#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991
Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System
A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not
seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualities without end (or
until the world ends); it takes irony for granted.—Donna Haraway
The subject "is [the] body and [the] body is the potentiality of a certain
world," according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (106). At the intersection of
cybernetics and phenomenology, the body already operates as an interface
between mind and experience, but in contemporary SF and horror, the body is also
narrated as a site of exploration and transfiguration, through which an
interface with an electronically-based postmodern experience is inscribed. The
body is no longer simply the repository of the soul; it has become a cyborg
body, one element in an endless interface of bio-technologies. The SF text
stages the superimposition of technology upon the human in all its effects: the
computer alone has been figured as a prosthetic extension of the human, as an
addictive substance, as a space to enter, as a technological intrusion into
human genetic structures, and, finally, as a replacement for the human in a
posthuman world. The obsessive restaging of the refiguration of the body posits
a constant redefinition of the subject through the multiple superimposition of
bio-technological apparatuses. In this epoch of human obsolescence, however, a
remarkably consistent imaging/imagining of both body and subject ultimately
The cyborg performance art of Stelarc exemplifies these concerns with a
techno-surrealist sense of transgression, and with an immediate emphasis upon
the flesh—as paradigmatic a landscape for postmodern exploration as cyberspace
itself. Stelarc, an Australian performance artist living in Japan, has filmed
his bodily interior, amplified its functions, enhanced its abilities, and worked
towards "the body's transcendence of all conventional boundaries." As
cyberpunk John Shirley has written of Stelarc, "All the signposts direct us to
Through the sonic amplification of his bodily functions, Stelarc transforms
his body into "an acoustical landscape"—an array of beats, beeps, and
gurgles. Here the subject is replaced into the continuity of biological process,
but this fusion is only performed through a symbiosis with electronic
technology. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker note that Stelarc "makes of his own
body its own horizon of sometimes repulsive, sometimes fascinating,
possibilities" (25). He has explored and experimented with the "architecture"
of the body, treating the body as an "environment which needs to be made more
adaptable." Stelarc's most recent work has moved from mapping the body,
acoustically and cinematically, to extending and enhancing its capabilities. His
performance, "Event for Amplified Body, Laser Eyes, and Third Hand," features
a new limb activated by his abdominal and thigh muscles, while his real left arm
is "controlled" by the random electrical impulses of a muscle stimulator. Stelarc bounces laser beams off mirrored contact lenses,
"drawing" with the
light which emanates from his eyes. Shirley quotes Stelarc as stating, "We're at
the time now where we have to start redesigning the human body to match the
technology we've created....[We] are confronted by the end of the human form as
we know it."1
1. J.G. Ballard's Crash obsessively narrates a sacrificial
violence which empties the human experience of any transcendent meaning. It is a
brilliantly ironic work, set in a post-industrial landscape of highways and
automobiles, high rises and airports, television sets and billboards. It is a
landscape in which the erotic is denied, repressed, and paved over by layers of
concrete, tarmac, and chrome. Vaughan, the "hero" of Crash, fantasizes
his death in a headlong collision with Elizabeth Taylor. The narrator,
"Ballard," is ever-increasingly drawn towards Vaughan's vision of transcendent
sex and violence. Vaughan has reinvested the de-eroticized landscape with the
passion of desire:
Two months before my accident, during a journey to Paris, I had become so
excited by the conjunction of an air hostess's fawn gaberdine skirt on the
escalator in front of me and the distant fuselages of the aircraft, each
inclined like a silver penis towards her natal cleft, that I had
involuntarily touched her left buttock. (§4:41)
The geometrical alignment of escalator, woman's hip, and distant airplane
become urgently sexualized, but only in the precise language of the engineer.
Eroticism becomes a question of mathematics, of alignment. Ballard mocks the
functionalist understanding of the human as a single component in a rational
system; while both driver and automobile are defined in dispassionate terms as
problems in engineering, both are also endowed and imbued with the irrational
potentials of erotic desire and violence.
Ballard's achievement is to narrate a profoundly isolating contemporary
environment within which Vaughan seeks a joyful synthesis with the very objects
which distance the subjects and reinforce the discontinuous experience of being.
