A Global Neuromancer

Neuromancer is now more than 30 years old, a considerable time to remain a classic. Its publication in the Orwellian year will seem ironic and laden with symbolism only for those who think Orwell has ...

Neuromancer is now more than 30 years old, a considerable time to remain a classic. Its publication in the Orwellian year will seem ironic and laden with symbolism only for those who think Orwell has remained a classic, or that he had anything to do with science fiction or reflected any serious political thought. But at least in one respect the juxtaposition is useful in showing how dystopia can swing around into the utopian without missing a beat, the way depression can without warning become euphoria. Indeed, I’ve suggested elsewhere that much of what is called cyberpunk (which begins with Neuromancer) is utopian and driven by the “irrational exuberance” of the ’90s and a kind of romance of feudal commerce; but I had Bruce Sterling in mind rather than the more sober Gibson, whose postmodern overpopulation (“the sprawl”) comes before us rather neutrally, even though its tone is radically different from the older Malthusian warnings of Harrison and Brunner. But Neuromancer and the novels that followed it were certainly not utopian in the spirit of the blueprints of More and Bellamy, or Fourier and Callenbach. Indeed, I would argue that the Utopian and still energizing work of the latter, Ecotopia (1968), was for the moment the last of its kind. And that, for a fundamental reason that takes us to the heart of our present topic, namely, that since Callenbach, the utopian form has been unable to take onboard the computer, cybernetics or information technology. Ecotopia was conceived before the Internet, and whatever utopian fantasies the latter has inspired—and they are many, and often delirious, involving mass communications, democracy, and the like—those fantasies have not been able to take on the constitutive form of the traditional Utopian blueprint. Meanwhile, more recent Utopian work, such as Barbara Goodwin’s remarkable Justice by Lottery (1992) or Kim Stanley Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy (1993–1996), however suggestive and influential in their Utopian features, have not seemed to incorporate cyberspace as a radically new dimension of postmodern social life.

And therewith the Gibsonian word is pronounced. Did he invent the word, etc.: such controversies are of literary-historical interest, but probably no one will disagree that he popularized it along with the name for that new genre called cyberpunk, and that these terms are henceforth inseparable from his name. I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture. But it is a literary construction we tend to believe in; and, like the concept of immaterial labor, there are certainly historical reasons for its appearance at the dawn of postmodernity which greatly transcend the technological fact of computer development or the invention of the Internet. Are there any equivalents in the cultural past for such “belief ” in the existence of a literary image or figure? Perhaps “courtly love”—that 12th-century Cathar heresy famously denounced by Denis de Rougement1—might serve as an example; might one dare suggest that the idea of evil, as it is transmitted by literary villains and the melodramatic mode itself, constitutes another? But are these not ideologemes—schematic projections of ideological concepts— rather than objective “realities” in which we believe?

Cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer … But it is a literary construction we tend to believe in.

I think it behooves us to look more closely at the notion of cyberspace in Gibson, in order to see what it involves: Is it a new kind of concept, for example, reflecting the alleged historical novelty of information technology in general? To what degree does its content then (apart from any formal innovation) somehow reflect this new reality (whether that of the “real foundation” of late capitalism or merely the “neutral” structure of its third-stage productive technology)? And what are its ideological consequences? How does it feed into other contemporary ideologies, and can it be judged to be progressive, or on the contrary somehow reactionary, inasmuch as (whatever the end of history) those possibilities seem to remain ahistorical and eternally with us? Meanwhile if you have a philosophical bent, you will want to decide to what degree it has some relationship to the popular idea of virtuality, inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze (which equally reflects and fails to reflect the realities of information technology).

We might begin with the brief entry on the term “cyberspace” provided by Clute and Nichols’s estimable Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

[Gibson, they tell us] takes quite an old SF idea, also much discussed by scientists, in imagining a near future era in which the human brain and nervous system (biological) can interface directly with the global information network (electrical) by jacking neurally implanted electrodes directly into a networked computer (or cyberdeck). The network then entered by the human mind is perceived by it, Gibson tells us, as if it were an actual territory, the “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” … The [term] refers in fact to an imaginary but not wholly impossible special case of virtual reality, which is in our contemporary world a more commonly used term for machine-generated scenarios perceived, in varying degrees, as “real” by those who watch or “enter” them.2

That the idea has something profoundly cinematographic about it can then be deduced from effects in the novel like this one. When the protagonists break into the palatial space station at the climax of the novel, for example, they are, as in a cinematic point-of-view, weightless, propelling themselves forward through the door and the corridors:

[Maelcum] launched himself with another effortless kick. From somewhere ahead, Case made out the familiar chatter of a printer turning out hard copy. It grew louder as he followed Maelcum through another doorway into a swirling mass of tangled printout. Case snatched a length of twisted paper and glanced at it … Maelcum braced his foot against the white cage of a Swiss exercise machine and shot through the floating maze of paper, batting it away from his face.

