Cyberpunks, riot people, disturbed intellectuals, thesis dealers, horny hi tech lo life speedfreaks – The Representation of the Body in the Works of William Gibson is coming to an end with the works cited. (Seriously, Cyberpunked really wanted to know if the thesis really is a thesis with all the MLA works cited standards – yes, it is. Back in the days when it actually compelled me enough to get really meticulous about it? Nowadays, not that much.) In this part I’m closing it up but before that comes the part that was the hardest to write, I guess, writing about gender and technology. I know that the American literary criticism crowd is very hell-bent on sexual and gender issues, me, I was more drawn to interface and eyecandy and I truly didn’t care if the Matrix had a cunt or not. But it probably has, as it turned out during a few lessons of movie aesthetics – oceanliners are giant cocks and the ocean is nothing but… I think that was the point where I stumbled out for the second coffee of the day. Never to return. If someone actually tries to explain that to you again, bottle him in the neck. (You can find the previous thesis parts here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.)
4. GENDER AND TECHNOLOGY
As seen from the Jackie-deck comparison in sub-chapter 3.4, I propose that though cyberpunk novels have no political agenda [save a mild level of anarchy], their symbolic and allegorical preoccupations are relatively easy to access. I definitely argue against Balsamo’s view on ” the female body as a material body and as a body that labors” and the male which is ” repressed or disappearing”. [Balsamo, online]
No cyberpunk critique could ever overlook the Chandlerian “tough dame” archetype. Joan Gordon calls cyberpunk “covert feminist science fiction” in which “men and women travel as equals” [McCaffery 196]. Gibson himself denies this in an interview with Tatsumi where he talks of the character of “the strong woman who can’t really relate to any of the other men in the narrative except for the one guy who might possibly be as strong as she is, but usually turns out not to be.” [McCaffery 198] This egalitarian toughness – known as the “riot grrl” attitude – makes this kind of women [in men’s clothing] of the male-dominated cyberpunk appealing to feminist CP SF criticism. Women, as Gordon notes, “are acculturated to be good; boys will be boys but girls can’t misbehave.” [McCaffery 200].
Gibson’s narratives, unlike feminist SF which confront issues of meaning and direction for the condition of women, are about what Bruce Sterling raves about in his foreword of Mirrorshades, the paradigm-shifting impact of technology and its integration with the street-level life [just as the famous motto goes, “hi tech lo life”], “a wide-ranging, global point of view”. [Sterling in McCaffery, 346]. Women, just as men in the on-going process of counterculture integration, are not merely victims of cultural and memetic imperatives; they are, just as Balsamo talks about cosmetic surgery, aesthetically reconstructed, serving as raw material for the fashion industry, opened up for fertilization by gendered mechanisms of surveillance.
Neuromancer is littered with countless examples of the hybridizing / sterilizing fashion imperatives. Angelo, a young subculture member, whose “face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides”, showing off “one of the nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had ever seen”, [Gibson, Neuromancer, 75-76] Wage, the fence, whose “vatgrown sea-green Nikon eyes” still give him a “forgettable mask” [Gibson, Neuromancer, 33], office girls who “looked like tall, exotic grazing animals, swaying gracefully and unconsciously”, wearing “idealized holographic vaginas of their wrists” [Gibson, Neuromancer, 97] represent the cut-and-paste body politic as mundane. The sterile aesthetization of the female body and severing its ties with nature leads to the establishment of new “naturalness”. All of Gibson’s female characters, find meaning in totalizing technology in various ways – Molly and Angie in metabolism, Rikki and Andrea in a quest for origin [both physically and “quasi-religiously”], Sandii in destruction, Rei Toei in embodiment etc.
Female roles in cyberpunk’s technological context disallow women as equals in the “console cowboy” framework. Women are utilized as metaphors for various threats of invasion and disruption of the male-as-visible, the male-as-familiar. Women iconologies are violently penetrated, dismembered and reassembled into communions with implants that enhance and violate it both at the same time.
Gibson depicts the economic and sexual reification of women in a decision between two options, pro primo, they are either subjected to surgery to be turned to lucrative prostitutes [Idoru’s Slavic Barbies fall into this category] or pro secundo, they subject themselves to prostitution to afford surgery that may enable them to pursue their dreams of independence – Molly and Burning Chrome’s Rikki typify this character.
