recognizably and painstakingly drawn from the modern condition'. (152)
Such critics object that this is self-indulgence at its worst. "The one thing that cyberpunk is fascinated with above all else, its ruling deity, is sleaze--the scummy addiction to thrill that can focus all of a person's imaginative power on a sensation that wipes out all discipline, and which at the same time sells books, attracts movie options, and generates sequels" (Csicsery-Ronay 193).
Despite such negative reception of cyberpunk, there are critics who insist that it remains an open-ended genre with a rich future. Following Veronica Hollinger, I'll call this third group of reader/critics the hopeful monsters. Critic Damien Broderick is skilled at "decoding" the multivalent levels of representation and ideological significance in cyberpunk. Yet he draws our attention to the metaphysics of cyberpunk all the same:
[i]f fiction is not life, neither is life--all is text. If a computer simulation is absolutely compelling, how may its artifices be detected? And how may this truth best be conveyed in a written fiction which tells us of a world that does not exist, outside the link between our programmed brains (our 'wetware') and the lines of text? It is perhaps at this crux that cyberpunk's romantic modernist heritage gives way to drastic ontological doubt, shifting its texts into postmodern territory. (82)
One could argue that this interpretation does not support a shift into the postmodern, but reinforces the crisis of the modern, reinscribes Cartesian doubt and the neurotic search for a standard by which to distinguish the real from the artificial, imagined, and dreamed. Katherine Hayles demonstrates cyberpunk's restatement of definitively modernist ideals like autonomy, individuality, and consciousness, but with a twist. She shows how, in Neal Stephenson's work, rationality and skepticism become the very tools by which cyberpunk's performative construction of humans-as-computers can be defeated. She writes, "the best way to counteract the negative effects of the posthuman is to acknowledge that we have always been posthuman. We cannot change our computational natures" (Posthuman 278-79). In other words, "our" Cartesian mistake was not accepting the emergence of a mind/body split from the gap created by drastic ontological doubt, but the pretense that this was what defined us as human, that the human had been part of the natural world all along, and waited for us to discover it. Once we "discovered" it as part of the natural world, it could only exist in opposition to the made world, the technological. We simply stopped telling/reading this story too soon, and must let go of the pretense that this boundary was ever a real one.
Feminist theory is rich with hopeful monsters. When Donna Haraway announces that she'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess, she gives voice to a growing frustration among feminist critics of science. The oft-told tale of a masculinized science that dominates a feminine nature has been taken too literally, and Haraway disapproves of the outcome of this literalism, because it drives women away from technology rather than demonstrating its value to them. The future is going to be dominated by technics whether women gain formal equality or not. Sadie Plant goes further, showing that the computer is historically and conceptually feminine in origin, so that the fit between women and cybertechnologies is more "natural" than one between women and the feminine divine. Plant opts for what she calls cyberfeminism, urging women to use technology to exploit the masculine world's vulnerability to "cyberfeminist infection." "Man becomes the user, the addict, who can no longer insist on his sovereign autonomy and separation from nature," and "women, who know all about disguise, are already familiar with this trip" (505). As Haraway notes, the figure of the cyborg is an existential challenge to Enlightenment notions of identity and subjectivity. But we should notice that cyberfeminism has been unable to resist the lure of the inward turn, and focuses on the individual cyborg self rather than on the nature of the communities in which such selves must coexist. This, too, is an ingredient for the discovery of the absent but yearned-for world that cyberpunk reveals.
David Tomas is the hopeful monster who is most explicit in his treatment of cyberspace (not cyberpunk per se) as a liminal construct. He uses the notion of liminality effectively, emphasizing the ways in which cyberspace resembles liminal space, as posited by Arnold Van Gennep and refined by Victor Turner. As originally described in 1909, liminality referred to the second phase in a three-stage classification of rites of passage, (i.e., rituals which mark significant transitions in a person's or community's existence). For Van Gennep, the liminal phase is "an especially dangerous and unclean period," which is "not only symbolically abnormal, but the location(s) and time in which the transformation takes place is considered outside of society" (qtd. in Tomas 37).
