In his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, William Gibson reflects on the predictive nature of science fiction by commenting on our moment in history. He argues that speculations about the future are lost to us. Unlike our parents and grandparents, who had specific visions of what the future might bring, we in the 21st century have no future, due to the nature of our present: „For us things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures […] have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on“ (p. 59).
Technological progress and its social impact are no longer the subject of our fictional speculations, they change too radically, too fast. What we imagined as science fictional scenarios has become a simple reflection of our contemporary technologically saturated society. The future is now, and it is already science fictional. So, instead of building a future on “insufficient ‘now’ to stand on,” I want to argue, science fiction is a mode of thinking that allows us to better understand our volatile present, it is a mode to counter what Gibson (2003) calls “risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition” (p. 59). To start my speculations, I would like to venture into the past—to the point where the ground has been laid, culturally speaking, for a lot of what we consider the current state of affairs; to the moment when a science fictional future was still possible.
Cyberpunk back in the Day
Back in the 1980s, when the future was still a concept to be imagined, a group of writers claimed to have been the first generation to “grow up […] in a truly science-fictional world,” using literary techniques to parse the realities of daily life: “extrapolation, technological literacy” became “a means of understanding” (Sterling, 1986, p. xi). The cyberpunks, as they came to be known, embraced some key changes in technology and media of their late-capitalist lifeworld in the 1980s. Their fiction produced a vision of the future that has since become iconic and has lately been recognized to reflect a substantial part of our current status quo.
Central to cyberpunk aesthetics and themes are the drastically changing possibilities of science and technology—especially in their impact on the potential for humanity, not just socially but on an individual level. As Sterling (1986) makes clear, 1980s “technology is visceral […]; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. Technology itself has changed. […] Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone“ (p. xiii). His examples might seem quaint today but these technologies were revolutionary at the time, giving freedom and informational processing power to the individual. With these technologies, communication from and with any place on earth was possible, computer technology became available at home on your desk, later even anywhere in your lap, and by today is in the palm of your hand—the trajectory starts in the 1980s, but brings us to today’s smartphone technology, which combines all three technologies that Sterling points out.
Cyberpunk extrapolates this new mobile and visceral technology, literalizing it as “under our skin” cyborg implants and new interfaces with computers “inside our minds.” Cyberpunk imagines technology invading the human: “The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry-techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self” (Sterling, 1986, p. xiii).
Csicseray-Ronay, Jr. (1992) refers to this trajectory of technology, its tendency to become smaller and more mobile, as “implosive” (p. 187). He categorizes scientific research as inwardly turned and requiring “the radical shrinking of focus onto microcosms” and “the impossibility of drawing clear boundaries among perceptual and cognitive, indeed, even ontological, categories. The current scientific scene is entranced by the microstudy of boundaries no longer believed to be fundamental: between life and nonlife, parasite and host, human and machine, great and small, body-brain and cosmos” (pp. 187-188).
Technology challenges boundaries: this central theme in cyberpunk has found its most famous embodiment in the figure of the cyborg. As an entity, as Gray et al. (1995) argue it refers to the “melding of the organic and the machinic, or the engineering of a union between separate organic systems” (p. 2). The cyborg is the invasion of technology into our lifeworld; it is representative of the growing insistence that without technology we are not capable, not fully functional.
Placed in a framework of transhumanist thought, the cyborg becomes representative of a fully-technologized, “’postbiological’ world in which the human race has been swept away by the tide of cultural change, usurped by its own artificial progeny“ (p. 1), as Moravec (1988) argues. For him, as well as for many early cyberpunk writers, the human body is a prison of flesh and blood—the world conceived as mere ‘meatspace.’ In order for humanity to evolve, we will need to rely on technology, “to imagine human thought freed from bondage to a mortal body” (Moravec, 1988, p. 4). Bostrom (1998), for example, argues that technology can improve our flawed human biology. He believes, that we will be able “to transcend our biological limitations by means of technology” (n.pag.). Inherent in this, though, is the view that humanity has an exceptional position, that human nature is universal and essential and through technology we are able to attain our purest human form—transhumanism is humanism re-inscribed and intensified, as Wolfe (2010) has argued (p. xv).
Exemplifying this position are the cyborgs often found in popular culture and early expressions of cyberpunk. From RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987) to The Terminator (Cameron 1984) as Haraway (1995) has pointed out, many cyborgs are “enhanced warriors” (p. xiv) that limit the possibilities inherent in this concept. For Haraway (1995), this imaginary of the “metal-flesh warrior” is driven by “multinational capital, ascendant technoscience, and constitutively militarized post-World War II nation states” (p. xiv). It can be found in today’s drone technology and virtual realities, wherever “the great technology transfer game from military practices to the civilian economy” (Haraway, 1995, p. xv) takes place. Cyborgs as warriors are thus connected with a specific technocratic view of the world that places an “overarching emphasis on the machination of humans and the humanization of machines“ (p. 7), as Nayar (2014) puts it. Technology here becomes the utopian solution to any and all problems, even those caused by technology itself.
