CLASS, ENGL 373 (Science
Fiction and Fantasy) doubles for me as an introduction to postmodern
theory. The speculative nature of science fiction makes the genre a
helpful tool in teaching students what are often quite difficult concepts.
Science fiction's tendency to discuss our own time in allegorical fashion
also means that the genre often tries to make sense of elements in our
age, which has been dubbed by many the postmodern period. I find that
students also get a kick out of seeing to what extent the theories we
analyze are actively having an effect on the genre (for example, the
fact that Neo in The Matrix keeps his hacker program in a hollowed-out
copy of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation). The speculative
nature of what is sometimes called "speculative fiction" also
gears students to think about applications of these ideas to the world
To get students familiar with some of the
concepts associated with postmodernism in fiction, I used the web to
maintain an ongoing list of postmodern elements, which we gleaned from
each postmodern or cyberpunk work we examined. Every time we came to
a new work, we checked to see how many of the elements from our earlier
list applied and whether we saw any new elements to add to the list.
The process began with an examination of the X-Files episode, "The
Postmodern Prometheus," continued after watching Bladerunner,
then reached its final form on April 22, after the class read William
Gibson's Neuromancer. The class had also gone on a field trip
the night before to see The Matrix, which was released only the
previous week. Since approximately 80% of the class had been in attendance,
we spent a good deal of time discussing the film, which fit in to the
issues of the course much more seamlessly than I had anticipated. Over
the course of the semester, the class was also introduced to very small
excerpts (2-6 pages) from a few postmodern theorists: Donna Haraway's
"A Cyborg Manifesto"; Jean Baudrillard's "The Precession
of Simulacra"; and Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism. A short excerpt
from Jameson was part of the reading assignment for the day we discussed
Neuromancer and the Matrix.
The following discussion occured on April
22, 1999 on the penultimate day of the class; however, as I've suggested,
the discussion was building on at least two previous classes. When possible,
I have tried to mention the names of individual students who spoke that
day in order to give a sense of the atmosphere in the class.
of Class Discussion on April 22, 1999
(for the original class,
On April 22nd, we discussed the film The Matrix and then continued
to build on our list of elements that characterize postmodernism. What
we asked ourselves is this: what eactly constitutes the new sci-fi genre
of cyberpunk and, by implication, postmodern culture at large? Our new
subject of examination was the text that many credit with starting the
genre of cyberpunk: William Gibson's Neuromancer. The following
are the points we came up with, many of which have been added to our
list over the course of the semester:
- a world of total urbanization in which nature has been in some way
destroyed or over-run ("ecocide"). As in Bladerunner, nature
in Neuromancer gets relegated to "off-world," in this case
to the completely artificial Freeside. On earth we are presented with
a world in which cities are taking up the entire landscape (as with
BAMA or "the Sprawl"). The same sort of ecocide is presented to us
in the post-apocalyptic "reality" of The Matrix.
- the inclusion of technology that looks ancient. Examples in Neuromancer
include: pp. 48, 72, 90. We also discussed Morpheus' ship as an example.
This particular point contributes to what Fredric Jameson calls the
future anterieur aspect of cyberpunk, the "will have
been"; that is, in this future, technology is so much a part of culture
that even machinery that, from our perspective, seems advanced is
represented as already obsolete. This tendency could perhaps be read
as an allegorical commentary on the planned obsolescence of our own
technologies. Of course, some of these technologies appear old even
by our standards (black-and-white televisions, for example, in both
Bladerunner and the Matrix), which leads us to the next
- a related issue is the more generally "retro" aspect of this
future. One place we may see this aspect of cyberpunk is in Julius
Deane's office (pp. 12-13). Students also pointed out examples in
The Matrix and we also had numerous examples in Bladerunner
(cigarette holders, Rachael's dresses, the "Casablanca scene" at Taffey
Lewis' bar). This led to a discussion about exactly why we keep seeing
this proliferation of "retro" styles and technologies in these works.
Suggestions made by students include the following: it is an allegory
for the planned obsolescence of technology; a reminder of the passage
of time; a form of nostalgia for a lost "golden age" (a desire to
return to the "reality" presented to us in 50s programming: Casablanca
or Leave It to Beaver); a temporal disorientation that could
be said to be the analog of the spatial disorientation we've already
discussed as an element of postmodern architecture (something similar
perhaps to Bertolt Brecht's notion of Verfremdungseffekt);
a loss of connection to history, since these evocations of the past
amount to nothing more than "style," divorced from the "real" past
(perhaps, then, the past is manipulable, as 1984 suggests).