In Victor Turner's reconceptualization of the liminal phase, Tomas finds further resources through which to consider cyberspace. As a transitional state between individual and/or social roles, the liminal phase is both ambiguous and paradoxical, defined both by death and dissolution (as the old role passes away) and by gestation and birth (as the new role is brought into being). Of course there can be no gestation and birth without sex. An obsession with death and sex is commonplace in cyberpunk, but always mediated through the figure of the machine. Human sex tends to be presented in an exaggeratedly adolescent manner, while machine sex is captivating, life-altering, mind-blowing, utterly addictive. The quest for immortality (another common SF motif) takes the form of becoming-object, downloading one's consciousness and merging with the machine. Yet one wonders whether the sex-and-death theme is an easy lure for the jaded. Human sex may suffer a ham-fisted portrayal in cyberpunk, but we can read this as a way to make machine sex more appealing. Why does machine sex need this affirmation? What can this tell us about human sexual relations? Similarly for the issue of immortality, organic life is made to look bleak and depressing in order to make life merged with the machine more attractive, but if machine-life were magnificent, it would need no such defense. What, in turn, does this tell us about our finite, embodied, real lives?
The final theme in the "critical canon" of cyberpunk is the notion of coping. Writers and critics of the genre claim that cyberpunk can help us make sense of the dizzying pace of technological change. Joan Gordon writes that "cyberpunk, with all its cynicism, shows a future we might reasonably expect, and shows people successfully coping, surviving, and manipulating it" (200). She is impatient with feminist SF that relies on "utopian dreams of a pastoral world, fueled by organic structures rather than mechanical ones, inspired by versions of the archetypal Great Mother" (199), so she advocates more feminist participation in cyberpunk. Women need to read female characters coping with a realistic, (i.e., technological future). The notion of coping thus sets us on a familiar path through the feminine, back to sex and death. Cyberpunk begins to gather back upon itself.
II. Gapping the Mind
Let us sum up the points of convergence exposed so far. The critical probes of the skeptical, hostile, and hopeful reader/critics have highlighted the need for further discourse on several subjects: a) cyberpunk's masculinity as a pointer toward femininity and the female body, b) sex and death, and c) the role of technology. Gordon presupposes a rigid dichotomy between the feminine organic and the masculine technological, and she approves of cyberpunk for smashing this binary. As many feminists have argued, however, technology may not achieve this collapse. The "feminine organic" is not merely a Gaia-infused stereotype, as some have argued. It reflects powerful associations between the female body and femininity, and is thus a symptom of the dissociation of the natural and the cultural. However, Andrew Ross responds by looking only to the imperiled male body, and finds in cyberpunk's "spare, lean, and temporary bodies," "maintained through the reconstructive aid of a whole range of genetic overhauls and cybernetic enhancements" the "defensive characteristics of masculinity in retreat" from "a growing sense of the impotence of straight white males in the countercultures" (152-53). This is too simple. Ross characterizes cyberpunk's "new man" as a body that would be a "battleground in itself, where traditional male 'resistance' to domination was uneasily coopted by the cutting-edge logic of new capitalist technologies" (153). On the contrary, in the space revealed by cyberpunk, we see that the female body is already a battleground. As Constance Penley puts it:
The bodies from which women are alienated are twentieth-century women's bodies: bodies that are a legal, moral and religious battleground, that are the site of contraceptive failure, that are seen to pose the greatest danger to the fetuses they house, that are held to painfully higher standards of physical beauty than those of the other sex. (126)
If this is the female body at the end of the millennium, it is hardly surprising that one should wish to retreat from it. The elusive problem to which cyberpunk draws our attention is that the body being repressed and struggling to return through this fiction is not a "real" body, it's not even a virtual body, but a stylized misrepresentation. In the space created by cyberpunk, then, lies a quiet appeal for women's flesh.
Naturally, "women's flesh" makes us think of sex. Penley notes that while SF may appear to be a sexless genre, it is engrossed with questions of sexual difference and sexual relations (103). As I've stated above, human sex is highlighted in much of cyberpunk, but not provocatively or erotically. It is brought to our attention indirectly, as a side effect of dissatisfaction with the overblown depiction of machine sex. And linking sex and death is, of course, nothing new in literature or science. Cyberpunk offers us a place to ponder how these points of convergence are related. What, then, of death?