Georges Bataille writes that "the movement that pushes a man in certain cases
to give himself (in other words, to destroy himself) not only partially but
completely, so that a bloody death ensues, can only be compared, in its
irresistible and hideous nature, to the blinding flashes of lightning that
transform the most withering storm into transports of joy" (69). In Crash,
tragedy becomes consummation: "Vaughan dreamed endlessly of the deaths of the
famous, inventing imaginary crashes for them. Around the deaths of James Dean
and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate
fantasies" (§1:15). Vaughan's dreamt-of crash into the movie star's limousine
becomes an act of sacrifice, an automutilation, which reestablishes his
continuity with the world by literally crashing through the separations—both
physical and spectacular—to achieve the complete fusion of a technologically
eroticized and violent death. Ballard simultaneously mocks and evokes the
"drive" towards transcendence and continuity. Few works of SF, indeed of
literature, have attained such a level of transgression.2
Perhaps the only other SF novel to appropriate Bataille's notion of
sacrificial mutilation is Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, first published in 1952—an
extraordinary anomaly, deriving imagery from Bataille while anticipating the
cybernetic paranoia of Pynchon.3 It is a dense, philosophical novel
set in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by the functionist cybernetic
paradigms of Norbert Wiener, whose theory of cybernetics provided, in the 1950s,
"simultaneously a theory of communication and a promising technology of
control" (Haraway, Primate Visions 106). The narrator, Doctor Martine,
reflects that "People, cowed by the machines that had grown bigger than
themselves, could no longer think except in mechanical terms" (§5:51). Wolfe
is explicit about the power of a managerial revolution in a cybernetically-defined
society (which includes both American and Soviet cultures)4 and the
need to construct a mass culture "welded together into a tight, quickly
mobilized monolithic unit whose nerve centers were the lightning quick mass
In the postwar environment that Martine tours, societies perform lobotomies
and amputations on their citizens, not only to prevent the possibility of war,
but in order to move closer to the immobile perfections of a machine-like
status. On one occasion Martine listens to a lecturer for whom "the machine is
eternally the brain's dream of fulfillment":
After the agony of the Third, the war in which the dream of perfection
became a steamrollering nightmare, this brain has finally discovered how to
link itself to its own projected vision—it has lopped off its animalistic
tails. It has suddenly made the breathtaking discovery that the perfection
of EMSIAC and other robot brains lies in the fact that they are sheer brain
with no irrelevancies, no arms and legs, just lines of communication and
feedbacks—and it has begun to overhaul itself in the image of the robot.
In Limbo, sacrificial mutilation is performed in the service of
an instrumental, managerial reason, and not—as in Bataille's examples—as a sign
of madness and the end of the rational. Wolfe brilliantly demonstrates the power
of the technocratic society to co-opt and assimilate the most apparently
subversive doctrines and behaviors. Thus the philosophy of "Immob":
Immob is the cyber-cyto dialectic—the dwindling distance between
cybernetics and cytoarchitectonics. The bridging of the gap between the
mechanical and the human—the discovery of the Hyphen between machine and
man—this enabling man finally to triumph over the machine because it's man
who has the Hyphen and not the machine. (§12:142)
Here is religious ecstasy and fusion; here is a terminal identity which is
purely a surrender to the cybernetic predictability of the machine.
It is tempting to equate the cyberpunks (or their protagonists) with the
Immobs, since both are implicated in a technological sublime which substitutes
the invisible cybernetic flow of the computer for the physical mobility of the
human. Just as the Immobs operate in service to a machine-driven economy, so the
cyberpunks ultimately serve the increasing penetration of the machine into all
aspects of quotidian existence. The transgressive collisions of Ballard's Crash
have been superseded by the kinetic appropriation of cyberspace. There is no
irony in William Gibson's Neuromancer when the hero is presented with his
brand new brand-name cyberdeck, for in Neuromancer, the drive is
all, the crash is nothing.5 Amputation and lobotomy are the analogies
when he is unable to "jack in" to the computer space.
But as a character in Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix observes, the old
categories are a bit outmoded, and are breaking up. Technologies are more
prevalent, but less centralized: we are already cyborgs, despite Wolfe's
apprehensions. The category of instrumental reason has been superseded by a
culture which seems increasingly dispersed and immersed in the process of
In her striking and effective "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," Donna Haraway has
argued for a feminist, progressive cyborg mythos constituted within a postmodern
context which blurs distinctions between organism and machine in a high-stakes
Late-twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the
difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing
and externally-designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to
organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we
ourselves frighteningly inert. (69)
Thus, "by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all
chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we
are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics" (67)
The polemical advantage of the cyborg, for Haraway, is that it resists being
encoded as natural. "The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of
identification with nature in the Western sense" (67). "We cannot go back
ideologically or materially" (81), she writes, recalling a character in Bruce
Sterling's Schismatrix who says, "There's no going back. That's a game
for those who still have flesh." For both writers, the cyborg inhabits a
post-human solar system—"posthuman" in biological terms, and in the
ideological sense of "human" as a particular mythos of "natural"
individualism. As Foucault indicated, in an oft-quoted passage, "man is only a
recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our
knowledge, and...he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has
discovered a new form" (xxiii). There's no going back.