Thanks to Emily Rosko, Craig Stalbaum and Marcus Knotts for these
points. Theorists of postmodernism have suggested that one element
that defines our culture is our nostalgia for times past, hence the
endless resurgence of "retro" fashions, styles of music (the swing
phenomenon being a recent example), and genres (Bladerunner's
evocation of 40s film noir being itself an example). This retro move,
however, tends to reduce these past forms to mere surface or style
without any "deep" historical connection to the periods being evoked.
(That's how you can have forties culture in a postapocalyptic sci
fi film like Bladerunner.) A common element in postmodern architecture,
for example, is the sticking together of different styles from different
periods in the very same building or even room. The term often used
to describe this splicing together of different styles and genres
- a new emphasis on visuality and media culture, emphasized
in Neuromancer by the proliferation of neon, of advertisements,
of computer terminals. Also, "eyes" function as a running subtext
throughout the book. We saw the same thing in Bladerunner, particularly
in the invasive advertisements of that film's diegesis.
- the suggestion that everything is now under the control of a superpowerful
organization or being; here we have the AIs but also Tessier-Ashpool.
The perfect quotation may be on p. 203, where Gibson makes the connection
for us between the "iron cage of bureaucracy" and the logic of multinational
corporations. Tying in to Donna Haraway, Case also thinks to himself:
"He'd always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of
the machine, the system, the parent organism" (203). We have the same
kind of all powerful entity in the AIs of The Matrix. In Neuromancer's
Tessier-Ashpool and Bladerunner's Tyrell corporation, this control
is given the specific form of multinational capitalism. Even
our most intimate memories and dreams can now be implanted by corporate
- a tendency to see everything from an ironic perspective, to distance
oneself from the very genres, styles, and stereotypes that one nonetheless
invokes. Heather Werling made a perceptive point about just this in
the Maymester version of this class: given this ironic self-distance
in today's culture, are we presented with something positive (a real
critique of the culture one satirizes) or are we seeing a form of
mere capitulation (an irony without bite, without political purpose)?
I gave as an example the explanation given in Neuromancer of
Panther Modern's anarchistic terrorism (p. 58).
- a questioning of our own identity, this time played out by
the many alternate realities that keep breaking down the distinction
between what is fact and what is reality. Thanks to Scott Seaman for
bringing up this point. One need only list the many different "realities"
that are offerred up in this book to see the truth of this point:
the sordid reality of the Sprawl; the artificial reality of Freeside;
the actual dreams that we see of Case's; the subliminally projected
"real dreaming" that Riviera is capable of; the "consensual hallucination"
that is cyberspace; the heightened reality of drug-induced states;
the alternate realites created for Case by Neuromancer and Wintermute
when he flatlines. Of course, the same issue if very much at issue
in both the Matrix and the director's cut version of Bladerunner
- a related point from last class: the simulacrum. Emily Rosko
and Levi Haynes, among others, pursued this particular point. So much
are we tied to our representations, that they take over from reality.
Hence Neuromancer can say about the alternate reality he offers Case,
"To live here is to live. There is no difference" (258). In the Matrix,
we also have Cypher's dialogue with an agent at a restaurant created
by the matrix: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist; I
know that when I put it in my mouth the matrix is telling my brain
that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I
realize <sigh>: ignorance is bliss."
- the multiculturalism of Bladerunner and Neuromancer:
in an age of multinational capitalism, old nationalist and racist
boundaries no longer carry any meaning. This is also a manifestation
of a late-capitalist world without national boundaries.
- an all-pervasive solipsism, a sense of separation from others.
A good word for this condition is "social atomism." Melissa Reimer
suggested that the Tessier-Ashpool space station may be a literalization
of this solipsism since, even in its architecture, it merely circles
back upon itself.
- drug culture, which is yet another manifestation of the desire
to escape "the real." One thinks of the alcoholism prevalent also
in 1984 and Bladerunner. As we discussed after seeing
Bladerunner, drug culture can be seen as a literalization of two aspects
of the postmodern condition: 1) a loss of connection with reality;
and 2) the personal manifestation of ecocide, self-pollution.
- a sense of disorientation which is manifested in the very
process of reading Neuromancer. I pointed out that this (spatial)
disorientation is a common element in postmodern architecture. A similar
point was brought up by Emily Rosko in an earlier class regarding
the disorienting cinematic presentation of Brazil. Of course,
the Matrix has a similar effect, at least upon first viewing since
the first part of the film is focalized through the perspective of
the still-hapless Neo.
- the anti-hero, which we've now seen in many forms, from the
Romantic hero in Victor Frankenstein through Deckard, Winston Smith,
Sam Lowry, and now Case.
- an altered sublime. Scott Seaman suggested that we may have
two examples in Neuromancer: the way the SPRAWL takes over
the sublime function from nature and how the vastness of cyberspace
leads to a similar effect (in this case including the epiphany of
a "god" in Wintermute). Similar examples were brought up
in relation to The Matrix.