The clouds floating above the building were like hard clumps of dirt from a vacuum cleaner no one ever cleaned. Or maybe more like all the contradictions of the Third Industrial Revolution condensed and set to float in the sky.
— Murakami 2005: 324
The Communist Manifesto describes capitalism’s constant revolution of ‘the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society’, under which ‘[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air’ (Marx & Engels 1992: 6). This process of sublimation, the abstraction of capital from labour, has never seemed as true as it does in the information age, when new technologies of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have apparently revolutionised production. For example, Manuel Castells’s three-volume The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (1996-1998; second editions 2000-2004) argues that information technology has ushered in a new and different version of capital, and that we now live in the network society that has arisen from it. Castells’s argument, however, replicates the very fantasy of disembodiment – the ‘abstraction of social products and practices from the laboring bodies that generate them’ (McNally 2001: 1) – upon which capital’s operation depends and which underpins the representations of spaces of information-capital in cyberpunk science fiction (SF).
Cube and Videodrome are films in the cyberpunk tradition. Cyberpunk was initially a term used to describe the work of a small group of American SF writers (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan) who emerged in the early 1980s. The ‘cyber’ prefix signifies the computer networks and cyborging technologies their fiction described, while the ‘punk’ suffix referred both to a romantic anti-authoritarianism and to a streetwise DIY aesthetic.1 Cyberpunk aesthetics and concerns rapidly diffused across a range of media and, as Thomas Foster argues, cyberpunk ‘experience[d] a sea change into a more generalized cultural formation, just as many of cyberpunk’s characteristic themes and tropes were appropriated and recontextualized from other sources’ (2005: xiv). Cyberpunk film explores the digital and cyborg technologies imagined in such fiction, whether in the form of blockbuster action movies like The Matrix (Wachoswki brothers 1999) or of punkier low-budget films like New Rose Hotel (Ferrara 1998).
This article argues that cyberpunk’s depiction of cyberspace – the information space ‘behind’ computer screens, networking together Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) – is best understood as a metaphor for dematerialised, immaterial or friction-free capital-in-circulation,2 and demonstrates how Castells’s argument is structured around a similar investment in fantasies of transcendence. Cinematic depictions of cyberspace as a navigable graphic interface in which the user can immerse him- or herself in something resembling a futuristic internet are quite rare, with the on-screen space navigated by Lex (Ariana Richards) in Jurassic Park (Spielberg 1993) an intermediate stage between the actually-existing internet and the more properly cyberpunk version seen in Johnny Mnemonic (Longo 1995); but while cinema instead favours virtual spaces of varying degrees of photorealism – see, for example, The Matrix (Wachowski brothers 1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (Rusnak 1999) – most cyberpunk films similarly privilege the disembodied subject compatible with circulating information-capital. This article will focus on two cyberpunk films – Cube (Natali 1998) and Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983) – which at least partially disavow fantasies of disembodiment and thus critique, albeit in limited ways, the fantasy of immaterialisation upon which the operation of capital depends.
Since the Puritan settlement, fantasies of disembodied and technological transcendence have been part of the US imagination,3 and SF is a key site of its expression.4 For example, in Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (1911-12), the foundational text of modern American SF, the eponymous protagonist is blessed with an extraordinary physique, but his various adventures are primarily cerebral. The future world of this solitary genius is essentially static and fixed, not dynamically becoming but already complete. New York is paved with perfectly uniform steelonium slabs along which an orderly populace skate on Tele-motor-coasters; sports are played under floodlights so as to prevent changes in sunlight affording either team advantage; food is liquefied so as to avoid chewing. When Ralph rescues Alice from her Martian abductor, it is not prurience that dictates that she must spend their unchaperoned journey back to Earth preserved as a to-be-revived-later corpse, but the novel’s overall rejection of the body, including those Others associated with physicality rather than intellect, such as women and miscegenation-threatening aliens.5Videodrome disturbs the idealist representation of the world of information ‘cut off from nature and material human practices’ and thus ‘given an amazing power of determination with respect to the world we inhabit’ (McNally 3). As McNally reminds us, ‘what has been repressed invariably returns, even if in unrecognized forms. Despite capital’s claim, for instance, that, as money, it and it alone produces wealth, laborers rise up time and again to disrupt this claim’ (3), and in Videodrome the body is returned again and again – often in grotesque ways – to demonstrate the connections between information/capital and human life.
Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1953), the quintessential mid-century American SF story, likewise rejects embodiment. Ostensibly it is concerned with immutable physical laws, which make it necessary for spaceship pilot Barton to jettison a beautiful, innocent, blue-eyed, white, teenage girl called Marilyn into space, thus killing her. The ‘inevitability’ of the story’s conclusion depends upon some relatively plausible parameters limiting human action in outer space, a series of idiocies (e.g., relying on just a ‘Keep Out’ sign – not even a lock – to prevent people stowing away on spaceships), and the invocation of physical laws so as to naturalise an overtly imperialist expansion into ‘empty’ territories, thus excluding women, as well as ‘natives’, from interstellar space. Godwin states that the laws which govern this ‘space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and as relentless as the environment that gave them birth’ (Godwin 445), and just as he mystifies the social arrangements which produce laws, so he removes birth from the messy realm of biology, which is ejected from the story as surely as Marilyn is from Barton’s airlock. So free of bodily taint is Godwin’s interstellar space that a parallel can be drawn between it – ‘inexorably controlled… by laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion’ (449) – and the workings of the spaceship computer – ‘formless, mindless, invisible, determining with utter precision how long the pale girl… might live’ (449). The cold equations governing the former are calculated in the latter; and neither has any space for the body. A similar parallel can be seen between the weightless room of light housing HAL’s memory in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968) and the concluding sequence which transforms Godwin-like immaculate space into something more overtly transcendent as Bowman (Keir Dullea) is propelled through tunnels of light, leaving corporeal decrepitude behind.