One finds in Haraway's writing a rejection of the instrumental forces of
technocratic reason in favor of a pleasurable and utopian excess. In her
discussion, the interplay of continuities and discontinuities is striking: "So
my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions and dangerous
possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed
political work" (71). The dualisms which structure too much socialist and
feminist thought need to be supplanted: "A cyborg body is not innocent; it was
not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate
antagonistic dualities without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for
granted" (99). Haraway's cyborg mythology assails the dispassionate rationalism
of power structures while it overturns discontinuities of a gender-based
ideology. "Haraway's originality," Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues,
in terms equally valid for critical theory and SF, is her notion of
imagining utopia by moving through the 'heart' of dystopia. Recovering the
cyborg from [its] role as ideological legitimator (for conservative
humanists and naive technophiles both), Haraway attempts to clear a new path
for utopian rationality through the sprawl of instrumental rationalizations.
"Cyborg politics" opens the prospect of technological symbiosis as a
progressive alternative, rather than a simple masculine fantasy of "natural"
mastery and domination. In fact, that symbiosis has already been attained: "The
boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion,"
she declares (66).
2. Cyberpunk, a subgenre of commercial SF, remains the literary form most
centrally concerned with the rhetorical production of a complex imbrication
between the human subject and the electronically defined realities of the
Dataist Era. The deeply influential fiction of William Gibson has been analyzed ad
nauseam, but a consideration of the movement's other "leader," Bruce
Sterling, reveals some very different strategies. Sterling has occupied the
center of cyberpunk territory since the advent of the movement, and he continues
to serve as its most valuable spokesperson, editor, and polemicist. The volume
of cyberpunk writings that he edited, Mirrorshades, has contributed more
to the general understanding of cyberpunk than any text besides Neuromancer,
while his authorial collaborations with Gibson, Lewis Shiner, and Rudy Rucker
have produced fundamental texts. In fact, the coherence of cyberpunk as a
movement is, to a large degree, attributable to Sterling's persistence and
Much of Sterling's fiction is similar to Gibson's in its dense, hyperbolized
appropriation of technical languages, and in the clear recognition and
acceptance of the conditions of the Information Age. As in Neuromancer,
corporations and cartels serve as the ruling power; nations have ceased to
exist. Computers, data screens, and terminals dominate here as much as in
Gibson, although video is more prevalent in Sterling's diegesis, both as fact
and as paradigmatic structure. These similarities are evident, but there are
equally apparent differences between the two authors that undermine the
stylistic consistency implied by the "cyberpunk" label. Sterling's narrative
structures are less derivative of other genres, and there is little of the
literary quality of Gibson's prose, which is replete with echoes of his literary
antecedents and pop-culture forerunners (such as Raymond Chandler and the Velvet
Underground). His impact has also been less overtly marked; it is difficult to
think of another writer who is emulating Sterling's textual formations,
formations that are significantly more dense and perhaps slightly less profound
(at least on the surface) than those of Gibson.
In his most characteristically cyberpunk writings, the Shaper/Mechanist
series, Sterling remains entirely within the physical universe: the rhetorical
and phenomenological freedoms of cyberspace are not to be had. Without the
ecstatic possibilities inherent in that particular paraspace, there is in
Sterling's work a more pronounced ambivalence revealed in its negotiation of the
electronic and cybernetic datascape.