But cyberpunk takes this techno-utopian human-machine hybridity one step further. In addition to the augmentation of human bodies, cyberpunk also imagines the complete dissolution of the body in favor of virtual existence. Here, technology and media conflate to create a new reality in which all that was material can be reimagined as information. Cyberspace—the “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (p. 5) as William Gibson (1984) has coined it—is a space of complete freedom as much from the biological limitations of the body, as from the constraints of embodied reality such as the laws of physics. A perfect example of this representation thus would be the Matrix (inspired by Gibson, made famous by the Wachowski siblings in The Matrix ), in which protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) receives god-like status for his ability to manipulate reality through his mind.
Human existence can thus, in cybernetic terms, be understood as informational patterns—as Hayles (1999) has argued. She claims that cybernetics as a philosophy and field of thought has shaped our understanding of the human, in fact creating the concept of the cybernetic posthuman. This cybernetic posthuman, as it is dominant in cyberpunk fiction, separates the informational patterns of human consciousness from its embodiment, and stresses the Cartesian humanist position of the mind controlling the body—any body, biology or machine: “In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Hayles, 1999, p. 3). The self—as informational pattern—simply becomes transported into the realm of technology.
Every aspect of our world has become mediated through technology. Cyberspace, as cyberpunk imagined it, is a complete representation of the world, a simulacrum—as described by Baudrillard (1994)—replacing the world with an artificial version, a mediated image. Csicseray-Ronay, Jr. (1992) describes it as “the possibility of modeling everything that exists in the phenomenal world, of breaking down into information and then simulating perfectly in infinitely replicable form” (p. 189). What is real and what is mere representation becomes blurred and non-distinguishable.
Though cyberspace is non-material, its representation nonetheless hinges on certain metaphors of structure and control taken from material culture. Heuser (2003) has pointed out that information, data, and processes become re-materialized in the form of virtual geographies and architecture-like artifacts:
Cyberspace is constructed from representations of information. […] These artifacts need to be seen as functioning on several levels. A building like a pyramid symbolizes a structure of information as well as a power structure. Buildings in cyberspace are representations of data, information which stands in turn for knowledge, money, or memories. Buildings have walls (albeit virtual ones) which contain information and keep unwanted users out. The way these buildings are arranged creates a particular landscape of information. (p. 28-29)
These kinds of virtual geography and other forms of visual representation of power are a central component of cyberpunk.
In fact, visuality, as defined by Mirzoeff (2011), as the “visualization of history” (p. 2), meaning an authoritative and interpretative frame for what has happened and is happening, is a key component of cyberpunk’s “vaguely countercultural and romantically antiauthoritarian politics” (Bould, 2005, p. 218). Mirzoeff (2011) explains visuality in a simple idea: His example is the sentence, uttered by police, politician, and corporation alike, that we should “‘Move on, there’s nothing to see here.’ Only there is, and we know it and so do they” (p. 1). Visuality is power, to erase from view. It is authority, to claim an interpretation of what is seen. It is the force that deters us from seeing. And the filter that determines, how we are seen and by whom.
Visuality works in much the same way that current trends of digitization function – according to Mirzoeff (2011) there are three distinct ‘operations’: (1) classification, categorization and definition, (2) separation and social organization, and (3) justification, normalization, anesthetization (p. 3-4).
Taking as an example the dual forces of the digital body and the digital community, the self becomes quantified through self-measurement and social algorithms. Fitness trackers report heart rate, blood pressure, activity levels, and calories burnt, while we are linked to our social media, digitally tracking events, friendships, and locations. A network of data categorizes and defines our every move. But this data also separates us into unique social niches, as well as broad organizational structures, into fit and active, or lazy and anti-social. In a last step, it normalizes the quantified and transparent self. Those of us without active Instagram accounts and continuous live-feeds of our daily activities become outcasts—to be a digital quantified self is the normative aesthetic: fit, young, active, and visible. An ideal visualization of what we are supposed to be, what part of society can claim the right to be seen in (social) media and in real life. Disability, old age, sickness, loneliness, on the other hand, become erased.