It is in Mona Lisa Overdrive that the male imperatives give way to a world portrayed around something I dare to call matriarchal exploitation. Mona’s surgical transformation serves to protect Angie, a famous simstim star. The need to protect Angie stems from the jealousy, greed and insanity of a more powerful woman, namely Lady 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool. This is what I call matriarchical expolitation in a profit-driven and deeply patriarchical corporational machine. But what is more important here is the metaphor about that body ideals that cosmetic surgery is supposed to help us achieve are internalized, publicized and promoted by women themselves, despite their origins in male fantasies.
4.1 LONGING FOR UNITY AND DISSOLUTION
In many analyses of virtual bodies, most prominently in those of Balsamo and Sandy Stone, we discover the primal longing of the male for the female. The constant efforts to penetrate the body/machine boundary share conceptual characteristics of that desire. Penetration of the male is passive and sensual as in Stone’s garment metaphor, “To become the cyborg, to put on the seductive and dangerous cybernetic space like a garment, is to put on the female.” [Balsamo, online]. Along these lines Gibson plays with the idea of the simstim broadcast Molly and Case use in Neuromancer. “I’m fitting Moll for a broadcast rig […] so it’s probably her sensorium you’ll access. […] So now you get to find out just how tight those jeans really are, huh?” [Gibson, Neuromancer, 70].
The simstim scene in Neuromancer inverts the doll concept, Case is trapped in both cyberspace and the sensorium of Molly. However much he regards the technology a “meat toy”, he’s rather toying with his masculine freedom instead.
He knew that the trodes he used and the little plastic tiara dangling from a simstim deck were basically the same, and that the cyberspace matrix was actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in the terms of presentation, but simstim itself struck him as a gratuituous multiplication of flesh input. […]
The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color… She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes. […]
‘How you doing, Case?’ He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply. [Neuromancer, 71-72]
As bodies are often described in technological terms, machines are often invested with bodily and sexual attributes. The Industrial Age has often been associated with virile masculinity; ships and boats are linked to femininity, most possibly due to their Freudian connotations of the womb. Contemporary computers are ambiguous. Electronic technology is connected with a feminine stereotype, because it is silent, inconspicious and miniaturized and with a masculine stereotype because its amazing powers and an asexual identity due to its bland appearance.
An opposition can be observed between industrial technology (noisy, thrusting, energetic – hence masculine) and electronic technology (silent, subdued –feminine, at least according to patriarchal conceptions). This opposition is embodied – within cyberculture – by the contrast between the phallic and hypermasculine cyborgs of popular culture and the feminized, mystified computer with its concealed and internal workings. It is of common knowledge that both hardware and software engineers often find computers in all sense of the word hopelessly baffling.
4.2 A DREAD OF REPRODUCTION
A similar dread of technology – mapped onto the female body – is clearly exemplified in Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis (1926). It embodies the typical fears of the American science fiction movie: those of becoming uncontrollable on the part of machines and of male-dominated forms of technological reproduction may supplant biological reproduction. The novelty of Metropolis is Maria, the lascivious robot, who exemplifies the female crafted from the machine [as man]. The fear of change in female reproduction has by the way developed into the body invasion cliché. Movies such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Fly (1958) or Alien (1979) all articulate the fear of the “other” reproduction, or rather, the fear of losing male control over female reproductive capacity. These movies stress that bodies can be violated and contaminated, that uncontrolled conception and birth are always synonymous with the breeding of monsters.
Adele Clarke takes this argument further to the re/commodification of children in the post-industrial age, taking a peek into the future.
Today among the affluent, the value of children may lie in different social securities of identity, embodiment, enmindment, achievement. […] Beingness is commoditized: racialized white [Frankenberg 1993], gendered male, tall, athletic, healthy and smart [as implied by IQ] 
Babies, according to Clarke, are are targeted towards families in mass delivery, inflicted by “individually tailored technological alternations” . The postmodern reproductive processes differentiate three levels of existence, which are 1, the “lived” body, which can be experienced, 2, the social body, a well-grounded symbol for anthtropologists to think about relationships between culture, society and nature and 3, body politic, which are “artifacts of social and political control” [Clarke 140]. Along the lines of these three aspects of representative existence she argues that bodies are to be customized and manipulated, so in body as in terms of domestic communities, by social services, medical welfare institutions and zaibatsus. Motherhood is to be deconstructed, family is to become a new niche for industry and marketing.