The Shaper/Mechanist series consists of five short stories—"Swarm" and "Spider Row" (1982),
"Cicada Queen" (1983), "Sunken Gardens" and "Twenty
Evocations" (1984)—and the novel Schismatrix.6 The postulated
future is set in a "posthuman solar system" in which different
visions of humanity's successors struggle for dominance. The Shapers are
generally "reshaped" beings with amplified intelligence, disease-free bodies,
and unprecedented muscular control. Their adversaries are the Mechanists, cyborg
formations whose posthuman abilities are a function of comprehensive
technological augmentation. The conflicts are set amidst a solar system of
asteroid mines, orbital colonies, alien traders, and an anachronistic (and
unvisited) Earth. By the end of Schismatrix, even this dichotomy is
'The old categories, Mechanist and Shaper—they're a bit outmoded these
days, aren't they? Life moves in clades.' He smiled. 'A clade is a daughter
species, a related descendent. It's happened to other successful animals,
and now it's humanity's turn. The factions still struggle, but the
categories are breaking up. No faction can claim the one true destiny for
mankind. Mankind no longer exists.' (§6:183)
Within the context of a postmodern culture that has proclaimed the death of
the author as well as the imminent death of "Man," Sterling's fiction seems to
be, if not exemplary, at least relevant.
The prose that presents this posthumanist future is dense, technical,
jargon-ridden, and at times it approaches the indecipherable. Here Lindsay
Abelard, modified human, surveys a space station:
The grapelike cluster of cheap inflatables was hooked to an interurban
tube road. He floated at once down the lacquered corridor and emerged
through a filament doorway into the swollen transparent nexus of crossroads.
Below was Goldreich-Tremaine, with its Besetzny and Patterson Wheels
spinning in slow majesty; with the molecule-like kinks and knobs of other
suburbs shining purple, gold, and green, surrounding the city like beaded
yarn. At least he was still in G-T. He headed for home. (§5:158)
This baroque techno-babble is far from Sterling's only prose style. He has,
in fact, a talent for pastiche, and several of his fantasy stories have mimicked
oral and Asiatic narrative voices. His most recent novel, the near-future Islands
in the Net, is written in a comparatively straightforward manner. One can
therefore deduce that the paraspatial density of the Shaper/Mechanist fiction is
a strategy deliberately designed to produce specific effects in the reader.
The compression increases from story to story: not until "Cicada Queen"
does the style approach that of Schismatrix. In his analysis of
Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist fictions, cyberpunk writer Tom Maddox has noted that
"Swarm" and "Spider Rose" "use the Shaper/Mechanist context as the ground
for rather traditional SF." In the third story, however, the thematic concerns
of the series are foregrounded: "With 'Cicada Queen,' the trope of posthumanism
acquires symbolic depth, and the Mechanist/Shaper series its own higher level of
complexity" (240). Maddox is primarily referring to the concepts Sterling
deploys, but his observations hold true for the language of the narrative as
well. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between "the trope of posthumanism" and the rhetorical density of the Shaper/Mechanist series.
Sterling is engaged in the production of a unique textual matrix that emerges
from a web (or "net") of discourses; economics, politics, history, technology,
and narrative all intersect to produce an ideolect that, at times, is hardly narrative
at all. Instead, the effect is of a carefully developed semiotics of the future.
The works are crawling with a sensory overload: colors, textures, and odors are
a part of every description (the attention to color is especially reminiscent of
SF by Delany and Zelazny). Abelard has been trained as a diplomat by the shapers, and so is overtly aware of the meaning behind every gesture. The body
is qualified by its signifying function, as in this observation by an alien
Investor: "In civilized Investor life [the frills] were a relic, like the human
eyebrow, which had evolved to deflect sweat. Like the eyebrow, their social use
was now paramount" (§6:166).
The Shaper/Mechanist writing almost demands a deconstructive engagement
through its willfully contradictory metaphors, signs, and terms. When a
character in Schismatrix says, "I'm wired to the ass," the phrase is
meant to be taken literally on at least one level: the character is
technologically augmented to a maximal degree (today, the phrase implies a
purely figurative sense of intoxication, while yet another reading might be
possible in, for example, a text by William Burroughs, in which the anatomical
details would be more explicit). Sterling's very title is oxymoronic: a schismatrix
which inserts an entirely contradictory tension between the schism, or
gap, and the matrix, or connective network (as in a mathematical matrix).
Also, in this tale of diplomacy, betrayal, and commerce, it's difficult not to
read the title as a pun on schismatic: one who promotes or exploits a
schism. Finally, the term is perfect for the status of the information in the
Dataist Era—physically dissolute, yet conversely bound more closely together
than at any other moment in history.