In cyberpunk, visuality is central to the discourse on many levels. For one, it is found in the widely-used settings of cyberpunk, in the urban sprawls and far-reaching cityscapes—from Neuromancer’s (Gibson 1984) Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan Axis to Judge Dredd’s (Cannon 1995) Mega-City One. It is the image of power distribution that is relevant to the city’s function in visuality. The design of the city is key, as Mirzoeff (2009) argues: a “vertically segregated world in which power means being above everyone else” (p. 247). The cityscape of a future Los Angeles, as seen in Blade Runner (Scott 1982), has become the most recognized example of this. In the opening sequence the camera slowly moves through the night sky, over densely packed vista of skyscrapers, intermixed with chimneys spouting open flames, the city lights visible all the way to the horizon. The camera then moves towards two columns of light that emanate from huge stepped pyramidal structures dominating the view. The next shot shows a flying passenger car approaching one of the pyramids, close in design to Mesoamerican structures but much bigger, shrinking as it approaches and finally being swallowed by the building.
The massive structure of Tyrell Corporation’s pyramidal headquarters represents the architecture of power, towering over the cityscape. Nothing that happens below, escapes its view and control. The structure is designed to evoke associations with ritual and faith, its resemblance to sacrificial pyramids and religious temples hinting at a connection with something beyond this earth—something godlike like Tyrell’s power, a god among men, creator of the replicants and richest man alive.
But in Blade Runner, power and control also lie in the mobility to not only reign above the masses, but to move freely. In another iconic scene, when Gaff retrieves Deckart by flying police cruiser, the camera follows Deckart’s view on the city. As the car ascends, it passes beyond the neon lights and moving billboards of advertising and retreats from streets and houses. Life is visible merely as lights in the night, the car gliding over any buildings, leaving the crowded streets below. In the film, authority is characterized by a lack of geographical entanglement thanks to personal aircrafts. Cops and elites are granted the ultimate mobility, while the mass of people is tethered to the ground. It is the imagery of power connected to mobility, in the limits of city space, that functions according to the logics of visuality.
It is notable here, that the authority enacting visuality is a corporation—in Blade Runner, Tyrell not only provides the labor-force that literally runs the expansion of humanity into the universe, but also controls the police force and its executive powers. As Bould (2005) has pointed out, cyberpunk „inaugurated the SF of multinational capital and corporate globalization, its depiction of information circulating in cyberspace a potent metaphor for the global circulation of capital“ (220). In cyberpunk fiction, hegemony is control over information—any kind of information. And essentially, in the logic of cyberpunk late-stage capitalism, information encompasses all of reality, bodies included. Everything is subsumed by corporate interest, even human and nonhuman bodies become the object of biopolitical control. Another classic cyberpunk film exemplifies this to the extreme: RoboCop.
In the film, the police have become subsumed by OCP, a private for-profit security firm. The company has taken a form of ‘ownership’ of the police, and this includes the use of biological remains, should an officer die in the line of duty. When Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is sent into a specifically crime-ridden part of town, he is killed and immediately transferred into the OCP RoboCop program. His body is replaced with a mechanical chassis and limbs, only parts of his brain are used as a biological control unit. The ‘initiation’ scene of the film reveals how the corporation enacts biopolitical power. When the newly created RoboCop is initially turned on, the camera shows his subjective view, scientists and managers looking down on him. One scientist announces that “we were able to save the left arm,” but the project leader rejects this and tells her to “loose the arm”, thus revealing Murphy’s body to be subject to managerial decisions.
Murphy’s access to the technology of his body is restricted, the decision of which power to grant RoboCop is made by others. He is programmed; decision-making is based on algorithms that OCP has determined. Cadora (1995) has pointed out that technology itself is the divisive instrument to uphold hierarchies of control: “cyberpunk imagines a world where technology is a tool of both oppression and liberation. Poverty is pervasive in cyberpunk, and technological resources are expensive luxuries. Those without access to computers are effectively kept in the underclass” (p. 359). The police in RoboCop are helplessly understaffed and outgunned, especially in terms of access to technology. OCP on the other hand has free access to technology and uses it to establish dominance and control. RoboCop is thus not a person, free to use the technology as a police officer, but part of OCP’s property and restricted by its corporate interests.
In essence then, the last vision of a possible future, produced from the solid now of the 1980s is deeply entrenched in the corporatization of culture, the commodification of all aspects of life, and a cybernetic posthumanism. The Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl era of globalized, neoliberal markets and pervasive informational technology has produced a vision of the future that sees us headed for dystopia. In this world, the strongest (or those with the most money) survive and everybody else needs to eke out a living, arrange themselves within the new world order. It is thus no wonder that this kind of vision garnered criticism, such as that brought by Easterbrook (1992), who claimed that cyberpunk (via its ur-text Neuromancer) was “wed to exploitive technologies, obeisance to authority, and the effluence of fashion” (p. 391). Cyberpunk, then, did not challenge the status quo and critically reflect the new technologies; instead it reveled in technocratic fantasies of power and individual forms of resistance and ultimately transcendence. You want out of this squalor, the genre seemed to say, then be smart, cheat, and kill if necessary, but make it happen for yourself. You won’t change the world, but you will be better off—that is all you can hope for.