The children we find in Gibson’s stories are notorious. Chrome of Burning Chrome is someone with “a sweet little heart-shaped face framing the nastiest pair of eyes you ever saw. She’d looked fourteen for as long as anyone could remember, hyped out of anything like a normal metabolism on some massive program of serums and hormones.” [Gibson, Burning Chrome 208] , Nance in “Dogfight” is a psychological case who, destabilized by her parents’ mindlock is capable only of mental production until the age of 18, the end of her school days. Kumiko is also disabled by the death of her mother and the tyrannical reign of her Yakuza father. Silencio of All Tomorrow’s Parties is a mystic character capable of accessing highly classified data. Angie Mitchell, the most notorious example of a child literally wired into adulthood. All of these characters exist through their addenda, namely the drugs (Chrome, Nance), technology (Kumiko, Silencio) or both (Angie).
4.3. GENDER ROLES IN CYBERPUNK
Cyberpunk’s approach to gender roles is highly ambiguous – it appears to perpetuate as well as to subvert stereotypical representations of masculinity and femininity. Gibson’s Virtual Light amusingly comments on these stereotyping tendencies of gender polarizations. Describing Rydell’s response to computer imaging as a high school kid, the narrator observes: “..the girls were always doing these unicorns and rainbows and things, and Rydell liked to do cars, kind of dream-cars, like he was some designer in Japan somewhere and he could build anything he wanted…” [Gibson, Virtual Light 316]. The irony lies with the fact that the girls’ overtly fantastic creations are not all that different from Rydell’s constructs, given the latter’s own fantastic character. As far as generalizations go, males can be identified with mind in the Sprawl trilogy, females with the body. This gender-specific arrangement breaks down when stereotypical traits are imposed upon the other sex.
In Neuromancer, Case is a potential reincarnation of the macho crook of classic crime fiction, yet he never conveys an image of triumphant masculinity. His mental atrophy, emotional dislocation and physical frailty do little to evoke impressions of virility. Molly’s gender connotations are also ambivalent. Reminiscent of the tough dame of the mean-street genre of Chandler, she may alternatively be read as the liberated woman or a stereotype. Her description of a working girl means either a tenacious fighter or a prostitute of a special rank [the doll]. As hinted later in Neuromancer, her task was to cater the desires of sadists while she was neurally cut out by a software. Her vulnerability is emphasized by the fact that she has suffered more than anyone in the trade due to an incompatibility between the cut-out chip implanted in her body [which is to ensure she cannot be aware of what is done to her by her clients] and the circuitry implanted by the Chiba black clinics.
Molly’s sexual exploitation and her encoding as a representation of death seemingly endows her with a passive identity. She is physically and psychologically objectified, sexually dominant and in intercourse with Case, she is described more competent and active than her partner. Of course, it could be argued that even the image of an assertive and sexually/professionally independent woman may contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchal stereotypes. Arguably, the reason for this type of woman being popular among male consumers of action fiction is that she incarnates the hard and thoroughly technologized female body and is able to counteract the sense of threat that is traditionally associated with the soft and unbounded “natural” body of woman. Evidence for this is supplied by the fact that in physically possessing Case, she is instrumental to the surfacing of potent mental impressions in his self, sex with her evokes in Case pictures of a lost cyberspace. Her competence is also conveyed throughout the novel by various descriptive details: consider the image of Molly “dissecting her crab with alarming ease” [Gibson, Neuromancer 90], followed by a display of table manners: “Molly.. extruded the blade from her index finger and speared a grayish slab of herring” [Gibson, Neuromancer 91]. Note also that Molly cannot cry, her tearducts have been routed back into her mouth so that she can spit instead of crying.
The sense of mystery associated with the notion of intercourse above and the sexual act’s inevitable implication with the meat its heroes are supposed to long to escape underscores that sex based on the interplay of the human and the technological is not totally mechanical, for powerful bodily energies are incessantly at work:
It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. [Neuromancer 284-285]
The fact that “only the body” is capable of reading the “sea of information” underscores the enduring powers of the flesh. Also, in accessing cyberspace, console cowboys both protract a myth of patriarchal dominance and are rendered impotent by their absorption in a disorienting array of data.
Furthermore, Neuromancer challenges the cultural codes that define individuals in sexual terms, as either active or passive. In the virtual interactions between Molly and Case [in the simstim scene], Case experiences things through Molly’s body, catching a glimpse of what it might be like to be a woman. He realizes “just how tight those jeans really are” and finds the “passivity of the situation irritating” [Gibson, Neuromancer 70, 72] At the same time, passivity is displaced from the female to the male body, as Molly is in a position to reproduce powerful tactile impressions without Case being able to reciprocate.