Perhaps most strikingly, Sterling's cyborg prose is marked by an obsessive
deployment of technological and biological metaphors; each is nearly always
described in terms of the other. It is this tropological system, at once
contradictory and appropriate, that distinguishes the paraspatial quality of the
Shaper/Mechanist discourse. This imbrication of human and machine is first
signaled by a deployment of insect metaphors;7 indeed, the first
three Shaper/Mechanist stories, "Swarm," "Spider Rose," and "Cicada
Queen," incorporate such metaphors into their very titles. In "Sunken
Gardens" machines are described in insectoid (and arachnoid) terms: "The
crawler lurched as its six picklike feet scrabbled down the slopes of a
deflation pit" (81); "The crawler ran spiderlike along the crater's snowy
rim" (83); "The black crawler was crouched with its periscoped head sunk
downward, as if ready to pounce. Its swollen belly was marked with a red
hourglass and the corporate logos of its faction" (85). In these examples, the modeling of machine upon insect/arachnid is obvious and diegetic, but note also
that Sterling emphasizes a certain mechanical autonomy: "The crawler worked its
way up the striated channel of an empty glacier bed" (82). The story presents
rival factions working to create a viable biosphere on a terraformed Mars; that
these scrabbling mechanical spiders and mantises should engineer such
metamorphoses is typical of Sterling's deformations. Life—the flora and fauna
deployed by the crawlers—seems more like an infection spread by cybernetic
carriers. Insect forms also recur in Schismatrix in the form of trained
killer butterflies and the ubiquitous multi-colored roaches that have
accompanied humanity into space, feeding upon its detritus. "If it weren't for
the roaches, the Red Consensus would eventually smother in a moldy
detritus of cast-off skin and built-up layers of sweated and exhaled effluvia"
Insects are only the most evident metaphorical process conflating a number of
irreconcilable terms such as life/non-life, biology/technology, human/
machine. Throughout the Shaper/Mechanist fictions, Sterling's tropological
systems become more complex, as the operations of SF syntax produce an emergent
synthesis of the organic and the cybernetic—a soft machine. For example, in
this description of an asteroid mining colony in Schismatrix, rock,
biotics, and technology intersect: "Trade secrets were secure within Dembowsha's bowels, snug beneath kilometers of rock. Life had forced itself like
putty into the fracture in this minor planet: dug out its inert heart and filled
it with engines" (§6:181). None of the metaphors Sterling uses here is
particularly original, but in their aggregate, the effect is notable. Here is
Abelard's mechanical arm: "Lindsay ran his mechanical hand over his coils of
gray hair. The steel knuckles glittered with inlaid seed-germs; the wire tendons
sparkled with interwoven strands of fiberoptics" (§5:142). "Wire tendons" is
to be taken literally, but then what ought the reader to do with the "coils"
of hair? The confusion between literal and figurative languages is fundamental
to the experience of Schismatrix, forcing the reader to negotiate among
dichotomies that are no longer dichotomous. Alien recording tape might be
alive: "Slowly, a memory, either biological or cybernetic, took hold of it. It
began to bunch and crumple into a new life form" (§?:188). The
Shaper/Mechanist system is oxymoronic, its coherence and plausibility guaranteed
only by the binding structures of language, specifically the language of SF.
Sterling often achieves a kind of high-tech cyborg poetry: "And there it was:
the outside world. There was not much of it: words and pictures, lines on a
screen. She ran her fingertips gently over the scalding pain in her knee"
There is, in Sterling's writing, a profound acceptance of the human as a
complex network of biological, political, technological, economic, and even
aesthetic forces (which recalls much of the SF produced by more explicitly
feminist writers). To some degree, Sterling locates the technological as the
determinant structure in defining the range of cultural systems. Even the
central political struggle in the Shaper/Mechanist stories is technologically
determined, as a character tells Abelard:
The Shapers, the Mechanists—those aren't philosophies, they're
technologies made into politics. The technologies are at the core of it.