The kind of paraspace represented by 2001’s prolonged culminating special effects sequence, a space in which material and/or textual rules are altered or undone – transcended, even – is a key SF locus (Delany 1994: 168-9). Consequently, when cyberpunk SF erupted in the 1980s amidst much hype and controversy, it was unsurprising to find the idea of transcendence central to its project, even though its key authors postured, or were posed, as revolutionaries overthrowing a worn-out old guard. While the rush to celebrate cyberpunk’s apparent newness often overlooked its continuities with the SF tradition inaugurated by Gernsback,6 its particular articulation of transcendence through the idea-image of cyberspace in Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) did crystallise with remarkable clarity the logic of disembodiment governing not only the American SF imagination but also capital, information, and post-structuralist linguistics.7
The cyberpunk near-future, epitomised by Neuromancer,8 consists of a globalised world in which all meaningful action takes place in cyberspace through computer-mediated technology. A technological elite of ‘cyberspace cowboys’ jack their consciousnesses into the ‘consensual hallucination’ (Gibson 5) of cyberspace to perform their disembodied labour. They share ‘a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh’ (6) and for all those who remained trapped in the material world.9 The nation-state is passé and power resides with multinational corporations and zaibatsus which have ‘transcended old barriers’, producing an elite of employees who, through ‘a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system’, have become ‘both more and less than people’ (203). Cyberpunk privileges disembodied network space; those outside, trapped in the flesh, risk becoming ‘spare parts’ in ‘clinic tanks’ (5). The material world, dominated by the glow of neon corporate logos, appears to be comprised of a never-ending series of cities. In Neuromancer, Boston and Atlanta have merged into one long Metropolitan Axis, known as the Sprawl; the bleary hacker protagonist, Case, wakes from ‘a dream of airports … the concourses of Narita, Schipol, Orly’ (43), and ‘almost expect[s] to see Tokyo Bay’ from the window of his Istanbul hotel room (88). In this urban landscape, the streets are generally described as dead and empty, but when Case jacks in, cyberspace ‘flower[s] for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home’ (52). Just as Tokyo’s ‘factory domes’ are ‘dominated by the vast cubes of corporate arcologies’ (6), so cyberspace is dominated by colourful geometrical shapes that represent corporations – ‘the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority… the green cubes of the Mitsubishi Bank of America’ (52). Although the physical structures owned by corporations are both referent and sign, and their cyberspatial representations merely signs, it is the latter which occupy the privileged space of, and possess, agency.
N. Katherine Hayles argues that the fantasies of disembodied transcendence underpinning cyberpunk also shaped the development of information technology and network culture. The underlying ‘belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates’ (Hayles 1) entails repression of the body. These fantasies, then, inform not only cyberpunk but also our material reality. However, this disembodied version of information – how it is understood and technologised – was not inevitable; rather, it was the outcome of struggle. Hayles calls our cultural condition ‘virtuality’ not because the material world has become irrelevant, as cyberpunk often fantasises, but because the material artefacts of CMC – part of our material reality – are constructed on the presuppositions of virtuality (19). In The Information Age, Castells argues that ICT ushered in the era of informational capitalism and that we therefore now live in a network society which he describes in terms remarkably similar to those imagined by Gibson. And just as cyberpunk capitulates to the logic of network capital, depicting a future to which one must adapt (or be destroyed), so Castells’s analysis too-readily accepts capitalism on its own terms. And, as with cyberpunk’s supposedly radical break with traditional SF, we contend that informational capitalism is not as new as sometimes suggested. Furthermore, just as cyberpunk has been criticised for its fantasies of disembodiment, so the insistence on material bodies in Cube and Videodrome demonstrates capital’s flensing of labour and the extent to which Castells’s analysis capitulates to the logic of capital.
Castells’s new information paradigm is based on five characteristics: information as the raw material of production; the pervasive effects of new technology on all aspects of human existence; a network logic of decentralised production and decision-making in asymmetrical nodes of connection; flexibility in production (and work conditions); and technological convergence into a single, integrated system (2000a: 70-71). With the breakdown of the traditional contract between capital and labour, the reformed system can pursue its goals of ‘deepening the capitalist logic of profit-seeking in capital-labor relationships; enhancing the productivity of labor and capital; globalizing production, circulation, and markets, seizing the opportunity of the most advantageous conditions for profit-making everywhere; and marshaling the state’s support for productivity gains and competitiveness of national economies, often to the detriment of social protection and public interest regulations’ (19). This recalls the insight of Case, in Neuromancer, that ‘burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself’ (Gibson 11).
As in cyberpunk, the nation-state has fallen away. Liberal democracy constructs the political sphere as a site of social interchange among actors who can exercise their rights, constituted by civil society, as autonomous subjects able freely to choose; in network society, Castells argues, people still want to participate in decision-making but no longer see the political sphere as a site of meaningful action (2004: 409). Castells connects this to the eclipse of the nation-state by the ‘development state’, that is, the state accommodated to global capital. Instead of being ‘a political subject “in itself”’, it becomes ‘a political apparatus “for itself” by affirming the only legitimacy principle that does not seem to be threatening for the international powers overseeing its destiny: economic development’ (2000b: 284). Rather than serving its population’s interests, the state becomes a structure serving the global capital network. Cyberpunk depicts such a world as inevitable, and focuses on those who, for all that they are portrayed as rebels and outlaws, find ways to accommodate themselves to it. Castells often betrays a similar resignation, his political vision limited to imagining using network structures to other ends without ever questioning the logic of the network itself.
Along with this crisis of democratic agency, there is a loss of class identity, with people ‘increasingly organiz[ing] their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are… Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between Net and the self’ (2000a: 3; italics in original). This dichotomisation, like the cyberpunk binary between being either jacked-in to cyberspace or trapped in ‘the meat’ of non-networked existence, is a struggle between technological transcendence and embodiment. The Net represents the fantasy of capital to overcome space and time, while the self remains in the human rhythms of movement and duration. Information technology infrastructure has enabled the world to become ‘truly global’, aiding capital’s dream of endless, frictionless expansion (101), but while ‘capital is global, and core production networks are increasingly globalized, the bulk of labor is local. Only an elite specialty labor force, of great strategic importance, is truly globalized’ (131). Thus, ‘capital and labor increasingly tend to exist in different spaces and times: the space of flows and the space of places, instant time of computerized networks versus clock time of everyday life’ (506). Capital circulates – or appears to circulate – in the timeless time of instantaneous transactions and the spaceless space of instant communication, while humans must struggle to accommodate themselves to a network logic which breaks down ‘the rhythms, either biological or social, associated with the notion of a life-cycle’ (476; italics in original).10 Although the state is effectively non-existent in cyberpunk, and increasingly marginalized and irrelevant in much real-world commentary, state policies typically facilitate this separation of capital and labour. While deregulation and neoliberalism allow capital to flow with relative freedom, ‘labor is still highly constrained, and will be for the foreseeable future, by institutions, culture, borders, police, and xenophobia’ (247).