4.3.2 OSMOSE: A FEMININE CONSTRUCT IN CYBERSPACE
Cyberpunk, as I have shown, is not unproblematically dominated by patriarchal imperatives. Although cyberspace perpetuates male myths of spatial conquest, women also actively contribute to the construction of Net structures that address specificially feminine issues and developed their own versions of virtual reality. A particularly interesting case is Osmose, a virtual space developed by Char Davies and her team in the mid- to late 1990s.
Osmose is an immersive and interactive VR environment comprising twelve interrelated levels: the Cartesian Grid; the Clearing; the Forest; the Cloud; the Earth; the Code; the Text; the Pond; the Abyss; the Leaf; the Tree and the Life-World. These realms are non-linear, “semi-representational and translucent” [Davies, Changing Space] and are characterized by a certain quality of fluidity. Osmose, according to Char Davies’ “very emotional”, its interface is founded upon breathing and balance, not upon the traditional navigational system of the prying eye and the probing head. It is a metaphor for the mutual absorption and dissolution of body and mind, inner and outer, self and world, man and machine. Osmose is compared to a deep sea/ocean dive, resembling “pure limitless space, fluid, enveloping, interior, embryonic“ [Davies, notes, online] It is “an expression of longing. The desire to re-affirm our essential physical and spiritual inter-connectedness, to heal the estrangement between ourselves and Nature, between ourselves and “being”, is a germinal force behind OSMOSE“ [Davies, notes, online]
Cyberpunk radically reconfigures our grasp of corporeality with repercussions on gender issues. As it can be seen, cyberculture articulates a deep sense of instability. Definitions of cyberculture itself are fundamentally unstable due to their openness. Additionally, our understanding of both cyberculture and its fictional constellations in cyberpunk is destabilized by intimations that technology is steeped in fantasy. This ambiguity of biological and urban bodies alike typify the general atmosphere of impermanence evoked by cyberpunk.
We cannot conceptualize an autonomous body in cyberpunk fiction. Bodies and identities are are not subjectivities, they are intertextualities. The new cyber body in the grasp of the autonomous conscious mind becomes a faciality that signifies a body more textual and technological, than physical.
The massive data exchange of the information society reinterprets bodies as files, quantities of data that belong together. Case, Bobby Quine, Tick and all other console cowboys are self-contained nets upon whom data transfers impact directly – physically. In this respect the whole world is reinterpreted. Material bodies, just as Kroker says, disappear. Technology serves as an opportunity of the reinterpretation and reorganization of cultural narratives of gender and race identities.
Cyberspace (the matrix, the womb) shifts the realms of desire, sensuality and sexuality to a state-of-being which enables characters to embody traits of the opposite sex, to objectify their lusts and to immerse in a sensory realm where their minds can converge the same level of dissolution of their bodies.
The cyborg framework which Gibson introduces works on the basis of interchangeability, functionality and addenda. The classical body of Greek aestheticism now requires a prosthesis of its own to accomodate to the “hyperreal”. These bodies exist without meaning, referring only to themselves. They designed themselves and propel themselves onward, driven by powerful imperatives of economy, self-totalization and sexuality.
The post-industrial zeitgeist led to the re-adaptation of the body as the gate of the senses. The body tries to include the mind – the user – into itself, beyond complete dissolution of consciousness. VR interface links man and machine to symbiotic proximity. VR projects images directly to the mind and the ever increasing sense of reality blurs the simulation between digital and real worlds, clarifying the point that both cyberspace and its inhabitants are rightfully dubbed as simulacra. A new human ideal appears, schizoid in the sense that in its unitary physical body springs up a longing for a multiplicity of identity models which is completely attainable through biotechnology [cf. the revolutionary biochip technique in Angie Mitchell through which she can access cyberspace’s Voodoo spirits], biochips or constructs such as Dixie Flatline.
As for what Gibson replies to the question “Is cyberspace a better world?”,
There is an tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the western civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. I have never been entirely sure that that’s such a good thing, and in an interesting way this technology is pointing in that direction. One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I’ve played with in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious. But I’ve never presented that as an desirable state, always as something almost pathological growing out of this technology. [Joseffson, online]
projects a new evolution which slowly but indiscernably evades the body, jumping from animal to man, from man to cyborg, from cyborg to a corporate triumvirate of identity, integrity and structure.
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