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.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In case anyone's curious about the post I mentioned in class

It's from Border House Blog (a site I love love love) and a relevant section is excerpted here.

It was because the game offered me the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a
woman character I had created, a thoughtful, strong woman modeled after my
newfound role models and representing a potential vision of myself. The
scholarly Night Elven Priestess who became my main character in WoW was how I explored womanhood, became a woman, and how I learned to take pride in being a woman. She taught me how to stand up for myself, how to fight back, and
eventually how to take control of my life.

--Quinnae, "Clicks on a Keyboard: Dungeons, Dragons, and Trans-Feminism"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Parenthood and Present

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn't for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven's Achilles' heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven's nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.
Which is okay. Sometimes it's all right just to be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you've got. (Chapter 36, page 271-272)

"Their arguing–the same argument we're having now–was their downfall. The Nipponese caught up with them on a road just outside of Nagasaki... He raised the sword up above my father's head."
"It made a high ringing sound in the air," Raven says, "that hurt my father's ears."
"But it never came down."
"My father saw your father's skeleton kneeling in front of him. That was the last thing he ever saw." (Chapter 66, page 447-448)

tags: America, adversaries, historical context, legacies of war, the nuclear deterrent, parallelism

Seth has addressed the concept around human cpu, and the relation between binary and language in a better way than I could. Instead I will focus on the interactions between Raven and Hiro based on their fathers' shared past as POWs in Japan during World War II and the story they share in their final confrontation in the Metaverse. In many ways Snow Crash is about the conflict between Hiroaki "Hiro Protagonist"  and Dimitri "Raven" Ravinoff. Hiro and Raven are sort of shadow counterparts. Their shared background of mistreatment is integral in understanding the conflict of Snow Crash and what it means to our present.

Hiro straddles the racial boundary for two groups of people who were historically mistreated by the White racial majority of the United States. His father was black, the people who were brought over as slaves and are still mistreated by the bigoted racial supremacist burbclave of New South Africa. His mother was "Korean by way of Nippon" and his choice to identify with his Asian heritage, specifically with the culture of Japan or Nippon, recalls the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. One racially insensitive individual asks him, "Are you a lazy shiftless watermelon-eating black-ass nigger, or a sneaky little v.d.-infected gook?" (301). Hiro is both and neither, he is cross-cultural yet fundamentally American. Even after the fall of the government and its marginalization into the so called Feds that Y.T.'s mom worked for, Hiro functions as a representative of the cultural melting pot that defined the nation that was and still exists in the novel in some form.

In defining Hiro as cross-cultural, Black-Asian, we are really determining what is truly American. The end of the white-dominated culture is looming on the horizon. In fact, according to a recent article from the NY Times the number of multiracial children in the United States grew to 4.2 million according to the U.S. census[1]. The destruction of the U.S. as a metaphysical entity does not impede this metaphor of Hiro as representing a new kind of U.S. citizen. We only have to look at Raven to see that the U.S. still persists in a sense beyond its decimation as a political entity. For Raven lives for getting revenge on America, which he extends to not only a political organization but an entity embodying a set of ideals still present in the fragmented society of burbclaves, franchulates, and Mafia-run pizzerias.

Raven still harbors a grudge for the United States after his father was nuked not once but twice by them. This shapes his self-described "life long ambition," for as he says it "I used to have this plan– I was going to nuke America" (378). And in some ways Hiro and his final confrontation surrounds an attempt to "nuke" the power elite of society– the hackers. He makes this explicit right before Hiro executes him in the Metaverse saying, "[I] Realized my lifelong ambition" (456). Through his attempt to decimate the minds of the elite members of their futuristic society Raven is effectively getting his revenge on all of the forces of oppression that hampered his father and himself. His position as an Aleut harpooner, puts him in the position of an ethnic group that was mistreated and marginalized by colonial desires including having the government text nuclear weapons on their lands. Raven therefore represents a force with a grudge, legitimate yet leading to dangerous ends, against the established power structure of society and utilizes this technology only in so far as to cause the downfall of the whole establishment.

Raven proves to be "the baddest motherfucker in the world" and represents an ideal that Hiro cannot hope to match (271). The physical nuke that Raven carries in his sidecar makes him a literal nuclear power, which proves the deciding factor in their difference, meaning Hiro cannot hope to touch him without activating a city-buster. So instead Hiro attempts to live within his limitations. In so doing he achieves a virtual victory over Raven, while simultaneously stopping him from destroying the new cultural aristocracy by way of a Snow Crash nuke in the Metaverse. Thus it is ironic that this nuke never comes into direct play and the "nuke" he uses on what constitutes America is not one in the real world but instead the Snow Crash bomb.

Though by no means a post-racial society, the fragmented state of the United States of America is by no means a dystopia that deserves ruining by forces such as L. Bob Rife and Raven using the Asherah virus and Snow Crash to decimate and control the population. Hiro defends the right for the remnants of America to do the "four things we do better than anyone else
  • music
  • movies
  • microcode (software)
  • high-speed pizza delivery" (2).