Just as cyberpunk’s fantasy of disembodiment constructs cyberspace as the realm of meaningful action, so information technology’s conceptualisation of information as being disembodied further enables capital’s fantasy of abstracting social products and practices from labouring bodies. Postmodernist theory and criticism, like the cyberpunk it so frequently celebrated, ‘is constituted by a radical attempt to banish the real human body – the sensate, biocultural, laboring body – from the sphere of language and social life’ (McNally 1). Cyberspace, like the langue of Saussurean linguistics, is entirely separate from the hacker’s/speaker’s body, tending, like the simulacral image, to bear ‘no relation to any reality whatever’ (Baudrillard 11). As long as he is jacked-in, Case is immune to the effects of motion sickness, as if he was no longer present in his body. Totally identified with this fantastic abstraction of his self, he plunges into and becomes one with the dataflows, with capital.11 The clearest example of this can be found in Johnny Mnemonic, based on Gibson’s 1981 story of the same name. The film opens with a camera viewpoint rushing headlong through the internet of 2021, the text of Johnny’s (Keanu Reeves) wake-up call forming ahead of it, racing toward the screen in his hotel room. As the viewpoint is situated behind the screen, the text appears reversed. There is a burst of static and then the alarm wakes Johnny, the message reflected on his eye. For a moment it appears as if it is actually being displayed there, as if the cyberspace through which the viewpoint hurtled is actually inside Johnny, an ambiguity maintained throughout the film (with the exception of the sequence set primarily in Crazy Bob’s computer store). It is unclear whether the various dataspaces displayed represent the information he is smuggling in his wetware brain implant, the architecture of the implant itself, or his brain/memory, and this dissolves not only any demarcations one might draw between them but also the location of ‘Johnny’ himself. His identification with information-capital becomes total.12
This separation from the body is paralleled in the ‘sharp divide between valuable and non-valuable people and locales’ (Castells 2000b: 165) in both informationalism and cyberpunk: only those things that have value to the system persist in our image of social reality, while the rest ‘is switched off the networks, and ultimately discarded’ (2000a: 134). Given such consequences, cyberpunk’s somatophobia – its fear of embodiment – does make a perverse sort of sense. Its protagonists are more than aware that those not on the Net no longer have value. It is ‘Not that people, locales, or activities disappear. But their structural meaning does, subsumed in the unseen logic of the meta-network where value is produced, cultural codes are created, and power is decided’ (2000a: 508). Falling off the Net creates ‘the black holes of informational capitalism’, those ‘regions of society from which, statistically speaking, there is no escape from the pain and destruction inflicted on the human condition for those who, in one way or another, enter these social landscapes’ (2000b: 165; italics in original). These black holes result from processes of exclusion, including ‘the delinking of people-as-people and people-as-workers/consumers in the dynamics of informational capitalism’ (2000b: 375), which facilitate capital’s desire to present its expansion as frictionless while those ground under by its motion are conveniently erased from the symbolic space of representation – of what Castells calls ‘real virtuality’ and considers the site of political action in the information age.
In such a world, ‘the boundary between protest, patterns of immediate gratification, adventure, and crime becomes increasingly blurred’ (2000b: 210). Generally, cyberpunk celebrates those excluded from the network, ‘caught between their enthusiasm for life and the realization of their limits’, who turn to crime, ‘compress[ing] life into a few instants, to live it fully and then disappear’, compensated for a ‘monotone… longer, but miserable life’ by the fleeting ‘feeling of empowerment’ that comes from ‘breaking… the rules’ (211). Such protagonists are not, as Sterling claimed, dangerous and subversive (1986: xi, xiv). Their desire to use the tools of the multinational corporations for their own ends demonstrates a continued utopianism, but simultaneously betrays their capitulation to the logic of the very system limiting their ability to mobilise into meaningful political action. Their rebelliousness seeks not the transformation of the system, but a better place within it. Typically, cyberpunk thus fails to challenge ‘the truly fundamental social cleavages of the Information Age’ Castells describes – ‘the internal fragmentation of labor between informational producers and replaceable generic labor… the social exclusion of a significant segment of society made up of discarded individuals whose value as workers/consumers is used up, and whose relevance as people is ignored. And… the separation between the market logic of global networks of capital flows and the human experience of workers’ lives’ (2000b: 377; italics in original) – because it embraces fantasies of disembodiment complicit with the structures causing these cleavages. Similarly, Castells’s ability to narrate a site of effective resistance to the Net is limited because he accepts the inevitability of decentralised network logic. He argues that ‘there is not, sociologically and economically, such a thing as a global capitalist class. But there is an integrated, global capital network, whose movements and variable logic ultimately determine economies and influence societies. Thus, above a diversity of human-flesh capitalists and capitalist groups there is a faceless collective capitalist, made up of financial flows operated by electronic networks’ (2000a: 505). In many cyberpunk narratives, including Neuromancer, it is feared that an Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer system will become self-aware and begin to work for its own ends rather than serving the needs of its human creators.13 Thus both Castells and cyberpunk represent – personify – the financial flows of global capital pursuing their own ends and dominating spatiotemporally-bound labour.
Castells’s argument that flows of capital, images, information, technology and symbols are the ‘processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life’ (2000a: 442; italics in original) emphasises abstract over material, disembodied over concretely-contextualised, life, leading him to conclude that power has become ‘inscribed, at a fundamental level, in the cultural codes through which people and institutions represent life and make decisions, including political decisions. In a sense, power, while real, becomes immaterial’ (2000b: 378; italics in original). However, subsuming ‘the struggle between diverse capitalists and miscellaneous working classes … into the more fundamental opposites between the bare logic of capital flows and the culture value of human experience’ (2000a: 507), as Castells, constrained by capital’s own fantastic logic, does, makes the social relations of exploitation more difficult to envision. In Neuromancer, the claim that Case has made the mistake of ‘confusing the Wintermute mainframe, Berne, with the Wintermute entity’ (Gibson 120) indicates the dependence of information-capital on disembodiment fantasies: just because Wintermute is not contained by the mainframe but distributed throughout the network does not mean that it exists outside of the material realm. Similarly, Castells – and most other cyberpunk – takes the fantasy that ‘capital tends to escape in its hyperspace of pure circulation’ as the reality of ‘our actual existence’ (2000a: 506) and thus concedes that capital and labour are disconnected in separate space-times. In contrast, Cube and Videodrome envision capital as material, if not always tangible, and embody its space-time. For all of his empirical recording of ‘real conditions’, Castells interprets them in terms of the imaginary relations of dematerialised capital, whereas the fantastic mode opens up the possibility – which these two films pursue – of depicting imaginary conditions so as to reveal real relations.
