Tuesday, May 10, 2011

neuropsychological experiences in Neuromancer

As Ayse pointed out, Neuromancer highlights the body (and bodily experience) as the mediator between the virtual world and the real world. Case's preferred version of reality exists in the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (6). In addition, his “contempt for the flesh” (6) made the removal of his abilities all the harder to take. In what amounts to be a desperate and self-destructive attempt to alleviate the burden of reality, Case turns to a variety of illicit drugs to escape the “prison of his own flesh” (6). He is also extremely aware of the physical and perceptual experiences of the chemicals he ingests; upon seeing Linda Lee in the Jarre, Case “stared at the black ring of grounds in his empty cup. It was vibrating with the speed he'd taken. The brown laminate of the tabletop was dull with a patina of tiny scratches. With the dex mounting through his spine he saw the countless random impacts required to create a surface like that” (9). Later, when trying to lose a tail, Case “felt a stab of elation, the octagons and adrenaline mingling with something else” (17).

The attention Gibson gives to these corporeal, physiological experiences reflects the importance of the body as an intersection of the virtual and the real. Furthermore, it utilizes the underground feel and counterculture behaviors associated with cyberpunk to depict reality in a way that resonates with contemporary, recreational drug use. Case's need to experience reality in a less corporeally restrictive way mirrors, for example, former Harvard Professor Timothy Leary's advocacy of psychedelic drugs such as LSD for therapy. After extensive personal indulgence in such matters, Leary spearheaded a countercultural movement during the 1960s to use psychedelics to free oneself from conventional social hierarchies, as well as to free one's mind in a spiritually transcendent way. Like Case, Leary believed that life could be far more than a mere flesh and blood experience.

Another interesting parallel between Case's desire for cyberspace and real life drug use is the physical dependency he all but develops to his virtual world. Much like chasing a high he might never experience again, Case continually alters his body neurologically in an attempt to make his corporeal imprisonment more bearable. His return to the matrix further captures his complete, psychological addiction to cyberspace: “And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the desk, tears of release streaking his face” (52).

I talked briefly about virtual realities, gaming, and consequence in my week 11 post about eXistenZ. Case's need for cyberspace also mirrors a novel form of addiction that is becoming quite prevalent in some populations: the addiction to virtual realities such as SecondLife or even massively social online games such as World of Warcraft and Starcraft. These alternate, cyber-lives effectively free people from the limitations of their physical bodies. They even provide realistic consequences to drive consumer involvement; Starcraft players are ranked in ladder matches, Warcraft heroes are measured in worth by level and loot, while SecondLife characters experience consequences that directly reflect those experienced in reality. By incorporating the body into the psychological experience of reality, Neuromancer explores the naturally addictive desire for a reality unlimited by physical and genetic restrictions.

a masculinist take on steffen-fluhr


In her essay on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a “complex psychomachia” (152), Nancy Steffen-Fluhr notes the parallel between Miles Bennell's anxieties in surrendering to alien invasion and surrendering to his feelings for his high school crush, Becky Driscoll. The author writes:

She is the familiar stranger, alien flesh to which he is about to bond himself, and he is worried that this merger may entail some loss of freedom and identity. The pod part is, at least in part, simply a surrealistic projection of these unacknowledged anxieties, of a man's terror of falling helplessly in love. (140)

Under this logic, however, I am not convinced that the climax of the movie reflects betrayal on Becky's part, nor am I convinced that Miles' refusal to surrender control supports a return to patriarchal norms. First and foremost, I'd like to argue that another hallmark of so-called “macho role-playing” (153) is the desire to command and conquer. Though Steffen-Fluhr emphasizes the stereotypical male distaste for being controlled, she focuses little discussion on the need for men to actively control their environment. Furthermore, men are presumably obsessed with power, but it was a man who acknowledged that “with great power comes great responsibility.” As a result, I'd propose that Miles' manhood took a significant blow when he succumbed to the temptation of a distant lullaby and left the love of his life all but exposed to the invaders.