Csicseray-Ronay, Jr. (1992) claims that all these “ambivalent solutions” (p. 193) of egotistical transcendence are an expression of postmodern times, of a world in which reliance on solidity and reality has become meaningless. He calls cyberpunk the “apotheosis of bad faith,” ignoring the nagging “question of whether some political controls over technology are desirable, if not exactly possible” (p. 193). Instead, cyberpunk opts to reveal and depict how unreliable our world has become—what he claims is “a world of absolute bad faith” (p. 193).
A New Perspective on Cyberpunk
This was the 1980s, the height of cyberpunk as a visionary future. One could even argue that cyberpunk’s current resurgence is due to its almost prophetic description of the digitized present. Augmented and virtual worlds, commodified bodies, and smart technology that invades the body and our lifeworlds: current technological trends reflect developments first described in the cyberpunk imaginary, which seems to have a renaissance in current cultural formats. It seems that Bad Faith determines our politics, economies, media and basically every aspect of our lives. Cyberpunk has thus become a description of our reality, not of a science fictional future, but our present situation.
It would be a bleak outlook on our present, if one were to take the specific view of cyberpunk as a given that I described above and that is displayed by many Hollywood productions and early cyberpunk writers. But there is alternative already embedded in cyberpunk culture; a cyberpunk imaginary that is a politically radical description of our present beyond the neo-liberal technofantasy of early cyberpunk film and literature. A good example of this radicality of cyberpunk can be found in Haraway’s (1986) appropriation of the cyborg for feminist theory. Her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1986) is a rewriting of the techno-warrior figure as enacting “three crucial boundary breakdowns” (p. 151): that between human and animal, that between human-animal and machine, and that between the physical and the non-physical, meaning between the material and the virtual. In this, Haraway (1986) sees the potential of the cyborg as a feminist myth—a “cyborg myth […] about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work“ (p. 154).
To make this contrast of positions explicit, Haraway (1986) explains the potential for unity inherent in the cyborg myth:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. (p. 154)
From this perspective then, cyborgs present an identity of fragmentation and hybridity—yet nonetheless empowered by technology and able to navigate the unstable realities presented in cyberpunk. As Cadora (1995) points out: “The blurring between real and unreal has profound implications for notions of identity. Stable, coherent concepts of self are impossible if there is no universally consensual reality upon which to ground them. Feminist cyberpunk is full of fragmented and partial selves” (p. 368). Identity markers, such as race, gender, sex, physical ability, even materiality are thus challenged by cyborg identity.
This fragmented but empowered cyborg identity then allows cyberpunk to challenge the transhumanist techno-fantasy of a universal and stable humanity and the male warrior-cyborg image. In recent cyberpunk fictions, this political stance has been cautiously applied, representations of posthumanity become more varied and diverse, mostly in terms of race, but also regarding gender and sex—though one has to be aware that Hollywood and other mainstream cultural productions are somewhat resistant to incorporate too radical a change.
Nonetheless, progressive views of hybridity are found in films such as Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve 2017), that update the original film’s positioning of women. For example, in the 1982 original, Deckard (Harrison Ford) asserts his dominance over the frightened and insecure Rachel (Sean Young) in a scene that borders on assault, claiming the female replicant as an object of desire. In the sequel, K’s (Ryan Gosling) incorporeal virtual companion Joi (Ana de Armas) seeks out the help of the replicant sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and synchronizes their movement in order to be fully embodied in her relation with K. The scene’s (and the wider film’s) cyborg politics are complicated: on the one hand, Joi is the dominant actor; she initiates the encounter, and afterwards asserts her position in her relationship with K by sending Mariette out. Moreover, all three participants are cyborg beings, replicants and virtual companions—humanist normativity is undermined by their status as nonhuman. On the other hand, female objectification is still very much existent in Blade Runner 2049’s cyberpunk world. Joi is a companion designed to please, an object to be manipulated by (male) consumers for their own desires. There is a scene, after ‘his’ Joi is destroyed and a beaten and devastated K walks the dark city, when he encounters a larger-than-life advertisement hologram of the Joi brand. A naked 50-foot version of Joi addresses him with “Hello handsome” and then steps out of the billboard displaying her body and flirting with K: “You look lonely … I can fix that.” The slogan advertising the companion makes clear who will have power and subjectivity: “Everything you want … to hear … to see”. Similarly, the Mariette is a sex worker, though corporeal, she is similarly bought for pleasure and thus an object of desire. In displaying their bodies, camera lingering on body parts and revealing outfits, and centering their stories on sexuality and desire, the film offers the women up to the male gaze of both K and the viewer.