Cube illustrates the erasures enabled by information technology that allows capital to appear as disembodied. Owing something to Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ (1967), Cube is the kind of SF paraspatial puzzle story in which characters make their way through a deadly alien maze, like Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon (1960) or Boris and Arkady Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), adapted as Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). Cyberpunk, for all its rhetoric of body-transcendence, nonetheless grants ‘the subject in cyberspace … perspective and mobility, conditions predicated upon a lived body’ (Bukatman 1993: 207); but while cyberpunk typically attempts to suppress this materiality, the enclosing, oppressive, physical Cube insists that, however intangible they might seem, information, capital and the subject are material. Seven strangers, all of them named after prisons (Alderson, Quentin, Rennes, Holloway, Kazan, Leaven and Worth), wake up in a massive cube composed of 17,576 14-foot cube rooms. Some rooms are lethally booby-trapped, all of them change position. In a proleptic opening sequence, Alderson is diced-up by a trap. The other six characters meet and try to find a way out of the giant plot device in which they are caught. Room code numbers involving the recognition of prime numbers, the mapping of Cartesian space and factoring the primes of primes seem to offer a solution, but character conflicts escalate, murderously.
The Cube is a material metaphor for the three-dimensional space imagined ‘behind’ the computer screen, the cyberspatial matrix in which disembodied consciousness flies, the space of global capital. It instrumentalises human beings and runs according to its own logic, regardless of their wellbeing. Unlike cyberspace, it is not frictionless and celestial but material and historical: it chews people up.14 The characters themselves fumble towards this quasi-allegorical understanding as they try to fathom the Cube’s origin and purpose. Their explanations range from the government to aliens. Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), who suggests it is ‘some rich psycho’s entertainment’, like ‘Scaramanga … in The Man with the Golden Gun’, mocks Holloway (Nicky Guadagni) for blaming ‘the military-industrial complex’, asking, ‘have you ever been there?’ His misperception is indicative of the erasures facilitated by the disembodiments of the information age. Although the military-industrial complex cannot be linked to a single spatial referent, this does not mean that it is not real, embodied in and between numerous physical locations and the interactions and interweavings of the enterprises housed in them. Indeed, it transpires that Worth (David Hewlett), who just ‘work[s] in an office building doing office building stuff’, designed the Cube’s outer shell, but this no better equips him to survive it because, like the rest of the dispersed workers contracted to design and manufacture it, he is ignorant of the total project. Well-paid, he did not question – or care – what the end purpose of the structure was, and when asked where the exit is, he snaps, ‘wherever the door guy put it.’ As Holloway notes, ‘you build a widget in Saskatoon and the next thing you know it’s two miles under the desert, the essential component of a death machine’.
Like spatiotemporally-bound labour in a network society characterised by such fragmentation and dispersal, and by labour that is flexible and subcontracted, the characters try to negotiate and survive the system containing them, but continually realise ‘you can’t see the big picture from in here’. Capital rewards you, or seems to, if ‘you keep your head down, keep it simple, just look at what’s in front of you’; and so even though Worth has known for a couple of months that people were being put in the Cube he did not protest. The nearest thing Cube has to a hero, he is not alone in his complicity. Disaffected and cynical, he is alienated from his labour (as well as by its product!), refusing to invest his sense of self in his job. In contrast, Quentin, a black cop, strongly identifies with capital, embracing its instrumentalism and violently coercing the others, while Holloway, a white liberal doctor, asks what the Cube wants, as if the system it represents were an autonomous external entity rather than a product of social relations. To the dawning realisation of their complicity in the construction of the Cube, Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a maths student, responds, ‘Well, duh… I’ve felt guilty for ruining the world since I was like seven’. And so, what first appeared as evidence of a conspiracy resolves into nothing more than the flexible, decentralised network society. There is no Big Brother, just ‘a myriad of well-wishing “little sisters” relating to each one of us on a personal basis because they know who we are, who have invaded all realms of life’ (Castells 2004: 342).
While the Cube as a whole is carceral, its disciplinary systems are dispersed throughout. The characters must develop methods to detect which rooms are booby-trapped, and when caught in a room from which all exits lead to booby-trapped rooms, to cross one without triggering its trap. The triggers detect palpably material things – motion, sound, chemical exudations – and they respond to such evidence of human embodiment with extremely visceral punishments – flames, acid, wires that slice and dice. In the Cube, the typically romanticised struggle to overcome impossible odds instead reveals something of its ideological function as a fantasy of disembodiment – the spirit or the will triumphing over the constraints of the flesh; the denial of this generation so that the next can enjoy a better life – which enables capital to impose horrific conditions on the majority of the global population, grinding them up every bit as surely and disinterestedly as the Cube does those within it. And just as there is no escape from the Cube – even Rennes (Wayne Robson), renowned for his prison breaks, cannot evade every trap – so, Castells argues, there is no way out of network capital. Even those African states most damaged by the asymmetrical linkages of network society, and which could improve domestic conditions in sustainable ways if they were able even partially to delink from the global economy, cannot do so because the integrated nature of information age capital ensures that it is not in the interest of African elites and their networks of patronage to do so. This situation ‘is structurally maintained by the European/American powers, and by the fragmented incorporation of Africa into global capitalist networks’ (2000a: 127); and Castells considers the kind of revolution necessary to achieve such a delinking ‘unlikely… in the foreseeable future’, not least because of ‘the ethnic fragmentation of the population’ (2000b: 128).
The fragmentation of labour along ethnic and other axes is essential to network society’s separation of the worlds of global capital and local labour: ‘Informationalism, in its historical reality, leads to the concentration and globalization of capital, precisely by using the decentralizing power of networks. Labor is disaggregated in its performance, fragmented in its organization, diversified in its existence, divided in its collective action’ (2000a: 506). The Cube manifests this logic. While its rooms move in an integrated cycle that the characters must struggle to understand (they eventually realise the need to map not fixed points but three-dimensional trajectories), they are characterized by their alienation from one another and even from social networks outside the Cube. All of them are single and only Quentin, separated from his wife, seems to have any particular human connection to inspire escape, claiming that he is going to get out for the sake of his children. However, when asked about them he identifies them only by their ages, rather than their names, and is later revealed as a child- and wife-beater with ‘a thing for young girls’. The characters identify themselves in terms of their jobs and despite their dire circumstances turn on each other when frustrated by the Cube. They attack each other verbally and physically, blaming and accusing, expressing their fear and disorientation through personal attacks, such as Quentin’s misogynistic rant that Holloway is a dried-up, sexually frustrated woman whose bleeding-heart politics are a substitute for her lack of sexual fulfilment. The fragmentation of social relations by capital enables such diversions – Castells shows that in the past 40 years capital has benefited from employing women and non-white immigrants to America and Europe under conditions less favourable than those under which it previously employed white men, and that the loss of wages experienced by white men has resulted in increased misogyny and xenophobia (2000a: 263-299) – and capital directly and indirectly utilises categories of Otherness to disorganise resistance.15
Quentin, who most closely identifies with the system’s values,16 is bluntly instrumentalist. Demonstrating the hardness and flexibility of network capital, he uses and discards the others impersonally and according to his moment-by-moment assessment of their utility, becoming as ferocious and implacable as the Cube itself as he inserts its logic into human relations. Yet he seems surprised when they eventually turn on him, even though by this point he has murdered Holloway, tried to rape Leaven (although he would see it as seduction), repeatedly assaulted Worth, and assaulted and tried to abandon the autistic Kazan (Andrew Miller). Quentin does nothing more than pursue the instrumentalist logic of capital, and as such behaves ‘rationally’, if not reasonably. But just as the Cube materialises information-capitalism as a pure form, so the coercion underlying the suasion of management is materialised in Quentin’s fury: his only skill is his goal-oriented drive, his only management technique, brutality.