Science tore the human race to bits. When anarchy hit, people struggled for
community. The politicians chose enemies so that they could bind their
followers with hate and terror. Community isn't enough when a thousand new
ways of life beckon from every circuit and test tube. (§6:185)
If Sterling subscribes to a model of technological determinism, then that
model is always tempered by the recognition of technology's imbrication with
other mutually affecting forces. Like Althusser's "in the last analysis" model
of economic determinism, Sterling seems to recognize that "the last analysis"
is only an abstraction. And if there was ever an "essential" human nature,
then surely there is no longer. Neither does Sterling lament its passage (and
thereby turn the Shaper/Mechanist future into a cautionary parable). Instead
there is a consistent acknowledgment of the complex and conditional status of
4. What Sterling shares most deeply with Gibson and others of the
cyberpunk movement (and what the cyberpunks share with the horror genre) is a
surrealist perspective that revels in the deformation and destruction, the
resurrection and reformation, of the human. Taking their cues from Burroughs and
Pynchon as well as from Bataille and Breton and Dali and Man Ray, the
technotactics of cyberpunk transform the rational structures of technological
discourse to produce instead a highly poeticized, dreamlike liberation. The
languages of science and technology are inverted by a metaphorical system of
language which effaces the borders between conscious and unconscious, physical
and phenomenal realities, subject and object, individual and group, reality and
simulacrum, life and death, body and subject, future and present. The
Shaper/Mechanist and Cyberspace fictions construct collages, placing the subject
in urbanesque cyberspaces, or within insect mechanisms in alien habitats. The
human is emplaced within the machine; the human becomes an adjunct to the
machine: the cyborg is a cut-up, a juxtaposition, a bricolage of found
If these works fail to provide the surrealistically scatological pleasures of
the works of Bataille or Bunuel, much less those of Burroughs or Pynchon, then
this should be read in terms of the texts' intricate relation to the genre of
SF. Unlike the more overtly literary mannerisms of the SF produced by the New
Wave or Dangerous Visions groups in the 1960s and '70s—fiction with far
more evident connections to both the Surrealist and Beat movements—the
cyberpunk writings are not presented as subversive of the genre. These are SF
texts which seem to exploit, and not to exceed, the language and protocols
of the genre to which they belong. If '80's SF is "more liberatory," as Fred Pfeil would have it, it is precisely because of its explicit imbrication with
lived experience and its "frenzied tryings-on of a new, cybernetic sense of
identity" (88). The sustained inscription of a spectacular discourse of the
body in cyberpunk is conspicuous and remarkable.8 In fact, it is
possible to regard the "shocking" erotic contents and stylistic tricks of the
New Wave writers as more derivative and more dated. As Debord wrote in 1957,
"We now know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing
is monotonous, and the whole genre of ostentatious surrealist 'weirdness' has
ceased to be very surprising" (19). Very little that occurred after the
psychedelic rediscovery of surrealism would necessitate revising that
assessment. On the other hand, cyberpunk's technological imagination,
cut-up structures, and cybernetic "weirdness" succeed in "catalyzing for
a certain time the desires of an era." In these more positive terms, cyberpunk "endeavor[s] to define the terrain of a constructive action on the
basis of the spirit of revolt and the extreme depreciation of traditional means
of communication," which is how Debord characterized the emergence of
surrealism (it might be noted that cyberpunk also avoids "Futurism's puerile
technological optimism" ). I am far from arguing for the superiority of
cyberpunk over the libidinal excesses of the Surrealist movement, but I am
proposing that cyberpunk constitutes a discourse within which many concerns and
techniques of surrealism again become relevant—a techno-surrealist production
of new flesh, a terminal flesh. The cyberpunk narrations indeed speak with the
voices of repressed desire and repressed anxiety about terminal culture.
Cyberpunk negotiates a complex and delicate trajectory between the forces of
instrumental reason and the abandon of a sacrificial excess. Through their
construction of a cultural politics inscribed by the forces of a technological
reason, and through their resistance to the constraints of that reason, the
texts promise and even produce a transcendence of the human condition which is
also always a surrender.
5. To conclude, it is worth considering some postulations by Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who write extensively about the Body without Organs
(or the BwO, as they would have it). The BwO, a fantasy they encounter in Artaud
and other discourses of madness, is an abstraction of subject annihilation, Being
Degree Zero: "Where psychoanalysis says, 'Stop, find your self again,' we
should say instead, 'Let's go further still, we haven't found our BwO yet, we
haven't sufficiently dismantled our self"' (151). The BwO is opposed to the
"depth" of the subject:
We come to the gradual realization that the BwO is not at all the
opposite of the organs. The organs are not its enemies. The enemy is the
organism. The BwO is opposed not to the organs but to that organization
called the organism the
organic organization of the organs. The judgement of God, the system
of the judgement of God, the theological system, is precisely the operation
of He who makes an organism. (58)
The Body without Organs stands against the telos of theology and the
order of instrumental reason. It is a heterogeneous system, and thus the BwO can
be defined through the very malleability of the organs, rather than
simply through their absence. They cite a passage from Burroughs:
The physical changes were slow at first, then jumped forward in black
klunks, falling through his slack tissue, washing away the human lines . In
his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward
to snap with transparent teeth but
no organ is constant as regards either function or position ....[S]ex organs
sprout everywhere rectums
open, defecate and close the
entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments. (Deleuze
153; Naked Lunch §9)
In the fantasy of the Body without Organs, the body resists the finality of
the organism, of the subject. And yet, as the very term makes evident, the ideal
status of the BwO, the new flesh, is not so easily attained: "You never reach
the Body without Organs, you can't reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is
a limit" (Deleuze 150).