What challenges this view, is the fact that Blade Runner 2049’s cast has become more female than its predecessor—central roles in the story are played by women, all of which are cyborg characters, from K’s virtual companion Joi, to resistance fighter Mariette, to main villain Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Many smaller, but equally important roles are also played by women: K’s police captain, the resistance elder, and above all the messiah-like figure of the replicant child. Other Hollywood productions have followed suit and presented more female characters, some even creating more diversity through inclusion of people of color, especially women of color.
This is similarly present in the cyberpunk TV-production Altered Carbon (Kalogridis 2018-), whose three central characters are cast with women of color, adding more diversity in representation in other roles as well. But the most diverse cast can probably be found in the TV series Sense8 (2015-18), created by the Wachowski siblings. The show represents equal parts men and women, features people of color from Korea, India, Kenya, and Mexico, and famously has gay and trans characters in lead roles.
But cyberpunk can challenge a unified and stable identity construction in more than mere casting choices. Altered Carbon, for example, undermines the notion that consciousness is the seat of human identity by pushing the idea to the extreme. In the show, consciousness is separated from the body via the technology of cortical stacks, which house personality traits and memory. Embodiment can be exchanged at will (given that one has the money) via both biological and artificial bodies, so-called sleeves. In the show, money affords the possibility to effectively live forever via cloning, the use of artificial bodies and regular backups to insure against destruction of the stack. This, of course, is the ultimate transhumanist fantasy; biological limitation has been solved by technology. But the show stresses the consequences of this—a general moral decay, but especially among the near-immortal methuselahs (“meths”) signals a loss of humanity. Further, the series comments on the connection of identity with embodiment by repeatedly causing newly sleeved persons to be reduced to their body in interactions with other people. Protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is resleeved at the beginning of the show and constantly has to resolve the conflicts that his ‘body,’ i.e. the police officer Elias Ryker, brings with it. Kovacs is often identified as Ryker and even when pointing out that he is just using Ryker as sleeve, a procedure relatively common in the world of Altered Carbon, this is usually ignored and he is further treated as Ryker.
An enlightening and amusing scene in “Force of Evil” (S01E04), has the deceased grandmother of Officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) return in the body of a hulking criminal (Matt Biedel) for Dia de los Muertos celebrations. In the scene, the family reacts shocked and irritated at Abuela’s appearance, staring unbelievingly and constantly watchful. When the old lady gets up to use the bathroom, she makes a spectacle out of it: “Look, I am peeing standing up…!” The scene shows that identity and embodiment are linked, no one can really ignore Abuela’s new body and its physical presence. She enjoys confronting everyone with her male physicality, and in dinner conversation even challenges the ideology of stacks and sleeves, pushing for a singular embodiment: “Maybe we should only get one body. But then you have to enjoy it, huh?” The show here claims an alternative to the seductions of power and immortality, “celebrating the finitude of life”—enjoying what you are given and seeing “human life … embedded in a material world of great complexity” (p. 5), as Hayles (1999) has argued. By presenting embodiment as precarious and dependent on wealth, the show also points to limitations of the transhumanist fantasy. Abuela’s new body is the only one available and affordable—even for just one night. Having to be resleeved in the body of a tattooed gang member is a direct consequence of Ortega’s socio-economic reality. The use of this technology is dependent on your affluence, its potential is granted to the elite and not universally available.
Interventions in posthumanism are not limited to prototypical cyberpunk, as literature or film, especially in its mainstream Hollywood variety, but rather extend into cyberpunk as cultural formation and its related radical futurisms, such as Afrofuturism or Indigenous Futurisms. These are postcolonial practices of claiming the political power offered by information technology to promote non-white experiences and histories. Afrofuturist art practices, such as the photo-collages from Ikiré Jones’s “Africa 2081: Our Future Heritage” series or the comic series Wakanda Forever and Shuri (written by Nnedi Okorafor), celebrate African cultural heritage as well as an embeddedness in material culture and the complex web of technologies and posthuman becomings. Afrofuturism, according to Womack (2013), is “an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory […] an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation” (p. 9). The cyborg figure, in the Afrofuturist perspective, then becomes retooled to deal with “power imbalances and cyberculture in the West” (n. pag.), as Bristow (2012) argues.