But perhaps nowadays novels have to compete with films anyway; and it is not inappropriate to remember that Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), dealing, it is true, with a rather different kind of virtual reality, came out two years before Neuromancer, and that Tron, evidently the first film in which characters go inside their computer, dates from 1982 (Gibson says this film already made him nervous). But Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, a far more vivid prototype in which an individual’s sensory experience can be transferred to someone else like a commodity (we will return to it), only appeared in 1995; and the inevitable Matrix in 1999. (Fear of television is much older, and can be tracked from Videodrome to Infinite Jest.) So Gibson did largely anticipate the contemporary cultural craze for simulation, whose concept is elaborated from Debord to Baudrillard; and inasmuch as he allegedly wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter, we can readily acknowledge his prophetic powers in this area.

Meanwhile the passage quoted above has some kinship with three-dimensional film—the hole of the corridor burrowing back into the screen, the protagonists floating into this space, kicking themselves along, with the paper finally streaming out of the computer and filling up the empty corridor in front of them. So the notion of space in the term cyberspace is meant to be taken quite literally and is indeed the fundamental metaphor it establishes. But this cinematographic representation is itself a second-degree dimension constructed by the novel’s narrative language: something of the converse of an abstraction, as we shall see in a moment.

But first it is worth recalling the plot of Neuromancer, if only because it is a dual one whose levels need to be separated from one another. On one of those, this is a heist or caper story, in which a group of characters has been assembled to steal a valuable property (in the event a computer hard drive) from the advanced computer of a powerful transgalactic corporation, whose headquarters is based on a satellite in space. In fact, this ostensible corporate theft turns out to be an elaborate screen for something quite different, namely the junction of the two gigantic computers of these rival corporations, and their unification into the most powerful force in the universe (a story not without its family likeness to Ray Kurzwell’s influential fantasy of the post-human “spike,” and in fact already filmed in the 1970 Colossus: The Forbin Project). But this framework, which can be traced back to the Cold War or analogous geopolitical situations, is only the pretext for the development of a very different narrative development, involving the representation of cyberspace which interests us here.


Still, it is pausing for a moment on the genre of the caper or heist itself, which is certainly not a plot organically related to sci-fi as such, and is far more frequently to be found in crime and gangster films. I want to underscore a utopian impulse at work in this generic paradigm particularly in the light of Ernst Bloch’s notion of a secret or unconscious utopian impulse that informs any number of human activities in an obscure investment of which we are not always aware. The analogy is with the Freudian drives, except for the implicit premise that the Freudian drives are ultimately biological in nature. Still, if we see the utopian drive as an impulse of collectivity and the human being as a collective animal, perhaps something of a biological origin might be adduced for it too. At any rate, I will suggest that the heist plot is a distorted expression of the utopian impulse insofar as it realizes a fantasy of non-alienated collective work. Modern collective production is organized as we know on the principle of the division of labor, normally articulated according to the nature of the object—Adam Smith’s famous example being the fabrication of the nail.

Here, however, in the robbery plot, specializations are certainly present—we need someone to open safes, someone acrobatic enough to get through windows, someone capable of neutralizing the alarm system, someone to drive the car, someone to secure the plans on what is probably going to be an inside job, and finally the brains or the mastermind, who is also the political leader so to speak. But each of these characters will be idiosyncratic: it is a collection of interesting oddballs and misfits, all of them different, and many of them in serious personality conflict with each other. The technological features of the object have thus been humanized and personified if not altogether sublimated: and this new collective mind becomes, like the different instruments of the orchestra, an allegory of the psyche with its inner divisions and contradictions. This utopian projection would then seem to be an allegory of production.