The effort to achieve human immortality is a mainstay of SF, and its presence in cyberpunk is no surprise. In his examination of immortality as a SF motif, Stephen R. L. Clark shows that the transcendence of death always comes at a high price. It is our awareness of the possibility of our own deaths that makes our consciousness distinctively human, and "those who really have no fear of death, who cannot conceive of an ending, are dangerous: they cannot be controlled; they are likely to think the rest of us of little importance; they may have little conception of a world that is not theirs, nor even of their own selves within the world" (61). It is recognized by developmental psychologists that the young have an abstract understanding of their own mortality, and that this may account for the reckless behavior of adolescents. But the cynical overpresentation of machine-sex and machine-immortality common to cyberpunk conceals its moral force. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle has discovered that children who play with computer toys which "talk" and "think" develop different criteria for distinguishing between "alive" and "not alive" than those identified two generations ago by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. "Children's developmental trajectories, including their conceptions of self and moral reasoning, are transformed as a result of their interactions with these machines" (qtd. in Sclove 15). And such transformed children have grown up to be the central figures in cyberpunk: "All of Gibson's protagonists are somewhere between fifteen and thirty years of age, all are totally immersed in--or, indeed it would be more accurate to say that their sensibility is constituted by--the international pop culture" (Suvin 352). Given Turkle's findings, we must pay more attention to this cohort, and, as part of popular culture, cyberpunk appears to be one of the few genres which can do so in a manner likely to appeal to them.
What good, then, is coping? How can cyberpunk help us in the face of an onslaught of youths whose psyches have been forged in a world where "alive" and "not alive" don't mean what they used to? A noteworthy feature of cyberpunk is that it offers no concrete solution, for which its critics never stop placing blame. But using the device of liminal space as a metaphor for understanding cyberpunk, and what cyberpunk offers is a potentially revolutionary statement of a seldom-noticed problem. For Van Gennep the first stage in any rite of passage was separation, where the individual (or group) is symbolically cut off from their previous role in order to bring about transition to the second phase, the liminal, discussed above. The final phase, the rite of aggregation, resolves the nonbeing and abnormality of the liminal phase, and a new social status of the individual (or group) emerges (Tomas 37-38). The implicit message concealed by the surface hip, scientized, technophilic human-as-machine character of cyberpunk is that a whole generation is now stuck in a disconnected, disorienting liminal phase and can't escape, can't aggregate, can't achieve resolution. Many cyberpunk writers (and many of their critics) were themselves in the fifteen-to-thirty age bracket Suvin notes when they began writing, and alongside the magic of cyberspace, they include mementos of their parents' era in their stories, highlighting their own position as liminal figures who are too young to be Boomers and too old to be comfortable among Generation X's "Screenagers."
Further defense of this view is found in the increasingly heavy hand used by novelists like William Gibson. A central character in his 1996 novel Idoru is an adolescent girl named Chia - short for Chia Pet McKenzie. (She was named after a television sound bite. One can almost see Gibson's hands raised heavenward.) Gibson peppers the text with reminders of what it means to be a teenager who was born after the personal cassette player: "Chia's 'now' was digital, effortlessly elastic, instant recall supported by a global system she'd never have to bother comprehending" (17). But Chia's "now" is on a collision-course with the competing "now" of Rez, her idol and an aging pop star, who wants to marry an idoru, a virtual bride, "the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as 'desiring machines,' not in any literal sense, but please envision aggregates of subjective desire" (234). This is hard to do. To one of Rez's entourage, the idoru appears as "a large silver thermos bottle . . . mounted between the two seats, in a rack with padded clamps" (311). The idoru has been flickering in and out, but once her bandwidth is adjusted, she reappears. How much more stable and convenient than a real girlfriend, and what a metaphor for the efforts of women to establish some kind of meaningful moral agency.
Cyberpunk/criticism can thus be read as an articulation in outline of the liminal trap from which the mongrel generation struggles to free its pleas for new conceptualizations of gender, sex, youth and dying. But recall that this is not the purpose Sterling posits when he claims that cyberpunk can help us cope. He says that cyberpunk helps us to assimilate fast-paced technological change, but we would be foolish to simply consider technology. Cyberpunk makes it possible to ask why particular technologies should be inscribed in particular ways, and why we should be so engrossed with technology at all. To focus on the technological sophistication of cyberpunk is to be absorbed with the wrong thing. The technological bent of science fiction is nothing new. The difference is that we are now more able to experience people as things, by plugging into minds and bodies. But even then, cybertechnologies aren't the only ones that lend themselves to such postmodern interpretation. Avital Ronnell makes a convincing case that the telephone, that trite relic of the other end of the century, can be understood just as richly in this manner.