Just as cyberpunk imagined disembodied information separate from social production, so Quentin fails to perceive intellectual labour as labour. Leaven’s mathematical skills enable them to negotiate the Cube as she is able to find patterns in the numbering of each room, but Quentin, who describes her as a ‘beautiful brain’, considers her labour merely a ‘gift’. Like capital, he tries to maximise the value extracted from her, refusing to see that her calculations are labour which exhausts her; when he finally permits a rest period, he insists that ‘an hour is as long as I say’. When the labour required is beyond what Leaven can accomplish, the autistic Kazan, able effortlessly to factor the powers of prime numbers, takes over, apparently functioning in the way that Quentin perceives intellectual labour – as an effortless output, not really labour at all. Effectively an input-output device, Kazan performs calculations in the instantaneous, timeless time of a computer network and thus is the sort of human that capital would like as labour power. With other human capacities stripped away, he is an almost perfect machine, requiring only gumdrops as a reward. Before Kazan’s mathematical ability is revealed, Quentin sees him as useless, dead weight, a threat even to their survival, the sort of disposable person outside the Net made invisible by network society. Holloway argues for his worth as a human being superseding any functional capacity. That Kazan eventually turns out to be precisely whom they need to escape seems to validate exactly the social safety nets being dismantled by global capital, but his worth is ultimately the usefulness of his labour.
At the end of the film, he alone escapes. All the other characters have been killed, either by the Cube or by Quentin (who is killed by a dying Worth). As Kazan leaves the Cube, he walks out into an open, empty, white space. This white space can be taken to represent the system of capital as it exists outside the Cube’s material instantiation of its logic. So pervasive, it has become both everything and invisible, apparently immaterial, a space – of, in Worth’s words, ‘boundless human stupidity’ – in which only the machine-like Kazan might survive. Once the inside of capital-logic has been made so vivid, complacent old categories of perception become invalid, and new ones must be developed. By presenting them to us in stark material form, Cube enables us to understand our real social relations under capital. However, its critique falls short because even as it distils the logic of capital into the eponymous object for us to see, it does so by separating the Cube from the larger social world, echoing perhaps Castells’s ontological distinction between the realms of capital and labour. Videodrome, however,continually challenges the desire to impose such distinctions.
In the quest for innovative programming to secure his market niche, Max Renn (James Woods), a Civic TV executive, illegally downloads a programme called ‘Videodrome’. It is ‘very, very realistic’ television, the ‘next’ thing, requiring ‘no plot, no characters’, just a pornography of ‘torture, murder, mutilation’. Max initially thinks he has pirated an illicit broadcast, but later learns that he was in fact shown a videotape as part of a covert conflict between two competing factions – Dr. Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and his Cathode Ray Mission versus Barry Convex (Les Carlson) of Spectacular Optical corporation – struggling over control of the videodrome signal and, through it, control over the minds of America. Encoded within the ‘Videodrome’ programme, the videodrome signal causes physical changes in viewers’ brains, generating a hallucination-inducing tumour. Videodrome refigures the flight of transcendence in terms of the erotic desire to escape the mundane world, and as the film proceeds, Max – and the viewer – finds it increasingly difficult to separate fantasy from reality. However, itrefuses to consummate this fantasy of transcendence, instead blurring any boundaries that one might wish to draw between fantasy and reality, the world of technology and the world of embodied life, capital and labour or, in Castells’s words, between the Net and the self.
In his influential reading of Videodrome, Scott Bukatman suggests that it ‘comes strikingly close to moving through the four successive phases of the image characteristic of the era of simulation that Baudrillard described’ (1993: 97f): reflecting basic reality, masking and perverting a basic reality, masking the absence of a basic reality, and finally bearing no relation to any reality but instead becoming its own pure simulacrum. Bukatman’s caution in proposing this mapping together of theory and film indicates the inability of this schema to capture fully the range of the film’s meaning. This discrepancy arises from the fantasy of transcendence, homologous to commodity fetishism, underpinning Baudrillard’s work (and post-structuralist linguistics more generally). While a strictly referential linguistics remains implausible, language and thus representation – like the concrete labour that goes into producing things and gives them value – are nonetheless embedded in the world, in material human social relations.17
This inseparability is demonstrated throughout the film in its depictions of space. Spatial metaphors – subterranean markets, the truth under the sheets, underground video – are repeatedly shown to be artificial constructs, conventions which depend upon impossible spatial distinctions and separations. In an establishing shot, the satellite dish, pointed at the sky, is nestled between the rooftops of a rundown neighbourhood, while above it in the distance rise the glass skyscrapers of Toronto’s business district. The composition of the shot suggests they belong to different worlds, but their collocation in the image shows them to be part of the same fabric. When Max first sees a segment of ‘Videodrome’, it seems to be the new, ‘tough’ programming he has been looking for. But the hardness for which he is seeking also disturbs him, especially when it moves from the ‘Videodrome’ fantasy-space into the real world of his relationship with Nicki (Deborah Harry), who embraces playing the masochist role in the programme’s sadomasochistic imagination. Although Max claims that he watches ‘Videodrome’ for ‘business reasons’, he is seduced and repelled by it – and by the prospect of enacting it. Similarly, when he appears on ‘The Rena King Show’ to defend broadcasting pornography, which he says is ‘a matter of economics’, his desire for Nicki, who is also on the show, leaks out, disrupting the conventional construction of chat-show space: his cigarette smoke drifts into shot; rather than answering questions he hits on Nicki; the sound of him asking her out on a date competes with Rena’s (Lally Cadeau) attempts to interview O’Blivion. The constructedness of this space has already been emphasised by establishing shots which show the space which would appear on TV screens to be an artificial space within the studio, and the viewer first sees Nicki when the camera tracks behind a diegetic camera monitor. This blurring of diegetic levels continues as O’Blivion is only ‘on television… on television’, appearing only on a TV monitor (his contribution is later revealed to have been videotaped before his death eleven months earlier, although Rena is unaware of this). These various blurrings of diegetic levels indicate both a desire to separate out pristine realms and the materiality of being which renders such moves impossible.18 Contrary to Bukatman, then,
O’Blivion contends that ‘public life on television [is] more real than private life in the flesh’, and this is partly borne out by the fact that he is already dead and ‘exists’ only on the collection of videotapes that his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), releases. He continues to be real inasmuch as he continues to have material effects on the world around him, interacting with others through video technology – but this very claim relies on the disembodiment of information through a specific erasure. It is Bianca’s labour which makes possible her father’s posthumous existence. She tells Max, ‘I am my father’s screen’ – an ambiguous phrasing that on the one hand effaces her, suggesting she is an invisible and passive screen onto which he is projected, and on the other points to her active role in screening who has access to him and how. When the screen is embodied in this way, becoming a person, the repressed material aspect of all communication becomes evident.