Here I think we face the dilemma of any literary or artistic representation of labor: it is very rare indeed that the content of the industrial product can have any necessity. The production process itself is always interesting: but whether they are producing sausages (Tout va bien) or machine parts (Passion), or even chamber pots (as famously unrevealed in Henry James’s Ambassadors), the nature of the object cannot have any real aesthetic necessity without turning into a symbol of some kind. Anything that can produce a profit is equivalent when it comes to generating surplus value; and finally the heist plot expresses this truth as well, and short-circuits the search for a meaningful object by simply positing the cash, the gold, the bearer bonds, or whatever else. So this is, as it were, the negative or critical, the demystifying side of the caper form.

Gibson’s novel too is a microcosm of the totality: a hacker, a female ninja, a dead man, a Rastafarian, a holographic illusionist, as well as a crazed army veteran whose schizophrenic mind has been possessed by the Artificial Intelligence who turns out to be the god in this particular complex machine. It is an intensified collection of skills visited on characters who are all maimed or incomplete in one way or another, most notably the dead man whose mind has become the program in the organizing mainframe. They all thus complete each other in one way or another but insofar as their collective (and thereby utopian) act turns out to have been a ruse devised by the two mega-computers in the service of their alliance and transfiguration, this utopian dimension is thereby displaced by a more conjugal if not religious one, and its deeper content repressed (virtually by definition the destiny of any impulse as such).

We might also note in passing that the excitement and euphoria we have attributed to cyberpunk are closely related to what Rem Koolhaas calls the “culture of congestion,” the reveling in the overpopulation of a world city in which the center is everywhere and there are no longer any margins (or where the margins have become the center, if you prefer); and this is of course yet another profound expression of the utopian impulse as it celebrates collectivity in general, and not just in particular. It is to be sure also a projection of globalization as such, and another not so remarkable prophetic anticipation of that third stage of capitalism some also call postmodernity.

But it is time to make a closer approach to cyberspace itself as it plays its part in this novel. The protagonist, Case, is a hacker who has been equipped with jacks that give him direct and immediate contact with the space of the new and enlarged Internet. In a sense, this is a quick and easy solution to the mind/body problem which has tormented philosophy for so many years, and yet it is an idealist one. For while serving as this conduit, he must abandon his body which he thinks of as “dead meat,” slumped lifeless in front of the computer. It is paradoxical (and rare) for idealism to express itself with such obscenity, and revealing that it must draw on a disgust with the physical as acute as anything in idealistic philosophy from Plato to Bergson in order to affirm the primacy of the “spirit” or of the realm of the opposite of matter (however that is identified), for it is clear that in cyberspace we face a whole parallel universe of the nonmaterial.

Case will however be able to intervene in the material world by way of his modifications of that of cyberspace: much as the pineal gland allowed Descartes’s mind to intervene in that of the physical body. In particular, his task is not only to coordinate the break-in when his team is ready for it; he must initially himself break into the system. What he first finds there is described in Gibson’s own mock encyclopedia entry which I quote:

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks”. On the Sony, a two dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spatial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding …”

Like city lights, receding … This is the figure we now need to retain, for it not only suggests the spatial landscape into which the mass of interrelated data is somehow projected, but also the manner of that projection. Clearly, quantities of numbers do not yield pictures, unless the picture is simply one of those seemingly encoded columns that run endlessly down the screen. Nor does the cityscape have any particularly privileged symbolic affinity with numbers, except for the fact that both involve masses of relationships. Indeed, even the numbers themselves are clearly a representational transformation of a great many complicated concrete situations: harvests in a poor country, shipping contracts, legal systems and police forces and customs agents, sales on the street, businessmen and organizers, bookkeepers, etc.

What cyberspace promises are then the paths that lead from one moment in the system to another one, and finally to the various nodes and centers which command the operation as a whole; and in our caper story these paths also promise access, how most easily to break in, and to find the object of the question which is of course, like everything else in cyberspace, information as such.

In cyberspace the imaginary city of data rises as if it were the architectural plan of a city rather than the city itself; it is already an abstraction.