Any contraption can be given a postmodern reading, cyberpunk whispers, but these stories aren't about devices. The foregrounding of the device serves to camouflage the frustration of those increasingly confined in liminal space. Joanna Russ insists that "the technology-obsessed must give up talking about technology when it is economics and politics that are at issue" (139). She could be addressing the cyberpunk critic when she says that "the technology-obsessed, under conditions of cognitive confusion, may find that they begin again to yearn for the evasive gyrations of that sexy intellectual rock star, technology" (139). But she insists that the cure for this confusion is not more stories that pretend to help us cope with a condition that can't be rejected. Coping is never an issue when technology structures and informs your life as deeply as it does ours.
Commentators on cyberpunk pay little attention to contemporary theorizing about technology. This is unfortunate, because communications theorists and philosophers of technology have already covered much of the territory attacked and defended so heatedly in disputes about cyberpunk. Derrick de Kerckhove states that "the best and most useful technology in the world cannot impose itself on an unprepared public. And the reason is that there may be no room for it in our collective psychology. At least not yet" (2). Sudden developments in technology can cause social disintegration if we are not prepared for them. But de Kerckhove sees us as poised between what he calls Babel (disintegration) and Jericho (metamorphosis) with respect to technology, not because we don't have the right coping narratives, but because we do not pay sufficient attention to the changes technology causes. He doesn't mean superficial changes in our daily routines. He means structural and even neurological changes in our bodies. As the heir apparent of Marshall McLuhan, he is more focused on the tactile and the aural than the visual, and instead of endorsing Sterling's claim that "Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the contact lens" (Mirrorshades xiii), de Kerckhove accepts McLuhan's much more extreme principle that "in the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin" (86). So long as we harbor the fixed dichotomy between the organic and the technological, cybertechnology will continue to be (mis)read as a challenge rather than a continuity, and, correspondingly, cyberpunk will continue to be (mis)read as a continuity rather than a challenge.
Theorists of technology notice the ways in which the configuration of certain machines can have a coercive effect on the ways we use them. Richard Sclove uses familiar examples like the telephone and the three-cushion sofa to show that our world is both more infused with technology than we often think it is, and that this creates physical, psychological, legal and economic limitations. The telephone designed for a single user functions in the same way as the sofa with two or three separate seat cushions, defining distinct personal spaces and reinforcing a Western emphasis on individuality and privacy. We think of technology as identical to the machine (so a sofa is not technological), and even when we look at machines, we do not see their social origins and effects (so a telephone doesn't put telegraph operators out of work or perpetuate individualism). Sclove writes:
These dual misperceptions concerning technologies actually enhance their relative structural significance, because they enable technologies to exert their influence with only limited social awareness of how, or even that, they are doing so. This helps explain why people are prone to resign themselves to social circumstances established through technological artifice and practices that they might well reject if the same results were proposed through a formal political process. So long as their social origin, effects, and dynamics remain so badly misperceived, technologies will not suffer the same liability as would, say, functionally comparable laws or economic institutions, of being challenged on the grounds that they are politically or culturally unacceptable. (24)
In the liminal space occupied by cyberpunk, we find writers on the margin between these dual misperceptions, trying not to resign themselves to social circumstances, and frustrated that they are unable to do so. The inadequacy of jaunts through cyberspace in confronting the radically individualist mindset of modern and postmodern alike is not stated in cyberpunk, but it is clearly shown.
It is almost as though the liminal space to which cyberpunk gives form has created a breach in the orderly movement of time. After nearly two decades stranded in this space and unwilling to go forward to aggregation and the post-tribal, it may appear that cyberpunk writers wish to go back. But they know that there is no point telling pretty stories in order to try to cope with technologies which already affect our world. Cyberpunk sketches the outlines of a longing for community, but a community informed by neither backward-looking nostalgia nor futuristic apocalypse. It would be inauthentic to fault either cyberpunk writers or their critics for failing to provide a distinct blueprint for such a community. It can only be discerned in outline, because it is, as yet, unimaginable. More than any recent subgenre of science fiction, however, cyberpunk is littered with relatively unsubtle, superficially coded hints as to where its imaginings wish to draw its readers.