Bianca is only Videodrome’s first – and least visceral – image of embodied technology. Later, videotapes breathe and pulse and throb, and Max develops a vaginal opening in his abdomen that receives technological objects and fuses them with his body. The O’Blivion videotape that Bianca gives Max transforms his TV into a sensual, pulsating image of Nicki that seduces him into touching and entering it. Although Max believes it to have been a hallucination, the viewer who attempts to separate such moments into fantasy or reality is missing the point. They do not exist in ontologically distinct spaces, any more than do information-capital and material-labour or the Net and the self, but O’Blivion’s thinking is based on such idealist premises. He argues for the importance of the cathode ray tube to information-age human social existence, and like Castells sees the answer to exclusions from the space of information-capital being to ‘patch them back into the world’s mixing board’.
Castells argues that ‘television frames the language of societal communication’ (2000a: 364) and that ‘the existence of messages that are outside the media is restricted to interpersonal networks, thus disappearing from the collective mind’ (2000b: 365). This sense that the symbolic is the space of meaningful action demonstrates the determining power given to language and discourse in idealist linguistics, leading to influential claims about reality consisting entirely of its representation or simulation. In contrast, McNally’s materialist linguistics argues for the importance of returning the repressed body of the concrete communicative situation – that words are entangled ‘in a network of human meanings, of shared knowledge and cultural practices’ (122). ‘While O’Blivion argues that ‘the battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena’, Castells contends that ‘The new power lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and people build their lives, and decide their behavior. The sites of this power are people’s minds’ (2004: 425; italics in original). However, Videodrome, unlike Castells, shows the return of the repressed body into this space of abstract mind-to-mind communication, initially through the libidinal appeal of pornography.
Pornography is essentially idealist, ‘ignor[ing] the social context in which sexual activity takes place, that modifies the very nature of that activity’ (Carter 16). Carter argues that ‘If we could restore the context of the world to the embraces of these shadows, then, perhaps, we could utilize their activities to obtain a fresh perception of the world and, in some sense, transform it. The sexual act in pornography exists as a metaphor for what people do to one another, often in the cruellest sense; but the present business of the pornographer is to suppress the metaphor as much as he can and leave us with a handful of empty words’ (17). The ‘Videodrome’ arena, like the Cube, is a space in which the metaphor is revealed in all its material concreteness as an image of what we do to one another under informational capitalism. However, while Cube showed us the way that the body is ground up by the forces of capitalism, Videodrome emphasises instead how the body is seduced by the commodity form, including the commodity of information itself. Like the moral pornography Carter advocates, Videodrome critiques the world of commodity relations. It does so by demonstrating how fantasy inheres in the real, the symbolic in the material, the informational in the labouring. Network society ‘transforms signals into commodities by processing knowledge’ (2000a: 188); thus, information itself is a commodity produced by human labour but from which we are alienated and which we thus too often perceive as a thing outside ourselves.
Marx long ago demonstrated the futility of trying to purify the worlds of fantasy and reality in a commodity universe in which social relations among humans assume, ‘for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (1976: 165). Commodity fetishism obscures the human labour embedded in the commodities being exchanged and alienates workers from the products of their own labour which now appear to have taken on a life of their own. It is not an illusion but an objective social process, and thus, as China Miéville argues, ‘“Real” life under capitalism is a fantasy’ (2002: 41-2). Therefore, the experience of information technology taking on a life of its own and penetrating the self is an objective one for many people. However, this alienated form of life is precisely that produced by the abstraction of capital from labour, and it may be changed by returning material embodiment to our understanding and experience of information technology.
McNally draws upon Walter Benjamin’s use of the concept of commodity fetishism, united with a Freudian understanding of the unconscious, in order to theorise how the return of the repressed body might offer a way out of the commodity form’s seductions. Benjamin emphasises the degree to which capitalism relies upon compelling libidinal investment in the commodity. Like Videodrome’s Max, we cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality because ‘daily life in capitalist society is a sort of sleepwalking, a blind movement through a dream world of fetishes and phantasms’, with ‘[s]tore windows, shopping malls, billboards, and advertisements all conspir[ing] to tell us that happiness, love, meaning, intimacy, romance, sexual fulfillment, and community with others are just a purchase away’ (McNally 198). Drawing on the surrealists, Benjamin theorised that we might dislodge ourselves from this erotic investment in the commodity through ‘modes of experience qualitatively different from the automatized structure of work’ (McNally 178), particularly in finding ways in which to return to an erotic and sensual relation with the world in place of the instrumentalised relation forced upon us by capital. Thereby, Benjamin hoped, we might awaken ‘from the spell of the commodity’ by ‘submitting to its charms with one eye open, so as to be able to awaken and remember what it was that entranced us – and thereby to dislodge desire from its attachment to the commodity form’ (McNally 197).
In Videodrome, Max’s resistance to the conspiracy and his defence of the New Flesh, while only partially successful, nonetheless constitute such a disruption-awakening. The film draws upon surrealist energies, increasingly disturbing the viewer’s sense of bourgeois reality as it nears its conclusion. Max is first programmed by the videodrome signal to kill his partners and turn Civic TV over to Spectacular Optical, the corporation which has taken over O’Blivion’s videodrome signal for their own ends. In these final scenes, Max pulls the gun he lost in his vaginal slit out from his abdomen and it becomes fused – but only in some scenes – with his hand in a fleshy, pulpy growth. Max, who has been programmed by a videotape loaded into his slit by Convex, is reprogrammed by Bianca and turned against Spectacular Optical. A self-described ‘enthusiastic corporate citizen’, Spectacular Optical’s name reminds us that perception is always embodied in human optics, but also that we risk forgetting this in an information age of spectacle in which the computer or television screen can seem to be the most important site of action. As the manufacturer of cheap eyeglasses for the third world, of missile guidance systems for NATO, and of ‘Videodrome’ itself, Spetacular Optical is a perfect network corporate entity, flexible and capable of engaging in multiple and contradictory projects without apparent tension. Max is yet another one of its projects, and as such he is always integrated into the network as someone to be programmed rather than as a locus of decision-making.