In cyberspace what seems to appear is rather on the order of what sci-fi calls a matrix or a holodeck, so-called because it is a blank analog of three-dimensional space meant to be filled up with holograms. Cyberspace is however more complicated than this, for it does not aim at that kind of illusion or simulacrum, which we do find elsewhere in Neuromancer. What furnishes this holodeck is rather different, and comparable only to the axiometric plans and drawings architects use, where three dimensions of a building are drawn on a two-dimensional surface. In cyberspace the imaginary city of data rises like that; it is as it were the architectural plan of a city rather than the city itself; it is already, in other words—and this is the point I have been so laboriously coming to—it is already an abstraction, and as it were the very specific language or code of an abstraction, just as numbers and mathematical symbols are another such code. It is not really visual, to put it another way: this is not the representational mimesis of Renaissance painting (also, with perspective, a kind of language but one which seeks to substitute an illusion of reality for the awareness that it is also a set of signs). Gibson’s cyber-space is an abstraction to the second power. The initial metaphor of a city for an information network is a first-level abstraction; then the representation of that city by the abstractions of the architects raises it to a second power. In cyberpunk this second-level abstraction is to be read by being navigated, and the camera eye of the novel moves through them, as we have seen, following their openings and canyons, skirting their barriers, moving ever deeper into the nonexistent space of these new systems:

Case’s virus had bored a window through the library’s command ice. He punched himself through and found an infinite blue space ranged with color- coded spheres strung on a tight grid of pale blue neon. In the nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension; a child’s toy calculator, accessed through Case’s Sendai, would have presented limitless gulfs of nothingness hung with a few basic commands. Case began to key the sequence the Finn had purchased from a mid-echelon saraiman with severe drug problems. He began to glide through the spheres as if he were on invisible tracks.

Here. This one.

Punching his way into the sphere, chill blue neon vault above him starless and smooth as frosted glass, he triggered a subprogram that effected certain alterations in the core custodial commands.

Out now. Reversing smoothly, the virus reknitting the fabric of the window.


What then permits this new narrativization of cyberspace, which was not present in architecture itself—and which could only be dynamized and kinesthetized by Le Corbusier’s concept of trajectories—is now the existence of forbidden zones, of blocks and security systems, of the ice. Now we are in the culturally more familiar terrain of the hacker, who is called upon to break into these closed systems, themselves armed with mechanisms a good deal more dangerous than mere passwords. Case is to be sure a prototypical, dare I even say a stereotypical, hacker; but in this new and future cyberworld in which his very body is jacked into cyberspace itself, these powerful blocking mechanisms can reach back into the brain of the hacker and short-circuit it. This is what he first sees:

The unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3-D chess- board extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems forever beyond his reach. Ice, the great white sealed and glowing cubes on the horizon, these are the figures for those closed systems into which the cyberhero must penetrate, which he must infiltrate with new kinds of viruses, batter through with mechanisms he has brought with him.

This leads us to the first feature of cyberspace as Case experiences or Gibson images it: namely, the peculiar nature of an abstraction to the second degree, which, having accessed the sheets upon sheets of numerical ciphers which are already themselves statistical abstractions of real businesses, real profits, real transactions, now turns all that back into pictures, and pictures on the order of paper architecture at that, two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional models. In principle, it would seem that this second reduction will impoverish Gibson’s picture of the information world; but in recent years, in architecture, any number of extraordinary talents have explored the possibility of so-called paper architecture in ways that allowed them to articulate complex, sometimes unbuildable, yet in any case unimaginable spaces by way of just that peculiar visual abstraction which is axiomatic projection. The latter may then be considered as a higher valence than the first-degree mimetic representation which shows us how a room will look, or how the service mechanisms of the building can be organized. Here, on this new level, what can be imagined and mentally grasped is the new dimension of sheer relationship—what Le Corbusier began to theorize as the “trajectories” through space—now intensified to an incalculable degree. What looks here like some stereotypical postmodern lapse into visual representation is on the contrary a complex mapping of the incalculable connections—Spinoza’s rerum concatenatio—between all the multiple powers and vectors of the real world, that is, the underlying and invisible one, that we cannot see with our normal bodily senses. It is a totality, but a totality in constant movement, evolution, and metamorphosis, and also a mobile autotelic system into which our minds, or at least Case’s, can intervene.

the seemingly concrete visual image is already abstract by virtue of its transmission in advertising; it is a visual cliché and no longer merely a conceptual or verbal one.

How to imagine then this totality, not of things, but of the relationships between things, and indeed of the relationships between those relationships, which are themselves in constant movement and transformation? I propose one of those episodes in surveillance films, in which the phone call from the kidnapper finally comes, but it does not originate in Detroit, as the first tap suggested, nor in Geneva as the terminus of the second; on the contrary, the technicians follow the mysterious trace halfway around the world, from point to point and continent to continent until it is suddenly too late to discover the ultimate point of origin, which may well be just next door or down the street. And all this lights up on a map in which a strange graph zigzags meaninglessly back and forth across the globe, in a cognitive mapping of globalization which is misleading if not deranged, but which somehow nonetheless symptomatizes our impossible efforts to connect incommensurables and to reduce the unrepresentable to the confines of a single unified thought.