III. Concluding Thoughts: An Ethics of the Unimaginable
The spectacle of the cybertext has been decoded as well as it can be, and its minutiae have been scrutinized for their discursive strengths and weaknesses. While some critics have tried to create encompassing theories about what cyberpunk means, most don't, nor do cyberpunk writers themselves. So if placing the genre together with its critics doesn't generate a substantive social critique, what does it create? I have argued that what cyberpunk does generate is a world-shaped hole.
Nelson Goodman asserts that we don't make worlds from scratch, we make them out of bits and pieces of other worlds which we've taken apart. We weigh parts of those other worlds differently or place their elements in a different order. We remove some parts of one world and replace them with parts from another. We distort some bits and refine others (7-17). The world-shaped hole revealed by cyberpunk and those who address it turn Goodman's ways of world making on their head. This hole is not created when we decompose, reorder, reemphasize and distort the central themes of cyberpunk. It appears in relief, built out of a series of negations. Cyberpunk writers do not write confrontational critiques of our technologized world; rather, they write a world that points beyond itself to what we could want, if only we weren't so obsessed with our toys instead of being in touch with our own communities. Since this world is never described nor even referred to directly, its boundaries are weak and fragile. It is as though we are being indicted by cyberpunk for having said too much, too often, too repetitively about the risks and responsibilities of the postmodern technologized world. Instead of exhaustion and ennui, however, what has emerged from this cacophony is a peculiarly weighted absence or ignorance, the absence of viable community and an ignorance of how to close that absence in a progressive, even optimistic, fashion.
In true punk style, the morality intimated by cyberpunk is fundamentally anarchic. It recognizes that the nature and meaning of our moral situation is not something that is predetermined by either authority or abstract principles. For the anarchist, the "definition of the moral situation comes into existence" through our activity (Addelson 155), just as the world-shaped hole has come into existence through the activity of reading and criticizing cyberpunk. "In a world that we are always creating, the best strategy is to find ways to help us create it well," Addelson writes, and she insists that a principle-driven ethic will not help us because it is immoral. Principles attempt to confine us within the limits of our morally relevant similarities, obliterating our complexities. The dream of achieving artificial intelligence and then merging with it, a stock theme of so much cyberpunk, does the same thing. There is little point in railing against a lack of political or moral conscience in cyberpunk from an archist moral stance--no principle-driven ethic can have much to say to the unimaginable. In contrast, the whole human being is the basis for anarchist ethics, not capacities and functions abstracted from the whole. "Whole, unique human beings cannot be defined in a system of moral principles," Addelson insists (151). Strikingly unlike cyberpunk adventures, "in the primary location of anarchist ethics, the whole person is there with us in action" (152). It is the absence of whole persons that is the most revealing negation in cyberpunk, and which forms the darkest shadow for the world-shaped hole. People are, at the confining level of relevant similarities, just like machines that think and have sex and die. But the whole person is composed of these characteristics and a host of others, in continuous and discontinuous interplay. Cyberpunk doesn't tell us this, but it leaves the disconnected parts of the whole human scattered about the landscape in a way that makes us conscious of the value of wholeness. It does not, however, tell us what we ought to do with this insight, nor can it. Just as the technologized world of cyberpunk points beyond itself to a world-shaped hole in which we may yearn to dwell, the fragmented human points beyond itself to a community in which whole humans could exist.
Goodman rejects the notion of representational truth, because he recognizes that we make worlds "not only by what is said literally but also by what is said metaphorically, and not only by what is said either literally or metaphorically but also by what is exemplified and expressed--by what is shown as well as by what is said" (18). I recommend that when we read cyberpunk we require a body of critical response, and we must combine that body with the texts themselves into a higher order commentary. This will help us to discover literal and metaphorical truths or falsehoods, but more importantly, it will reveal the space of what is not shown, but is felt, as both absence and opportunity. The gaps, silences and holes to which cyberpunk so tenuously alludes offer us an opportunity to make a world, and its anarchic spirit urges us to make it well.
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