According to Castells, the social relations of exploitation in network society are between (a) those who are integrated into the network as planners, (b) innovators and operators who execute ‘complex tasks at one’s own initiative’, and (c) those limited to the execution of preprogrammed tasks and who enter the network only as ‘human robots’ (2000a: 259). As Castells makes clear, this exploitative relation of production is not a consequence of the nature of the signal itself (as both O’Blivion and Spectacular Optical suggest) but of the human social relations surrounding the technology. Thus the struggle in information capitalism is over the degree to which workers are deciding agents rather than mere executants of their work: class struggle, Castells argues, is no longer about owners and workers but about programmers and programmed. Max is infected by the videodrome signal because he watched ‘Videodrome’, allowing the commodity logic of pornography to take over his libidinal attachments. Programmed in this way, he cannot enter the global system in a way that serves his human existence, but merely as labour power to be used by rival programmers. The lack of difference in the way O’Blivion and Spectacular Optical use Max suggests that their battle is a false dichotomy, and that instead of choosing between different uses of the network – as Castells advocates – we need to find a path outside network logic altogether.
The image of the visceral, fleshy videotape reveals how we are programmed by the signals we consume, and also emphasises the continuity of this realm of representation with the material, fleshy world. The painful eruptions of flesh that appear in the latter part of Videodrome caution against fantasies of transcendence. The real battles are not fought on television screens, in abstract codes of information that exist in a separate space from the biological existence of human life. Rather, the representation and the material are relentlessly intertwined: technological artefacts fuse with and transform into flesh.
According to Castells, network society turns information itself into a commodity, taking commodity fetishism one step further. Not only do things seem to have a life of their own, separate from human labour and social relations, but they appear as well to exist in an idealist realm cut off from the fleshy, material world. The overtly libidinal appeal of the videodrome signal further alienates Max from his own embodied life of desire, making his desire appear as a thing apart from himself. Convex blames Max for his own infection by videodrome, arguing that the signal only infects those who watch it and that Max chose to do so. But as Adorno and Horkheimer make clear, such choices are of cultural commodities which conform to the same pattern and thus consumers ‘fall helpless victims to what is offered them’ (2002: 133) but at the same time are ‘perpetually cheat[ed]’ (139) of what is promised, given a menu but never a meal. Under such conditions, we are dehumanised and disembodied, in a state in which ‘personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions’ (167). The promise of flight, of disembodied transcendence of the material world of suffering, has always been a part of the fantasy of the commodity. If we capitulate to the logic of network society in which the symbolic has replaced the material as the site of meaningful social and political action, we fall all the more helplessly into this fantasy of transcendence, believing not only that commodities can deliver the real human needs for sociality, community and plenitude that they promise, but also that we ourselves might embrace an abstract life in an abstract realm of information more ‘real’ than our material life of the flesh.
Max falls for this fantasy of transcendence, but Videodrome warns us not to. Adorno and Horkheimer caution against an uncritical celebration of pleasure as the balm for alienating work. Such an embrace of pleasure, they argue, ‘is possible only by insulation from the totality of the social process’ and is ‘not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance’ (2002: 144). The confusion of these two sorts of flight is the problem that typically plagues cyberpunk and limits its ability to effectively critique the social world it so ably depicts. The majority of cyberpunk, which persists in the fantasy of transcendence, therefore not only fails to provide resistance to the alienating social world of network society, but also encourages the belief that one can escape this wretched reality and enter the smooth spaces of capital’s flows. This is the mistake that Max makes at the end of the film, as he continues in the fantasy that information can be separated from the material world of embodied existence. Bianca tells him that he need not be afraid to let his body die because the New Flesh will live on in his networked, videodrome existence. In the final scene, a TV image of Nicki tells Max that he must join her and demonstrates the path of transcendence by televising an image of Max raising the fused gun to his head. At the moment he fires, the TV itself explodes in a rain of fleshy organs. This visualisation of the materiality of the Net and the self on the Net counters the sterile and disembodied abstraction typical of cyberpunk. Although Max erroneously separates the world of information from that of labouring bodies, Videodrome discourages this flight of fantasy. The exploding, bleeding TV makes graphically evident that there is no life in the matrix beyond the death of the body. In the final image of the film, we see on our screen precisely what Max just watched on his video screen: the scene of him slowly raising the gun to his head, saying ‘Long live the new flesh,’ and then shooting himself. With the bang, the screen goes blank because there is nothing more to represent. Without a body, consciousness ceases and so does the film. Desire and self cannot escape into the immaterial realm of videodrome.
Videodrome’s surreal eruptions of flesh disrupt the viewer’s ability to embrace the disembodied fantasy of cyberspatial transcendence. Unlike cyberpunk films’ typical visualisation of this fantasy of flight with computer graphics, Videodrome never displays the space of cathode ray signals, instead emphasising their material reality through their effects on bodies, with the erupting, bursting, cancerous, visceral flesh providing something of the shock which Benjamin theorised was necessary in order to free our libidinal energies from the solace they find in commodities and make them available for revolutionary praxis. He argues that ‘in de-mythifying the world, allegory shows us the falsity of all existing claims to meaning. And this recognition – our self-recognition in a world of death and decay – might lead us to act again the reality of a world without hope or transcendent meaning. Hope begins, in short, in the jolting discovery of hopelessness’ (McNally 176). The splatter of exploded organs and blank screen with which Videodrome ends is certainly a discovery of hopelessness – but perhaps in this hopelessness we might discover a clearer version of the material reality in which we live and the continued materiality of capital-information within it.
The bourgeois epoch needed constantly to revolutionise production and thus kept social relations in flux. The informational epoch needs to constantly perform the disembodiment of capital and encourage the fantasy of timeless time and frictionless flight. Although this fantasy is a real part of our alienated life in network society, it is not the totality. Films such as Videodrome and Cube help us to see that all that appears to melt into air is solid, still a part of our material world of real social relations. In making the materiality of capital visible, these films not only point to the limitations typical of cyberpunk but also suggest the degree to which Castells’s analysis of network society similarly accepts this disembodiment as afait accompli and seeks to use the tools of network culture to other ends. Castells ends his work by announcing, ‘In the twentieth century, philosophers tried to change the world. In the twenty-first century, it is time for them to interpret it differently’ (2000b: 390), but this is a false binary. Interpretations are also material, effecting change in the world.