This material is especially fascinating when confronting SF fantasies of new
flesh, of antibodies and cyberneticized existences, of the perfection
of the machine. The body becomes a desiring machine. "The question posed
by desire is not 'What does it mean?' but rather 'How does it work?"' (109).
The BwO "works" against the totality of the organism; as Deleuze and Guattari
observe, "This drawing together, this reweaving is what Joyce called re-embodying,"
but the re-embodying of the Body without Organs is not an act of totalization
(43). Crash becomes a compendium of atrocities without subsuming them to
a totalizing system of meaning. Vaughan seeks to crash through to attain that
state of being without organs. The sounds of Sterlac's organs are amplified to
become electronic music as he reforms his organs to suit a changing world. Max
Wren, in David Cronenberg's gilm Videodrome, has a hand that is sometimes
also a gun, and a slit that sometimes appears in his stomach ("sex organs
sprout everywhere"). Wren may in fact be approaching the Body without Organs
when he fires at his temple, but that's precisely the point at which the film
has to end.9 This re-embodying is inconceivable: even the
imagination can only approach its condition.
The BwO is not alone. In dismantling the self, the body can fuse with the
world: "If the BwO is already a limit, what must we say of the totality of all
BwO's? It is a problem not of the One and the Multiple but of a fusional
multiplicity that effectively goes beyond any opposition between the one and the
multiple" (154). The disembodied fusion with the fields and arrays of
electronic space, the dissolution of the body into the self-aware nöocytes of
intelligent blood cells, the graphic loss of bodily organs by a
half-fly/half-man, and the cybernetic existence behind the screen are all
manifestations of this transcendence. Here Deleuze and Guattari simultaneously
present a disembodied subject and a trajectory through a space that is defined
and anchored by the machine:
[T]he points of disjunction on the body without organs form circles that
converge on the desiring-machines; then the subject—produced as a residuum
alongside the machine, as an appendix, or as a spare part adjacent to the
machine—passes through all the degrees of the circle, and passes from one
circle to another. This subject itself is not at the center, which is
occupied by the machine, but on the periphery, with no fixed identity,
forever decentered, defined by the states through which it passes.
Deleuze and Guattari are cyberpunks, too, constructing fictions of terminal
identity in the nearly familiar language of techno-surrealism: note that the
body is described biologically ("an appendix") and mechanically ("a spare
part"). The subject is always on the periphery, on the verge of the BwO, but
always in a state of continual passage.
The Body without Organs is the state where we desire to dissolve the body and
regain the world. So the contemporary drama of the subject, which I call terminal
flesh, is played out upon the surface of the body: "depth" is an
illusion that belongs to a passing moment of a particular subjectivity. The
surface of the body becomes the arena for the dissolution of the governing
instrumental reason of the organism. The flat, affectless oeuvre of Andy
Warhol stands as a paradigmatic aesthetic experience in the posthuman solar
system (and yet one also thinks of the shocking photograph by Avedon of Warhol
displaying his wounds, the wounds that proved he was of the flesh after
all). And so the last word should be given, not to Andy Warhol exactly, but to
"Andy Warhol"—an android copy of the original (one of many, of course) as
presented in a Neil Gaiman script for the comic book Miracleman.10
"Andy" has attained the Body without Organs. "Do you like this existence,
Andy?" he is asked:
'Oh, sure. It's wonderful. I like being a machine.
'It's what I always wanted to be. You see, I used to carry a
camera with me wherever I went.
'Now my eyes are cameras, recording all they see.
'I don't need tape recorders any more—I am a tape
'This is heaven.
'And the comics. That's what I read was I was a child.
'Superman and Popeye and Nancy and Uncle Scrooge.
'And this is a comic book world.'
The posthuman solar system is a comic-book world of infinite possibilities
and cyborg multiplicities, defined in and through the technologies that now
construct our experiences and therefore our selves.