I will argue that this unrepresentable totality, which until now only science fiction has uniquely possessed the representational means to designate, is that of finance capital itself, as it constitutes one of the most original dimensions of late capitalism (or of globalization or of postmodernity, depending on the focus you wish to bring to it). This is not the place for a thorough review of the newer literature on finance capitalism today; but in order to situate the new realm of abstraction Gibson has pioneered in his representation of cyberspace, I open a parenthesis on the history of this concept, which plays only a minor part in Marx.

The first serious attempt to theorize finance capitalism as a stage in the development of capitalism as a whole goes back to the period before World War I (the Austrian economist Hilferding, a socialist who was later president of Austria and a victim of Auschwitz): it is a theory which has a family likeness with Lenin’s idea of the monopoly stage as the highest and final development of the system; and given capitalism’s adventures and its evolution in the century since then, this notion of finance capital has not worn well.

<i>Gibson signs a copy of </i>Zero History (2010). Photograph by Nikki Tysoe / Flickr

We have had to wait for a remarkable book by Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, for a brand-new theory of finance capitalism which completely rewrites our picture of the stages of capitalism itself. Arrighi begins with a remark of the great world historian Fernand Braudel: “Every capitalist development of this order seems, by reaching the stage of financial expansion, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it is a sign of autumn.”3 The yellow leaves of capitalism are apparent when a specific market has been saturated: production slows down, there is no longer any burning need for refrigerators, automobiles, personal computers, there is no expansion possible in the area of production in general; and at that point financial speculation must begin and profits be made in this higher-level or more abstract fashion, capitalism now as it were profiting from itself and speculating on itself, feeding on itself, by way of the stock market and its allied institutions. Arrighi’s insight in fact proposes a three-stage theory of evolution, first a specific market is opened and colonized; then the great moment of production saturates it; and finally, in some third autumnal stage, finance capital sets in and takes over a stagnating economy.

But this account must be supplemented by a geographical one, in which the emergence of capitalism is mapped and charted by a systematic displacement and enlargement of its centers: from Genoa and the Italian city-states to Spain, from Spain to Holland, Holland to England, and thence ultimately to the United States. Each of these stopping points runs through the entire cycle of the three stages before capital, having exhausted its financial moment, takes flight and moves on to greater possibilities elsewhere. We are now, in the United States, obviously in our financial stage, the stage of speculation of all kinds; and we must, with Arrighi, remain uncertain as to what will follow once that stage is exhausted. (But Chinese production and the immense Chinese market cast a suggestive shadow on the longer future.)

This is a theory which sheds new light on all kinds of things; but our immediate interest here lies in what it has to tell us about art and culture. I want to make a correlation between finance capitalism and abstraction generally; but in order to do so I have to argue that this is a very different kind of abstraction from what we are familiar with in the modernist period. The latter, as it moves towards its own kind of non-figurality (which it also called abstraction), was endowed, by the young Worringer, with an influential theory of the process: indeed, in the heyday of vitalism (end of the nineteenth century), this graduate student wrote a classic paper opposing organic to abstract forms, as forces of life versus forces of abstraction and death, from Egypt to emergent cubism.4 The ideological valorization here is clear, and the social relevance—in an increasingly technological age, and an age increasingly anxious about technology—think of Heidegger, for example, or of the technologies of World War I. But an organic art nouveau disappeared shortly thereafter, and Worringer’s famous opposition gradually sank to the level of one between representationality and abstraction, between traditional bourgeois art and modernistic impulses. My argument now posits this: it is no longer a question of any modernistic versions of abstraction of this kind in the postmodern period. The return to representationality in contemporary painting, for example, has nothing to do with nature, and as for ideologies of the organic they are universally denounced and repudiated, insofar as they exist at all.

The new postmodern abstraction is the abstraction of information as such: the way in which the seemingly concrete visual image is already abstract by virtue of its transmission in advertising; it is a visual cliché and no longer merely a conceptual or verbal one. And it is precisely this new kind of abstraction which it was the unique vocation of cyberpunk to convey in literary form.