Cube and Videodrome offer different ways to interpret cyberpunk’s fantasy of transcendence. Metaphors of the fantasy of friction-free capital-in-circulation, they point to ways we can change the world by insisting that capital, like information, has a body and that the way out of the trap of alienated labour is not to accommodate ourselves to the logic of network society but rather to jolt ourselves awake, to not allow capital to separate itself from labour or the Net from the self.
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1. For brief introductions to cyberpunk, see Butler 2000 and Bould 2005. More sustained treatments can be found in McCaffery 1991, Slusser & Shippey 1992, Bukatman 1993 and Featherstone & Burrows 1996.
2. Although cyberpunk invariably talks about ‘information’ or ‘data’ rather than ‘capital’, the metaphoric leap is not a big one. For example, the internet’s ‘technical’ standards, such as TCP/IP, are not in some way ‘neutral’ but were adopted in order to facilitate intra-capitalist competition within the US, with the proprietary network standards developed by Xerox, IBM and other corporations being rejected by the US state as impeding such competition and increasing state costs. We are grateful to Lee Salter for this point.
3. See Marx 1965, Nye 1994 and Bukatman 2003.
4. See Panshin & Panshin 1989 and Berger 1993.
5. Likewise, as an editor Gernsback promoted sf in which ‘the ideal proportion[s]… should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science’ (quoted in Westfahl 39), but this interweaving did not go so far as to integrate pristine ‘scientific fact’ with the narrative flow of the ‘charming romance’ but rather tried to keep them as separate and distinct components. On Gernsback, see Bould & Vint 2006.
6. Sterling 1988, reprinted in McCaffery 1991, made a point of emphasising some of these continuities. See also McGuirk 1992.
7. See, respectively, the three volumes of Capital, Hayles 1999 and McNally 2001.
8. While fully aware of the problems of reducing cyberpunk to Neuromancer, for the purposes and within the constraints of this essay, Gibson’s socio-economic imaginary, and the idiom and images depicting it, can with caution be treated as synonymous with that of cyberpunk itself.
9. See Ross 1991, Nixon 1992, Balsamo 1996 and Vint 2006 for critiques of the gender and class limitations of the cyberpunk vision of transcendence.
10. For a provocative account of multinational capital as a cancer on planetary life-organisation, see McMurtry 1999.
11. One possible source for this imagery is Escape from New York (Carpenter 1981), of which Gibson has spoken highly. In an early sequence, as Snake Plissken’s (Kurt Russell) glider descends into Manhattan, views of the physical landscape are eventually superseded by the wireframe animations on his monitors, virtual abstractions occluding real space just as his cockpit screen eventually fills the movie screen. This resonates particularly strongly with the opening of Neuromancer’s third chapter. Early attempts to visualise the space in which computers and networks operate were dominated by hardware images, as in the sequence in Scanners (Cronenberg 1981) in which Cameron Vale’s (Stephen Lack) attempt to telepathically connect to the computer is depicted by a camera viewpoint that prowls over circuit boards. Such representations were superseded by computer-generated imagery (CGI) of software space, often from a first-person viewpoint precipitated into and racing through abstract spaces, as in Tron (Lisberger 1982) and The Lawnmower Man (Leonard 1992). By the time of the Matrix trilogy (Wachowski brothers 1999, 2003, 2004), CGI was routinely used to depict not only virtual spaces but also supposedly real ones (with the curious side-effect of often rendering ‘real’ spaces less ‘realistic’ than ‘virtual’ ones), a blurring upon which Dark City (Proyas 1998) is predicated. Cypher (Natali 2002) self-consciously emphasises the interpenetration of real and virtual when depicting the protagonist’s flights between marketing conferences in various characterless cities. Along with other recent cyberpunk and sf films, like New Rose Hotel, Demonlover (Assayas 2002 ), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003) and It’s All About Love (Vinterberg 2003), Cypher captures the disorientation, alienation and fatigue of jetting between airports and hotels in a polyglot near-future unanchored by physical or monolingual markers. In each of these films, it is the privileged elite – those who most closely identify with capital – who are worn out by trying to circulate in the space of flows and instant time. Gibson’s most recent novel, Pattern Recognition (2003), set in the near-past, addresses similar concerns.
12. For a more detailed reading of Johnny Mnemonic in this vein, albeit one too beholden to linguistic idealism, see Bould 1999. The ‘bad grrl’ cyberpunk of authors like Pat Cadigan, Lisa Mason, Misha and Melissa Scott places a greater emphasis on embodiment, but typically this is experienced in a markedly heightened form only when the hacker jacks out of cyberspace. For example, in Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends (1994): ‘She leaned forward further, pressing her elbows into her thighs, not yet ready to look up and meet Huu’s eyes. The blood-spotted towel lay between her feet, where she’d dropped it, and she fixed her eyes on it as though it was something important. Her crotch was hot and wet, body lagging behind her brain, and she smelled of sex. She could hear the sucking sound of Huu peeling off the rubber gloves, and wanted for a painful instant to feel the other woman’s hands between her legs, gloved fingers pressing into her clit – She took a deep breath, shook that thought away’ (Scott 133).
13. Futurologist Ray Kurzweil collapses this metaphor, suggesting that when the AIs inevitably emerge, they will all be ‘basically entrepreneurs’ (2000: 243) or, as Steve Shaviro, criticising Kurzweil, puts it, ‘purveyors of an endlessly expanding, frictionless celestial capitalism’ (2003: 118).
14. Alluding to Roadside Picnic’s ‘meatgrinder’, Quentin calls it ‘the sushi machine’.
15. On the ways in which contradictory ideologies about gender, race, class and nationality are still used as forms of labour control in contemporary high-tech industries, see Hossfeld 2001. Numerous service industry examples, generally untheorized, can also be found in Ehrenreich 2002 and Ehrenreich & Hochschild (2002).
16. As the only non-white character, his tendency to seek physical rather than intellectual solutions and his easy resort to violence must also be read through the stereotype of black rage (see Bould 2004). Although beyond the scope of our discussion, it should be noted that his limitations can be read as a consequence of being a subject of capital strongly disadvantaged in other ways, such as by racism.
17. In addition to McNally’s work, see Collins 1999.
18. Such metaleptic play recurs throughout the film. For example, when Max’s hallucinations are recorded by a device fitted over his head, he fantasises himself in the ‘Videodrome’ arena, whipping Nicki, but the Nicki he whips is a TV monitor, her screaming face turned to the viewer. The start of this hallucination is depicted by a low-resolution image, clearly mediated by a video technology, but this soon gives way to a conventional realist screen image, encouraging us to see the continuities between fantasy and materiality in the diegetic world, and also between representation and the real.