Challenging the idea of technology as a tool for oppression and instead claiming it for resistance and liberation, singer and artist Janelle Monáe, for example, uses the cyborg to present a fragmented, hybrid, and posthuman identity. She herself says that “the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman” (Evening Standard, 2011, n. pag.). As both Cindi Mayweather, on her Archandroid(2010) and Electric Lady (2013) albums, and as Jane 57821 on her latest album Dirty Computer (2018), Monáe gives those others a representation. Whereas Cindy is directly linked to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and a political renegotiation of class division and the objectification of the labor force, Jane’s presence on Dirty Computer challenges hegemonic biopolitical control over identity, both in terms of race and gender. As Capetola (2019) argues: “In mobilizing music to investigate the slippage between human and machine, Dirty Computer illustrates how cyberpunk is sonic as well as visual” (p. 2). Monáe has created what she calls an “emotion picture” to accompany the album and in the intro to the film explains a vision of the future in which androids—as the Other—are being subjected to biopolitical control and thought cleansing.
A low base-note melody sounds over a dark screen and some smoke/fog, two naked people appear, a cut and both are dressed in some kind of work uniform, they draw back into the dark. Monáe’s voice is audible: “They started calling us computers, people began vanishing and the cleaning began.” On the screen, a digital profile of an African-American man appears, data read-outs and the denomination in yellow “Computer #57815”, which changes to red with the marker “Dirty”, as Monáe continues: “Your were dirty if you looked different, you were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated, you were dirty if you showed any form of opposition, at all. And if you were dirty … it was only a matter of time”. During the monologue images of “dirty computers” appear, mainly women and people of color, suggesting a clear message of what normativity constitutes.
In the frame story of Dirty Computer, Jane 57821 is such a non-normative being that is captured and has to undergo a memory wipe to get her to conform to the expectations of society. Her mind is manipulated by two (white, male) technicians, and her memories, which represent her non-conformist behavior, are extracted—the first such action is connected to the song “Crazy, Classic, Life” and to a highly diverse party: people of color, queer and non-binary people, punks and other musical and fashion deviancies (tribal markings, piercings, hairstyles) are presented. The music and the party are an expression of freedom and playfulness. The video starts with a recounting of the declaration of independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) overlaying a police round-up of the assorted dirty computers before flashing back to the party that led to the arrest.
Capetola (2019) argues that the music represents the revolutionary potential of technology: the computers “transition to choreography, moving in tandem with the song’s synthesizer melody. They mold themselves to the beats of the song, taking more control over their movements with each verse” (p. 4). Instead of the biopolitical control they are subjected to by the system through police and technicians, Capetola (2019) continues, the “technology of synthesizers and drum machines offers a space where they can move freely. In this moment, the collective of black, female, and (gender)queer computers counters the technology of surveillance with the power of sound—and vibration” (p. 4). Cyborg identities, in their fragmented state are shown to interact with and derive power from technology, reclaiming cybertechnology from its use for authoritative control.
At the end of the emotion picture, Jane resists the technology of systemic control through the power of her music and her cyborg identity. Instead of conforming to the system, she reclaims her Otherness and escapes with both her male and female lover. Monáe uses the radical potential of posthumanism, cyberpunk, and Afrofuturism to resist the power-fantasies of cybernetic transhumanism and offers us a different perspective.
At some point in the emotion picture, the center’s technicians realize that what they believe to be memories are in fact not. The music videos are too stylized, they are creative inventions of the cyborg, virtual realities of otherness—of radical black resistance and non-binary gender queerness. In the context of the film, though, their status is contested, typical of the virtual worlds of cyberpunk. Reality is unstable, the music video’s performance is another world to inhabit for the android mind. But in contrast to the fantasies of escaping the prison of the flesh that classic cyberpunk imagines, these virtual realities are grounded in embodiment and reference back to material difference, to race, gender, sexuality. They manifest Hayles’ (1999) rejection of “absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation” (p.3).
And indeed, current interpretations of cyberpunk reject virtual reality as mere fantasy and as the transhumanist escape from the limitations of biology. Instead, they re-inscribe physicality, reconnecting the mind with its body; their materiality suggesting their use as technologies of both oppression and liberation. In Altered Carbon, for example, virtual reality is used as a torture instrument, trapping a stack in a computer and forcing simulated bodily harm on a person, even repeatedly killing them. The series also reveals the possibility of using different bodies for the same procedure to make the pain more real—since bodies can be replaced, a stack can be revived after death in a new body. The body itself thus becomes the host of the simulation, a new death in each new body.