And what it is to which this artistic form corresponds in globalization is very precisely the historically new abstraction of finance capital we have been describing. Since the 1990s we have entered a new phase of capitalism in which it is not production as such which creates profit and surplus value but rather speculation: speculation on land for example, the trading on the gentrified downtowns of older cities, or at least on downtown space to be re-gentrified and rented or sold for new and astronomical profits. Trading and speculation on money itself, where the national currency is bought and sold with a view towards quick turnovers, and rises and falls not in the production for which that currency stands, but rather in what the market will offer for it in just such trading. This is clearly a speculation which can have devastating results for whole populations, whose living standards now depend, in globalization, on the capacity of the local currency in which their wages are paid to buy necessities which are now largely imported. Behind this, currency speculation has disastrous effects on the Debt, into which all these countries have been plunged by the IMF and other international institutions.

My point here is that the money thus speculated on has itself been abstracted and sublimated into the counters and tokens of a higher kind of trading and speculative money which is little more than numbers or figures on a stock market board. Just as physical value, once weighed in gold, was replaced by paper substitutes, so now those physical substitutes, whether paper or not, are replaced by sheer numbers and empty ciphers on a computer, numbers which have no physical substance at all, and very little stability in terms of fixed value. In speculation one may go so far as to argue that the value of a firm and the substance of its material production have little immediate one-to-one relationship with its stock value (although obviously the two cannot be drastically separated for any long period). We thus enter a new era of abstraction and a disembodied state which is indeed that play of signs and signifiers anticipated by the structuralists, and which cyberspace now dramatically embodies in literature and art.

Now it is clear that these axiometric abstractions which exist in cyberspace as buildings and cityscapes greatly enhance the possibilities of the narrativization of this material: Case can thus penetrate this space and explore it, moving from one level to another in search of the weak points in the firewall, the most vulnerable entry points for breakthroughs or strategic redesigns, traps, ambushes, and the like:

Case punched for the Swiss banking sector, feeling a wave of exhilaration as cyberspace shivered, blurred, gelled. The Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority was gone, replaced by the cool geometric intricacy of Zurich commercial banking. He punched again, for Berne.

“Up,” the construct said. “It’ll be high.”

They ascended lattices of light, levels strobing, a blue flicker.

That’ll be it, Case thought.

Wintermute was a simple cube of white light, that very simplicity suggesting extreme complexity.

Case punched to within four grid points of the cube. Its blank face, towering above him now, began to seethe with faint internal shadows, as though a thousand dancers whirled behind a vast sheet of frosted glass.

“Knows we’re here,” the Flatline observed.

My argument has been that in the face of the impasses of modernism, which proved unable to handle the new incommensurabilities of that greatly enlarged and as it were post-anthropomorphic totality which is late or third-stage capitalism, science fiction, and in particular this historically inventive novel of Gibson, offered a new and post-realistic but also post-modernistic way of giving us a picture and a sense of our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities to think them. This is the sense in which literature can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit, and in which Neuromancer stands a precious symptom of our passage into another historical period.

But abstraction is not the only such symptom; and indeed we do not fully appreciate the full value of Gibson’s book until we turn to the other feature of the system which it registers and which indeed stands in relationship to this first one as its opposite and its other pole. This is the feature called “simstim” or in other words the simulation of stimulus, and it gives the operator the capacity to inhabit the mind and indeed the body of the agent on the ground, without interfering with her thoughts or movements. This form of vision is in fact implanted in the sensory system of the other character performing the robbery “in reality,” in this case the razor-girl Mollie. Thus, when Case switches to simstim, at that point he is inside Mollie’s eyes and body as she navigates the real space of the villa, encounters its flesh-and-blood guards, comes up against its material defense mechanisms, and so forth. Case’s function is indeed to switch back and forth between these two distinct and very different capabilities: to be in cyberspace, tracking the abstract movement of his “ice-breakers” as they attempt to penetrate the ice of the security system; and then to switch to simstim for an immediate experiential perspective on the empirical operations within one location in the system.

science fiction offered a new way TO picture our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities.