1. As Shirley notes, this is strikingly similar to "ideas
explored by Bruce Sterling in Schismatrix and Samuel R. Delany in Nova"
2. "Warm Leatherette," an early electronic dance record
produced by The Normal in the late 1970s, adapted Ballard's imagery:
A tear of petrol is in your eye/
The handbrake penetrates your thigh/
Quick/Let's make love/Before you die/
The song was later recorded by androgynous disco queen Grace
3. Wolfe, a fascinating figure, was at one time a bodyguard of
Trotsky's in Mexico. J.G. Ballard, incidentally, has called Limbo the
finest American SF novel.
4. The rationalist drive of the superpower's supercomputers to
merge into one global unit had, in fact, precipitated the global conflict, as
desperate humans pitted the machines against each other.
5. "Drives" and "crashes" are both familiar to computer
6. Page references for these stories are to Sterling's Crystal
7. Insect metaphors also pervade the writings of William
Burroughs, especially in The Soft Machine (1966), in which insects
obviously represent an evil empire of slavish devotion—a hive mentality of
entirely programmed functions. Insects also clearly connote decay and
putrescence, emphasizing the organic limitations of bodily flesh. At the same
time, insects are frequently linked with technology in these texts. The linking
of insect with machine is not Burroughs's innovation, nor is it restricted to
his work. One recalls the intercutting of grasshopper and scythe in Serge
Eisenstein's film Old and New (1928)—an evocative rhyme that suggests,
first, an equivalence, and then finally man's superior control over the forces
of nature. And in Cronenberg's The Fly, Brundle's transformation to
Brundle-fly is only a preparation for the final biotechnological horror as
Brundle merges with the blue metal transporter itself.
8. It is also worth remembering the backlash which quickly
characterized the genre's response to cyberpunk. Writers and fans were quick to
reject what was perceived as a "trendy" and anti-humanist discourse (that SF
perhaps ought to be trendy, and that its trendiness might be significant,
were not widely debated).
9. See my "Who Programs You?: The Science Fiction of the
Spectacle" in Kuhn for more about Videodrome and representation.
10. The artwork, by Mark Buckingham, is a sophisticated
pastiche of Warhol's serial lithography, and there is a full cognizance of these
techniques being returned to the "low culture" form that originally inspired
them. Miracleman, once an older (and somewhat forgettable) British
comic-book series, had been revived in the 1980s by writer Alan Moore. It became
a vehicle for exploring the nature of the superhero power-fantasy before
becoming a broader exploration of the ramifications of utopia.
Ballard, J.G. Crash. 1973. NY: Vintage Books, 1985.
Bataille, Georges. "Sacrifices." Visions of Excess:
Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoerl. Minneapolis, 1985.
Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. NY: Grove Press, 1959.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. "The Science Fiction of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway." Paper given at the Indiana University 1991 conference
on Interdisciplinarity: Science, Literature, and the University.
Debord, Guy. "Report on the Construction of Situations and on
the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and
Action." Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley, CA: 1977.
Deleuze, Gilles, & Félix Guattari. A Thousand
Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, 1987.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the
Human Sciences. NY, 1987.
Gaiman, Neil, and Mark Buckingham. "Notes from the
Underground." Miracleman #19 (Nov. 1991). London: Eclipse Comics, 1991.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. NY: Ace Books, 1984.
Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology
and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Socialist Review #80 (1985):
—————. Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature
in the World of Modern Science. NY, 1989.
Kroker, Arthur, & Marilouise Kroker. "Theses on the
Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition." Body Invaders: Panic Sex
in America. NY, 1987.
Kuhn, Annette, ed. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and
Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London & NY: Verso, 1990.
Maddox, Tom. "The Wars of the Coin's Two Halves: Bruce
Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist Narratives." Mississippi Review 16 (1988):
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception.
Trans. Colin Smith. London, 1962.
Pfeil, Fred. "These Disintegrations I'm Looking Forward To."
Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative on Postmodern Culture.
Shirley, John. "Stelarc and the New Reality." Science
Fiction Eye 1.2 (Aug. 1990): 56-61.
Sterling, Bruce. Schismatrix. NY: Ace Books, 1985.
—————. Crystal Express. Sauk City, WI: Arkham
Wolfe, Bernard. Limbo. 1952. NY: Carroll & Graf,
1987. Same pagination as in the undated Ace A-3 edition.