One victim of such torture, the prostitute Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law) is actually driven insane by the violence, her sleeve murdered and disposed of and her stack placed in a virtual world to keep her alive. But Lizzie’s brain keeps traumatically returning to her torture and her stack continues to degenerate without a body. The show introduces the artificial intelligence Poe (Chris Conner), who suggests trauma therapy and uses a new virtual world in order to save Lizzie, grow her self-esteem, and nurse her back to agency. In the end, Lizzie reacts to a physical rehabilitation in the form of martial arts, which allows her to regain her confidence, even claim power and autonomy. Her stack is then placed in an artificial body, whose synthetic abilities allow her to manifest a cyborg identity and choose any desired appearance—prompting Lizzy to return to her original biological form, which is racially marked through dark skin tone and an unrestrained Afro and is thus representative of Lizzie’s newfound stable posthuman subjectivity. Whereas the show ignores overt mentions of race, silently presuming a post-racial society, the visual dominance of whiteness in the Meths and the dominance of people of color in the poorer society reveal embodied reality to still be dependent on racial difference. Choosing a racially marked body thus carries meaning for Lizzie, it is a statement of a (re)discovered empowered subjectivity through cyborgian posthuman technology.
A more radical notion of the virtual and its interconnection with the material is proposed by Vint (2010), whoargues that “our lives are constituted by the interpenetrations of virtual and material worlds” (p. 230). For her, both are aspects of our lifeworld and do not exist outside of each other. She says: “We live in a cultural moment characterized not by the replacement of the material with its simulation but rather one in which the material and the simulated are intertwined like a Möbius strip: they each have distinct identities, but we never inhabit a moment that is purely one or the other” (p. 229).
Representation and reality merge in the fully technologized and mediated world that we live in. This is no more visible than in military practice, where—as Vint (2010) points out—“the virtual and discursive existence of weapons of mass destruction […] merge seamlessly with the material and pragmatic reality of troop deployments, devastated cities, and body bags” (231). This blending of virtual and material warfare echoes Mirzoeff’s (2011) category of the “post-panoptic visuality” (p. 20), which is essentially linked to the digital technology of satellites and the analysis big data sets. Post-panoptic visuality, Mirzoeff (2011) argues, is able to “toggle between image sets, zoom in and out of an image … compare them to databases of previous imagery” (p. 20) and thus able to provide additional layers of digital information on any given material object.
Again leaving cyberpunk proper behind, we can see such a cyberpunk-inspired visuality at play in films such Good Kill (2014) by Andrew Niccol, which realistically depicts the practices of warfare as they are enacted in current US campaigns. It shows US drone pilots in the Nevada desert, through virtual reality displays with post-panoptical data overlay acting through remote in Afghanistan. The film focuses on the disconnect between tactical decisions made in Washington, the virtual control of the war machine through the pilots in Nevada, and their necropolitical consequences in the war-torn material reality of Afghanistan. The pilots engage a simulated reality, which is connected—via our conceptual Möbius strip—with the material reality of the targets.
This connection is even more explicit and critically reflected in the Mexican independent sf-film Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008). The film presents a connection of virtual and material realities foremost via the economics of labor and thus echoes Bould’s (2005) claim that “cyberspace [is] a potent metaphor for the global circulation of capital” (p. 218). Vint (2010) continues this link by claiming that “it is essential to understand the workings of global capitalism to understand the far-reaching effects of information technology on social existence” (p. 230). In the film, nationalist forces have closed US-borders for immigration. Cheap labor is instead provided via virtual link and robotic remote control. Mexican workers are commodified to become operators of robots, completely exchangeable in regards to the employer and fully restricted in their movements. As Vint (2010) points out and the film makes painfully clear for labor in the Global South, economic power, access to technology, and freedom are directly related: “Our exchanges with our digital fantasy worlds are mediated by economics, […] the restructuring of our work lives and prospects as we find that capital has been able to take flight globally while we have remained immured in the body and in local time and space” (p. 231).
When protagonist Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) first starts working in one of the sleep dealer factories, he needs to physically connect with the machine. Stepping up onto a platform surround by wires hanging from the ceiling, he is instructed to inject large metal needles into pre-installed jacks in his body. His skeptical glance shows his doubts about this very physical act of penetration. He puts on a breathing mask and contact lenses. In a disorienting eye-line cross-cut, we see a virtual image of a robot waking up (first-person perspective) on site in the US, on construction of a skyscraper high above ground. Memo is disoriented, has never been this high off the ground and feels vertigo set in. As the robot, he grips on to a crossbeam, whereas his physical body has no such grip, nonetheless steadying and reasserting gravity.