Thus, cyberspace seemed to suggest paper architecture and axiometric design; simstim suggests first-person movies. It was an old idea of Orson Welles (for an unrealized version of Heart of Darkness), but Robert Montgomery actually put it into practice in his otherwise undistinguished version of Chandler’s Lady in the Lake (1946), followed more successfully by the first twenty minutes or so of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). Seeing the world through the eyes of the main character turned out not to be as interesting as the use of the first person in literature (which has its more satisfactory equivalent in the voice-over); but it did come back in an interesting way in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), where it becomes an illegal vice, producing transferred footage sold like drugs on the black market. Clearly the various 3-D experiments also contribute to the simstim idea, about which we first need to observe that despite the electrifying immediacy of the experience in Strange Days, this kind of projection is an experience of the image of reality rather than of reality itself. In that, it is related to the simulacrum, and rejoins the family of images rather than that of perceptions (save as a perception of the image). This is therefore not a realism, not a recovery of immediacy, not even a demonstration of the validity of the various ideologies of realism as immediacy; but rather—just opposite— another testimony to our unreal life in Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, our life among what Jean Baudrillard calls simulations (a term significantly preserved in the very term simstim). Here then we have a second and different type of abstraction from the real; and indeed what is essential is to see that in Gibson these two abstractions are dialectically related.

Case is the sedentary space for the alternation between two distinct kinds of abstractions of the real: for his own reality—body abandoned in front of the computer—is a wholly impoverished one, which perhaps not so distantly recalls the reality of the reader gazing at this book in the first place. Case is indeed physically called into action at the novel’s conclusion, for some welcome and violent real action; but for the most part he is little more than a recording apparatus for the axiometric graphs of Internet data on the one hand, and the simulation of real bodily perception on the other.

But the body is absent here; and it is significant that Case refers to his own body as the “meat”: what is abandoned when you rise into cyberspace, what he was condemned to in those miserable years in which access to cyberspace was denied him. This is indeed why the simstim pole of the dialectic interests him less:

Cowboys didn’t get into simstim, he thought, because it was basically a meat toy … simstim … struck him as a gratuitous multiplication of flesh output …

As I observed earlier, the very concept and the name of “meat” suggests what in other eras would be an idealistic or a puritanical perspective on the mind/body split. Cyberspace is a sublimation, one might even say a successful, a fully achieved, sublimation; even simstim is secretly a substitute for the body, disguised as bodily perception itself. In the long line of sci-fi visions of future evolution, Gibson’s hero rejoins Wells’s original Martians as a hypertrophied brain, whose bodies are good for little more than feeding. What is confusing is that we assume punk culture to be somehow more physical than normal bourgeois straightlaced decorum; and also that philosophical idealisms (perhaps with the exception of the rather curious current revivals of Bergson) are today extinct. Even the alleged spiritualisms and religious cults of the present are so grossly materialistic that their founders would scarcely recognize any of them.

Only later on, in a kind of muted love plot, does the body get its due, and find vague feelings revived by his shadow encounter with a dead lover:

There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

If Neuromancer were a literary novel, we might well want to conclude that it is really “about” precisely this opposition, between the mental experiences of cyberspace and these deeply physical ones of love and desire, of memory. But it is not a novel in that sense, and the very rewriting of this experience of the meat in terms of “a sea of information,” in terms of coding and reading, is enough to convey the book’s ideological or philosophical bias.

Global versus local? This is indeed the form expressed by the twin presence and opposition between the exploration of cyberspace and the utilization of simstim; but it projects this rather glib contemporary formulation as what it is, namely a contradiction rather than a simple alternation or even a choice of perspectives. The limits of our thinking, of our capacities for cognitive mapping, of our possibilities of imaging and representing, these “our real conditions of existence” are then dramatized by the poverty of the formula as well as by the richness of Gibson’s novel. The two poles are two dialectically linked dimensions which structure our daily lives in this society, and confirm the paradoxical proposition that we are both too abstract and too concrete all at once.

The totality of the system determines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, while we fall prey to the physical illusions of a present constructed out of sheer images. If I called Gibson’s novel critical, and an instrument of exploration which is also diagnostic, it is because of the way in which he focuses on the combination of these two dimensions of a dialectic of globalization. The distinction of Neuromancer thus lies in the nature of the form itself, as an instrument which registers current realities normally beyond the capacity of the realistic eye to see, which projects dimensions of daily life we cannot consciously experience.


Excerpted from The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms (Verso, 2015) icon

  1. Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World, translated from the French by Montgomery Belgion (1940; Princeton University Press, 1983).
  2. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press, 1995).
  3. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010), p. 6.
  4. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, translated from the German by Michael Bullock (1953; Martino Fine, 2014).
Featured image: Portrait of William Gibson (2010). Photograph by Frédéric Poirot / Flickr