In addition, the inconclusiveness of the story's ending complicates the notion that only a return to the “bi-polar values of the American patriarchy” (153) can fight off an alien invasion. This is primarily because the film fails to set up an explicit alternative: embracing the pod people would result in passionless conformity, hardly the first thing that one expects from empowering and embracing women as equals. Unless present day norms have rendered my perceptions of gender equality too far removed from those in the 1950s (very possible), or Don Siegel was attempting to associate the invasive, soul-sucking feminine pods with marriage (fun to think about, but less possible), I simply do not see how Steffen-Fluhr's is the most relevant argument (though it is certainly compelling to a particular audience).

In fact, I found the whole of Steffen-Fluhr's analysis, while detailed and well thought out, to be extremely biased toward a feminist viewpoint. It demonstrated to me just how much one's outside beliefs can influence the interpretation of a text. For example, Steffen-Fluhr's focus on the “real meaning of fear” in a kiss (139) led to her assessment that Miles blamed Becky for succumbing to her feminine weakness and falling asleep. Meanwhile, I thought that a pervasive guilt of abandonment underlay Miles' reaction to discovering that his beloved's body had been snatched. Steffen-Fluhr's propensity to identify vaginas where I might simply identify bloody, sliced palms also epitomizes for me the effect that preconceived agendas can have on literary analysis. Again, I do not mean to disrespect the school of thought from which Ms. Steffen-Fluhr makes her arguments; I just find it remarkable that we saw such different things in the same exact movie.

popularity versus integrity

A common theme I noticed in a number of our week 8 discussions involved an interesting dichotomy of exposure versus integrity. For example, Professor Carrington concluded in his presentation on black women in Utopian science fiction that while figures such as Lieutenant Uhura and Cleopatra Jones certainly broke many social barriers, they often failed to address the real, socio-political issues at stake. In addition, the discussion of popular science looked at the balance between pseudoscience driving scientific interest and the integrity (or lack thereof) of the knowledge it advocated. NASA/Trek paralleled these notions, particularly in its depiction of NASA's Teacher in Space program. That is, the popular synergy between America's space program and a popular television series about the final frontier encouraged anyone and everyone to dream of space travel. Suddenly, amazing possibilities opened up for everyday men and women (particularly the latter), and NASA capitalized on the fervor by selecting a schoolteacher to fly aboard the Challenger mission. The disaster that ensued, despite not being the result of having a schoolteacher aboard, ended the program and tarnished the hopes of countless aspiring civilian space travelers. Again, this highlights the fine line between the popular and optimistic outlook people had for space exploration and the dangers of its reality.

Professor Carrington's discussion of feminist afro-futurism, while not as extreme in its outcomes as the tragedy of Christa McAuliffe, raises a number of complex issues with respect to popularity. Most notably, he introduces the term “black superwoman” to describe a black, female protagonist whose merits are exaggerated to the degree that she could not serve as a realistic role model. Carrington argues that such characters only offer stereotypical fantasies that downplay more important issues of race and exploitation. He also notes that exploitation in popular fiction can take the form of including a particular character type on someone else's terms. For example, producers increased screen time for Nichelle Nichols in order to bring “more color on the bridge.” In addition, Nichols despised the line for which she was most well known (“hailing frequencies open”) because it represented the Star Trek writers cutting back her character's role. Despite all the shortcomings of these attempts to break racial barriers, however, the very inclusion of black women in various forms of popular fiction places them at critical social junctures. As Professor Carrington lamented, the problem is not the conceptualization of a deracialized future, but rather the question as to how we can get to such Utopia.

A final instance that illustrates a cost-benefit relationship between popularity and integrity is the phenomenon of popular science. Pseudoscience, as Sagan and Penley call it, is often readily accepted by readers and fans of science fiction as scientific fact. While this certainly drives interest in actual scientific study, it tends to exclude any semblance of the rigor and methodology that underlie true scientific thinking. Consequently, we must ask ourselves if increasued exposure is worth tge sacrifice in integrity, as well as whether or not it is possible for more nuanced concepts of black feminism, space travel, and scientific learning can become popular as well.