As the scene shows, the transition from one world (virtual and material) to another is a physical sensation, the sensory input of height evokes vertigo. Simulation and reality are intertwined. In another scene, the controller hub in Mexico has a mechanical failure and the resulting burst of electricity kills a worker, as well as causing a failure in the robot. As the film has made clear, the virtual world is controlled via physically invasive technology that the Mexican workers have to get installed. Not only are they taking the full financial risk of getting the implants in the first place and as a prerequisite to even apply for a job, they also take on any medical risks, both with the installation (e.g. sepsis) and with malfunctions that are potentially fatal. In the end, then, both the physical reality in the US and Mexico are impacted through their virtual connection.
But the nexus of capitalism, technology, and cybernetic control is more pervasive than the professional sector. In fact, Vint (2010) has pointed out that “capitalism expands to fill all previously non-commodified spaces in private life” (p. 229) via our personal computing technology and ubiquitous devices. And O’Connell (2019) connects this all-pervasive digitization of our lives with a Marxist critique of “real subsumption,” arguing that the “extraction of data and commodified information from the internet of things or our own unpaid labor in providing information/data/labor for Facebook, YouTube etc.” (p. 11) are the basis of this subsumption.
Shaviro (2015) explains real subsumption as “the key to our globalized network society. Everything without exception is subordinated to an economic logic, an economic rationality. Everything must be measured, and made commensurable, through the mediation of some sort of ‘universal equivalent’: money or information” (p. 29). Any and all objects, processes and goals are placed within this framework of economics. It is central here to point out that this logic of subsumption is made possible by cybertechnology. As Shaviro (2015) says: “Today we live in a digital world, a world of financial derivatives and big data. Virtual reality supplements and enhances physical, ‘face-to-face’ reality, rather than being, as we used to naively think, opposed to it” (p. 29).
Cyberpunk is thus directly related to “real subsumption” and has consequently provided the imaginary for this enhanced reality. In the TV series Person of Interest (Nolan 2011-16), for example, cybertechnology allows the complete surveillance of anyone on earth. The show centers around an AI system that is able to predict acts of violence and can enact countermeasures—it acts through human intermediaries but uses the full range of data collected from cameras, satellites, and devices. The show thus projects visuality through real subsumption—buying chemicals online, search histories of street routes to a specific public location, angry Facebook rants about the government all register as economic interactions with digital technology.
Andrew Niccols’ latest film Anon (2018) extrapolates on this concept even further. Through implants in your brain and eyes, everyone on earth is connected to an all-pervasive database via a technology called “Mind’s Eye.” A constant stream of information is overlaid onto reality, filtering all kinds of available data on each person and object into the perspective of the viewer. Everyone is connected to a cloud upload called “The Ether” and thus, authority has complete visuality, controlling the movement and actions of everyone living. Police work consists of excavating the needed data streams from the Ether and putting together a data package that proves the crime. That is, until a string of murders happen that are not captured by the Ether—and a countervisuality is revealed. It seems possible to remove any and all traces of identity from the systems, thus becoming anonymous to the Mind’s Eye and the Ether. This suggests a radical rejection of subsumption, of visuality, of biopolitical control and thus points out the potential of cybernetic technology for both oppression and liberation.
And this returns us full circle to the idea that this is not the description of a future, but a detailed account of our present. Greenfield’s (2017) book on Radical Technologies, for example, is far from being a cyberpunk text, and yet his description of a typical night in Paris evokes the imaginary presented by cyberpunk: “In this city, everyone with a mobile phone reveals their location […]. Every transaction in the bistros and shops and cafes generates a trail, just as every bus and car and Vélib bicycle throws its own data shadow. Even the joggers in the Bois du Boulgone cast a constant, incrementing tally of miles logged and calories burned” (p. 2). Our dependence on technology and the dominance of global corporations exerting visuality through the economics of surveillance are a clear sign that we are living, in the words of O’Connell (2019) in “the landscape of postcyberpunk as the fulfillment and actualization of the earlier […] imaginary” (p. 12). Cyberpunk has moved beyond being a vision of the future. Instead its perspective on the pervasiveness of information technologies, its linkages of virtual and material worlds, and finally its presentation of shifting towards a visuality of corporate control, all have come to rather represent our present.
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Ursprünglich erschienen in Bounds of Humanity – Conference Proceedings
Schmeink, Lars. „The Future We Live In: Technology, Media, Visuality.“ Bounds of Humanity: Conference Proceedings, ed. Marina Lehmann, Daniel Schmicking, Antonia Schulz, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, 2020: p.132-57.