Defining Androgynous Characters

(I misread the syllabus and accidentally posted about "A Rape in Cyberspace" last week, so I'm just going to repost it again here, hopefully this time it will be relevant)

The strangest aspect of the story to me, from a perspective gender, is contained in this excerpt: “And thus the woman in Seattle who had written herself the character called legba, with a view perhaps to tasting in imagination a deity's freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in which legba, messenger of the gods, lord of crossroads and communications, suffered a brand of degradation all-too- customarily reserved for the embodied female” Somehow the lamdaMoo became a place (for characters such as Legba and other androgynes, at least) where gender is only defined by its violation. Legba defined herself as androgynous, a god who had no need for a sex in order to exist, and yet was raped as a woman. While this presents a unique and strange situation for gender to exist, it does not occur without some theoretical hiccoups, mostly relating to its inescapable relationship with the physical world.

Even if the internet society of MOO asks us to “behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones,” it is . The case of Mr. Bungle is continually considered in the sense of how its analogues would be found in the physical world (“consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who'd been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk,” for example). By doing this, the denizens of Lambda require some sort of consistency between the two worlds, and firmly ground their imaginary plane with the rules of the physical world.

Thus, when Mr. Bungle decided to violate androgynous characters such as Legba,
his inaccurate descriptions of their selves would remove the literality of his control over them. If Legba is truly androgynous, and why not, it is a god after all, the nature of Legba implies a physicality that would make the physical descriptions of his “rape” inaccurate, as they assume Legba is a woman (at least I think, I might be mistaken). Thus, the rape becomes a description of rape, rather than the literal act itself.

To be honest, I am not sure where this takes the story. It makes Bungle’s acts no less malicious or violative on a personal level for each of the victims, only making the crime less harsh technically. Perhaps viewing the situation like this confers some sort of “power” on the digital androgyne (which could also just be taken as any digital persona that has decided not to identify a gender, rather than specifically state they have ambiguous gender), in that their indefinability makes them more elusive in a world that relies on the accurate descriptions of each of its aspects to exist. Also, I don’t really know enough about gender theory to make any of these statements about androgyny with certainty or authority, this is just an argument I’ve made off of assumption, so correct me if im wrong.

Democratic Justice

Sorry for the lateness, I got sucked into my JP draft on black hole cosmology… Just kidding. I’m actually writing about bacterial population genetics in an experiment called the “death galaxy.” No joke.

Also I guess I should put up this SPOILER WARNING for Portal 2 because of the “revenge” link.

There is an ancient Greek formulation of popular justice as what benefits your friends and harms your enemies. Various versions of justice are discussed and refuted in the Republic, but it is in the “Apology,” the retelling of Socrates’ capital trial for his dubious crime of blasphemy (I think? I haven’t read it in a while), where we can see the greasy machinery of democratic justice fully at work. Socrates’ defends his own commitment to Athens while deconstructing his accusers’ arguments. But the most interesting part (at least, the one least characteristic of “Socrates” as I imagine) is Socrates’ not-so-subtle call for revenge at the hands of his young supporters.

Whereas the Athenian jury easily sentences Socrates to death, the netizens of LambdaMOO (λμ) fail to decide on anything during their protracted meeting. It takes one of the victims to even suggest the option of the Permanent Ban (or “toading” as they called it), and although up to around 50 players to concur with both the informal and the formal petitions to ban Bungle/Jest, neither go through. The topic changed from the simple “thumbs up or down on Bungle’s virtual existence” to a serious consideration of the community’s future political direction. The accused, Mr. Bungle, even stopped by the discussion and may have evoked some sense of pity or regret. The equality of users as citizens allows this kind of democratic participation in LambdaMOO, even if its proceedings are totally ineffective.

On the other hand, even with the addition of the petition system, the enforcement of the public will, of the “tyranny of the majority,” continued to be problematic. One problem is that of numbers: in a virtual community where an elite few are very active, and most are only somewhat active, what good does it do to define a total democracy? In Athens, the small participating part of public men were really only left with a choice among the most vocal and skilled orators. The idea of an online petition among a potentially fleeting user base, as opposed to some privileged group of senior members, amplifies the apathy of choice presented to the average person behind the screen, who may easily move on from LambdaMOO to a MUD of their preference. In other words, for any user who is not seriously socially involved in the online world, there is little commitment to its development so there is no rational incentive to participate in its politics. Users may easily come and go (as shown by Bungle’s easy reincarnation as Jest), so that pure democracy is ineffectual online.

Apart from the systemic problem of the dynamic user base, its constituency of “anarchists [and] libertarians” doesn’t help the maintenance of effective democracy. The technolibertarian solution of simply muting the offending user seems not to carry the same publicly, socially, democratically satisfying thump of the banhammer. These are the competing urges between democratic justice and the political independence afforded by participation within the Internet. Conversely, we also see the power wielded by the Internet technocracy—forum moderators, torrent seeders, PHP and SQL coders—those many who are technically competent and able to implement a vast change with a simple command or just a few lines of code. The technocracy is democratic in the Athenian sense though, but instead of the τεχνη of oration which the participating public admires, it is computer wizardry (edit: and also I should link to this post).