Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Haraway, Gibson and Incomplete Revolutions

In “A Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway optimistically portrays a future in which technological innovations have undermined the distinction between natural and human constructions. This undermining, she argues, paves the way for new understandings of race, gender and class: in an era where the body is infinitely mutable, where genetics are voluntary components of organic/mechanical syntheses, using biology as the basis for any system of social hierarchy becomes increasingly difficult. Paradoxically, she describes the move toward a non-dualistic society in terms of a series of dualisms, outlined in a rough chart halfway through the chapter. The cyborg is defined as a fusion of man/machine; this definition implicitly assumes the existence of the dichotomy that Haraway supposedly seeks to complicate and deconstruct. Her visions of future thought systems involves a translation that seems to undermine many of the messages of the piece. Can technology transform identities and societies in a truly unprecedented manner? This question is still a matter of debate: however, a reading of Molly’s character in Neuromancer seems to cast doubt upon the ability of authors to produce truly subversive futuristic identities.

Like Haraway, Gibson’s novel offers a universe that seems excitingly rebellious. Case is cast as a ‘cowboy’, a Robin Hood character who steals from the technocracies that run the world of the future. He is joined by a girl that sci-fi critics have hailed as a feminist heroine: Molly adapts the image of the femme fatale, combining sexuality and intelligence in an incredibly dangerous package. Molly’s lens implants make her a literal imagining of Haraway’s cyborg. She is part human, part machine, utilizing the technologies of the future to supplement the original boundaries of her body. But is Molly’s character an actual representation of liberated humanity, or is she subject to the same constraints and oppressions as a woman of the 21st century?

I was especially struck by Molly’s retelling of what seems to be a futuristic form of prostitution. She initially sees nothing wrong with renting out her body to willing johns, describing it as nothing more than “renting the goods.” A technological glitch, however, blurs the lines between her conscious life and her alter identity, forcing an eventual confrontation with the gruesome facts of Chiba’s sex industry. In this situation, Molly’s cyborg body doesn’t seem to be an instrument of liberation, as much as it is an easily objectified commodity. Technological innovation, here, has blurred the lines between woman and machine, by reducing Molly’s body to the status of an appliance. This is not the only scenario in which Molly’s sexuality is used against her; Riviera utilizes hypersexual images of her body in several instances throughout the book, as a means of generating titillation (for him) and unease (in the novel’s protagonists.) While Riviera’s characterization as sociopath makes it relatively easy for the reader to distance themselves from the explicit sexism in these portrayals, the character of Molly herself is no less caricatured, a Lara Croft analogue that plays to hypermasculine fantasies even as it claims to denounce them. Why is it that the most prominent female character in the book is portrayed as wearing skin-tight, sexual clothing? Why does she have to become sexually paired with the male protagonist? Why is her naked body repeatedly used as a weapon against her?

Rather than liberating future human beings from the social hierarchies of our time, the world of Neuromancer seems to have incorporated ideals of material progress while maintaining – and in this case, strengthening – the structures of many existing injustices. Gibson is a skilled writer, and his descriptions of cyberspace are nuanced and often breathtakingly beautiful. However, his careful attention to aesthetics is not a punk rebellion in itself. Gibson, like Haraway, offers the promise of technological revolution, but ultimately continues to pay allegiance to many of the dominant structures of our time.


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